“My God, everything was different that morning. The radio traffic. The panic. The confusion,” recalled Bill O’Brien of the last days of what was the longest war before the most recent one. It was springtime 1975.
“The flight from Cubee, the first hour-and-a-half was normal. All of a sudden, you’re into this hornet’s nest. The end of that day, landing at U-Tapao, which is a Royal Thai base, was a surreal experience,” recalled O’Brien, who retired a Navy Captain in 2006 – a rank equal to the Army rank of colonel.
“The South Vietnamese aircraft had been running for their lives. Coming into U-Tapao they weren’t calling anybody for permission to land. They were landing in the trees. They were landing in the grass. They were upside down,” he said. “It looked so weird taxi-ing in. And they were bulldozing planes off the runway so we could land. It looked like you took an airshow with vintage military aircraft and just…shook it all up.”
“Sometimes, what you find are amazing parallels between what’s happening now and what happened back in Saigon,” says Roy McDonald, president of the Friends of the New York State Military Museum. O’Brien and Barry Hartman, both Saratoga County residents, are members of the board. The museum includes exhibits from the French and Indian war to displays remembering 9/11. The artifacts of Vietnam feature instructive signage of things like the Paris Peace Accords and the Fall of Saigon, as well as the cloths and tools, uniforms and equipment of the era.
“I was in Da Nang, that was the north part when we brought all the troops out. I was there ’67-’68 and June ’72 to March ’73. I came out on the last plane out of Da Nang, we closed the thing down,” says Barry Hartman who retired twice – once an Army Colonel as well as a Brigadeer General in the New York Guard. “That was in ’73. The pictures everybody sees of the end of the war – that was two years after we left.”
Hartman pointed to the differences between his first tour in Vietnam in 1967 and his last in 1973. “It was kind of quiet when we first got there, but November ended all that. The battle of Dak To. There were periods of absolute terror,” he says. “My camp troop, C-Troop, was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation for actions during the Battle of Dak To. And during that whole time, I only had to write one letter home,” he says, his voice choked with emotion. “That’s probably the toughest thing I ever did.”
Vietnam and Afghanistan. Now and then. “The end results are the same. The Vietnamese are unified, however you want to define that. The Taliban has got Afghanistan, however you want to define that. The difference was there was an International Peace Treaty at the end of Vietnam signed by the combatants in Paris. There were also two international commissions set up – you didn’t have any of this in Afghanistan,” Hartman explains. “There were a lot of checkpoints, and it was set up in advance. The peace talks had been going on for some time and we had been moving troops out. Jan. 28, 1973 was the ceasefire. That was when everybody was supposed to stop firing and stay where you are. We closed down Da Nang. On the last airplane out on the tarmac there were about 45 of us. It was a clean leave, but we were watching them. They were building up. We knew it was coming, we knew the North Vietnamese sometime in the future were going to attack,” he says.
As operations officer, Hartman made arrangements for those leaving. “We got them out of country. Some brought their Vietnamese families with them. We had the time to do it, we had the plan to do it, and the leadership let us do it. We had two months trying to get everybody out. We’re going out in the countryside there to try and find the bodies missing in action. We knew, well, a helicopter went down in this general area. We found several of them and we were able to bring the U.S. bodies out. That’s what we did during that period of time.”
Saigon and Da Nang were the two U.S. hubs. “Now this is two years before what everybody understands as the end of the war, and what you see on TV with all the pictures." In March 1973, he joined about four dozen other Army and Navy personnel, boarded a blue bus to the airport, then on to a World Airways charter flight. It was the last plane out of Da Nang. “I couldn’t wait to get back home,” he says.
O’Brien first got to Vietnam at the end of 1971 and started flying in January 1972.” I was just a kid. It’s funny, I took a MAC flight into Okinawa, met my squadron and didn’t even know where the hangar was. But it started right away. Soon as I hit the ground – boom - fly.”
His squadron consisted of about 15 airplanes and 450 to 500 people who deployed en masse. “We staged out of Okinawa my first tour, and my airplane had great range. You could fly for 12 hours, so we could cover the whole South China Sea. We could fly low and slow, we had a four-engine turbo prop, shut two off, and we could fly at 200 feet for 10 hours. We were looking at shipping, looking at what the Soviets were doing, at what the Chinese and North Koreans were doing off the coast. We were used heavily for surveillance, and to see what was going on,” O’Brien says.
