USS Midway: retrieval of land-based South Vietnamese warplanes 1975

The fall of Saigon in 1975, and along with it the fall of South Vietnam and final end of the Vietnam War, is most remembered in the United States for the dramatic helicopter evacuation of the American embassy.

Less known is the final chapter to the “Frequent Wind” story: how the aircraft carrier USS Midway, built to fight the Imperial Japanese Navy during WWII, ended up retrieving the remnants of the defunct VNAF (South Vietnamese air force) during the summer of 1975.

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(USS Midway (CV-41) at the end of WWII, prior to commissioning.)

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(USS Midway with US Air Force helicopters staged prior to the start of “Frequent Wind” in 1975.)

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(A most unusual scene as the flight deck of USS Midway is filled with land-based warplanes of the defunct South Vietnamese air force.)

USS Midway – during and after WWII

USS Midway (CV-41) was the leadship of a new design of very large, fast, and advanced aircraft carrier – the “CVB”.

After the United States entered WWII in December 1941, lessons the Royal Navy had already learned were incorporated into concepts for a successor to the Essex class, which itself would not even begin to commission until 1942. To this, the “CVB” design would have an armored flight deck, subdivided hangar deck, and advanced damage control features.

The new design would have a sleek lower hull, and an engine room based on the upcoming planned Montana class battleships (which were never built). The air wing would be unprecedented in naval aviation; up to 130 warplanes. By comparison the Essex class carried 72 – 90 and the Japanese Taiho class 65 – 82. The design was “future proofed” and could land 11 ton warplanes, which was 2½ tons heavier than any then in service. The “CVB” was designed from the outset for what were then the most advanced radars in service.

The tradeoff was that “CVB”s would be extremely expensive and take a long time to build.

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(USS Midway under construction during WWII.)

The keel for USS Midway was laid on 27 October 1943. The ship was launched on 20 March 1945. At the time USS Midway was launched and began fitting out, it was expected that WWII in the Pacific would probably end sometime during the summer of 1946.

As it turned out, USS Midway was completing final sea trials when WWII ended on 2 September 1945. The carrier was formally commissioned eight days later. As such, it saw no combat during WWII.

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(USS Midway as commissioned in September 1945.)

prior to “Frequent Wind”

After the sinking of IJN Yamato in 1945, USS Midway became the largest warship on earth and was a cornerstone of the early post-WWII US Navy, along with two sister-ships still under construction.

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(USS Midway firing starboard forward 5″ AA guns after WWII. The Mk16 5″ gun was a new design, intended for the single Mk39 turret for the three Midways and a never-used twin turret for the cancelled Montanas.)

Even as large as this ship already was as designed during WWII, naval warplanes were quickly advancing after the war and would be limited by the decks which they flew off of.

From June 1955 to September 1957, USS Midway was pulled from service to undergo the SCB-110 modernization. All of the 20mm and 40mm AA guns from WWII were removed, as were a few of the 5″ weapons. The open bow was enclosed. The flight deck was enlarged and had an angled “waist” added to allow safer landings for high-performance jets. The catapults were replaced by new models to launch heavier aircraft at higher takeoff speeds. The radar fit and electronics were modernized.

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(USS Midway after the SCB-110 modernization, showing the hurricane bow, new catapults, reduced gun fit, and angled flight deck.)

The SCB-110 modernization also altered the elevator arrangement. As built during WWII USS Midway class had two centreline elevators and an auxiliary elevator on the port side. During WWII a fear every aircraft carrier captain had was a down-jam (stuck in the hangar deck) of a centreline elevator, which would render the ship incapable of flight operations. To this, SCB-110 eliminated the rear centreline elevator. The ship now had two full-sized outboard elevators plus the original forward centreline.

In February 1966 USS Midway began what was supposed to be a more modest, second upgrade; SCB-101.66. All three elevators were now made outboard, and could lift 50 tons. The flying systems were upgraded to handle the newest aircraft then in service or planned, and small ordnance lifts were installed to free up the main elevators. The electronics fit was completely changed.

The WWII gun fit was further reduced and now, USS Midway had only three 5″ guns. These were by the 1970s of questionable usefulness against modern supersonic planes.

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(USS Midway in 1971, after the SCB-101.66 upgrade.)

SCB-101.66 was not entirely a success. It was planned to last 24 months and cost $88 million ($793 million in 2021 dollars). Instead, it took 4½ years and cost $202.3 million ($1.62 billion). The improvements overloaded the WWII hull and gave the ship a low freeboard (height between waterline and flight deck) to the point that when lowered, the elevators sometimes took waves.

This was the fit which USS Midway was in during the remarkable 1975 deployment.

a foreshadowing: ROSAA

If there was any precedent to the task USS Midway would undertake in 1975, it was the ROSAA project several years previous.

