Eyewitness to History

Vietnam War
Tactical Airlift in Southeast Asia
By Harry Heist
These stories are not copyrighted unless noted but we request anyone using them for other than personal use to credit the author and the museum.

The Military Airlift Command's primary responsibility during the Vietnam War was the strategic delivery of personnel and cargo to the major ports, but the command also flew some intratheater missions. The war severely strained the Pacific Air Forces' (PACAF) ability to operate an intratheater airlift system while also meeting tactical airlift requirements in South Vietnam. The Air Force decided, therefore, that MAC should assume a greater portion of the intratheater airlift workload. The command's "tactical" cargo flights varied from delivering ammunition between Kadena Air Base, Okinawa and Danang Air Base, South Vietnam, to moving troops and equipment within Vietnam. Although PACAF's tactical airlifters flew the bulk of the intratheater missions in Southeast Asia, it is appropriate to include an account of MAC's activity since the tactical airlift mission was consolidated into MAC in 1974-75.

Tactical airlift had proven its worth in World War II, especially in Western Europe and in Burma when hundreds of C-46s and C-47s supported Allied ground operations. During the Korean War, tactical airlift was again an invaluable asset for the UN's forces. Following the conflict, military planners called upon airlift to support short-notice transoceanic deployments of the United States-based tactical air forces.

The first USAF tactical transports, four C-47s, arrived in Vietnam in November 1961 as part of the combat crew training detachment known as Farm Gate . The aircraft executed several missions, including support flights for Farm Gate, airdrops of Vietnamese paratroopers and night flareship operations. Throughout the conflict, the airlifter's most important and difficult missions involved resupplying the US Army's Special Forces at remote sites throughout South Vietnam. Often Farm Gate or Vietnamese Air Force (VNAF) fighter escorts accompanied the C-47s as they airdropped supplies to the Army's Green Berets.

The VNAF used C-47s also. A shortage of Vietnamese pilots in early 1962 caused the USAF to assign American pilots to the VNAF airlift squadrons. As a result, 30 American officers arrived in April 1962 to serve as copilots on otherwise all-Vietnamese C-47 crews. This was followed by a second contingent of American pilots who replaced the original 30 in the spring of 1963 and stayed until later that year when Vietnam began using its own copilots. The small Farm Gate detachment and the VNAF airlift squadrons, however, were insufficient to handle the growing requirements for airmobility within the Southeast Asian Theater. Air Force Chief of Staff, General Curtis LeMay concluded that the lack of aerial port facilities, poor command, control and communications prevented the operation of an effective airlift system. By the end of 1962, two C-123 Provider units, the 315th Troop Carrier Group (redesignated the 315th Air Commando Group, 8 March 1965) and the 8th Aerial Port Squadron were in place at Tan Son Nhut Air Base in Saigon. A third C-123 squadron was stationed at Da Nang Air Base in 1963 and a fourth at Tan Son Nhut in October 1964 following the Gulf of Tonkin incident in August. The C-123's ability to land on short, unimproved fields proved invaluable and the four units served in Vietnam until the end of the war.

The C-130 Hercules flew the bulk of the tactical airlift missions during the Vietnam War, with the C-7 Caribous, the C-123 Providers and the Australian Wallabies (Caribous) contributing substantially. When President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered American ground units into South Vietnam, the C-130s airlifted the initial Marine battalion from Okinawa to DaNang in March 1965. Two months later, these same C-130s airlifted the first regular Army troops, the 173rd Airborne Brigade, from Okinawa to South Vietnam.

By the end of 1965, the 315th Air Division had 32 C-130s stationed at Tan Son Nhut, Vung Tau, Nha Trang and Cam Ranh Bay Air Bases. The C-130, unlike the C-7 or the C-123, had a high-load capacity, on-board navigational radar and a 24-hour-a-day capability. At first, the 315th restricted the C-130s to airfields with runways of more than 3,500 feet. The C-123 carried cargo to the marginal forward airstrips. The Tactical Air Command and Headquarters USAF, however, pressured the air division to exploit the C-130's proven assault capabilities. The 315th relented and in 1965 directed that all C-130s would operate to all airfields within the aircraft's performance characteristics. The expanded role of the C-130 fit with General William Westmoreland's (Commander of U.S. Forces in Vietnam) offensive and mobile tactics against the Communists in South Vietnam.

