I owe special thanks to Wayne Mutza, Warren Thompson and Robert F Dorr for allowing me access to their extensive image collections. A special thank you to William Reeder who shared his story of experiences as a POW in Vietnam. Special thanks to Chris Hobson, author of Vietnam Air Losses, for making his work available to the A-1 Skyraider Association in its entirety. Also thanks to the following individuals who shared images and/or Skyraider stories with me – Jake Ludwig, Bill Stevens, Tom Bigelow, Herb Tidwell, Rob Cole, Richard Keogh, Don Wilkerson, Peter Bird, Andy Renshaw, Mike Roberts and William H Mogan. USAF Skyraider pilots who shared stories and images were Don Emigholz, Joe Saueressig, Herb Meyr, Dick Foreman, Ed Homan, Jim Partington, Don Engebretsen, Charlie Holder, Randy Scott, Gary Koldyke, Larry Haight, Jim Madden, John Larrison, Win DePoorter, Tom Dwelle, Dick Allen, John Lackey (via Roy Lackey), Mike Maloney, Alan Young, Davis Glass, Shelley Hilliard, Bill Prescott, ‘Jink’ Bender and Ron Smith.
I am indebted to the following VNAF Skyraider pilots who shared images and stories – Nguyen Quoc Dat, Pham Minh Xuan, Ho Van Hien, Nguyen Tranh Trung, Duong Thieu Chi, Nguyen Dinh Xuan, Nguyen Chuyen, Nguyen Quoc Thanh, Hoi B Tran, Thai Ngoc Truong Van, Nguyen Lanh and Son Bach. I sincerely apologise to those who assisted me but are not listed here. Your help was greatly appreciated.
FINAL SKYRAIDER UNITS
Although the arrival of A-37s in South Vietnam in increasing numbers from late 1968 allowed the VNAF to convert three of its A-1 units to the Cessna attack aircraft, the Skyraider continued to play a key role in supporting the ARVN through to the communist invasion of April 1975. USAF A-1s also remained active in the SAR role until they were finally withdrawn in late 1972, the few surviving examples being passed on to the VNAF.
Although the Dragonfly was seen as the future light attack platform for the South Vietnamese, proof that there was still a role for the venerable A-1 in-theatre came in 1970 when the 530th FS became the last Skyraider squadron to form within the VNAF. Based at Pleiku, the nucleus of the unit was provided by an A-1 detachment from the 524th FS that had operated from the base until the squadron had converted to the A-37 in early 1969. The Skyraider’s presence at Pleiku had been further reduced in November of that year when the USAF’s 6th SOS, which had flown from the base since early 1968, was inactivated. The ARVN was anxious to keep a strong CAS presence in Military Region II, however, so the 530th FS was formed in 1970 with surplus A-1s following the conversion of two units to the A-37.
Although the squadron boasted a highly experienced leadership cadre (CO, vice commander and operations officer), most of its pilots were young aviators who had been trained at Hurlburt Field within the previous year. The number of experienced A-1 pilots in the VNAF had been significantly reduced following their conversion onto the A-37 at Da Nang, Nha Trang and Binh Thuy.
As with other VNAF Skyraider squadrons, the normal duty cycle within the 530th FS was two days on, one day off. That is to say pilots would fly for two days and perform other squadron duties every third day. Missions were flown mostly during daylight hours and rarely at night. Although the addition of the BOBS (beacon-only bombing system) allowed bombs to be dropped in either bad weather and/or at night, still the vast majority of A-1 sorties were performed during the day.
One such mission saw the 530th called on to support a fire support base (FSB) that was being overrun by the enemy. ‘Jupiter 11’, a flight of two Skyraiders flown by Maj Thanh and his wingman, 1Lt Pham Minh Xuan, were scrambled from Pleiku after the call had come in from FSB ‘Charlie’ that it needed help fast. The famed Red Berets of the ARVN’s 11th Airborne Battalion were just holding on in the face of stiff opposition from a larger enemy force. ‘We were airborne within ten minutes of the scramble notice being received’, Pham recalled. ‘My leader, Maj Thanh, was flying an A-1E loaded with six Mk 82s, and I had six cans of 500-lb napalm on my A-1H. We each had a full load of 20 mm ammunition’.