As part of President Nixon’s “Vietnamization” effort, there came the realization that the United States would have to extract a great deal of military aviation out of South Vietnam.

In August 1971, the Defense Department held a conference on the topic. The most natural answer, to simply reverse the process by which aircraft had been delivered, was impossible. The USA’s involvement in Vietnam was spread out over a long timeline across the 1960s. The preferred method in the early and middle parts of the decade to deliver helicopters and warplanes (both for American and South Vietnamese use) was converted WWII aircraft carriers.

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(The plane transporter USNS Core (T-AKV-41), which had been the aircraft carrier USS Core (CVE-13) during WWII, delivering military aircraft to Saigon in 1962. The building in the photo was the South Vietnamese navy’s GHQ and as of 2021 still exists, now owned by the Vietnamese military.)

Now, this was impossible to reverse as the converted WWII escort carriers were worn out by the end of the 1960s and had already been discarded by Military Sealift Command. Another factor was the “soft” side of the 1960s buildup, the administrative side, had been set up as a one-way conduit and there was not really a “reverse gear” so to speak, to do the effort backwards.

A further consideration was what would be removed and what would be given to South Vietnam. It was decided that 277 helicopters (mostly UH-1 Iroquois and CH-47 Chinook) would be left behind, along with remaining A-37 Dragonfly fixed wing attack planes and a number of small minor fixed-wing types. Any remaining aircraft of WWII vintage still in American use would also be left behind. The A-1 Skyraider had already left American military service and all those in-theatre were already all South Vietnamese. Everything else would be extracted.

Chartered merchant marine ships, in particular the seatrains, would bear the brunt of the ground aviation pull-out, termed Retrograde Of Southeast Asia Aircraft (ROSAA).

The Seatrain Ohio is a good example of one of these seatrain ships serving the ROSAA effort. A “Frankenstein”, Seatrain Ohio was built in 1967 when Seatrain Lines cut up and spliced together several worn-out WWII vessels: the wartime T2 tankers Mission San Diego and Mission San Jose, and the WWII US Navy oiler USS Tomahawk (AO-88).

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(USS Tomahawk (AO-88) fought in the Marianas, Leyte Gulf, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa battles of WWII. This oiler’s center hull became the amidships of Seatrain Ohio, while the aft section was utilized for Seatrain Maine, another “Frankenstein”.)

The assembled creation, Seatrain Ohio, cost $1.9 million in 1967 dollars and was 559’x68′. It had rails inside and could haul railroad cars or other heavy / oversized cargo, and had two large cranes to handle it.

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(Seatrain Ohio)

There were seven “Frankenstein” grafting-togethers of WWII ships done by Seatrain Lines (after 1965, a subsidiary of Hudson Waterways) during the Vietnam War with Seatrain Ohio being the last.

Seatrain Lines chartered these ships to Military Sealift Command on a $150 million contract. They were useful on the inbound leg delivering airplanes, APCs, helicopters, artillery, trucks, and spare turbojet engines. The seatrains typically anchored offshore of South Vietnam and used their cranes to transfer heavy cargo to barges which were then towed into port for unloading. Smaller objects were set upon the spar deck (the platform over the cargo area) where helicopters took it as an underslung load.

On the outbound leg, the seatrains hauled inoperable vehicles and aircraft back to the United States for refurbishment or scrapping.

For ROSAA, voyages would be centered on the outbound leg. Seatrain Ohio was very useful in this regard. An entire US Army aviation detachment (helicopters, spare engines and rotor blades, runway ground vehicles, radios, tools) could be carried in each voyage.

ROSAA started on 29 October 1971 and continued through 1972. For anything other than flyable aircraft the procedure was for custody to transfer from the combat unit in South Vietnam to US Army Materiel Command at the port of departure. Army Materiel Command worked with the US Navy to set up joint teams to ensure gear was packaged properly on the chartered civilian ships.

Inside the United States, equipment was sent to Red River Army Depot, TX. Here it was uncrated, inspected, cleaned, sorted, and repaired; and then transferred back to Materiel Command for reissue.

The effort gained urgency after the 27 January 1973 Paris Accords, which was supposed to end the Vietnam War via a withdrawal of American forces in exchange for a guarantee of South Vietnam continuing on as a sovereign nation. There was still 194,000 tons of American war gear in South Vietnam, which had to be removed within 63 days.

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(The S.S. James, owned by Ogden, was less dramatic of a conversion than the seatrains but was also used during the last stages of ROSAA. It had been USS General H.F. Hodges (AP-144) during WWII.)

For the Pentagon, an urgent thing was land-based military aviation incapable of self-ferrying to Clark AFB in the Philippines. These warplanes and helicopters, along with their spare parts and ground support equipment, were very expensive and often the South Vietnamese could not reasonably ingest all of them, and in many cases Congress was unwilling to hand them over.

