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MY LAST FLYING COMBAT MISSION IN SAIGON
The true story of Vietnamese Air Force super heroes in final hours
A part in the definition of super hero is a person who is ready to sacrifice his or her life to save human's life. Reading the following story, we should be proud of the anonymous heroes who consistently and bravely fought the enemies until last minutes of theVN war. They not only saved their people's lives, but also contributed such golden pages to the VN history.
The following historical written memoirs are based on the report of Captain Tran Phuc, a very courageous fighter pilot of the Dragon 518th Squadron, one of the tactical fighter Squadrons of the South VN, and also the leader of the Dragon 51 flight.
In the last days of the VN war, he fought bravely and persistently against the enemy's firepower, regardless of the enemy's hailstorm of bullets and 122mm rockets that are extremely dangerous to both aircrafts and considered life threatening to pilots. The bombs he dropped destroying more than a hundred artilleries of 122 mm rockets set around the perimeter of TSN Air Base and the Saigon surburbs by the North Communists Army. His last flights saved up to thousand of South Vietnamese civilians.
His story will bring us back to the horrible scenes of Saigon and TSN Air Base under cruel attacks of the North Vietnamese Army's firepower in the last days before falling...
The word "last" in the title of this story regarding not only my flights, but also the last days of the Saigon's name. It was also the last days of the VN war between North and South ending up the Republic of VN in the South on April 30, 1975.
Our Dragon 518th tactical fighter Squadron was ordered to evacuate from Bien Hoa to TSN Air Force Base from April 21, 1975. During this time, as a result of the fact that soldiers and people fleeing their homes to escape the attacks from the Military Region 1 and 2 and wherever the Communists took over, Saigon was chaotic. The TSN Air Base was filled with Vietnamese refugees waiting for evacuation, especially the families of South Vietnamese Air Force staying provisionally in the barracks to wait for the emergency evacuation by DAO (US Defense Attache's Office).
According to the plan from the South VN Air Force Headquarters and DAO, the priority of evacuation was given to the families of fighter pilots as F5, Skyraiders, and so on. However, there properly was the mistake of somebody who made the lists or a secret reason (?), those lists were messed up and everything went totally different. The majority of fighter pilot families were left behind until the very last days.
Unfortunately, my wife and my six-month old daughter were one of the victims of those mistakes. Until April 29, 1975, they were still in the barracks hopelessly waiting for the evacuation. And it seemed that those mistakes destined the separation of our family for 15 years long.
In the evening of April 28, about 5:pm, I was ordered to lead a flight of two A1-Skyraiders with Lt Ng Thanh Ba, as my wingman, to escort and support Lt Col Nguyen Van Manh, the 3rd Division of the South VN Air Force with his EOD team (Explosive Ordinance Disposal) to achieve their mission. It was blowing off the Headquarters and buildings storing all of the important and secret documents belonging to the Air Technique & Supplied Headquarters at Bien Hoa Air Force Base.
Just turning from West to East at the Bien Hoa New Bridge, I suddenly saw 4 A- 37 fighter bombers at Cho Con. They were from the Northeast with fully loaded on the same low altitude with us in a very strange and loosen formation, neither finger tip, nor combat formation. I thought they were from one of the South VN Squadrons, our comrades, being evacuated from the Military Region 1 or 2 in flying operation. Even though the distance between us was just 3/4 mile away, it seemed that they did not see us. Immediately, I pulled the control stick to soar higher to avoid a collision. Meanwhile, I ordered Lt Ba flying behind me in combat formation to follow me! Then I looked back and saw those A- 37s flying away. Usually, there were two aircrafts in a combat mission instead of 4 as being seen. I told Lt Ba that I was wondering why there were some pilots wandering with weapons at that time.
It was ten minutes before 6 PM. The sky did not get dark yet while I was waiting to escort Lt Col Manh back to TSN Air Base. On purpose of observing, I pushed the control stick to lower my plane, flying along the National Route #1 to Thu Duc, turning left to Long Binh then coming back to Bien Hoa City. Looking down, I saw along the roadsides, there were many armored vehicles parking a hundred yards apart from one another. To encourage my comrades, I was flying low, around 100 feet above the ground. That's why I had not seen the black smoke rising from TSN when those A- 37 group attacking the air base.
About few minutes later, I had a call from General Huynh Ba Tinh, the 3rd Air Division Commander of South VNAF. He informed us:" There was a bombing in TSN Air Force Base by three A-37 fighter bombers". The image of four A-37s we just met was immediately recalled in my mind. I told him:" I just saw them a little while ago." And I answered him by his call sign: "Dong Nai 01, there were 4 instead of 3."
