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 flare ship operations. Throughout the conflict, the airlifters’ 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 air mobility within the Southeast Asian Theater. Air Force Chief of Staff, General Curtis LeMay, concluded that the lack of aerial port facilities, poor command and 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 Da Nang 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. 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, and 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 chronically overworked personnel. The seven aerial port detachments in Vietnam at the start of 1965 expanded to 35 by year’s end.
The 834th Air Division’s (and its predecessor the 315th Air Commando Group) 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 US 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 US advisors) killing two and injuring 64 Americans and 43 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 12 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 supervision of 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 delivered1,600 troops along with their equipment and ammunition. Another 1,000 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 600 C-123 sorties and included the movement of over 10,000 troops.
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 24 C-123s, each carrying twenty-four 55-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 its 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 US 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), and 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 and 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 okay.
Unlike the lieutenant stationed in hell, my Thanksgiving Day was spent at the Brink Hotel, the same place that I witnessed being blown up 11 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.
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.
I would like to thank Harry Heist for documenting the mission in which jet fuel and flares were used to bury the area’s the VC were using I was a crew member on one of the aircraft in that mission. Thanks so much. Ser ed May 1964 to May 1965.
Thanks to everyone but I found out what my problem was with C-130 landing at Da Nang May 30 1972 at 0330. It was in the wrong monthly report no wonder I couldn’t find out any thing. They had it in May 30 1971 and by luck I happened to see it going thru the internet looking for evidence. Everything it said that happened is what I recorded to the VA. So big thanks to everyone.
Just looking at this page and remembering things like the 36TAS at CCK in 1972 and our later trip through Africa transporting the war college students. Loved the closing comment from Sam McGowen below “TAC airlift was fun, MAC not so much.” So true of the transition to MAC. Remember going into MacDill as we transitioned to MAC. Checking into billeting, a MAC C-141 crew was also checking in. Their engineer got out his tape measure checked out the bed in his room and informed billeting it was not adequate. The whole C-141 crew got vouchers to go down town. Not “Little MAC” as I seem to remember we were known during and just after the transition. Called our on the road, TAC headquarters tactical airlift controllers (I forget their specific name) and complained about not being treated equally. On base rooms seemed fine to us and didn’t understand the C-141 crew’s problem. TAC higher headquarters said they felt our pain but at that point couldn’t do much about it. Things improved but the road was bumpy. Would love to talk to you. Excited to see your name.
Bob Zeman: I was stationed at Cam Ranh Bay ALCE from Aug 68-Aug69 which would have been before you got there. If you had to be somewhere, that would have been a good choice. Went TDY to Ban Me Thuot for a couple months in late 68 with a new mobile ALCE project.
I was stationed at Cam Rahm Bay with Det 2 ALCE 1971-71. Checking to see who on here might have been in the unit during that time.
Bob are you still around? I replied on 27 November 2018 but haven’t heard back from you. A buddy of mine who was stationed at CRB ALCE with me and Ban Me Thuot TDY took some video in 1969 and I do have copies. Shows ALCE and an 8mm drive around the base including the revetments and C-130s. I have very few pictures and no video other than that. I knew a Duty Officer there at CRB ALCE by that name in 68-69. Slender frame, glasses, graying hair. I’m pretty sure his name was Robert Collins. Nice guy as I remember, kind of quiet. I believe he was a Major when I knew him. Hope all is well with you.
Robert Collins is my grandfather.
My father was stationed in Don Maung, Thailand and was on an aircraft (1967) that had to make an emergency landing over Vietnam after kicking flares they lost engines on impact, to my knowledge no lives were lost. However, I am in need to find this flight number, aircraft make or any information that can be provided. I am currently trying to help him fight for VA benefits due to Agent Orange exposure that he has shown signs of. Please if anyone can help me with this I would be forever in you graces. Maps of the base in Don Maung (1967-1968) showing where building are located, where airman were housed (slept), building information of where they are located i.e. personal office, NCO, Medical, motor pool, etc.
