Friday, March 3, 2023

Serving with Uncle Mel

One of the rewards of a career in the military is the opportunity to serve with truly great people up and down the chain of command. That was certainly the case for me. This is a story—part of the story—of one of those genuinely great people, Melvin W. DeMars, Jr. 

On October 18, 1983, Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 261 (HMM-261) and the 22nd Marine Amphibious Unit (MAU) was underway on the helicopter carrier USS Guam (LPH-9) for a deployment to Lebanon as part of its Mediterranean deployment with the U.S. 6th Fleet. The squadron had already been to Lebanon after the Israelis invaded in June of 1982, so they had every expectation that the plans to return there were pretty firm.

They were at sea for about a day, headed east toward the Mediterranean when, at around midnight on October 20, 1982, the Guam turned south. There wasn’t a lot of information circulating around the ship that indicated that anything had changed, but the Marines in the squadron knew that when you’re headed for the Mediterranean from the United States, you have to head east and that when you're steaming east, the sun should be coming up over the bow of the ship. However, when they woke up on the 20th, they saw the sun rise over the left side of the ship. The sun was on the left side because the ship was headed south toward the Caribbean, not east toward Lebanon.

By the end of the day, Marines on the ship were talking about going to “Granada,” which is a city in Spain. But if they were headed to Granada, why were they cruising south? They soon learned that they weren’t going to Granada, Spain; they were headed to Grenada, an island nation in the Caribbean.

The Organization of Eastern Caribbean States had formally requested United States assistance amid “the current anarchic conditions, the serious violations of human rights and bloodshed, and the consequent unprecedented threat to the peace and security of the region by the vacuum of authority in Grenada.” The United States had already been concerned for the safety of approximately 1,000 American citizens on the island, some of whom were medical students who were being prevented from being evacuated from the island. Grenada’s prime minister Maurice Bishop had been assassinated by hard-liners who had ties to Cuba and the Soviet Union, and Cuba had already placed forces on the island.

As the ships steamed south, the United States decided to commit forces to Grenada to protect Americans, restore a democratic government, and rid the country of Cuban influence. The operation to conduct an assault on Grenada was briefed to commanders on the Guam at around midnight on October 23, barely 30 hours before the operation—Operation URGENT FURY—was to begin.

With planning hurriedly completed, the first helicopters took off from the Guam in the early morning darkness of October 25, in the face of intermittent rain squalls. To help preserve the element of surprise, the twenty-one helicopters that took to the air from the Guam that morning did so without using radio communications.

The helicopter waves made their way inland and disembarked their Marines. While the Marines were consolidating their positions and beginning to move out into the countryside in the east, U.S. Army Rangers were facing heavy resistance at the southern end of the island. The aircraft that had transported them into Grenada encountered heavy anti-aircraft artillery fire and once the Rangers landed, things didn’t improve as they came under attack from pockets of Cubans in the area.

Some of the Rangers were detached from the main force to rescue the Governor-General at the Governor’s mansion, but the compound was surrounded by hostile forces, so four Marine Cobra helicopter gunships from HMM-261 were ordered to fly south to provide close air support for the Rangers. The Cobras conducted attack runs on a masonry fort to keep the enemy at bay, but on their fifth run on the target, one of the Cobras, flying at an altitude of about 1,200 feet, was hit by anti-aircraft fire. One round traveled through both engines and several others entered the cockpit and wounded the pilots. One of the pilots, Captain Jeb Seagle, was knocked unconscious and the other pilot, Captain Tim Howard’s right arm was incapacitated, and his right leg was broken.

Nonetheless, Howard managed to prop his left foot around the cyclic stick and pulled the stick toward himself to keep the aircraft under control as it hit the ground hard. Despite his injuries, he somehow kept the aircraft upright. The impact with the ground caused Seagle to regain consciousness so he was able to drag the severely injured Howard away from the burning aircraft.