Thinking of my wife, my daughter, all of my comrades and the refugees in TSN, I was shocked! Who and where might be the target of that attack? I hurriedly flew back. When flying over the airspace of TSN, I was informed by the Saigon Control Tower: "The airport only slightly damaged. One C-47 near by the taxi way W # 7 (about 1,000 feet North of Camp Davis) hit by bombs was burning as we saw. Some facilities next to Air Traffic Control Tower were damaged. One of them was the old military terminal which previously contained the A-1 planes recently moved to the West at 1 pm today. Fortunately, two runways and taxi ways were not hit by bombs.
After a few circles around TSN to know for sure that both the airport and runways were safe, I flew back to Bien Hoa, continuing our mission of escorting Lt Col Ng V Manh and his EOD team. A feeling of regret came in my mind since I just missed a golden opportunity to shoot the evil enemies who intentionally attacked our air base. As an experience fighter pilot with additional training the dog fight technique, I feel like missing a good chance to shift my mission from defense to offense to fight those attackers. Otherwise, I could also call the Saigon Air Control Center for emergency warning. During this time, the F5-E aircrafts were always standby near the end of runway 07; they could take off immediately and defeat the enemies effectively.
Later 6:30 PM, as a result of the explosion, there was huge fire and black smoke all over the West side of BH Air Base. Usually, the convoy took the National Route # 1 to Thu Duc then followed BH Freeway to TSN. However, after few-circles observation over Newport bridge, I informed Lt Col Manh that there was fighting on the North of the bridge. Therefore, he must make a U turn and take Korea Freeway to Binh Trieu instead. Along the way, I had to make a low pass on top of the MP Posts in order to help his convoy get through Binh Trieu Bridge without the military operation orders.
Bien Hoa is located 15 miles North East of TSN but it took us 90 minutes to escort the convoy and then we landed with full load of bombs at TSN around 8:00 PM.
After completing the mission assisting Lt Col Ng V Manh, I stopped by the C-7 barrack to visit my wife and daughter. After missing the plane on April 25, they were there a week together with the other families waiting for another evacuation plane while I had to be on duty all day in our squadron for emergencies current.
Every day, the longest time we can see each other was about an hour or so, and that was too short for so many things we needed to talk. When I stopped by, my wife was getting ready to feed my daughter with a bottle of milk. I took the bottle in her hand and told her let me do it. I could not wait to hold my daughter in my arms and kissed her. My wife told me about the bombing happening just few hours ago. I asked if she was frightened of the attack. Understanding what I was worried about, she convinced me by a confident smile. We looked at each other quietly few minutes. I held her hand tightly as a signal of my sharing and found a light dawned in her eyes.
Before getting married, my wife had been a propagandist who worked with soldiers and was familiar with the battle atmosphere. Hopefully, she would be unruffled whenever facing the unpredictable current crises so that she could take good care and protect our six-month old baby.
My daughter has big and round eyes. From the day she was born, we always saw her laughing more than crying. I looked at her emotionally. She opened her beautiful eyes looking at me and touched my face with her tiny fingers then smiled. My mind was engraved by her smile that day until 15 years later.
While feeding her, I closed my eyes just a minute to let a daydream come into my mind. I felt like being home in a peaceful day. The radio of somebody sitting close to us playing the song "Five hundred miles" just woke me up and touched my heart:
If you missed the train I'm on. You will know that I‘m gone. You can hear the whistle blow a hundred miles...
A feeling that's hard to describe came into my mind. I could not believe that a half an hour staying with my wife and daughter in the air base that evening was the last time we were together. Subsequently, the last day of Saigon was the beginning of my family tragedy that lasted 15 years.
I came back to our 518th Squadron by the late evening about 11Pm.The atmosphere there somewhat agitated than usual. May be everybody was influenced by the last attack or thought about another attack that could happen again any time? That night, all of my comrades were lying on the floor. I laid down quietly besides the field telephone had just temporarily hooked, closed my eyes, tried to relax for a while. However, I could not keep my mind clear from so many events just happened. Afterwards, through the Ha Noi Broadcasting Station, we discovered the bombing operation had happened today was led by Lt Nguyen Thanh Trung. The whole Squadron was outrageous! What a great shock to all of us!
Nguyen Thanh Trung was a South VN fighter pilot, our comrade. About five years ago, he had been drafted into Air Force and sent to US got training flying T-41, T-28 and T-37. Coming back to our country, he was assigned to the 4th Air Division of South VN in Binh Thuy Air Base. In 1974, he got additional F5 training at Bien Hoa Air Base. On April 8, 1975, he pulled out of the fighting formation with his comrades. And that day, the Presidential Palace became his first target instead of one of a North Vietnamese troop as being assigned. TSN Air Base was his second target on April 28,1975 at 6 PM. This was the second time he turned back to fight not the enemies, but his comrades.
