Issue Date: October 11, 2004
A bittersweet ending for the ‘Hell’s Angels’
Reserve squadron deactivates as part of Navy-Marine tac-air integration
By Christian Lowe
Times staff writer
It didn’t really end as most had hoped it would.
As his aircraft skidded off the runway at Quantico, Va., the commander of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 321 must have realized how inauspicious the end turned out to be.
As the F/A-18A Hornet plowed through the security fence and Lt. Col. William D. Reavis pulled the ejection handle, the door shut on a storied Reserve fighter squadron that was a short afterburner ride from the U.S. Capitol and the White House.
The Sept. 20 accident at Quantico involved a jet that spent much of Sept. 12, 2001, patrolling the skies over Washington. The plane was due to live out its retirement on display at the base, and it was the last official flight of the squadron.
“That’s never a good way to go out,” said Col. Mike Monroe, commander of Marine Aircraft Group 49, which oversees VMFA-321. “Last flight of the [commanding officer], last flight of the squadron, and, to be a mishap, that’s unfortunate.”
The Hornet is still salvageable and will likely go on display once it’s refurbished, Monroe said.
The squadron, known as the “Hell’s Angels,” was formally deactivated Sept. 30, a casualty of the Navy and Marine Corps’ new tactical aviation integration plan.
The plan calls for the deactivation of a Reserve Hornet squadron from both the Navy and Marine Corps, along with three active-duty Navy squadrons. Navy and Marine Corps officials say the move will cut overall aviation costs and make better use of the two services’ aviation resources.
The squadron, headquartered at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., took part in a 10-hour-long combat air patrol over Washington and its suburbs on Sept. 12, 2001. The Hell’s Angels relieved tired Air National Guard and Air Force pilots who had maintained a protective air cover above the city nonstop following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Nevertheless, in June 2004, Navy and Marine officials decided that VMFA-321 would be the Marine Reserve squadron to get the ax — not much time for the unit’s Marines to get affairs in order and move out by the end of September, Monroe said.
“The hard part of it is, this is a process that normally takes place over the course of a couple years,” Monroe said. “The pace was really high around there, and they didn’t have a lot of time to think.”
A financial decision
Marine officials said the decision to deactivate VMFA-321 was based on “operational effectiveness, contribution to the Marine Corps mission, personnel and equipment issues, as well as fiscal considerations,” according to a written response to questions from Marine Corps headquarters.
Spokesmen for Navy Secretary Gordon England and Marine Corps headquarters declined to provide more specific reasons for the decision to cut the squadron. The Corps maintains three additional Reserve Hornet squadrons: VMFA-112 in Fort Worth, Texas, VMFA-142 in Marietta, Ga., and VMFA-134 at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, Calif.
All of the nearly 225 Marines from the now-defunct VMFA-321 have found a new home at other Reserve or active-duty units. The maintainers, most of whom are active-duty enlisted Marines, were transferred to other squadrons, while enlisted reservists were reassigned to drilling units — with some receiving new job training to fit the needs of their new unit.
The pilots found flight billets at one of the three remaining Reserve Hornet squadrons or in training squadrons. Some were reassigned to the Marine Aviation Support Detachment at Andrews, which flies the UC-35 Citation and the C-12 Huron logistics support planes.
Losing the Hell’s Angels might be quite a blow to the men and women who served in the squadron, but it’s not putting Monroe’s MAG under much strain. While the squadron was activated shortly after Sept. 11 for combat air patrol duty, VMFA-321 hadn’t deployed for operations in Afghanistan or Iraq. And since MAG-49 is a helicopter-heavy group, it was unlikely that the group would have deployed with the Hornets anyway, Monroe said.
Marine Reserve officials have hinted that their Hornet squadrons’ days may be numbered. None of the three remaining Reserve Hornet squadrons has been mobilized for war since Sept. 11, while several Reserve helicopter squadrons and KC-130 Hercules refueler-transport detachments have spent months plying the Middle Eastern skies since the war on terrorism began.
