A final gathering of US Marine Corps helicopter pilots and crews who saw extensive combat during the Vietnam War as Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron (HMM)-161, is scheduled for May 16-18 at the Crowne Plaza hotel.

Reunion organizer and author Ronald Winter, who served with the squadron from October 1966 in New River, NC, until December 1968 in Vietnam, as an avionics technician and door gunner, said the squadron has been getting together periodically since 1988. “But time has caught us and or numbers have been decreasing at a faster pace in the past few years.”

Winter said it will be virtually impossible to muster sufficient numbers of the squadron in the future to provide hotels in the host cities with the economic input that is necessary to expect  reduced room rates and other considerations. “But we still will have a great time in Knoxville,” Winter said. “It’s our second time here, and we are really looking forward to it!”

Although the reunion is basically for members of the squadron who served in the Vietnam Era, interest in the reunions quickly expanded after the initial gathering in Washington D.C. in 1988, and future events included members from the Korean War to the present era. For example, guest speakers will include author and businessman Quang X. Pham, the Marine Corps’ first Vietnamese-American pilot, who flew with HMM-161 in the Gulf War and Somalia. In addition, Maj. Linda Arms (ret.), who was the first Woman Marine Maintenance Officer of HMM-161 in 1976, will be the keynote speaker at the squadron’s final dinner on May 18.

Attendees also include Lt. Col. (ret.) David White, who flew more than 1,000 combat missions in Vietnam with HMM-262, which was stationed adjacent to HMM-161 in Quang Tri, South Vietnam. He later became the commanding officer of HMM-161 and is credited with giving the squadron its official nickname The First. Major Chris Huff, executive officer of the active duty squadron, which has been redesignated VMM-161 since its changeover to the tilt-rotor V-22 Osprey aircraft, will speak on the recently formed 161 Greyhawk Legacy Foundation which intends to serve as a repository for the squadron’s history, as well as an advocate for current Marines and their families.

The reunion also will host members of reconnaissance teams who flew with the squadron in Northern I Corps. Their number includes documentary filmmaker Lou Kern who will be interviewing the veterans for future productions.

HMM-161 was formed in 1951 (it was then designated HMR-161) and was the first Marine helicopter squadron in history to perform major troop movements in combat. After the Korean War the squadron was stationed in Hawaii, where it participated in recovering astronauts who splashed down in the Pacific Ocean as part of the space program. The squadron was deployed to Vietnam in 1965, flying UH-34 helicopters, then returned its colors to the states in December 1966, where it was based in New River, NC, part of the Camp Lejeune complex.

The squadron rebuilt with the (then) new CH-46 helicopters, and departed New River on April 20,1968 for another tour in Vietnam. The squadron flew all 24 of its CH-46 D model helicopters across the US, arriving in El Toro, California three days later – an historic first. HMM-161 embarked on the USS Princeton on May 1, 1968 and arrived off the coast of Vietnam where the squadron disembarked on May 17, 1968, 55 years ago to the date of the reunion.

The squadron lost at least 42 pilots and crew members killed in action during its two tours fighting in Vietnam. Dozens more were wounded.

During both of its Vietnam tours HMM-161 set records in categories such as number of troops carried, tons of cargo delivered, and hours flown without accident. In 1969, the late Col. Paul W. Niesen, who commanded the squadron from July 1967 through the majority of its tour in Vietnam, was named Marine Aviator of the Year for the squadron’s accomplishments under his leadership.

“A great chapter in military flight history has been written with this squadron,” Winter said. “And it is coming to an end. We are losing our members due to the ravages of time, Agent Orange, and the Camp Lejeune water issue. We are losing spouses, which has an equally devastating impact. We simply do not have the numbers to go on in this fashion any longer. This reunion will focus on the pride we take in our impact on major international events, and the passage of our legacy to the active duty squadron. But throughout, there also will be a sense of sadness that for many, our time is over, and for the rest, our days are numbered.”