It seemed that the more effort I tried to close my eyes, the more chances I made my brain opened. The image of my comrade Nguyen Thanh Trung recalled with his warm handshakes in the Air Force parties at Officer Clubs such as Can Tho and TSN Air Base few years ago. Comrades were sitting together, talking, laughing, cheering and sharing experiences in fighting the enemies on the air support operations and so on. We learnt the same strategies and tactics. We had the same challenge. We targeted the same enemies. Since being very familiar with any location in TSN and sky over Saigon, Lt Trung came back, disguised himself with a South Vietnamese pilot code, and directed the enemies fighting against his comrades and people.
We were wondering if he ever thought about the bombs he dropped would kill his comrades with their families and so many innocent people who were unarmed? I wish I could find a reason to defend his action. Changing the political side or an obsession of a super hero medal? A hero medal was the highest standard and a great dream in any soldier's mind. However, should we make the dream come true by a massacre instead of a memorable victory by face - to - face fighting the enemies on the battle fields? So, in the history, would he be welcomed as a super hero or condemned as a cold-hearted betrayer to his comrades and a traitor to his country? We would leave the judgment to public opinion as well as the historians.
Being very tired, I fell as sleep for a while, but had to wake up immediately because of the violent explosions from everywhere. I looked at the watch on my hand. It was 4 AM in the morning of April 29.1975. A series of rocket whistled breaking down the sky and blew up everywhere. All lights were gone, darkness covered the whole room. TSN Air Base was destructively attacked by North VN 122mm rockets. The rockets dropped at a rate of one per minute from that time.
Because of pressure from the rocket's explosions falling too close, I could not address the location affected accurately. However, from the echoes of the horrible explosions, I guested they could be densely concentrated on Air Force soldiers and their families. I stood up immediately. Thinking about my wife and daughter and many evacuees in the air base, my heart was constricted, but I could not have any minute to think, the telephone next to me ringing!
I picked it up and received an urgent order from the Air Support Operation Center. Immediately, I relayed this order to Major Le Van Sang, the Head of the 518th Squadron Operation Office. He asked urgently: "Captain Phuc? Are you ready to fly?" According to the rule of the VNAF for fighter squadrons, I could deny any mission at that time since I just had achieved the mission to escort and support Lt Col Manh. I did not answer yet. A string of 122mm dropped so close interrupted our conversation a minute. I thought of my wife, daughter and the evacuees in the air base again. In this case, any second delayed would be too late to save everybody from the cruel attacks. I replied Major Sang: "Yes, I am. But who would be my wingman?" He did not answer yet. There was a loud and determined voices rising from the corner of the room. "I will". That was the voice of Major Truong Phung who came back from Quang Tri. During 2 week coming to re-enforce the 1st Air Division on early April, 1972. He was commended as hero for destroying 15 VC tanks in Quang Tri battles. And he continued: "Let's go Phuc!"
Being aroused by his passion, I picked-up my hardness and helmet on the floor and jumped out of the room with him. The sky was dark outside; the122 mm rockets were still falling uninterruptedly. And there were also some shower of mortars falling around. We kept running with our heads down. Maj Phung rushed me to his civil Jeep and started the engine. It seemed that he was racing against the rate of the rockets falling.
There also were the sounds of small-arm fire very close to us. Maj Phung kept speeding up and joked; "What a glorious day! Don't you see the fireworks falling every where?" I threw a glance at him. Maj Truong Phung used to be lighthearted. He joked even in any hard situation.
The distance from our squadron to A-1 parking lot was just only a mile, but I felt liked 100 miles. Luckily! Two MP at the gate jumped out of our way as fast as rabbits when we passed. Otherwise, they would get hit already! There were a burst of our laughter since what just happened should lead us to jail if that had happened another day. Maj Phung joked:" What a good chance to revenge that devil MP!" I looked at him curiously: "I can't believe you still can make joke at this time". He continued laughing: "What a chicken! Why not? There was nothing to be worried about!" Then he tapped me on the shoulder:" Either we laugh or cry, they would continue attacking any way. We had better let them know we still exist by stopping them from their immoderate actions". What a courageous fighter and an optimist! Getting out of his car, he run toward the A-1 parking lot and yelled "Good luck! ". I felt stronger with the cooperation of this comrade who eminently could together with me win the fierce attack.
