Mule Train: First Combat in Vietnam

Fairchild C-123 Provider

Fairchild C-123 Provider

The most glamorous flying jobs are not always the most satisfying. Sometimes a routine, even mean task comes along, one that garners no glory, but does obvious good. Such it was with Mule Train, an airlift operation that began with take-offs from Pope Air Force Base, North Carolina on December 11, 1961, and technically ended on December 8, 1962 when the 315th Troop Carrier Group (TCG) (Combat Cargo) and the 8th Aerial Port Squadron were activated.

The operative words here are “technically ended” for the spirit and the innovative measures of Mule Train would continue to have their effect on the conduct of air cargo operations in Southeast Asia for years to come, and the designation “Mule Train” would become an honorific.

The Mule Train operation is especially intriguing because it began with an aircraft considered obsolescent but which proved to be perfect for its task. It also began with professional Tactical Air Command crews, who had to move into an environment where all their previous training, with its close adherence to flying regulations, had to be jettisoned if the job were to be done. There had been earlier “maverick” units such as “Farm Gate” and the “Dirty Thirty” which were assembled and brought into operation without a strong training base. They succeeded admirably under adverse conditions. What is surprising is that regular USAF squadrons, steeped in Stan-Board, AFRs and the stateside way of doing things, could adapt so sensationally well to an almost totally unregulated environment and to a basic dichotomy in their stated mission.

The Secretary of Defense and the Chief of Staff had from the first stated that the primary purpose of the Mule Train unit was to provide an assault capability to the South Vietnamese. Yet when Mule Train arrived in South Vietnam, the pressing need was for daily logistic support. The first units to arrive had been well trained in assault operations, and when the time came, they adapted to the different circumstances in Vietnam and performed the role superbly.

Adaptability was the signature note of the men of Mule Train as they moved easily from their closely supervised state-side operations to a free-wheeling environment where they had to get the job done despite the terrible dilemma with which they were faced. Their problem was this: if they closely followed standard regulations and normal flight procedures, they would not be able to do either their assault or their logistics mission, the latter involving the daily delivery of essential supplies to remote locations. On the other hand, to accomplish their missions they had to go in harms way, for they had to operate independently, with little in the way of air traffic control, under marginal weather conditions, flying in and out of small fields located in steep mountainous areas. Naturally any accidents could be investigated, and any deviations from procedures or regulations could result in the finding of pilot error.

The AFR 60-16 rules were relaxed somewhat in Vietnam—VFR was termed “Vietnamese VFR”, meaning that at least part of the airplane was not in the clouds. But had the Mule Train troops been bureaucrats, the regulations would have been obeyed to the letter, the job would not have been done, and the accidents and the reprimands would not have occurred. Fortunately for the South Vietnamese people and the American troops who tried to help them, the Mule Train troops were anything but bureaucrats. They were professional air-crew members who possessed an extraordinary amount of common sense. And even better, they got the job done with remarkably few accidents or incidents, using judgment and flying skill to do the mission and still keep out of trouble.

It might be well to look at the aircraft that was called upon to do the job first, and then investigate the personal experiences of some the men who not only made Mule Train work, but also made it into the basis for subsequent air cargo operations in Southeast Asia. The C-123 units were the principal airlift in South Vietnam until 1965, and four squadrons remained until 1970. These squadrons later benefited from the installation of J85 auxiliary jet engines during 1967 and 1968, a modification that (with others) converted them from C-123Bs to C-123Ks with substantially improved take-off and climb performance. The Mule Train troops, however, flew their war with two round engines and no jet assist.

Don’t Call It A Glider

The airplane that ultimately became the work-horse Fairchild C-123 originated in 1943 as the Chase XCG-18 cargo glider. The prototype XCG-18 was converted to the YC-122 light assault transport by the addition of two radial engines. The success of both the XCG-18 and the YC-122 led to the creation of the larger Chase XC-20 cargo glider built in 1949.

The XC-20 was equipped with two Pratt & Whitney R-2800 engines to become the XC-123, which made its first flight on October 14, 1949. (The second prototype XC-20 had four J47 turbojets installed in B-47-like pods under the wing, thus becoming the XC-123A, the first U.S. jet transport.) The piston engine XC-123 was a big hit for the tiny Chase company however and it was awarded a contract for five more aircraft just before being acquired by the Kaiser-Frazer Corporation. (The five were eventually incorporated as somewhat non-standard C-123s before being transferred to the Royal Thai Air Force.) Kaiser-Frazer received a contract for 300 C-123B Providers but the firm was already in difficulty with its automotive interests and the contract was taken over in 1953 by Fairchild, the home of the C-82 and C-119 transports. Fairchild ultimately built 302 C-123s, including six for Saudi Arabia and eighteen for Venezuela.

