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Airlift to KHE SANH
Story by: Sam McGowan
Twenty-nine years ago this month, in January, 1968 the most famous battle of the
Vietnam War began. The name of an obscure outpost in the extreme northwestern corner of
South Vietnam became a household word as the fate of the Marine garrison at the Khe Sanh
Combat Base remained in doubt for more than two months. For the first time, most Americans
became aware of the importance of the USAF and USMC airlifters in Vietnam, especially the
C-130s and C-123s of the USAF 834th Air Division.
Khe Sanh had been familiar to airlifters in Vietnam for years, as evidenced by the many visits to the remote outpost by C-123s in the early 1960s. In 1967 the Marines went into Khe Sanh during Operation Hastings, and established a combat base in one of the most remote areas of South Vietnam. Khe Sanh was only a few miles from the DMZ and equally close to Communist artillery positions in the mountains of Laos, which lay just to the west. Though their leaders have since denied it, the North Vietnamese quite obviously pinned their hopes for a victory over the Americans on Khe Sanh, which they saw as an American repeat of the French disaster at Dien Bien Phu some 14 years before during the French Indo-China War. But while there were similarities, the Americans possessed many advantages over the French, not the least of which was the presence of the C-130 in its airlift inventory. Though remote, Khe Sanh was also in helicopter and artillery range of other American positions in northern I Corps. And, though the American press and several writers have left the impression that General Westmoreland was unaware of the North Vietnamese buildup around the base and elsewhere the country, in reality the NVA interest in the region had been known since at least December, 1967. General Westmoreland believed that the American airlifters would be able to keep the base supplied if it were attacked. Subsequent events proved him right.
Khe Sanh was not the first Allied base in Vietnam to be surrounded and have to depend on airlift for resupply until the defenders were relieved, but it was the largest. It was also the first time that the besieged force was large enough to require a major airlift effort. The USMC combat base was established in the fall of 1967 after Marine engineers reopened a road between Khe Sanh and Dong Ha, but the defenders were supplied primarily by air due to the unreliability of the road. A C-130E crashed while landing at the base in October, 1967 under a low ceiling; the airplane hit 300 short and only one of the six crew members survived.
In mid-January the situation at Khe Sanh became critical as Communist shelling of the base intensified; on January 21, 1968 shells struck the ammunition dump and set off a series of explosions that destroyed nearly the entire supply. An emergency resupply was mounted by C-123s of the 311th "Blast Their Ass" Air Commando squadron from Da Nang because much of the runway was unusable, which temporarily ruled out C-130 use. Six C-123s landed at Khe Sanh just before dark and off-loaded ammunition. Other loads were brought in by USMC heavy-lift helicopters. The C-123s continued to land the following day. Two days later, on January 23, C-130 landings resumed. Meanwhile, helicopter missions brought in Marine reinforcements. Over the next week and a half, operations continued into Khe Sanh, with an average of 18 C-130s landing each day. The smaller C-123s and C-7s averaged two flights at day at this time, and the C-7 operations would cease all together at the end of January. USMC C-130s and helicopters boosted the airlift, with the USMC fixed-wing transports primarily responsible for the delivery of fuel since they were not equipped with the 463L cargo handling system that allowed rapid on and off-loads of the C-130s. During the month of January the USAF airlifted 3,600 tons of supplies into Khe Sanh while the Marines brought in 565 tons.
Landing at Khe Sanh called for the utmost pilot skill. In January and February Vietnam lay in the grip of the Cochin Winds, which brought in moisture from the South China Sea and kept ceilings and visibilities low. But the clouds offered concealment from the Communist gunners, who fired at every transport as it passed overhead. The Marines and airmen on the ground came to depend on the Communist guns as their schedule that a transport was in-bound! Marines at Khe Sanh began to refer to the C-130s as "mortar magnets" for each landing brought an artillery barrage. Yet, surprisingly, though several airplanes were damaged, no USAF C-130s were actually shot down or destroyed at Khe Sanh during the actual siege itself. The same could not be said for the C-123s or the USMC C-130s.
