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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When it became clear to Aderholt that the North Vietnamese were going to claim the airplanes and helicopters that had escaped into Thailand, Youngblood also flew aircraft out of U Taphao. Aderholt learned that the Hanoi government’s first move would be to send a delegation to Thailand to inventory the VNAF aircraft. The Thai government, intimidated by Hanoi, ordered the aircraft impounded. "The aircraft were Military Assistance Program assets and as such still belonged to the U.S. government," says Aderholt, but he wasn’t sure that he could count on the Thais to see it that way. He decided to get as many of the aircraft as he could to the United States fast.

Aderholt first gave five F-5As to the air chief marshal of the Royal Thai Air Force to get the Thai military on his side. He had no authority to do so; the U.S. Embassy, in negotiation with the Thais and the North Vietnamese, was responsible for the final disposition of the aircraft. But, Aderholt knew, it would be difficult for the state department to take back the gift.

Aderholt learned from Pacific Command in Hawaii that the USS Midway was on its way to a Royal Thai Navy Base near U Taphao, to offload U.S. HH-53 helicopters that had taken part in the evacuation of Saigon. Says Aderholt, "The Midway was given a new mission: Load the most valuable VNAF aircraft currently at U Taphao."

On May 5 the aircraft carrier pulled into port, and Austin hurriedly began the transport of jet aircraft by helicopter to its deck. Two F-5s fell from the helicopter slings: One dropped 25 feet onto the dock and the other into the water. The remaining aircraft were then moved overland by truck to the port at Sattahip, and no more were lost.

Loading only the most valuable aircraft aboard the Midway meant, of course, that older combat aircraft, like the A-1 Skyraiders, would be left behind. These propeller-driven aircraft had proven effective in close-air-support and rescue operations, and Aderholt was not about to let them fall into Vietnamese hands. With the blessing of the Thai military, Aderholt ordered Youngblood and Major Jack W. Drummond, both pilots who had flown Skyraiders years earlier, to U Taphao to fly the A-ls to a "less conspicuous location."

"Start, taxi, and run up were accomplished and the thrill of sitting behind the single 3350 [Pratt & Whitney engine] came rushing back," wrote Drummond of the incident in a recent A-1 Skyraider Association newsletter. "Takeoff was no sweat. Both of us felt that we had probably made the best landings of our A-1 careers!"

They delivered the airplanes to Ta Khli Air Base in central Thailand and parked them out of sight in a hangar. (Aderholt was familiar with the base because he had worked with the CIA there to send U-2s on missions over China.) The two pilots returned to U Taphao and brought another pair of A-ls to Ta Khli. When the U.S. Embassy in Thailand found out about the F-5s that were given to the Thai air force and the movement of A-ls, Drummond and Youngblood were returned to their regular duties, and the remaining A-1s stayed at U Taphao.

While the U.S., Hanoi, and Thai governments arm wrestled, the Midway and several other Seventh Fleet ships slipped port loaded with 142 VNAF aircraft bound for Guam. At least one C-123K also made it out of Thailand. Today tail number 54-00592 is at Avra Valley Airport in Marana, Arizona. No one remembers the details of how it came to be there.

Aderholt retired from the Air Force in 1976, but he stayed in Thailand for four more years—long enough to arrange transport home for the four A-1s he had sent to Ta Khli. He says today that he knew those aircraft had become rare in the United States and he wanted to make sure a few were preserved.

Aderholt rented tractors to pull the airplanes from Ta Khli to the Chao Prya River. He had them loaded on four barges brought up from Bangkok, which immediately got mired in shallows. Aderholt bribed the keeper of the Chainat Dam with 20,000 baht ($1,000 at the time) to open the flood gates. The barges floated down river to the port, and the aircraft were loaded on a ship. Later, warbird collector Dave Tallichet brought them to Los Angeles and stored them at Orange County Airport until 1986. Tallichet still flies one of the Skyraiders out of Chino Field in California. Another is on display at the Santa Monica Museum of Flight in California.

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