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.
- By Ralph Wetterhahn
- Air & Space magazine, January 1997
(Page 2 of 7)
The base guards had orders to keep all personnel outside until the attack was over. Frustrated, Le listened to details of the ongoing battle via a tactical radio in the guard shack. He heard a pilot call the tower.
The pilot was orbiting in an AC-119 gunship over the base at 7,000 feet, desperately trying to locate the source of the rocket fire. He requested permission to drop to 4,000 feet to get a better fix on the enemy location. Le could hear the roar of the AC-119 but could not see the aircraft because the pilot was operating without lights. Le remembers that as dawn turned the sky gray, the AC-119, a bulky, black transport with guns mounted along the port side of the fuselage, swept into view and laid down a sheet of 7.62-mm fire on the enemy position. "It was the final act of bravery I saw in the battle to save my country," Le says.
As Le watched, an SA-7 shoulder-fired missile sailed wide of the attacking gunship. Then a second missile appeared, its exhaust tracing a crooked line as the SA-7 adjusted its course to follow its target. It struck the airplane’s right engine. As the airplane dove, the right wing caught fire. A crewman bailed out but his chute got tangled in the tail as the aircraft started to break apart. Flames billowed behind the gunship. It rolled inverted and made three-quarters of a turn before slamming into the ground.
The guards, who had also witnessed the crash, now allowed Le onto the field. Inside the gate, pilots rated in all types of aircraft were searching for airplanes they could fly. There had been no briefings or plans for retreat. Just two weeks earlier in a radio address to the nation, General Nguyen Cao Ky, former South Vietnamese prime minister, had urged his forces to stay and fight, vowing to fight to the death himself. That morning on the base Le watched Ky board a helicopter that flew east toward the U.S. fleet.
The pilots gathered to discuss their options. Conversation was tense and chaotic, but the choice was simple: Evacuate all flyable aircraft or blow them up.
Over the previous two weeks, Le and his friends had discussed the destinations that would be available to them if the worst happened and Saigon fell. They could attempt to fly to U Taphao Air Base in Thailand, some 350 miles to the northwest, or, if they had enough fuel, to Singapore, 580 miles southwest. Another option was to head for the U.S. Navy carrier fleet off the coast to land aboard ship or ditch. Long-range airplanes, like C-130s or -123s, could try to make it to Subic Bay in the Philippines, 785 miles to the east. A final option was to simply take off and eject wherever fuel ran out.
At 9:45 a.m., the base intelligence unit broadcast a warning that a massive rocket attack was about to begin. Pilots and crew members ran for their aircraft as VIPs loaded staff cars in a mad dash to escape. At 10 a.m., rocket salvos began rolling across the base.
"Friends got together with friends," recalls Le. "All of us ran, checking aircraft to see if we could find one that was flyable." Le found an A-37 with fuel, and he, a pilot friend, and a maintenance crewman crammed themselves into the two-seater. That eliminated the ejection option for Le’s friend and the maintenance crewman. "I promised them I would ride the airplane into the ground with them if necessary," Le says.