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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"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.

Sixty-five of the Vietnamese arrivals, all from one C-130, wanted to go back to Vietnam. Led by 27-year-old Second Lieutenant Cao Van Li, these VNAF personnel had not realized they were leaving the country when the aircraft took off from Saigon. They had left their families in Vietnam, and now they threatened suicide if their request to return was denied. "They were all youngsters," says Austin. "We told them we were sending them to Guam. They’d never heard of Guam."

Austin enlisted the help of a VNAF colonel, who pointed out to the men that they would almost certainly be shot if they returned. An American chaplain also helped with the negotiations. "He worked his tail off," says Austin. And as the C-141s came and went, all but 13 Vietnamese agreed to leave for Guam. With 3,900 refugees already airlifted out, Austin continued trying to coax the last group aboard. "U.S. Embassy and Air Force interpreters informed the refugees that under Thai law they could be categorized as illegal immigrants and as such would be jailed and shot," Austin says, but the Vietnamese were adamant. Austin’s medical personnel suggested sedating the remaining 13, a practice they had used before when dealing with medical evacuees who were apprehensive or whose condition required immobility during travel. With the lone C-141 holding on the ramp for departure and the Thais threatening to put the rebels on by force, Austin approved the sedation.

The first Vietnamese to be sedated was carried into the medical trailer. The remaining 12 hesitated but did not resist. Austin directed four Air Force security policemen and a male nurse to accompany the aircraft.

When the aircraft landed at Guam, Lieutenant Cao Van Li protested his treatment to officials there. "I am not a Communist," he said, "but I want to go home. My family is there. They need me." The press picked up the story. Suddenly Austin found himself the focus of an international incident that eventually resulted in his removal as commander of the 635th. "I’d make the same decision today," Austin says.

A few days before the exodus from Saigon, Aderholt had sent Air Force Captain Roger L. Youngblood to Trat Field on the Thai border with Cambodia. Flying a Royal Thai Air Force AU-23 (a derivative of the Pilatus PC-6 Turbo-Porter that could handle the short runway at Trat), Youngblood orbited in the area with a Vietnamese co-pilot. The co-pilot stayed on the radio giving the tower frequency for U Taphao and trying to direct pilots to land there. Not all of the pilots made it.

On the night of April 29, Aderholt, who had advisors all over Thailand, started receiving information about airplanes that had landed in fields, on roads, in any clearing the pilots could find. An A-37 that had landed on the highway near Korat Air Base, north of Bangkok, was sitting near a school. The pilot had taxied off the road and into a schoolyard before shutting down. The airplane still carried bombs under its wings. Aderholt dispatched an Air Force captain from Udorn to fly the A-37 back to that base.

The reports continued to come in, and on May 1 Aderholt ordered U.S. Army helicopters detailed to MACTHAI to ferry pilots and 55-gallon drums of jet fuel to locations in Thailand and Cambodia where airplanes and helicopters had landed. Youngblood flew back to Trat with former forward air controller Briggs Dogood to make one of the trickier recoveries.

"We went by jeep to a nearby rice paddy where an O-1 was stranded on a cart path with barely a foot clearance on either side of the landing gear," Youngblood recalls. "Dogood paced off the length of the path, put some gas from a tanker truck into the plane. Then he got in and in a cloud of dust flew the O-1 off the cart path."

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