They were known as the “Ugly Angels.”
It was a group of Marines as part of the aircraft wing that was activated on April 30, 1952, as a Marine Helicopter Transport Squadron at Marine Corps Air Station Santa Ana, California, under the designation of Marine Helicopter Transport Squadron 362 and later re-designated to Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron.
Their second deployment came in September of 1965, which was also when current Vernon Hill resident Bob Crone decided to leave high school and join the Marines, and was eventually assigned to be a part of the Ugly Angels.
His uncle had been a Marine for 20 years, and he idolized him. No other branch of service would do for Crone.
So, at the age of 17, he enlisted and started boot camp at Paris Island, South Carolina before entering ITR (individual training regiment) Camp in Jacksonville, North Carolina.
Also, his uncle had always told him if he did choose to join the Marines to make sure he joined the air wing, so he did.
After a two-week leave for Christmas, he went to schooling in Memphis, Tennessee. He originally wanted to study electronics, but the schools were full for six months. So, he went with his second option — helicopter mechanics.
“I did so good on my test. They took the top 50 and sent us back to Jacksonville, North Carolina, and I went to advanced helicopter mechanics school,” said Crone.
He learned all about the Sikorsky UH-34D, which became the Marine Corps “work horse helicopter flying troop transport, assault, cargo, medevac and other missions,” according to the National Museum of Marine Corps.
The UH-34D first went to Vietnam in 1962 with the HMM-362, and after Crone’s schooling, a group of Marines were set to go back to Vietnam, but Crone wasn’t on the list to join them.
So, he took a risk and approached the commanding officer requesting to go, skipping rank, which could have got him into a heap of trouble. But, they let it slide and let him go to Vietnam.
“I thought it was the thing to do,” said Crone, who now admits he’s sure his youth and naivety played a part in his decision.
He was approved to go to Vietnam around Dec. 15, 1966.
It was about 2 a.m. in the morning when they arrived in Da Nang with nothing but their sea bags, and they put them in a hanger with cots at about 3 a.m.
Shortly after, they began to hear the sounds of mortar rounds, and Crone and his fellow troops didn’t have any rifles and lacked knowledge of where anything was or what to do.
“Anytime you can hear a mortar or rocket landing, it’s too close,” said Crone.
He was then assigned to go 50 miles south of Da Nang to Chu Lai to work with a Ham Squadron building engines and transmissions for helicopters.
After being there for a few months, he was assigned to HMM362, or the Ugly Angels, and was sent to Phu Bai, which was 50 miles north of Da Nang.
He spent two tours, extending one tour to 20 months, in Vietnam, and he’ll never forget those days flying thousands of feet into the air.
Crone explained they always flew two helicopters at a time, just in case one needed the other, and they had four pilots and four crewmen. They’d travel to Khe Sanh for weeks at a time and live in a tent and rationing food while doing resupply to local outposts.
During one outing, they went to come in to land, and the fog had settled on the base making it impossible to land, said Crone.
The pilot said, “Let’s see how high these things can go,” he added.
They went 10,000 feet, and used a trick using the collector stick on the helicopter to fall. When they were about 10 feet from the ground, he said the pilot pulled hard on the collector stick making the rotors “bite the air” and eased them down.
“Everything goes quiet and your stomach moves a bit, but that was just the coolest thing,” said Crone.
“Never heard of anyone else doing that.”
Another first came when three squadrons loaded up in a LPH, or landing platform helicopter, which is a warfare ship used as a launch and recovery platform for helicopters and other aircraft.
They would have roughly 4,000 ground troops in the bottom of the ship, and Crone said they’d cruise back and forth up and down the coast flying them to shore when needed.
This particular day Crone happened to be on the flight deck when a rocket exploded in the water about a quarter mile behind the LPH.
“I saw this happen, and then a second one went off a few seconds later. We were being shot at from land. They could see us…he turned 90 degrees left and we went straight out to sea. That was the last time we could see land from the aircraft carries,” said Crone.
Another time he went to a mountain in Khe Sanh for an emergency medevac, and once again, the fog was too thick to see the side of the mountain they needed to land on. They hovered along the edge as they tried to make their way up, but eventually, they lost site of the trees.
“Most missions you’re in and out, and you don’t have time to get scared… this time, I just knew we were going to crash on the mountain. I had time to really get nervous,” said Crone.
But, they eventually made it, and on another emergency medevac trip in Phu Bai, they went to retrieve six injured marines who had been under a serious attack. In order to make that landing, Crone said they had to blow some trees out. Then, as they made their way down, a rotor blade got too close to the trees and knocked some of the blade off.
Then, when they began to pull one of the marines into the helicopter, Crone said the marines had no rifle, no helmet and “looked scared to death.”
Those marines told Crone and his crew, “You are angels to us.”
Throughout his time with the Ugly Angels, he earned six air medals for completing combat missions, a presidential unit citation and a Meritorious citation, among others.
He was honorably discharged as a E4 corporal, and spent his last year in the marines as part of a reserve training outfit in Norfolk.
“I’d do it all over again,” said Crone.
After the military, he spent 40 years as a mechanic first working at a shop in Norfolk before opening his own business in Chesapeake for about six years.
It was while working in Norfolk that he met his wife, Leslie. She was in the hospital and her father took her car to him to be worked on. When she got out of the hospital, her car was fixed, and she returned to the mechanic’s shop to thank him.
She caught his attention right away, and he invited her to a Christmas party, and they’ve been together ever since.
They bought their Vernon Hill home in 1983, and he began operating a garage at the corner of Sinai Road and Greens Folly Road.