Never a candidate for best-looking aircraft honors, the C-123 was nonetheless a solid performer, capable of carrying 60 fully armed troops, or up to 16,000 pounds of cargo. It could carry a variety of equipment, including jeeps, small artillery pieces and ground support equipment. It had a hydraulically operated rear ramp, and the floor was both strongly built and well fitted with strong tie-down points. There were some limitations—it was underpowered at higher gross weights, particularly at high-density altitudes, and its narrow twelve-foot tread gear made it vulnerable to cross winds. In the United States, it was limited to a 15 mile-per-hour cross wind component. In Vietnam, the limit was often exceeded—but not by much.

None-the-less it would prove to be an extremely capable and versatile aircraft in Vietnam, where, in the words of then Captain Carl Wyrick “if ever an aircraft was in its element, it was the C-123B in SEA. It was slow, ugly, leaked, and was hot when it was hot and cold when it was cold. But it was fun to fly—just like a big Super Cub.”

Getting Mule Train Underway

Many of the pilots who were assigned to Pope Air Force Base, North Carolina in the late 1950s had gone with high hopes of being among the first to fly the brand new Lockheed C-130 Hercules transports that were just entering service. Instead, in 1958, Pope’s 464th Troop Carrier Wing was converted from three squadrons of Fairchild C-119Gs to five squadrons of C-123Bs, and re-designated the 464th Troop Carrier Wing (Assault), commanded by Colonel William T. Daly. The Provider had been declared obsolescent in 1956 and was slated for retirement in 1961 but fate had other duties in store for it.

On November 13, 1961, President John F. Kennedy approved a recommendation by General Maxwell D. Taylor and national security advisor Walt. W. Rostow to substantially increase South Vietnamese military mobility. He authorized the deployment of forty U.S. Army H-21 helicopters and a squadron of C-123s. (On November 30th, a further six C-123s were authorized for Ranch Hand operations.)

On December 6, the 346th Troop Carrier Squadron (A) was ordered to the Far East for 120 days TDY “To participate in a Classified Tng Mission” in the official jargon of the day. The 346th was generally considered to be the best squadron in the wing and was manned by young pilots with an average 1,800 hours flying time—of which 1,500 were in the C-123. The crews were augmented with loadmasters (who were normally assigned to the Aerial Port Squadron) and additional ground personnel so that it could function as a unit upon arrival in Vietnam.

The original plans called for the aircrews to be assigned TDY to SEA for four-month tours of duty. It was soon found that experienced crews were so valuable that tours were lengthened first to 179 days, and then changed to permanent assignments for units, with individual tours extending for a year or more. It had been a long time since the Tactical Air Command had any real long-term, deployments. At Pope, the maximum had been a two or three week exercise. Things would change.

On December 11 (many accounts say December 10, but log books say December 11) , Lt. Col. Floyd K. Shofner led the first eight aircraft from Pope. On January 2nd, 1962, the second contingent left, this time led by the unit’s operations officer, Major Wayne J. Witherington.

There had been one small problem: the C-123B’s normal range of 1,470 miles did not lend it readily to trans-Pacific travel.

The First Modifications

The standard C-123B was equipped with self-sealing fuel tanks faired into the nacelle behind the engine. Each tank held 706.5 gallons and as it was held in position on bomb shackles, could be jettisoned in an emergency. Two 441 gallon jettisonable pylon tanks were placed on each wing, out board of the engines. For the trans-Pacific crossing, two 500 gallon Benson tanks were installed in the cargo hold. This provided 3,285 gallons of fuel (3276 usable), just about enough to make the long 16 hour flight from California to Hawaii. The nacelle tanks were used first, being replenished by the pylon tanks first and then the Benson auxiliary tanks.

The Provider’s Achilles heel, however, was oil consumption. Being a short-range aircraft, no oil quantity gauges had been provided. A fifty-five gallon drum of oil was installed in the cargo bay just in front of the right wheel well, with flexible lines up through the leading edge of the wings to the oil tank of each engine. In the words of then Captain Fred Horky, an aircraft commander, “it was connected with valves and a hand pump that looked like they had been purchased in a farm-supply plumbing department.”

Prior to taking off for Vietnam, each of the C-123s was flown on a long profile mission to get a reading on fuel consumption. Oil consumption was also measured as was the amount of oil that each turn of the crank would transfer. The consumption figures were not entirely accurate, as the aircraft would be flown at much higher gross weights and power settings on the actual trip. The amount of oil consumed and the amount pumped in to replace it were both estimates.

