Document created: 15 October 2003
Air University Review, November-December 1974
The usefulness of the transport airplane in theater operations became clear during the Second World War. An important doctrinal contradiction remained, however. Many American air and ground officers saw in the parachute and glider assault a new order of combat zone mobility for ground units. Others realized that the fixed-wing transport had proven better suited for less rigorous, though important, tasks. The Korean War seemed to support the latter view. Paratroop assaults were rarities in Korea, but several hundred USAF transports ranged the war zone daily—landing with ammunition and other supplies, hauling units and personnel, dropping supplies to isolated units, and evacuating casualties to Japan.1
Post-Korean tactical airlift doctrine was divided. The quest for battlefield mobility brought into existence the Fairchild C-123. The twin-engine Provider was called an “assault transport,” having been developed from a glider airframe for the purpose of rough-field landings at forward landing zones. The craft’s assault landing capabilities complemented the parachute-delivery strengths of the older C-119, still in active service in the mid-fifties.2
The larger and more powerful C-130 joined the active force in 1956. This four-engine Lockheed turboprop brought vastly improved speed, range, and payload—qualities useful for high-volume or intertheater operations. During the next decade of Cold War crises, the mission of moving task forces to overseas trouble spots became foremost. Patterns varied, but often the C-130s of Tactical Air Command deployed men and equipment of tactical air units overseas, while the larger C-124s hauled ground troop elements. Although C-130 crews continued to practice parachute techniques and although for its size the Hercules had excellent short- and rough-field potentialities, combat zone assault work had become secondary.3
One potentially important development had been short-lived. Design studies in 1949 had indicated that rotary-wing craft of worthwhile payload were within reach. Although some officers felt that helicopters were overly vulnerable to ground fire, TAC organized its first rotary-wing unit in early 1952. The helicopter fit easily into older airlift doctrine: the craft possessed obvious advantages over the parachute for the assault and short-haul resupply, along with unmatched capacity for pickup of casualties. By the end of 1955, five helicopter squadrons had been activated in TAC, building toward a nine-squadron force.
The decision to dismantle the helicopter airlift arm was a reluctant one, made after repeated and firm refusals by U.S. Army officials to support a USAF combat zone helicopter lift role. Major General Chester E. McCarty, commanding airlift forces within TAC, dissented, warning that future improvements in rotary-wing craft would eventually result in “real airlift potential that definitely should be integrated with and assigned to the Theater Combat Airlift Force.” Most Air Force leaders became reconciled to the loss of the helicopter airlift arm, aware of the very limited range and payload capacities of existing helicopter types. Thus, in 1961, with the USAF helicopter arm stillborn and with the athletic C-123s programmed for retirement from the active force, USAF battlefield delivery capabilities were not impressive.4
the airmobility challenge
Robust ideas were emerging in the U.S. Army—toward greater, not less, use of airlift for mobility in the combat zone. The promise of helicopters had been glimpsed in Korea, and in 1954 Army staff studies were reflected in a Harper’s article entitled “Cavalry, and I Don’t Mean Horses!” The author was Lieutenant General James M. Gavin, G-3, Department of the Army. Later, from retirement, Gavin in War and Peace in the Space Age (1958) called for creation of “sky cavalry” formations, capable of dispersal and movement over the nuclear battlefield. Field Manual 57-35, Airmobile Operations, described the movement of combat elements about the battlefield in Army-owned air vehicles; for example, following up nuclear detonations or—conceivably—in counterguerrilla situations. In The Uncertain Trumpet (1959), General Maxwell Taylor, the retiring Army Chief of Staff, wrote that new equipment for tactical airlift (and for tactical air support) should be organic within the Army, claiming that the Air Force had long neglected these responsibilities to the Army. By 1960, the Army possessed 5500 helicopter and fixed-wing aircraft (up from 3200 in 1953) and planned a further expansion to 8800 over the next ten years. Few of the active helicopters, however, were sufficiently powered to fulfill the kind of large-scale mobility envisioned by Gavin, Taylor, and the newer generation of airmobility leaders.5
The Air Force consistently opposed expansion of the Army’s transport helicopter arm, convinced that transport aircraft should be controlled centrally at theater commander level to preserve the mobility, flexibility, and capacity for concentration inherent in air forces. USAF positions rested on the Air Force’s longstanding legal responsibility for conducting airborne operations and a 1956 clarification ruling out “large-scale movements of sizable Army combat units” by Army aviation. Thus, the disagreement between the services over ownership and control of airlift forces grew firm. In the regularly held joint field exercises, activities focused on the parachute assault, avoiding the issue-laden matter of helicopter troop mobility. Numerous technical questions relating to airmobility thus remained unanswered, among them methods for air traffic control at forward airheads and agreed responsibilities for medical evacuation, cargo handling, and pathfinding. Army and Air Force aircrews remained equipped with incompatible radio equipment, unable to converse with one another at future crowded airheads.6
Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and members of his civilian staff moved firmly to unblock airmobile policy. After several months of preliminary discussions, McNamara by memorandum of April 1962 called upon the Army for “fresh and perhaps unorthodox concepts which will give us a significant increase in mobility.” Four months later, an Army board under the chairmanship of Lieutenant General Hamilton H. Howze reported (in its own words) “a single general conclusion: adoption by the Army of the airmobile concept.” The group recommended formation of “air assault” divisions, equipped with large numbers of aircraft for hauling troops into battle and providing fire support. Separately organized air transport brigades, equipped with heavier helicopters and Caribou fixed-wing transports, would distribute supplies to forward points. USAF transports, the Howze group envisioned, would make “wholesale movements to bases as far forward as possible,” linking there with the Army’s transport craft to form an all-air line of communication.7