On February 10 a USMC KC-130 from VMGR-152 was landing at Khe Sanh with a load of fuel in bladders and some Marine passengers when it was hit by ground fire while on final approach. One of the fuel bladders ruptured and the fuel was set on fire. Explosions ripped through the airplane during the landing roll and it erupted in flames when it came to a halt. The pilot, CWO Henry Wildfang, managed to escape through a side window, along with the co-pilot, a Major White. But two of the crew members and four passengers died in the fire, and a third crew member died later of injuries. The crash was filmed by military news photographers and footage was released to the press. That same shot appeared on the 6:00 O'clock News in the United States for weeks!
A few days before the crash of the USMC C-130, a C-130E commanded by Lt. Col. Howard Dallman came under fire right after landing. Flames spread through the interior of the airplane. Dallman taxied clear of the runway while the two enlisted crew members, SSgts Charles Brault and Wade Green fought the fire with hand-held fire extinguishers. They managed to put the fire out, but the airplane was still in range of small arms and mortar fire which knocked out a main gear tire. The crew pushed the smoldering pallets out of the airplane, then taxied to the cargo ramp to change the tire, using a jack that the flight engineer jury-rigged to accommodate the C-130. While they were working, the Communists shelled the field in an attempt to destroy the airplane on the ground. One shell exploded nearby, and knocked out an engine. Col. Dallman prepared for a 3-engine takeoff but the copilot, Capt. Roland Behnke, managed to start it. They took off low on fuel and still taking hits. Lt. Col. Dallman was decorated with the first Air Force Cross to go a C-130 crew member while his crew received Silver Stars and DFCs.
The day after the crash of the Marine KC-130, another C-130E was damaged by mortar fire during landing Two passengers were killed and the loadmaster was seriously injured. Two members of the Air Force detachment at Khe Sanh came out and helped put out the fire, but the airplane was in no shape to fly. The aircrew and USAF personnel at Khe Sanh worked on the airplane with the help of a specialist who was flown in from Da Nang. One mechanic worked on the tail at night, using a flashlight in spite of the enemy forces around the base. After two days on the ground, the crew took their sick Hercules off from Khe Sanh and flew to Da Nang, where more than 240 bullet holes were counted. Captain Edwin Jenks and his crew were all recommended for the Silver Star.
After the near-loss of Jenk's airplane, Lt. Gen. William Momyer, the 7th Air Force commander, ordered a halt to USAF C-130 landings at the base. The former TAC officer had worked on projects involving C-130s and was a firm believer in the importance as national assets. He believed the United States could ill-afford to expose the valuable airplanes when their were other methods of supplying the camp. While the C-130s would be considerably less-exposed in the airdrop role, the smaller C-123s could stop shorter and spend less time on the ground while the tiny C-7 could be used for emergency missions delivering supplies and personnel and for air evac.
Beginning on February 13, the 834th Air Division began regular airdrop missions to Khe Sanh. Fortunately, previous experiments using ground-controlled approach radar to position drop planes had proven the feasibility of the method. The atrocious weather at the combat base made IFR drops a necessity. Drop planes entered an approach pattern at high altitude, then were vectored by the GCA operators to the end of the runway. At that point the navigator started his doppler computer which gave headings for the pilot to fly to the release point while the navigator kept track using his stopwatch and doppler information. Blind drops of cargo without the crew even seeing the ground began a regular occurrence at Khe Sanh.
While the USAF C-130s turned to airdrop, USMC C-130s and USAF C-123s continued landing when possible, which was often not the case. Marine helicopters flew supplies to the outlying outposts from nearby Dong Ha and Quang Tri. Enemy shelling of the combat base was almost constant, and landings were extremely hazardous. Three C-123s were lost in early March. The first was hit by mortar fragments during take-off. The pilot got the airplane on the ground safely but artillery destroyed it before it could be repaired. Five days later another C-123 was hit by ground fire and exploded when the crew was unable to use the customary evasive tactics that kept most transports from being hit. They had been on approach, but had to break off to avoid hitting a South Vietnamese light airplane and were hit was they maneuvered to realign with the runway. Another C-123 was hit that same afternoon when it was hit by disabling mortar fire; artillery finished the job. To prevent unnecessary C-123 losses, their cargoes were restricted to items too fragile for airdrop.