The C-7A Caribous had been flying tactical airlift missions in Vietnam since 1962. The U.S. Army had purchased these twin engine transports to support its mobile forces. In April 1966, the Army and the Air Force agreed to transfer the Caribous to the Air Force and in January 1967 these units officially became Air Force squadrons assigned to the 483rd Tactical Airlift Wing at Cam Ranh Bay Air Base.

Back in October 1966, the new 834th Air Division at Tan Son Nhut absorbed the 315th Air Commando Group's Airlift Control Center, C-123 squadrons, aerial port group and was soon to assume ownership of the C-7s from the Army. The 834th also exercised operational control over the C-130s that had arrived in Vietnam the previous year.

The creation of the new division paralleled the reorganization of the aerial port structure, a revision forced by the increase in tonnage. Between early 1965 and mid-1966, the cargo passing through the system grew from 30,000 to 140,000 tons per month. This increase nearly overwhelmed the system with the aerial port units struggling with inadequate equipment and facilities and personnel chronically overworked. The seven aerial port detachments in Vietnam at the start of 1965 expanded to thirty-five by year's end.

The 834th Air Division's and its predecessor the 315th Air Commando Group's Airlift Control Center (ALCC) managed the tactical airlift force in the Southeast Asian Theater. Requests from the Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV), Vietnam's combat operations center, unit movement and special mission requests all filtered into the airlift control center. The center's staff scheduled missions, wrote movement frag (fragmentation) orders, monitored and directed airlift movement, cancellations and recalls and coordinated emergency requests. In short, the airlift control center was the "tactical airlift resource in Vietnam."

After 1968, President Richard M. Nixon's strategy of "Vietnamization" of the war along with American troop withdrawal led to a decrease in tactical airlift activity. When MACV deactivated in March 1973, the parent of intratheater airlift in Vietnam, the Seventh Air Force, moved to Nakhon Phanom Air Base, Thailand. The airlift control center also merged with the control center at U-Tapao Air Base, Thailand, to control and schedule all C-130s in Southeast Asia.

An account by Harry Heist, Museum Archivist:

Despite the increase of personnel, the United States advisory mission failed to end the insurgency from North Vietnam into South Vietnam and Laos. The decision early in 1965 to replace advisors with combat troops recognized two facts that had come clear in 1964: infiltration from North to South Vietnam was growing rather than tapering off and the government of South Vietnam could not cope with the situation. Thus, 1964 would bring an end to the "advisory period" in Vietnam and the USAF units already in place would form the nucleus for the buildup of the U.S. forces.

Following C-123 Provider aircrew training and two survival schools, I arrived in Saigon on Christmas Eve, 1964 to witness what would bring the United States to the verge of direct all-out action. A 300 pound charge exploded in the lobby of the Brink Hotel (billets for U.S. advisors), killing two and injuring sixty-four Americans and forty-three Vietnamese. So would begin my year in Vietnam.

My quarters were located in Saigon's Chinese District of Cholon. My job took me on a daily commute to Tan Son Nhut Air Base, assigned to the 315th Group's Airlift Control Center working twelve hour days, two weeks on and three days off, two of which I would fly in order to maintain my proficiency as a C-123 navigator. I along with a C-130 pilot, an operations duty officer (all of us captains) and several enlisted personnel were responsible for the day-to-day scheduling, controlling and supervising all of the 315th's tactical airlift capability throughout Vietnam and the Southeast Asian Theater.

Normally airlift requirements were received from MACV, however, many requests necessitated our immediate response. Two examples follow:

On the evening of 30 June 1965, South Vietnamese paratroopers were heavily engaged with North Vietnam forces at Cheo Reo southeast of Pleiku. We were tasked to launch or divert every available C-123 aircraft. In the initial four hours, a C-123 landed every eight minutes at Cheo Reo and the C-123 fleet delivered sixteen hundred troops along with their equipment and ammunition. Another one thousand men were airlifted over the next two days along with 290 tons of cargo. The C-130s assisted in the operation and hauled in 105mm artillery and ammunition from Pleiku. The transports landed by night using flareship illumination and makeshift runway lighting. On July 4th and 5th, the troops were then airlifted to Pleiku and Kontum by the C-123s. Immediately following the Cheo Reo operation, we began another airlift into Dak To under similar conditions. These combined efforts, including resupply and extractions, within a ten-day period, required over six hundred C-123 sorties and included the movement of over ten thousand troops.

