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Beth Crumley

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Robert J. Arrotta: The Mightiest Corporal in the Marine Corps

Posted: 01/12/12 12:42 PM ET

One of the things I enjoy most about my job is the opportunity to interact with Marine Corps veterans. Several years ago, while working as a research historian on the National Museum of the Marine Corps project, I was tasked with learning everything I could about the siege of Hill 881S, one of the hill outposts near Khe Sanh Combat Base. In the course of that work, I was fortunate to meet many of the veterans and to develop close friendships with several. One of these was former Corporal Robert J. Arrotta, who passed away in 2009.  A mutual friend, Glenn Prentice, recently told me that the new ready room at the Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron One (MAWTS-1) had been named in honor of Cpl Arrotta.

Unless you are a student of the siege of Khe Sanh and the surrounding hills, or of the doctrine of close air support, you have probably never heard of Corporal Robert Arrotta. You may wonder why a unit whose mission is, "to provide standardized advanced tactical training and certification of unit instructor qualifications that support Marine Aviation training and readiness and to provide assistance in the development and employment of aviation weapons and tactics," would name a ready room after a largely unknown corporal.

By December 1967, the North Vietnamese presence around Khe Sanh Combat Base had grown considerably. The 304 and 325C Divisions had crossed into South Vietnam and were approaching from the west. To the east was the 320 Division, operating near the Rockpile, as well as an enemy regiment and an additional battalion whose mission it was to prevent movement along Route 9. This build-up in enemy strength was monitored closely by Lieutenant General Robert Cushman, commanding III Marine Amphibious Force. By 9 December, the 3d Battalion, 26th Marines were diverted from another mission and sent to Khe Sanh. Elements of the battalion strengthened key hilltop outposts. Kilo Company was positioned atop Hill 861 and immediately began patrolling west of Khe Sanh.

India Company's position on Hill 881S, during the siege. To the right of center is Hill 881N, where NVA rocket, mortar and anti-aircraft sites were located. (Courtesy of David Powell)

Further to the west, was Hill 881S.  The highest of the surrounding hills, it was key to the defense of Khe Sanh Combat Base. Khe Sanh was dependent upon resupply and reinforcement by air. Should the NVA hold the hill, aircraft taking off from or landing from the west would be extremely vulnerable to enemy fire.  The mission of holding the hill fell to the men of India Company, 3d Battalion, 26th Marines. Among them was Corporal Robert J. Arrotta, who, during the 77-day siege, would earn the title "The Mightiest Corporal in the Marine Corps."

On 20 January 1968, then-Captain William Dabney, commanding officer of India Company 3/26,  conducted a reconnaissance-in-force up Hill 881N. India Company engaged an entire North Vietnamese Army battalion moving south. The siege of Khe Sanh and the surrounding hills had begun. Both the combat base and the hills were completely dependant on resupply by air and the use of close air support to keep enemy forces at bay.

A few days into the siege, the captain who served as the Forward Air Controller on 881S was hit by shrapnel from an incoming mortar and was medically evacuated. Dabney later stated:

At about the same time, the weather socked in, and it was several days before could bring in helicopters. When it did clear, we got the radio batteries we needed to talk to the Close Air Support aircraft but no new Forward Air Controller. When I remarked on the lack of a FAC, Bob told me he could handle it. I had nothing to lose, plenty of targets, and all the CAS aircraft we could use, so I stood by and watched as he ran the first few missions -- flawlessly. I was impressed not only with his technical knowledge but also with his demeanor as a corporal giving instructions to officers through the rank of lieutenant colonel. He was assertive and unfailingly professional.

Forward Air Control Team on Hill 881S. LCpl Ulrich, radio operator, Cpt Bill Dabney, Cpl Robert Arrotta, and 1stLt Chuck Schneider, Forward Artillery Observer. (Courtesy of David Powell)

It wasn't long before the Marines of India and Mike Companies began calling Bob Arrotta "The Mightiest Corporal in the Marine Corps" for the vast amount of firepower he could bring down upon the enemy. First Lieutenant Richard Dworsky recalled:

... helicopter support, the air liaison and the forward observers were mostly in action during the day when visibility was optimal. Bob and a couple of others looked like energizer bunnies moving around and coordinating multiple air and fire support missions. It was dangerous but always needed work... The hardest part was trying to keep all the fire support in order to prevent mid-air collisions.

As Forward Air Controller, Arrotta directed all resupply of the hill by helicopter. (Courtesy of David Powell)

Sometime in March 1968, United Press International photojournalist David Powell made his way to Hill 881S. In an article entitled "Only Two Ways Off Hill 881S,"  Powell wrote, "Stay down and stick around.' is the byword here.  Stay in  your  bunker during the day and you live... A  few  have daytime  jobs,  like 'The Mightiest Corporal in the World.'  That's what they call Corporal Robert J. Arrotta, of La Canada, Calif., because he goes out in the midday sun to coordinate the air strikes around the hill."

