Larry McClure, a ‘Pearl Harbor Baby’ flew rescue helicopters in Vietnam

Cadet Larry McClure of Punta Gorda Isles, Fla. stands in front of his T-34 trainer while enrolled in 1963 in Naval Aviation at Pensacola Naval Air Station. He was 21. Photo provided

Larry McClure of Punta Gorda Isles, Fla. thinks of himself as a Pearl Harbor baby.

He was born on Dec. 20, 1941 at the Naval hospital in Pearl Harbor. His father was a Navy chief at the time serving with the Pacific Fleet at Pearl. His dad was aboard the carrier USS Lexington when she was torpedoed and badly damaged by the Japanese. The Lexington was sunk by an American destroyer with 300 trapped sailors aboard on May 8, 1942 to keep her from falling into enemy hands during the Battle of the Coral Sea.

“After I was born the Navy required my mother and me to go back to the States. We sailed back in a convoy to San Francisco,” McClure recalled. “My mother was told, after she reached shore, the Japanese fired a torpedo at our ship but missed it.

“I grew up in Wichita, Kan. where I graduated from high school and went to my first two years of college before joining the Navy’s Cadet Aviation Program at the start of my junior year in college,” he said. “I got my wings and graduated as a fixed-wing Naval aviator at Pensacola in 1964. Then I took helicopter training in a little Bell H-13 helicopter.”

 McClure stands in the engine  of a Boeing 777 airliner.  He flew for decades for United Airlines after he got out of the service. Photo provided

McClure stands in the engine of a Boeing 777 airliner. He flew for decades for United Airlines after he got out of the service. Photo provided

After graduating I joined Helicopter Squadron HS-4 based in San Diego, Calif. Our squadron was the most highly decorated helicopter squadron in the history of Naval aviation.”

He flew a jet-powered Sea King helicopter with the number 66 painted on its side in big black numerals. McClure flew chopper 66 in Vietnam in ’66 and ’67.

 On a mission with a flight of "Sea King" helicopters. This picture was shot with McClure at the controls. These helicopters were used widely by the U.S. Navy for decades.  Photo provided

On a mission with a flight of “Sea King” helicopters. This picture was shot with McClure at the controls. These helicopters were used widely by the U.S. Navy for decades. Photo provided

“In 1969 they used my helicopter to pick up Astronauts Neil Armstrong and his crew on their return from the first moon landing,” McClure said. “Apollo 11 was the first spaceflight that went to the moon and my helicopter flew them back to the carrier USS Hornet.

“I went to Squadron HS-4 that was flying off the deck of the USS Yorktown (CV-10) based in San Diego, Calif. when I graduated from helicopter training. We flew anti-submarine warfare patrols along the coast of California,” he said.

In 1965 he cruised up and down the coast of Vietnam in the Yorktown as part of HS-4 flying Sea King helicopters from her deck.

“On our first cruise we were involved in the interdiction of arms from North Vietnam to South Vietnam. Our helicopter was armed with M-60 machine-guns and atomic torpedoes,” McClure explained. Primarily we were looking for fishing boats and junks used as gun runners sailing close to shore. Most of these boats would be under 50 feet.

” One time we came across this 60-foot sampan. We could see the people aboard, but not clearly from a distance. We took videos of the ship and when we got back to the carrier we developed ’em. The developed videos showed the sampan was armed with .50 caliber machine-guns. We were close enough we could have been in trouble if they opened up on us,” he said.

 Lt. Larry McClure is shown with his "Sea King" helicopter he flew on rescue missionsoff the deck of the carrier USS Yorktown during the Vietnam War. Note the "Black Knight" insignia on the side of his chopper  It was the emblem of his unit, Helicopter Squadron-4. Photo provided.

Lt. Larry McClure is shown with his “Sea King” helicopter he flew on rescue missionsoff the deck of the carrier USS Yorktown during the Vietnam War. Note the “Black Knight” insignia on the side of his chopper It was the emblem of his unit, Helicopter Squadron-4. Photo provided.

After returning to California and getting a little R & R, McClure and the crew of the Yorktown headed back to Vietnam on a second cruise. This time their anti-submarine warfare equipment was removed from their helicopters to allow them to carrier a heavier payload.

“We flew with a crew of four: pilot, copilot and two sonar operators. With the stripped down helicopters we could pick up more men and equipment,” he said. “We transitioned into flying Search and Rescue missions, looking for downed American pilots.

“Fortunately I wasn’t involved in any hostile activity, like picking up our pilots in North Vietnam. Nobody got shot down when I was up there on duty flying around in circles,” he said.

One thing Lt. McClure was involved with was the rescue of the crew of the USS Pueblo, a Navy spy ship, attacked and captured off the coast of North Korea on Jan. 23, 1968 by the North Korean Navy and Air Force.

“We went right away to the Sea of Japan with our carrier fleet right after the ‘Pueblo Incident’ took place,” McClure said. “At one point I was ordered to check on some Russian ships one night off the coast of North Korea. Our ship’s deck was frozen with a quarter-inch of ice about the time I was to takeoff. We weren’t allowed to fly in those conditions.”

Eventually the Pueblo crew was returned to U.S. custody, but the North Koreans kept the ship. It’s on display in the Taedong River near Pyongyang.

McClure is at the controls of a Boing 727 on one of the many South American flights he made for United during his 34 years of service to the airline. Photo provided

McClure is at the controls of a Boing 727 on one of the many South American flights he made for United during his 34 years of service to the airline.       Photo provided

That year, 1968, McClure got out of the Navy and went to work for United Airlines. Thirty-three years ago during his early years with United he met his wife, Cheryl, who was flying aboard his airplane as a stewardess.

“When I got back to the States and got a job with United. I worked for them for 34 years. I flew all the Boeing airliners except the 747,” he said. “Most of the time I flew South American routes.”

He and Cheryl, moved down to Punta Gorda from Fort Collins, Colo. in 1994. They have one son, Kris, who lives in Chicago.”

Meanwhile, HS-4s’ Helicopter 66–the one McClure flew Stateside and in Vietnam–is being refurbished by the Smithsonian Air Museum for a display that will feature Neil Armstrong’s first flight to the moon and the part the chopper played in the astronaut’s recovery.


McClure’s File

 Name: Lawrence Joel McClure
D.O.B: 20 Dec 1941
Hometown: Honolulu, Hawaii
Currently: Punta Gorda, Fla.
Entered Service: 2 March 1963
Discharged: 15 March 1969
Rank: Lieutenant
Unit: Squadron HS-4, USS Yorktown
Commendations: Navy Unit Commendation, National Defense Medal, Vietnam Service Medal with 3 Stars, Vietnam Campaign Medal, Air Medal


This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida on Monday, De. 7, 2011 and is republished with permission.

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