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 4 of 7)
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.
"The Thais were afraid that the Vietnamese would take vengeance on them," says Aderholt. "Besides, they had been there before. During the exodus in 1954, northeast Thailand had many Vietnamese infiltrate and become homesteaders. They were still there. So the Thais had no love for the Vietnamese."
Austin communicated the dilemma to his headquarters at the Pacific Air Force in Hawaii. Twenty C-141s were ordered to U Taphao the next day to airlift the Vietnamese, Henry Le among them, to Guam, where a tent city had been erected to receive them. But as the first transports arrived, Austin faced a new problem.