The Battle of Bien Hoa Air Base

50 years after the start of the Tet Offensive, F-100 pilots remember the attack.

An F-100D—the same aircraft in the National Air and Space Museum collection—flies over the Mekong Delta, circa 1968. (Courtesy Colonel Robert Hopkins)
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Lieutenant Fred Abrams was asleep when the battle began. At 3 a.m., January 31, 1968, rocket and mortar rounds began pounding Bien Hoa Air Base in south Vietnam, located about 20 miles from Saigon. It was part of a coordinated effort—involving more than 80,000 Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops targeting 100 cities and multiple air bases—that would come to be known as the Tet Offensive.

“As a result of having practiced it before, I made very good time from asleep in bed to inside the bunker carrying my flight suit, boots, and gun belt,” Abrams wrote later that day, in a letter home. “The attackers got to within 100 yds of our squadron before being pushed back by the security police with M-16s and large machine guns.” Abrams, an F-100 pilot with the 531st Tactical Fighter Squadron, was scheduled to fly the first daylight sortie, “but the flight was cancelled because some VC were holed up at the end of the runway and had machine guns and grenades,” he wrote.

The Viet Cong hoped to quickly take control of the base and capture the flight line, which would have prevented the aircraft from taking off and providing close air support to other areas under attack. The base had two east-west runways, each about two miles long. Wells Jackson, who was then an F-100 pilot with the 90th Tactical Squadron, remembers that day. “The ramp and taxiway were covered with shrapnel and gravel—there was debris all over,” he says. Along with Abrams and about 75 other veterans and guests, Jackson was at the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center yesterday for an event recognizing, in part, the 50th anniversary of the Tet Offensive.

The helicopter gunships of the Army’s 145th Aviation Battalion—Bell UH-1 Iroquois and AH-1 Cobras—took off immediately and started strafing runs, he recalls. “They fired their rockets into the field off the end of the runway. They didn’t even refuel; they’d just reload because they were right where the fight was.”

While the gunships were flying, the F-100 pilots and crews attempted to clear the runways of debris so they could take off. “The arming area [right off the runway] had a shack on it that the arming people could go into to get out of the sun,” recalls then-Captain Robert Hopkins, “and that thing got blown to pieces. There was a lot of debris and dead Viet Cong scattered around as well.”

Hopkins grabbed a reel-to-reel tape recorder as he headed outside into the chaos. “There were some snipers on the water tower close to where I was,” he recalls, “and friendly forces shooting back. On the tape you can hear the gunfire and the machine guns going. At one point there’s even a guy on a motor scooter going through.” At about noon, the F-100 pilots and crews went on cocked alert status. As Abrams wrote in his letter home:

This means that I have all my equipment in my airplane and have everything preflighted. Then when they need an immediate air strike, I run from the squadron to the airplane, jump in, and push the start button. I strap in while taxiing out.... At 1645 [4:45 p.m.], after 4 hours of alert status, the phone call came. The 101st Airborne had surrounded a North Vietnamese company right off the end of the runway and was engaged in heavy fighting.... We orbited over the base for an hour and 20 minutes while the army tried to relocate and the army general tried to handle it with artillery. The artillery strike was ended when rounds started hitting our army troops. Then we were called in. They were very hesitant about an air strike because the troops were so close to the target and there was absolutely no margin for error. The friendly troops marked their positions with colored smoke, which was very difficult to see due to haze and the sun low in the sky. My leader, Major Bulger, rolled in and put his napalm on target. I followed with my napalm right on target. We could see them shooting at us the whole time. We each made two bombing passes after that and put all bombs right on target. My bomb which was the last one dropped scored a direct hit on a storage building and caused numerous secondary explosions.... I had about 10 minutes of fuel left when I landed.... You are probably wondering since this letter so far is filled with so much excitement how I feel about all this. Since I have been here I have only been scared once and that was when I was napalming this afternoon. Not because of the VC shooting at me—but afraid I might miss by a few feet. It is an awesome responsibility.

The explosion Abrams refers to in his letter is likely a cache of munitions the Viet Cong had planned to use to destroy the aircraft on the flight line. “Of course, the Army stopping the Viet Cong in their tracks before reaching the revetments where the aircraft were [located], meant those explosives were still stockpiled,” Abrams explained. “Had the VC made it further west, it would have been the F-100s of the 531st that would have been targeted first.”

Jackson remembers the chaos of the battle. “I got hit and came back as a single ship,” he says, “and there was nobody to de-arm the aircraft. In the F-100 there’s no emergency brake as such, you have to chock the aircraft. So I had to taxi around until I found a place that was very level. I shut it down, climbed out through the nose, and chocked it. But I was pointing at a hangar and I still had hot guns—the aircraft was not disarmed—and my squadron commander chewed me out.”

The F-100 airstrike ended the Battle of Bien Hoa, which remains possibly the only time that Air Force pilots conducted an airstrike on their own base. (See footage of the battle, taken by Specialist 5 Gerry Ellenson, 20th PMU, 44th Medical Brigade, here.)

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The F-100 flew 360,283 sorties during the Vietnam War, notes the Super Sabre Society, more than all other combat aircraft combined. Keith Ferris' painting depicts the National Air and Space Museum's F-100 as it looked during the Battle of Bien Hoa Air Base, January 31, 1968. (Courtesy the Super Sabre Society; copyright Keith Ferris)

Abrams, Jackson, and Hopkins are members of the Super Sabre Society, an organization of approximately 1,400 former F-100 pilots, electronic warfare officers, and flight surgeons. The society commissioned renowned aviation artist Keith Ferris to depict the Museum’s F-100 as it appeared during the Tet Offensive, and the painting was unveiled at yesterday’s event. It will be on exhibit temporarily, but a transparency installed in a back-lit lightbox will be permanently displayed alongside the aircraft.

The aircraft is depicted carrying all of the ordnance it carried at the Battle of Bien Hoa Air Base, says Hopkins, currently the executive director and CEO of the Super Sabre Society.  “To the average viewer, 440 is just another neat fighter plane on static display at this wonderful museum. Few can imagine what the plane looked like at the top of its flying career. Because of that, we in the Super Sabre Society decided to do something that would try to bring the static airplane back to life while the viewer was looking at it.”

They’ve succeeded wonderfully; next time you visit the Museum, you can see not only the actual F-100, but also how the veterans of the Battle of Bien Hoa Air Base would like it remembered.

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