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Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Navy Base

Thailand Naval Jack (Thong Chan).svg

Part of Royal Thai Navy (RTN)
Type Naval Air Base
Coordinates Latitude:
Military Naval Air Base
Battles/wars Vietnam Service Ribbon.svg
Vietnam War
Airfield information
IATA: none – ICAO: none
Elevation AMSL 587 ft / 179 m
Coordinates 17°23′02″N 104°38′35″E / 17.38389°N 104.64306°E / 17.38389; 104.64306Coordinates: 17°23′02″N 104°38′35″E / 17.38389°N 104.64306°E / 17.38389; 104.64306

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Direction Length Surface
ft m
15/33 8,203 2,500 Asphalt

Bob Hope's 1966 Christmas Show at Nakhon Phanom

Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Navy Base (NKP), formerly Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Force Base, is a Royal Thai Navy facility used for riverine patrols along the Mekong River. It is located approximately 365 miles (584 kilometers) northeast of Bangkok, 9 miles west of Nakhon Phanom city in Nakhon Phanom Province in the Northeastern Region of Thailand, and 75 miles from Hanoi Vietnam. The Mekong River makes up NKP's border against Laos. The airfield at NKP is jointly used as a civilian airport.


Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Navy Base was established in the 1950s as a RTAF base. Political considerations with regards to Communist forces engaging in a civil war inside Laos and fears of the civil war spreading into Thailand led the Thai government to allow the United States to covertly use five Thai bases beginning in 1961 for the air defense of Thailand and to fly reconnaissance flights over Laos.

Under Thailand's "gentleman's agreement" with the United States, Royal Thai Air Force Bases used by the USAF were considered Royal Thai Air Force bases and were commanded by Thai officers. Thai air police controlled access to the bases, along with USAF Security Police, who assisted them in base defense using sentry dogs, observation towers, and machine gun bunkers. All United States Air Force personnel were fully armed after 1965.

The USAF forces at Nakhon Phanom were under the command of the United States Pacific Air Forces (PACAF).

The APO for NKP was APO San Francisco, 96310

History of the USAF at NKP


During the Vietnam War Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Force Base (NKP) was a front-line facility of the Royal Thai Air Force used by the United States in its efforts to defend South Vietnam against insurgency by North Vietnam and the Pathet Lao Communist guerillas in Laos from 1961 to 1975.

Beginning in the late 1950s, North Vietnam began to move troops into areas of eastern Laos in support of the Pathet Lao, and also as a defensive measure to protect their long transit route for men and supplies to support the insurgency in South Vietnam. In September 1959, North Vietnam formed Group 959 in Laos with the aim of building the Pathet Lao into a stronger force in its guerilla war aimed at overthrowing the Royal Lao Government. Group 959 openly supplied, trained and supported the Pathet Lao militarily.

With Thailand sharing a long common border with Laos along the Mekong River, the Thai government was increasingly concerned about the spread of a communist insurgency into Thailand, which already faced a growing insurgency of its own in that part of the country.[1] It was therefore receptive to the idea of allowing U.S. military personnel to use Thai territory for operations in support of the Lao Government, and later in support of the Republic of Vietnam.

The first American military personnel to arrive at NKP in 1962 were the U.S. Navy's Mobile Construction Battalion Three (Seabees) who undertook the task of constructing runways and raising the first buildings at the new base as part of a United States commitment under SEATO.[2] Detachment 3 (Provisional) of the Pacific Air Rescue Center with three HH-43B helicopters became the first USAF unit assigned to the base in June 1964. Followed by the 507th Tactical Control Squadron who began arriving in August 1964, with the bulk of its personnel arriving in 1964. The 5th Tactical Control Group exercised command jurisdiction over the 507th until May 1965 when the 6235th Air Base Squadron was formed. Overall control of the USAF units was then turned over to the 35th Tactical Group (now the 631st Combat Support Group) at Don Muang Airport, Thailand. On 8 April 1966 the 6235th Air Base Squadron was discontinued and the 634th Combat Support Group along with its subordinate squadrons was activated.[3] With U.S. irregular warfare operations already being conducted from the base, on 2 February 1966, the Thai government approved the establishment of a United States Air Force Air Commando unit in Thailand, using the existing USAF facilities at NKP to give the appearance that the United States was not introducing another unit into Thailand. USAF forces at NKP were under the overall command of the United States Pacific Air Forces (PACAF).