ROSAA was successfully completed in mid-1973. Of all the aviation-related gear ROSAA had earmarked, only ten helicopters were left behind. The ROSAA effort was more successful than the general US Army withdrawal, which left behind 109 tracked vehicles and 1,724 wheeled vehicles which it had intended to keep.

The extracted aircraft, engines, spare parts, runway vehicles, and other gear were worth hundreds of millions of dollars and went on to serve again during the budgetary lean years of the Ford and Carter administrations and in some cases into the 1980s. ROSAA served as a template for 1991’s operation “Desert Farewell”, a similar event led by MajGen. William Pagonis which saw 2,000 helicopters extracted from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait after “Desert Storm”.

Long in reserve (and with Seatrain Lines itself having since gone under), the ex-Seatrain Ohio was scrapped in 2011.

prelude

(image via Bing)

Tan Son Nhut AFB in Saigon was a Japanese airbase during WWII, then a French base during the Indochina War, then (much enlarged) a huge US Air Force base, and finally South Vietnamese. Besides the big airbase, the facility housed the DAO (after 1973, the nexus of American military advisors in Saigon), South Vietnamese paratroopers, and the Joint General Staff Building which was like South Vietnam’s “Pentagon”.

(POWs of the Imperial Japanese Army service Tan Son Nhut’s runway for RAF Mosquitos in December 1945, four months after WWII ended.)

(The DAO at Tan Son Nhut. It no longer exists; its final US Marine Corps guards made sure to burn it during the “Frequent Wind” evacuation.)

Bien Hoa airbase, 16 miles northeast, was not a WWII facility. It was established as Base Tactique 192 by the French during the Indochina War, and then massively upgraded by the US Air Force during the 1960s.

The final days of South Vietnam are fairly well known in military circles.

In October 1974, North Vietnam decided to “test” the Paris Accords with a small attack against South Vietnam launched out of Cambodia, itself then collapsing to the Khmer Rouge. LtGen. Trân Van Trà meticulously planned the operation. It comprised three regular infantry divisions, smaller supporting regiments, and an irregular Viet Cong division. The operation began in December 1974 with a vague goal of seizing Highway 14 about 95 miles from Saigon.

For North Vietnam the outcome of this “test attack” was secondary to gauging how well the South Vietnamese military fought, and how far the north could push its luck before President Ford (who took office four months earlier after President Nixon’s resignation) deployed B-52 bombers. However the “test attack” went much better than expected, and no American air raids came.

(The VNAF flew the Skytrain of WWII – in the AC-47 Spooky gunship version, EC-47 electronic warfare version, VC-47 VIP shuttle, and basic WWII C-47 cargo version – to the very end.)

Around New Years Day 1975, North Vietnamese forces built onto the October 1974 operation and captured Phuóc Long, an inland city about 77 miles north of Saigon. A decision was therefore made to proceed with a full-scale invasion of South Vietnam in the spring of 1975.

During the first week of March 1975, North Vietnam scored a tremendous victory capturing Ban Mê Thôut, a city which South Vietnam considered paramount to defending its central highlands region. The VNAF was severely hampered by a shortage of spare parts due to cuts in American aid after 1973, and was now also facing an enhanced threat from the ground. North Vietnam had widely introduced the SA-7 “Grail” shoulder-fired, surface-to-air missile into its ranks.

On 11 March 1975 South Vietnam’s government made a fateful decision for a “temporary strategic redeployment” which would be a fighting withdrawal ending on an east-west line starting at Tuy Hòa, thereby “temporarily” abandoning the entire northern half of the country.

This turned into a disaster. The redeployment became a disorganized mess. South Vietnamese losses of artillery, ammunition, and fuel during the retreat were catastrophic. Tuy Hòa was overrun, along with Nha Trang 50 miles behind what was supposed to be the temporary withdrawal line.

As early as mid-1973 the United States had a skeletal framework of a “worst case scenario” whereby the most expensive and technologically-capable VNAF assets (F-5 fighters – especially the F-5Es –  and C-130 transports) could be retrieved. The USA wanted to prevent these aircraft from threatening Thailand, and also, simply because they were expensive war articles.

Now in March 1975, this scenario was starting to look like a real possibility. For President Ford, there was no easy answer. Ford did not want to just abandon South Vietnam and was trying to get an emergency $722 million military aid package approved in Congress; modeled on operation “Nickel Grass”, the 1973 emergency airlift of weaponry to Israel during the Yom Kippur War. The proposal to Congress had dim prospects to begin with. If word got out that groundwork was being laid to extract warplanes at the same time more were being requested, it would be rejected by Congress without question.

Ford was also a realist and knew that if the aid package got voted down anyways, South Vietnam would certainly collapse and then every VNAF warplane already there would be totally lost. Hence, there was no easy answer.

