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Operation Niagara: Airlifters to the Rescue

By Sam McGowan 
Originally published by Vietnam magazine. Published Online: September 01, 2006 
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'For all practical purposes, Khe Sanh was totally dependent upon air support for its existence,' noted General William W. Momyer, deputy commander of MACV (U.S. Military Assistance Command Vietnam) and Seventh Air Force commander. 'By the fall of 1967, enemy activity around Khe Sanh forced us to decide whether the base should be evacuated or defended. We thought of Dien Bien Phu and its isolation, but decided we could do the job with intensive air support.'

Operation Niagara, as the air effort in support of the Marine base at Khe Sanh was dubbed, is usually thought of in terms of the enormous bomb loads dropped on the surrounding enemy positions, but equally critical was the aerial resupply of its defenders by Air Force and Marine airlifters.

If there was anything that kept the morale of the Marines at Khe Sanh alive during the darkest hours of the siege, it was the sight of a load of parachute-borne cargo containers drifting to earth from a low, overcast sky. Even when bad weather and enemy fire prevented Air Force and Marine airlifters from landing, the beans and bullets that were necessary for the survival of the combat base continued to come in. No doubt the outcome of the Siege of Khe Sanh would have been quite different without the airlift operation.

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Before making his decision to hold Khe Sanh in the face of an obvious enemy buildup, the MACV commander, General William C. Westmoreland, was briefed by a historian about the Battle of Dien Bien Phu. Study groups within his own command, as well as the chiefs of staff, believed that General Giap would attempt to re-enact the full Dien Bien Phu scenario around the Marine combat base.

There were many similarities between the two: Like Dien Bien Phu, Khe Sanh was isolated; both were located in valleys surrounded by high, mountainous terrain. Because the enemy controlled the countryside, Khe Sanh was cut off from all resupply except by air, as had been Dien Bien Phu. But though there were similarities, the American situation was much better than that of the French 14 years before. Though Khe Sanh was isolated, the distance to the nearest allied bases could be measured in tens of miles instead of hundreds, and flying time between the combat base and the nearest supply base involved minutes, not hours.

And General Westmoreland had an asset in abundance that the French had lacked — adequate airlift resources to keep the Marine base supplied during an extended siege.

In 1954, French air transport squadrons were equipped with twin-engine C-47 transports: rugged and reliable airplanes to be sure, but also very slow and limited in payload for the 400-mile round trip required to supply the isolated base at Dien Bien Phu. In 1968, General Westmoreland had at his disposal a massive airlift apparatus, including three full wings equipped with fast, modern four-engine C-130 Hercules turboprop transports capable of carrying 35,000-pound payloads over fairly long distances — yet they would have to fly only a little more than 100 miles to get to Khe Sanh from Da Nang.

Weather conditions at Khe Sanh were expected to be bad during the late winter months, and MACV assumed the enemy would take advantage of them. Evidence of increasing enemy anti-aircraft resources around the combat base would present a formidable obstacle — the historian pointed out that a major problem for the French at Dien Bien Phu had been their failure to suppress enemy groundfire. And so far this was also true at Khe Sanh in early 1968. But Westmoreland had confidence in the ability of the airlifters of the Air Force's 834th Air Division (AD), as well as in the Marines? own C-130, CH-53 and CH-46 crews, to get through.

The airlift apparatus upon which General Westmoreland was depending to keep Khe Sanh supplied had been in place in South Vietnam since 1966, when the 834th Air Division was activated to control all airlift within South Vietnam. Commanded in 1968 by Brig. Gen. Burl McLaughlin, the 834th consisted of two airlift wings — the 325th Air Commando Wing and the 483 rd Tactical Airlift Wing — along with the 2nd Aerial Port Group. In addition to the two airlift wings, equipped respectively with C-123 Providers and C-7 Caribous, the division also had operational control of four-engine C-130 Hercules transports that were based out of country with the 315th Air Division, but whose main duties were to provide aircraft and crews for in-country airlift operations.

