Bangkok Shuttle

Undoubtedly the most popular of the PACAF C-130 missions was the "Bangkok Shuttle", the 315th Air Division C-130 logistical mission in Thailand. Even though the ground portion of the Vietnam War was fought exclusively in South Vietnam, nearby Thailand was home for thousands of American servicemen, mostly airmen of the United States Air Force whose mission was to support the air war against North Vietnam.

When the Johnson Administration began the Rolling Thunder campaign against North Vietnam, several tactical fighter and reconnaissance wings moved into bases at Takhli, Udorn, Ubon and Korat, Thailand. Takhli and Korat where home to F-105 fighter wings whose primary mission was bombing targets in North Vietnam. Udorn was the home of a tactical reconnaissance wing while Ubon was the base for the MiG killers of the 8th Tac Fighter Wing. Nakon Phanom, more commonly known as NKP, was the home of special operations forces and the Jolly Green HH-3 rescue helicopters. Though the generally - but not completely - peaceful conditions in Thailand allowed the delivery of supplies to the upcountry bases by truck, airlift was needed to move urgently needed items such as aircraft parts, perishable foodstuffs and mail as well as passengers.

During the first years of the Vietnam War, airlift needs in Thailand were met by USAF C-123s and US Army CV-2 Caribous, but the increasing American presence in the country soon dictated a need for the larger, faster C-130s. In the fall of 1965 C-130s from the 779th Troop Carrier Squadron at Pope AFB, North Carolina, who were TDY to Mactan Island in the Philippines, began the C-130 mission. Four C-130Es were placed at Bangkok's Don Muang Airport for airlift operations in Thailand. I was not one of the first crews to fly in Thailand, but it was not long after the mission began that I spent my first two weeks on the Bangkok Shuttle.

Flying in Thailand was not as urgent or as hectic as in Vietnam, and the living conditions were greatly improved. While C-130 crews in Vietnam lived wherever they could find a bunk, 315th Air Division contracted with the Federal Hotel for rooms for the C-130 crews. In the fall of 1965 when I was there, the Federal was also home to several dislocated American families from the diplomatic and military missions in Dacca, West Pakistan, who had been evacuated out of the city because of fighting between Pakistan and India. That there were several teenage American girls in the hotel made life interesting for the younger enlisted men - such as myself!

Flying in Thailand consisted of a single scheduled passenger mission that left Bangkok in the morning and hit all five of the up-country bases as well as several daily cargo flights. The passenger mission ran a circuit one day that started at Takhli and ended up at Korat, then was reversed the following day. That routine was followed pretty much through at least the first 2-3 year of US operations in the area. Rations, especially perishables such as fruits and vegetables, were a major commodity on the cargo flights. One mission was primarily for that sole purpose. All of the cargo missions originated out of Don Muang. Mail was another item that appeared on nearly every flight, and there were always a couple of bags of certified and registered mail.

I got my introduction to the Shuttle in the fall of 1965, but by the time I arrived at Naha, Okinawa in early 1966, 315th was making plans to shift the mission to the 6315th Operations Group. It was not long before I found myself doing the same thing in the C-130A in Thailand that I had done a few months earlier in the C-130E. The mission had not changed in the least. Perhaps the only real difference was that the American girls had gone back to the United States.

Bangkok was a popular place to Americans in Southeast Asia because it was a modern city with excellent shopping and a very active night life. The city became an R&R center for troops in Vietnam, but the permanent party personnel in Thailand as well as the C-130 crews soon learned to avoid the places where the R&R troops congregated. There were many excellent restaurants in the city offering a wide variety of food, but spice was pretty much the order of the day.

Crews in Bangkok were scheduled so as to have a day off followed by a day of alert after a few days of flying. Most of the missions in 1966-67 were flown in the daytime, though the Shuttle eventually became an around-the-clock operation just as it was in South Vietnam. All of the missions were scheduled into one of the five principal American bases though once in awhile there would be a mission into Chaing Mai, a city in Northern Thailand near the Chinese and Burmese borders.

Though Thailand was officially at peace, there was an insurgency within the country, mostly in the northern third adjacent to Laos. The American C-130s did not play an active role in combating this insurgency, though we did carry cargo for the Thai military personnel and American advisors who were fighting - and ultimately defeating - the insurgents.

In 1967 a new base was constructed in Thailand at U-Tapao, a city southwest of Thailand on the Gulf of Siam. The Bangkok Shuttle mission eventually moved there because U-Tapao was closer to the ports into which the cargo came aboard ships. By this time the Thai Airlift had become the responsibility of the 314th TAW out of CCK.

In early 1973 the Paris Peace Accords ended the American combat role in South Vietnam. The C-130 force that remained in Southeast Asia shifted entirely to Thailand, though crews flew missions into Saigon and elsewhere in South Vietnam. U-Tapao became a major base for C-130 crews flying airdrop missions into Cambodia and Laos.

Deteriorating conditions in Cambodia led the United States to mount a major airlift mission out of U-Tapao delivering supplies to the besieged city of Phnom Penh. Begun initially by USAF C-130 crews, the Cambodian Airlift was shifted to civilian aircrews employed by Bird Air (BirdAir), an American company doing CIA contract work in Southeast Asia. The Bird Air crews were recently retired and separated American military personnel, as well as some who were members of reserve components in the United States. Bird Air crews flew C-130Es provided by the United States Air Force under a "lease" arrangement. The Cambodian Airlift was one of the most massive airlifts ever undertaken. It far exceeded the Berlin Airlift in terms of scope and tonnages involved, as well as duration.

With the fall of Saigon, the C-130 role in Southeast Asia came to a halt. For a time, C-130 crews remained at U-Tapao, but eventually the withdrawal of American troops from Southeast Asia placed Bangkok once again as a place that was seen as a pleasant place to RON, just as it had been prior to 1965.


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