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Story by: Sam McGowan
By the spring of 1972 most Americans thought the war in Vietnam was over. President Richard Nixon had made good on his promise to withdraw American combat troops from South Vietnam. The withdrawals had all but concluded, and only a handful of American ground units remained while air units had been considerably downsized. For USAF airlifters in the one remaining C-130 wing, flying in Vietnam had been reduced primarily to picking up American troops and cargo and delivering them to the coastal ports for loading aboard ships and airplanes for the return to the United States. But while America was in the process of withdrawing from the war as Vietnamization took over, the Communist countries' support of the North Vietnamese was in full swing. Four bomb-less years had allowed the North Vietnamese to rebuild their military after the tremendous losses they had suffered in 1968 and 1969 in the wake of their disastrous Tet Offensive. A new generation of North Vietnamese soldiers had been trained and equipped with the most sophisticated weapons in the Soviet arsenal. Though they had no way of knowing it, the men of the 374th Tactical Airlift Wing were about to have what historian Ray Bowers calls "airlift's finest hour."
In early April, 1972 NVA troops poured into South Vietnam's Tay Ninh Province from Cambodia. The heavily-armed Communists rolled through one town after another as they drove south along Highway 13 toward their goal, the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon. Though the South Vietnamese troops fought well, they were outnumbered and outgunned as the NVA used human wave tactics to overrun Loc Ninh. By April 7 the NVA had reached An Loc, a town about 50 miles northwest of Saigon. There, the South Vietnamese government forces and their American advisors were made their stand. And at An Loc, USAF C-130 crews earned a place in history.
Initially, the government forces at An Loc were supplied by US Army and South Vietnamese helicopters. But as the NVA built up strength around the city, the brought in the largest proliferation of antiaircraft guns ever seen in South Vietnam. For years the Iron Curtain countries had been shipping .51-caliber, 37MM and 57MM antiaircraft guns to North Vietnam. The army attacking An Loc had them all, and it was not long before the fallacy of the concept of helicopter resupply was revealed to the world. Helicopter resupply at An Loc was deemed "impractical" and the South Vietnamese forces turned to airdrop.
The first airdrops over An Loc were flown by VNAF C-123 and C-119 crews. The Vietnamese flew their missions in the daytime, and each flight received tremendous amounts of ground fire. Low-altitude missions were almost suicidal so many of the VNAF pilots approached their drop zones at 5,000 feet. From that altitude the bundles drifted with the wind, and as often as not landed in enemy territory. After the loss of two C-123s, the VNAF discontinued low-level drops. Because the high altitude drops were fruitless, they were halted as well. The Military Assistance Command, Vietnam decided to give the responsibility for the resupply of An Loc to the USAF C-130 crews who were still flying in Vietnam, the men of the 374th Tactical Airlift Wing.
From its base at Ching Chang Kuan AB, Taiwan, the 374th maintained an operating location in South Vietnam at Tan Son Nhut. On the night of April 14 three 374th crews were briefed for airdrop missions over An Loc the next morning. After an initial mission delay, the three C-130Es took off from Tan Son Nhut for the short flight to An Loc. The first crew over the DZ, commanded by Major Robert Wallace of the 776th TAS, took hits but released their load. The second crew elected to approach the drop zone from a different direction. Captain Bill Caldwell's crew was 30 seconds from the drop zone when they encountered a barrage of antiaircraft fire. Their C-130 was riddled by machine gun fire which killed the flight engineer, TSgt Jon Sanders, and wounded the copilot, Lt John Hering, and the navigator, Lt. Richard Lentz. A fire broke out on the cargo compartment. The loadmasters, SSgt Charlie Shaub and Airman First Class Dave McAleece fought the fire. The heat was so intense that Shaub burned his hands on the hot metal of his fire extinguisher. Shaub jettisoned the cargo - two pallets exploded right after they left the airplane.
The ground fire had knocked out two engines and severed the hydraulic lines leading to the landing gear. Shaub and McAleece manually extended the gear with a hand-crank. While they were in the landing pattern, the third engine lost power, but Caldwell managed to get the airplane down safely. Caldwell and Shaub were awarded the Air Force Cross; Shaub was also selected to receive the Air Force Sergeants Association's William H. Pitsenbarger Award.
The third airplane was unable to drop because of problems with its ramp and door. Though both Wallace and Caldwell dropped in the vicinity of the DZ, none of the cargo from either airplane was recovered by friendly forces. Colonel Andrew Iosue, the 374th commander, called for a change in tactics. The wing Stan Eval pilot, Major Ed Brya, and navigator, Major Robert Highley, worked out a plan calling for the airplanes to approach the drop zone at tree-top level at 250 knots, then pop-up to the 600 foot release altitude when about two minutes out. On April 16 two C-130 crews, including one with Iosue, Brya and Highley, flew drop missions over An Loc. Though the aircrews thought they identified the drop zone, it turned out that they had been given the wrong coordinates and the loads were not recovered.
On April 18th another attempt was made. Captain Don "Doc" Jensen's crew began taking hits as they slowed to drop speed. One engine was shot out, another set on fire and the right wing began burning. Jensen managed to put the burning C-130 down in a swamp near Lai Khe. US Army helicopters were in the vicinity and saw the airplane go down. Within minutes, the helicopters were laying down covering fire to keep the enemy away from the burning airplane while one of their number landed to pickup the crewmembers, all of whom had survived the crash landing. The helicopter returned the jubilant crewmembers to Tan Son Nhut. By this time the toll stood at two C-123s and a C-130 shot down over An Loc while the first load of cargo had yet to be received by the defenders in the besieged city.