Photo: Harry Heist

Not all operations were to prove as successful as that of the Cheo Reo and Dak To airlifts. In order to root out Viet Cong and North Vietnamese factions, formations of transports also were used to burn out forested areas used as cover. On 31 March 1965, we scheduled an airdrop with twenty four C-123s, each carrying twenty-four fifty-five-gallon drums of fuel with flares attached, to burn part of the Boi Loi woods northwest of Saigon. Fighter aircraft fed the blaze with napalm and the smoke reached 10,000 feet. The heat was so intense that clouds formed over the area generating a huge thunderhead causing torrential rains that eventually put out the fires.

Since the C-123s had no navigational radar and were used frequently for deliveries in the highlands, they were especially vulnerable while flying in poor visibility near mountainous terrain. Such was the case on 11 June 1965 when a crew from the 310th Air Commando Squadron, stationed at Nha Trang, flew into a mountain while attempting an airdrop in marginal weather south of Pleiku. None of the nine crewmen survived. The crew's navigator was my roommate when the 310th was stationed at Tan Son Nhut before it's relocation to Nha Trang in April 1965.

During my two flying days away from ALCC, I scheduled my missions that would take me to a variety of destinations in order to become more familiar with the airfields and drop zones to where we were sending the aircrews. Some of these locations were the U.S. Army Special Forces outposts along the South Vietnam-Cambodian-Laotian border. These small primitive camps included a small detachment of Green Berets in command of several South Vietnamese members of their strike force. A few days before Thanksgiving, I was able to requisition some frozen turkeys from the Navy. In turn, I fragged a mission that would take us along the South Vietnam-Cambodian border to airdrop and airland the turkeys to the Special Forces camps along the way.

So, on our C-123, we loaded up the turkeys, Playboy magazines, a few pilot chutes (a small chute used to pull the larger chute from it's package but large enough to drop a turkey), a chaplain and off we went hoping to hit as many outposts that daylight and our fuel load would allow.

I recall landing at one of the camps and meeting a young lieutenant along with his group of Vietnamese combatants. After giving him the turkey and the chaplain saying a few good words, the chaplain asked if there was anything more he could do for him. The lieutenant's reply: "Chaplain, you can take your turkey and 'stick it', just get me out of here." We left him with his Vietnamese charges, several turkeys and took-off headed to the next camp. I've often thought about him in the hopes that he got out of there OK.

Unlike the lieutenant stationed in hell, my Thanksgiving Day was spent at the Brink Hotel, the same place that I witnessed being blown up eleven months before. During my year in Vietnam, the United States military forces grew from 23,000 advisors to 180,000 troops including the 173rd Airborne Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) and the 2nd Brigade of the 1st Infantry Division. In January 1965, the C-123 tactical airlift force in Vietnam was averaging 300 tons of cargo per day. At the end of my tour, December 1965, we were scheduling 1,400 tons per day using the C-123s, C-130s and the Wallabies. The peak occurred during the period of January-June 1968 when the daily airlift was 2,700 tons flown by the C-123s, C-130s and the C-7s which were acquired from the Army in 1967.

Between 1962 and 1973, Military Air Transport Service/Military Airlift Command and Tactical Air Command transports airlifted more than 7 million tons — passengers and cargo — within the theater area. By comparison, Allied aircraft carried about 2 million tons during the Berlin Airlift and ¾ million tons during the Korean War. As in World War II and the Korean Conflict, tactical airlifters again proved in Vietnam that they could deliver the goods. Their success cost dearly, however, as 53 C-130s, 50 C-123s and 20 C-7s were lost along with 269 crewmembers either killed or missing in action.

Photo: Harry Heist

Sources: Office of Air Force History, USAF in Southeast Asia "Tactical Airlift"; Office of Air Force History, The Advisory Years to 1965; Office of Air Force History, USAF in Southeast Asia "The Years of the Offensive 1965-1968; MAC History Office, Anything, Anywhere, Anytime:An Illustrated History of the Military Airlift Command 1941-1991; Heist, Harry, memoirs. The C-130 Hercules, C-123 Provider and the C-7 Caribou can be seen at the AMC Museum.