Airlift was one of the first aspects of US military aid to the government of South Vietnam. Project FARM GATE, the first American mission to South Vietnam, included C-47s in the special operations role, a mission that included airlift and airdrop in addition to other military tasks. FARM GATE was followed almost immediately by Project MULE TRAIN, the deployment of a squadron of C-123s from Tactical Air Command's 464th Troop Carrier Wing at Pope AFB, North Carolina, to Clark Air Base, Philippines. After a very short stay at Clark, the first C-123s arrived at Tan Son Nhut in early December, 1961, to begin the Vietnam Airlift. A few months later, over the protest of the Air Force, the US Army sent a company of its CV-2 CARIBOU transports to Vietnam. Though the CV-2 was severely limited as a transport, its short-field landing capabilities allowed the tiny airplane to land where the C-123 could not. The CARIBOU would prove useful in Vietnam in support of small, isolated outposts where minimal payload requirements did not dictate the use of larger airplanes.
While the C-47 was a very versatile airplane, its use in the airlift role in Vietnam was very limited. Air transportation was a mission of the FARM GATE special operations force; the C-47s were used quite extensively in support of Special Forces outposts during the first year or two of the war. But they were soon replaced by the C-123s and Army CV-2's in this mission. The South Vietnamese Air Force air transport group was equipped with C-47s, and its pilots were very skillful in the use of their airplanes. A need for pilots in the VNAF strike squadrons led the United States to send two groups of 30 USAF pilots to Vietnam to serve as copilots with Vietnamese crews. Known as "The Dirty Thirty," the American pilots served with the VNAF squadrons in 1963 and 1964.
Although airlift support of the South Vietnamese military was the primary object of the MULE TRAIN C-123s, the transports very quickly became essential to the country's transportation infrastructure. About a dozen existing airfields in the country served as links between Saigon and the rest of South Vietnam. Combat operations originated from one of the 12 fields. Soon the C-123s were operating scheduled flights between Saigon and Da Nang into certain key airfields. But the C-123s had been sent to Vietnam for combat operations, and the Americans felt this capability was not being exploited. Several airborne operations were scheduled during the early years of the war, but the results were poor, just as they were with the heliborne operations that replaced them. The Viet Cong were an elusive enemy who chose when and where they wanted to fight, which meant only when they had the military advantage.
The Vietnam War took a new turn in 1965 when President Johnson began his Rolling Thunder bombing campaign against North Vietnam. Several fighter-bomber and reconnaissance squadrons were dispatched to South Vietnam from Tactical Air Command bases in the United States and from elsewhere in the Pacific. Along with the air combat units, the 1st Marine Division and the Army's 173rd Airborne Regiment arrived for duty in Vietnam. They were soon followed by other American ground combat units.
Prior to 1965 the C-130s of the 315th Air Division operated into Vietnam and Thailand from Okinawa, Japan and the Philippines. When their superior capabilities were needed, C-130s were sent to Southeast Asia for specific tasks. With the arrival of the American ground and air combat units, airlift needs in the area increased and the first C-130s were sent to Saigon to in-country airlift operations. Within six months those four airplanes had grown to the equivalent of three squadrons, and would eventually grow to 90 airplanes.
In the fall of 1965 the 1st Cavalry's clash with North Vietnamese forces in the I Drang Valley proved the usefulness of the C-130 in combat operations. The Army had planned for the Cavalry to be an independent unit and included an aviation company equipped with CV-2s as part of the division. But the task of resupplying the unit's heliborne forces proved the inadequacy of the CV-2 in the transport role. The airplane could carry only two of the giant fuel bladders used to transport POL products in Vietnam. A C-130 could carry six times the load. A single C-130 could do the work of a whole company of CV-2s, and the Army quickly realized that the Cavalry division was going to be dependent upon the Air Force. The CV-2s were soon functioning more or less like jeeps while the larger airlift tasks were exclusively an Air Force responsibility, though the Marines operated a few of their own C-130s in I Corps.