A group of six crew chiefs were waiting, Maj Phung ordered them: "After the engine started, chock out immediately, then go ahead to hide yourself somewhere. Don't worry about us". Before running to his plane, he raised his voice:"Hey calm down! The sound of your heartbeats was as loud as drumbeats!" Then he winked and smiled at me: "Were they similar to the heartbeats on your first date?" I burst out laughing: "I am going on date with the attackers now", then leaped up to my plane. I could not believe that was the last time I had the opportunity to laugh at his funny jokes!
I saw some rockets hit at the next parking lot, around 200 – 300 feet to the West when the engine of my plane just started. Some A-37 exploded. Fire and smog were rolling up a hundred feet high. Being unable to wait any longer, I taxied out of the mound.
Maj Phung stood on the ground next to his airplane in hangar and made a signal as "Bad Battery" I reply that I'll go ahead to take off as our short briefing. He nodded his head. I called Saigon Ground Control for taxi's instruction and I received the answer to my call sign: "Dragon 51! Runway 25 Left, wind 180 at 4 knots, altimeter 29..."
While being in the South and middle of Tan Son Nhut air field, I realized that the crosswind was almost 90 degrees and very light. I could take off any runway, but it should be very dangerous if I used runway 25 since I had to fly through VC rocket trajectories. Then another runway could be used was Runway 07, but I had to turn left in order to taxi through the A-37 parking lot to the end of that runway. This parking lot had been burning with huge flames rising a hundred feet high. I would get big trouble if there was any A-37's bomb exploded. It's not less dangerous also.
In a moment, I had an idea that I should turn right to taxi through taxiway W # 3 in order to take off from runway 07. This runway was opposite direction with the active runway. Then from there, I could take off with 1/2 runway length remaining. With five thousand feet plus overrun, I could make it. Facing a hard situation in urgent, I had to make decision right away even though I did not know if that runway was in good condition. So I called Saigon Ground Control "Dragon 51 request taxi through Whisky number 3 then take off from runway 07 Right."
Right after having permission, I taxied fast to number 1 position of Runway 07 R and I prayed: God, please help me on the way of striking duty against the enemy's fierce attacks. The success of my mission today would save many people's lives.
At number one position, I looked up the engine temperature indicator. It was not warm enough, but being unable to wait any longer, I gambled one more time. After a quick run-up, I declared Saigon Control Tower: "Hot Scramble Take Off". With half runway length remained, I had to used technique "Maximum Performance Take Off".
As soon as the brakes were released with full throttle, my plane roared liked a tiger, slid on runway then lifted off at 4:25 AM. My God! Please help as we tried to do your work in our world.
Changed to Saigon Air Traffic Control Center frequency, I reported: "Paris! This is Dragon 51, just airborne only one A-1 with 10 MK-81. Please give me an instruction" (MK-81 is 250 lbs bomb, the only one available in Saigon at this time). My request was not replied yet, I heard the voice of the Tinh Long 06 as the call sign of the AC-119 K Stinger, 821th Squadron on radio: "Dragon 51! This is Tinh Long 06. Do you know where Phu Lam is located? Do you see all kinds of flares having been dropped?" I replied: "Yes. I do. I'll be there in few minutes and request Random Attack. I'll hold at 4.000 feet."
The Tinh Long 06 answered:"Roger Dragon 51! OK for Random attack at 4,000 feet, I'll hold at 5,000 feet and continue dropping flares to support you". Thanks God. I took off alone without a wingman since I had no choice. But now an assistant appeared!
Phu Lam is located about 7 to 8 miles South West of Tan Son Nhut. I did not see Tinh Long 06 strafed the target. Possibly they had no more ammunition. According to Lt Tran Van Bao, Aircraft Commander of Tinh Long 06, the targets were two separated smog of 122 m/m rocket racks. Targets were less than 2,000 feet North-West of Phu Lam Radar Station. With calm wind, this smog was still swirling over the ground. I dove to the 1st target and called: "Dragon 51 in hot and single pass"
After dropping the 2nd bomb, I held high and dry. A successful achievement on April 11, 1975 was recalled in my mind. By April 11, 1975 around 2 AM, we destroyed two 105mm cannons targeting Ninh Kieu Quay in Can Tho. It helped the 21th Army Division retrieve the two 105mm cannons. The same day at 4.45 AM, by telephone, General Nguyen Khoa Nam, the IV Cord Commander commended us including Maj Le Van Sang, Maj Nguyen Van Hai, Lt Nguyen Thanh Ba and Lt Nguyen Van Chuyen.