The situation in South Vietnam continued to deteriorate during March 1975. A counterattack to retake Ban Mê Thôut failed. The “redeployment” now completely collapsed. For example when the 22nd Infantry Division regrouped at Vung Tào, about 30 miles from Saigon, it had lost 84% of its men, all its artillery, and the divisional commander. Sadly the results are not reflective of the way individual South Vietnamese units fought in 1975, which was with tremendous courage but let down by supply shortages and incompetent upper commanders.

On 17 April 1975, Congress voted down President Ford’s emergency aid request.

A Defense Department official, Erich von Marbod, had visited Thailand and secured, in principle it was felt, permission for South Vietnamese aircraft to use Thai runways in the event of catastrophic defeats. From there von Marbod traveled to Saigon to urge ambassador Graham Martin to discuss the evacuation of high-end warplanes, especially the F-5Es; along with the extraction of South Vietnam’s $220 million gold bullion reserves.

Ambassador Martin was dead-set against the idea, in that the withdrawal of supersonic fighters (now of limited use as ground fighting approached urban areas around Saigon) would convince pilots of other types to flee on their own accord, starting a snowball effect down to the low-end types like the A-37 Dragonfly and UH-1 Iroquois which were urgently needed to stop the North Vietnamese.

Martin believed, based on intelligence South Vietnam was providing him, that the North Vietnamese advance was bogging down and that a cease-fire would be in place within the next three days. The goal was then to negotiate some sort of orderly disbandment of South Vietnam, during which the United States could retrieve gear at its leisure.

Still hoping to salvage something, von Marbod dispatched his aide Richard Armitage to Bien Hoa airbase. Armitage planned to organize the fixed-wing assets at Bien Hoa out to Binh Thuy airbase. This facility was in the Mekong delta, about 99 miles south of Saigon. High-value jets departing Bien Hoa would bomb it on their way out, destroying whatever remained.

However shortly after Armitage arrived at Bien Hoa, intelligence indicated that the North Vietnamese army was about to encircle the airbase and Armitage was ordered right back out before any planning could happen.

USS Midway involvement begins

USS Midway departed Yokosuka, Japan on 31 March 1975 for normal training exercises. On 15 April 1975, the carrier moored at Subic Bay for a planned ten-day visit. However three days later this was cancelled and the ship departed. On 19 – 20 April, the carrier’s F-4 Phantom II fighters along with most (but not all) of the rest of the air wing disembarked. They were replaced by ten US Air Force HH-53 and CH-53 helicopters of the USAF 56th Special Operations Wing, 40th Rescue & Recovery Squadron, and 21st Special Operations Squadron. The helicopters arrived after USS Midway had already set sail.

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(USS Midway en route to Saigon with the ten big US Air Force helicopters on the flight deck. This photo also shows one of the three WWII anti-aircraft 5″ guns still aboard in 1975.)

USS Midway was assigned to TF.76, the task force assembling offshore of South Vietnam for “Frequent Wind”, the final evacuation of the Saigon embassy.

end of the VNAF

Between 19 – 21 April 1975, South Vietnamese troops at Xuân Lôc northeast of Saigon began to falter. Outnumbered more than 2:1, these troops had been fighting hard since early April, holding off essentially an entire North Vietnamese corps. Xuân Lôc was about 20 miles from Bien Hoa and about 31 miles from Saigon. With Xuân Lôc’s capture, North Vietnam gained an intersection of east-west roads and South Vietnam’s north-south Highway 1. Reinforcements and supplies could now travel unimpeded all the way from the former DMZ to the frontlines. Bien Hoa airbase itself was now within range of North Vietnamese artillery.

(VNAF helicopters in the last battles, April 1975.)

After the Xuân Lôc battle on 21 April, South Vietnam regrouped whatever forces remained near Trang Bom, about 5 miles from Bien Hoa. At 08:00 on 27 April, Trang Bom was overrun. A new frontline was established at Tân Hòa, about 5,300 yards away from the airbase which was declared unusable due to it now being so close to the front. Aircraft still there were abandoned.

At 17:04 on 28 April 1975, three North Vietnamese A-37 Dragonfly aircraft bombed Tan Son Nhut AFB. These ex-VNAF aircraft had been captured intact when Ðà Nang had been overrun earlier in 1975. A turncoat VNAF pilot had trained MiG-17 pilots how to fly the A-37 during mid-April. Three VNAF AC-119 and at least one WWII-vintage C-47 Skytrain aircraft were destroyed on the ground.

At 04:00 on 29 April 1975, Tan Son Nhut came under artillery fire. One rocket hit the DAO complex, killing two US Marines, the final American ground casualties in the Vietnam War. At 05:30 several parked aircraft were destroyed. At 07:00, a VNAF AC-119 which was defending Tan Son Nhut was shot down by a SA-7 “Grail”. As that weapon has only a range of a mile or two, it indicated that North Vietnamese forces were very near the airbase. Later that day, an A-1 Skyraider flying out of Can Tho was shot down by a SA-7 over Saigon itself, as were two more AC-119s flying out of Tan Son Nhut.