Partly in response to the Howze report, the Air Force pressed ahead projects designed to improve the ability of the C-130 for forward zone delivery. A new family of formation low-level tactics was designed and tested, along with new Doppler navigation systems, both in part intended to facilitate accurate drops in marginal weather. Methods of delivering heavy loads while flying several feet above the ground were tested, using either an extraction parachute or a hook-and-cable arrangement. The extraction idea promised to overcome the dependence of the C-130 on semi prepared 3000-foot airstrips. Short-field landing tests in 1962 brought approval for several landing-gear modifications. A new cargo-handling system, known as 463L, included features for better forward area offloading. Thus, the Air Force in November 1962 could correctly inform Secretary McNamara that it, too, was taking “imaginative approaches.” The efforts were designed to back up the twofold Air Force position: (1) that the C-130s could do much of the work envisioned by the Howze board for Army craft and (2) that all transports should be centrally controlled at theater level, available for allocation to the most valid requirement.8
Concepts of both services were refined in a series of field exercises during 1963 and 1964. Over 200 USAF transports, centrally controlled, served in SWIFT STRIKE III (1963), hauling 34,000 troops and 27,000 tons of cargo into an objective area during two weeks of simulated assault and resupply. Exercise GOLDFIRE I in 1964 again featured mass deliveries by C-130s and further use of the low-level extraction methods. A small provisional unit of USAF CH-3 helicopters performed over 600 assault and resupply sorties: the unit’s commander foresaw “a vastly expanded rotary-wing retail air arm working in concert with a fixed-wing wholesale delivery.” Army concepts were tested in Exercise AIR ASSAULT II in October 1964. The results greatly encouraged airmobile leaders, although one weakness became clear: despite the tireless efforts of the Army Caribou aircrews, the 2 ½-ton payload of that craft was far too small for high-volume air line-of-communication (LOC) resupply.9
The series of tests failed to end disagreement between the services, but technical progress was undeniable. The competence of the C-130 fleet for much forward area work was now clear, while from AIR ASSAULT II the Army recommended to Secretary McNamara that the provisional air assault division be established on the active list. Plainly, the capabilities of the C-130 and C-123 overlapped with those of the Caribou and Chinook, although complementary features were equally obvious. Basic questions remained—how far forward the C-130 airhead should be located and whether the Army should exclusively retain the Caribou and medium helicopter roles. The emergence of an agreed, flexible system of airmobility and air resupply awaited the realities of Vietnam.
early years in Vietnam
A diverse fleet of American air elements—Army, Air Force, and Marine—served in Vietnam during the early sixties; the dominant elements were fixed-wing and helicopter transport units, with missions of providing airlift for the Vietnamese war effort. Arriving with a small force of strike aircraft in November 1961 were four USAF C-47s, their foremost task the resupply of isolated camps manned by U.S. Special Forces and indigenous irregulars. Deliveries were often by parachute. The air commando C-47s were gradually overshadowed by a larger force of USAF C-123s, expanding to four 16-ship squadrons by late 1964. Besides joining in camp resupply, the 123s lifted Vietnamese infantry units to regional airfields about the country and performed countrywide air logistics services. The American transport crews also worked with Vietnamese paratroop battalions, making practice drops and standing alert for “fire brigade” emergencies. Two Vietnamese Air Force C-47 squadrons performed similar roles, augmented by several dozen USAF officers assigned as copilots during 1962-63. The Vietnamese airborne battalions made a number of combat parachute assaults from the C-47s and C-123s, in most cases failing to bring the elusive enemy to battle.10
Three U.S. Army helicopter companies arrived in Vietnam in December 1961 and January 1962, along with a company of Otter fixed-wing craft. The Otters proved useful for supporting the troop-carrying helicopter units and for making deliveries to tiny strips. Two more light helicopter companies followed later in 1962, along with a U.S. Marine helicopter squadron and an Army unit equipped with turbine-powered UH-ls—craft destined to become the backbone of airmobility through most of the war. The American helicopter force performed frequent tactical assaults with Vietnamese infantry, trying out and refining many of the tactics that were later commonplace. An Army Caribou company entered in December 1962, expanding briefly with a second company the next year. The Caribous performed diverse tasks, flying into most Special Forces camps and proving their ability for operations into primitive strips.11
By early 1965, USAF C-130s based offshore were rotating into Vietnam for periods of temporary duty, augmenting the C-123s. Both the 123s and the 130s were centrally controlled, under the USAF-managed Southeast Asia Airlift System. Allocations and priorities were by theater (i.e., MACV) agencies, and an airlift control center at Saigon assigned tasks and monitored the progress of missions countrywide. The other air transport elements remained outside the central system, except for a few Caribous intermittently included in deference to heavy USAF pressure.12
To the Americans, the advantages of the mobility and flexibility conferred by the fixed-wing and helicopter package were manifest. The fixed-wing fleet made urgent battalion and larger reinforcement lifts into airstrips in regions of confrontation, while the helicopters had in essence restored to the Vietnamese a capacity for the tactical offensive. The USAF fixed-wing elements, however, had rarely been employed in direct support of airmobile enterprises.