Arrotta's tactical call sign was "India 14" which identified him as the company's Forward Air Controller. (Courtesy of Joanne Schneider)

Years later, Colonel William Dabney, a recipient of the Navy Cross for his leadership on Hill 881S, commented on the service of Robert J. Arrotta:

During the Siege of Khe Sanh, an Operation called Niagara was in place.  Essentially, it required that any close air support aircraft returning from aborted missions in the general area check in with the Khe Sanh Direct Air Support Center (DASC) before pickling their ordnance. Since it was the end of the monsoon season and there were many bombing missions along the DMZ and in North Vietnam that had to be aborted because of bad weather, plenty of aircraft will all sorts of ordnance (was available almost) every day.  The base at Khe Sanh itself was in a bowl, so couldn't use (that ordnance)  unless they had an airborne Forward Air Controller, so they'd often pass them off to us... sitting atop a 3000' hill, we didn't need a airborne FAC, and we always had plenty of targets, be they troops in trenches, anti-aircraft sites, rocket or mortar sites, and on a couple of occasions, artillery emplacements. Several times we got two or three flights of bombers passed off to us simultaneously.  Bob got quite adept at 'stacking' them based upon how much fuel they had left and using them based on the ordnance they were carrying. Sounds simple, I guess, but under fire, without prior notice, it took superb organizational skills to both manage the air assets and direct the marking rounds our mortars fired to designate the targets for the bomber pilots. Bob did all of that in his head, sometimes juggling as many as three flights at once. My input was simply to tell him what targets to hit. He'd take it from there, stack the flights, range the mortar marking rounds, and run the bombers in. In effect, he was his own DASC.

An A-4 is "cleared hot" and drops two snake-eye bombs on enemy positions. (Courtesy of David Powell)

In his 77 days on Hill 881S, Corporal Robert Arrotta had the tactical call sign of "India 14" which identified him as the close air support representative of the company.  During this long siege he directed some 300 close air support missions, all resupply of the hill by helicopters, and in coordination with the helicopter support team, all medical evacuations.

In 2006, Major William C. Hendricks was assigned to the Air Officer Department, Marine Aviation and Weapons Tactics Squadron-1 at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma. There, he faced the challenge of training Forward Air Controllers. Hendricks believed the billet was a crucial one, the critical link in the Marine air-ground team, but recognized that it was a duty not all officers embraced.  He felt it imperative to drive home the importance of the Forward Air Controller in the field. To do so, he looked to the past, to the siege of Khe Sanh.

Close air support, defined in the early 1960s as "air action against hostile targets in close proximity to friendly forces and which requires detailed integration of each air mission with the fire and movement of those forces,"  was a hallmark of the Marine Corps in Vietnam.  Nowhere was it more critical than at Khe Sanh and the surrounding hill outposts. In researching the role of Close Air Support in Vietnam, Major Hendricks learned of then-Corporal Arrotta.

Major Hendricks contacted Arrotta and invited him to visit MCAS Yuma and speak to the Air Officer Course. Although initially nervous, Arrotta agreed and suggested that former Sergeant Glenn Prentice, a Forward Artillery Observer, also be included. The presentation was a successful one and Arrotta was invited to participate in future classes. Prentice and Arrotta enhanced their presentations to include a series of photographs depicting life on 881S and the critical role played by Close Air Support in their survival.

Robert J. Arrotta calls in close air during an exercise at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma in 2009. (Courtesy of Glenn Prentice)

Major Thomas Campbell was a student in the Air Officer Course and saw Arrotta's second presentation. He later described it as:

Fantastic. It was exactly what the students needed... To see how much has NOT changed, the requirements of knowing your equipment and procedures, knowing your commander and his requirements. His was a substantive and important contribution to the course. It was also extremely humbling.  He and the other Marines, not only endured 881S, they excelled there!

Robert J. Arrotta died unexpectedly in November 2009, at the age of 64. He had been scheduled to speak at MCAS Yuma in April. Instead, prior to a brief given by Glenn Prentice, Major Thomas Campbell asked everyone in attendance to take a few moments to reflect on the service and sacrifice of "the Mightiest Corporal in the Marine Corps." Said Staff Sergeant Nathan Jacobson, who met Arrotta at MCAS Yuma, "He was a living legend, an inspiration, a real man who did amazing things. I was humbled to be in the same room as Robert J. Arrotta."

Major Thomas Campbell, Air Officer Department, Marine Corps Air Station Yuma introduces the brief on "The Mightiest Corporal in the Marine Corps."

MAWTS-1 could not have chosen a better man, nor a better Marine after whom to name their ready room.  A friend once told me that as long as a Marine is remembered he is not dead. Robert J. Arrotta is part of Marine Corps history... "You only live once... you might as well live forever! Semper Fidelis!!"

Corporal Robert J. Arrotta on Hill 881S. (Courtesy of David Powell)

Beth Crumley is a regular blog contributor for the Marine Corps Association & Foundation. You can find more of her blogs at: http://www.mca-marines.org/blog.