The flight mechanics hated the system for a number of reasons, including the facts that the oil system developed messy leaks and they had to do the hand pumping. Worst of all, if you accidentally overfilled a tank in flight, it could begin to siphon and eventually run the oil-tank dry.

The C-123 did not have a navigator’s position, and a crude one was jury rigged in the cargo compartment. A LORAN set was installed. Despite the ad hoc arrangements, no C-123 was lost on a cross-Pacific flight, and, as the war dragged on, most of them made another round-trips, this time to have the auxiliary jet engines installed.

The route of flight was generally from North Carolina to California, then to Hawaii, Wake, Guam, the Philippines and South Vietnam, with lots of time spent over a “four-engine ocean.” Total flying time en route varied, but 70 hours of hand-flying (there was no autopilot) was a good average for the entire route. The aircraft generally cruised at 145 knots, flying in loose formations of three. It did not escape anyone’s notice that on the California-Hawaii leg there was a four hour period in the middle of the flight where the single-engine cruise charts showed that neither the West Coast or Hawaii could be reached. Thus an engine failure near the mid-point would have almost certainly meant bailing out, for the C-123 was not a good machine in which to ditch. A Boeing HC-97 was on call, and the recommended technique was to kick the raft out, then try to bail out near it. Fortunately, for the most part, the R-2800s kept on chugging and the need never arose, but there were several close calls. . On at least one occasion, a C-123 had a “prop low-oil light” come on and diverted to Midway. It was picked up en route by an Grumman HU-16 Albatross that commented “This is the first airplane we’ve ever intercepted we can stay up with.”

Upon arrival at Clark Air Base, the Benson and pylon tanks were removed, along with lash-up oil replenishment system. Some of the crews were given the usual SEA orientation and might spend as much as two weeks recuperating from the long Pacific flight. Others were shipped out to Vietnam in less than a day. (Two instructor pilots, Captains Wyrick and Al Brezinsky, were pulled off to check Air America pilots out in the C-123. Both were subsequently offered jobs by Air American, and both declined. ) The flight from Clark to Vietnam was five or six hours, depending upon the destination airfield.

First Missions in Vietnam

It was early in the war, and there were no ceremonies when the first Mule Train operations started. Most sources say that the group arrived at Tan San Nhut on January 2, 1962, but Leon Franklin’s log books shows cargo missions on December 27th and 29th. The long suffering ground crews immediately began working on the airplanes, knowing that they were going to sleep under mosquito netting in tents and eat at a field kitchen. There was no billeting for the officers, who happily went downtown to a still generally quiet Saigon, where their $16.00 per diem would pay for decent quarters at places such as the Majestic Hotel. Good food could be found many places, including restaurants such as the Peacock. There was even some left over for an occasional glass of “bahmi-bah”, aka Beer 33. It was an unfair situation, one that was alleviated slightly over-time by minor comforts for the enlisted men, but was never remedied.

The ground crews and the enlisted air crews shared the dangers of the war with their officers, and it was an airman, A1C Howard W. Wright who would become the first C-123 crew member to be wounded by VC ground fire. Wright was hit in the right thigh while the aircraft was descending to Tan Son Nhut on July 10. The crews began using flak vests as interim armor plate.

Later, when some crews were transferred to equally primitive conditions at Da Nang, the officers also had to live under canvas on base, and dine at the D.O.O.M—Da Nang Officer’s Open Mess– a three-barrel dip and wash facility. The $16.00 per diem was a thing of the past, because “government quarters were provided.”

Mule Train’s C-123s began operations on January 3 (although some log books have late December flights logged) with initial plans calling for six airplanes to fly four hours per day for the time being. The unit had been preceded into Tan Son Nhut on December 28 by a team of officers from the 315th Air Division, led by Col. Lopez J. Mantoux. On January 2, the unit became the airlift branch of the Vietnamese Air Force/2 ADVON joint operations center, with the responsibility for managing C-123 mission activity.

It was not an easy task. While there were three major radar sites, at Da Nang, Tan Son Nhut and Pleiku, command and control were casual in the extreme. There were no first-rate instrument approach systems, no navigation aids nor any communications facilities. Communications depended primarily on the shaky Vietnamese telephone system. Fewer than a dozen of the major airfields had low frequency radio beacons, but these were considered too unreliable for instrument approaches. (A few non-directional beacons had rough approach procedures worked out. If the pilots had time to practice the approach under VFR conditions at first, they were then reasonably safe to use.) Consequently almost 100 percent of the flying was done under “Mark One Eyeball” Visual Flight Rules—often when the actual weather was below VFR minimums.