As the two pilots got clear of the helicopter, they came under intense fire from troops near the fort they had been attacking. Then, Howard convinced Seagle to go for help shortly before the burning Cobra exploded. Meanwhile, Howard used his survival radio to call for help as enemy soldiers moved down the hill from the fort toward the crash site. Just as the enemy soldiers reached the edge of the field where Howard and the wreckage of the helicopter were, another Cobra flown by Captain Pat Giguere appeared and scattered the enemy troops with 2.75mm rocket fire.

As Giguere provided cover for the downed crew, he called for a medevac for them.

Major Mel DeMars answered the emergency medevac call. He had been part of the assault force that inserted Marines in another part of the island. He approached the crash site, but landing in the field where Captain Howard was would require him to fly right past the anti-aircraft artillery site that had shot the Cobra down, while enemy troops continued to advance on the crash site from the fort.

DeMars later recalled, “I just figured we were all dead men because we were going in there … heavily resisted by Cubans or whoever was there.  …we were going to have to fly in right past this AAA site, right down the throat of who knows what, in the middle of the capital city of this island to land in this LZ and pick up the downed Cobra crew…it was just something we had to do.“

Giguere was still on station to cover Major DeMars’ landing, but with only one Cobra, there was no one to cover either Giguere or DeMars' aircraft when Giguere completed a run and extended his track off-target.

DeMars described his approach and landing into the LZ, “We started our run-in and Captain Giguere [with co-pilot 1st Lieutenant Jeffrey R. Scharver] in their Cobra rolled in on the target and provided suppressive fire … [I flew my CH-46] in at a high rate of speed …and landed in the landing zone right next to the remains of our Cobra that was in the [soccer] field.  Soon as we hit the ground Gunnery Sergeant Kelly M. Neidigh, a Vietnam vet, one of our door gunners…grabbed an M-16 and ran out into the middle of the landing zone about 40 feet away from where we landed, where Captain Howard was.”

While still under fire, DeMars, unaware that Captain Seagle had already been killed by hostile fire, endured the ongoing fire as he waited in the landing zone in the hopes of returning Seagle to safety.

Finally, with no sign of Seagle, with Giguere’s Cobra running low on ordnance, and with Howard’s condition worsening, DeMars lifted off from the landing zone and headed for the Guam with Giguere covering his departure. However, as they headed out to sea, Giguere’s Cobra was struck by anti-aircraft fire and crashed into the harbor, killing Giguere and his co-pilot First Lieutenant Jeffrey Sharver. DeMars was able to get Howard to the Guam in time to save his life, but Howard’s right arm could not be saved.

Finally, with the Grenada operation complete, HMM-264 continued with its original mission in Lebanon.

Captain Seagle who went for help after his Cobra was shot down was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross, the nation’s second highest award for valor, and the Purple Heart.

Captain Howard, who was wounded in the Cobra with Captain Seagle was awarded the Silver Star, the nation’s third highest award for valor, and the Purple Heart.

Captain Giguere and First Lieutenant Sharver, who covered Major DeMars’ evacuation of Captain Howard were awarded the Silver Star and the Purple Heart, posthumously.

Major DeMars who rescued Captain Howard under fire was awarded the Silver Star as was Gunnery Sergeant Neidigh who carried Captain Howard to the rescue helicopter.

Of his Silver Star, Mel DeMars often said, "I'd much rather have those three guys."

Five years later, in 1988, I was a CH-46E Sea Knight assault helicopter pilot in Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 365 (HMM-365) when Lieutenant Colonel Mel "Uncle Mel" DeMars assumed command of the squadron.

Although it had been five years, DeMars never forgot “those three guys” or the lessons he gleaned from Grenada or from his experiences from two deployments in support of U.S. operations in Lebanon and as a Presidential helicopter pilot with HMX-1.

Former Marine Commandant General John A. Lejeune said that the relationship between commanding officers and those under their command “should in no sense be that of superior and inferior nor that of master and servant, but rather that of teacher and scholar.”

