Part of South Vietnamese Air Force (VNAF)|
Pacific Air Forces (USAF)
Tan Son Nhut Air Base - June 1968
|Type||Air Force Base|
|Joint Civil/Military Airport|
|IATA: none – ICAO: none|
|Elevation AMSL||33 ft / 10 m|
Tan Son Nhut Air Base (Vietnamese language: Căn cứ không quân Tân Sơn Nhứt ) (1955–1975) was a Republic of Vietnam Air Force (VNAF) facility. It is located near the city of Saigon in southern Vietnam. The United States used it as a major base during the Vietnam War (1959–1975), stationing Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine units there. Following the Fall of Saigon, it was taken over as a Vietnam People's Air Force (VPAF) facility and remains in use today.
Tan Son Nhut International Airport, (IATA: SGN, ICAO: VVTS) has been a major Vietnamese civil airport since the 1920s.
Tan Son Nhat Airport was built by the French in the 1920s when the French Colonial government of Indochina constructed a small unpaved airport, known as Tan Son Nhat Airfield, in the village of Tan Son Nhat to serve as Saigon's commercial airport. Flights to and from France, as well as within Southeast Asia were available prior to World War II. During World War II, the Imperial Japanese Army used Tan Son Nhat as a transport base. When Japan surrendered in August 1945, the French Air Force flew a contingent of 150 troops into Tan Son Nhat.
After World War II, Ton Son Nhat served domestic as well as international flights from Saigon. In 1952, the French Air Force moved the 312th Special Mission Squadron to TSN from Nha Trang Air Base, consisting of French Douglas C-47 Skytrains and Beechcraft Model 18s for carrying cargo and military passengers to support French forces.
VNAF use of Tan Son Nhut Air Base
In 1953, Tan Son Nhut started being used as a military air base for the fledgling Vietnamese Armée de l'Air (VALA) (Air Department). However, it was not until 1956 that the headquarters for the VALA was moved from the center of Saigon to Tan Son Nhut Air Base. But even before that time, French and Vietnamese military aircraft were always in evidence at Tan Son Nhut.
On 1 July 1955, the VNAF was established as a separate and distinct military unit. The VNAF consisted of 58 aircraft and about 1,300 personnel. The French had made no effort to expand the SVNAF to a force able to defend South Vietnam. Aircraft consisted primarily of C-47 Skytrains, and Grumman F8F Bearcats. In May 1956, by agreement with the South Vietnamese government, the United States Air Force assumed some training and administrative roles of the VNAF. Teams from Clark Air Force Base began in 1957 to organize the VNAF into a model of the USAF when the French training contracts expired.
By 1960, Tan Son Nhut Air Base was growing with more and more VNAF aircraft arriving from the United States such as North American T-6 Texans, Douglas A-1 Skyraiders, Cessna L-19 (O-1) Bird Dogs, and Sikorsky H-19 Helicopters.
Starting in the early 1960s, the build-up of the VNAF caused air units to became very visible on the base. On 4 January 1964, the VNAF 3311th Wing was organized at Tan Son Nhut, and the number of air units grew rapidly. By the mid-1960s, Tan Son Nhut Airport was reported as the busiest airport in the world, with a mix of air traffic that approached chaotic proportions.
Command and Control Center, use in coups
As the headquarters for the South Vietnamese Air Force, Tan Son Nhut was primarily a command base, with most operational units using nearby Bien Hoa Air Base.
At Tan Son Nhut, the VNAF's system of command and control was developed over the years with assistance from the USAF. The system handled the flow of aircraft from take-off to target area, and return to the base it was launched from. This was known as the Tactical Air Control System (TACS), and it assured positive control of all areas where significant combat operations were performed. Without this system, it would not have been possible for the VNAF to deploy its forces effectively where needed.
The TACS was in close proximity to the headquarters of the VNAF and USAF forces in South Vietnam, and commanders of both Air Forces utilized its facilities. Subordinate to TACS was the Direct Air Support Centers (DASC) assigned to each of corps areas (I DASC - Da Nang Air Base, DASC Alpha - Nha Trang Air Base, II DASC - Pleiku Air Base, III DASC - Bien Hoa Air Base, and IV DASC - Cần Thơ Air Base). DASCs were responsible for the deployment of aircraft located within their sector in support of ground operations.
Operating under each DASC were numerous Tactical Air Control Party (TACPs), manned by one or more VNAF/USAF personnel posted with the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) ground forces. A communications network inked these three levels of command and control, giving the TACS overall control of the South Vietnamese air situation at all times.
Additional information was provided by a radar network that covered all of South Vietnam and beyond, monitoring all strike aircraft.
Another function of Tan Son Nhut Air Base was a South Vietnamese Air Force recruiting center.
The base was the headquarters of the Joint General Staff of South Vietnam, and was a key venue in various military coups, particularly the 1963 coup that deposed the nation's first President Ngo Dinh Diem. The plotters invited loyalist officers to a routine lunch meeting at JGS and captured them in the afternoon of November 1, 1963. The most notable was Colonel Le Quang Tung, loyalist commnander of the ARVN Special Forces, which was effectively a private Ngo family army, and his brother and deputy, Le Quảng Trịeu. Later, Captain Nguyen Van Nhung, bodyguard of coup leader General Duong Van Minh, shot the brothers into their graves on the edge of the base.
1968 Tet Offensive
Tan Son Nhut Air Base was the target of major communist attacks during the 1968 Tet Offensive. The attack began early on 30 January with greater severity than anyone had expected. When the communists attacked much of the VNAF was on leave to be with their families during the lunar new year. An immediate recall was issued, and within 72 hours, 90 percent of the VNAF was on duty.
The first enemy rounds that hit Tan Son Nhut Air Base struck at approximately 2 a.m. on 30 January. The chapel on the base was one of the early direct hits. The base was under the command of Air Force Colonel Farley Peebles.
If not for the work of the United States Air Force 377th Security Police Squadron and members of the U.S. Army's 3/4 cavalry, in the early hours of the attack the entire base may have been in danger. Four USAF Security Policemen lost their lives at Bunker 051; those four and two other Combat Security Police members received the Silver Star for their valor. The Security Police, despite being outnumbered, with help from the United States Army Helicopter and ground units, killed nearly 1,000 enemy combatants. The base was secured by American and ARVN/VNAF forces by 12 noon on 31 January 1968.
Over the next three weeks, the VNAF flew over 1,300 strike sorties, bombing and strafing communist positions throughout South Vietnam. Transport aircraft from Tan Son Nhut's 33d Wing dropped almost 15,000 flares in 12 nights, compared with a normal monthly average of 10,000. Observation aircraft also from Tan Son Nhut completed almost 700 reconnaissance sorties, with VNAF pilots flying O-1 Bird Dogs and U-17 Skywagons.
Vietnamization and the 1972 Spring Offensive
In 1970, with American units leaving the country, the VNAF transport fleet was greatly increased at Tan Son Nhut. The VNAF 33d and 53d Tactical Wings were established flying Fairchild C-123 Providers, C-47s and De Havilland C-7A Caribous.
At the end of 1971, the VNAF were totally in control of command and control units at eight major air bases, supporting ARVN units for the expanded air-ground operations system. In September 1971, the USAF transferred two Fairchild C-119 squadrons to the VNAF at Tan Son Nhut.
In 1972, the buildup of the VNAF at Tan Son Nhut was expanded when two Lockheed C-130 Hercules squadrons were formed there. In December, the first VNAF C-130 training facility was established at Tan Son Nhut, enabling the South Vietnamese to train its own Hercules pilots. As more C-130s were transferred to the VNAF, older C-123s were returned to the USAF for disposal.
As the buildup of the VNAF continued, the success of the Vietnamization program was evident during the 1972 Spring Offensive. Responding to the communist attack, the VNAF flew more than 20,000 strike sorties which helped to stem the communist advance. In the first month of the offensive, transports from Tan Son Nhut ferried thousands of troops and delivered nearly 4,000 tons of supplies throughout the country.