Employment of the C-130s and C-123s to extend the range, stamina, and weight of allied offensive airmobile operations awaited the movement into Vietnam of U.S. Army brigades in 1965. Many of the methods were drawn from the 1963 and 1964 field exercises and were worked out in Vietnam by practical men of both services, many of them veterans of those same exercises. Successful partnership ensued between the Air Force transports and brigades of three distinct configurations—airmobile, airborne, and conventional infantry.
entry of the cavalry division
President Johnson in July 1965 authorized deployment to Vietnam of the newly authorized 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile). Air Force leaders warned against an Army proposal to place the division in the interior highlands about Pleiku, given the insecurity of land routes from the coast and the small number of C-130 airfields near Pleiku (three). Air officers rebutted suggestions that Caribous could if necessary handle the highlands LOC by delivering into lesser fields, pointing out that a daily 800-ton lift requirement equated to 141 Caribou round trips (or 29 C-130 trips). The decision to base the division at An Khe, relatively close to the port of Qui Nhon, reflected these considerations.13
On entering Vietnam, the cavalry division possessed eight infantry battalions, three of them with parachute capability. Over 400 aircraft were taken overseas, nearly all helicopters, primarily for troop mobility but including a 39-ship rocket battalion. Organized for general support within the division were several dozen medium CH-47 Chinooks. Caribou transports were not organic, but an 18-ship company flew the Pacific during the summer for direct support of the division out of Pleiku.
The cavalry’s early operations near An Khe were supported principally by highway LOC from Qui Nhon. C-123s and C-130s made supplementary deliveries to An Khe, including mail and aircraft spare parts from Saigon. USAF service was handicapped by the destructive effects of the An Khe pierced-steel plank runway on C-130 tires. Although the cavalry division requested priority allocation, or “dedication,” of C-123 and C-130 sorties, each mission was scheduled and controlled under the centralized theater system.14
The long-contemplated entry of the cavalry into the interior plateau was triggered by Communist pressure against Plei Me, a camp 25 miles south of Pleiku. Beginning on 20 October 1965, USAF C-123s and Army Caribous sustained Plei Me with drops of munitions and food. During the first five days of the resupply, at least 23 C-123s took hits from ground fire; seven ships were temporarily put out of service. As a Vietnamese relief column moved south from Pleiku, a one-battalion task force from the cavalry division moved to Pleiku, hauled from An Khe by Caribous and the division’s helicopters on the morning of the 23d. A second battalion moved in later in the day, along with artillery elements and a brigade headquarters. The deployment continued the next day, while some units helicoptered from Pleiku to sites chosen for artillery positions supporting the relief force. The Caribou and Chinook force became badly overworked by the movements and the resupply into and out of Pleiku. Despite an impressive round-the-clock effort, fuel supplies at Pleiku on the 26th were down to 7000 gallons, against recent daily consumption of 70,000. Expansion of the air LOC into the region became an absolute necessity on the 27th, with the American decision to unleash the cavalry, to seek out and destroy the enemy, now apparently retiring from Plei Me. Additional battalions moved out from An Khe, to join in the three weeks of aggressive airmobile warfare that followed.15
General Harry W. O. Kinnard, commander of the cavalry division, has indicated that he “at once” started through “multiple channels” to obtain Air Force airlift to Pleiku but that the requested assistance began slowly. Awareness of “the critical status of JP-4 at Pleiku” reached the MACV Operations Center at 2120 hours the evening of the 28th. Emergency air delivery of 50,000 gallons was requested for the next day, to commence at 0800. A midnight C-130 lift of empty 500-gallon containers was laid on and executed, hauling the bladders from Pleiku to Tan Son Nhut for refilling. Departures of POL-carrying C-130s from Tan Son Nhut for Pleiku began before dawn. Consumption continued to outpace supply, however, and by evening of the 29th the division reported “zero gallons of fuel on hand to support operations.”
Once fully underway, the C-130 POL lift to Pleiku was impressive. Eyewitnesses found the spectacle impressive—the 130s arriving at short intervals, each one rolling off ten or twelve 500-gallon bladders filled with JP-4, then departing without ever stopping engines. One crew offloaded 14 bladders. The huge capacity of the C-130 was of the essence; in contrast, a C-123 could handle only four bladders, a Caribou or Chinook, two. An anxious cavalry G-4 officer became finally reassured, after counting 134 filled bladders on hand.
The C-130 stream from Saigon hauled considerable ammunition as well as POL. The C-123s operated mainly between An Khe and the combat area, assisting the Caribous in troop and supply movements. Initially, all C-130 deliveries were into the 6000-foot Pleiku New airfield, just north of the city. Fuel bladders deposited at that field were picked up by Chinooks and taken to the helicopter forward operating locations south and west of the city; other cargo was trucked to the field at Holloway, just east of the city, which was rarely used by the 130s during the battle. An important step was the decision to bring the 130s directly into the 4000-foot dirt strip ten miles south of the city, known as Catecka Tea Plantation and serving as the principal helicopter refueling point. This move vastly eased the Chinook workload. It was made possible by dry weather and would have been stopped by any significant rainfall. The division’s G-4 afterwards reported that the Air Force transport into Catecka “was certainly one of the biggest godsends of the whole exercise.” Highway communications from An Khe into the battle area opened on 9 November, after road-clearing operations, although the airlift effort continued to operate at heavy volume thereafter. The Ia Drang campaign continued into late November, the enemy retiring into Cambodia from ground long dominated by his presence; the cavalry division estimated that enemy losses were equivalent to a full regiment.16
The air LOC had been vital in the tactical success. The Air Force reported that during the 29 days starting 27 October its transports delivered 5400 tons in direct support of 1st Cavalry Division or a daily average of 186 tons. Of this tonnage, 58 percent was POL. No cavalry request had been rejected, although the quantities delivered most days fell slightly short of the amount requested. General Kinnard, whose data indicated an Air Force contribution of 3188 tons, stated that the division also received from external points 2920 tons by organic air and 1446 tons overland, during 35 days. Retail distribution by organic airlift came to 5048 tons, much of it lifted from Pleiku New.