The target was less than 100 nautical miles north of Pleiku, so ‘Jupiter 11’ was soon over the FSB. The FAC was orbiting nearby, and he briefed the ‘Jupiters’ on the situation. They were instructed to monitor FM radio channel 47.0 for possible information from the Red Berets on the ground. The plan was for ‘Jupiter 11’ to drop his bombs first, followed by ‘Jupiter 12’ with his napalm. After Thanh was finished with his attack, the ground team came on the radio. Pham described what happened next;
‘As soon as the FAC gave me my instructions, I heard the Red Berets say that they were being overrun by the enemy – they were coming in human-wave attacks across the perimeter of FSB “Charlie”. The enemy was coming up the hill from the south, so I was instructed to drop my napalm no closer than the perimeter of the FSB. My first pass was a little long, so I manoeuvred for my second run. This was much better than the first one, and the Red Berets were yelling for more of the same. My last pass was a repeat of this heading, which turned out to be a big mistake. I felt and heard enemy fire hit the front of my A-1 as I pulled off target.’
Pham climbed as hard as he could for altitude, checking his engine instruments at the same time while starting a turn toward Dak To airfield, which was only a short distance away; ‘I noticed that the CHT [cylinder head temperature] was in the red and the engine was running rough, so I pulled the throttle back a bit. I was at about 3000 ft above the ground, and I could no longer maintain altitude, so I pushed the throttle up again. I was able to level off, but I could now see smoke and smelled hydraulic fluid.
‘There were two helicopters on the runway at Dak To, so Thanh buzzed them with his gear and flaps down and they got the message and cleared the area. I slid back the canopy to get rid of the smoke, and that helped a lot. The gear would not come down, so I prepared for a gear up landing. I held the aircraft at 90 knots until I flared for landing, and came down with a thud. I was surprised at how quickly the aircraft stopped. I jumped out of the A-1 as fast as I could just in case it caught fire. Later, I had a good look at the aircraft, and discovered several holes in the front of the engine that had been made by 12.7 mm AAA. I had had a lucky escape, as had the Red Berets at FSB Charlie.’
VALOUR BEYOND THE COCKPIT
Many flying stories begin when the pilot takes off, en route to some dangerous target far behind enemy lines. This one commenced when two men were shot down in the midst of the enemy. Neither knew the other, but they were soon to become united in a struggle for survival. Capt Bill Reeder was a US Army AH-1G Cobra pilot supporting the ARVN Ranger outpost at Ben when he was downed by enemy fire on 9 May 1972. His co-pilot/gunner, Lt Tim Conry, died from his injuries shortly after the helicopter had crashed. Earlier, he and Reeder had witnessed the downing of an A-1 Skyraider near Polei Klang, but they had been denied permission to attempt to rescue the pilot. The latter, Lt Nguyen Dinh Xanh of the 530th FS, had been supporting ARVN forces at Polei Klang, an outpost west of Kontum near the Cambodian border, when his A-1 was hit by AAA.
‘I had a badly broken back, burns on the back of my neck, a piece of shell fragment sticking out of my ankle and superficial wounds on my head and face’, Reeder recalled. ‘I was in the midst of many hundreds of attacking enemy soldiers’.
After evading the enemy for three days, Reeder was captured and herded to a prison camp carved out of the jungle just inside Cambodia. ‘There were South Vietnamese military [prisoners], there were indigenous mountain people referred to as Montagnards who had allied with US Special Forces and there were two Americans, myself and another helicopter pilot, Wayne Finch, captured a month earlier’, Reeder explained. ‘There were at least 200 prisoners altogether’.
Xanh had also been captured following his shoot down on 9 April 1972. He too had been force-marched through the jungle to this very same camp. Reeder described his meeting with Xanh on 2 July 1972, nearly three months after he had been captured.
‘My weight went from around 190 pounds to somewhere around 120 in just a few weeks. I was skin hanging on bone, with a beard that grew very long over time. I did not shave for more than five months. I received no medical attention at all, and no one fared any better than me. One day I was taken outside my cage and lined up with a group of prisoners. There were about 25 South Vietnamese, as well as Wayne and myself. I would soon learn that one of our group was a pilot who had been shot down on the same day as me in an A-1 Skyraider at Polei Klang – the very same Vietnamese pilot I had been denied the chance of rescuing. His name was Lt Xanh.’
