Flying Combat Cargo To Dien Bien Phu -1954
Tom Murphy August 13, 2001
8566 Sierra Circle
Unit # 911-A
Huntington Beach, ca. 92646 Murf52@earthlink.net 2,334 Words.
FLYING CARGO TO THE
FRENCH AT DIEN BIEN PHU
--- THE FIRST INDOCHINA WAR---
I completed flight school and combat-crew training in the C-119 twin-engine transport during November 1953 with subsequent orders to Japan. There, I was assigned to the 483D Troop Carrier Wing (M) (FEAF), 50th Troop Carrier Squadron ( "Red Devils") based at Ashiya, a small town on the western shore of the southern most island of Kyushu.
En route to Japan, I heard that the French were preparing a major Indochina offensive against the Communist Viet-Minh forces that had been at war with the French Colonial garrisons since 1946. A French assault was to be made against a strategically located Communist fortress near the small mountain village of Dien Bien Phu located in the northwest sector of Indochina.
As we flew to Japan, the elite troops of the French Expeditionary Corps were parachuting into Dien Bien Phu to reinforce other ground units in that area. It was the largest airborne assault of the war. Subsequent to the capture of that fort, the French garrison would ultimately total 15,000 troops commanded by General Christian de Castries. On March 13, 1954 they would be attacked by a Communist Viet-Minh force of 50,000 led by former schoolteacher, General Vo Nguyen Giap, who would also be the architect of the subsequent U.S. defeat in Vietnam.
By December, when I had been at Ashiya for only a few days, I began to hear rumors of top-secret C-119 air cargo missions. In the weeks that followed, I was assigned the duties of Squadron Training Officer, a job that permitted me access to the pilot flight logs. The pilots who flew those classified missions were logging combat flying time. That kind of experience was advantageous when we were considered for promotion, so I tried to find an opportunity to get in on that action.
The opportunity came on April 7, 1954 when our squadron commander (CO) called me into his office and unexpectedly blurted, "Lieutenant, get packed. We're leav'n for temporary duty (TDY). You'll fly as my copilot. Take off tomorrow at 0900."
"Where to, sir?" I asked.
"Can't tell you now. Top secret. I'll read the operations order at an 0700 briefing." Reaching to hand me a sheaf of papers, he continued, " Here's the list of aircraft numbers and designated crews. See that the adjutant posts them."
"Yes, sir." I responded. Though detecting a sense of urgency in the room, I dared to inquire, "Sir, what should I pack and for how long? Winter or tropical wear?"
A cold stare readily reminded me that he had said, "Top Secret".
I saluted, smartly executed a military "about face," and headed for the door. As I closed it, I heard him pick up a ringing telephone and tell someone to get out his summer uniforms. I thought, Hot damn. We're off to the tropics-it must be the Philippines! Then I recalled overhearing a pilot at the Officers' Club bar the night before. He mentioned Clark, an Air Force base on the island of Luzon in the Philippines, a base that was within reasonable flying distance of French Indochina.
Combat flying in Korea had ended a few months before my arrival in Japan. Indochina provided the only place to log combat flight-time. It appeared I would get that opportunity despite the end of the war in Korea!
My exhilaration caused me to sleep fitfully that night, so when the squadron operation's driver arrived before dawn to pick me up, I was up and raring to go. Upon arrival at operations, our CO asked, "How did it go last night Lt.?"
"Fine, Sir. Our bird should be all ready to go. When I got here last night, the Load Master had finished strapping down the pallets. Our cargo is hot. The aircraft was moved to the remote parking ramp where I personally cranked up and checked out the engines as you had ordered."
"Good," he replied. "Lets get at the briefing. Bring the cargo manifest."
As I had suspected, our destination turned out to be Clark AFB. Mid-way along the 1,100 mile flight route lay Kadena AFB on the island of Okinawa. It was designated our emergency field. Time en route would be six to seven hours, depending on wind conditions. That made our estimated time of arrival (ETA) late that afternoon. I was already thinking steak for supper at what had to be a fabulous Officers' Club on that older, well- established air base.