Throughout 1966 and 1967 the war in Vietnam was based on the "search and destroy" concept, meaning American units operated into areas of enemy infestation to search for his bases and then destroy them. Airlift was crucial to the tactic. Air Force transports, usually C-130s, airlifted ground personnel into airfields in close proximity to a planned operation then kept them supplied during the ensuing operation. Helicopters supplied the troops in the field, and moved units to and from their base camps. Shorter runways called for the use of C-123s. In 1966 the Army's CV-2s were transferred to the Air Force where they became the C-7. The CARIBOUS were used for small scale operations into very short landing strips and for resupply of special forces camps.
An attack on the cargo ramp at Dak To in November, 1967, signaled that airlift had become a target for the enemy. Two C-130s were destroyed in the attack, and a third was badly damaged as the Communists set out to make airlift operations very costly for the Americans. In early 1968 a large Communist force surrounded the Marine combat base at Khe Sanh in extreme northwestern South Vietnam. For 77 days USAF and USMC transports and helicopters were the Marines only link with the outside world. Artillery attacks on the base were fierce, and were often keyed to the arrival of a transport. Marines at Khe Sanh began referring to the C-130s as "mortar magnets," a name that soon became appropriate throughout Vietnam. After the destruction of a Marine C-130 while landing at Khe Sanh and the near-destruction of two USAF transports, Gen. William Momyer, commander of Air Force operations in South Vietnam, curtailed C-130 landings at the base. The airlift agency in South Vietnam, the 834th Air Division, turned to C-130 airdrop as the primary means of resupply for the base defenders, with C-123 landings an option when conditions and necessity permitted. The smaller C-123s required less runway and could land and off-load then takeoff again without leaving the runway. USMC C-130s also landed on occasion, along with a few C-7s that brought in medical supplies too sensitive for airdrop. Ground-controlled approach radar was used to position the transports over the end of the runway, from which point the crew navigators found the drop zone using onboard navigation equipment and timing.
Though containers were the primary method of airdrop at Khe Sanh, the LAPES low-altitude parachute method allowed the delivery or larger items. But the confined drop zone made LAPES somewhat dangerous. After a Marine was killed when a LAPES platform separated from its parachute, the Air Force resurrected GPES, a low-altitude method using a hook in the airplane to snare a cable on the ground to extract the load.
After 77 days, the Marines at Khe Sanh were relieved. The Communists had shifted south into the A Shau Valley and the 1st Cavalry Division went into the valley after them. Operation DELAWARE called for C-130 airdrop to supply the cavalrymen until the airfields at A Loui and Ta Bat could be repaired. The A Shau drops were more dangerous than those at Khe Sanh. The drop zone at a Loui lay 2,000 feet beneath mountain rides on either side of the run-in. Clouds filled the valley down to 500 feet and sometimes less, while visibilities were from 1-2 miles. Just getting into the valley required superior airmanship and skill. To make matters worse, the Communists had positioned heavy caliber antiaircraft and machine guns along the run-in route in anticipation of the C-130 airdrops. Though fighters, F-4s from Da Nang, were scheduled to provide fire suppression for the transports, the fighter pilots refused to fly into the valley. The C-130 crews dropped anyway.
On the first day of drops several C-130s were hit and suffered major battle damage. Shortly after noon a C-130B from the 29th TAS was hit after the airplane broke out of the clouds further down the valley than had previous drop planes. Smoke streamed from the cargo compartment as the airplane came over the drop zone and the crew attempted to jettison their load - to no avail. The pilot turned back toward the airfield in an attempt to land, but the airplane struck a tree and slammed into the ground to explode.
Three days later Capt Ross Kramer's crew had two engines shot out during their approach to A Loui. They could see F-4s some distance above them as they ran the gauntlet of Communist fire, but the fighter pilots refused to come down and lend a hand to the transport they were supposed to be escorting. Allegedly, 7th Air Force Commander Gen. William Momyer flew to Da Nang to give the fighter pilots a personal chewing out. A fighter pilot himself, Momyer had a special interest in TAC airlift and believed it to be an important asset requiring special skill and an aggressive attitude. Momyer more or less told the F-4 crews that if the transport crews could go into that hell, so could they! After that, the fighters were there and no more transports were lost or severely damaged.
