Newsletter of the Troop Carrier/Tactical Airlift Association
Promoting and preserving the troop carrier/tactical airlift heritage
October 27, 2016 Kham Duc Special
At our Tucson convention, Ernie Gassiott gave me a thick volume of papers with a circular binding with the title Kham Duc/Ngok Tavak that he had purchased at a reunion of survivors of the historic, but frequently overlooked, battle and subsequent evacuation. He told me to put it on the table where anyone who was interested could look at it, then take it home and use it for research. I was happy to do so. Even though I already have quite a bit of information about the events of those three May 1968 days, it would add to what I already have.
My first recollection of the battle was an account I saw in Air Force Times a few days after the evacuation. Ironically, I had an appointment the next morning with an Army recruiter in Macon, Georgia the next day to discuss switching services as I was well on my way to becoming a private pilot and the Army was crying for men with aviation experience to sign up for their warrant officer flight training program. I got up and got dressed and was just about to head out the door when I saw the article about the two C-130s that had been lost a few days before. I thought to myself, Screw this! If I switch to the Army, as soon as I get out of flight training they’ll be send me to Vietnam and I’ve already done my time. Ten months before I had left Naha AB, Okinawa after an 18-month tour that included several weeks flying FAC/flare missions over Laos and North Vietnam as well as tactical airlift missions all over South Vietnam and Thailand. The war had heated up since then and several C-130s and C-123s had been lost to enemy action. I decided to stay where I was at Robins AFB, Georgia enjoying the good life as a MAC loadmaster on C-141s, drawing per diem and flying in and out of the combat zone at least once a month and getting combat pay and a tax exemption.
As it turned out, a few months later I found out that I was going back to war but not as an Army pilot. Somebody in personnel had decided that my services were needed back in PACAF in the back end of a C-130, only this time I was going to Clark to C-130Bs. After I got there, I met a lot of guys who had been there the previous spring, including my trailer-mate, Tom Stalvey. Kham Duc was a name that was uttered with utmost reverence but with few details. It wasn’t until a decade and a half later that I found out about and purchased a copy of the new history of the tactical airlift mission in Southeast Asia that I learned some details of what had happened. It turned out that I knew some of the participants personally, some before the battle and some I met later. My knowledge was expanded when I was on one of several visits I made to the USAF Museum and purchased a monograph by Dr. Alan Gropman about the battle. Since then I’ve been given documents, including the combat action reports by the senior Army Special Forces officer and the commander of the 196th Infantry Brigade battalion (2nd) that participated in Operation GOLDEN VALLEY. The book Ernie gave me includes a lot more information, including the mission reports of some of the C-130 pilots who participated in the evacuation and the debriefing of TC/TAA member Maj. Billie B. Mills (later colonel.) Most Air Force accounts (with the exception of Dr. Gropman’s) focus primarily on the Medal of Honor flight made by the crew commanded by Lt. Col. Joe M. Jackson, but in reality his heroic flight was a postscript to a dramatic series of events that had already concluded; events that took the lives of one C-130 crew and almost claimed at least one other. One C-130 pilot was awarded the prestigious MacKay Trophy for his flight that day while two C-130 pilots and two C-123 pilots were awarded the Air Force Cross (one posthumously) and at least three others were nominated for it for their actions on what was possibly the most heroic day in US Air Force history with the possible exception of the low-level attack on the Ploesti, Romania oil fields in 1943. (Five Medals of Honor were presented for actions over Ploesti, three posthumously.) Without a doubt, it was the most heroic day in airlift history, bar none.
The Two Air Divisions
In May 1968 the airlift organization responsible for operations in South Vietnam was 834th Air Division, which had activated at Tan Son Nhut some eighteen months before after Seventh Air Force replaced 2nd Air Division as the USAF command organization in South Vietnam. Commanded by Maj. Gen. William G. Moore, a veteran troop carrier commander, the new division was initially staffed with officers with long troop carrier experience, although that started changing as the war continued and replacements came in from other commands. General Moore was replaced by Maj. Gen. Burl McLaughlin, another veteran tactical airlift officer, who was in command in the spring of 1968.