In addition to the Air Force airlift units, the Marines maintained a detachment of their own KC-130 tanker/transports at Da Nang. Like their Air Force counterparts, the Marine airlifters were based out of country, on Okinawa at Futema Marine Corps Air Field — just a few miles up-island from Naha Air Base, where the Air Force's C-130-equipped 374th Tactical Airlift Wing was based. (The other two Air Force wings were the 314th, based on Taiwan, and the 463rd, based in the Philippines at Clark and Mactan.) Marine airlift also included squadrons equipped with CH-53 and CH-46 heavy-lift helicopters. Marine helicopter crews would do yeoman's service keeping outposts around the combat base supplied, while CH-53s would lift cargo into the base from nearby Dong Ha throughout the siege.

Although the world was not to hear of Khe Sanh until late 1967 and early 1968, the airfield had been a frequent stop for airlifters from the commencement of U.S. activities in early 1962. A U.S. Army Special Forces and CIDG (Civilian Irregular Defense Group) camp there was serviced by C-123s of the 311th Air Commando Squadron at Da Nang. In mid-1967 the Marines began building up the base they had established at Khe Sanh a few months earlier. The buildup was entirely dependent on Air Force and Marine airlift to move troops in and out and to bring in construction materials and other supplies. Air Force and Marine C-130s and Air Force C-123s airdropped supplies to the construction crews in late 1967, gaining experience that would be invaluable less than six months later.

By January 1968, Khe Sanh was a regular stop for Air Force C-130 crews, with an average of 15 missions per day being scheduled into the base, as well as for the C-123 crews who had been operating there for years. Khe Sanh already had a reputation among the airlift crews, partly because of the known presence of the enemy and partly because of the airstrip itself. Located on top of an 800-foot rise, the runway was difficult to approach because it lacked ground references, while the steep drop-off at the end of the runway often caused downdrafts in wickedly shifting winds. In addition, the runway was only 3,000 feet long — barely long enough for safe C-130 operations, but with little margin for error.

In mid-January, MACV began building up the defenses at Khe Sanh. On the 16th, C-130s lifted in a third Marine infantry battalion to reinforce the two already there (along with an artillery battalion). A fourth battalion was proposed, which raised the question of the feasibility of adequate airlift resupply. MACV advised General Westmoreland that the 15 C-130 missions per day would be adequate, although 75 extra missions would be required to build up the 30-day stock to accommodate the additional troops. But on the 20th the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) blew up the main ammunition dump. Suddenly the airlift effort became critical.

When the dump detonated, debris was scattered all over the base, including the runway. Only two-thirds of it was usable, and that portion was littered with debris. A six-plane C-123 emergency resupply mission managed to land at nightfall by flare light, in spite of bad weather and incoming enemy fire complemented by constant explosions in the still-burning ammunition dump. Other supplies were brought in by Marine helicopters, but no C-130s landed at Khe Sanh that day.

For three days, only C-123s and helicopters could operate into Khe Sanh. Yet the smaller transports managed to bring in 88 tons of critically needed supplies, while Marine helicopters brought in more than 500 members of the fourth Marine infantry battalion. On the 23rd, C-130 operations resumed. Over the next eight days, Air Force deliveries to Khe Sanh averaged 50 tons, with 18 C-130 landings per day during that same period.

Khe Sanh was blessed with unusually good weather during those first few days of February. Early morning ground fog was the only obstacle, but the presence of a Marine GCA (ground-controlled approach) radar unit made landings possible with ceilings as low as 500 feet. A pair of Air Force officers with the 834th AD, Majors Myles Rohrlick and Henry Van Gieson III, thought of a new possibility for the Marine GSA in the event that landings at Khe Sanh should become out of the question. In late January and early February the two airlifters conducted a series of test airdrops at Khe Sanh, using the GCA to position the C-130 drop planes over a known point from which the aircrew navigators could compute a heading and the amount of time to a drop zone. Experience gained from the tests would be a major factor in the later successful supply effort. After the initial tests were conducted with C-130s, the 834th developed similar procedures for the C-123s.