NKP initially housed USAF search and rescue forces and maintained a communications capability in support of U.S. Air Force objectives in Southeast Asia. NKP was the location of TACAN station "Channel 89" and was referenced by that identifier in voice communications during air missions. The 634th Combat Support Group was inactivated and the 56th Air Commando Wing was formed on 8 April 1967. The [606th Air Commando Squadron] formed the operational backbone of the new wing, and the 56th Combat Support Group took over the major support functions. Nearly one year later the 56th ACW designation was changed to 56th Special Operations Wing, 1 August 1968.[3]

There were a number of special operational squadrons attached to the wing over time, including the 1st, 18th, 21st, 22nd, 602nd, 606th and 609th, and a number of other operational squadrons and detachments, including the 23rd Tactical Air Support Squadron and the 554th Reconnaissance Squadron. The major operational associate units stationed at NKP were the 1987th Communications Squadron (AFCS), Det 5, 621st Tactical Control Squadron, elements of the 40th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron and Task Force Alpha (PACAF). Along with USAF Air Commando and Special Operations forces, MACV-SOG units operated out of NKP, along with Air America, Echo 31 and other clandestine organizations which used NKP as an operating base for their activities in Laos, Cambodia and North Vietnam.

56th Special Operations Wing

The lineage of the 56th Special Operations Wing goes back to the 56th Fighter Wing which was created in 1947. Redesignated the 56th Air Commando Wing, and activated on 16 March 1967, the Wing was redesignated the 56th Special Operations Wing on 1 August 1968. The USAF facility at NKP was the only one in Southeast Asia which operated entirely under the control of an Air Commando/Special Operations Wing. The official mission of the 56th was to assist United States unconventional forces and foreign government military forces friendly to the United States in various parts of Indochina.

There were no tactical fighters or bombers at NKP, only older propeller driven aircraft and specialized aircraft, some dating back to the World War II era. Some of the aircraft operating out of NKP bore civilian markings or were unmarked. In addition, the 56h SOW also worked closely with the U.S. embassies in Laos and Thailand to provide training for special air warfare units.

Squadrons of the 56th SOW

Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Force Base in the 1960s looking to the Southwest

A 609th SOS A-26K starting engines in 1969

Special Operations Squadrons

Forward Air Control Squadron

Other USAF Squadrons

United States Navy

U.S. Air Force air rescue team: Four NKP based A-1 Skyraiders and a Lockheed HC-130P Hercules recovery aircraft refueling a Sikorsky HH-3E Jolly Green Giant helicopter

Lockheed OP-2E Neptune of observation squadron VO-67 on a mission over Laos in 1967/68.

  • VO-67 (Observation Squadron Sixty-Seven), from February 1967 to July 1968, operating Lockheed OP-2E aircraft (highly modified Lockheed P-2 Neptunes), in support of the Igloo White mission implanting sensors at low levels. Tail code MR (Mud River). Unit received the Presidential Unit Citation.

Tenant Units

Decorations bestowed on the 56th SOW were:

Douglas A-1E and A-1H Skyraiders of the 1st SOS and the 602nd SOS at NKP

Major Operations Involving NKP

Operation Igloo White

Operation Igloo White was a covert United States Air Force electronic warfare operation conducted from late January 1968 until February 1973, during the Vietnam War. This state-of-the-art operation utilized electronic sensors, computers, and communications relay aircraft in an attempt to automate intelligence collection. The system would then assist in the direction of strike aircraft to their targets.

Operation Barrel Roll

Operation Barrel Roll was a covert U.S. Air Force 2nd Air Division (later the Seventh Air Force) and U.S. Navy Task Force 77, interdiction and close air support campaign conducted in the Kingdom of Laos between 14 December 1964 and 29 March 1973 concurrent with the Vietnam War. The initial purpose of the operation was to serve as a signal to the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) to cease its support for the insurgency then taking place in the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam). The operation became increasingly involved in providing close air support to Royal Lao Armed Forces, CIA-backed tribal mercenaries, and Thai Army elements in a covert ground war in northern and northeastern Laos.

Under Operation Barrel Roll, the 56th SOW sent pilots and maintenance teams once a month to Laos to work as Raven Forward Air Controllers (FACS). Their mission was to support friendly forces in northern Laos - known as the Barrel Roll area. The Ravens wore civilian clothing and were not addressed by military rank.

Operation Ivory Coast

Son Tay Raiders - 1970

NKP was one of the staging bases for the failed Son Tay POW rescue mission in November 1970. Its objective was the rescue of approximately 90 American Prisoners of War from the prison camp. While the attempted rescue itself was a failure (the prisoners had been moved some months before, and none were found at the targeted POW compound in North Vietnam), the successful demonstration of capability in Operations Ivory Coast and Kingpin was in part responsible for the creation of a joint United States Special Operations Command in 1987.

Beginning of the End

A-26 Invader of the 609th SOS, 1969

By 1971 North Vietnamese forces were fighting conventional battles in Laos as mobile, regular battalions rather than insurgent guerrilla units. The US pulled out of Laos in 1973 as part of an overall peace and disengagement plan. North Vietnam ignored the agreement and retained its army in Laos. The national government was forced to accept the Pathet Lao into the government.[4]

In 1975, North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao forces began attacking government strongholds. A deal was eventually brokered that gave power to the Pathet Lao to save the government from total destruction. Pathet Lao troops marched into Vientiane on 1 May and simply took over the government.