The campaign did much to clarify future relationships between Army airmobile and Air Force airlift forces. USAF hostility to the airmobile idea softened: General Hunter Harris, Commander of PACAF, advised the Chief of Staff that the cavalry had done “a highly commendable job” despite a demonstrated lack of staying power when using only organic resupply. The chief of the USAF tactical air control party with the division, Lieutenant Colonel John R. Stoner, returned to the United States several months later for a series of debriefings and interviews at Headquarters USAF. In a television tape prepared for internal use, Stoner persuasively stated that the airmobile division had been applied dramatically and effectively in Vietnam and that in the Ia Drang it had proven its ability to find and fight the enemy where no other formation could.
Both Stoner and his airlift coordinator, Captain Charles J. Corey, felt that the campaign had strengthened the willingness among officers of the cavalry division to seek Air Force assistance in the future. Kinnard concluded that airmobile units must plan to rely heavily on USAF support, for both firepower and resupply, and that Air Force airlift should be counted on to bring supplies forward to brigade base areas. Kinnard emphasized that his Chinooks and Caribous were needed for tactical moves and essential distribution, leaving the division with a need for Air Force lift probably greater than any other type of formation. Plainly, doctrinal divergences of the two services had narrowed.17
the airborne in Vietnam
Among the earliest American brigades entering Vietnam were two paratroop units, each with a historic tradition of partnership with the tactical airlift arm. The 173d Airborne Brigade, long stationed in the Pacific, moved from Okinawa in a 142-sortie C-130 stream during 5-7 May 1965. The 1st Brigade/101st Airborne Division arrived by sea at Cam Ranh Bay on 29 July. General William Westmoreland, Commander of MACV (including all U.S. forces in Vietnam), envisioned the two airborne brigades as strategic reserve forces, available for offensive or reaction operations throughout the country. Both were employed essentially in this way: deploying every few weeks to fresh operating areas, returning periodically to base camps for rest and retrofit. Both became well-practiced in airmobile assault methods, working with nonorganic helicopter companies attached on mission basis or for extended periods.
Most tactical operations were staged at forward airheads, usually C-130 or C-123 airstrips that were natural transshipment points for resupply. A typical airhead might contain a Forward Support Area unit (stocking several days of supplies), the brigade command center, perimeter defense forces, helicopter refueling and loading facilities, and artillery firing positions. Field operations could be easily staged within a radius of at least 20 miles from the airhead location, featuring multiple heliborne troop movements and fire from several outlying artillery fire support bases.
In planning movements and resupply efforts to these airheads, Army logisticians exploited fixed-wing transports, helicopters, ground vehicles, and, occasionally, water craft. Shifts over distances greater than 50 miles were usually performed by the C-123 and C-130 fleets exclusively. For shorter moves, considerations included the condition and security of roadways, desire for speed and surprise, and the availability of helicopters and trucks.
After a move in summer 1965 by C-130 and C-123 to the Pleiku region, the 173d returned to base camp at Bien Hoa, to begin a series of offensive endeavors, increasingly in partnership with the USAF airlift arm. For the penetration into the Iron Triangle region north of Saigon in early October, initial movement was by road. Subsequent resupply was by air, to avoid ambush by an alerted enemy. Since the forward supply point lacked a satisfactory airstrip, the air LOC rested upon C-123 airdrops, low-level extraction delivery by Caribous, and helicopters. The brigade had initially planned to receive eight C-123 (or four C-130) resupply deliveries daily by the extraction method but was surprised to learn that the ships and crews in Vietnam lacked this relatively recent delivery capability. The operation featured a five-ship C-123 airdrop to an isolated unit of the 173d in critical need of resupply. All five ships received battle damage in repeated passes at 400 feet—tactics made necessary by the small dimensions of the available drop zone.18
Transportation patterns varied in subsequent forays. Operation NEW LIFE-65, for example, commenced with a helicopter assault into a dirt strip, 40 miles east of Bien Hoa, on 21 November 1965. The first C-130 landed within one hour, followed by the arrival of 70 more 130s in the next 36 hours, each delivering troops or cargo. Overland LOC became established on the third day, allowing reduction of the C-130 resupply to about ten sorties daily.