The spring offensive also resulted in additional deliveries of aircraft to the VNAF under Project Enhance. New VNAF units came about with the introduction of Fairchild C-119K gunships at Tan Son Nhut, along with Boeing CH-47 helicopters, along with additional C-130 transports and numerous O-1 and O-2 observation aircraft.
Also, fighter aircraft arrived at Tan Son Nhut for the first time in the Northrup F-5A/B Freedom Fighter and the F-5E Tiger II. The F-5s were subsequently transferred to Bien Hoa and Da Nang Air Bases.
The Paris Peace Accords of 1973 brought an end to the United States advisory capacity in South Vietnam. In its place, as part of the agreement, the Americans retained a Defense Attaché Office (DAO) at Tan Son Nhut Air Base, with small field offices at other facilities around the country. The technical assistance provided by the personnel of the DAOs and by civilian contractors was essential to the VNAF, however, because of the cease-fire agreement, the South Vietnamese could not be advised in any way on military operations, tactics or techniques of employment.
It was through the DAO that the American/South Vietnamese relationship was maintained, and it was primarily from this source that information from within South Vietnam was obtained. The VNAF provided statistics with regards to the military capability of their units to the DAO, however the accuracy of this information was not always reliable.
From the Spring Offensive of 1972, it was clear that without United States aid, especially air support, the ARVN would not be able to defend itself against continuing communist attacks. This was demonstrated at the fighting around Pleiku, An Lộc and Quảng Trị where the ARVN would have been defeated without continuous air support, mainly supplied by the USAF.
The ARVN relied heavily on air support, and with the absence of the USAF, the full responsibility fell on the VNAF. Although equipped with large numbers of A-37 and F-5 attack aircraft, to conduct effective close air support operations, during the 1972 offensive the USAF relied on the heavier McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II supporting ARVN forces dealing with those targets.
Numerous violations of the Paris Peace Accords were committed by communists beginning almost as soon as the United States withdrew its last personnel from South Vietnam by the end of March 1973. The North Vietnamese and the Provisional Revolutionary Government of South Vietnam continued their attempt to overthrow President Nguyễn Văn Thiệu and remove the U.S.-supported government. North Vietnamese military forces broke the treaty, and conquered South Vietnam in their Ho Chi Minh Campaign. The U.S. had promised Thieu that it would use airpower to support his government. On January 14, 1975 Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger stated that the U.S. was not living up to its promise that it would retaliate in the event North Vietnam tried to overwhelm South Vietnam.
When North Vietnam invaded in March 1975, the promised American intervention never materialized. Congress reflected the popular mood, halting the bombing in Cambodia effective July 15, 1973, and reducing aid to South Vietnam. Since Thieu intended to fight the same kind of war he always had, with lavish use of firepower, the cuts in aid proved especially damaging.
Capture of Tan Son Nhut Air Base
In early 1975 North Vietnam realized the time was right to achieve its goal of re-uniting Vietnam under communist rule, launched a series of small ground attacks to test U.S. reaction.
On 8 January the North Vietnamese Politburo ordered a major People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN) offensive to "liberate" South Vietnam by NVA cross-border invasion. The NVA general staff plan for the invasion of South Vietnam called for 20 divisions because, by 1975, the Soviet-supplied North Vietnamese Army was the fifth largest in the world. It anticipated a two-year struggle for victory.
By 14 March, South Vietnamese President Nguyễn Văn Thiệu decided to abandon the Central Highlands region and two northern provinces of South Vietnam and ordered a general withdrawal of ARVN forces from those areas. Instead of an orderly withdrawal, it turned into a general retreat, with masses of military and civilians fleeing, clogging roads and creating chaos.
On 30 March 100,000 South Vietnamese soldiers surrendered after being abandoned by their commanding officers. The large coastal cities of Da Nang, Qui Nhơn, Tuy Hòa and Nha Trang were abandoned by the South Vietnamese, yielding the entire northern half of South Vietnam to the North Vietnamese.
As the war in South Vietnam entered its conclusion, the pilots of the VNAF flew sortie after sortie, supporting the retreating South Vietnamese Army after it abandoned Cam Ranh Bay on 14 April. For two days after the ARVN left the area, the Wing Commander at Phan Rang Air Base fought on with the forces under his command. Airborne troops were sent in for one last attempt to hold the airfield, but the defenders were finally overrun on 16 April and Phan Rang Air Base was lost.
On 22 April Xuan Loc fell to the communists after a two-week battle with South Vietnam's 18th Army Division which inflicted over 5000 NVA casualties and delayed the Ho Chi Minh Campaign for two weeks. With the fall of Xuan Loc and the capture of Bien Hoa Air Base in late April 1975 it was clear that South Vietnam was about to fall to the North Vietnamese Army.
At dusk on 28 April, three captured A-37s, flown from the former VNAF Phan Rang Air Base bombed Tan Son Nhut destroying a number of aircraft on the flight line. There are conflicting stories about who was actually flying these aircraft. One source insists they were VNAF pilots who were communists, another says they were VNAF pilots who were forced to fly the mission in return for the safety of their families, and NVA General Van Tien Dung claimed the A-37s were flown by North Vietnamese Air Force pilots.
Whatever the case, the A-37s escaped. despite being pursued by several VNAF F-5s. Although the physical damage to Ton Son Nhut was not extensive, the threat of further air strikes eliminated Tan Son Nhut AB for fixed-wing evacuation flights, further lowering what little morale remained in the capital.
Saigon was now surrounded by thirteen NVA divisions and most Vietnamese realized it was only a matter of time until the entire country was in communist hands. On 29 April President Gerald Ford ordered Operation Frequent Wind, the helicopter evacuation of Saigon.
Vietnamese pilots now began flying themselves and their families out of the country in anything that could get off the ground. Some headed for the American rescue fleet just off the coast, while others flew to Thailand. On 30 April the last desperate combat sorties flown by the VNAF were carried out in defense of Tan Son Nhut. An AC-119 Shadow gunship, which had spent the night defending the base perimeter, landed for fuel and ammunition. After refueling and rearming, the Shadow took off again. The gunship orbited the air base firing on advancing NVA troops and was soon joined by a pair of A-1s. The Skyraiders made repeated runs over NVA positions until NVA gunners downed one with a SA-7. The second A-1 pilot continued his attacks until his fuel and ordnance were used up. All the while, the AC-119 kept its fire directed on advancing enemy forces.
About 7:00 AM the Shadow was hit by an SA-7 and fell in flames. Three crewmen managed to bail out, but one chute became entangled in the debris and the airman killed.
In the final evacuation, over a hundred VNAF aircraft arrived in Thailand, including twenty-six F-5s, eight A-37s. eleven A-1s, six C-130s. thirteen C-47s, five C-7s, and three AC-119s. Additionally close to 100 VNAF helicopters landed on U.S. ships off the coast, although at least half were jettisoned. One O-1 managed to land on the USS Midway, carrying a South Vietnamese major, his wife, and five children. On 30 April 1975, Saigon fell and all remaining South Vietnamese forces were ordered to surrender.
For the VNAF thirty-five long years of war had come to an end. Following the war, Tan Son Nhut Air Base was taken over as a base for the Vietnam People's Air Force.
Known SVNAF units at Tan Son Nhut (June 1974)
Tan Son Nhut Air Base was the Headquarters of the South Vietnamese Air Force. It was also the headquarters of the SVNAF 5th Air Division.
- 33d Tactical Wing
- 314th Special Air Missions SquadronVC-47, U-17, UH-1, DC-6B
- 716th Reconnaissance Squadron R/EC-47, U-6A
- 718th Reconnaissance Squadron EC-47
- 429th Transport Squadron C-7B
- 431st Transport Squadron C-7B
- Det H 259th Helicopter Squadron Bell UH-1H (Medivac)
- 53d Tactical Wing
- 819th Combat Squadron AC-119G
- 821st Combat Squadron AC-119G
- 435th Transport Squadron C-130A
- 437th Transport Squadron C-130A
Use of Tan Son Nhut Air Base by the United States
During the Vietnam War (or Second Indochina War), Tan Son Nhut Air Base (then using the alternative spelling "Tân Sơn Nhứt") was an important facility for both the US Air Force and the VNAF. Tan Son Nhut Air Base served as the focal point for the initial United States Air Force deployment and buildup in South Vietnam in the early 1960s. After 1966, with the establishment of the 7th Air Force as the main USAF Command and Control Headquarters in South Vietnam, Tan Son Nhut functioned as a Headquarters base, a Tactical Reconnaissance base, and as a Special Operations base, focusing on areal defoliation (Operation Ranch Hand). With the drawdown of US forces in South Vietnam after 1971, the base took on a myriad of organizations transferred from deactivated bases in the country.