Palace Lightning - USAF Withdrawal

With the collapse in Laos and the fall of both Cambodia and South Vietnam in the spring of 1975, the political climate between Washington and Bangkok began to sour, and the Thai Government demanded that the U.S. remove the bulk of its forces out of Thailand by the end of the year. Under operation Palace Lightning, the USAF began to withdraw its aircraft and personnel from Thailand. On 30 June 1975 the 56th Special Operations Wing was inactivated and the 656th Special Operations Wing was activated as a placeholder unit at NKP until the USAF could complete its withdrawal. The Search and Rescue units were among the last to leave the country. The 3rd Air Rescue and Recovery Group lowered its flag on 31 January 1976 and NKP was turned over to the Thai government.

Major USAF Units at Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Force Base

Major USAF Aircraft Assigned to NKP

Additional "civilian" aircraft operated from NKP were the Cessna 185, Cessna Skymaster, Pilatus PC-6, Helio Courier, de Havilland DHC-4 and Douglas DC-3.

Accidents and incidents

  • On 21 November 1972, a Douglas EC-47Q, AF Ser. No. 43-49771 of the United States Air Force crashed killing two of the 10 people on board.[5] The aircraft was operated by the 361st Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron, United States Air Force. It had flown a tactical mission under the callsign "Baron 56", and had taken off at about 10:44 local time (03:44 UTC). At 17:00, the aircraft was returning from the mission when it bounced on landing and started to depart the left side of the runway. The pilot over-corrected, causing the aircraft to depart to the right of the runway. Although a go-around was initiated, the aircraft impacted trees damaging the port propellor. The co-pilot considered that the starboard engine was failing and that engine's propellor was feathered. The aircraft then crashed into another bank of trees 2 nautical miles (3.7 km) beyond the end of the runway. The wrecked aircraft was consumed in the post-crash fire.[6]

The Mayaguez Incident

  • On May 13, 1975 General Burns and his Seventh Air Force staff developed a contingency plan to retake the Mayaguez using an assault force composed of men of the 56th Security Police Squadron, Nakhon Phanom. 75 volunteers from the 56th would be dropped onto the containers on the decks of the Mayaguez on the morning of 14 May. In preparation for this assault 5 HH-53s and 7 CH-53s were ordered to proceed to U-Tapao Royal Thai Navy Airfield for staging[30]. At approximately 21:30, one of the 21st SOS CH-53s (AF Ser. No. 68-10933, call sign Knife 13) crashed, killing 18 security police and the five man flight crew.

See also


  1. Thailand.
  2. First Hand Account(November 1962)by Assistant Alpha Company Commander Ltjg. George W. Fowler (with pictures)
  3. 3.0 3.1 ://
  4. See generally William J. Duiker, The Communist Road to Power in Vietnam (1981). See also Henry A. Kissinger, Years of Upheaval(1982); Henry A. Kissinger, Years of Renewal (1999).
  5. "43-49771 Accident description". Aviation Safety Network. Retrieved 7 September 2010. 
  6. "EC-47 43-49771 Crashed on Takeoff November 21, 1972". EC-47. Retrieved 9 September 2010. 

Other sources

  •  This article incorporates public domain material from the Air Force Historical Research Agency website
  • Endicott, Judy G. (1999) Active Air Force wings as of 1 October 1995; USAF active flying, space, and missile squadrons as of 1 October 1995. Maxwell AFB, Alabama: Office of Air Force History. CD-ROM.
  • Glasser, Jeffrey D. (1998). The Secret Vietnam War: The United States Air Force in Thailand, 1961-1975. McFarland & Company. ISBN 0-7864-0084-6.
  • Martin, Patrick (1994). Tail Code: The Complete History of USAF Tactical Aircraft Tail Code Markings. Schiffer Military Aviation History. ISBN 0-88740-513-4.
  • Ravenstein, Charles A. (1984). Air Force Combat Wings Lineage and Honors Histories 1947-1977. Maxwell AFB, Alabama: Office of Air Force History. ISBN 0-912799-12-9.
  • Robbins, Christopher (1985) Air America. Avon, ISBN 0-380-89909-4
  • Robbins, Christopher (1987) The Ravens: Pilots of the Secret War in Laos. Crown, ISBN 0-517-56612-5
  • Warner, Roger (1998) Shooting at the Moon: The Story of America's Clandestine War in Laos. Steerforth, ISBN 1-883642-36-1
  • Airport information for VTUW at World Aero Data. Data current as of October 2006.

External links

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