After several comparable ventures north and west of Saigon, the brigade on 10 April 1966 commenced Operation DENVER, its first all-air LOC effort. The four-day unit move to Song Be, 50 miles north of Bien Hoa, was handled without difficulty. Troops, vehicles, artillery, and supplies were hauled in 129 C-130 sorties. For two weeks the brigade operated about the Song Be airhead, staging numerous lesser movements by helicopter and receiving an average of 60 tons daily by air resupply into Song Be. In later years the Song Be strip became a focal point for supporting allied forces in the border area.19
Yet more spectacular was the Vietnam odyssey of the 1/101st. During the spring and summer of 1966, the brigade made five successive moves to new operating areas, each of them entirely by USAF airlift. Each shift required some 200 C-130 lifts, and each operation was subsequently sustained largely by air resupply. The brigade moved from Tuy Hoa to Phan Thiet in early April, to the highlands strip at Nhon Co late in the month, north to Cheo Reo in May, to Dak To soon afterwards, and finally to Tuy Hoa in July. The operations at Nhon Co and Cheo Reo were complicated by the rough and deteriorating airstrips and the doubtful adequacy of smudge-pot lighting for night landings, but no aircraft were lost in accidents. Ground fighting was occasionally sharp—at Nhon Co in May and Dak To in July. Tactical mobility and supply redistribution about each airhead was mainly by helicopter.20
Both brigades retained parachute proficiency. Paratroop assaults were occasionally planned (for example, in NEW LIFE-65), but none were performed until Operation JUNCTION CITY. In that 1967 venture, a battalion from 173d jumped almost simultaneously with multiple helicopter assaults, staged over a wide region. The parachute assault thus served the modest purpose of enlarging the assault force beyond that transportable by available helicopters. After the jumps, the C-130s made cargo drops, for several weeks resupplying elements positioned along the Cambodian border. In the final stages of JUNCTION CITY, the 130s sustained an American infantry brigade in “floating” operations over the operational area, making daily drops into newly designated drop zones. The airdrop and extraction capabilities thus were confirmed useful assets, with their greater applications in Vietnam yet ahead. The JUNCTION CITY assault remained the only significant American paratroop operation of the war, however.21
The early operations of the airborne brigades in Vietnam reflected the complementary strengths of the helicopter and fixed-wing airlift arms. The helicopter was clearly superior to the parachute for short-distance assault but could not match the ability of the fixed-wing transport for moving and resupplying substantial forces over medium distances. The unit equipment of airborne formations had been designed for air transportability, so that these units were ideally suited for the mobile reserve role in Vietnam. Certain technical problems remained: airstrips deteriorated under heavy usage; forward airspace became crowded with transports, helicopters, artillery fire, and air strikes; overworked transports and crews were sometimes drawn away by higher-priority tasks. Nevertheless, by 1966 the ability of a relatively small number of C-130s to move brigades to relatively primitive forward airstrips and sustain them over several weeks of operations appeared proven.
First Infantry Division and the Saigon plain
By spring 1966, five American conventional infantry brigades (three of them belonging to 1st Infantry Division) operated from base camps about Bien Hoa and Saigon. Periodically, these units moved out for multibattalion sweeps, usually into the region between Saigon and the Cambodian border, seeking to attrite the enemy’s forces and force him away from the capital city. Helicopters and fixed-wing transports gave heavy support to these operations, in effect achieving airmobility for units not organized or equipped for movement by air.
The earliest ventures rested heavily on road transport for movements to forward bases, supplemented by Caribou, Chinook, and USAF lift. The C-123s operated into the base camp strips and into many of the regional forward strips. C-130s were seldom used because few improved strips were available. Air Force CH-3 craft of 20th Helicopter Squadron augmented scarce Chinooks in displacing artillery and making deliveries to field units. Troop assaults were performed exclusively by the UH-1Ds; use of CH-3s in this role was unauthorized.22
Operation BIRMINGHAM, the four-week invasion of Tay Ninh province, was launched 24 April 1966 and involved all three brigades of 1st Division. Movement to the operational area was entirely by air. Planning initially called for delivery of five infantry battalions, five artillery batteries, and two brigade headquarters, all in 75 C-130 loads on D-day. Concern for possible saturation at the 4600-foot laterite dirt strip just west of Tay Ninh caused changes: some units were positioned by C-123 at two dirt strips (Soui Da and Dau Tieng) east of Tay Ninh. On D-day morning the initial four C-130s arrived at Tay Ninh in close trail formation, landing with textbook precision at 30-second intervals and depositing 400 troops. During the first day, C-130s made a total of 56 sorties into Tay Ninh, with none of the feared congestion. Flights originated from the base camp strips (Lai Khe, Phu Loi, and Phuoc Vinh). Weather was ideal; the only delays came from several instances of tire damage. Ground fire hit one ship, wounding two men.
Army logistics officers had forecast an air resupply requirement into Tay Ninh of 465 tons daily. During the first six days, through 30 April, a daily average of 424 tons was actually flown into Tay Ninh. Landings went on around the clock, flare pots and portable lamps providing runway illumination for reduced operations during darkness. Although substantial, the air line of communication was insufficient to meet the unexpectedly high artillery consumption, and a land LOC was opened to Tay Ninh on 1 May. Tonnages hauled after that date by road convoy approximated the amounts airlifted; the 130s continued hauling most of the POL to Tay Ninh because of bridge limitations for large POL road carriers. Heavy rains necessitated closure of the road LOC on 8 May, and resupply for the rest of the operation was again entirely by air, despite runway deterioration caused by the rain. Upon return of the last units to base camps on 17 May, the Air Force reported that a total of 679 C-130 and 266 C-123 sorties had supported the operation, lifting 9500 troops and 9700 tons of cargo. Meanwhile, Caribou courier craft linked each base camp with Tay Ninh, averaging 14 sorties daily, under operational control of the 1st Division. As in past ventures, supply distribution to field units, as well as tactical movements and assaults out of the forward airhead, were by Army helicopters. The infantry counted destruction of numerous Communist supply caches along the Cambodian border but had brought to battle only a single enemy battalion.23
Land and air transport modes were meshed in further operations of the infantry brigades. Air Force C-123s were active in the summer 1966 EL PASO series in the Loc Ninh and An Loc region north of Saigon. Typically, artillery ammunition was airlifted from Bien Hoa to one of four C-123 airstrips in the border region, for further distribution by helicopter to firing positions. Despite seasonal wet weather and marginal landing fields in the operating area, over 1000 C-130 and 5000 C-123 sorties supported the four-month effort. Operation ATTLEBORO in November featured now-familiar divisions of effort: C-130s again delivered into Tay Ninh, C-123s into Dau Tieng, sustaining forward support area supply activities at the two airheads. Dau Tieng, exclusively under air resupply, received a daily average of 37 C-123 and eight Caribou sorties, delivering principally POL from Tan Son Nhut and rations and munitions from Bien Hoa.24
The USAF tactical airlift arm performed numerous other tasks in Vietnam, many of them highly challenging. The airlifters hauled extensively for Special Forces camps in border regions, often by airdrop. Air Force transports worked at times massively on behalf of U.S. Marine forces in the northern provinces of South Vietnam, the airlifters attaining their finest hour to date in the battles there of early 1968. The C-130s performed administrative unit movements across regional boundaries or from offshore, reinforcing against enemy buildups. Routinely and continuously, the airlifters provided a countrywide airlift service, hauling passengers, mail, and cargo in sustained high-volume traffic.
