«Vietnam 1965, 50 Years On. Colin Geraghty, Service Number O314232, RAAF Caribou Pilot. 1. Introduction: 50 Years on, a few recollections of my time ...»
Vietnam 1965, 50 Years On. Colin Geraghty, Service Number O314232, RAAF
1. Introduction: 50 Years on, a few recollections of my time as an RAAF Caribou
Pilot in the South Vietnam War, during 1965. Some of these situations caused me
concern, but were not overwhelming and like everyone else I carried on with my job
no matter what happened.
Early in the Australian participation in the war our unit, RAAF Transport Flight
Vietnam (RTFV), along with a small number of experienced Army personnel who separately worked with the USA Special Forces, were the only Australian personnel I was aware of being in South Vietnam at that time.
2. Precursor consideration: At about the time I arrived in Vietnam the Vietcong sent in a squad to Pleiku in central Vietnam and blew up an American Military Barracks, killing a number of USA Servicemen.
The main base in 1965 for the RTFV, (later renamed 35 Sqn), was the coastal town of Vung Tau. We were a small unit. The aircraft and maintenance work were at the Vung Tau airfield, a US Army Aviation base. Our accommodation (12 pilots, engineering officer and administrative officer) was in the township of Vung Tau, in the two story ‘Villa Anna.’ The villa was right on the coast next to the water. Our support RAAF personnel lived nearby in another, larger Villa Complex. The US Army also operated Caribou aircraft from Vung Tau and had personnel accommodated elsewhere.
We all worked very hard flying all day, 6 days a week. The security at the Villa was a single South Vietnamese Police Officer who maintained a guard overnight. He was armed with a 6 shot revolver. One of my concerns was that this was a very minimal security arrangement. Our operations had not been in the country for very long. I felt it would have been all too easy for the Viet Cong to wipe out the small Pilot group, possibly hoping to discourage the Australian Government from having military personnel in South Vietnam. The Villa seemed to provide the Viet Cong with the opportunity to send in a commando squad from the sea, at night, We all slept with our guns beside our beds. I had visions of being awoken on any night by the sound of gunfire and explosions. It never happened but it was always in the back of my mind that it could. A few months later the policeman was replaced by a single RAAF Air Defence Guard-the same one for my time there, armed with an Owen Sub Machine Gun. He was obviously very dedicated to his task. Despite his excellent efforts the thought remained that a well organised commando group, could have taken us out by either dynamiting the building or storming it with grenades and automatic weapons.
3. Organisation of Operations: RTFV operated as part of the 315th Air Commando Wing, under USAF Lieutenant Colonel Hannah. The USAF Squadrons operated C123 Twin Piston Engine aircraft. They organised tasking and the required loads to be carried at main centres such as Saigon, Nha Trang and Danang and the personnel to handle aircraft loading matters.
4. About half of our time in the country was spent away from Vung Tau and operating out of the airfields at either Nha Trang or Danang. At these locations we were accommodated in US Army and US Air Force barracks, respectively, with better security.
About 40 percent of our tasks required flying routine regular communication runs picking up and dropping off what ever was needed, at a network of airfields. One of these runs from Vung Tau was southward via Saigon where we picked up our starting load to the Mekong Delta area. Alternatively the other run from Vung Tau was northwards, via Saigon again, to Nha Trang and back via a different route. (Note that the first unit of the Australian Army Army Task Force did not arrive till about the middle of the year. During my time in South Vietnam, up until November 1965, we had no contact with or tasking related to the Australian Army.) Our main task was to support the extensive network of US Special Forces Camps around the country. Each of these had their own airstrip, and many of these were to minimum dimensions, but capable of use by aircraft such as the short field landing capabilities of the twin piston engine Caribou aircraft. The camps comprised a central core of about a dozen Special Forces personnel and perhaps 2-400 hundred locals, including women and children, all living inside the camp barbed wire defensive exterior. The Special Forces armed and trained the locals to defend their location. The defences included conventional mine fields, and Claymore mines.