He was there from 1967-1968
A few criticisms – first, it was in the Southwest Pacific AOA in World War II that troop carriers made their major mark. They were also active in Burma and were involved mostly in airborne operations in Western Europe. I was TDY to PACAF from TAC and served two tours in PACAF as a C-130 loadmaster. In between, I was on C-141s at Robins. I had to laugh at the way the engineers made a big deal out of going into Cam Ranh in C-141s. MAC air evacs were nothing after having a man die on your airplane then having to wash the cargo compartment out with a hose – the crew chief took one look and got sick and the fire department guy handed me the hose. When I went back to C-130s at Clark I felt like I’d come home. At Clark I was on the premier bomb crew in the wing and dropped something like 100 combined M-121 and Blu 82 bombs. I got a letter of commendation for my first drop. The FAC gave us a BDA of 100 KIA. After we dropped our two bombs, we spent the rest of the day shuttling into forward fields. I was so used to rockets and mortars that when we had attacks at Cam Ranh I never bothered to get out of bed. I became disgusted with MAC’s attitude when I was on C-141s and picked up a Charleston airplane that the idiot loadmaster had loaded with two pallets of mail for Udorn in front and two double-marrieds behind it. I tried to get MAC air freight to switch the load at Yokota because I knew there was only one 25 K-loader at Udorn. They said it wasn’t their problem. Sure enough, when we got to Udorn, I was told they only had the one K-loader and they couldn’t take the marrieds off to get to the mail. Furthermore, they had cargo for Bangkok. I ended up offloading the mail through the crew entrance door a bag at a time and no cargo for Bangkok. I wrote up a trip report but never heard anything back about it. From Clark I went to C-5s at Charleston and got there in September after the first one was delivered in June. The only place we flew in Vietnam was Cam Ranh. We were loaded down with master sergeants, most of whom had never had an overseas tour. By the time my third enlistment ended in 1975, I was so disgusted with MAC I said to hell with is and got out. TAC airlift was fun – MAC, not so much.
Was there any Air Force operations in Southeast Asia after 1975?
My father was the navigator and former roommate on the fatal 11JUN65 C-123 crash. This brief summary is the most detailed account that I have seen to date, which is frustrating and sad. Harry, thank you for your service.
Can anyone tell me best place to go to find out the flight i was on during a tactical airlift in south vietnam may 30th 1972. 834 was the main airlift providor during the timeline.
I was with the 3rd FSR, Okinawa, and left Kadena on a C-130 taking two 5 ton trucks to Da Nang and turned them over to VNMC. We went in under rocket fire but made it thru. Soon as I unloaded the trucks they took off before they got hit. There is no record of rocket attack but I know it’s real. We landed 30 May 1972 at 0330 a.m. If any one knows about this flight email me please.
A friend was stationed at Dover AFB from 1970 to 1973. He was a loadmaster on a C-141. Although he mainly flew to Europe and the Middle East, in 1971 he flew several missions to Vietnam. I would like to find some information about those flights to Vietnam in 1971, if possible. Unfortunately, he does not recall his unit. It appears to me that the 20th and 326th Military Airlift Squadrons operated C-141s. Any help would be appreciated.
My Grandfather, before he passed, said he wrote and published a tactical airlift combat operations manual between 1957-1968. I am trying to find out more about this. Anyone have any information? His name is Robert S. Collins.
The tactical airlift operations manual was Multi-command Manual 55-130. Your grandfather probably contributed to it. As I understand it, several people were involved. Bill “Bones” Blanton was one of the authors.
Was he a Major and stationed at Cam Ranh Bay ALCE in 68-69? I knew a Duty Officer there during that time.
Larry, I will have to check. He retired around ’70 as a Lt Col.
I was stationed in Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam, in 1969 and I can’t remember the squadron I was attached to. Any information would be appreciated.
14th Aerial Port was at Cam Ranh Bay, and that’s the only squadron I remember there. We flew in and out of there many times in 66-67. My only impressions of Cam Ranh were that it was a pretty big and very busy base, with no town outside the gates for a guy to go have a beer. Must have been kind of a bitch to have been stuck there for a year!!!
What were your duties? The aerial port was 14th but there were loadmasters assigned to Det. 2, 834th Air Division who flew with us in the C-130B rotational unit as second loadmasters on bomb drops.
my dad was over there, 834 air division det 1
wish i asked more questions
I am looking to locate an old friend colonel Ted Ireland who was stationed in Vung Tau Vietnam 1966 1967 he was with the USA air force