Even though the C-130 drop planes were not exposed to artillery fire on the ground, they were still targets for enemy antiaircraft gunners for whom the transports were priority targets. The Communists were well-aware of the importance of airlift to the Allied forces. Many C-130s returned from drop missions to Khe Sanh with battle damage. A crew from my old squadron at Pope, the 779th TCS and including my old navigator, D.J. Eller, , was TDY to 315th Air Division in response to the Pueblo Crisis and TET attacks and on further TDY to Vietnam with 834th. They were hit while on approach to Khe Sanh and the left external fuel tank caught fire. (Yes, folks, JP-4 will definitely catch fire!) The pilot, Captain John Payne, increased airspeed in an attempt to blow out the fire - the tactic worked! They were told to break off their second pass because mortar rounds were impacting on the DZ. On their third pass, flying a damaged airplane, they put their load of CDS containers right on target!
The Container Delivery System, CDS, was the primary means of airdrop used at Khe Sanh. A single C-130 could drop from 12-18 containers, depending on their size. Larger loads called for LAPES, the low-altitude parachute extraction system, which called for the airplane to skim the ground until reaching the release point, at which a parachute was released to extract the load. But the confined nature of the base and the close proximity of Marine quarters made the LAPES missions hazardous. One load went wild when the parachute broke away and killed a Marine. Previously, another LAPES mission struck the group prematurely and tore off the C-130's open ramp. The load extracted prematurely and killed a man on the ground and injured another. Five other Marines were killed when a CDS drop went wild and landed on bunkers.
On March 30 the first GPES mission was flown at Khe Sanh. GPES, for ground proximity extraction system, had been discontinued in TAC after the development of LAPES because the latter required no ground equipment. GPES used a hook hanging from the bottom of the low-flying C-130 to snare a cable stretched between two drums buried in the ground to extract the load. There were some problems with GPES, but it afforded pin-point accuracy when everything went well. The first GPES mission at Khe Sanh included a crate of eggs on the platform and not a single one was broken!
To support the Marines, a constant stream of air and artillery strikes - including dozens of B-52 ARC Light missions - rained down on the North Vietnamese surrounding the combat base. All of this firepower took its toll on the Communists and by later March the artillery barrages were beginning to lessen. A relief mission by the US Army's First Cavalry Division and other Marine units known as PEGASUS was underway. Another airstrip, LZ STUD, was opened halfway between Dong Ha and Khe Sanh for C-123 use. Landings by C-130s resumed in early April, and Highway 9 was reopened linking the camp to Dong Ha.
Even though the Khe Sanh missions were some of the most difficult ever for USAF airlifters, they were not without moments of humor. On flight, a C-130 pilot from Naha, Okinawa was getting a flight check. The Stan/Eval pilot went in back to help with the off-loading and up-loading of wounded Marines. Enemy mortar and artillery shells were falling on the base, with each subsequent volley getting closer and closer to the C-130A. When a shell hit close enough to throw shrapnel into the side of the airplane, the pilot decided it was time to leave. He began a fast taxi toward the runway, unaware that the flight examiner had for some reason left the airplane. The FE saw the airplane start to taxi and ran to catch it. He ran after the airplane and managed to grab the end of the ramp, but had to let go when his clothes began to rip away and the heels wore off of his jungle boots. Later, he caught a ride back to Cam Rhan on another C-130. That evening he ran into the pilot he had been checking earlier in the day. "Well, I guess we can call your check ride complete. You run a hell of a tight ship. But, I do have one criticism - your predeparture briefing leaves A LOT to be desired."
(Sam McGowan, 1/13/97)
For further reading, see TACTICAL AIRLIFT, by the Office of Air Force History.
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