MARINE CORPS AIR STATION YUMA, ARIZ. -- In many cultures throughout human history, warriors have held the belief that the best of them, the man who had no equal on the battlefield, after his death would watch over his countrymen from the afterlife. Should the day ever arise when he is needed, he will be reborn to fight again. The Norse and the Greeks believed this in their greatest heroes.
The Marine Corps has no shortage of heroes to stand alongside Hector and Achilles, but the Corps’ true strength lies not in the individual, but in the efforts of brothers bound together for a shared purpose. So as with the great funeral pyres of old, now the Marine Corps sends one of its finest warriors, Marine Attack Squadron 513, to pay the ferryman’s toll.
In a ceremony at the squadron hanger on Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Ariz., VMA-513 “The Flying Nightmares” was deactivated as an active duty squadron in the U.S. Marine Corps. As of July 12, VMA-513 has been laid to rest after 69 years of dedicated, faithful service.
“I’m proud of the Nightmares; I’m proud of their tradition,” said Lt. Col. Samuel Smith, the commanding officer of VMA-513. “I truly believe that we are finishing this thing very strong, with a crew of Marines and sailors that I wouldn’t trade for anybody. They have done a miraculous job, and I couldn’t be prouder.”
“It’s an awesome experience to be one of the last of the Nightmares,” added Capt. Tommy Ragsdale, the logistics and embarkation officer and a harrier pilot with VMA-513, who has been with the squadron for three years. “To be the last element of this squadron’s history is something special. The squadron’s done some amazing things, and we are one more link in that cable.”
VMA-513, of Marine Aircraft Group 13, was one of seven operational squadrons, now six, in the Marine Corps that fly the AV-8B Harrier. With the end of Operation Iraqi Freedom and the impending cessation of Operation Enduring Freedom, the Corps has had to make some tough choices in its cuts. There are likely to be even fewer Harriers in the future as the Corps transitions to the F-35B Lightning II.
“[A deactivation] is something we don’t do very often, but with the drawdown going down to 182,000 [personnel] and maybe ultimately below that, we had to make cuts in the Marine Corps, and VMA-513 was involved in that,” said Smith, a native of Princeton, N.J. “Needless to say it was in an effort to draw down the structure of the Marine Corps. The harrier is going to 2032 so there will still be a place for harriers, but some of the Marines are eventually transitioning.”
The squadron’s aircraft have already been disbursed to other VMAs, many of the aircraft given to VMA-214, another resident squadron of MCAS Yuma. The handoff occurred in June at the conclusion of VMA-513’s final deployment, a Unit Deployment Program in support of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit.
“MAG-12, who we were attached to at the time, really showed a class act,” said Smith, who has been with the squadron since Dec., 2011. “Not only were all my Marines on line to salute the airplanes as they went out, but also a good portion of MAG-12 was out there as well. The line extended well past the flight-line and on down the taxiway. Seeing all those people honor the Nightmares as we left… I was very choked up that day. It will be a memory that sticks with me forever.”
The final flight of VMA-513 aircraft traveled from Iwakuni, Japan to Okinawa, Japan, which was fitting, because the first major battle the squadron fought was the Battle of Okinawa at the end of World War II.
“Why a harrier squadron was chosen, I don’t know. I wish it hadn’t been,” said Smith. “If you had to choose a harrier squadron, every one, except VMA-231, which is the oldest squadron of the Corps, was incepted in World War II. When we decide on which of these seven harrier squadrons, they look at who’s the newest, and I think VMA-513 is the newest, if you call 69 years of service new. Yuma has four squadrons and east coast has three, so we’re newest here.”
The squadron’s equipment will flow back into the pool for other VMAs to use in the future, but the transitioning of the Marines away from a unit they are dedicated to is much more difficult.
“What do you do with the mentalities and the morale of all the Marines in the squadron?” asked Smith. “One Marine has been here for 10 years. Many of the others, some who call 513 their first fleet squadron, have been here three, four, five years. It’s a big deal; it’s an emotional step to know that an organization you’ve been a part of will no longer be there. In dealing with that we try to honor the tradition of the Nightmares that have been going back 69 years now, to 1944. We realize that the Marines we see here are the same Marines we saw in World War II. They may be fresher faces with different haircuts. They may text instead of write notes. They may play video games instead of baseball, but it’s the same guys and gals doing what they do every day. We try to honor those traditions, realize who we are, and finish strong.”
