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3rd MAW CG recognizes VMFA-323

Marine Corps News

Release Date: 8/11/2003

Story by Cpl. James S. McGregor

MARINE CORPS AIR STATION MIRAMAR, Calif.(August 8, 2003) -- Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 323 was recently nominated by Maj. Gen. James F. Amos, commanding general, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, for the 2003 Robert M. Hanson Fighter Attack Squadron of the Year award.

The award for the Marine Corps Aviation Association fighter squadron of the year was sent by Maj. Gen. Amos to the Commandant of the Marine Corps in recognition of the Death Rattlers numerous achievements in teamwork, proficiency, safety, aircraft and operational readiness during training cycles and throughout deployments in support of Operations Southern Watch and Iraqi Freedom.

The Marines of VMFA-323 deployed three months early to dismantle Saddam Hussein's communication network in Operation Southern Watch and spearheaded Iraq's liberation by leading the first air strike of Operation Iraqi Freedom. The Death Rattlers were the only Marine squadron to strike strategic targets in the heart of Baghdad while supporting the Army's V Corps and I Marine Expeditionary Force's advance through Southern and Central Iraq.

The Death Rattlers continued to represent the Marine Corps in the unique environment of carrier operations while embarked aboard USS Constellation. Their flight hours, sortie completion rate, and ordnance delivery achievements were a direct result of an improved pilot training program that was proposed to Marine Aircraft Group 11 as a blueprint for the entire Marine Corps.

An accelerated deployment schedule compressed the normal 18-month deployment turn-around time to only 13 months. Six separate Inter-Deployment Training Cycle evolutions incorporated numerous large force exercises, specialized training in precision-guided weapons, and an emphasis on operating in the dynamic and demanding environment of an aircraft carrier. The Death Rattlers cultivated a reputation for detailed planning and superior airborne execution that solidified their standing as the preeminent squadron within Carrier Air Wing 2. Pilots, less than half of which had fleet carrier experience, earned the Top Hook award for best landing performance in the Air Wing three times and took overall honors for the entire deployment.

During Operation Southern Watch the Death Rattlers flew three months of combat operations enforcing the Southern No-Fly Zone from Dec. 19, 2002 to March 17, 2003. Snake pilots destroyed more than 20 command-and-control targets, including signals intelligence facilities near Basra and Tallil, used to monitor coalition communications using Joint Direct Attack Munitions.

The first bombs dropped on the first air strike of Operation Iraqi Freedom were from VMFA-323 jets. Pilots helped take down the formidable air defenses of the Baghdad "Super MEZ" that first night by destroying the LP-23 radar station at then-Saddam International Airport with the only successful Stand Off Land Attack Missile strike of the war and employed several Joint Stand Off Weapons against Al Samoud missile sites. The squadron planned and executed many additional strikes over the next three weeks against Special Republican Guard positions, Ba'ath Party headquarters, weapons storage facilities, former prisoner of war holding sites and presidential palaces. When President George W. Bush decided to silence the Iraqi Information Ministry, two Death Rattler pilots delivered two BLU-109 penetrators against the Baghdad television broadcasting station. The squadron complemented its efforts against strategic targets by flying airborne interdiction and Close Air Support missions against Republican Guard divisions enabling V Corps' crossing of the Euphrates River near Karbala, and 1st MEF's eastern sweep into Baghdad through Al Kut. The Death Rattlers covered the breadth and depth of the entire battlefield and delivered 363,969 pounds of ordnance to remove Saddam Hussein's regime and liberate the Iraqi people.

Squadron maintenance leaders transformed their department by allowing individual section leaders the autonomy to economize their efforts and rapidly improve the squadron's Mission Capable and Full Mission Capable rates.

The Commander Naval Air Forces Pacific inspection party recognized the detailed efforts of the VMFA-323 maintenance department by rating theirs the best fixed-wing maintenance activity within CVW-2. Significantly, the team found all 42 maintenance programs "on track" and noted seven programs as "no discrepancies" or "noteworthy."

Squadron Marines operated in the most dangerous environment of Naval aviation: the deck of an aircraft carrier. The seven-week IDTC at-sea period stressed pilots and maintainers to their limits by focusing on surge operations. Blue Water certification, or the ability to operate at sea without a divert airfield, was complicated by weather that often hovered around instrument flight rules' minimums. Death Rattler pilots often visually acquired the ship only seconds before slamming down onto the deck. USS Constellation was the night carrier and operated the farthest South of any carrier in the Northern Arabian Gulf during the war. The Death Rattlers negated the dangers of maintaining and operating jets in the dark, the near-zero visibility generated by several thunderstorms and dust storms, and the long combat missions requiring 7.4 million pounds of aerial refueling through flight discipline and dedicated risk management efforts. The squadron has flown more than 32,000 hours since their last Class A mishap, and a strong safety program ensured Marines, aircraft and equipment were ready for duty.

Each Marine was filled with a singular sense of belonging to a unique and winning team, underscored by the Death Rattlers sustaining zero liberty incidents on deployment and the highest reenlistment rates of any squadron in MAG-11 (45% for first-term Marines and 67% for career Marines). The 44,500 maintenance man-hours invested, 6,032 flight hours completed, and more than 243 tons of ordnance employed by the squadron in the last year were rewarded with success in training and victory in battle.

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