The division commanded two airlift wings, the 315th Air Commando Wing, which was actually a conventional airlift unit equipped with C-123s, and the 483rd Tactical Airlift Wing, which operated C-7 Caribous that had recently transferred to the Air Force from the Army. The division had operational control of C-130s assigned to three wings and an independent squadron under the command of 315th Air Division in Japan under the command of Col. Charles W. Howe, who was arguably the most experienced airlifter in the Air Force. The division also had operational control over the 22nd Military Airlift Squadron, a former 315th C-124 unit that had transferred to MATS in 1958. The 22nd kept C-124s in South Vietnam for outsize cargo operations. Although plans to base a wing of C-130s in South Vietnam had been floated, an alternate plan had been adopted under which all airlift C-130s were based out-of-country and rotated to bases in Southeast Asia, with crews rotating for sixteen days at a time and the airplanes and their ground crew for nine. Other personnel went TDY to the in-country bases for periods ranging from two weeks to 179 days.
Prior to the activation of 834th, 315th commanded airlift operations in Southeast Asia through detachments in South Vietnam and Thailand. 834th’s area of responsibility was confined to South Vietnam; tactical airlift operations in Thailand were under 315th Air Division control. The 374th TAW commanded four squadrons of C-130As based at Naha AB, Okinawa while a fifth squadron based in Japan reported directly to 315th Air Division. The 463rd TAW was based at Mactan AB, Philippines with two squadrons of C-130Bs at Mactan and two at Clark. The 314th TAW was based at Ching Chuan Kang AB, Taiwan with three squadrons of C-130Es. In the spring of 1968, each wing provided airplanes and personnel for three 834th detachments at Tan Son Nhut (C-130Bs), Cam Ranh (C-130As and Es) and Tuy Hoa (C-130Es). In addition to the three wings, 315th Air Division also commanded several Tactical Air Command rotational squadrons that had deployed the Pacific in the wake of the Pueblo Crisis and Tet Offensives which had occurred earlier in the year. 834th also commanded the 2nd Aerial Port Group, which included three aerial port squadrons, the 8th APS at Tan Son Nhut, the 14th at Cam Ranh and 15th at Da Nang. There was a combat control section assigned to 8th APS.
834th maintained command and control from the Airlift Command Center at Tan Son Nhut and through Airlift Command Elements at various bases around South Vietnam. Communications between the ALCC, the detachments and the ALCEs was maintained by radio, telephone and teletype. Mission requests were passed to the ALCC which then passed them to the detachments and the two wings for scheduling. Once a crew departed its home or TDY base, they maintained contact either directly with the ALCC or with the ALCE at the airfields through which they passed during the course of the day. Depending on the volume of traffic at a forward airfield, communications were maintained through the aerial port detachment or through an airlift mission team. At some airfields, particularly those associated with Army Special Forces A and B teams, there might not be an aerial port detachment, in which case communications were directly with the ALCC in Saigon through radio or telephone. Command and control at such airfields was carried out by the airlift mission commander, a field grade officer serving on temporary duty from one of the offshore C-130 wings specifically to serve as 834th’s representative in the field. The mission commander was often accompanied by a combat control team from the 8th Aerial Port combat control section at Tan Son Nhut to operate the radio equipment necessary to maintain communications with the 834th Air Division ALCC.
The Airlift Mission Team
The airlift mission team was a development of airlift operations in South Vietnam in 1966. Airlift specialists at 834th Air Division saw the need for a team consisting of airfreight and combat control personnel and sometimes aircraft maintenance personnel to deploy to airfields where there was no airlift control element (ALCE) to support airlift operations. The three 315th AD C-130 wings provided field-grade officers to 834th Air Division on TDY to serve as airlift mission commanders. Whenever a mission required a mission commander, an officer was sent to the airfield along with whatever support personnel were needed. The mission commander was just that; he was in command of all airlift operations at the airfield to which he was assigned. They were different from the drop zone safety officers who observed training operations in the States and at the C-130 home bases. He was 834th Air Division’s representative at the airfield where the operation was taking place. If the mission was at a forward airfield, a combat control team went with him to provide a communications link with 834th Air Division and with the ALCE responsible for the area. Although airdrops were infrequent, if they were necessary the CCT members would set up the drop zone and provide weather and other information to the drop planes. Since most operations involved landings, they provided airfield information to the arriving aircrews and coordinated takeoffs and landings. Although they were qualified air traffic controllers, there role in Vietnam was more of an advisory nature. Aerial port personnel operated forklifts and other cargo handling equipment to offload the airplanes and move the cargo away from the parking area while passenger service personnel processed passengers.