The foremost mission, however, remained an assuredly “tactical” one—the airlanded movement and resupply of Army units into forward airstrips. Fundamental in this evolution was the flexibility of the Army’s logistical system, which allowed supply redistribution to take place at the natural transshipment point between the fixed-wing and helicopter modes. Noteworthy also were the efforts of the engineers in upgrading and maintaining the necessary airstrips. As a result, the USAF airlift arm became a crucial element, strengthening the ability of the Army’s airmobile, airborne, and infantry brigades to seek out and destroy enemy forces. Further, the ability of the allies to shift forces by air into (or out of) regions of enemy buildup permitted wide economy of defensive forces. Thus, the American offensives battered the enemy in areas once safe, meanwhile threatening those remaining sanctuaries. The Communist leadership, seeing the hopelessness in these developments, decided on a new strategy, resulting in the general offensive of Tet 1968.25
The campaigns of 1965-66 saw U.S. Army and Air Force officers adjust major differences in outlook, finding ways of meshing the capabilities of the fixed-wing airlift force into the new procedures of offensive airmobile warfare. USAF airlift managers, for example, concerned after complaints during EL PASO over unsatisfactory airlift “responsiveness,” introduced a series of constructive reforms, including formation of an in-country airlift air division in late 1966. The developments in Vietnam helped produce agreement between the respective Chiefs of Staff, who decided in April 1966 to transfer the Caribou fleet to USAF ownership. In turn, the Air Force formally renounced ownership of helicopters for air LOC roles, an important concession although one effectively conceded several months earlier. Meanwhile, officers of the two services in Vietnam addressed the long-neglected practical problems in the common use of airheads by helicopters and USAF transports. Solutions were not immediate, but progress increased after formation of joint working groups in 1968.
Thus, from the necessities of combat operations in Vietnam came pragmatic and sensible accommodation by both services to the burst of creativity accompanying the airmobile doctrines of the early sixties.
1. Robert F. Futrell, The United Stares Air Force in Korea, 1950-53 (New York, 1961), pp. 12-13, 73-74, 148-327, 521-36; Col Samuel T. Moore, “Tactical Employment in the U.S. Army of Transport Aircraft and Gliders in World War II” (AFF Hist Office, 1946).
2. Study, 18th AF, Concept of Troop Carrier Operations, 1955-58, 1953; draft USAF Hist Study 134, “Troop Carrier Aviation in USAF, 1945-55,” (RSI, AU), pp. 30-32.
3. Robert F. Futrell, Ideas, Concepts, Doctrine: A History of Basic Thinking in the USAF, 1907-64 (ASI, AU, 1971), pp. 583-95; Report, TAC Worldwide Troop Carrier Conference, 17-19 Jan 56; Study, Dir/Operations Analysis, TAC, A Review of Tactical Combat Airlift, 1956-70, Aug 56; Ltr, OPR-G, 18th AF, to Cdr, TAC, subj: A Concept of Operations for Tactical Air Power and Related Airfield Requirements Forecast, 7 Jan 55.
4. Futrell, Ideas, Concepts, Doctrine, pp. 583-84; Address, Maj Gen Chester E. McCarty, Cdr, 18th AF, TAC Worldwide Troop Carrier Conference, 17-19 Jan 56; Ltr, Maj Gen Chester E. McCarty, to DCS/Opns, TAC, 6 Mar 56; Study, 18th AF, Troop Carrier Concept for Employment of Assault Helicopters (n.d., c 1954); Ltr, Cdr, TAC, to CSAF, subj: Provision of Airlift by Rotary Wing Assault Airlift to Army, 27 Dec 54.
5. James M. Gavin, War and Peace in the Space Age (New York, 1958), pp. 227, 271-72; FM 57-35, Airmobile Operations, Nov 60; Theodore H. White, “Tomorrow’s Battlefield: An Interview with General Gavin,” The Army Combat Forces Journal, Mar 55; Maxwell D. Taylor, The Uncertain Trumpet (New York, 1959), pp. 168-70; Robert A. Olson, “Air Mobility for the Army,” Military Affairs, winter 1964-65; Study, U.S. Army Combat Developments Command, A Short History of Close Air Support Issues, Jul 68, pp. 44-47; Lt Gen John J. Tolson, Airmobility, 1961-1971 (Vietnam Studies, Dept Army, 1973), pp. 4-8; John R. Galvin, Air Assault: The Development of Airmobile Warfare (New York, 1969), pp. 254-64.