One of the first things I was told on arrival in Vietnam was that the relevant Viet Cong personnel were trained to aim slightly ahead of the moving aircraft, and so injure or kill the pilots. For portability most of the guns used to fire on aircraft, on take off or landing, were automatic rifles, or sub machine gun weapons. Usually there was only one Viet Cong person involved in the attack and he positioned himself on or near either the jungle clad landing approach or take off path. No doubt after completing their tasks they quickly left the scene to avoid possible retaliation by the camp occupants.
Risks varied with different locations. However it was possible to be hit by ground fire at any of them. In common with the other pilots I did more than a thousand take offs and landings against this background. Tactics were adopted to minimise the chances of being hit, but it still happened. Often the shots missed the aircraft completely. In my experience you could not hear the sound of shots above the noise of the engines.
(The only exception I heard of was when one of our pilot’s was forced to fly near tree top height, due to low cloud. He actually heard the sound of machine gun fire as a bullet came up through the floor and wounded one of the passengers.) To be aware that you were shot at you would either see bullet holes in the aircraft or be told by radio from the ground that they had heard shots fired at you. (All of the camps had two way VHF radio to communicate with us while we were in the vicinity.) One of the more notorious camps was at Ashau near the Ho Chi Minh trail in the north west corner of the country. It was said that many of the locals trained to defend this camp were not reliable. At this location we usually had a circuit area escort by one Skyraider, a fast piston single engine fighter bomber escort, from the South Vietnamese Airforce. It was equipped with six 0.50 inch calibre machine guns, and sometimes rockets or bombs. As we entered the circuit area to land the pilot would be waiting in the air for us and positioned his aircraft to fly the circuit behind us, ready to spray anyone seen to shoot at us, with heavy machine gun fire. A short time after I left Vietnam the camp at Ashau was closeded.
5. A camp we regularly went into was Chu Dron in inland central Vietnam. (While we always knew it as Chu Dron I recently discovered it was also known as Duc Co.) On one occasion I recall there was full cloud cover at the airfield and I had to divert some distance away to be able to descend to get under the cloud base and fly low into the field, a procedure we often used in this type of situation. On the way in under the cloud the camp called urgently and told us to get the hell out of there. Obviously there was a lot of gunfire that we could not hear, but those in the camp could. I climbed out and made another approach and landed. (A few days later the camp was attacked and very probably I inadvertently flew over the location in the surrounding jungle of the gathering Viet Cong/North Vietmanese force.) Later in the day we were scheduled to go back. Its hard to explain why but I felt I was going to be killed on this coming mission, based on my morning experience. We were definitely going but I felt very sombre and was sure I would die. The mission was cancelled and I did not find out if my feeling of impending death would come true.
This is the only mission during my entire time in Vietnam that I experienced this feeling of certainty of a fatal outcome for myself.
In looking back I cannot recall the specific date or who was with me. A possibility from my log book would be 7 July with Dave acting as co-pilot. Researchers can no doubt check several references to the siege. I also added a reference showing the camp was some times referred to as Duc Co and sometimes as Chu Dron. The
following are quotes I found:
A :The 5th Special Forces Group Detachment A-224 first established a base at Đức Cơ in December 1964 to monitor communist infiltration along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.The base was located on QL-19 13km from the Cambodian border and approximately 55km west of Pleiku. In late May 1965 the People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN) besieged the camp which was defended by the 5th Special Forces Detachment A-215 and CIDG forces. On 3 August a force of Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) Paratroopers with Major Norman Schwarzkopf as senior military adviser was sent to relieve the camp. The paratroopers took heavy casualties and a second, larger force was required to relieve them. That force too came into heavy contact on 5 August. Schwarzkopf and his group fought continuously for several days. On 17 August additional ARVN forces supported by two battalions of the 173rd Airborne Brigade arrived and broke the siege. B: Đức Cơ Camp (also known as Đức Cơ Special Forces Camp or Chu Dron Special Forces camp.)
6. We normally flew by day and VFR, which meant that we mainly flew by visual reference to the ground. In the wet season however the weather could get quite bad with low cloud, rain and storms. We were qualified for instrument flying and in those conditions sometimes had to revert to instrument flying enroute to and from our intended destination. The aim was to complete our assigned task no matter what the weather was, and almost always this was achieved.
