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.

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

Le started the engines and taxied. "It was a mess," he says. "No one was manning the tower. Aircraft jockeyed for position, trying to get to the runway and into the air before being damaged by rockets." An Aim-9 missile lay in the center of Le’s path. Empty fuel tanks littered the area.

Inside the A-37, Le listened on the tower frequency, awash with confused and panicky calls as pilots asked for directions that would never come. As he waited for his chance to take off, Le watched the chaos around him.

"In the distance, a twin-engine C-7 [Caribou] rolled down the runway. The pilot had forgotten to remove the control locks," Le recalls. "The plane never got airborne. Instead, it plowed into the overrun and burst into flames. People came crawling from the wreckage. Some ran, others limped back to the ramp looking for other aircraft to board."

Finally, Le took his turn on the runway. To the north, raging fires and towering columns of smoke marked ammunition dumps that were being blown up before the arrival of the Communist forces. Le added power, took off, and headed west.

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