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Book recommendation: Hangar Flying With Grandpa: Flight and Adventure, Stories For My Grandchildren, by Wilbert Turk, Col, USAF, Retired. 61st Commander 1955-57.

 

Secret Flight From Ashiya to Hanoi

By Joe Noah, USAF, 1951-1958

Article appeared in Friends Journal Vol. 18, NO.2 Summer 1995

By the end of 1953, I had just about completed my 18-month tour of duty serving as an aircraft maintenance officer with the 61st Troop Carrier Squadron, 483rd Troop Carrier Wing, in Ashiya, Japan. Our squadron, the Green Hornets, delivered several aircraft to French Indochina and maintained them while the French flew combat sorties with them. The French needed cargo aircraft to drop troops and supplies—especially barbed wire for their fortifications—into Dien Bien Phu, a North Vietnamese town in a valley of 13,000 inhabitants.  The French had colonized Indochina in 1946, but Dien Bien Phu had been under Communist rule since November 1952.

French General Henri E. Navarre’s strategy, adopted in the summer of 1953, was to deploy his forces in the middle of an area held by the Vietminh forces.  The French forces would then move out over a wide area to pursue and attack the enemy.  Navarre decided to drop troops and supplies into Dien Bien Phu; this was accomplished on November 20, 1953 and was the prelude to the battle that defeated the French.

American crews were under orders not to fly combat missions—just transition the French crews and maintain the C-119 “Packets.”  This was done under highly secret orders. The US was not supposed to be directly involved militarily in the conflict between France and Indochina (Vietnam). The aerial drop—using 65 French-crewed C-47s and C-119s—made on November 20, 1953 represented D-Day for Dien Bien Phu.

Flying time from Hanoi’s military airport, Bach-Mai, to the DZ was about one and a quarter hours.  On the whole, the D-day drop was considered to be successful: 1827 troops plus materiel landed 220 miles behind enemy lines at the price of 11 dead and 52 wounded. Their position was secured in less than six hours of fighting.  Thus began the siege of Dien Bien Phu, a French reoccupation lasting 209 days and the actual siege 56 days. The siege began on March 13, 1954 and ended on May 8.

The siege of Dien Bien Phu has been compared to those of Stalingrad, Bataan, Corregidor, and the French town of Lorient.  The garrison at Dien Bien Phu, which had grown to about 10,000 men, was surrounded by about 50,000 Vietminh soldiers and another 50,000 support persons. General Navarre had planned on 20,000 enemy troops at most.

On secret orders received about mid-December, we left Ashiya and flew to Okinawa where we refueled.  We went on to Taipei, Taiwan, where we spent the night in the Grand Hotel, in the lap of luxury.

The next day we flew on to Clark AFB in the Philippines. The ground crew rolled our C-119 into a hangar where they changed the markings from US to French.  We were briefed on what to expect if we had to go down.  The briefing officer told us that we had no friends on the ground in Vietnam. The French held very little territory outside of Hanoi.  However, if we had to go down somewhere, we would probably be better off if we were not in China.

We departed Clark after mid-night so the locals would not see the French insignia. The pilot took up a westerly heading to the Paracel Islands to avoid flying over China’s Hainan Island.  After passing the Paracel Islands, we turned north-westerly and flew over the Gulf of Tonkin directly for Hanoi. If all went as planned, we would cross the coast at Haiphong.

As dawn appeared, we found ourselves socked in.  It began raining harder and harder the closer we got to the mainland. As we approached our estimated time of arrival over the coast, we let down so that we would be sure and see the coast when we crossed it. The last thing we wanted was to end up over China looking for Hanoi. We were forced lower and lower until we were flying just over the wave tops, or so it seemed. We were 200 feet above the water when we finally had sufficient visibility to see the waves.

The pilot remained at 200 feet for a long time, and finally we saw the coast line ahead. Still at 200 feet, we turned south to follow the coast, looking for good weather or an escape route of some kind. After about an hour flying south along the coast, we were running very short on fuel.  And we were still flying between 200 and 400 feet to stay under the overcast.

The Packet has never been successfully ditched in water. What that means is that no crew member ever lived to tell what happened in the few cases when a C-119 was ditched.  We knew that, so ditching was not one of our options. Bailing out at low level was also not one of our options.  We had decided that we would belly in on the beach if we ran out of fuel. About that time, we broke out into the most beautiful sky I have ever seen. The clouds were broken cumulus—puffy and picturesque—and above us by at least a thousand feet.  As we looked to our right and climbed a few hundred feet, we spotted an airfield.  This was a beautiful sight and a grand change in fortune for us.  The pilot made a quick approach and landing without radio contact.

As we rolled out, we noticed some World War II vintage aircraft with French markings on the ramp.  We felt relieved until we parked on the apron outside the terminal building. Armed African (French Congo) troops immediately surrounded our C-119.  We sat tight until a French officer approached. Fortunately, and by plan of course, we had a young airman on board who spoke French and served as our interpreter.

As it turned out, we had landed at La Tourane, the French name for Da Nang.  The French officer agreed to give us enough fuel to get to Hanoi. After waiting a few hours for the weather to clear, we proceeded to the capital, where we spent the next two weeks.

C-119s flying as part of the French supply operations had American crews under contract to the Taiwan-based Civil Air Transport (CAT) Company.  Officially, the crews were all “civilian,” but in actual fact some American military pilots had been quietly detached to CAT.  This was done in cast it was decided that American air intervention on behalf of the French should be initiated.  On April 23, 1954, the French foreign minister showed Secretary of State Dulles a telegram from General Navarre in which he argued that the only way to save Dien Bien Phu was to launce a massive American air strike against the Vietminh forces surrounding the garrison.

There was a growing fear of the domino effect if the French lost Indochina to Communist forces in 1954.  President Eisenhower wanted Congress to pass a joint resolution permitting him the use of air and naval power in Indochina.  Accordingly, Admiral Radford planned an intervention designed to save the besieged garrison. It was based on the use of two American aircraft carriers—Essex and Boxer—reinforced by land-based U.S. Air Force units. As many as 98 B-29s and 450 jet fighters were included inn the plan, with follow-up strikes if necessary. Congressional leaders flatly turned down the idea of a joint resolution and President Eisenhower decided not to intervene.  Dien Bien Phu fell on May 8, 1954, exactly nine years after VE-Day.

French Union casualties from her seven-and-one-half-year war in Indochina amounted to 253,000 including 92,000 dead. It is believed that the Vietminh forces suffered a far greater number of casualties than the French: at least 200,000 dead during the entire war. The Vietminh also suffered greater losses than the French at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu:  7,900 dead plus 15,000 wounded versus 3,000 dead plus 8,200 wounded.  The United States seemed to learn very little from the French experience. In the second Indochina War, which dragged on into the 1970s, we found ourselves repeating many of the mistakes made by the French during the first Indochina War.  The historical significance of the French defeat is extremely important: it served to convince the Vietnamese that guerilla tactics could win against the United States.

(The following sources were used to supplement the author’s first-hand knowledge: Hell In a Very Small Place, by Bernard Fall, and Dien Bien Phu, 1954, by Peter Poole)

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