Honor, courage, and commitment are core values instilled within every United States Marine.
The late Lt. Col David Althoff lived and served in accordance with these values and led by example in showing his fellow Marines what it meant to put these words into action throughout his impressive 22 year career.
However, it is his leadership, and steadfast resiliency in combat, as well as his courage and unwavering calmness in the heat of battle, which cement his legacy in Marine Corps History. The humble Illinois native is credited with flying over 1,000 combat missions and is revered as one of the Marine Corps most decorated wartime aviators.
Althoff began his illustrious military career as a member of the Army National Guard in July of 1950, spending his first 18 months as an artilleryman.
“In the reserves we go every month on a Saturday, we spent all day drilling, learning military tactics and techniques,” Althoff explained in an interview with his son before his passing. “Every summer we’d go down for two months in Fort Huachuca [Ariz.] and fire all day long. My job initially was to load shells into that Howitzer, I’d slam it in there with my fist and close the door. Then I graduated a little bit. I was pulling the cord rather than shoving the shells. That was a lot easier. I finally ended up being in the fire direction center, where all I did was plot the direction the can should be pointing and move the azimuth up and down to get closer or further away. I observed the target and the hits to plot them on a chart.”
During his time as a Marine, Althoff attended Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona. With the start of the Korean War, the draft was initiated to expand the size of the armed forces. Althoff and his roommate knew there was no way for them to avoid the draft and they, collectively, made the decision to join the Air Force.
“We got there and the damn line was two blocks long just to get to talk to the recruiter. So I said well let’s go talk to the Navy guy for a little bit till the line calms down then we’ll come back and we’ll join the Air Force,” said Althoff. “Well … by the time we talked to the Navy recruiter for about 10 minutes we were signing on the dotted line to go to Navy flight training, but since we didn’t have a college degree we signed to be naval aviation cadets.”
In 1952, after 18 months of flight school training at Naval Air Station Pensacola, Fla., Althoff made the decision to commission as a Marine Corps second lieutenant and found himself at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, N.C., for seven months learning how to fly the Douglas AD Skyraider. At the time, this single-seat, single-engine attack aircraft had the largest carrying capacity in service, capable of holding 8,000 pounds of bombs. The plane had low-mounted, tapered wings giving it the capability to dive bomb and deliver nuclear bombs using the “toss-bombing” or “over-the-shoulder” bombing techniques.
In January of 1954 Althoff deployed to Korea.
“If you have ever been to a cold place you would appreciate Korea, it is one cold son-of-a gun!” expressed Althoff. “I got off that airplane with big full bags in both hands and I’m walking to the line shack, which is about 200 yards away, carrying those bags. By the time I got there I said ‘I’m gonna die.’ There’s no doubt about it. I cannot live 15 months like this.”
After about five months of cold weather, Althoff found himself in his commanding officer’s office gaining a new top secret assignment. He was going to Osugi, Japan, to be a part of Marine Attack Squadron 251, a special weapons outfit where he would train with seven other pilots to deliver atomic bombs. “He said ‘you wanna go?’ and I said “Sure. To get out of Korea, hell, I’d go anywhere to get out of Korea!” exclaimed Althoff.
“We had the unique experience of being sheltered in a compound where they couldn’t even see our airplanes or what we were doing,” explained Althoff. “We even had to put together our own weapons. They shipped the shell and you would put the whole thing together [atomic weapons] and hang it on the airplane. Then they’d open the gates to this compound you’d taxi out and took off. Nobody knew where you were going, you just went.”
After 15 months of top secret missions, and testing the limits with nuclear weapons three to four times a week, Althoff became one of only eight Marines qualified to deliver atomic bombs.
Althoff then received to orders to Marine Corps Air Station El Toro in Orange County, Calif., where he learned to fly a variety of other aircraft including the F-8 Crusader and F-33. Soon after he arrived, however, the Marine Corps’ necessity for helicopter pilots increased following the initial successes in the Korean War utilizing helicopters to insert ground troops for combat operations.
“They knew it was going to be a big part of the war effort from then on, so I went to Florida, went to flight training again and got checked out into a helicopter,” said Althoff. “I spent about three or four months flying helicopter missions and went through all the different helicopters that were available at the time.”
When he became fully qualified to fly helicopters, Althoff went to Santa Ana, Calif., and began flying with a helicopter squadron.
“We were having carrier cruises, we would go out there for three or four months flying off the carrier and landing in all kind of weather, pitch black and lightning,” explained Althoff. “Then at the end of the cruise we’d go back to the air station and we’d invade the O-Club [Officer Club]. There would be about 20 of us young bucks ages 25 to 27 at the peak of our career and we were hot stuff. We’d go take over the bar stand there smoke cigars and drink a beer. The biggest hot shots you’ve ever seen.”