Between 1968 and 1974, Tan Son Nhut Airport was one of the busiest military airbases in the world. During the last days of South Vietnam, Pan Am schedules from 1973 showed Boeing 747 service was being operated four times a week to San Francisco via Guam and Manila. Continental Airlines operated up to 30 Boeing 707 military charters per week to and from Tan Son Nhut Airport during the 1968-74 period.
It was from Tan Son Nhut Air Base that the last U.S. Airman left South Vietnam in March, 1973. The Air Force Post Office (APO) for Tan Son Nhut Air Base was APO San Francisco, 96307.
Military Assistance Advisory Group
In September 1961, the first permanent United States Air Force (USAF) unit, the 507th Tactical Control Group from Shaw Air Force Base South Carolina deployed sixty-seven officers and airmen to Tan Son Nhut to install radars and began monitoring air traffic and training of South Vietnamese Air Force (VNAF) personnel to operate and service the equipment. This organization formed the nucleus of what became a tactical air control system for a vast fleet of South Vietnamese and American aircraft.
Tactical Reconnaissance Mission
During October 1961, four RF-101Cs and a photo processing unit from the 15th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron of the 67th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing, based at Yokota AB Japan, arrived at Tan Son Nhut and joined the combat reporting post, with the reconnaissance craft flying photographic missions over South Vietnam and Laos within a few days of their arrival.
The RF-101C was the only Voodoo version to serve in Vietnam. The 67th TRW was soon followed by detachments of the 15th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron of the 18th Tactical Fighter Wing, based at Kadena AB, Okinawa, which also flew RF-101 reconnaissance missions over Laos and South Vietnam, first from bases in Thailand and then from South Vietnam. These reconnaissance missions lasted from November 1961 through the spring of 1964.
RF-101Cs flew pathfinder missions for F-100s in the first USAF strike against North Vietnam on February 8, 1965. They initially operated out of South Vietnam, but later flew most of their missions over North Vietnam out of Takhli RTAFB, Thailand. Bombing missions against the North required a large amount of photographic reconnaissance support, and by the end of 1967, all but one of the Tactical Air Command RF-101C squadrons were deployed to Southeast Asia.
The reconnaissance Voodoos at Ton Son Nuht were incorporated into the 460th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing in February 1966. 33 RF-101Cs were lost in combat in Southeast Asia—24 to Anti-aircraft artillery and small arms fire, 5 to Surface-to-air missiles, one to a MiG-21, one in a sapper attack on its base at Tan Son Nhut AB, and two to unknown causes. Six were lost in operational (non-combat related) accidents while serving in Southeast Asia. More than 30 RF-101Cs were lost in accidents during their early years of service, mainly due to pilot inexperience.
The last 45th TRS RF-101C left Tan Son Nhut on November 16, 1970, bringing the era of Voodoo participation in the Southeast Asia War to an end.
During January 1962 a detachment of a dozen Fairchild C-123 Provider transports arrived in South Vietnam to provide tactical airlift support for South Vietnam's hard-pressed ground troops. Called "Mule Train", its primary purpose was to give the ground forces an assault capability via airdrop or insertion. Yet the unit also saw a great need for logistic support entailing daily delivery of supplies to remote sites in Vietnam.
On 13 November 1961, U.S. President John F. Kennedy approved a recommendation to increase the mobility of South Vietnam's hard-pressed military. The White House authorized the Air Force to deploy a squadron of Air Force C-123 Providers and 40 Army H-21 Shawnee helicopters to assist South Vietnam's forces. On Dec. 6, the Defense Department ordered the 346th Troop Carrier Squadron (Assault) to the Far East for 120 days TDY "to participate in a classified training mission" in the official jargon of the day. A second Mule Train squadron, the 777th Troop Carrier Squadron (Assault), arrived in South Vietnam on June 15, 1962. Eventually, both squadrons were placed under the 315th Air Commando Wing.
Most sources fix Jan. 2, 1962, as the date that the initial group of aircraft arrived at Tan Son Nhut AB in South Vietnam. All of the initial Mule Train missions were dedicated to carrying cargo. One-hundred-kilo sacks of rice were a major item, and at least one pilot over-grossed his aircraft by figuring them in at 100 pounds. The most typical commodities were live ducks, chickens, pigs, and cows, packed in locally made pens of wood and, when necessary, parachuted into the outlying camps. Mule Train aircraft also transported many Vietnamese natives. On more than one occasion, a Mule Train crew would smell smoke in the aircraft and find a traveler cooking food in the aircraft's cargo compartment.
There was no pretense that this was a South Vietnamese cargo operation, nor was there any training of Vietnamese for the task. Vietnamese were employed as "kickers" to move the cargo out the rear on re-supply drop. The C-123 was a relatively simple and rugged aircraft. Its systems could take the heat and humidity of Vietnam better than more sophisticated aircraft. Tough landing gear and glider-strong fuselage could take the rough landings on short airfields, where stopping depended upon a slow approach, touching down on the edge of the airstrip, then full reverse and a steady, heavy foot on the anti-skid brakes.
Soon, the Mule Train route structure became linked to the hard-surface runways at Da Nang, Tan Son Nhut, Nha Trang, Bien Hoa, Pleiku, Ban Me Thuot, Huế, Da Lat, Sóc Trăng, Qui Nhơn, and Vũng Tàu. Virtually every Mule Train sortie began or ended at one of these airfields, but intermediate stops could be anywhere.
Two C-123 aircraft were maintained at Da Nang to support northern outposts. The Mule Train crews were experienced in assault work, but they had to improvise for conditions in Vietnam. It was difficult to decide exactly where to drop paratroops over the rough terrain, and much depended upon the map-reading ability of the crew.
The die was cast on June 28, 1962, when 16 C-123s and 12 South Vietnamese C-47s dropped paratroops under adverse weather conditions about 35 miles north of Saigon. The operation went off well despite a 500-foot ceiling.
On other occasions, the C-123s would load up troops from the South Vietnamese airborne brigade in Saigon to fly to the relief of a village that had come under attack. Over the village, the C-123 pilot would reduce power, drop flaps, and spiral down to the drop altitude and give the paratroopers a green light to jump.
At times, C-123 crews were uncomfortable with the assault role. South Vietnamese Special Forces were sometimes capricious about when and where they would fight. Straight cargo operations were hazardous enough, especially during the monsoon season when South Vietnamese troops were socked in in the mountainous valleys. To execute the mission, the C-123s would line up in a proper direction, let down in the undercast, and if they did not break out by a given altitude, would climb back up. There were usually 800-foot ceilings in the valleys, and most of the time they broke out.
Mule Train missions during 1962 became extremely diverse, with the C-123s serving in roles ranging from duck delivery to napalm bombing. In the latter role, the Provider carried nine wooden pallets, each holding three 55-gallon drums of napalm mixed with gasoline. With a good kicker, the load could go out the back ramp in less than five seconds and leave a pattern of flame 1,200 feet long.
In October 1962, there began what became known as the Southeast Asia Airlift System. Requirements were forecast out to 25 days, and these requirements were matched against available resources. The 315th Troop Carrier Group and 8th Aerial Port Squadron came into being and set the stage for tighter control of airlift operations. The era of the Mule Train operation was over. It left behind a record of success and a collection of procedures and techniques for cargo work in Southeast Asia.
The Dirty Thirty
Additional USAF personnel arrived at Tan Son Nhut in early 1962 after the VNAF transferred two dozen seasoned pilots from the 1st Transportation Group at Tan Son Nhut to provide aircrews for the newly activated 2nd Fighter Squadron then undergoing training at Bien Hoa Air Base. This sudden loss of qualified C-47 pilots brought the 1st Transportation Group's airlift capability dangerously low.