Early on 30 April what remained of the South Vietnamese 81st Rangers Group, who were now all inside Bien Hoa’s security fence, decided to withdraw and cross the Ðong Nai river to regroup inside Saigon. As they were completing this, they received news of the general surrender. Consequently when North Vietnamese infantry stormed the airbase mid-morning, they found it abandoned and intact.

(North Vietnamese infantry rush past South Vietnamese F-5 fighter jets at Bien Hoa. This is what the USA was hoping to avoid have happen.)

USS Midway and “Frequent Wind”

Operation “Frequent Wind”, the heliborne evacuation of the Saigon embassy, began at 10:51 on 29 April 1975 and ended at 07:58 on 30 April, about 2½ hours before North Vietnamese tanks reached the now-abandoned embassy.

Each run of the “jolly green giants” off USS Midway took about 2½ – 3 hours. On average each of the ten big USAF helicopters made four runs.

(HH-53 helicopters aboard USS Midway during “Frequent Wind”.) (photo via Financial Times magazine)

(USS Midway’s flight deck on 29 April, the first day of “Frequent Wind”.)

(MajGen. Nguyên Cao Ky was the final CinC of the VNAF, having previously been part of the 1964 – 1967 coup junta government. He arrived aboard USS Midway on 30 April. He was later transferred to USS Blue Ridge (LCC-19) by one of USS Midway’s helicopters.) (official US Navy photo)

The difficulty was compounded by a massive number of fleeing VNAF helicopters approaching TF.76, seeking to land aboard American ships. The carrier’s ATC was overwhelmed as helicopters (some without functional radios) were coming from every bearing and in all altitude bands.

The most memorable event aboard USS Midway was the landing of a VNAF O-1 Bird Dog lightplane by VNAF Maj. Buang Ly.

Overflying USS Midway, Maj. Buang Ly dropped a weighted note indicating he had women and children aboard and wished to land. USS Midway‘s captain, Capt. Lawrence Chambers, ordered several VNAF helicopters to be pushed overboard to make room for the O-1 to attempt a landing.

Capt. Chambers later recalled that he felt it possible he would face disciplinary action for destroying millions of dollars worth of aircraft (unbeknownst that other captains in the “Frequent Wind” flotilla were doing the same thing at the same time, as they were running out of helipad space) but did so anyways. In fact he was not punished for the decision but rather commended, and was later promoted to Rear Admiral.

(Spectrum was the onboard newspaper of USS Midway. A special edition was printed after the “Frequent Wind” operation and retrieval of the VNAF jets from Thailand. The cover photo was the Bird Dog’s landing, which for many sailors, was the most memorable event of their careers.)

Despite the fact that he had never even been aboard an aircraft carrier let alone landed on one, and that the O-1 had no arrestor hook and was not intended for carrier use, Maj. Buang Ly successfully landed the plane with himself and six civilians aboard.

(The O-1 safely landing.)

When USS Midway‘s part in “Frequent Wind” ended, the carrier had brought aboard over 50 South Vietnamese aircraft. Deducting those pushed overboard to make room for the O-1 to land, the following 49 land-based aircraft remained aboard:

                  • 40 UH-1 Iroquois
                  • 5 UH-1 Iroquois / Bell 204B/205 (Air America)
                  • 3 CH-47 Chinook
                  • 1 O-1 Bird Dog

(Ex-VNAF UH-1 Iroquois aboard after “Frequent Wind”.)

(Air America was a “proprietary”, or front company, of the CIA. It was the war’s worst-kept secret but none the less was an aid to the USA during the conflict.) (photo by Mike Baxter)

(The big Chinooks were actually easier to manhandle around USS Midway’s flight deck on account of their wheeled landing gear.) (photo by Kenneth Armstrong)

(Militarily and financially, the little O-1 was worth less than the helicopters pushed overboard. None the less, it was a huge morale booster aboard USS Midway and there was no way the crew would part with the plane. Not designed for flight deck stowage, here cardboard is being used to prevent the tie-down chain from gouging into the aluminum fuselage.)

During “Frequent Wind” USS Midway brought aboard 3,073 people, either from the USAF aircraft or who were aboard the VNAF helicopters and from small boats that came alongside. The carrier’s messing division prepared over 6,000 extra meals with no additional help and in fact, with some of its own personnel on the flight deck helping to sort out the chaos. These people could not remain aboard and USS Midway‘s SH-3 Sea King helicopters dispersed them to other ships of the task force.

