Operation : Ranch Hand.
It all started in April 1961.
It all started in April 1961. Capt. Carl Marshall, CO of the Special Aerial Spray Flight (SASF) stationed at Langley AFB Va. received an inquiry as to the feasibility of using aerial applications of defoliants in Southeast Asia. The source was told that it would be possible. Could the VNAF be trained to carry out the mission? Capt. Mario Cadori an ex-SASF pilot was dispatched from Korea to set up the program to train the VNAF pilots. This did not work. The SASF’s four qualified spray pilots at this time were flying C-47’s and L-20’s. The unit was quickly transitioned into C-123’s and augmented with four highly qualified Instructor Pilots from Pope AFB.
The day after Thanksgiving of 1961 the odyssey began. We went to Pope AFB to pick up the additional crewmembers necessary to fly across the Pacific Ocean. We left Pope with six C-123s modified with internal spray tanks capable of carrying 1000 gallons of liquid. These tanks were used as fuel tanks for the journey to Vietnam. In addition we had a 55 gallon oil drum installed from which we pumped five gallons of oil to each engine every five hours. Our first destination was Travis AFB Ca. Weather was bad at Travis and we were diverted to George AFB Ca. The following day we flew to Travis. Our next destination was Hickam AFB Hi. This was to be the longest leg of our trip, 17 ½ hours. Piece of cake, since we had 22 hours of fuel and 25 hours of oil on board. The only thing that bothered the intrepid airmen was the fact that there were no onboard latrine facilities. It was a very cold and wet day with slight drizzle at takeoff time of 1000 hours. 386 was #2 behind the CO, Capt. Marshall. If was forecast to be instrument conditions for the first half of the flight. We were filed for 8,000 feet altitude. After takeoff things were normal for instrument conditions with light icing. Then we received a panic call from #3. He was icing up and could not maintain altitude and was returning to base. Lead told us to return with him. We had taken off 4,000 pounds overweight and now would have to land 6,000 pounds over. Chuck Hagerty did an outstanding job. His landing was smooth as a baby’s butt. Found out that #3 would not turn his heaters on for fear of running out of fuel before reaching Hawaii. Rescheduled takeoff for 2200 hours that night and would you believe #3 did the same thing. We told Oakland departure that we could not copy him and that we were pressing on. He got the message, turned on his heaters, and followed us into the dark, dark night. After eight hours of solid weather, icing conditions and blind navigating we broke out just 50 miles NE of the station ship. This was my first experience with a Navigator and I was quite impressed by Hodgin.
The next three legs were fairly uneventful. Johnson Island, Wake Island and Anderson AFB, Guam.
The flight had been briefed to maintain radio silence after leaving Hawaii. On the approach to Clark AFB Philippines, still in a V formation, we saw lead loose his right engine and make a dive for the runway. We thought sure he would make a fly-by. Found out later that our radio had been out for approximately four hours. Everybody got on the ground o.k. But it was kind of sloppy. The radio silence was to keep our arrival secret. Later that evening we were told there was a $10,000 dollar price tag on our heads, on or off. A list was floating around Angeles City just outside the base. So much for security.
The entire unit was restricted to the BOQ, clubs, and quarters.
Next stop; Tan Son Nhut Air Base, Saigon, South Vietnam. We arrived in ‘Nam at 1745 hours on 7 January 1962 to begin the most celebrated tour in history for a unit flying unarmed USAF aircraft and to establish ourselves as the most shot-up unit during the Vietnam venture. In February 1962 the crew of 386 witnessed the loss of a sister ship (364) on a training mission. We lost three of our friends. The following month 386 took the first wound for Ranch Hand. We were flying night target for the F-102s at 5,000 ft. We knew the VC was landing a C-47 type aircraft in the delta at night when the tide went out. The runway was hidden during the day. The 102 jocks said impossible. We decided to play games with them by dropping to 200 ft and reversing course. All lights were out and the IFF off. The jocks and Saigon radar thought we had been lost. As we were laughing the port engine quit. Needless to say, all lights came on and the IFF. We were 40 miles south of Saigon at 200 ft with an engine that would not feather and an aircraft that would not climb. Later, after a few scotch and waters we realized we could have been the first POW’s. The next morning the crew chief showed me a 7.62mm slug that had caused the problem. Some rice farmer had gotten a lucky shot in that cut the fuel line and prop controls and caused a small explosion in the wing. We were very lucky.
The 8th of May 1962 we were preparing two aircraft to return to the States to carry on the primary mission of the SASF, mosquito control. Two hours prior to departure Carl Marshall received a message to send one aircraft to Iran to combat the annual locust infestation. 386 and her crew were the chosen ones. That evening after arriving in Calcutta, India we found out why they called it the black hole of Calcutta.