In order to alleviate the problem, United States Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, on the recommendation of the Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG) Vietnam, ordered thirty USAF pilots temporarily assigned to the VNAF to serve as C-47 co-pilots. This influx of U.S. personnel quickly returned the 1st TG to full strength.
The Americans arrived at Tan Son Nhut during March and April 1962 and immediately began flying with Vietnamese crews. Unfortunately, problems arose between the Americans and Vietnamese and by August the situation had so deteriorated that the 1st Transportation Group commander. Nguyen Cao Ky urgently appealed for closer cooperation and understanding between the two groups. The situation seemed to gradually improve and although there were still problems, the two groups developed a closer working relationship.
Unlike the USAF Farm Gate personnel at Bien Hoa Air Base, the C-47 co-pilots actually became part of the VNAF operational structure - though still under U.S. control. Because of their rather unusual situation, these pilots soon adopted the very unofficial nickname, The Dirty Thirty.
In a sense they were the first U.S. airmen actually committed to combat in Vietnam, rather than being assigned as advisors or support personnel.
The original Dirty Thirty pilots eventually rotated home during early 1963 and were replaced by a second contingent of American pilots. This detachment remained with the VNAF until December 1963 when they were withdrawn from Vietnam.
509th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron
Starting in 1962, the 509th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron began rotating Convair F-102A Delta Dagger interceptors to Tan Son Nhut Air Base on a rotating basis to provide air defense of the Saigon area in the event of a North Vietnamese air attack. These rotations from Clark ended in July 1970.
F-102's and TF-102's (two seat trainer version)were deployed to Tan Son Nhut initially because ground radar sites frequently painted small aircraft penetrating South Vietnamese airspace from the north. To determine if the unknown aircraft were infiltrators, drug smugglers or tourists, the F-102's were put on air defense alert, ready to scramble, intercept and identify the unknown, light aircraft that were crossing into South Vietnam.
The F-102, a supersonic, high altitude fighter interceptor designed to intercept Soviet bombers was given the mission of intercepting,identifying and, if necessary, destroying small aircraft, flying from tree top level to 2000 ft at speeds less than the final approach landing speed of the F-102. The TF-102, employing two pilots with one acting solely as radar intercept operator, was considered to be safer and more efficient as a low altitude interceptor.
Before the rotation ended in July 1970, pilots and F-102 aircraft from other Far East squadrons were used in the deployment. F-102's were also deployed to DaNang on a temporary basis.
33d Tactical Group
Its mission was to maintain and operate base support facilities at Tan Son Nhut, supporting the 2d Air Division and subordinate units by performing reconnaissance of Vietnam from various detachments flying RB-26 Invaders, RB-57 Canberras, and RF-101 Voodoo aircraft.
The early months of 1964 were a time of expansion, training, and comparative quiet. By midyear, the South Vietnamese Air Force had grown to thirteen squadrons; four fighter, four observation, three helicopter, and two C-47 transport. The South Vietnamese followed the practice of the U.S. Air Force, organizing the squadrons into wings, with one wing located in each of the four corps tactical zones at Cần Thơ Air Base, Tan Son Nhut Air Base, Pleiku Air Base, and Da Nang Air Base
After the Tonkin Gulf incident, the USAF response was to deploy twelve F-102 Delta Dagger air defense interceptor aircraft, their number divided between Tan Son Nhut and at Da Nang Air Base. In addition, eight F-100 Super Sabres joined the F-102s at Da Nang, and two squadrons of B-57 Canberra light bombers landed at Bien Hoa Air Base.
Patricia Lynn Project
The need for additional reconnaissance assets, especially those capable of operating at night, led to a classified strategic reconnaissance project which began in May 1963. Earlier that year, the Air Force awarded the General Dynamics company a contract to modify two B-57E Canberras (55-4243, 55-4245) as all-weather high-altitude strategic reconnaissance aircraft.
General Dynamics was chosen to make modifications to the B-57E as it had extensive experience in modifying Canberras with the RB-57D and RB-57F projects and turning the B-57 into a high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft equipped with various electronic and imagery equipment. The forward nose section of the B-57Es were modified to house a KA-1 36-inch forward oblique camera and a low panoramic KA-56 camera used on the Lockheed U-2. Mounted inside the specially-configured bomb bay door was a KA-1 vertical camera, a K-477 split vertical day-night camera, an infrared scanner, and a KA-1 left oblique camera. The modified aircraft were redesignated RB-57E.
The 2d Air Division was desperate for tactical intelligence and on arrival the pilots that ferried in the RB-57Es were immediately assigned to the Division as combat crews and briefed on missions by Divisional intelligence officers on the reconnaissance flights they would make.
The first mission was flown on 7 May 1963 by the highly-classified Patricia Lynn squadron (Detachment 1, 33d Tactical Group, later 6250th Combat Support Group, later 460th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing) operating from Tan Son Nhut AB. The Detachment flew nighttime reconnaissance missions to identify Viet Cong base camps, small arms factories, and storage and training areas. The sorties yielded results that heretofore only had been wished for.
The nighttime imagery showed Communist training and base camps; small, hidden factories and storage dumps that RF-101 Voodoo crews had flown over during the day and had been unable to locate from the air. The existing RF-101s in 1963 could only photograph a few kilometers (they had to fly very low) per flight with their cameras. The RB-57Es could image the whole border with Cambodia in 2 1/2 flights at 16,000 to 17,000 feet with superior results.
From then on, the Patricia Lynn crews both night and day missions over South Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and areas of North Vietnam until 1971, being some of the last USAF tactical aircraft to be withdrawn from the country. The RB-57Es carried the call-sign "Moonglow". Some missions were flown at low-level over single targets, others consisted of 4-6 specific targets. At night RB-57Es flew the canals and rivers in the Mekong Delta and southern part of South Vietnam. The sampans were easy to spot with the "real time" IR if the crew could keep over the canal which was difficult in the darkness.
The United States began Operation Steel Tiger over the Laos Panhandle and the DMZ on April 3, 1965, to locate and destroy enemy forces and materiel being moved southward at night into South Vietnam, and to fly bomb damage assessment reconnaissance runs over targets attacked in the secret war in which the United States was engaged there. These flights teamed with B-57B bombers operating out of Bien Hoa AB and a C-130 Hercules flare ship. Three more aircraft were subsequently modified in 1964/65 bringing the number of aircraft to five.
Two RB-57Es were lost in combat operations. The first (S/N 55-4243) was lost as a result of a fuselage fire caused by small arms while on a low level reconnaissance mission in August 1965. The crew ejected safely when near Tan Son Nhut Air Base. The second aircraft (S/N 55-4264) was lost on Oct. 15, 1968, after an engine fire started by ground fire forced the crew to eject.
A sixth Patricia Lynn aircraft (55-4257) joined the team in 1968, as a replacement for the combat losses. This aircraft had a Terrain Following Radar designed to allow the aircraft to fly at a constant altitude, which would, in theory, produce better reconnaissance photos. Unfortunately, the aircraft flew so low (500–1000 feet) that the infrared film was used up before the entire assessment area could be photographed.
A 1968 update, under the Compass Eagle program, gave the back-seater a video display to monitor the IR scanner system. This allowed the crew to call in strikes on targets in real time, instead of having to return to base to get imagery developed, by which time the enemy would have likely moved on
There were frequent changes and updating of the equipment, including the installation of 12-inch focal length KA-82 and 24-inch focal length KA-83 cameras. The infrared equipment was useful in spotting Viet Cong river traffic at night along the Mekong Delta southeast of Saigon.
In 1969/70, Patricia Lynn missions were flown into Laos and into Cambodia including Barrel Roll strikes in 1969. The Patricia Lynn operation was terminated in mid-1971 with the inactivation of the 460th TRW and the four surviving aircraft returned to the United States.