May 10-12, 1968
The battle of Kham Duc took place over a three-day period in May 1968. Although it is beyond the scope of our story, it began with the attack that overran the outpost at Ngoc Tavak, an old French fort a few miles from the main Civilian Irregular Defense Corps camp at Kham Duc. Kham Duc was not an unfamiliar place to tactical airlifters in South Vietnam. Located in a mountainous area near the Laotian border, Kham Duc was the location of a hunting camp used by high Vietnamese officials. The airfield was blessed with a 6,000-foot asphalt runway but it was not a US military forward base. Instead, the camp was a used to train South Vietnamese, who were essentially militia, and for patrols along the border some ten miles to the west. The village of Kham Duc and the camp were in northwestern South Vietnam in Quang Nam Province a little over 100 miles south of Khe Sanh and some 40 miles south of the A Shau Valley, both of which had seen major airlift operations under fire in the preceding weeks. Intelligence sources determined that the communists were building up strength in the vicinity of Kham Duc and advised the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam that the camp was threatened.
On May 10, MACV commenced a reinforcement of the camp with personnel from the 196th Infantry and the 70th Engineering Battalion in Operation GOLDEN VALLEY. The reinforcement was ordered that morning and, within hours, personnel and equipment were on the way to the camp. To support the airlift, 834th Air Division sent an airlift mission commander, Major John (Jack) Gallagher from the 773rd TAS at Clark, to the camp along with two combat controllers, TSgt. Morton Freedman and Sgt. James Lundie, to provide communications for Gallagher, provide airfield information to arriving transports and to control airdrops if any were scheduled. Although there is no mention of them in any of the accounts, the airlift mission also included aerial port personnel.
On May 10, 834th transports flew some 600 men along with artillery and other equipment into Kham Duc. C-124s brought in bulldozers and other equipment for the 70th Engineers. Although the 22nd MAS was a MAC unit based at Tachikawa AB, Japan, the squadron was under the operational control of 315th Air Division, which also commanded the C-130 wings. In 1968, the 22nd was the only MAC airlift unit with a combat mission. Additional troops and supplies were brought in the following day. According to a account by an soldier who was flown in on a C-130 from Hue-Phu Bia, immediately after their airplane came to a stop, the “crew chief”, most likely the loadmaster, went out behind the airplane and was immediately wounded in the arm by shrapnel from an exploding round.
None of the accounts mention aerial port or maintenance personnel at Kham Duc. However, the Army combat action report states that there were 10 USAF personnel at the camp on May 10. The mission commander and the CCT account for three and the Air Force liaison officer with the 196th makes four. The identity of the other six is uncertain. However, I received an Email a few months ago from an aerial port veteran who says that there were aerial port personnel at the camp. He also says that one was wounded. As for maintenance personnel, no mention of them is made in any account but Lt. Col. Darrel Cole’s crew flew a jack and six C-130 tires into Kham Duc on the morning of May 12. There may have also been some Air Force tactical air support personnel present. The combat action report of the battle refers to the tactical air control bunker next to the command bunker. One list of personnel at the camp shows two Air Force enlisted men and an apparent civilian who were members of a “Beacon crew.” One member, MSgt Teddy Reiser, remained at the camp on May 12.
Ngoc Tavak was overrun on May 10 and the following day the main camp at Kham Duc came under mortar attack. Intelligence had determined that a large force of communist troops had gathered around Kham Duc in preparation for an attack on the camp. That evening, MACV commander General William C. Westmoreland agonized over the fate of the camp. He was fearful of repercussions if the camp was overrun and a large number of Americans were killed or captured. The size of the American contingent at the camp had been increased from some 25 men to over 600 the previous day and additional reinforcement (32 men) had arrived that day. Along with the CIDG troops and their families, there were roughly 1,800 people at the camp. Westmoreland felt that Kham Duc was of little military importance and there was no reason to risk the lives of its defenders in an attempt to hold it. Sometime around midnight he decided to order an evacuation commencing at first light. A message was sent to the commanding general of the Americal Division (27th Infantry Division), Maj. Gen. Samuel W. Koster, to prepare for a tactical withdrawal of all forces from Kham Duc over a three-day period. The message included a recommended sequence of withdrawal:
1. A Co, 1st Bn, 46th Infantry
2. A Co, 70th Engineers
3. Vietnamese dependents (200-250)
4. CA/PSYOP USA (non-existent)
5. Americal Battalion
6. USAF personnel
7. Command & Control Detachment
8. MF Company (probably stands for “Mike Force”)
Westmoreland’s original intention was for the defendants to be withdrawn by helicopter and for 834th Air Division to keep them supplied. However, that plan was blown to smithereens during the wee hours of the morning when the communists launched attacks against the outposts in the hills around the camp and overran them one-by-one. The defenders who were able used escape and evasion techniques to make their way back to the camp but not all made it. One group of three never made it into the camp. They were picked up by helicopter several days later. Some were killed and one, Private Julius Long, was captured. The evacuation plan wasn’t helped by the weather. Kham Duc is in the mountains and, as is typical of mountain weather, at daybreak the next morning the weather was WOXOF. Once it started to clear, Army and Marine CH-47 and CH-46 helicopters started into the camp to initiate the evacuation. The first CH-47 was hit by ground fire and crashed right in the middle of the runway. The engineers had been ordered to disable their equipment since it was going to be left behind. They began working on one of the bulldozers (or a frontend loader) to get it running. Finally, the driver, Specialist 4th Class John Powell, used his “front loader” to move the wreckage from the runway. Some accounts have stated that he was KIA, but these are in error. Powell was awarded the Bronze Star with V Device for his actions. By this time, the fog was starting to burn off and the runway was open for fixed-wing landings.