While stopping and waiting to search for the suitable targets, I saw 3 or 4 helicopters flying around the East and North of Phu Lam. A few minute later, I heard an order from my radio: "Dragon 51! drop all of your bombs to the targets, and then stop by my house tonight". I replied: "This is Dragon 51! The authority just ordered Dragon 51. Please give me your call sign?"- "This is Than Phong 01, General Ky ". General Ky was former Vice President and VN Air Force Commander. I replied: "Than Phong 01! Dragon 51 took off alone with 10 MK-81s. With my anti-artillery experience, I want each bomb has to drop in a right target. I can stay here up to 3 more hours. Please don't worry."
Around 15 to 20 minutes later, thinking that my plane was possibly out of ammunition, VC on the ground re-started their attacks. There were four rockets of each rack on fire, about a dozens of rockets placed around 1/2 square in a mango garden. The rockets were shot out and up to the air like fireworks lightening up the whole area. I couldn't believe in what I just saw.
Throwing a glance toward Saigon and TSN Air Base, I saw the air being filled completely with fire and puffs of black smoke. It should be a well planned being deployed to target on either South VN Air Force or the evacuees in TSN Air Base! What a massive attack! I felt like hearing the desperate crying for rescue from innocent people. My wife and daughter were there and could be one of their victims. My heart wrung with pain. In a moment, I thought about Maj Phung, regretted that he had not been here. Together, we could destroy that entire enemy's cruel attack in much shorter time. Any time the fire rings were out of the racks continuously up to the air, I felt like the fire blazed in my heart. At once, I dove into one of the uncountable smog being seen underneath. How many people in TSN and also some areas of Saigon would die? And how big the loss would be if they continued opening fire at such a bulky rate?
I bit my lips tightly and suddenly felt like I just received an invisible power infused into my blood. I started fighting back. Whenever my plane got enough altitude of 4,000 feet, I rolled in the target to bomb and changed attacking axle from time to time. I rolled up and down continuously to destroy the 122mm racks one by one, any time I found another smoke rocket at the enemy force. I wished the two wings of my plane became bigger and it could cover Saigon and TSN area to protect people. Taking a deep breath to calm myself from the sudden emotion, I continued pouring destruction on the enemies.
Until getting ready to roll in for the 5th or 6th bomb, I saw a couple fires from rockets explosion on the targets. Thinking that it came from our helicopter gunships, I grumbled with Lt Bao: "Tinh Long-06! I was permitted for random attack. Why did you let gunships involving my combat traffic? They flew lower than me, if I had not paid attention, I would have dropped my bombs on top of them. Was it funny?"
Lt Bao rejected: "Wait a minute Dragon 51! I already told them to stay out of our targets and hold on the North and East of the National Route # 4. Please let me take a look again". However, in one more rolling, I still saw a bomb explosion. Simultaneously, I heard Lt Bao resounded: "Dragon 51, not gunships! I saw another skyraider dropping diving bombs" Thinking about my comrade, Maj Phung, I shouted with joy:
"Tinh Long 06! Properly Maj Phung came over to help us. He had radio problem, but it would be ok since radio malfunction used to happen to us".
The sky was still dark, however, with the help of Tinh Long 06 by dropping a lot of flares, I felt like day time. It would be a piece of cake to destroy those targets!
After achieving my air strike mission with my last bomb, I observed the enemy situation few more times, getting ready to shoot the enemies with 20mm cannon fire if necessary. All of the targets were likely clear, before leaving, I called Lt Bao: "Tinh Long-06! All of my bombs dropped. We beat off the ground attacks already. So, I will save 800 rounds of my 20mm cannons just in case."
I still liked to find out who fought side by side with me in leveling off all 122mm batteries. On the way back to TSN, I asked Saigon Control Tower about the A-1 taking off after me and I had an answer: "So sorry Dragon 51! We got vigorously attacked by 122mm rockets; we had to come down the shelter to evade the fire and just came back here a while ago. We couldn't see any plane taking off after you."
I came back Tan Son Nhut around 5.25 AM. This area was completely black out, except the Runway & Taxiway lights. There were some narrow beam of light from previous fires at the A-37 parking lot and a new fire blazing in an area that I couldn't recognize exactly where that was even I descended to 500 feet.
Taking a closer look, I recognized that the C-7 barrack where my wife was temporary staying located in the South of General Ky's Palace. My hands were trembling. I felt like dripping with sweat. Taking a minute to calm myself down, I controlled my plane circling around this area and tried not to anticipate a tragedy. The scenes underneath was still dim to the view. Then I saw and heard the radio reporting that another AC-119 K Stinger with call sign Tinh Long-07 took off in order to replace the Tinh Long-06.