Known RB-57E Patricia Lynn aircraft were:
- Martin B-57E-MA 55-4243 Modified to RB-57E in 1963. Lost in combat with Detachment 1, 6250th Combat Support Group, when hit by ground fire Aug 5, 1965 and caught fire while on return to base.
- Martin B-57E-MA 55-4245. Modified to RB-57E in 1963. Returned to CONUS June 1971. Converted to WB-57E. Retired to MASDC as BM0069 Jun 15, 1972.
- Martin B-57E-MA 55-4237. Modified to RB-57E in 1964. Returned to CONUS June 1971. Converted to WB-57E. Retired to MASDC as BM0070 Jun 28, 1972.
- Martin B-57E-MA 55-4249. Modified to RB-57E in 1964. Returned to CONUS June 1971. Converted to WB-57E. Retired to MASDC as BM0068 Jun 15 1972.
- Martin B-57E-MA 55-4264. Modified to RB-57E in 1965. Lost in combat with Detachment 1, 460th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing, Oct 25, 1968 after being hit by ground fire 3 mi SW of Truc Giang, South Vietnam. Both crew ejected safely and were rescued.
- Martin B-57E-MA 55-4257. Modified to RB-57E in 1968. Equipped with terrain-following radar. Converted to EB-57E in 1971 and transferred to ADC 4677th Defense Systems Evaluation Squadron, Hill AFB, Utah. Retired to MASDC in 1979.
505th Tactical Air Control Group
The 505th Tactical Air Control Group was assigned to Tan Son Nhut on 8 April 1964. The Unit was primarily responsible for controlling the tactical air resources of the US and its allies in South Vietnam, Thailand, and to some extent Cambodia and Laos. Carrying out the mission of providing tactical air support required two major components, radar installations and forward air controllers (FACs).
The radar sites provided flight separation for attack and transport aircraft which took the form of flight following and, in some cases control by USAF Weapons Directors. Forward Air Controllers had the critical job of telling tactical fighters where to drop their ordnance. FAC's were generally attached to either US Army or ARVN (Army of Vietnam) units and served both on the ground and in the air.
Squadrons of the 505th were located as follows:
- The 619th Tactical Control Squadron at Tan Son Nhut Air Base.
- The 620th Tactical Control Squadron with responsibility from Pleiku to the DMZ, was located at Son Tra, known as "Monkey Mountain."
- The 621st Tactical Control Squadron which supported tactical air operations in Thailand, located at Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base, and later at Udon Royal Thai Air Force Base.
- The 19th TASS which operated mainly from the Central Highlands south, located at Bien Hoa Air Base.
- The 20th TASS based at Da Nang Air Base.
- The 21st TASS headquartered at Pleiku Air Base.
- The 22nd TASS based at Binh Thuy Air Base.
- The 23rd TASS based at Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Force Base.
The TASS units flew either the O-1G Birddog, O-2 Skymaster, or OV-10 Bronco.
Maintenance support was provided by the 505th Tactical Control Maintenance Squadron first based at Tan Son Nhut and later at Bien Hoa Air Base
619th Tactical Air Control Squadron
The 619th Tactical Control Squadron was responsible from the Mekong Delta to Ban Me Thuot in the Central Highlands from 8 Apr 1964-15 Mar 1973. During this period its primary mission was to operate and maintain air control management center capable of operating 24 hours a day in order to control air traffic and operate direction finding equipment. Detachments of the 619th TASS were located as follows:
- Det 1, 619th Tactical Control Squadron Da Nang Air Base: 8 April 1964 - 22 December 1965
- Det 1, 619th Tactical Control Squadron Duong Dong Army Airfield: 15 August 1967 - 20 December 1968
- Det 2, 619th Tactical Control Squadron Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base: 8 April 1964 - 22 December 1965
- Det 3, 619th Tactical Control Squadron Can Tho Army Airfield: 8 April 1964 – 30 June 1972
- Det 4, 619th Tactical Control Squadron Udon Royal Thai Air Force Base: 18 October 1964 – 22 December 1965
- Det 5, 619th Tactical Control Squadron Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Force Base: 10 August-22 December 1965
- Det 6, 619th Tactical Control Squadron (Green Hill, Thailand): 10 August-22 December 1965
- Det 7, 619th Tactical Control Squadron Tay Ninh Army Airfield: 10 August 1965 – 15 May 1968.
- Det 8, 619th Tactical Control Squadron Ca Mau Army Airfield: 10 August 1965 – 15 May 1968.
- Det 9, 619th Tactical Control Squadron Ban Me Thuot Army Airfield:1 October 1965 – 29 February 1972.
- Det 10, 619th Tactical Control Squadron Pleiku Air Base: 1 October 1965 – 8 November 1966.
- Det 11, 619th Tactical Control Squadron Nha Trang Air Base: 22 December 1965 – 29 February 1972.
- Det 12, 619th Tactical Control Squadron Qui Nhon Army Airfield: 22 December 1965 – 8 November 1966
Operation Rolling Thunder
Attacks against Americans in South Vietnam continued. On Christmas Eve 1964, the bombing of a residence for American officers at Saigon brought the United States to the brink of bombing North Vietnam. The Johnson administration's reluctance to directly engage North Vietnam ended on 7 February 1965, when the Viet Cong attacked an American detachment near Pleiku, killing eight and wounding 104 American soldiers.
President Johnson approved Operation Rolling Thunder, a limited and carefully paced program of air strikes that more closely resembled the graduated response to the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba than the recommendations of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for a vigorous and extensive bombardment. Despite the reliance on gradual escalation, the Johnson administration struck directly at North Vietnam in an attempt to save South Vietnam unilaterally, regardless of the weakness or incompetence of the military government in Saigon, abandoning a policy of partnership with the South Vietnamese that worked toward political stability and economic progress as conditions leading to a military victory in the South.
The United States Air Force now had four distinct air wars on the mainland of Southeast Asia, as the offensive against North Vietnam took its place alongside the attacks in South Vietnam and in northern and southern Laos. In 1965, United States Air Force was not fully equipped, suitably trained, nor doctrinally prepared for the situation in Southeast Asia. The transition from massive retaliation to flexible response and the shift from nuclear to conventional weapons remained incomplete.
- 481st Tactical Fighter Squadron, 29 June 1965 – 1 January 1966
- 416th Tactical Fighter Squadron, 1 November 1965 – 15 June 1966
The 481st was deployed on temporary duty from the 27th Tactical Fighter Wing, Cannon AFB, New Mexico. The 416th was a PACAF 31st Air Division squadron that was moved to TSN from Bien Hoa AB. The 418at returned to the United States; the 416th returned to Bien Hoa.
6250th Combat Support Group
The first tasks facing the USAF, however, were to set up a workable organizational structure in the region, improve the area's inadequate air bases, create an efficient airlift system, and develop equipment and techniques to support the ground battle.
Starting with the buildup in 1965, the Air Force, while continuing to conduct the four air wars, adjusted its structure in Southeast Asia to absorb incoming units. Temporarily deployed squadrons became permanent in November. A wing structure replaced the groups. On 8 July 1965, the 33d Tactical Group was redesignated the 6250th Combat Support Group.
460th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing
On 18 February 1966 the 460th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing was activated and entered the Vietnam War. Its headquarters shared the Seventh Air Force Headquarters and the Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV).
When it stood up, the 460th TRW, alone, was responsible for the entire reconnaissance mission, both visual and electronic reconnaissance, throughout the Southeast Asia (SEA) area of responsibility. On 18 February 1966 the 460th TRW began with 74 aircraft of various types. By the end of June 1966, that number climbed to over 200 aircraft. When the 460th TRW stood up, the Wing gained several flying units
- 16th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron
- 20th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron (located at: Udorn RTAFB, Thailand)
- 41st Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron (located at: Takhli RTAFB, Thailand)
- Detachment 1 of the 460th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing (see: Patricia Lynn Project)
On 15 October 1966, the 460th TRW assumed host wing responsibilities for Tan Son Nhut Air Base, to include being responsible for all depot-level aircraft maintenance responsibility for all USAF organizations in South Vietnam. In addition to the reconnaissance operations, the 460th TFW's base flight operated in-theater transport service for Seventh Air Force and other senior commanders throughout South Vietnam. The base flight operated T-39A Saberliners, VC-123B Providers (also known as the "White Whale"), and Cessna U-3Bs between 1967-1971.