We arrived at Clark without incident. Transient C-119 aircraft were already there, loaded and ready to go. Assigned to duties in flight operations, I was immediately embroiled in paperwork. Before those waiting aircraft could continue on to Indochina, crew lists had to be prepared and posted. The planes had to be run through the paint shop to strip them of their U.S. Air Force markings, and replace them with French insignia--the circular red, white, blue and yellow French "Cockade." The classified "Identifier Friend or Foe" (IFF) APX-6 transponder was removed as a precaution against its falling into enemy hands if the plane should crash in their vicinity.
When the aircraft returned from Indochina, the French Cockade would be replaced with the original USAF markings. Changing the aircraft identification was done to comply with the Eisenhower Administration's U.S. foreign policy of "no direct intervention" on behalf of the beleaguered French in Indochina.
By May 1954, the French military reverses at Dien Bien Phu, along with the worsening security in northern Indochina, caused the U.S. to consider assisting in the evacuation of female staff members and all dependents from Hanoi and Haiphong. All roads leading out of Hanoi were under sporadic attack or subject to intensive mining. The U.S. Ambassador was informed that the French were considering the evacuation if Dien Bien Phu fell.
The possibility of that evacuation led to one of the most exciting flying experiences that I had in the Philippines. We were ordered to fly low-level practice missions in case we were called upon to penetrate northern Indochina air space to evacuate not only government personnel, but also some of the thousands of refugees fleeing the Communists. Our most experienced pilots occupied the left seat on those hazardous practice flights. As co-pilot, I sat in the right seat where I unconsciously kept raising my feet in response to the "on the deck flying." We had to pull up to clear power lines, villages and the caraboas --large work animals resembling water buffalos that were used to cultivate the rice paddies. When we landed, we removed paddy grass from the gaps and seams in the paratainer doors. For whatever reason, we were never called upon to fly those evacuation missions.
Because of President Eisenhower's reluctance to commit U.S. forces to the French Indochina War, we were not permitted to fly the risky cargo parachute drops over Dien Bien Phu. There could be no chance for American military aircrews to be shot down. American civilian pilots, provided by the Civil Air Transport Corporation (CAT), risked the anti-aircraft fire to make those airdrops. CAT, a post-World War II offshoot of Gen. Claire L. Chennault's "Flying Tigers" based on the island of Formosa (Taiwan)," operated under a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) contract.
I flew most of my missions to Tourane, a French Indochina air base located 375 miles north of Saigon. Occasionally, I flew into Saigon and Haiphong in the north.
The first time that we flew into Saigon resulted in a new experience for me--I slept in French Indochina for the first and only time that night! Visiting that city was fun as well as unsettling, because Communist guerillas were a threat in the area, especially to us American aircrews. Commanders strongly suggested that we sleep with our 45-caliber side arms.
North Vietnam was in French hands until May 7, 1954 when Dien Bien Phu fell to the victorious Viet-Minh forces. As a result, my October flight to Haiphong placed me at a Communist held airfield where, to my astonishment, I discovered that we had flown a roundtrip of 3, 000 miles to retrieve dilapidated metal clothing lockers! That mission leant credebility to why snooty fighter pilots called us "trash haulers." Even the armed-to-the-teeth Communist soldiers, who met our plane and guarded our every move, seemed perplexed at the effort we made to fly in for stuff that should have been considered expendable, or just plain junk!
The airstrip at Tourane was subject to hostile Viet-Minh guerilla activity at night, so we scheduled our flights to arrive and depart during daylight hours only. We took off from Clark around 2:00 A.M. for an 800-mile flight that put us in the Tourane landing pattern after sunrise. We departed no later than sunset that same day.
One night, the pre-flight weather briefing indicated scattered thunderstorms with alto cumulus clouds to over 12,000 feet along our route. Since the C-119 was not pressurized and did not have an alternative long-endurance oxygen crew-support system, we had to fly at altitudes below 10,000 feet. Therefore, we were unable to climb and fly above such weather. Nor did we have weather-detecting radar to enable us to circumvent those tropical storms.
That night, we encountered one of the forecasted storms. While flying through it, our plane was buffeted about, bouncing up and down 200 to 300 feet at a time. It took the combined efforts of both of us pilots to maintain control of the aircraft. The pilot in command, while occupying the left seat, wrestled with the flight controls as I manipulated the throttles to control airspeed. The sound of the driving rain was deafening as it struck against the skin of the airplane. I had to actually shout the airspeeds to the pilot flying the aircraft. Upon landing, we found that the hammering rain had erased nearly all of the externally painted portions of the aircraft.