Daylight broke slightly. About 6 AM, I recognized the Women Air Force barrack was burned down completely, but the C7 barrack where my wife staying 30 feet away to the North was safe. Thanks God! I burst into tears. My heart was overflowing with joy! A couple hundred feet to South East of the WAF barrack was the military terminal. I saw a C-130 of USAF got hit also. According to the report later on, there were two US Marines were killed and some wounded. Since there were not only one or two, but a dozen rockets dropping around General N.C.KY's Palace, I was wondering if he was the target of NVA.
Being eager to visit my wife and daughter, but I had to wait for another flight replaced my mission. I continued an air cover around TSN area. Few minutes later, I saw very close to my right wing an A-1 E with 2 bombs left on the wings. I tried to break away, turn left then right sharply. Nevertheless, this pilot dodged behind, he had a tendency to follow me, kept moving from left to right or on the trail. Hell! If this was a dog fight, I had been shooting down by this well trained pilot already. I got ready to confront an attack. But I recognized he absolutely just tried to play with me for a while and that was a friend, not an enemy. Immediately, I thought about a pilot having been well trained the technique of dog fight: Maj Phung.
I connected to Saigon Control Tower again and asked them one more time about Maj Phung. Even though the answer was still the same, I strongly believed in my judgment. That was Maj Phung, the talented pilot who never left his comrades fighting alone on any battles. Regardless of his radio problem, he took off any way and had been fighting side by side with me on the Phu Lam battle field. I looked around toward the direction of the plane on the trail and convinced myself that I absolutely right! Afterwards, through the Paris frequency of Saigon Control Center, I heard Maj Ho Ngoc An, 514th Squadron reported to the Tinh Long 07 that the Phoenix 11 flight of two A-1 Skyraiders took off from Can Tho where is located 100 miles South West of TSN. They were on the way toward Saigon to re-enforce TSN Air Base against the artillery attacks.
About 6.20 AM, Lt Trang Van Thanh, Aircraft Commander of Tinh Long-07 called on radio: "Phoenix 11! This is Tinh Long - 07. I was skeptical about a small group of 5 or 7 VC. They intended to cut barbed wire fence of the North boundary, next to the triangle vacant lot at the An Nhan district where is located a mile toward the North of Saigon Control Tower". He directed: "Phoenix 11. Drop one bomb just outside of the fence. Your attacking axle should be from East to West, break left. I hold to the North at 5,000 feet". Understanding that Phoenix11 flight, as my successor, wasn't there yet, I flew circle around this target but I couldn't see anything with my 4,000 feet high. I dropped down to 2,000 feet for a better look and thought about my last 800 rounds of cannon left on my wings. Suddenly, I saw a bomb exploded on this target.
It was exactly right on the target due to Lt Thanh. He ordered another target of 100 feet longer. But this time, the bomb hit over 200 feet longer. Lt Thanh panicked: "Phoenix 11. Hold high and dry. Your number 2 dropped too long, almost hit a civilian's house."
Major An denied: "Tinh Long-07! Somebody dropped those bombs. Absolutely not from us, we just reached Ben Luc Bridge. How could we drop those bombs?"
Since I kept quiet on operation frequency, Lt Thanh confused and he thought the bomb was just dropped by the Phoenix 11 flight. I also corrected Lt Thanh: "Tinh Long-07! This is Dragon 51! Two bombs were dropped by Maj Phung, Dragon 52 as my number 2. He got radio problem. He carried only 2 bombs. They were already dropped. Don't worry! Now his plane and mine were empty".
Meantime, I heard the voice of Capt Nguyen Tien Thuy who was the wing man of Phoenix 11 flight, and also my old comrade. He volunteered to transfer to Pleiku in Jan 1971 until I came back Bien Hoa on April 1974. Realizing my voice, he called on radio: "Hey Phuc! You should fly to Can Tho. Emergency current could happen here every minute". Having made decision to land at Tan Son Nhut, I replied: "Thanks my friend. We did destroy all rocket batteries. Right now the situation here is temporarily safe. My wife and daughter have been waiting for me. I have to land here anyway."
Eventually, I suddenly heard the voice of Maj Phung for the first time on radio. He complained: "Dragon 51! I flew beside you almost 3 hours. I could hear you very well but I was a dumb man until now". And as Capt Thuy, he advised me to join him flying to Can Tho. I said I could absolutely not because my family was still in the barrack. Then I got warning from Lt Thanh that to avoid bombing on the residences, from 5000 he started descending to take a better look.
A minute later, when we flew over the Cha Ca Tomb, Major Phung changed his mind and wanted to land at TSN. Being worried about his radio condition, I told him to change to Saigon Control Tower frequency:" For the best, you make a left turn and go ahead to land. I'll extend my downwind then follow you". However, just before touching down, Major Phung called me the last time: "Dragon 51. Go ahead to land. I will go around. Just wait for me few minutes then I‘ll give you a ride back to our squadron".