- RF-101C Voodoo
- 45th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron, 30 March 1966 - 31 December 1970 (RF-101C Tail Code: AH)
- Deployed from 39th Air Division, Misawa Air Base, Japan. The unusual thing about the 45 TRS was that while most of the squadron's assets were in Southeast Asia, there was a housekeeping force of one officer and one enlisted airman back at the squadron's home station at Misawa. Inactivated in place. Later reactivated as an RF-4C squadron on 15 October 1971 with the 67th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing, Bergstrom AFB, Texas.
- RF-4C Phantom II
- When it joined the 460 TRW, the 16th TRS was the only unit operating the RF-4C Phantom II in Southeast Asia. It was also the first unit to achieve initial combat readiness of this aircraft in August 1965. The 460th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing's contingent of RF-4Cs increased first on 29 July 1966 and then on 9 September 1966 when the Wing received additional RF-4C squadrons, the 12th TRS, and the 6461st Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron, based at Udon RTAFB, Thailand .
- 12th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron, 29 July 1966 - 31 August 1971 (RF-4C Tail Code: AC)
- Deployed from 67th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing, Bergstrom AFB, Texas
- Reassigned to 67th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing, Bergstrom AFB, Texas
- 16th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron, 27 October 1965 - 15 March 1970 (RF-4C Tail Code: AE)
- Deployed from 67th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing, Bergstrom AFB, Texas
- Reassigned to 67th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing, Bergstrom AFB, Texas
- RB-66C Destroyer
- In addition to the visual reconnaissance part of the 460 TRW's overall mission, the Wing's mission also included electronic warfare. To handle the communications countermeasures mission for the 460th TRW, the 41st Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron, located at Takhli Royal Thai AFB, Thailand flew the RB-66C Destroyer. On 8 June 1966, the 460 TRW gained another RB-66 squadron, 6460th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron, also stationed at Takhli. While the 41st and 6460th TRSs completed other electronic warfare missions, the primary role of both squadrons was to find enemy radar sites in North Vietnam that controlled anti-aircraft missile and gun sites. Being unarmed, the RB-66s could not attack these anti-aircraft sites themselves. However, after identifying these sites, strike aircraft could either try to avoid them or target them.
During the end of 1966, the 460th TRW and its responsibilities changed. First, on 18 September 1966, the 432d Tactical Reconnaissance Wing was activated at Takhli Royal Thai Air Force Base, Thailand. After the 432d TRW activated it took control of the reconnaissance squadrons in Thailand. With the activation of the 432d TRW, the 460th TRW was no longer responsible for all air reconnaissance missions throughout the SEA area of responsibility. However, the 460th TRW provided the new 432d TRW with continued support in recovering RF-101 and RF-4C aircraft returning from high priority, high interest target missions.
In addition to all of its main missions, the 460 TRW took part in several additional operations, either directly or through supporting it. During their time in SEA both the 12th and 16th TRSs supported Operation "Arc Light" by flying bomb damage assessment missions. Additionally, these two squadron flew "Operation Search" missions that found some of the targets for "Arc Light".
To help military leaders at all levels better understand the topography of sections of the DMZ and Laos, on 20 October 1967, the RF-101Cs of the 45 TRS began flying aerial mapping missions as part of Project "Muscle Shoals." This program morphed into Project "Igloo White" which also included ground sensors and B-66 electronic warfare aircraft as well as the RF-101Cs. Ignoo White continued until the United States withdrawal from South Vietnam in 1972.
Project Niagara: On the morning of 21 January 1968 regular forces of the North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong forces attacked the US Marine strategic bases at and around Khe Sanh. Immediately, the 460th TRW began Project "Niagara" to locate enemy troops and equipment surrounding Khe Sanh. The efforts of the 460th TRW directly contributed to the effectiveness of the most intensive bombing campaign of the conflict, to include the first use of B-52s as tactical bombers sometimes dropping their bombs with 100 yards of the base. Khe Sanh held out because of this intensive bombing and aerial resupply. Relief forces reached the besieged base during the first week of April. At that time "Niagara" changed to "Pegasus" and continued for three more weeks as US forces regained control of the area around Khe Sanh.
Project Grand Canyon: The A Shau Valley, is a 22-mile long valley located 6 miles from the Laos border close to the former De-Militarized Zone (DMZ) which separated North and South Vietnam between 1954 and 1976. The valley became a North Vietnamese Army staging area and was one of the main routes for the Ho Chi Minh Trail to funnel troops and supplies towards Huế and Da Nang. Also there were three abandoned airfields and a deserted South Vietnamese Special Forces camp in the valley. On 10 April 1968 the United States Army 1st Air Cavalry Division began Operation "Delaware." To support this the 460th TRW began Program "Grand Canyon" to locate enemy positions, particularly the anti-aircraft batteries making up one of the most complex interlocking defensives in South Vietnam. The 29 day operation cleared out the 5,000 to 6,000 enemy forces for a time.
A few months after the 460th TRW's activation, two squadrons activated on 8 April 1966 to take on projects "Hawkeye," "Phyllis Ann," and "Drillpress." In April 1969 the 460th TRW stood up an additional detachment to fly EC-47s. This started out as 460th TRW Det 2, but on 1 June 1969 the unit transferred to become 360th TEWS Det 1.
- EC-47 Skyktrain
- 360th Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron 8 April 1966 - 31 August 1971 (EC-47N/P/Q Tail Code: AJ)
- Deployed from 1st Air Commando Wing, England AFB, Louisiana.
- Reassigned to 1st Air Commando Wing, Hurlburt Field, Florida
- 361st Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron 8 April 1966 - 31 August 1971 (EC-47N/P/Q Tail Code: AL) (Nha Trang AB)
- 362d Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron 1 February 1967 - 31 August 1971 (EC-47N/P/Q Tail Code: AN) (Pleiku AB)
Project "Hawkeye": This mission came about as a better and safer way to conduct radio direction finding (RDF), whose main target during the Vietnam conflict were Viet Cong radio transmitters. Before this program RDF involved tracking the signals on the ground. Because this exposed the RDF team to ambushes, both the US Army and USAF began to look at airborne RDF. After some initial problems, "Hawkeye" was born. While the US Army used U-6 Beaver and U-8 Seminole aircraft for its own version of the "Hawkeye" platform, the USAF modified several C-47 Skytrains/Dakota. These were one of the main workhorse during World War II and the USAF had a great many of them in its inventory
Project "Phyllis Ann": Also used modified C-47s. However, the C-47s for this program were highly modified with a great deal of advanced, for its time, navigational and reconnaissance equipment. In essence the "Hawkeye" and "Phyllis Ann" missions were the same. The real difference was that the "Phyllis Ann" aircraft were more sophisticated. On 4 April 1967, project "Phyllis Ann" changed to become "Compass Dart". A year later, on 1 April 1968, "Compass Dart" became "Combat Cougar". Because of security concerns the operation's name changed two more times first to "Combat Cross", and then to "Commando Forge".
"Project "Drillpress": Used modified C-47s, their mission was a little different. Whereas, "Hawkeye" and "Phyllis Ann" tracked Viet Cong radio traffic to find the enemy and track their movements, "Drillpress" listened into that traffic and collected intelligence from it. This data gave insights into the plans and strategy of both the Viet Cong and the North Vietnam military. Information from all three projects contributed in a major way to the intelligence picture of the battlefield in Vietnam. In fact about 95 percent of the B-52 Stratofortress Arc Light strikes conducted in South Vietnam were based, at least partially, on the data from these three programs. On 6 October 1967, "Drillpress" changed to "Sentinel Sara".