6. Minutes, 464th TC Wg, Flying Safety Council Mtg, 6 Sep 60; Memo, 50th TC Sq to D/Opns, 314th TC Wg, subj: Final Rprt of Exercise Swift Strike III, 2-23 Aug. 63; Memo, TPL, Hq TAC, to D/Plans, TAC, subj: Joint Exercises, 28 Ju160; Rprt, 3d Aer Port Sq, Exercise Swift Strike, 25 Aug 61; Rprt, 464th TC Wg, Exercise Tacair 61-1, 12 Sep 60; Command Histories, 18th AF, 1952 through 1954, TAC, 1957 through 1962.
7. Final report, U.S. Army Tactical Mobility Requirements Board, 20 Aug 62; Alain E. Enthoven and K. Wayne Smith, How Much Is Enough? Shaping the Defense Program, 1961-1969 (New York, 1971), pp. 100-104; Futrell, Ideas, Concepts, Doctrine, pp. 745-48; Galvin, Air Assault, pp. 274-79; Tolson, Airmobility, pp. 16-24.
8. Report, AF Flt Test Center, 463L Universal Cargo Handling System for C-130 Acft, Aug 62; Report, Project Close Look, Sewart AFB, TAC Programming Plan 202-62, 1963; Brig Gen H. D. Aynesworth, Cdr, 32d TC AF (Provis), Troop Carrier Activities, Swift Strike II, 22 Sep 62; Richard E. Stanley, “Tactical Airlift Support: Army or Air Force?” (AWC Thesis, AU, Apr 65), pp. 74-80.
9. Ltr, Lt Col James L. Blackburn, Cdr 4488th Test Sq (Helic) to ALTF, Goldfire I, subj: Final Rprt for Helicopters, Goldfire I, 1964; Rprt, 516th TC Wg, Special Rprt on Airlift, Goldfire I, 1964; History, 314th TC Wg, Jul-Dec 64, pp. 8-12; Hist, 9th AF, Jul-Dec 64, pp. 126-97; Col Frederick A. Sanders, “Exercise Swift Strike III,” in Air University Review, Jan-Feb 64, pp. 4-16; Ltrs, Brig Gen William T. Daly, D/Opns, 9th AF, to Gen Walter Sweeney, Cdr TAC, 16 and 22 Oct 64; Galvin, Air Assault, pp. 280-86.
10. DOD, Annual Report for FY 1965 (Report of Secy of AF), pp. 332-35; Hist Rprts, 346th TC Sq, Jan, Feb, Mar 62; R. L. Bowers. “Americans in the VNAF: The Dirty Thirty,” Aerospace Historian, Sep 72, pp. 125-31; Interviews, Lt Col Charles R. Blake, 6 May 70, Lt Col Benjamin N. Kraljev, 29 Jan 71, Maj Bernard J. Clark, 4 Nov 70, Maj Hugh D. Perry, 3 Nov 70, Lt Col Richard D. Kimball, 4 Nov 70, Maj Charles B. West, 5 May 70.
11. Tolson, Airmobility, pp. 15-16, 25-50; Adm U. S. G. Sharp and Gen W. C. Westmoreland, Report on the War in Vietnam (GPO, 1968), pp. 79-81.
12. Fact Sheet, MACV J-3, subj: Need for C-130 Airlift, 11 Mar 65; Rprt, Capt Charles W. Case, EOT Rprt, 11 Jun 65; Hist, 315th AD, Jan-Jun 65 and Jul-Dec 65.
13. Pentagon Papers, GPO ed., Vol. V, see IV.c.6.(a), pp. 13-17; Vol. IV, sec IV.c.5; Vol. III, see IV .c.1, pp. v-vii, al0-al6, 103; Brief, Lt Col C. W. Abbott, D/Plans, Hq USAF, subj: Comments on a Concept for Employment of Army Airmobile Div, 4 May 65.
14. Fact Sheet, D/Army, subj: U.S. Army Air Mobile Division, Jul 65; Tolson, Airmobility, pp. 59-62, 68-73; Edward Hymoff, The First Air Cavalry Division in Vietnam (New York, 1967), pp. 6-12; Ltr, 1st Air Cav Div to MACV, subj: Lessons Learned, 1 Oct-30 Nov 65, 10 Jan 66; Interview, Lt Col Charles J. Corey, 17 Aug 72.
15. H. W. O. Kinnard, “A Victory in the Ia Drang: The Triumph of a Concept,” in Army, Sep 67, pp. 71-91; Ltr, Maj C. A. Beckwith, Cdr Det B52, 5th Sp F Gp, to Cdr, 5th Sp F Gp, subj: Sequence of Events for Plei Me Operation for 20-28 Oct 65, 15 Nov 65; Hist, 315th AC Gp, Jul-Dec 65, p. 21; Daily staff journal, MACV COC, 19-26 Oct 65; Memo, l/Lt Peter R. Teasdale, USA, Air Movemts Off, 5th Sp F Gp, to cdr 5th SP F Gp, subj: Support of Plei Me, Nov 65; Rprt, 1st Air Cav Div, Combat Opns AAR, Pleiku Campaign, 4 Mar 66.
16. Daily staff journal, MACV COC, 26-28 Oct 65; Kinnard, “A Victory in the Ia Drang,” in Army, Sep 67; Msg, 1st Air Cav Div to CG I FFV, 29/2340Z Oct 65; Col John R. Stoner, “The Closer the Better,” in Air University Review, Sep-Oct 67, pp. 40-41; Interviews, John R. Stoner and Lt Col Charles J. Corey, 17 Aug 72; Rprt, 1st Air Cav Div, Comb Opns AAR, Pleiku Campaign, 4 Mar 66; Tolson, Airmobility, pp. 73-82.