The group was told by one of their guards that they would be taken to an improved camp where they would receive medical treatment. ‘You all should try hard to make it’, the guard told them. ‘It should only take about 11 days’. Reeder described his mindset as they set off down the trail; ‘If you did not continue to march, you would die. In normal life you have to take some overt action in order to die. You have to kill yourself. As a prisoner of war, under these circumstances, that truth is reversed. You have to reach deep within yourself and struggle each day to stay alive. Dying is easy. Just relax, give up and peacefully surrender, and you will die. Many did. They died in that first jungle prison camp, and they died along the trail. Some would complete a day’s journey and then lie down to die. Others collapsed on the trail and could not continue.’
The journey to the next camp lasted three months, the march covering several hundred miles until it finally ended in Hanoi. ‘It was a nightmare, a horrid soul wrenching nightmare’, Reeder remembered. ‘Every step, every day wracked my body with pain. My infections became worse and disease settled in me. I was near death. The pain kept my face contorted and a cry shrieking within every corner of my consciousness, pain that was burning a blackened scar deep into the centre of my very being. And there was Lt Xanh, suffering badly himself, but always encouraging me, always helping as he could’.
Lt Xanh became a part of Reeder’s life at this moment. ‘On the worst day of my life I fought so very hard. I faltered. I dug deeper. I staggered on. I faltered again, and I struggled more, and I reached deeper yet, and I prayed for more strength. And I collapsed, and I got up and moved along, and I collapsed again, and again. I fought, fought with all I had in my body, my heart and my soul. And I collapsed, and I could not get up. I could not will myself up. I was at the end of my life. And the enemy came.
‘The guard looked down on me. He ordered me up. He yelled at me. I could not. I was done. And then there was Xanh, looking worried, bending toward me, the guard yelling to discourage his effort. He persisted in moving to help me. The guard yelled louder. Xanh’s face was set with determination, and in spite of whatever threats the guard was screaming, he pulled me up onto his frail, weak back, pulled my arms around his neck and clasped my wrists together. He then pulled me along with my feet dragging on the ground behind him. Xanh dragged me along for the rest of that day. Occasionally, he was briefly relieved by another prisoner, but it was Xanh who carried the burden that day. It was Xanh who lifted me from death, at great risk to his own life, and carried me, and cared for me, until we completed that long day’s journey’.
The following morning Reeder’s ordeal was not over. Despite the glimmer of hope provided by the previous day’s miracle, he fell from a log and lay in a shallow river. This time Xanh was forbidden to help him, he and the other prisoners being marched away at gunpoint. ‘They were marched away with the rest of our prisoner group. I never saw Xanh again’, Reeder explained.
However, for some reason his captors decided to give Reeder penicillin injections to treat his massive infections and, after a time, he was able to stand, and even walk again. ‘I was put back on the trail, this time travelling with groups of North Vietnamese soldiers moving north, and accompanied by my own personal guard. It continued to be an agonising trip, but the worst was behind me’.
Reeder eventually reached Hanoi and ended up in the infamous ‘Hanoi Hilton’ POW camp. He survived against all odds to be released at the end of the war. Later, having made contact with ex-VNAF personnel who had made it to the USA, he enquired about Xanh. Initially, Reeder struggled to locate him until he finally found a website that served as a gathering forum for former VNAF A-1 pilots. Eventually, through this site, he was reunited with Xanh; ‘At our first encounter, I looked upon an older man, but instantly I saw the soul of my beloved friend in his eyes. I’d not seen him since I’d watched him forced across that log and marched away, knowing that I owed him
my life, or what there was left of it. But there in the jungle I made a promise to myself and to Xanh. Since he’d worked so hard to help me live through those two toughest days of my life, I felt like I owed him my very best to try to do my part to make his efforts worthwhile – to survive the rest of my journey and somehow get home at the end of it. What he’d done for me saved my life, and Xanh’s selfless actions gave me even more determination to overcome everything between me and the freedom that waited at the end of my captivity.
‘Nguyen Dinh Xanh has always been a great man, and now he is a great American. I am so thankful he was my friend when I needed him, and I am grateful I have found my friend again.’ Xanh’s A-1 was one of 23 Skyraiders lost by the 530th FS between 1970 and mid-1973 – data does not extend beyond the latter date, so its losses were almost certainly higher. The unit also had six pilots killed or listed as missing in action.
In October 1974, with shortages of fuel, ordnance and spare parts, the 530th FS was ordered to cease operations. Pleiku AB was evacuated by the VNAF on 17 March 1975. Left behind were 21 A-1s and 18 other VNAF aircraft, all of which were in flyable condition.
USAF AND VNAF
Courtesy of Pham Minh Xuan
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