OKINAWA, Japan --
Hundreds of Marines and Sailors of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit stood on the deck of the USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD-6), March 20, looking skyward to watch a little piece of history. Through the clouds approached eight CH-46E Sea Knight and three CH-53E Super Stallion helicopters in formation, calling the attention of all eyes and cameras. The group thundered past the ship and turned landward, marking the final Asia-Pacific deployment of the CH-46E, better known as the “Phrog.”
The Marine Corps has employed Phrogs for half a century, dating back to the early 1960s in the Vietnam War. Since then, the multi-functional aircraft has been used in a variety of ways, including: troop transport in combat scenarios, supply deliveries, evacuation in support of humanitarian aid efforts, the tactical recovery of aircraft and personnel, fast-rope insertion, and much more. On the 31st MEU, the Phrogs maintained this wide-range of mission capabilities while supporting theater security operations and training alongside allied militaries in the Asia-Pacific region.
Over the past few years, the CH-46E has been replaced by the MV-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft in aviation units throughout the Marine Corps. The Phrogs of Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 262 are some of the last operating 46s in the Marine Corps, but are due for replacement, caught in the march of aviation progress.
“I can assure you that any pilot that has flown the Phrog has a strong attachment and fondness for the aircraft and will be saddened to see it leave our squadron,” said Lt. Col. Aaron Wells, former commanding officer of HMM-262, who has been flying the Phrog since 1994. “The CH-46E has been such a successful and enduring helicopter that Marines across multiple generations have it as a common reference.”
The CH-46E has been an unequivocal asset to the Marine Corps, being the aviation example of versatility. The aircraft proved equally valuable in providing aerial support during combat operations and filling a role in humanitarian aid or disaster relief efforts.
With over 3,000 flight hours, Sgt. Eric Atwood, a CH-46E crew chief with HMM-262, has seen the duality of the Phrog first-hand. He has deployed three times to Iraq and participated in Operation Tomodachi, the humanitarian assistance and disaster relief effort in Japan in 2011.
“The (CH-46E) can be utilized in virtually any Marine Corps mission,” said Atwood, a native of Kenne, N.H. “It can be unloading troops with full combat loads, and in under a minute, it can be reconfigured to deliver humanitarian supplies.”
The loyalty to the half-century-old helicopter runs strong, breeding catch-phrases among crew members like “Phrogs Phorever” and “never trust a helicopter under 30.” The loyal pilots and crew of HMM-262 begrudgingly acknowledge the arrival of the Osprey, despite the new aircraft’s impressive capabilities.
“It’s not an argument of the Phrog being better than the Osprey, but the fact that the (CH-46E) has been combat-tested in every conflict since Vietnam,” said Capt. Paul Herrera, CH-46E pilot, and weapons and tactics instructor with HMM-262, and a native of Westminster, Calif. “The platform has proven itself time and time again, in all operations and exercises. These pilots have grown up around the Phrogs, coming to believe, love and trust in them.”
The CH-46E was introduced to the service in 1961, seeing operational employment five years later by way of the first Phrog squadron, Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 164, during the Vietnam War. Shortly thereafter in December of 1966, HMM-262 entered the war. In its first three months in-country, the squadron racked up approximately 2,200 flight hours in support of combat operations.
One pilot who contributed greatly to the squadron’s success in Vietnam is Lt. Col. David “Balls-to-the-Wall” Althoff (retired), a major during his time in Vietnam whose flying exploits earned him three silver stars, three distinguished flying crosses and more than 50 aviation medals. He became the idol of the squadron by volunteering for the most dangerous missions and always keeping calm in hot landing zones.
“I can't tell you how many times we took off from those confined jungle zones way overloaded and struggled to keep it out of the tree tops, barely maintaining enough turns to keep it aloft,” Althoff said. “Literally thousands of Marines owe their lives to that wonderful Phrog. It was not only a workhorse; it was a warhorse of the first magnitude.”
Althoff was based in Quang Tri, Vietnam, from November of 1967 to July of the following year. During those eight months he flew 1,084 combat missions and was “shot up more times than I can count.” The toughness of the Phrog is something Althoff remembers fondly.
“Through all those missions, I was only shot down four times,” said Althoff. “It was unbelievable how many rounds that chopper could take and keep flying. During my 22-year career I flew 27 different types and models of fixed wing, prop, jet, single engine and multiple engine platforms. My favorite ‘helo’ was definitely the Phrog.”
The CH-46E quickly became an aircraft that every “winger” swore by. Being called out nearly every day for missions, the importance of the Phrogs resounded across the battle space they operated in.
“It was the do-all helicopter that was instrumental in supporting the infantry forces on the ground by conducting (casualty evacuations), running resupply routes and a number of other missions,” said former Cpl. Kreig “Hip” Loftin, a crew chief with HMM-262 during the Vietnam War. “During the siege of Khe Sanh, it was arguably one of the most important aircraft in the Marine Corps inventory. Without the efforts of CH-46E squadrons (in early 1968), keeping the hill positions around Khe Sahn Combat Base alive and viable would have been nearly impossible.”
The popularity of the Phrogs did come with a price, however. Of the total 109 CH-46E losses during the Vietnam War, 43 were from HMM-262.
More than 50 years later, the Phrog is almost fully-retired with only a few units retaining them in anticipation of the eventual rotation of the Osprey. HMM-262 will receive Ospreys later this year, but will continue flying Phrogs through autumn in support of various III Marine Expeditionary Force and 1st Marine Air Wing functions.
Although officially retired from the Marine Corps this winter, the Phrogs will not simply disappear. A number of 46s have received overhauls and put back to work.
“Back home, many Marine Corps CH-46E's have been transferred to the US State Department instead of going to the bone-yard,” said Wells, a native of Boulder, Colo. “The State Department has refurbished the aircraft and some are currently supporting State Department missions in Afghanistan.”
As the CH-46E Sea Knight’s time in the Marine Corps spirals to an end, a new dawn of aviation begins with the MV-22 Osprey. While the Osprey may outperform the Phrog in terms of weight capacity, speed and distance, it has a long road ahead to outperform its predecessor in service and reliability. For the squadron, turning a new leaf is bittersweet, but the legend of the Phrog will live on in Marine Corps lore forever.