17. Kinnard, “A Victory in the Ia Drang,” in Army, Sep 67; Msg, 2d AD to PACAF, 28/1210Z Nov 65; Rprt, 1st Air Cav Div, Combat Opns AAR, Pleiku Campgn, 4 Mar 66; Video tape, Lt Col John R. Stoner, Briefing from Vietnam, 29 Apr 66; Ltr, 1st Cav Div to subord staff and cd officers, subj: Lessons Learned, Nr 2, 9 Dec 65; Ltr, 1st Cav Div to MACV, subj: Lessons Learned, 1 Oct-30 Nov 65; Intvws, Stoner and Corey, 17 Aug72.
18. Hist, 19th AC Sq, Jul-Dec 65, pp. 25-30; Rprt, Brig Gen Ellis W. Williamson, Cdr 173d Abn Bde, Critique of the Iron Triangle Opn, 25 Oct 65; Rprts, 173d Abn Bde, Daily SITREPs for Oct 65; Ltr, 315 AC Wg to 7th AF, Recomm for PUC, 30 Jan 66; Ltr, Col T. C. Mataxsis, Sr Advis, II Corps, to Cdr 2d AD, subj: Exceptional Performance by 315th AD, 19 Aug 65; Lt Col Robert L. Burke, “Corps Logistic Planning in Vietnam,” in Military Review, Aug 69, pp. 3-11.
19. Rprt, Lt Col Harold S. Snow, ALO, 173d Abn Bde, AAR (Denver), 28 Apr 66; Ltr. Lt Col B. R. Cryer, to Cdr Det 5, 315th AD, subj: Msn Cdr Rprt, Opn Denver, Apr 66; Hist Rprt, Maj Robert Carmichael and Lt Richard E. Eckert, USA, subj: Opn New Life-65, (n.d.); Rprts, 173d Abn Bde, Comb Opns AAR, New Life-65, 26 Jan 66, Silver City, 1966, Marauder I, Jan 66; Tolson, Airmobility, pp. 63-64, 86-88; Ltrs, Capt William A. Barry, to author, subj: Tactical Airlift Missions in Vietnam, May 72 and 17 Jun 72.
20. Study, 22d Mil Hist Det, USA, subj: Vietnam Odyssey, 28 Ju1 65—31 Dec 66; Rprts, USARV G-4, Daily Significant Logistical Activities, 7 Apr—26 May 66; Ltrs, Lt Col O. M. Coats, Maj Peter T. DiCroce, Maj E. T. Yelton, to Det 5, 315th AD, subj: Msn Cdr Rprts, 6 May, 7 Jun, 26 May 66; Rprts, PACAF, Monthly Airlift Rprts, Apr 66, May 66; Rprts, 1/101st Abn Bde, Comb Opns AARs, Van Buren, 23 Mar 66, Austin, 5 Jun 66, J. P. Jones, 28 Sep 66.
21. Hist, 315th AD, Jul-Dec 65, p. xi; Msg 00037, 314th TC Wg to 9th AF, 16 Sep 65; Tolson, Airmobility, pp. 126-29; Rprts, 1st Log Cd, AARs, Airdrop Msns 16-22, 16 Apr 67, 26-40, 21 Apr 67; Sharp and Westmoreland, Report on the War, p. 137; Rprt, 196th Lt Inf Bde, AAR, Junction City, 4 May 67.
22. Sharp and Westmoreland, Report on the War, pp. 113-17; Rprt, 1st Inf Div, Qtrly Command Report, 31 Dec 65; Rprt, 1st Inf Div, Comb Opns AAR, Opn Mastiff, 1966.
23. Ltr, Maj Ernest L. Howell, to Cdr Det 5, 315th AD, subj: Msn Cdr Report, Opn Birmingham, Apr 66; Rprt, 1st Inf Div, Comb Opns AAR, Opn Birmingham, May 66; Rprt, USARV G-4, Daily Significant Logistical Activities, 17 Apr-16 May 66; Rprt, 315th AD, PACAF Airlift System Accomplishments, CY 66.
24. Ltr, Maj Robert A. Hutto, to Det 5, 315th AD, Msn Cdr Rprt, Opn El Paso, 2 Jun 66; Hist, 8th Aer Port Sq, Jul 66-Oct 67; Hist, 315th AC Wg, Jul-Dec 66, pp. 26, 44-45; Intvw, Lt Col Richard H. Prater, 9 Nov 72; Rprt, 1st Log Cd, Logis Critique, 1-68, (Opn Attleboro), 29 Apr 67; Rprts, USARV G-4, Daily Logistical Activities, dates in Jun-Jul 66.
25. Lt Col Robert L. Burke, “Corps Logistics Planning in Vietnam,” in Military Review, Aug 69, pp. 3-11; Sharp and Westmoreland, Report on the War, pp. 136-37, 157-58; Briefing text, MACV Dir/Construction, subj: Construction in RVN, 25 Oct 66.
Colonel Ray L. Bowers (USNA; M.A., University of Wisconsin) is assigned to the Office of Air Force History, Washington, D.C., and is completing a volume on tactical airlift for the official history of the USAF in Southeast Asia. He served as navigator-bombardier in tactical bombers during the fifties and as a C-130 navigator in the Far East, 1967-68. He has served as Associate Professor of History at the USAF Academy. Colonel Bowers is a frequent contributor to the Air University Review and other military journals.
The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.