I was supposed to follow him, but in this case, since I really needed to see my wife and daughter after the ferocious attack, I continued on my final. Before landing, I heard the warning from Saigon Control Tower" Dragon 51! There were SA-7 missile. I saw couple of fire as a spam flying up". Throughout the experience on December 1973, I had escaped from SA-7 missiles in Kien Duc district where is 100 miles North of Saigon. I replied: "In first stage, SA-7 missile starts with big rose smog, and in the 2nd stage, it changes to white blue with incredible speed". I told the Saigon Control Tower to take a careful look due to my experience, but they, one more time, determined their warning any way.
Following taxiway W#7, I parked my plane in the A1 parking lot at 6:55 AM. About five or six A-1 crew chiefs welcomed me with their appreciation for courageously stopping the VC's fierce attack. Then we together watched the Tinh Long-07 at couple thousand feet high. This plane was banking to the left and striking on the target with six 20 mm cannon barrels. A sound of 6,000 rounds a minute gun fired like lion roared.
Lt Thanh was still on the fight against those suspects who cut barbed wire fence.
However, just a second later, the Tinh Long 07 got hit by SA-7. Its right tail boom fell off. The right engine caught fire and exploded. The right wing snapped and broke down with one black object like square box. Meantime, the cockpit got fired. The plane spiraled down quickly to the ground just in seconds. Everybody around me shouted frightfully: "bail out", But it was too late! We didn't see any parachute opening. Through Hot Cargo building, we saw the whole plane burst and slammed on the ground inside TSN fence where was 500 feet south of his target.
Everything happened just in seconds. A tall pole of fire and black smog rolled up a thousand feet high on the sky as our mourning sign for the entire crew members who just got killed from the SA-7. Later on, I discovered that the black object was Master Sergeant Nguyen Van Chin, the only survivor who was a gunner. His parachute was just opened before he hit the ground. All of us were stupefied by the sudden loss! But we had no time to think further.
Now, the situation at Tan Son Nhut was completely changed and changed too quickly as a result of the appearance of SA-7 which was the most danger to airplanes, especially such airplanes flying at low altitude as AC-119K. Everybody came back to duties. I sat down on the grass for a while. My throat dried and tears rolled down my cheeks. I took a deep breath to calm down myself from emotional stress.
Lt Thanh and I jointed the South VNAF on Sept 12, 1967 in the class of 68 A in Nha Trang Air Training Center. About eighteen months later, we attended "The Tiger" 70-08 class at the Keeler AFB in Mississippi, USA. Earlier today, Lt Thanh had achieved the Tinh Long 01 as his first mission. Then, in urgent case, he volunteered to fly the Tinh Long 07 as his second mission in one night. And I could not believe that was the last mission in his life. I tapped my hand on my forehead to wake myself up. Hopefully, Maj Phung flied to Can Tho already. Can Tho Air Base was not taken over by the Communists yet at that time.
I rode back to my squadron with the fuel tank truck driver urgently. After throwing my flight equipment at squadron, I rushed to the C-7 barrack where my wife and daughter staying. The WAF barrack just away from the C-7 barrack about 30 feet was completely burned down. My heart was constricted. On the sidewalk, there was a dud-122 mm rocket. Thanks God for protecting my family from that 122 mm dangerous killer. I stepped inside the C-7 barrack. Any room was dark and filled with the broken pieces of light bulbs and bundles of clothing on the floor. I ran to the end of the building. Nobody was there. I felt like walking in a graveyard and had a cool feeling on my backbone. Where were my wife and daughter? Hopefully, they got out of the air base after the vigorous attack. I ran out of the area, and rushed to the gate.
As a fighter pilot, even though I did try my best to persuade the Military Police, they did not let me get through the gate at this time. I came back to the Air Operation Center. There were about 15 comrades from 514th, 518th and 530th Squadrons together went through a mourning period after the fall of Tinh Long 07. Just a minute, I thought about Maj Phung. I did not have any clue about where he was after the last conversation on radio. I still nurtured the dream that he had flied to Can Tho Air Base to avoid the dangerous missile. Thirty three years later, I got traumatic news that his plane was shot down by the NVA ground fire that day while flying on the airspace of Phu Lam area.
