by Leonard H. Le Blanc III
The long Vietnam War ended on 30 April 1975 with the capture of South Vietnam’s capital, Saigon. No one expected the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong to conquer the country so rapidly. Additionally, no one expected what the war’s aftermath would be nor were they prepared for those consequences. There was no truer example of this fact than the evacuating aircraft flights filled with South Vietnamese refugees that unexpectedly arrived at U-Tapao Air Base.
One immediate fall-out was a diplomatic squabble between Thailand, North Vietnam and the U.S. over these South Vietnamese aircraft that all three nations claimed belonged to them. It was a three-way ‘Tug-of-War’.
The major contributing factor in the poorly planned, badly executed evacuations was the staunch belief of U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam, Graham Martin, that Saigon and the surrounding Mekong Delta could still be held by the South Vietnam Army. He did not believe the growing piles of intelligence reports that the North Vietnamese were quickly overrunning South Vietnam in spring 1975. He took no action to evacuate anyone until literally the very last minute.
The U.S. initially planned an evacuation of American and Vietnamese personnel, who would not fare well under Communist rule, in early April. The evacuation was first dubbed Operation Talon Vice. It was planned to utilize commercial aircraft from Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut airport in an orderly evacuation. But the North Vietnamese moved much faster than anticipated. The evacuation was re-named Operation Frequent Wind. The Americans then planned to use helicopters from the U.S. embassy roof landing pads.
As the North Vietnamese army swept south to capture Saigon, the first sign of trouble at U-Tapao came on 25 April. The departure of President Thieu that day plus the imminent collapse of the South Vietnamese government signaled the end of the war. The American helicopter evacuations to U.S. Navy ships waiting in the South China Sea off South Vietnam was a disorganized mess. However, assorted South Vietnamese military aircraft stuffed with refugees started arriving at U-Tapao Air Base all that day. The tragic exodus continued for the next five days. No one had planned for this. The scene on the flight line was total chaos and disorganization.
The entire day saw scores of planes and helicopters landed at both ends of the runway. Aircraft included C-7, C-47, C-119 and C-130 cargo planes, an O-1 spotter plane, A-37 attack aircraft and F-5 fighters plus assorted helicopters, mainly UH-1 ‘Hueys’. By 29 April there were 74 South Vietnamese aircraft and almost 2,000 refugees at U-Tapao. By 30 April 130 aircraft and 48 helicopters had landed at U-Tapao with approximately 2,700 Vietnamese refugees. The Thai government stated it was the U.S. government’s responsibility to remove the unwanted refugees.
Almost immediately the Vietnamese government demanded the return of all the aircraft. A literal ‘tug-of-war’ commenced between Thailand, the Vietnamese and U.S. governments as to the ultimate disposal of the aircraft. Conflicting Thai government statements were issued. Thai Prime Minister, M.R. Kukrit Pramoj and Foreign Minister Major General Chatchai Choonhavan said Thailand would hand over the aircraft to Vietnam. But Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Pramarn Adireksarn stated the aircraft, plus a large number of weapons brought into the country, would be returned to the U.S.
Maj. Gen. Pramarn said the U.S. had given the equipment to the South Vietnamese for their use and would be returned after their intended usage was completed. Shortly after this Kukrit stated the Vietnamese government had not set up their government administration yet so they were not entitled to make any claims against Thailand. Squabbling quickly began inside the Thai government as to the disposition of the aircraft with each spokesman contradicting the other.
The U.S. did not wait for the matter to be sorted out within the Thai government. By 5 May Jolly Green Giant helicopters had lifted out all the A-37 attack aircraft and F-5 fighters plus many of the helicopters. They were delivered to the USS Midway, a carrier steaming off Sattahip. Several aircraft belonging to Air America, the C.I.A.’s clandestine Southeast Asia airline, were also loaded. Only some C-130 cargo planes plus assorted other aircraft and helicopters remained, all either inoperable or unserviceable.
On 6 May the U.S. and Thai governments agreed to suspend the removal of all the remaining aircraft and helicopters from U-Tapao.
The new Vietnamese government was livid at the removal of the aircraft and helicopters and demanded their immediate return. They threatened to withhold diplomatic relations with Thailand until the matter was resolved to their satisfaction. Eventually the matter simmered down and both countries normalized their relationship.