By early February, Khe Sanh had the attention of the world, including the White House. On February 4, the 834th was advised that the airlift effort in I Corps, particularly in the Khe Sanh area, was 'vital to the U.S. national interest.' In response to this White House order, the 834th began120 percent overscheduling in I Corps and issued a directive that missions were not to be diverted out of that area without special authority. All C-130 missions scheduled into Da Nang were forbidden to be used for stops at intermediate points on the way. All Khe Sanh missions were designated as 'Emergency Resupply,' the highest priority in the airlift designation.

The Tet attacks had little effect on the Khe Sanh resupply effort, though airlifters countrywide were affected as much as anyone else, and perhaps more so. At Tan Son Nhut, a 29th TAS C-130B had just lifted off when the base was attacked. The crew remained over the base and acted as a combination control tower/forward air controller until an AC-47 gunship came on the scene. For the remainder of the morning and into the next day, the crew, under the command of Major Frank Blodgett, shuttled Vietnamese marines from Vung Tau to reinforce the base defenses at Tan Son Nhut.

For six airlift officers on temporary duty in-country as airlift liaison officers, the Tet attacks in the Cholon district were nearly disastrous. Although the 463rd Tactical Airlift Wing aircrews quartered in the Merlin hotel were told to move onto the base in anticipation of the attacks, the six pilots and navigators failed to get the word. Consequently, they were in their rooms on an upper floor of the hotel when the attacks came. Fortunately, VC forces who occupied the lobby and first floor of the hotel for several hours failed to look upstairs!

Throughout the Tet Offensive, C-130s were used to move troops and supplies to meet attacks throughout the country. A C-130 lift moved elements of the 101st Airborne north from Song Be to Quang Tri, while dozens of C-130 and C-123 missions brought reinforcements and supplies into Phu Bai airfield in support of the battle to retake Hue.

There was a benefit from the Tet attacks. In response to the sudden increase in tempo of the war, the Pentagon rushed additional forces to the Pacific, including several squadrons of Tactical Air Command (TAC) C-130s from bases in the U.S. to augment the Pacific Air Force C-130 squadrons of 315th Air Division. The newly arrived TAC C-130s were immediately put to work in South Vietnam, where two new C-130 operating locations were opened at Tuy Hoa and Nha Trang in addition to the bases at Cam Ranh and Tan Son Nhut, bringing the total of C-130s in-country at one time to 96. That many of the TAC C-130 crewmen were recently returned from duties in Southeast Asia made their presence even more important.

During the first 12 days of February, all deliveries to Khe Sanh involved landings on the short runway after an approach through heavy groundfire. Once on the ground, the airplanes became targets for enemy artillerymen doing their level best to destroy the transports the NVA knew were vital to the outcome of the battle. It was during that period that the Marines at Khe Sanh began referring to the camouflaged Air Force C-130s as 'mortar magnets.'

On February 5, Lt. Col. Howard M. Dallman's C-130 crew distinguished themselves at Khe Sanh. As the airplane landed, machine-gun fire from nearby positions struck the fuselage, setting fire to wooden ammunition boxes that made up the load. Flames spread quickly through the inside of the airplane. While the flight mechanic, Staff Sgt. Charles Brault, and the loadmaster, Staff Sgt. Wade Green, went back to fight the fire, Lt. Col. Dallman taxied the airplane to the very end of the runway, as far as possible from the combat base. Once the fire was out, the crew dropped the cargo ramp and rolled off the pallets of still-smoldering cargo, then taxied to the cargo area. Enemy fire continued to strike the C-130 throughout their ordeal, which was still far from over.

Enemy fire had flattened a tire; the crew changed it — using an extemporized jacking rig. The entire time the plane was on the ground, enemy incoming continued to fall all around. Then, as they were taxiing for takeoff, a round hit in front of the nose of the airplane, sending a spray of shrapnel over the C-130 and knocking out one engine. Dallman was making preparations for a three-engine takeoff when the copilot, Captain Roland Behenke, managed to restart the damaged engine. Still receiving hits and low on fuel, the airplane struggled into the air and to safety. For their efforts, Dallman received the Air Force Cross and his crewmen were awarded Silver Stars and Distinguished Flying Crosses.