The deputy commandant for aviation, Lt. Gen. Mike Hough, has said the war on terrorism is a rotary-centric war, suggesting that it might make sense to convert Reserve Hornet squadrons into MV-22 Osprey squadrons as the aircraft makes its way to the fleet in the coming decade.
Issue Date: October 11, 2004
Poignant ceremony marks deactivation of Reserve Hornet squadron in Maryland
By Robert F. Dorr
A fighter squadron went out of business last month.
On Sept. 11, at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., just miles from Capitol Hill, where lawmakers made it happen, the men and women of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 321, nicknamed the “Hell’s Angels,” gathered to stand down their squadron.
The deactivation ceremony was a spectacle of precision military drill that included raised swords, lowered flags, poignant words and pointed opinions.
Guests were seated in a hangar beside the Reserve squadron’s last F/A-18A Hornet, which was painted in commemorative colors. At the front of the hangar, the squadron conducted its final drill while commanding officer Lt. Col. William D. “Beatem” Reavis recounted the achievements of VMFA-321.
The Marines’ pride in their outfit was palpable.
But VMFA-321’s deactivation ceremony was also a time of frustration, even anger.
“It doesn’t make sense to stand down a combat squadron in the middle of a war,” said one visitor, retired Marine Lt. Col. Frank Sturgeon, who was wounded in combat at Khe Sanh, South Vietnam, in 1968 and feels a kinship with VMFA-321’s Marines. “This is not an effective use of our tax dollars,” he said.
Three years earlier, when the nation came under terrorist attack, Marines of VMFA-321 arrived at Andrews but weren’t asked to service their Hornets or prepare them for battle. The squadron began flying combat air patrols over Washington within 24 hours of the Sept. 11 attacks.
But Reserve F/A-18As didn’t go to Afghanistan or Iraq. Eager to be in the middle of the action, leathernecks with VMFA-321 and three sister squadrons watched America go to war without them.
In a remarkably abrupt move, Congress earlier this year ordered the Marine Corps to deactivate one of its four Hornet squadrons.
“Trying to decide which squadron to deactivate was like having to choose one of your children,” said Lt. Gen. Dennis McCarthy, Marine Forces Reserve commander, who spoke with me briefly before his remarks at the deactivation ceremony.
Although his feelings aren’t on the record, one wonders how this ceremony affected the squadron’s executive officer, Lt. Col. Terrence J. Larkin. He had been selected to become the next commander of VMFA-321 in January 2005, a move that would be a high point in an aviator’s career.
Now, like Reavis and other Marines of the “Hell’s Angels,” Larkin will be assigned to other duties.
“I think sadness is probably the overwhelming emotion,” said Don Spering, a Pemberton, N.J., photographer who attended the event. “I don’t think anyone believed this could happen so quickly. When they folded the flag, that was when I lost it.”
The squadron’s history dates to 1943. As a fighter squadron called VMF-321, it flew F4U-1 Corsairs in battles against Japanese forces in the South Pacific. Flying from Vella Lavella, an island in the Solomons chain, the squadron shot down 39 Japanese warplanes, including four on a single day by 1st Lt. J.R. Norman.
The squadron concluded the war near Guam and was deactivated in January 1946. That same year, it was reborn as the first Marine Reserve fighter squadron, flying Corsairs and, soon afterward, F8F Bearcats.
In postwar years, the squadron operated AD-5 Skyraiders, F-8 Crusaders and F-4B, F-4N and F-4S Phantom II fighter-bombers before transitioning to the Hornet in 1991.
Now, its Marines must serve America as members of other units.
The writer, an Air Force veteran, lives in Oakton, Va. He is the author of numerous books, including “Air Force One.” His e-mail address is email@example.com.
Damn, crashed on the squadron's last flight. Has that ever happened before?