Flight of the Intruder
In 1920 Maj. Alfred Cunningham, the first Marine Corps aviator, wrote, “The only excuse for aviation in any service is its usefulness in assisting troops on the ground to successfully carry out their operations.”
In September 1962, the Navy redesignated the A2F-1 as the A-6A Intruder. It was the last conventional pure air-to-ground attack aircraft to enter the Marine Corps inventory.
The first Marine A-6 squadron to see combat was VMA(AW)-242 launching from Da Nang, Viet Nam in December 1967. The Intruder’s large bomb load (twenty eight 500-pound conventional bombs), long endurance, and ability to make bombing runs in any weather, day or night, endeared the aircraft to the men on the ground. It used either a moving target detection system or a synthetic target from a radar beacon provided by a forward air controller. Only the USAF AC-130 and AC-119 gunships were credited with more targets destroyed on the “Trail” than the Marine A-6s.
During the war, one Marine Intruder squadron deployed with the Navy aboard USS Coral Sea (CVA 43) as part of Carrier Air Wing Fifteen. None of the Marine crews initially had any carrier experience which caused a steep learning curve. They ultimately became an integral part of the air wing and flew day and night strikes, as well as mining Haiphong harbor in 1972.
Twenty years after Viet Nam, Marine A-6 crews again went in harm’s way to support Marine Corps troops on the ground. VMA(AW)-224, VMA(AW)-225 and VMA(AW)-533 deployed to Bahrain in August 1990, and were airborne on the first night of Desert Storm making life miserable for the Republican Guard units in the Kuwait and Iraqi deserts. In February 1991, when Marine ground units crossed the line of departure to free Kuwait, those A-6 squadrons flew dedicated close air support missions 24/7.
However, even the venerable A-6 couldn’t stem the tide of time and most Marine squadrons were transitioned to the F/A-18D Hornet in the early 1990s. Proving that even Marines have a sense of humor, when VMA(AW)-533 transitioned, the squadron held a kangaroo court and determined the Commandant of the Marine Corps (CMC) had “killed the A-6 without providing for an adequate replacement “and fined him $4. The charge chit was mailed to the CMC, who signed it and paid the fine. At least into the late 1990s, the chit was kept in a frame on the wall of VMFA(AW)-533’s Ready Room.
The Air Force magazine “Airpower” dubbed the A-6 the “best attack aircraft ever” for the Navy and Marine Corps. For 34 years Marine Corps troops on the ground knew the Marine Corps Intruder crew would deliver on Maj. Cunningham’s commitment -- every time and in any weather. And the enemy knew there would be no place to hide.