Five days after the experience of Dallman and his crew, a U.S. Marine Corps KC-130F was hit by groundfire while landing at Khe Sanh with a load of 'elephant turds,' (i.e., 500-gallon rubber bladders filled with fuel). Several rounds hit the cockpit and cargo compartment, starting a fire and rupturing one of the fuel bladders, which spilled its contents and fueled the fire. Onlookers saw several explosions as the stricken Hercules rolled down the runway after landing. The pilot, Chief Warrant Officer Henry Wildfang, managed to escape through the side windows of the cockpit, as did the copilot, while the navigator and flight mechanic escaped through the crew door after the pilots opened it from outside. The flight mechanic died later, as did one of the passengers who escaped the crash. In all, seven men died in the disaster.

The day after the loss of the Marine KC-130, another Air Force C-130 was seriously damaged by groundfire that killed two passengers and injured the loadmaster. Crew members managed to put out the resulting fire with assistance from two members of the Air Force detachment. Yet, when the fire was out, the airplane was incapable of flight — tires had blown, the engines had received shrapnel damage and the hydraulics had been shot out. Over the next two days the crew worked on their airplane, assisting ground personnel who had been flown in from Da Nang to make the repairs. One mechanic worked on the tail of the airplane at night — easily visible to snipers — using a flashlight. On the second day, a new fire erupted when the airplane was hit by mortar fire. Yet, after two days on the ground at Khe Sanh, Captain Edwin Jenks and his crew managed to get the badly damaged airplane off the ground and safely to Da Nang. There, mechanics counted 242 bullet and shrapnel holes — then stopped counting! Jenks and his crew were nominated for the Silver Star.

After being advised of the near-loss of Jenks? C-130, General Momyer ordered that all Air Force C-130 landings at Khe Sanh cease. General Momyer reasoned that the C-130 was 'a national resource' and would be needed for future wars. Besides, the four-engine transports could supply the combat base by airdrop. On the other hand, the smaller C-123s had been declared obsolescent even before the U.S. effort in Southeast Asia began, and they needed less runway than the C-130s and could spend less time on the ground. Consequently, C-123 landings were still allowed when shelling and weather conditions allowed. And for a time the Marines continued landing their own C-130s.

Throughout the siege, the C-123 crews would land at Khe Sanh when possible, along with an occasional Caribou. Yet the C-123s were incapable of carrying the kind of tonnage necessary to keep the base supplied; the bulk of the supplies would have to be airdropped.

By 1968 the prevailing method of aerial delivery in the Air Force was the container delivery system, or CDS. A single C-130 could drop as many as 14 A-22 containers, each filled with up to 2,200 pounds of rations, ammunition, fuel or other cargo, on a single pass. CDS was the primary method of delivery at Khe Sanh. Earlier experiments using GCA to position the airplane for a drop allowed CDS deliveries even when weather conditions were very poor.

Another airdrop method was LAPES, a low-altitude parachute extraction system in which the C-130 would approach the drop zone as if to land, but level off just above the ground long enough for an extraction parachute to pull a single platform out of the airplane. LAPES afforded delivery of large items with pinpoint accuracy. There was one problem with LAPES — the platforms would slide for some distance over the ground until the extraction parachute brought them to a halt. On February 21, a C-130 inbound for a LAPES mission inadvertently struck the ground, tearing off the airplane's rear ramp and causing the load to extract early and break apart. The careening cargo killed one Marine and injured another. In mid-March, an extraction parachute separated from the load during the extraction, allowing the platform to go wild, smashing into a bunker and killing a man inside.

Another problem with LAPES was that the system required a special electrical harness, and with the increased demand, these harnesses soon were in short supply. In early March, 10 sets of LAPES harnesses were destroyed by incoming fire as they set in the cargo area awaiting transportation to the rear for reuse. LAPES was itself a derivative of an earlier system TAC had developed in the early ?60s that used a hook to snare an arresting cable and extract the load. Though the system, known as GPES for ground proximity extraction system, had been discontinued, the equipment was stored in warehouses at TAC bases in the States. The equipment was airlifted to Southeast Asia. In mid-March, an Air Force combat-control team, assisted by Marines and Seabees, installed the arresting cable across the runway at Khe Sanh while the 274th TAW at Naha trained crews for the missions.