DeMars fit that mold. He heeded Lejeune’s admonition to take responsibility “for the physical, mental, and moral welfare, as well as the discipline and military training” of those under his command. He effectively related his experiences in combat to contemporary problems and the growth of his squadron while he led from the front and by his example.

His leadership style was more modest than flashy, but he had a confident bearing, a sense of humor, an intellect, and a quick wit that made him worth listening to and following. He was purposeful, focused, and principled, and he was intent on keeping commitments and doing things right.

Less than a year after he took command of the squadron, we began work-ups to deploy to the Mediterranean for six months as a special operations capable (SOC) squadron. After six months of training, we were ready, but after six months of operating in and around the Mediterranean, we were a very capable unit.

During the deployment, we flew and flew and when the aircraft needed work, the aircraft maintenance department got them back in the air so we could fly and fly some more. We flew more than a quarter of our flight hours at night and flew four of our six exercises during the deployment under zero ambient illumination. The intense night vision goggle (NVG) training was made possible when DeMars boldly asserted in a hazard report that was broadcast throughout the Marine Corps that the Marine Corps’ NVG training policy was hazardous and inhibited effective combat readiness training. In a subsequent message, he requested relief from the policy for the duration of the deployment so his squadron could more adequately prepare for combat. His request was approved.

As the end of our six-month deployment approached, when others would have been thinking about packing their things and going home, we launched sixteen aircraft under zero illumination at 3:00 in the morning from the USS Iwo Jima and seized the airport at Gibraltar, a target we had never seen before, and conducted a simulated hostage rescue there without making a single radio transmission until we landed at the foot of "the Rock."

The Marines of HMM-365 under LtCol DeMars were warriors who confidently went about their duty, satisfied in the end that they had done an important thing well. I think it's safe to say that, to the man, they appreciated having served under Mel DeMars' command, and I know the feeling was mutual.

But the rest of the story resides in the fact that once we returned from the deployment, as usual, many of the squadron members received orders to report to other units. Most of the CH-46 crews remained with HMM-365 while others reported to sister squadron HMM-263, which was preparing for a brief deployment to the North Atlantic.

As it turned out, with Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, the plans for HMM-365 and HMM-263 rapidly changed when they were ordered to report to the Middle East for Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. A few months later, they flew a nighttime raid on NVGs under low light-level conditions into Mogadishu, Somalia to rescue U.S. and foreign diplomats from the fighting there. Both squadrons distinguished themselves and a good part of that success was due to the professionalism of the flight crews and aircraft maintenance Marines whose skills and readiness had been developed under LtCol DeMars.

In a tribute to his Marines during his change of command ceremony at the end of his tour with HMM-365, LtCol DeMars' stood before his squadron and described the spirit of the squadron he led by paraphrasing the narrator at the end of John Ford’s movie “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.” Addressing the attending audience, DeMars said, "There they are, the 50 cents a day regulars, the men in dirty shirt green, from the oil fields of the Louisiana coast to the waters of the Caribbean, from the deserts of Israel to the coast of North Africa they did their job, with scarcely a cold page in the history books to mark their passage. The pay is poor, the hours long, the separations many. The names and faces change but the spirit lives on because they are a squadron, and wherever they sailed and whatever they fought for, they preserved the precious gift of freedom for you, me and for all Americans."


Photo Credits

(1) Lieutenant Colonel Melvin W. DeMars, USMC, at Naval Air Station (NAS) Sigonella, Italy (Sicily, Italy). Photography by Captain Rick Mullen, USMC.

(2) Captain Jeb Seagle drags Captain Timothy D. Howard away from their burning AH-1T Cobra, shot down by enemy anti-aircraft fire near Fort Frederick on Grenada. Captain Seagle was killed while looking for help for the badly wounded Howard, who was subsequently rescued by a CH-46 of HMM-261 flown by Major Melvin DeMars. Reconstructive art by LtCol A. M. "Mike" Leahy, USMCR, provided to the Marine Corps History and Museums Division by the Navy Chief of Information.