USS Midway had been planned to proceed to Thailand after “Frequent Wind” to offload the US Air Force helicopters, after which the carrier would sail for Subic Bay in the Philippines to retrieve the normal air wing and resume the planned cruise.

However this was not to be.

VNAF flights to Thailand

As Saigon collapsed, numerous VNAF pilots opted to make one last flight out of Tan Son Nhut to neutral Thailand. The main destination was U-Tapao. Built by the United States for B-52 bombers during the Vietnam War, this base sits on the Gulf Of Siam, about 87 miles southeast of Bangkok and roughly 6 miles from the WWII Thai naval base at Sattahip.

In a 24-hour span, 123 fleeing VNAF aircraft arrived at U-Tapao, having overflown Cambodia which had already fallen to the Khmer Rouge. Smaller numbers of aircraft landed elsewhere in Thailand, including a F-5 which landed on a roadway. In all, 165 South Vietnamese aircraft fled to Thailand including several Air Vietnam airliners.

These types ran the gamut of what South Vietnam was flying in the final days: the big C-130 Hercules transports and their smaller C-7 Caribou stablemates, AC-119 Shadow gunship planes, F-5 Tiger II fighters, A-37 Dragonfly attack jets and the older A-1 Skyraider propeller-driven attack planes, UH-1 Iroquois helicopters, and a handful of other types like little O-1 Bird Dogs and U-17 Skywagons. Sixteen WWII-vintage C-47 Skytrains also successfully made the flight.

The next step of USS Midway‘s saga was not conducted aboard ship, but rather by diplomats in Bangkok and Washington DC. Under terms of the Military Assistance Program (MAP), the USA retained first option at getting these aircraft back when the recipient nation (in this case, South Vietnam) retired them. However MAP rules (Thailand was also a partner country in MAP) were crafted with an unwritten understanding that it was to prevent recipients from profiting off reselling aid funded by American taxpayers. It had never really been foreseen that an ally would simply cease to exist.

The USA thought that it had a general agreement from Thailand to host VNAF warplanes. However the Thais now intimated that they felt this encompassed just a severe military setback, not all of South Vietnam being overrun and surrendering. It’s possible the Thais simply realized they now had a strong hand to play….whatever the legal ownership particulars, at the end of the day the ex-VNAF planes were sitting on their runways.

In some regards it is hard to criticize them. The air traffic controllers and ground crews at U-Tapao ingested a massive number of unexpected arrivals in a short time. Most of the South Vietnamese pilots had never been to Thailand and were coming in very fast and short of fuel, unfamiliar with the taxiing procedures, and sometimes still with live ordnance. It was a dangerous situation and the Thai servicemen do deserve credit for handling it safely.

The Vietnamese government applied massive diplomatic pressure on the Thai government to return the warplanes, or at least, not give them to the Americans.

As USS Midway was already en route to Thailand for the planned offload of the big USAF helicopters, the United States decided to make a play not for the whole lot, but rather for the most advanced types which were at U-Tapao and could quickly be put on the carrier. The USAF helicopters, which could carry heavy underslung loads, would be used for this before disembarking ashore. The carrier made a full flank bell (33 kts), traveling almost 900 NM in a bit over 28 hours.

Without waiting for a final agreement between the Thai and American governments, the helicopters proceeded ahead on their own and flew to U-Tapao. On 3 May 1975, USS Midway anchored off the Thai port of Sattahip.

loading the aircraft

It was decided that only F-5 fighters and A-37 attack jets would be loaded. To accomplish this, a harness rig was used for each type.

(The harness used for the F-5s. Some of these already had their South Vietnamese insignia painted over by the Thais, as seen here.)

(The harness used on the A-37s.)

The retrievals began even before any agreement between Thailand and the USA had been finalized.

(A USAF helicopter picking up one of the F-5s at U-Tapao. The F-5 to the right had a landing gear collapse.)

(A-37 Dragonfly being moved.) (photo via Texas A&M University)

Moving aircraft like this is not easy. Any irregularly-shaped underslung load can “pendulum”, where it begins to swing back & forth on the cable. This motion is transferred up onto the helicopter, which causes serious problems for the pilot. While both the F-5 and A-37 had designed lift points, centering the centre-of-gravity of the plane, these were intended for lifting up the plane on land with a maintenance crane, not suspending it from another flying aircraft. An airplane in particular is a tricky load to undersling, as in forward flight the wings and rudder can impart additional lateral motions causing it to twist, in addition to the “pendulum” effect.

(An example of the above-mentioned, with the F-5 starting to spin as it is lowered onto USS Midway.)

While no part of this was easy, the delivery aboard USS Midway was especially challenging as the helicopter had to very gently set the plane down inside its own rotor wash, then descend a bit to put slack into the hoist line so USS Midway‘s sailors could unfasten the harness kit.

