WICHITA, Kan. (KSNW) — For years following World War II, the fate of the Marine Corps was in jeopardy. That changed in part thanks to a one-of-a-kind testing unit.
As part of Marine Corps Test Unit Number one, Norman Tatum would help train helicopter pilots for combat scenarios.
“That was something that none of the services were doing at that time — they were testing the use of helicopters from a carrier to landings,” Tatum said. “The idea was go get troops in behind the enemy lines as quick as they could.”
Oftentimes, Tatum took to the air helping pilots take off and land from uneven ground and aircraft carriers.
“They would even have a stopwatch finding out how long it took us to get in or how long to get out,” Tatum said. “These old helicopters, you had to rev ’em up to get the motors up, and as they did that, the helicopter would walk toward the edge of the ship — it was kinda scary to know whether it was gonna take off or go over the edge of the ship.”
Tatum’s unit was also tasked with redesigning and upgrading former WWII aircraft carriers.
“Mainly, it was tactics of them modifying the ship, and then also seeing how fast the helicopters could get troops in and get ‘me off the ship,” Tatum said.
Tatum was also in charge of all classified materials on the project making their way in and out of his base: Camp Pendleton.
The secretive project came amid pushback from some military officials and members of Congress to dissolve the Marine Corps altogether.
“The Marine Corps did not get a big budget of money to, to do the operations like they wanted to, so it was a continual fight to, to keep the Marine Corps existing in fact,” Tatum said.
But the unit’s work would provide the tactical framework needed for helicopter pilots during Vietnam.
“I realize now how important it was, and it was exciting to know that I was, you know, in one of the units that was developing those first units of helicopters.”
Tatum’s unit was disbanded in 1957 after an installation on the east coast took over further development. Tatum would spend the last six months of active duty in the Military Police Battalion guarding military prisoners.
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