In an attempt to supply the camp, the 374th turned to the GRADs method, aground-radar directed airdrop method that had been used to drop ten and fifteen thousand pound bombs in Vietnam since 1969. But GRADS required high altitude, low-opening parachute devices and the Vietnamese riggers were unfamiliar with the technique. The restraining cords holding the parachutes closed were to weak, and the parachutes were opening prematurely while some of the devices that were supposed to cut the cords failed to work at all. The GRADS method was proving as futile for the Americans as it had been for the South Vietnamese C-123 crews.
Next, the 374th wing turned to night drops. On the first two nights, the blacked-out C-130 crews enjoyed the element of surprise and managed to get their loads close enough to the target that the South Vietnamese managed to recover most of them. AC-130 gunships provided covering fire. Many if not most of the AC-130 pilots had come from tactical airlift units and were familiar with the airdrop techniques. But even though the C-130 crews enjoyed some surprise, the enemy was putting up barrages of antiaircraft fire. On the third night of drops the fourth C-130 over the drop zone entered "a wall of fire" and crashed a mile from the drop zone.
Someone began planning for a massive 10-airplane drop mission in daylight, but Colonel Iosue thought it was plain suicidal. His view was shared by the forward air controllers who were working targets around the city. Because only a portion of the C-130 crews at CCK were drop qualified, the missions over An Loc meant that the same people were bearing the brunt of the burden. The crews were well aware that each mission might be their last.
They wore flak suits and helmets while the loadmasters filled the airplane garbage can with tiedown chains and climbed inside it while over the drop zone. (Since each C-130 crew included two loadmasters, I've often wondered how the second one protected himself!) For a week the night drops continued, with the C-130 crews encountering heavy fire on each mission. But the recovery of the loads was not good, with only about 10% being positively recovered. More than half of the drop planes took hits, and several crewmembers were wounded. On the night of May 3/4 a third C-130 was shot down.
With the night drops proving only marginally successful, the374th returned to the high altitude GRADS method. The drop crews worked with AC-130 gunship crews who provided winds aloft information to the C-130 navigators from their gunsite computers. The results were considerably improved over those attained previously, but some parachutes still opened prematurely while others failed to work at all. At the same time, the supply of HALO devices was dwindling. The possibility of returning to low-altitude drops loomed larger out of the mist of the future.
But then a new problem arose, one with magnanimous implications for the transport crews. On April 29 an SA-7 surface-to-air missile was fired in Qung Tri, confirming for the first time that the NVA were now equipped with the deadly shoulder-fired missiles. With SA-7s in South Vietnam, low-altitude airdrop missions were almost unthinkable.
Fortunately, the Air Force riggers at CCK had come up with a solution to the problem. In World War II and Korea supplies were often dropped without a parachute attached, and the USAF riggers in 1972 discovered that with the proper amount of packing material, bundles containing even ammunition could be safely dropped using slotted extraction parachutes to stabilize, but not retard the descent of the load. The loads descended four times faster than a similar load suspended beneath a G-12 parachute, and were thus less susceptible to the winds at altitude.
As it turned out, the high-velocity drops using the GRADS technique not only allowed the C-130 crews to drop from altitudes above the range of the antiaircraft guns at An Loc and even the SA-7s (which are effective only to about 4,000 feet), they also allowed unprecedented accuracy. Some supplies such as medical materials and fuel proved unsuitable for the high velocity method and had to be dropped using the HALO parachutes, but most items could be delivered without restraining parachutes. Fortunately, the defenders at An Loc had discovered a source of fresh water so ammunition and rations were the primary commodities that had to be airdropped to the defenders.
The high-velocity method was developed just in time, for on May 11 the first SA-7 firings were reported at An Loc. The drop planes were able to operate without fear of the Strella missiles, but the AC-130 gunships were considerably effected. Their guns lost their effectiveness at the 10,000 foot altitudes that were necessary to avoid the SA-7s. Tactics were worked out for the AC-130 and C-130 crews to fire decoy flares when an SA-7 firing was observed. The heat-seeking missiles would home on the more intense heat of the flares instead of the airplane's exhaust. Four C-130 crews reported SA-7 firings in South Vietnam in May/June 1972, but none were hit. The AC-130s did not fare as well; one airplane was badly damaged on May 12 and another was shot down near Hue in June.
An Loc was the most trying time of the war for airlifters in Vietnam, but there were other difficult missions associated with the Easter Invasion in other parts of the country. USAF C-130 crews were instrumental in the defeat of the NVA attacks on Kontum. The Easter Offensive also brought the first in-country use of MAC C-141s. Four C-141s were scheduled for in-country airlift operations each day as the MAC transports picked up the slack as the PACAF C-130s were put to work supporting the South Vietnamese combat forces by airdrop and deliveries to forward fields. The MAC transports transported cargo and passengers between the major aerial ports in South Vietnam. On April 30 a C-141 airlifted 394 refugees from Plieku to Saigon. MAC C-5s were also heavily involved in the response to the Communist invasion. The huge transports airlifted support equipment for fighter squadrons and B-52 units that were returning to the Pacific in response to the Communist attacks. I was on a crew that carried a half a squadron of 0-2SKYMASTERS from Hawaii to Cam Rhan Bay. A major C-5 effort of the time was the airlift of heavy tanks from Japan to Da Nang to meet North Vietnamese armor that had crossed the DMZ into northern South Vietnam.
It was a terrible time, but also a glorious time for the airlifters, particularly the C-130 crews who did their duty over An Loc in spite of the most intense ground fire ever encountered in the Vietnam War in South Vietnam.
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