As the helicopters continued to make deliveries, the flight deck crewmen aboard USS Midway had to also move the planes around.

(Another F-5 approaching USS Midway. The helicopter to the left is one of the carrier’s own SH-3 Sea Kings.) (photo by Mike Baxter)

(F-5 being moved around USS Midway by a flight deck vehicle.)

insignia

(The Thais had already painted over many of the aircraft’s VNAF insignia.)

During the operation, two aircraft were lost. One was dropped onto the ground in Thailand and another slipped out of its harness over water near the carrier. Capt. Chambers was concerned that a disaster was waiting to happen: a F-5 weighs 4¾ tons and the ex-VNAF aircraft almost undoubtedly still had residual jet fuel inside. One falling off its harness fifty feet onto USS Midway‘s rapidly-filling flight deck would be terrible.

For their part, even though no agreement had been struck, the Thais showed little interest in interfering with the operation and to a degree were assisting at U-Tapao. So although time was still somewhat of the essence, there was now less of a feeling that every minute mattered. Therefore the helicopter-borne deliveries were ended. The remaining F-5s and A-37s were towed several miles down highways to the port, rolled onto a barge, and then hoisted aboard USS Midway using the ship’s flight deck crane.

This slowed the operation down and loading ended up taking four days. On 6 May 1975, USS Midway departed Thailand with the aircraft aboard. The ship now had 101 land-based aircraft aboard:

              • 25 F-5 Tiger II
              • 27 A-37 Dragonfly
              • 40 UH-1 Iroquois
              • 5 UH-1 Iroquois / Bell 204B/205 (Air America)
              • 3 CH-47 Chinook
              • 1 O-1 Bird Dog

After USS Midway‘s departure, the negotiations between Thailand and the United States sort of just sputtered out. The USA got what it (reasonably) wanted aboard the carrier. One additional F-5 (the one which had landed on the highway) was later retrieved by a C-5 Galaxy and the C-130s were self-flown to Clark AFB.

(An ex-VNAF A-1 Skyraider at U-Tapao after USS Midway’s departure.)

Thailand got most of what remained. The Pentagon had previously already decided to phase out the US Air Force’s last WWII-vintage C-47 Skytrains during 1975 so there was no interest in them. The A-1 Skyraider had already left US Navy and US Marine Corps service so obviously they were unwanted. Some of the other types were worth little more than the cost to ship them anyways.

(This C-47 Skytrain of the Royal Thai Navy had been an ex-VNAF plane and before than, ex-US Army during WWII.)

to Guam

The original plan was for USS Midway to go to Subic Bay, unload the land-based aircraft there, and retrieve its normal air wing. But in the interim, remnants of the South Vietnamese navy had headed there, and the Philippines government of Ferdinand Marcos was looking to get them. (They eventually did, at scrap metal pricing.) Some of the ex-VNAF “Frequent Wind” helicopters were on these ships and Marcos showed interest in claiming them too.

2

(F-5 with USS Midway’s island in the background.)

The USA did not want high-end warplanes to fall into this category and USS Midway was instead instructed to go straight to the American island of Guam.

8

(USS Midway en route to Guam.)

USS Midway arrived at Guam on 11 May 1975. The ship anchored offshore and the ex-VNAF were unloaded via a derrick (large floating crane) which set them onto a barge, which was then pushed into port to be unloaded.

guam1

(The derrick lifting one of the F-5s onto the barge.)

guamoffload

(UH-1 Iroquois helicopter being offloaded.)

guam3

(The O-1 being offloaded.)

Unloading the 101 aircraft took about 24 hours spread over two days, and concluded on 12 May 1975.

The photo below has been used by numerous sources with differing explanations. Depending on the source quoted, it is either a load of aircraft offloaded by the derrick onto the barge en route to be taken ashore, or, after USS Midway departed and a group of helicopters selected to be dumped at sea.

randyguttery

(photo by Randy Gutterey)

None of the fixed-wing ex-VNAF types were discarded at Guam but by piecing together known serial numbers, it appears that the island may have been the last stop for some helicopters. Whether any were indeed dumped offshore is unknown. The white Air America helicopter on the barge is not the one famous from the “rooftop photo”; that Bell 205D was flown by Bob Caron and ended up aboard USS Vancouver (LPD-2). It was sold in 1976 to a private pilot in Alabama.

Once the ex-VNAF aircraft were ashore, they were segregated by type and moved into a fenced-in parking lot. Later throughout 1975, they were moved to the mainland United States.

guammayb

USS Midway after 1975

USS Midway participated in the S.S. Mayaguez recovery later in 1975. The WWII hull remained overloaded. In 1986, a $30 million effort added 10′ buoyancy blisters to 600′ of the ship on each side. This raised the freeboard but now caused a weird flight deck motion in rough waves, which pilots described as a “half-corkscrew” motion. There was little more that could be done to a WWII ship already modified several times over and the US Navy decided to just live with the issues for the remainder of the flattop’s career.