One night for some reason we had to ferry an aircraft from Danang in the north to Vung Tau. I was flying the aircraft and Glen was my Co-pilot. The weather was actually very good with no cloud and excellent visibility. We were able to track visually just inland from the coast. After passing south of Nha Trang we suddenly saw bursts of twin barrel heavy machine gun tracer fire from below. We were intentionally operating above the firing height capability for heavy machine gun fire and the tracers fell harmlessly to earth.
7. On another occasion we were flying in clear conditions north of Nhatrang and about 15 kilometres inland. I glanced out to the right and was surprised to see a rapid sequence of sizable explosions on the ground, perhaps 1-2 kilometres away. While I could not see the aircraft the bombs were from an American B52 bomber conducting ‘carpet bombing’ operations from well above us at 20,000 feet.
8. Explanatory preamble, Grease Gun Sub Machine Guns: The ‘Grease Gun’, received its common ‘nickname’ because of its resemblance to a grease gun. It was a simple design and cheap to manufacture sub machine gun supplied to the Special Forces Camp indigenous defenders. It used 0.45 inch calibre ammunition, the same as that for the 0.45 pistol. (Depending on the location the defenders could be either Ethnic Vietnamese of Montagnard Tribesmen.) As we were in Vietnam before the Australian Task Force arrived all our support was US Army/US Air Force, in origin. All pilots carried two weapons, one was a standard issue 0.45 calibre pistol and the second weapon came from scrounging off the Special Forces people we supported, and varied as a result. My second weapon was a folding stock M1 Semi Automatic Carbine with 2 ‘back to back’ 30 round banana clip magazines. Standard issue for the Loadmaster and Assistant Loadmaster crew members was the US Army M14 automatic rifle.
The American Special Forces personnel normally carried the M16 0.223 inch calibre Armalite automatic rifle, a very effective weapon. The Americans were always cautious to not have too many personnel away on leave from their respective camps as they had a belief, common to all camps, that a small number of the inhabitants were hidden Viet Cong sympathisers who were ready to overthrow their camp if the right circumstances occurred. IE:They did not think it likely that these ‘hidden enemy’ would attempt to overwhelm the Americans unless their numbers were down.
On another occasion we were on a run to Chudron and landed normally. While the aircraft was being unloaded on the strip I walked into the camp past the standard Claymores at the wire and a Montagnard defender on the ground at the gate beside a full size belt fed machine gun. People inside the camp were carrying their weapons as normal, the Montagnards with Grease Guns and the one American Special Forces person I could see, with an M16. I struck up a conversation with the American 2nd Lieutenant for a minute or so.
Without warning a group of Montagnards behind me, in a loose group 2-4 metres away, began firing at each other with their ‘Grease Guns’. Instinctively I instantly glanced at the American Lt who was facing the group and he instantly looked at what was happening, momentarily without action. After a few seconds he raised his M16 on to his shoulder and commenced firing repetition single shots in the air. (I can still see those glowing projectiles rocketing skywards.) After another 6-8 seconds the ‘Grease Gun’ firing stopped. It was then realised the Montagnards were now grinning, having apparently played a out a pre-planned but very risky prank on all of us by using blanks they had secretly prepared.
9. Khe Sanh: A little before mid 1965 the Americans started increasing their forces in South Vietnam. Initially 3000 Marines were brought in and placed in a position to defend Danang Airbase. Also, Marines were put into a base at Khe Sanh, which was very close to the border with North Vietnam. One day one of our tasks was to fly into Khe Sanh. While the aircraft was being unloaded at Khe Sanh I walked through the entry gate and into the base. I was struck by the apparent desolate appearance of the place. The few buildings I could see were mostly partly or fully underground.
While I was casually looking at the scene there was a very loud explosion from nearby. On quickly looking around I noticed that the few Marines I could see were totally unperturbed by this. I inquired as to ‘what was that’ and was calmly told that an area around the camp was declared no mans land and that they intermittently fired 81 mm mortar shells into this area to discourage Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops from entering this area.