There seems to have been a lot of indecision in Saigon and at the Americal Division Hq. at Chu Lai. The initial plan to bring everyone out by helicopter fell by the wayside due to the heavy attacks so the plan was changed to include fixed-wing transports due to their higher payload capacities. However, that plan was also squashed due to the heavy concentrations of communist troops in proximity to the airfield and the severe damage suffered by the first C-130 to land. Early that morning, Seventh Air Force commander Lt. Gen. William W. Momyer ordered a “Grand Slam,” a code-word for an all-out tactical fighter effort in support of the camp. Normally, Grand Slams were only ordered in North Vietnam. All tactical fighter missions scheduled for both North and South Vietnam were made available for airstrikes in support of the camp. A modified C-130E with a capsule in the back filled with command and control personnel was ordered to the vicinity to coordinate air traffic. Its call sign was HILLSBORO.
The confusion is illustrated by the coded message Captain Willard Johnson, the FAC serving as an ALO with the Americal Division received. Johnson was working with the senior Americal and Special Forces officers. He recorded his thoughts on a small tape recorder. He was informed that several C-130s were being dispatched to the camp but he didn’t know why. When asked “didn’t you get the message,” Johnson said no. He finally found the coded message and, after half an hour of unshackling it, finally learned that the Americal Division commander had decided to extract the camp’s defenders using C-130s. Shortly afterwards, the first C-130 arrived. The crew had no idea that they were part of an evacuation; they thought they had been sent to Kham Duc to deliver a lot of maintenance supplies then to shuttle between there and Plieku. The ALCC had decided to use them and another C-130 to shuttle troops out of the camp. That plan also went to pieces. Communist troops were swarming all around the camp and they were equipped with automatic weapons, including heavy machine guns and even 37 MM cannon. A USAF A-1 went down but the pilot bailed out and was rescued by helicopters. Ground fire damaged a UH-1 gunship and the pilot landed beside the runway then, believing the helicopter was unserviceable, left on another helicopter. The pilot of the ill-fated CH-47 looked it over and decided it was fit to fly, then flew it out.
Meanwhile, the Americal Division, MACV, Seventh Air Force and 834th Air Division were all looking at the situation and considering various plans to evacuate the camp. Their plans kept coming back to 834th Air Divisions transports although for awhile it appeared that an airlift evacuation would be suicidal. That conclusion wasn’t too far from the truth.
Lt. Col. Darrell D. Cole
By 1000 hours, no fixed-wing aircraft had landed at the camp and no helicopters were getting in. Earlier that morning, Lt. Col. Darrell D. Cole of the 21st Tactical Airlift Squadron at Naha AB, Okinawa reported to Det. 2, 834th Air Division at Cam Ranh Airbase with his crew for their mission. One of a number of mostly field grade officers who had been called out of desk jobs for cockpit duty in transports, Cole had become a veteran C-130A pilot after over a year and a half at Naha. He had originally been assigned to the 35th TCS, but at some point after the author left Naha, he transferred to the 21st. His crew included Maj. Walter B. Farrar, pilot; 1st Lt. Edward Forys, navigator; SSgt Kenneth C. Wheeler, flight engineer and A1C (E-3) Robert L. Pollock, loadmaster. Their mission frag called for them to proceed to Kham Duc then make three shuttles from there to Pleiku His load out of Cam Ranh consisted of two pallets containing six C-130 tires and a jack. Their scheduled departure time was 0800 but they were delayed for an hour, probably due to the helicopter wreckage on the runway since the fog had dissipated by this time. They finally departed at 0900. No one had advised them of the desperate situation that had developed at the camp.
