Tan son Nhut Airbase
04:00, April 29, 1975
We were decisively winning the war in Vietnam because President Richard Nixon started bombing Hanoi and Haiphong and forced the North Vietnamese back to the negotiating table. We had a victorious end to the war. The Paris Peace Accords promised that should the North continue it’s aggression, we would replace all hardware the RVN lost defending themselves on a piece by piece basis.
Then came Watergate and President Nixon was forced to resign in August of 1974 followed by the November election of the 94th US Congress with it’s landslide Democrat victory. The new congress wasted no time stabbing our South Vietnamese allies in the back by canceling all military aid. The communists tested us over and over by driving deeper and deeper into the South.
On April 10th President Gerald Ford addressed Congress in a nationally televised speech to beg them to honor our commitments but several members walked out. It wasn’t long before more than 13 North Vietnamese army divisions encircled Saigon which was defended with less than a full division of green troops.
In mid April I received orders along with 5 others to move from Kunsan Korea to Clark Airbase in the Philippines to help provide security on the flights out of Tan son Nhut. When we arrived we didn’t get a lot of time to settle in. By that time the C-141 and C-130 aircraft were operating pretty much around the clock and the emphasis was on making sure we got out as many Americans, their families, and at-risk Vietnamese civilians as possible in the time we had left.
I was scheduled to fly out on the 28th but the North Vietnamese attacked Tan son Nhut using captured American A-37s and dropped 500 lb. bombs that day which led to a temporary halt in the flights.
Finally we departed at about 00:30 local on the morning of the 29th carrying a BLU-82 15,000 lb. bomb which was to go to the South Vietnamese defenders. They had earlier employed them against the NVA during the Battle of Xuan Loc in a desperate attempt to stop their advance into the south and planned to use them again. In addition, my partner and I were equipped with CAR-15 rifles, extra magazines, and two bags full of hand grenades.
As we approached the coast of Vietnam, we were told to hold for a period of time for clearance to proceed on in. Finally the decision was made that conditions were safe enough to land and we headed toward the airport.
Our Aircraft Commander, Capt. Arthur Mallano, initiated a combat approach to the runway and let me tell you, that was a helluva ride. I was a real moron back then (the wife says I still am) so I picked out the closest place to the center of the cargo deck beside that big bomb and laid out spread-eagle for the best roller coaster ride ever.
After we landed we stopped at the RVN holding area and unloaded that bomb followed by two other aircraft which also unloaded their load of ordinance and then taxied to the area where refugees were waiting to board.
We were almost full when the second of our three plane convoy pulled up and dropped it’s cargo door to begin loading.
At that time, 03:58 local, the third aircraft approached and I heard a giant whoosh and an explosion. The attackers hit just under its right wing with a SA-7 Strella rocket and the aircraft exploded. The entire crew was miraculously able to escape and run to the C-130 that was about to begin boarding. All hell broke loose as the field came under heavy rocket, mortar, and small arms fire.
There was a SVAF C-130 beginning its take-off roll and we followed behind. Our pilot seemed to be just idling down the taxiway, but I read from his account later that he had wanted to use it for takeoff but realized there was an anti-aircraft emplacement at the end and he was scared we’d hit those guns sticking up as we tried to climb out.
After what seemed like an eternity, he got us to the runway with rockets hitting to the left, right, in front, and behind us.
On my headset I could hear someone in the tower shouting with automatic fire in the background “DO NOT TAKE OFF”. “YOU DON”T HAVE PERMISSION TO TAKE OFF” I don’t know if the answer came from our pilot or someone on the other plane but I heard someone yell back, “FUCK YOU JACK, WE’RE GONE”.
We had over 260 people crammed into the airplane, and as heavy as we were, we had only made it to 6,000 ft. when the one behind us was already crossing 22,000 ft.
As I watched the destroyed C-130 burning on the ground, not knowing that my friends had made it out safe, the pilot yelled that our marker lights were still on. We were climbing above a pitched battle with every light blazing. We might as well have been wearing a sign that said, “Shoot me”. I lunged for the control panel but the load master beat me to it. A little less exposed, we continued our climb.
I watched a SVAF C-119 which had been trying to suppress hostile fire fall out of the sky in flames from way above us to below us for what what seemed like forever. I never saw its impact.
I was thinking just how thin the aluminum skin protecting us really was when things grew quiet and we headed overland towards the coast. Finally we were out of Vietnamese airspace and everyone breathed a sigh of relief.
Our trip back to the Philippines no fun either. Imagine that many people who had been made to wait in that hot environment for days wedged into a space meant to hold less than 100 souls. Several evacuees wanted desperately for me to tell them that we would continue to rescue their sons, daughters, parents, and all the others. I wanted to hope we’d somehow continue but it just wasn’t in the cards. We were the last two fixed wing aircraft that made it out of that place.
When we landed in the PI, we taxied to our unloading spot and the refugees began streaming off the aircraft. As my partner and I exited, some asshole Major screamed at us to get back on the plane and stay out of sight. There were news crews there and they couldn’t have us being seen carrying weapons. A half hour later we were finally allowed to deplane.
And… just like that, it was all over.