“The Marines that I served with and the Marines today are just that – Marines. To say one was better than the other would be a disservice to both,” added Col. Billy McMillin (Ret), the Detachment Officer-in-Charge of the VMA-513 Marines on the 13th MEU in 1986 and the squadron Commanding Officer from April, 1987 to August 1988.
Most of the Marines transferred to the other two present (VMA-214 is currently deployed) Yuma-based Harrier squadrons, VMAs 211 and 311. A few of the squadron are going to MAG-13 and a few others to VMFA-121 to train to work with the F-35B.
The deactivation notification came about a year ago, and was a shock to VMA-513. Many didn’t believe it at first, but slowly the reality sank in.
“We learned about the deactivation a couple months before our last deployment,” explained Ragsdale, a native of Nashville, Tenn. “It was a surprise. Everybody feels kind of the same way; we are all very reminiscent of the squadron’s history, and we are all proud to be a part of it. The Marine Corps and the country are losing a little bit of their own lore.”
“We discussed how the best way to break the news to the Marines was. It took about a week,” Smith added. “I happen to be a commander who believes bad news or any news doesn’t get better or worse with time, it just is what it is. We had a formation and I was very candid with the fact that I didn’t know why this was happening, but nevertheless it was. That rather than being down about it that this should be a moment of sadness but also excitement that you all are the last of the nightmares. I think that was pretty poignant to them.”
Feelings among the Marines have been mixed. Many are proud of the legacy they are now a part of, but are disappointed to see the squadron go.
“I feel disappointed that [VMA-513] was selected, but I understand that due to the fiscal constraints, it had to be,” said Col. McMillin (Ret), the former VMA-513 CO and a native of Seattle. “I am proud to have served in 513, I am proud of the way the deactivation ceremony was conducted, and I am very proud of the squadron and the contributions it’s made to Marine Corps history and lore.”
“I feel in a way angry, but bittersweet is more the term,” said Smith. “When I was coming up through the ranks, [VMA-513] was the squadron down the street that was always getting things done, silent professionals that didn’t have a lot of show. It didn’t have a TV show, it wasn’t “The Oldest Squadron in the Corps”, its patch wasn’t designed by Disney. It was always the professional squadron that got it done. Regardless of the commander, regardless of who was there, it just continued to excel. When I was lucky enough to be offered the command, I was excited about it. It’s an honor to be the last squadron commander, but it’s an honor I would rather not have.”
VMA-513 was first commissioned as Marine Fighting Squadron 513 during World War II, Feb. 15, 1944. The squadron flew the F6F Hellcat from the deck of the USS Vella Gulf, taking part in operations at Ewa, Enewetak, Saipan, Guam, and Okinawa.
During the Korean War, then VMF(N)-513 (the N is for Night Fighters) was the only aerial night defender of the Pusan Perimeter for all the U.N. forces. They also scored the first ever radar kill of an enemy jet aircraft at night. They followed this with nine more. This is where the unique name “The Flying Nightmares” came from.
The Nightmares were then re-designated as Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 513 when they received the F-4B Phantom II. Only two years after receiving the F-4B, VMFA-513 deployed to Vietnam in 1965. During this deployment there was a period of five months where the Nightmares were the only Marine Jet aviators in the region.
Following the Vietnam War, the Nightmares gained their current designation, VMA-513, along with theAV-8A Harrier. They were the first operational American squadron to use the Harrier.
In recent years, VMA-513 has flown in support of Operation Desert Storm, as well as in the opening moments of both Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom. The Nightmares have unceasingly supported America through the current conflicts, having deployed to numerous MEUs as well as continuously supporting operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Our final two deployments, first to Afghanistan, then the Pacific, were very important for what the Marine Corps is doing – shifting from the Middle East to the Pacific,” said Ragsdale.
They were also the first Harrier unit to drop a Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) in combat. The squadron has been a part of every major America action since World War II.
With the coming of the F-35B and the door closing on VMA-513, it would seem that a new era of Marine Corps aviation is dawning. But as Smith explains, the technology we use is insignificant next to the true strength of Marines.
“By way of the indomitable spirit of Marines, no, [the coming era] is not new,” said Smith. “We will transition to new technologies and so forth, but our ethos and our common ground will always remain the same.”
As with the warriors of old, the spirit of the Nightmares will live on to inspire future generations of Marine Corps aviation. Perhaps one day far in the future, in a time of great need, our warrior will return to once again beat back the enemies at our gates.