The Mule Train crews soon adapted Vietnamese techniques for operations. Climbs and descents would be made in a spiral through a break in the overcast—the infamous “sucker hole”—and cruise would be just on top of the generally low-lying cloud layer. All approaches had to be visual, but landings were sometimes made under very marginal conditions. Whenever possible, flights were made at 2,500 feet along the coast line, away from rocky clouds and the persistent Viet Cong marksmen.

The Air Force was fighting two wars in South Vietnam, one against the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong, and a second against the U.S. Army. Under the leadership of the formidable Lt. General Hamilton H. Howze, the Army was championing an air mobility capability. Howze wanted to obtain an organic air lift capability, one that would not be centrally controlled but respond to the demands of individual Army organizations.

The Army had procured some 250 de Havilland CV-2 Caribous, and already arranged for a “field test” of the airplane. One of the first tasks assigned to Mule Train was to determine the number of airfields that the C-123 could use. An initial survey reported 33 and this was optimistic as some of them were old Japanese fields on which 100- foot tall trees were growing. The report infuriated Brigadier General Rollen H. Anthis, Commander of the of 2nd ADVON, for there had been 44 airfields reported available for Caribou operations. When fuel and cargo loads were equalized between the two aircraft, the C-123 could use about 38 airfields, but it still worried Anthis. The difficulties were not resolved until late 1966, when the air-lift duties were defined, and the Caribous were transferred to the U.S.A.F.

All of the initial Mule Train missions were dedicated to carrying cargo, and it was cargo unlike previous state side experience. One-hundred kilo sacks of rice were a major item, and at least one pilot over-grossed his aircraft by figuring them in at 100 pounds. The most typical, if unusual, commodities were live ducks, chickens, pigs and cows, packed in locally made pens of wood and, when necessary, parachuted in to the outlying camps. Many natives were also carried, and more than one crew smelled smoke and then found hibachi’s being used to cook food in the C-123’s cargo compartment.

There was no pretense that this was a Republic of Vietnam cargo operation; nor was there any training of Vietnamese for the task. Vietnamese were employed as “kickers” to move the cargo out the rear on re-supply drops. Mule Train went right to work, and in the first month of operations flew 548 hours. The next month the number of airplanes scheduled to fly four hours per day was bumped to seven, and the flying hour total would grow steadily for the next year. A second Mule Train squadron from Pope, the 777th TCS (A) entered Vietnam on June 15th 1962. The C-123 force would be augmented by two more squadrons, one each in 1963 and 1964, and all ultimately would be assigned to the 315th Air Commando Wing. As one pilot remarked, “I went to bed a trash-hauler, and woke up as an Air Commando.”

One of the most characteristic aspects of Mule Train was the confidence the Air Force had in young aircraft commanders, many of them first lieutenants. They were given the authority to conduct operations with little oversight, and in fact, many former Strategic Air Command crew members assigned to C-123 duty were awed at first by the freedom from having to call the Command Post when a decision had to be made.

Flying hours continued to grow, thanks to the selfless devotion of the ground crews, who worked all night, in all weathers, to get the aircraft ready. The flight mechanics were also invaluable, flying a mission, interpreting the problems, and then working with the ground crew to solve them. Fortunately the C-123 was a relatively simple aircraft and very rugged. Its systems could take the heat and the humidity better than more sophisticated aircraft. The tough landing gear and glider-strong fuselage could take the rough landings on short airfields, where stopping depended upon a slow approach, touching down on the edge of the air strip, then full reverse and a steady heavy foot on the anti-skid brakes.

A pattern soon developed, and the Mule Train route structure became linked to the hard-surface runways at Da Nang, Tan Son Nhut, Nha Trang, Bien Hoa, Pleiku, Ban Me Thout, Hue, Da Lat, Soc Trang, Qui Nhon and Vung Tau. Virtually every Mule Train sortie began or ended at one of these airfields, but the intermediate stops could be anywhere.

Two aircraft were maintained at Da Nang, to support the northern outposts. Dropping supplies was handicapped by the lack of equipment, and for a time reliance was placed on four by eight plywood sheets and left-over French parachutes. On one occasion, then Captain Roger Haneline was dropping equipment when the plywood sheet twisted sideways on the ramp—after the chute had deployed. The drag of the chute kept dragging the C-123 down, and Haneline had to go to full take-off power just to stay out of the tree tops. He could not turn for fear of stalling, and the airplane was heading straight into “Indian Country”—Laos. At the last minute the loadmaster, T.Sgt. Knowles, managed to cut the shrouds and the struggling C-123 could gain some altitude.