Lam Son 719: On 8 February 1971 units from the Army of the Republic of South Vietnam (ARVN) launched Operation "Lam Son 719" into the southeastern panhandle of Laos. This operation called for ARVN troops to drive west from Khe Sanh, cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail, seize Tchepone in Laos and, after destroying North Vietnamese Army forces and supplies, then return to South Vietnam. While ARVN provided and commanded the ground forces entering Laos, US Army and Air Force units furnished aviation airlift and supporting firepower. Part of that support came from 460th TRW units like the 362nd TEWS and its EC-47s, and the 460th TRW Det 1's "Patricia Lynn" RB-57Es. The ability to track enemy units electronically and through reconnaissance photos was a major factor in the operations military success. After heavy losses, the ARVN returned to South Vietnam on 9 April 1971.
Because these three squadrons flew the modified C-47 Skytrains, and many of the squadron personnel were World War II veterans, squadron personnel affably dubbed their squadrons "Antique Airlines." Even though these aircraft were considered vintage, the equipment inside was not and the US would go to great lengths to prevent this equipment from falling into enemy hands, As an example, when one EC-47 from the 362d TEWS crashed on 22 April 1970, members of an explosive ordnance unit policed the area destroying anything they found and six F-100 tactical air sorties hit the area to be sure. Detachments of these squadrons operated from different locations, including bases in Thailand. Each of the main squadrons and their detachments moved at least once due to operational and/or security reasons. Personnel operating the RDF and signal intelligence equipment in the back of the modified EC-47s were part of the 6994th Security Squadron (SS).
Being one of two reconnaissance wings supporting SEA there were few military operations that did not involve the 460th TRW. Not only did the 460th TRW provide electronic and photo reconnaissance, the Wing's electronic capabilities allowed it to provide electronic counter measure support to B-52s returning from striking targets in North Vietnam. The Wing even gave support to the Cambodian military against the North Vietnam and Viet Cong forces, as well as support to US units operating inside Cambodia.
As the Vietnamization Improvement and Moderization Program began, Vietnamese crews began flying with EC-47 crews from the 360th TEWS and 6994th SS, on 8 May 1971, to get training on operating the aircraft and its systems. The wing was inactivated in-place on 31 August 1971. Decorations awarded to the wing for its Vietnam War service include:
- Presidential Unit Citation: 18 February 1966 - 30 June 1967; 1 September 1967 - 1 July 1968; 11 July 1968 - 31 August 1969; l February-31 March 1971.
- Air Force Outstanding Unit Award with Combat "V" Device: 1 July 1969 - 30 June 1970; 1 July 1970 - 30 June 1971.
- Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross with Palm: 1 August 1966 - 31 August 1971.
315th Air Commando Wing, Troop Carrier
Until the last half of 1966 the tactical airlift organization in Vietnam remained a temporary structure. The PACAF 315th Air Division, based at Tachikawa AB, Japan, exercised command of airlift resources in South Vietnam through the 315th Air Corrrnando Wing at Tan Son Nhut Air Base. However, the Army Military Assistance Conmand (MACV) controlled airlift through the Air Force component of the MACV joint staff, the 2d Air Division. This dual structure of command and control was complex and cumbersome.
The 315th Air Commando Group, (Troop Carrier) was activated at Tan Son Nhut AB on 8 December 1962 and became responsible for all in-country airlift in the Republic of Vietnam, including control over all USAF airlift assets, aerial port squadrons, an aeromedical evacuation squadron, and a special air transport flight of the Royal Australian Air Force. It was re-designated the 315th Air Commando Wing on 8 March 1966.
Squadrons of the 315th ACW/TC were:
- 12th Air Commando Squadron (Defoliation), 15 October 1966 - 15 July 1970 (Bien Hoa) (UC-123 Provider)
- Det 1, 834th Air Division, 15 October 1966 – 1 December 1971 (Tan Son Nhut) (C-130 Hercules)
- 19th Air Commando Squadron 8 March 1966 - 15 June 1967 (Tan Son Nhut) (C-123 Provider)
- 309th Air Commando Squadron 8 March 1966 - 15 June 1967 (Phan Rang) (C-123)
- 310th Air Commando Squadron 8 March 1966 - 15 June 1967 (Phan Rang) (C-123)
- 311th Air Commando Squadron 8 March 1966 - 15 June 1967 (Phan Rang) (C-123)
- Det 1., HQ 315th Air Commando Wing, Troop Carrier 1 August - 15 October 1966
- Det 5., HQ 315th Air Division (Combat Cargo) 8 March - 15 October 1966
- Det 6., HQ 315th Air Division (Combat Cargo) 8 March - 15 October 1966
- Royal Australian Air Force Transport Flight, Vietnam (RTFV) 8 March - 15 October 1966.
The unit also performed C-123 airlift operations in Vietnam. Operations included aerial movement of troops and cargo, flare drops, aeromedical evacuation, and air-drops of critical supplies and paratroops.
Operation Ranch Hand
The 315th ACG was responsible for Operation Ranch Hand Defoliant operations missions. South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem requested USAF help to remove enemy cover. The USAF's Special Aerial Spray Flight was already using C-123s in the U.S. to control mosquitoes. After some modifications to the aircraft (which included adding armor for the crew), C-123B Provider aircraft arrived in Southeast Asia in January 1962 under the code name "Ranch Hand".
Flying specially-equipped C-123 Providers, members of the squadron flew low and slow to reduce the risks to our soldiers on the ground and to expose the enemy. Ranch Hand never had more than five C-123Bs. Sometimes these aircraft had their spray equipment removed to conduct regular airlift flights, and it appeared that the defoliation mission might be eliminated altogether. With the increased U.S. commitment in South Vietnam in 1964 and 1965, however, requests for defoliation soared.
Ranch Hand grew into an essential part of the war effort, with over six million acres sprayed in South Vietnam between 1965 and 1969. Beginning in 1965 with only four aircraft, by the middle of 1969 Ranch Hand had about 25 UC-123 aircraft available for missions. On 15 October 1966, Ranch Hand became the mission of the 12th Air Commando Squadron.
In 1965 Ranch Hand began using a very effective defoliant called Agent Orange, and the range of targets grew considerably. The Agent Orange controversy later became both a political and veterans' issue. Operation Sherwood Forest sprayed the key Viet Cong-controlled Boi Loi Woods northwest of Saigon, and Operation Swamp Fox targeted the mangrove forests used by the communist for shelter in the Mekong Delta. Late in the year, operations extended into the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. A flood of defoliation requests came in, and the small number of crews flew constantly.
The defoliation of vital enemy strongholds, transportation routes, and crops forced the communists to vigorously defend against the spraying. Ranch Hand aircraft regularly received damage on missions—considering their low altitude, low speed and large size, they were easy to hit. Ranch Hand maintainers worked constantly to repair the damage and get their UC-123s ready for the next mission. In addition to engines and flight controls shot out, and several crewmen wounded and killed, Ranch Hand lost five UC-123s in combat between 1966 and 1968.
In February 1967, Ranch Hand was ordered for the first time to fly missions over the De-Militarized Zone (DMZ) separating North and South Vietnam. These missions helped uncover infiltration routes from the north and expose stockpiles of supplies hidden in the DMZ. By June, 1967, the number of UC-123s had increased to 20.
During the Tet Offensive in early 1968, spraying operations were temporarily halted in favor of airlift missions. Between Feb. 5 and March 20, Ranch Hand UC-123s flew 2,866 airlift sorties.
The 315th ACW was transferred to Phan Rang Air Base on 14 June 1967. With the Vietnamization drawdown in 1969, Ranch Hand was reduced from 25 to 13 aircraft. In 1970 Agent Orange was discontinued, and the existing stocks of Agent White ran out in May 1970. After the last anti-crop mission in January 1971, anti-mosquito spraying continued for a short time after, and then Ranch Hand ended.
834th Air Division
Late in 1966 the division was reassigned without personnel or equipment, to Tan Son Nhut Air Base, South Vietnam, to join Pacific Air Forces Seventh Air Force, providing an intermediate command and control organization and also act as host unit for the USAF forces at Tan Son Nhut Air Base..
The 834th AD was formed from the 315th Troop Carrier Group (Combat Cargo) and 8th Aerial Port Squadron of the former C-123 Provider "Mule Train" units, and the "Dirty Thirty" provisional transport units. Initially the 834th AD had a strength of twenty-seven officers and twenty-one airmen, all of whom were on permanent assignment to Tan Son Nhut.