Cole stated in his mission report that as they approached the camp they observed F-4s attacking targets on the hilltop immediately to the north. The wreckage of the downed helicopter was burning by the runway, as was the bulldozer (frontend loader). One of the combat controllers – all CCTs used the call sign TAILPIPE – advised that there was 2,200 feet of useable runway and recommended that they land to the northeast on runway 04. The controller also advised that they would be taking passengers out. They asked what to do with their cargo and the response was to dump it anywhere as long as it wasn’t on the runway. The crew realized that the situation had deteriorated. As they approached the runway, they saw two columns of US troops walking alongside of the runway toward the compound area. Cole instructed the loadmaster to “speed offload” their cargo as soon as he had completed a 90-degree turn. However, before the crew could dump the two pallets, the airplane was mobbed by soldiers and civilians, Americans and Vietnamese who’s only thought was to get out of Kham Duc.
The loadmaster was unable to do anything with the passengers so Cole decided to take off with them and the cargo onboard. However, just as they started their takeoff roll, a mortar round exploded right beside the airplane. Apparently, shrapnel struck the rear tire and flattened it. Shrapnel also did a considerable amount of damage to the right side of the airplane. Cole continued the takeoff up to about 40 knots but then decided to abort because it wasn’t accelerating. He turned around and taxied back to the small ramp area to be clear of the runway. The loadmaster opened the ramp and door and the terror-filled passengers abandoned their weapons and equipment and jumped out of the airplane and ran into a nearby ditch. The crew shut down the engines and turned off the battery then grabbed their survival vests and weapons and got out. A jeep pulled up just as they got off of the airplane to take the five men across the runway to the Special Forces compound where the command center was located. Mortar shells were impacting all over the camp.
Once they got into the compound, someone contacted Major Gallagher and he relayed the crew’s status to the airlift command center in Saigon. The crew watched the scene before them – mortar rounds exploding all over the place, F-4s hitting targets a few hundred yards away. Using binoculars, they noticed that fuel was streaming out of holes in the left wingtip of their airplane, 55-0013. Cole noticed an air of “tense calm” in the compound. The SF officers were discussing abandoning the camp. While Cole was talking to one of the combat controllers, an SF man handed the man a thermite grenade and told him to destroy his jeep and radio gear prior to evacuation. Major Farrar wrote in 1994 that right after they were joined by Maj. Gallagher, some GIs approached them and said that the camp was being overrun and they were forming an “E&E party” to go out through the jungle. They handed the startled airmen weapons and ammunition that they had just appropriated from a nearby magazine and asked if they wanted to join them. One hung a bandoleer of ammunition on Farrar’s shoulder. It was at that point that Farrar decided there might be a better way.
Cole had been on the CCT radio talking to HILDA, the ALCC in Saigon and discussing their situation. The ALCC controller told him to advise Gallagher that no further fixed-wing landings would be allowed at the camp and they should prepare to E&E. At some point while they were on the ground (1110 hours), Maj. Ray D. Shelton’s C-123 came in and picked up a load of passengers, mostly engineers, then took off again. Shelton was awarded the Silver Star for the flight.
Although mortar rounds had been exploding all around the airplane, none were close enough to do more than spray shrapnel on it. Farrar suggested that they cut the blown tire off the rim and try to save the airplane – and themselves. Although they had six tires and a jack on the airplane, the engineer didn’t have the necessary tools to remove the wheel. They discussed Farrar’s plan with the senior officer at the camp and he agreed it was feasible. They obtained some bayonets and enlisted the aid of a couple of engineers, who found a blowtorch. They were wearing flak jackets and the work was fatiguing so everyone took turns. They managed to cut through the rubber but the steel beading refused to give way, not even to the blowtorch. The mortar rounds were getting closer and closer and finally hit a howitzer that been firing from only 30 feet from their wingtip. They decided it was time to go. The crew thought they could get the airplane up to about 80 knots on the rim, which was enough speed to get off the ground.
There doesn’t seem to be any accounting of whose idea it was, but someone decided to load all of the Air Force personnel at the camp onto Cole’s airplane. Neither Cole or Farrar mention anyone making a decision. Farrar said that at some point Gallagher told him that their radio equipment had become useless and they no longer had a mission. There is some question as to just who got on the airplane other than Gallagher, Freedman, Lundie and Captain Johnson, the Americal Division ALO. Cole stated that there were ten passengers but Farrar said twenty years later that he didn’t think there were that many. The two engineers who had been helping them with the tire apparently flew out with them. There may have been other USAF personnel on the airplane as well.