Recollections of Vietnam

What Happened to the Caribous?


As most of the Caribou personnel are aware, by the end of 1971 plans were well underway to transfer a number of C-7A aircraft to the Vietnamese Air Force (VNAF) and to train some of their pilots.  My tour ended just before this chapter in the war started, but I received a message from a Vietnamese man about the age of my own son, whose father was the Commander of the VNAF Caribou squadron.  His experiences are enlightening for those of us who got to go home at the end of our tours.  It was all too easy to forget that South Vietnam was home to the people we were ostensibly trying to help.  The VNAF 427th Squadron was formed and initially based at Cam Ranh Bay. It later moved to Phu Cat and then, finally, to Da Nang.  By 1975, most of the C-7A aircraft at Da Nang were grounded and in storage for lack of spare parts.  In March of 1975, the NVA made their push against Da Nang.  It was clear to the Commander of the 427th that the overrun of the base was imminent.  Knowing that he situation around Da Nang was precarious, most of the family members had already been moved to Saigon. He gathered as many people as could be crammed into a Caribou and with one of his Majors in the right seat and his brother, the maintenance chief at Da Nang on the cockpit ladder, he taxied out in an aircraft with most of its systems malfunctioning, and with an unknown quantity of fuel.  Since the runway was not usable, he started his takeoff roll on the taxiway.  The aircraft was way over its intended maximum gross takeoff weight, but he just cleared the barbed wire fence and the mine field beyond.  With no radio and an unknown amount of fuel, he simply hoped to get far enough south to get his family and the others on the aircraft out of immediate danger.  He considered landing at Nha Trang, but his brother urged him to fly on, as Nha Trang would be filled with civilians trying to escape the NVA and there would be no way out.  By morning, he had made it all the way to Tan Son Nhut in Saigon.  He made a pass by the tower, wagging his wings to indicate his lack of a radio and, with fire trucks running along beside him, he finally landed.  Both engines stopped from lack of fuel on the rollout.  As it turned out, people in Saigon were completely unaware that Da Nang had fallen and he was able to prevent the departure of a C-130 which was taking off for Da Nang.  His freedom was short-lived, as Saigon soon also fell to the NVA.  Most of us in America will never forget the pictures of the fall of Saigon, with the helicopters taking off from the roof of the embassy building and the throngs of Vietnamese civilians at the gate begging to be evacuated.  For the "crime" of trying to defend his country, he and his brother were sent off to "re-education" camps to be punished for their complicity with the Americans and for defending their country.  Their families were left to fend for themselves.   Although his brother died in the camp, the former Squadron Commander was eventually released and immediately sought a way to escape from Vietnam with his family.  He was able to secure a position on a fishing boat and even got a reduction in the rate, because of his navigation skills.  With the complete uncertainty of a successful voyage and the near certainty of encounters with both pirates and bad weather, he decided the trip was too dangerous for his wife and two daughters.  He thus became one of the "boat people", forced to flee the country of his birth with his 9 year old son by a regime of almost unparalleled cruelty.  He was lucky; he and his son eventually made their way to Australia, which, to its credit, allowed them to enter as refugees.   He was later able to secure the escape of his wife and daughters and they all now live in Australia as citizens of that country.

This young man remains somewhat bitter today, as does his father.  They lost their country; their only true home.  The reasons are complex, but the government of the United States did not do the right thing, and for that I am ashamed.  We did not carry out the war with the intention of winning.  We micro-managed everything for the best domestic political outcome and did not think in terms of victory.  The cost was great to our own military, but even greater to the military and the people of South Vietnam.  I don't think it is well known that three Vietnamese Generals, Nguyen Van Hung, Nguyen Khoa Nam, and Pham Van Phu literally fought to the death for their country.   Even after they had been told that the war was lost, they chose to fight until defeat was inevitable and then committed suicide in the Asian tradition.  These were men of honor and great courage.  All of us who served in Vietnam, saw Vietnamese officers who surely did not measure up to those standards and there was a tendency to generalize and stereotype.  The stereotype is not a valid one, for there were a large number of highly motivated and patriotic Vietnamese officers and men who tried hard to save their country.  They trusted the United States and we betrayed that trust by pulling out before they were ready to carry on alone and without assuring them adequate supplies to keep the machinery and the weapons operational.  From his conversations with communist cadre members during the time his father and uncle were imprisoned, he is certain that if the bombing of North Vietnam had been sustained for just a few weeks longer, the outcome would have been total surrender by the North.  He also debunks the myth of the "Viet Cong" as largely a device by the NVA to legitimize their aggression against the South.  There was no "Viet Cong", it was the NVA all along, operating from their secure sanctuaries in Laos and Cambodia, which carried out the war.  If there are any doubts about that thesis, you should read SOG, by John L. Plaster (ISBN 0-451-19508-6), which describes in graphic detail the NVA operations in Laos and Cambodia from the eyes of the American, Montagnard, and ARVN recon patrols which entered those areas known loosely as the "Ho Chi Minh Trail".   Their story is very enlightening, but if you are like me, it doesn't inspire any great respect for our government.

Revised: 06 July 1999