1963 marked the beginning of a journey in which a consistent display of courage and skill outline the hallmark of his successful career. Althoff began his first tour in Vietnam flying the Sikorsky H-19 Chickasaw, before moving on to the Sikorsky H-34 Choctaw, both multipurpose rotary wing platforms. Once Althoff gained experience with both helicopters, he was assigned to be the adjutant for the Marine Air Group working directly with, and advising, the commanding officer.
“Being the adjutant for the air group means I was permanent there,” said Althoff. “The squadrons would come in, fly for about three months [and] check out all their pilots on all the different areas and techniques. As a group would come in, I would fly them to show them the areas to really stay away from and areas that were okay.”
With frequent flights in a war zone, Althoff was at a higher risk of being shot down.
“The first time I was shot down we were at the mouth of the Columbia River,” said Althoff. “Wasn’t all that serious because I landed right in the middle of a bunch of friendly troops”
After a seven month deployment and over 60 flights, Althoff and his team were recognized for their success and professionalism, and were commended on the amount of flawless passes they made during their deployment.
“Dave was the most intelligent and effective leader I met during my long military career,” said Retired Col. Ron Gatewood, a Marine Corps Officer who served with Althoff.
Upon returning home, Althoff received orders that would land him back in Osugi, Japan, where he was awarded a Bronze Star Medal for actions during his first deployment.
The next assignment Althoff received was to Camp Desert Rock, Nev., flying Ace-34s and conducting tests to aid in the development of atomic bombs. Desert Rock is located about 100 miles north of Las Vegas. The pilots were tasked with measuring the radiation after atomic weapons were detonated in the Nevada desert.
“They would shoot the test off then we would go out and fly around with a Geiger counter and measure the radiation; we never knew what we were flying into,” said Althoff “ You’re supposed to be very careful about how much you got but if the Geiger counter got full we’d just get a new one.”
A year later, Althoff boarded the USS Princeton for a nine month deployment to Bikini Atoll, which is one of 29 atolls that make up part of the Republic of the Marshall Islands. It was home to the scientists who were designing and building atomic weapons.
“They were all very highly paid, the cream of the crop scientists, so they treated them good and gave them everything,” explained Althoff. “The mess hall was open 24 hours a day. Anything you wanted: steak, lobster, you name it they had it for us. We were living in bunks and sleeping like normal people.”
Althoff received a break and he was able to go home, but it was short-lived as he received orders back to Cherry Point. From Cherry Point, he was sent on a deployment to the Caribbean for just under nine months.
“In the Marine Corps if you’re deployed for over nine months it’s considered an overseas tour,” explained Althoff. “You get three years before you have to go back so before the nine months would come up they’d bring us back so they didn’t have to worry about our return date, they could send us overseas again any time.”
Althoff’s deployment to the Caribbean continued a high-paced lifestyle that often separated him from his friends and loved ones.
“When I was a kid I didn’t see him for the first 15 years of my life. He was serving his country putting his life on the line to fight for something that he believed in,” explained Doug Althoff, David Althoff’s son. “He believed that Vietnam was a just war. He saw the villagers, the elders, people in charge of the villages in Vietnam being butchered by the communists and he thought that it was just not right. He couldn’t just sit by and not do something when something was not right. He had to go out and make it right.”
In 1967, Althoff’s proved his commitment yet again when he deployed to Vietnam for the second time.
“1967 was about the height of the war. I was assigned to HMM [Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron] 262; I was flying the CH-46,” said Althoff. “That’s 90 feet from the front tip of the rotor to the back tip so when you land you have to have a lot of space. We had a five man crew: a pilot, copilot, a gunner on each side [50 caliber weapons on each side] and a crew chief.”
In a span of only 12 months Althoff was shot down three times, but everyone who served with him acknowledged his skill and calm energy regardless of the stress brought on by the battlefield.
“I didn’t have to be told who was piloting my aircraft when Dave was in the cockpit; the helicopter just seemed to be more steady, solid and sturdy under his command,” said Bob Harrison, a crew chief who served with Althoff.
After 22 years of valiant service. 1,084 combat missions, three Silver Star Medals, four Distinguished Flying Crosses, a Distinguished Service Medal, five single mission Air Medals, 50 Strike Flight Awards, and a Combat Action Ribbon. Althoff finally retired in 1972 and moved to Chandler, Arizona where he spent the rest of his life with family.
Althoff embodied the motto ‘once a Marine always a Marine,’ and was given proper honors in his passing, including a color guard, a flag folding ceremony and a Three Volley Salute performed by Bulk Fuel Company C, 4th Marine Logistics Group (MLG), Marine Forces Reserve (MARFORRES).
“It’s important for the community in Arizona to know that we are here to support Marines past, present, and future,” said Sgt. Maurice Spicer, career planner and color sergeant, Bulk Fuel Company C, 4th MLG, MARFORRES.
Lt. Col David Althoff’s sacrifice and service to this nation will never be forgotten.
“Dave Althoff was and is the personification of honor, courage and commitment,” said retired Sgt. Craig Lofton. “He is irreplaceable as a husband, father, grandfather, brother, friend and as a United States Marine.”