1987iowa

(Two rejuvenated WWII designs in President Reagan’s navy: USS Midway (CV-41) and USS Iowa (BB-61) in 1987.)

USS Midway participated in operations “Desert Shield” and “Desert Storm” in 1990 – 1991. The carrier’s last mission came in the summer of 1991, when it supported the evacuation of Clark AFB in the Philippines during the Mt. Pinatubo eruption.

USS Midway decommissioned on 11 April 1992. After some time in mothballs, the decommissioned ship was partially stripped for spare parts and then in 2003, converted into a museum ship in San Diego, CA. The museum ship (which is one of the best-run in the world) has a very good amount of displays and information regarding “Frequent Wind”, but little about the retrieval of the ex-VNAF land-based jets.

what happened to the aircraft USS Midway retrieved

The main focus of USS Midway‘s mission was to simply prevent the jets from falling into communist hands; whatever happened beyond that was secondary.

The twenty-five F-5 fighters retrieved by USS Midway were moved to the USA’s west coast in the latter part of 1975. Of these planes, three were of the early F-5A Freedom Fighter model which was of no use to the US Air Force; the other twenty-two the high-end F-5E Tiger II model. In testimony to Congress during 1977, Gen. Alton Slay stated that twenty-two F-5Es were taken on by the USAF from USS Midway, confirming that all of the F-5Es were indeed at least put back on charge paperwork-wise.

McClellanApril1976

(Ex-VNAF F-5s at McClellan AFB, CA in April 1976, eleven months after USS Midway’s operation.)

The US Air Force did not employ the F-5E as a frontline squadron fighter by then, but did use them as OPFOR (opposing forces) trainers in exercises. A few of the F-5s USS Midway retrieved in 1975 were used in that role, with the last being discarded from USAF use in 1990.

exvnaf

(An extracted ex-VNAF F-5E Freedom Fighter being used by the USAF’s 26th Fighter Squadron at Clark AFB in 1982. This was an “aggressor” unit, to train American fighter pilots against dissimilar types.)

The US Air Force did not need all of them and several were passed on to the US Navy for use in the same role in the “Top Gun” program at NAS Mirimar, CA.

mirimar

(This F-5E Tiger II had been 73-00858 in the VNAF. The plane was temporarily repainted in US Air Force markings but was passed to the US Navy where it served as an OPFOR plane in the “Top Gun” training program. In the background are a F-4 Phantom II and the then-new F-14 Tomcat.) (photo by Jim Leslie)

patch

(“Top Gun” used F-5s from various sources: American orders from Northrop, planes ordered by South Vietnam but never delivered before the 1975 collapse, and at least four aircraft retrieved by USS Midway.)

As American interest in the recovered F-5s faded, some were made available for allied use. The Honduran air force received one. South Korea was allocated five of them in 1976, but apparently never received them.

The A-37 Dragonfly had left production at Cessna in 1975 and in the post-Vietnam War military, was already largely relegated to Air National Guard use. As such they were considered of lesser importance. El Salvador, South Korea, and Peru received A-37s which had been evacuated by USS Midway. Some were not put back into use at all, and were later surplused off to private collectors.

kiwiaircraftimages1997

(One of the ex-VNAF Dragonflys which was sold to a collector in New Zealand.) (photo via Phillip Treweek)

The helicopters brought aboard during “Frequent Wind” were not part of the plan and their fate is unknown. Many were probably already nearly worn-out and some had taken rifle fire while leaving Saigon.

The O-1 Bird Dog was immediately sent to the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, FL where it remains today.

bird

postscript

Militarily and culturally, the retrieval of these aircraft at the end of America’s involvement in Vietnam was not really all that important in the grand scheme of things.

sandiego

(The ex-USS Midway as a museum ship in San Diego.)

None the less, it is a very unique example of how a WWII-era warship could be adapted to a mission that had never really existed before and in all likelihood will probably never be undertaken again.

end

(USS Midway, WWII and 1975)

7 thoughts on “USS Midway: retrieval of land-based South Vietnamese warplanes 1975

  1. Really interesting article! Is there any available list of the serial numbers of the retreived A-37s from the VNAF? as far as I know, all Salvadorean A-37s came from ANG and AFRES units that never used ex VNAF planes

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    • I havent been able to find a full list of either the A-37s or the helicopters of all types. I am guessing the A-37s were more of an afterthought to the F-5s and not really a high priority. There is a full list of the F-5s online in several places. Also (unrelated) there was a FAA warning many years ago now on civilian use of the ex-VNAF Dragonflys; I dont recall the particulars but it was something to do with fatigue problems not addressed when they were rolled back into ANG/AFRES before being ultimately dispositioned.

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