On May 12, 1968 airlifters in Vietnam had their finest hour as they were called upon to evacuate the camp at Kham Duc. Although two C-130s were shot down and others were damaged, they managed to bring out about half of the camps defenders while US Army and USMC helicopters brought out the remainder who did not exfiltrate out on the ground. After the camp had been successfully evacuated, another C-130 was inexplicably ordered to land and discharge members of an airlift control team who had been evacuated earlier in the day. Two C-123s managed to land, but the first took off again without seeing the stranded airmen until they had become airborne. The second C-123 landed and picked them up. As the ranking man aboard the airplane, Lt. Col. Joe M. Jackson was awarded the Medal of Honor. The instructor pilot, who had been administering a check ride to Jackson, Major Jesse Campbell, was awarded the Air Force Cross while the two enlisted crewmembers, Sergeants Truijo and Grubbs, were given the Silver Star.
In the spring of 1972, after most American ground forces had been withdrawn, the Communists launched a major offensive as they invaded South Vietnam during Easter. Communist troops supported by tanks and artillery rolled down Highway 13 toward Saigon, only to be halted after passing the town of An Loc, which fell under siege. Airlift forces in Southeast Asia had been withdrawn, with only the 374th Tactical Airlift Wing remaining of what had been several wings of C-130s, C-123s and C-7s. Vietnamese C-123s attempted to supply the besieged garrison at An Loc, but were unsuccessful in the face of the heaviest ground fire yet encountered in the Vietnam War. Helicopter resupply was impossible due to the proliferation of automatic weapons in the area. In desperation, the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, ordered the 374th to begin a resupply effort of the camp.
The missions to An Loc were the most dangerous faced by airlifters in Vietnam, and perhaps in any war. Communist gunners put up "a gauntlet of fire" when their outlying spotters reported an approaching C-130. On the first day of drops Captain Bill Caldwell and SSgt Charlie Shaub earned the Air Force Cross when they brought their crippled airplane back to Tan Son Nhut after suffering major damage over An Loc. Another C-130 was shot down the same day, and two more were to follow over the next week. Night drops proved as dangerous as those flown in daytime, and as unproductive. The siege was finally broken when the airlifters turned to high-velocity drops from altitudes above the range of the antiaircraft at An Loc, which included SA-7 shoulder-fired SAM missiles. A similar effort at Kontum allowed the South Vietnamese defenders to hold that city as well.
In February, 1973, the POWs, some of whom had been held since 1965, were finally released. The Military Airlift Command was given the honor of bringing the POWS home, but the MAC C-141 crews were upstaged by C-130 crewmen from the 374th TAW. In preparation for the release, several C-130 flights transported members of the negotiating team into Hanoi. On the day of the release two C-130 crews flew into Gia Lam airport with members of the release team and an Air Force combat control team who brought in homing devices to help the MAC crews find the airfield. When the prisoners were released, the two C-130 crews were standing with nothing to do. Seeing that the first prisoners were the most badly injured, SSgt Ron Zogoda, a loadmaster, too the initiative as he stepped forward and took the arm of the first prisoner to be released, then escorted him across more than 100 feet of tarmac to where the MAC "freedom birds" waited. (The MAC C-141 crews were under strict instructions not to leave their airplanes.) The other members of the two crews followed Zgoda's lead. When the POWS got to their first stop in the Philippines, they told Gen. Wiliam Moore, commander of 13th Air Force, how they appreciated the fact that the first Americans they talked too were combat crewmembers like themselves. Consequently, on subsequent releases, the C-130 crews were assigned escort duty with the returning prisoners.
While American combat participation in the Vietnam War ceased with the 1973 ceasefire, airlift continued to play a role in the ongoing war in nearby Laos and Cambodia. Throughout 1974 and into 1975 the United States maintained a major airlift of supplies to the besieged Cambodian city of Phnom Penh. Fearful of the loss of an Air Force crew, the United States turned to the use of civilian contract crews, as they had done during the French IndoChina War. A company known as Bird Air (BirdAir) recruited former military airlifters to fly USAF C-130s provided "on loan" from the Air Force for the resupply effort. In spite of the airlift effort, Phnom Penh fell to the Communists in April, 1975, only a few days before Saigon also fell, bringing the long Vietnam War to a final conclusion.
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