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 suppliesespecially barbed wire for their
fortificationsinto 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.
Navarres 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 missionsjust 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 dropusing
65 French-crewed C-47s and C-119smade on November 20, 1953 represented
D-Day for Dien Bien Phu.
Flying time from Hanois
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
Chinas 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 cumuluspuffy and picturesqueand 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
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
carriersEssex and Boxerreinforced 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
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.
sources were used to supplement the authors first-hand knowledge: Hell
In a Very Small Place, by Bernard Fall, and Dien Bien Phu, 1954, by
ANY PERSONAL 61ST STORIES