TSN Air Base now was quiet. The air was covered by black smog spreading all over from the Tinh Long 07 on fire. I closed my eyes and the images of my comrades who
were side by side with me to fight the enemies with great struggle until last minutes recalled clearly in my mind. Lt Thanh and the crew of Tinh Long 07! Even though you passed away without the flags covered your coffins with a Gallantry Cross, I believed that your names will be welcomed to the history as super heroes. Your incredible spirit would stay in the bottom of the VN people's hearts forever. My dear comrades! I did not have opportunity to wave good bye a last time. Your plane came down deeply and your bodies were dissolved in the ground, becoming a part of our beloved motherland. Now, we love our country dearly since in each handful of soil, there has been a part of your bodies, our brave comrades!
At last minutes of the VN war, I left my country alone unintentionally. My last mission on that day was fulfilled perfectly. However, to achieve it, I was not able to be with my wife and daughter at the time they really needed my help. I did not achieve the second step required in Confucianism that was my extended family's education. It is completely take care and manage the family in the roles of a good husband and a good father before bringing peace to people. The more I was proud of myself as a good soldier, the more I felt guilty for leaving my family in such chaos and crisis. During 15 years, I always asked myself if I was the culprit of the tragic separation? Whenever hearing the song Five hundred miles, I could not help crying.... Five hundred miles away from home...Now that I was away from my homeland and my beloved ones not just 500 miles, but as much further as 10.000 miles!
When I left Saigon, my daughter was six-month old, and when I saw her again in Los Angeles Air Port in our family reunion, she became a teenager already. We gave one another big hugs. I look at them and the images of the last evening in TSN air base recalled completely in my mind. Thanks God. We feel that our reunion was considered a big award from God for saving human's lives.
On behalf of Captain Tran Phuc, we would like to express our gratitude to all of the readers who have taken time to read these memoirs related to the Vietnamese history. We also appreciate your time to share the emotional situations happening in the last days of the VN war before the fall of Saigon.
Click here for the video clip of Tinh Long AC-119K crashed on 4/29/1975
According to Captain Tran Phuc, to volunteer for the last flight, he left his own family in the chaos of TSN air base at last minutes. Being taught with the Confucianism, he felt that he failed to achieve one step in Confucius' principal, for that, he could not be a perfect man. However, in our opinion, perfection can be judged not in one way. Looking at another theory in Confucianism, there is a unity of a person and family. In his case, as his brave comrades, he did not leave his family, but together with his family to sacrifice their own lives to save their people lives.
Nowadays, Captain Tran Phuc is living together happily with his family in CA. after their marvelous reunion. Their first child, who was 6 month old when the VN war ended, had graduated in USC with a doctor degree. She is working in VA hospital in West Los Angeles. They had another child, a son who graduated from high school as a top honor student with the signature of American National Honor Society and many educational organizations, especially the signature of the President of US on his Outstanding Academic Excellence. Sometimes, he told the stories about the VN war to his children. They listened interestingly, especially his son. One time, he asked his son "what should you do if you were in my situation? " The young man, without any hesitation, as the way he shot the balls into the basket when playing basket ball in school, answered his Dad with a determined look and a beautiful smile: "Dad, I would do the same."
- Lt Col Nguyen Van Manh is living in Utah.
- Maj Ho Ngoc An, leader of Phoenix 11 flights is living at Dallas, Texas.
- Captain Nguyen Tien Thuy, N#2 of Phoenix 11 flight is living at Houston, Texas.
- Lt Nguyen Thanh Ba is living at Dayton, Ohio.
As my knowledge the morning of April 29, 1975 SVNAF loss one A1-E (Maj Phung) and 3 AC-119K were down by SA-7:
- Tinh Long-07 at Tan Son Nhut, entire crew members were sacrificed (at least 9) excepted M/Sergeant Nguyen Van Chin.(VN).
- 1 AC-119 K at Ngo Quyen Street - Cho Lon, unknown number of victim.
- 1 AC-119K at Tan Tao, 15 miles West of Tan Son Nhut, pilot by Captain Huynh Dinh Chien, unknown number passenger on board.
* To remember and gratitude the heroes to protect and sacrifice at Tan Son Nhut Airport on April 29, 1975 former Airman of 3rd Air Division, Nguyen Toai Chi spent a years to interview a lot people around Saigon, on August 2008 Mr Chi was lucky to find a witness who saw Maj Phung making a forced landing after his plane got ground fire, he stepped down from his plane near Binh Dien Bridge, 12 miles South West of Saigon. Maj Phung was caught on early morning of April 29, 1975 and was killed at that night by VC. Finally Mr. Chi helped Maj Phung's family to recover Maj Phung's remain on Dec 2nd, 2008.
* On August 20, 2010 with MR Chi also recovered 8 remains of the Tinh Long-07 crew members inside Tan Son Nhut Airport:
- Lt Trang Van Thanh, Aircraft Commander.
- Lt Tao Thuan, a copilot.
- Lt Pham Tan Duc.
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