The Air Division served as a single manager for all tactical airlift operations in South Vietnam, using air transport to haul cargo and troops, which were air-landed or air-dropped, as combat needs dictated through December 1971. The 834th Air Division became the largest tactical airlift force in the world. It was capable of performing a variety of missions. In addition to airlift of cargo and personnel and VNAF training. its missions and activities included "Ranch Hand" defoliation and insecticide spraying, psychological leaflet distribution, helicopter landing zone preparation, airfield survey and the operation of aerial ports.
Units it directly controlled were:
- 315th Air Commando (later, 315th Special Operations; 315th Tactical Airlift) Wing: 15 October 1966 – 1 December 1971
- Located at: Tan Son Nhut AB; later Phan Rang AB (15 June 1967-1 December 1971) UC-123 Provider. Composed of four C-123 squadrons with augmentation by C-130 Hercules transports from the 315th Air Division, Tachikawa AB, Japan.
- 483d Troop Carrier (later, 483d Tactical Airlift) Wing: 15 October 1966 – 1 December 1971
- Located at: Cam Ranh AB 5 C-7A Caribou squadrons (Taken over from US Army), C-130B Hercules (Det 2, 834th AD)
- 2 C-7A Caribou squadrons at Phu Cat AB.
- 2d Aerial Port Group (Tan Son Nhut)
- 8th Aerial Port Squadron, Tan Son Nhut (16 detachments)
- 14th Aerial Port Squadron, Cam Ranh AB (13 detachments)
- 15th Aerial Port Squadron, Da Nang AB (14 detachments)
- Detachments were located at various points where airlift activity warranted continuous but less extensive aerial port services. Aerial port personnel loaded, unloaded, and stored cargo and processed passengers at each location.
The 834th AD also directed its crews to fly aeromedical evacuations missions within South Vietnam in support of the 903d Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron at Phu Cat AB, using C-7 Caribous and C-118 Liftmasters operating from mobile casualty staging facilities at medical field stations having operating airfields.
In addition, the 834th supervised transport operations (primarily C-47's) of the South Vietnamese Air Force and six A-4 Wallaby transports operated by the Royal Australian Air Force 35 Squadron at Vũng Tàu Army Airfield. The 834th's flying components also performed defoliation missions, propaganda leaflet drops, and other special missions.
C-123s from the Divisions's 311th Special Operations Squadron, (315th TAW) flew supplies into the surrounded Khe Sanh Combat Base, Vietnam in 1968 in relief of Marines and Army units there. C-130s and C-7s also flew highly hazardous missions, dropping cargo on the dirt airstrip at the outpost. The 834th received the Presidential Unit Citation recognizing their effort.
The Cambodian campaign was an incursion into Cambodia by United States and South Vietnamese armed forces in May and June 1970. The objective was to destroy faci1ities and supplies stored by the North Vietnamese within Cambodia. which the US had previously regarded as a sanctuary. The operation was supported heavily by tactical air strike and airlift forces. All three types of airlift aircraft (C-123, C-130, C-7) were employed by the 834th AD operating into 24 jungle airfields along the South Vietnam-Cambodian border, and airlifting more than 52.000 tons of supplies and equipment and 98,000 troops and passengers.
C-l30s airdropped ammunition and supplies to fire base personnel and Cambodian troops, and during the last week of June, C-7s and C-123s evacuated more than 3,000 Cambodian refugees from the Cambodian airstrips of Bung Lung and Ba Kev
During its last few months, the 834th worked toward passing combat airlift control to Seventh Air Force. On 1 December 1971 the 834th AD was inactivated as part of the USAF withdrawal of forces from Vietnam.
377th Air Base Wing
The 377th Air Base Wing was responsible for the day-to-day operations and maintenance of the USAF portion of the facility from April 1966 until the last USAF personnel withdrew from South Vietnam in March 1973. In addition, the 377th ABW was responsible for housing numerous tenant organizations including Seventh Air Force, base defense, and liaison with South Vietnamese Air Force.
Units assigned to the 377 ABW were:
In 1972 deactivating USAF units throughout South Vietnam began to administratively assign units w/o equipment or personnel to the 377th ABW:
From Phan Rang Air Base:
- 8th Special Operations Squadron 15 January - 25 October 1972
- 9th Special Operations Squadron 21 January - 29 February 1972
From Cam Ranh Air Base:
- 21st Tactical Air Support Squadron 15 March 1972 - 23 February 1973
From Phan Rang Air Base
- 310th Tactical Airlift Squadron January–June 1972 and March–October 1972 (C-123, C-7B)
- 360th Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron 1 February - 24 November 1972
All of these units were administratively inactivated in place at Tan Son Nhut.
An operating location of the wing headquarters was established at Bien Hoa Air Base on 14 April 1972 to provide turnaround service for F-4 Phantom IIs of other organizations, mostly based in Thailand. It was replaced on 20 June 1972 by Detachment l of the 377th Wing headquarters, which continued the F-4 turnaround service and added A-7 Corsair IIs for the deployed 354th Tactical Fighter Wing aircraft based at Korat RTAFB, Thailand on 30 October 1972. The detachment continued operations through 11 February 1973.
The 377th ABW phased down for inactivation during February and March 1973, transferring many assets to the South Vietnamese Air Force. When deactivated on 28 March 1973, the 377th Air Base Wing was the last USAF unit in South Vietnam.
- Republic of Vietnam Air Force
- United States Air Force In South Vietnam
- United States Pacific Air Forces
- Seventh Air Force
- DEPARTMENT OF THE AIR FORCE, After Actions Report (RCS: MACV J3-32)(U) The total enemy body count, including the 170+ KIA referred to in para 7b(4)(e)5 above, was 962+. March 9, 1968
- Pan Am System Timetable, April 29, 1973
- Christian, J. Scott, former Continental employee and manager, Bring Songs to the Sky: Recollections of Continental Airlines, 1970-1986, Quadran Press, 1998.
- Organizational History Branch, Air Force historical Research Agency, 6 September 2002.
- This article incorporates public domain material from the Air Force Historical Research Agency website http://www.afhra.af.mil/.
- 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.
- Martin, Patrick (1994). Tail Code: The Complete History of USAF Tactical Aircraft Tail Code Markings. Schiffer Military Aviation History. ISBN 0-88740-513-4.
- Mesco, Jim (1987) VNAF South Vietnamese Air Force 1945–1975 Squadron/Signal Publications. ISBN 0-89747-193-8
- Mikesh, Robert C. (2005) Flying Dragons: The South Vietnamese Air Force. Schiffer Publishing, Ltd. ISBN 0-7643-2158-7
- 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.
- USAF Historical Research Division/Organizational History Branch - 35th Fighter Wing, 366th Wing
- VNAF - The South Vietnamese Air Force 1951-1975
- USAAS-USAAC-USAAF-USAF Aircraft Serial Numbers--1908 to present
- Airport information for VVTS at World Aero Data. Data current as of October 2006.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Tan Son Nhut Air Base.|
- 505th Tactical Control Group - Tactical Air Control in Vietnam and Thailand
- C-130A 57-460 at the National Air And Space Museum
- The Tan Son Nhut Association
- Electronic Warfare "Electric Goon" EC-47 Association website
- The Defense of Tan Son Nhut Air Base, 31 January 1968
- The Fall of Saigon
- The short film STAFF FILM REPORT 66-5A (1966) is available for free download at the Internet Archive [more]
- The short film STAFF FILM REPORT 66-17A (1966) is available for free download at the Internet Archive [more]
- The short film STAFF FILM REPORT 66-19A (1966) is available for free download at the Internet Archive [more]
- The short film STAFF FILM REPORT 66-25A (1966) is available for free download at the Internet Archive [more]
- The short film STAFF FILM REPORT 66-27A (1966) is available for free download at the Internet Archive [more]
- The short film STAFF FILM REPORT 66-28A (1966) is available for free download at the Internet Archive [more]
- The short film STAFF FILM REPORT 66-30A (1966) is available for free download at the Internet Archive [more]
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