Last Flight From Saigon
It was April 1974 and I was a high school student in Denver, Colorado. I knew something of the Vietnam War thanks to news reports, and according to the Paris Peace Accord, we were done with that war. I knew my Uncle (the fighter pilot) Col. Earl E. Michler had served three tours in Vietnam making bomb runs sometimes 10 meters above the ground, and I knew he was stationed somewhere in Thailand because he sent my father pictures of ancient temples and historical sites.
Fast forward one year later to April 1975 and Vietnam was in the news again, something about the evacuation of Saigon because the North Vietnamese had broken the peace accord and were overrunning the south. It never occurred to me that my Uncle might have been there during that historical and tragic time. After all, he was stationed over in Thailand, however, near the end of 1975, we heard from my Uncle that he had been in Saigon during the evacuation. It turns out in April 1975 he was sent there to help Maj. Robert S. Delligatti, who had been designated the Seventh Air Force's Supervisor of Airlift for Saigon. Delligatti had been doing a heroic job for months up to that point and can be credited for helping no less than 70,000 people exit Saigon through Tan Son Nhut Air Base (Saigon Airport). Delligatti stayed on to help see things through until the airlift ended.
My uncle had been stationed at (NKP) Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Navy Base and he was tasked to take over as Supervisor of Airlift at Tan Son Nhut Air Base in light of the increased tempo of the airlift operations and the possibility of Saigon being overrun by the North Vietnamese Army. He personally facilitated the flight out for the President of South Vietnam and his family. We also learned my Uncle had been awarded a medal for his work there. Among other things he ran onto a bombed and burning aircraft, under fire, to make sure everyone got out safely.
On April 29th, 1975, a C-130E [#72-1297], flown by a crew from the 776th Tactical Airlift Squadron, was destroyed by a 122 mm rocket while taxiing to pick up refugees after offloading a BLU-82 at Tan Son Nhut Air Base. Col. Michler ran into the burning C-130 helping the crew to evacuate the aircraft and then directed them to depart the airfield on another C-130 that had previously landed. This was the last USAF fixed-wing aircraft to leave Tan Son Nhut, prompting Col. Michler to convey to the Seventh Air Force and Ambassador Martin that the airport was unusable, thus triggering the final phase of the evacuation of Saigon known as "Operation Frequent Wind".
The following is an excerpt from an article in which the author (Lt. Col. John L. Hilgenberg) while describing events, quotes part of my Uncle's reporting that describes ending operations at the Airport and highlights the actions of one of his officers.
(From USAF Southeast Asia Monograph Series Vol. IV Monograph 6 Last Flight from Saigon ...page 80)
A second rocket hit about 100 yards away across from the Dodge City billeting, injuring two evacuees sleeping on the grass. These two were treated by the Army medics and one civilian doctor working in the gym dispensary. Another hit across the road in the Air America parking area, destroying several aircraft contemplated for use in the evacuation. Maj. Delligatti of the SOA, who was en route back to Tiger Ops, had spoken briefly to the Marine guards only five seconds before the impact killed them. These two were the only known U.S. citizens killed on Vietnamese soil during the entire evacuation. Two Marine helicopter pilots perished in a helicopter ditching at sea.
The latter was Dr. Jim Mayers from Hawaii who originally came into Vietnam to assist in evacuating orphans, then stayed on to help in the big evacuation. He was the only doctor readily available in the EPC and performed in outstanding fashion. Several of the pictures in the back were taken by Dr. Mayers and given to the Air Force for historical purposes.
From 0430 till the final lift-off the next morning more than 24 hours later, a multitude of things happened, many of them simultaneously. A chronological organization will be used hereafter. The rockets and what sounded like heavy artillery continued throughout the day with the greatest concentration of 40 rounds per hour between 0430 and 0800. Following the initial barrage, which seemed to hit indiscriminately in and around the Tan Son Nhut area, the rocket fire became more and more concentrated on the flight line and fuel and ammo storage areas. In fact, after about 0430, no one remembered any more rockets hitting the Defense Attache Office Compound or Annex.
In the EPC, our first action was to get the crowds down and undercover, yet to remain organized in groups for rapid movement. Not surprisingly, the VN's knew exactly what to do to protect themselves from the rockets, but once the attack subsided, they grew progressively more difficult to control. Here is where the USAF Security Police and several assigned Marines were invaluable. As I observed throughout the evacuation, reaffirmed later in the day, an American in uniform was a powerful, reassuring control force, much more effective than an American in civilian clothes, even one who could speak the language of the evacuees.
On the flight line near Tiger Ops, the Supervisor of Airlift group and members of the Combat Control Team began investigating and reporting on the condition of the airfield. This action was extremely hazardous as rocket impacts were now concentrated there. Col. Earl Michler, USAF, was serving as Supervisor of Airlift at Flying Tiger Operations on the flight line when the rocket attack started and directed initial reporting. He described the action of one man, in particular, Capt. Bill O'Brien, USAF, on temporary duty to Saigon from the Clark AB Aerial Port:
"When the bad guys started shooting at us, Bill was least impressed--that is to say it was obvious he had been there before. Whenever we needed to know the status of the airfield, runways, taxiways, etc., it was always "Obie" who went out to check. There were several times when leaving the doubtful sanctuary of a building was not easy, but he went, usually without my asking. If we had a decision to make about whether or not to continue operations, he just accepted the fact that we needed to check, put on his hat and did it. During those final hours, Bill was, with the radios in his jeep, our only real contact with what was happening on the flight line. He was right in the middle of the chaotic mess and stayed there calmly reporting conditions until I ordered him out.
When I finally told Bill to get out, all hope of continuing airlift was gone and he was under fire not only from rockets and artillery, but was surrounded by the wild, uncontrolled melee on the ramp - Vietnamese were running around looking for a reason to shoot someone. Bill came out very slowly, moved all the way over to the tower to pick up one of his enlisted types in place there, then back to Flying Tiger Ops to meet with the rest of our people.