In February 1965, the allied war situation in South Vietnam was in serious disarray. Conditions grew worse in the central provinces where, according to MACV (Military Assistance Command, Vietnam) staff assessments, the Viet Cong had virtual control of large areas. Overland routes from the coast to Pleiku and Kontum remained blocked as well as the coastal road above Nha Trang. Although Viet Cong movements were largely screened from the allies, three North Vietnamese regiments began gradual shifts southward through the hill country north and east of Pleiku. As the crisis deepened, Air Force C-123 Providers were called upon repeatedly to lift supplies over routes normally served by road, to haul in reinforcements and to provide flareship support for posts under attack. To the American transport aircrews the urgency of their missions was obvious.
Airlift became more crucial with the intensified communist attacks starting in May. In late spring, in three separate operations, C-123s moved relief forces to Phuoc Binh, Dong Xoai and Quang Ngai in response to enemy attacks. More dramatic was the three-day airlift into Cheo Reo southeast of Pleiku, which began with a tactical emergency operation on the evening of June 30th.
Following a normal day of in-country airlift (normal for Vietnam) a call came into our office at Tan Son Nhut at about 1600 hours (4:00 pm local time) requesting an all out effort for assistance in supplying a South Vietnamese airborne unit which was heavily engaged with North Vietnamese forces in the vicinity of Cheo Reo. (Normally the day’s C-123 airlift operations would be terminated before dark as operations were VFR (visual flight rules) due to the country’s mountainous terrain and limited navigational aids aboard the C-123s.) The transports landed into the night using flareship illumination and makeshift runway lighting. In the initial four hours, a C-123 landed every eight minutes and the fleet delivered sixteen hundred troops with their equipment and ammunition. Radio communications for air traffic control were lacking until the arrival of combat control team personnel the second day. Another 1,000 men were airlifted into Cheo Reo over the next two days along with 290 tons of cargo. Offshore C-130 Hercules were called in to assist in the operation and hauled in 105mm artillery and small arms ammunition from Pleiku. On July 4th and 5th, the airborne unit was extracted to Pleiku and Kontum principally by the C-123s.
Immediately following the Cheo Reo operation, an air movement began to 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.
Meanwhile, the closing of Highway 19 between the coast and Pleiku necessitated continued air resupply into Pleiku and entailed over two-hundred C-130 sorties from Qui Nhon during June. Road convoys in mid-July eventually punched through to Pleiku after a clearing operation by fourteen South Vietnamese battalions with the assistance of C-130 and C-123 transport of men and material. These and other airlifts provided the margin that permitted the Vietnamese to hold their own during this critical period.
In 1965, stationed at Tan Son Nhut Air Base in Saigon, I, along with a C-130 pilot, an operations officer and several enlisted personnel were responsible for the day-to-day scheduling, controlling and flight following all of the 315th Air Commando Group’s tactical airlift throughout Vietnam and the Southeast Asian Theater. The critical airlifts into Cheo Reo and Pleiku would be but two of the many in which we would be involved.
Source: Office of Air Force History, The United States Air Force in Southeast Asia “Tactical Airlift”.
The Vietnamese Airborne units involved at Cheo Reo were the 1st and 5th Battalions. They had been convoying toward Pleiku when they ran into a VC regiment and engaged in a fierce daylong fight before the enemy withdrew. A USAF Forward Air Controller detachment, call sign Red Marker, supported the Airborne wherever it deployed in-country. During this battle, a Red Marker FAC, Captain Paul R. “Windy” Windell, was shot down and killed. Shortly before Windy was shot down, a radio operator on the ground, A1C James C. “Jim” Henneberry, TDY to the Red Markers was killed in the fighting. These were the first two losses to the detachment.
A July engagement at Duc Co west of Pleiku involved the 3rd and 8th Vietnamese Airborne Battalions, later joined by the 5th. A replacement Red Marker FAC, Captain Joseph S. “Duke” Granducci, II, directed close air support for that operation. During a week that Duc Co was isolated and resupplied only by air, a C-123 landed at the dirt strip outside the Duc Co Special Forces Camp. It off loaded supplies and ammo and took on wounded troopers. The aircraft was damaged by mortar fire while on the ground but managed to get in the air. It limped back to Tan Son Nhut. According to an eyewitness report from an Army advisor to the Airborne, tower cleared the C-123 with its nose gear inoperative and loading ramp jammed to land on a taxiway, thus not tying up an active runway. The pilot brought it in safely. The aircraft may have been serial number 54-631 (tail number 40631).
I have been trying to confirm the C-123 incident in official Air Force records, but have not been successful to date.
Source: Contemporary report from the US Army advisors to the Airborne (MACV Advisory Team 162), and eyewitness account related in 2016.