Fred Horky recalls taking off from Da Nang to fly to Kontum, one of the main re-supply points for the Special Forces camps. From there he flew air-drop sorties to a camp in the mountains near the Laotian border. The drop site was so small that Horky had to use five passes, dropping two bundles each pass, to deliver the cargo. The technique was to slide down the mountain, rotate to drop the bundles, claw up the hill on the other side of the camp, do a one-eighty and repeat it, with the engines operating at METO power much of the time. When the cargo was delivered, he flew back to Kontum for the next load, making ten sorties that day. During the entire period, the airlift control center had no contact with the aircraft nor had any idea of where they were or what mission they were flying. Control assumed correctly that necessary jobs were being done, satisfying the customer’s needs on the spot.

One situation reflected the perversity of the war in Vietnam. The Viet Cong controlled much of the countryside and always presented a threat to ground traffic. Nonetheless, there was always fuel at the outlying stations. The Viet Cong never interfered with the passage of fuel trucks, because they were a source of supply for their own needs.

Assault Capability

As Mule Train logistic operations began to assume a life of their own, the unit received increased pressure from the Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara and the Chief of Staff, General Curtis LeMay to become more involved in the assault role. McNamara had his usual concerns about the quantitative results being obtained from the use of the C-123, while LeMay shared other Air Force leaders concerns that the Army might pre-empt the assault role as they were attempting to do with cargo operations.

The Mule Train crews were experienced in assault work, but they had to improvise for conditions in Vietnam. It was difficult to decide exactly where to drop paratroops over the difficult terrain, and much depended upon the map-reading ability of the crew.

The die was cast on June 28, 1962, when 16 C-123s and 16 South Vietnamese C-47s dropped paratroops under adverse weather conditions about 35 miles north of Saigon. The operation went off well despite a 500 foot ceiling.

On other occasions, the C-123s would load up troops from the ARVN Airborne Brigade in Saigon, to fly to the relief of a village or under attack. Over the village at altitude, the C-123 pilot would reduce power, drop flaps and spiral down to the drop altitude. When the paratroopers got the green light to jump, they were often reluctant, because they would be easy targets for the VC on the ground.

Yet there were times when the C-123 crews were uncomfortable with the assault role, most often because the South Vietnamese Special Forces were capricious about when and where they were willing to fight. Then they would go back to straight cargo operations, which were hazardous enough, especially during the monsoon season when the ARVN troops were socked in the mountainous valleys. To execute the mission, the C-123s would line up in a proper direction, let down in the undercast, and if they did not break out by a given altitude, would climb back up. There were usually 800 foot ceilings in the valleys, and most of the time they broke out.

Mule Train missions during 1962 became extremely diverse, with the C-123s functioning as everything from duck-delivery to napalm bombers. In the latter role, the Provider carried nine wooden pallets, each holding three fifty-five-gallon drums of napalm mixed with gasoline. With a good “kicker” the load could go out the back ramp in less than five seconds and leave a pattern of flame 1,200 feet long.

The rapid influx of aircraft and ad-hoc nature of the requests for air lift had resulted in some dissatisfaction with Mule Train operations by the Army customers. The problem lay in the lack of aerial port facilities and the totally inadequate communications. In late October, 1962, there began what became known as the Southeast Asia Airlift System (SEAAS). Requirements were forecast for 25 days in advance, and these were matched against available resources. The 315th TCG and the 8th Aerial Port Squadron came into being, and set the stage for tighter control of airlift operations. Secure field phones and a radio network became available, and the carrying of cargo became much more conventional, if perhaps a little less fun.

With operations normalized, tours stabilized and flying more bureaucratized, the era of the original Mule Train operation was over. It left behind a heritage of successful operations and the creation of the procedures and technique for cargo work in SEA. Many of the men of Mule Train returned for second and third tours, some in the Lockheed C-130 that was such a capable replacement. But for all of them, there was nothing that could replace the hard work, the innovation, and the success of the original Mule Train.

7 responses to “Mule Train: First Combat in Vietnam

  1. I was on mule train,June 62 thru Nov 62 as a flt mech on crew with Karl leuschner, pilot,James l smith Co pilot,Jarrett c McKinney loadmaster,and myself bill collier flt mech.

  2. I was in mule train from Nov 62 to Apr 63 I was a flight mech tdy from Stewart AFB NY My AC was Elliot Powers CP Harry Sherlock LM Aldo Farina and myself John Brown

  3. Maj. Richard Goodall

    I was really lucky. My C 123 class was picked to ferry B models from Fla to Saigon. Little did I know before it was over I would make 13 ferry flights to or from SEA. The above article about C 123 operations is right on. I was assigned to the 310th at Nha Trang, 66 – 67.

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