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The A-37 Dragonfly was a small but capable attack bomber. (USAF)

Escape to U Taphao

In the final days of the Vietnam war, chaos and heroism converged in the effort to evacuate U.S.-supplied aircraft.

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Colonel Harold R. Austin, commander of the U.S. Air Force 635th Combat Support Group at U Taphao, was in some ways prepared for the problems he faced on the morning of April 29, 1975. During the U.S. involvement in the war, Strategic Air Command B-52s had been based at U Taphao for strikes against North Vietnam. Some 20 of the big bombers were still standing by, protected in three-sided revetments. To support the B-52 operations, SAC had installed a 12,000-foot runway and taxiways, a stroke of good fortune for the pilots who were now landing their airplanes on both ends of the runway without clearance.

But by 9 a.m. things at the flightline were already out of control. Helicopters settled onto the grass between the runway and taxiway. One landed amid the revetments. A C-47’s landing gear collapsed on touchdown. The airplane, a military version of the DC-3 built to accommodate 30 troops, had carried 100 passengers out of Vietnam. The accident blocked the runway, but pilots continued their attempts to land.

"We got all the SAC airplanes on the ground as soon as we realized what was going on," Austin says today. "I had the tower broadcast [to arriving aircraft] on all available channels to be on the lookout for airplanes without radios.

"You have to understand we weren’t fighting a big war," Austin says. "We were standing by to fight. So I had 6,000 people with not a whole lot to do. And everybody pitched in—SAC guys, MAC guys. I had excellent cooperation."

GIs in any vehicles available towed A-1s, C-47s, O-1 Bird Dogs, and all the smaller aircraft onto the grassy infield, making room for incoming jets and the larger transports. Others painted out VNAF markings. Under the extreme circumstances, aircraft were parked without chocks, their canopies left open. Maintenance crews de-armed the combat aircraft, stacking ammunition in piles along the parking ramp.

By the end of the day, 165 VNAF aircraft were at U Taphao, including 31 F-5s, 27 A-37 Dragonflys, nine C-130A Hercules transports, 45 UH-1 Bell helicopters, 16 C-47s, 11 A-1E and H Skyraiders, six C-7A Caribou transports, three AC-119 gunships, 14 Cessna U-17 Skywagons, three O-1 Bird Dogs, and a handful of civilian aircraft. The airplanes were crammed among 97 Cambodian aircraft that had arrived since April 12, when Phnom Penh fell.

In addition to trying to keep the runway clear and securing aircraft and weapons, Austin had to manage the flood of refugees. "Most of them were very emotional, hungry, and dehydrated," Austin recalls. "They were scared to death." Many had suffered horrible losses in addition to losing their homeland. Austin remembers one group in particular that had flown in on a C-130. Passengers had been boarding the aircraft at the Tan Son Nhut base when rockets started to fall. The engines were already running, and the pilot began to taxi. The copilot’s wife had been leaning outside, helping load passengers at the front entryway. As the plane lurched forward, she fell. The left main gear rolled over her, crushing the woman. No one told the copilot until the aircraft landed in Thailand.

Austin had to get the refugees fed and made as comfortable as he could. He kept the families together and set up temporary living quarters for them in the hangar area and in the airmen’s annex. He sent the single males to the U.S. Navy maintenance facilities, where tents were being set up for additional shelter.

Henry Le was one of the refugees who spent the night in a tent at U Taphao. He had landed with his passengers at about midday, when the ramp was overflowing, and was shocked by the number of airplanes already on the ground. As he was taxiing in, several GIs stopped him, painted over the insignia on his A-37, then waved him on.

As Austin was organizing food and shelter for the refugees, he was also conferring with foreign service officers at the U.S. Embassy in Thailand. "The Thais had made it clear that they wanted the Vietnamese nationals out of the country in no uncertain terms," Austin says.

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