On March 30, the first GPES mission was flown to Khe Sanh. It was so successful that the Marines reported that only two eggs from a crate placed on the pallet arrived with broken shells! Over the next several days, more drops were flown, some of which met with problems as the crews adjusted to the new system. On the second drop, the moorings for the arresting cable were pulled from the ground and had to be reburied. After the first few days of use, the Marines and Air Force concluded that GPES was superior to LAPES for the conditions at Khe Sanh.

Because of their low altitude deliveries, the LAPES and GPES missions and C-123 landings were more spectacular, but it was the CDS method that delivered most of the cargo that arrived at Khe Sanh during the siege. Even though CDS crews were not required to land and risk exposure to shelling and fire while on the ground, the drop missions nevertheless involved great danger for the crews. Groundfire was a constant threat throughout the run-in and during the drop itself, while low clouds and low visibilities in an area of high terrain made the drop missions even more hazardous. At least bad weather provided a cloak that made the low-flying C-130s and C-123s invisible to enemy forces on the ground. (Fortunately, the enemy had few radar-aimed guns around Khe Sanh.)

While most CDS missions were successful, on occasion a load would be dropped too early or too late, resulting in an even more hazardous recovery operation by the ground personnel who were already exposed on the drop zone. Some loads had to be abandoned, no doubt to be recovered by enemy forces. One CDS load fell within the combat base; five men were killed by the heavily laden pallets.

In spite of the weather and threat from groundfire, no Air Force C-130s were lost at Khe Sanh during the siege (though a C-130B from the 463rd TAW crashed during landing shortly after the base was relieved). Air Force aircraft losses were confined to C-123s. Three were lost in less than a week. On March 1, mortar fire knocked out an engine of a C-123 as it lifted off the runway; the pilot forced the airplane back onto the ground, where it was eventually destroyed by shelling. Fortunately, the crew survived, as did all the passengers. On the 6th, a C-123 was hit by groundfire several miles east of the base. The airplane spiraled to the ground and exploded, killing all 49 people aboard. The loss occurred when the pilot had to break off his first landing attempt when an unannounced Vietnamese light aircraft suddenly appeared. Later that same day, shelling damaged a C-123; further shelling destroyed the airplane before it could be repaired and flown out of harm's way. Those three were among four fixed-wing transports lost at Khe Sanh during the siege.

While the fixed-wing airlift for Khe Sanh resupply was essentially an Air Force show, Marine KC-130 crews did their share. Fuel was the primary cargo for the Marine Herks, largely because they were not equipped with the 463L cargo handling system that allowed the Air Force C-130s to'speed offload' palletized cargo by simply lowering the aft ramp and taxiing out from under the pallets as they rolled out onto the ground. For a time the Marine transports were actually under the control of the Air Force tactical airlift officer at Da Nang, even to the point that he wrote evaluations of the Marine pilots! Interservice rivalry was not a factor in the Khe Sanh airlift. Since Marine C-130 crews were initially trained by the Air Force, the capabilities of both services were identical — except that Marine pilots were less experienced in assault landings than their Air Force counterparts.

Khe Sanh was completely cut off from all resupply except by air for 77 days. For much of this time, no C-130s landed at the combat base, and there were many days when the smaller C-123s were also unable to land. In late February, Air Force C-130 landings resumed for four days, but they were again suspended when the Air Force mission commander at Khe Sanh predicted that continued landings would soon result in the loss of one of the huge airlifters. With enemy troops as close as 35 yards to the perimeter, the transports were subject to small-arms and artillery fire while on the ground.

Khe Sanh was relieved in early April by 1st Cavalry Division troopers of Operation Pegasus. Such a massive effort had not been seen before in Vietnam and would not be seen again until the Eastertide Offensive of 1972, when Air Force C-130 drops would supply Vietnamese forces at An Loc in the face of anti-aircraft weapons that were more sophisticated than any others used during the American phase of the war.


This article was written by Sam McGowan and originally published in the February 1993 issue of Vietnam Magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Vietnam Magazine today!



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