Despite precautions taken by the Eisenhower administration to shroud the participation of American involvement in the war, the U. S. was placed in a most compromising position about a month prior to the armistice of July 1954. On June 14, five American enlisted men went to an off-limits beach where they were captured by the Viet-Minh. After languishing in a North Vietnam prison until August 31, 1954, all five were released in some sort of "exchange."
Our C-119 operation was given the task of transporting those five to Tokyo. I was a co-pilot assigned to one of the duplicate crews required for that extended long flight of 1,750 miles. Our only stop was Kadena AFB on Okinawa, where we remained just long enough to refuel.
We were ordered to refrain from conversing with those five airmen and the military police escorting them. I recall the awkwardness that I felt while sitting near them when spelled from my co-pilot duties. I was itching to ask those repatriated servicemen many unanswered questions.
We landed in Tokyo at Tachikawa AFB where we were met by a security detachment that quickly whisked our passengers away. An international incident had been avoided.
Another interesting aspect of our flights to Indochina was the use of our radio altimeter that measured electronic signals transmitted to the surface below in order to establish altitude. We seldom used it, because we had a more convenient regular altimeter.
Prior to arrival at his destination, a pilot called the control tower to get an altimeter setting to enable him to fly a proper landing pattern. Unfortunately, Frenchmen manned the towers at Indochina airfields. They spoke lousy English, if any at all, and they gave altimeter settings based upon mill bars of mercury rather than inches of mercury that were the basis for our regular altimeter. In order to set our altimeter, we needed to use a cumbersome mathematics formula. In lieu of that, before we arrived at the coast of Indochina, we descended until our radio altimeter read 100 feet above the water. There, we set our standard altimeter to "100 feet" and returned to cruise altitude. That was much simpler, and we felt we had a more reliable reading.
This year, on April 1, 2001, an international incident occurred when a Chinese fighter jet collided with a U.S. Navy surveillance plane in the vicinity of Hainan Island--a Communist Chinese air base in the South China Sea. The Chinese have typically based their intercept jets there, so when we flew from Clark AFB to Haiphong back in 1954, we had to fly a 250-mile dog-leg west in order to stay well clear of Hainan.
The design of the C-119 precluded it from being ditched at sea. In case of an in-flight emergency that disabled the aircraft, the crew's only option was to bail out. We were given instructions on how to survive if we parachuted into the dark South China Sea near the coast of Indochina. We were to swim around and tap on the Chinese Junks that plied those waters. If the hull was wood, we were advised to ask for help, because chances were the occupants would be friendly. If it was metal, we were to avoid exposing ourselves, since it was probably a Communist boat transporting munitions and supplies to the Viet-Minh. Hopefully, we would not be detected as we slashed down and swam around in those waters.
Finally on May 7, 1954, after a 167-day siege, Dien Bien Phu fell to the Communists. General de Castries was ordered not to capitulate, but to institute a cease-fire at 1700 hours. Then, he was to allow the battle to "flicker and die." The French high command in Hanoi, citing the magnificent performance of the garrison, insisted that it not be spoiled by a formal surrender. Under no circumstances was there to be a white flag. General de Castries complied--twilight settled on the only white in sight, the nearly 83,000 silk cargo chutes that lay rippling in the breeze while shrouding the bloody ground at Dien Bien Phu.
 The Orange County (Ca.) Register, Sunday, May 8, 1994. World, p. 22.
 Term fused for dangerous cargo, such as ammunition or inflammables such as phosphorous flares. As a safety measure, planes loaded with that type of cargo were not usually positioned away from the flight line.
 After the fall of Dien Bien Phu, the Viet-Minh reverted to their country's native name-Vietnam.
 Dien Bien Phu, The Epic Battle America Forgot, Howard R. Simpson, 1994 Brassey's, Inc p. 165.
 Hell In A Very Small Place, The Seige Of Dien Bien Phu, Bernard B. Fall, J.b. lippincott Company,1967, Philadelphia / New York. P.411
Published on 8/3/07