“In those early days, we were very basic. The cameras were all hand-held. And they were terrible, which would cause some problems later on when they were looking for intelligence and unhappy with the pictures we were taking. So, then we started taking pictures with the Nikons we bought in Japan when we were on liberty. Those were much better quality. The camera would be taken by anyone who wasn’t flying,” he laughs.
The cockpit consisted of two pilots and a flight engineer. “There were two radar cabinets behind, in the cockpit. It was enough of a surface where you could get your butt on it and go out over the pilot or the co-pilot’s shoulder and take a picture. Some of the most famous pictures we took were taken by our inflight technician. They fix things when they break and he wasn’t having to fix anything so he took the pictures. If we located a Soviet ship or a Chinese or North Korean ship, they wanted a lot of intelligence on the ship, so we would have to fly around the ship and take pictures from five different angles, drop a sonobuoy to pick up the engine noise of the ship to see if there was a submarine behind it, things like that. My airplane was not armored, we didn’t have any guns. We were not really meant for combat. All our fuel was in our wings mostly – 60,000 pounds of jet fuel in our wings.”
Even after Hartman had left Da Nang in 1973, O’Brien says he flew 150 hours per month into the spring of 1975. Operations did not slow down and surveillance flights continued along Vietnam, from Diego Garcia to Iran to the east coast of Africa watching Soviet ship activity.
“Starting in 1974, the North Vietnamese Army started coming south. They weren’t abiding by any agreement,” O’Brien says.
“My airplane had been upgraded. We had the very first FLIR in the western Pacific – which is Forward-looking infrared camera. So, our airplane was in high demand. We were in the Philippines. I was supposed to fly from the Philippines to Thailand to Diego to Iran when on the morning of April 30, 1975 I was flying from (U.S. Naval Air Station) Cubi Point in the Philippines across south Vietnam to Thailand. And that’s when I ran into the morning of the embassy evac. All the airplanes in the air. The (USS) Blue Ridge. And all the chaos. And all the radio traffic. Some poor sailor on one of the ships, I never was sure which one, was trying to control all this massive air traffic in the air.
“You had the entire South Vietnamese air force flying anything they could fly trying to land on the ships in the South China Sea, and also trying to go into Thailand. You’ve seen the pictures of the chaos. So many helicopters were coming in to the (USS) Coral Sea that, I read later that they pushed $10 million of our helicopters off to the side, to make room for the ones coming out. The South Vietnamese pilots were being instructed to land on the Blue Ridge or any other carrier that had a helo platform. Land. Drop your passengers. Then go back out and ditch your helicopter in the water and jump out. And maybe we’ll pick you up,” he says.
“The evacuation started in early March with fixed-wing aircraft. They evacuated somewhere between 45 to 50,000 people. When they started to come under some heavy fire they went to helicopters. They evacuated like 7,000 people with helicopters. Incredible. Now the compound – the embassy annex and the Pittman apartment building – basically where some embassy people, some CIA people stayed. The iconic picture of the helicopter on the roof with the people going up to the roof which some people think is the embassy, is the Pittman building,” O’Brien says.
“The compound where all of these people crammed in and tried to get out was a chaos I think similar to Kabul. There was a code word that had been passed a month before to all our friendlies and our allies in and round the Saigon area that was going to be broadcast on Air America: ‘The temperature in Saigon today is going to be 105,’ followed by the playing of ‘White Christmas.’ The song. Bing Crosby. That’s the code to get to the embassy. Get there. Get your families there.”
“There’s one more chapter to the Vietnam thing, and that’s the Mayaguez,” Hartman says. “How many? 41?”
“Forty-one,” O’Brien says. “That’s where my airplane got shot. After three tours and two weeks after the fall of Saigon.” A picture taken by O’Brien’s in-flight tech appeared in both Time and Newsweek.
The final 41 names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall represent 25 Air Force pilots and crew, 2 Navy corpsmen, and 14 Marines; these were the men killed in the operation to rescue the crew of the Mayaguez, according to U.S. Department of Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.
“We were taking .50-cal. fire from gunboats. There were about 250 Khmer Rouge on the ship, and they were also in the tree line. We were flying between the ship and the island, and I’ve always said: if these guys had been duck hunters, we would have been dead. But all their rounds went through our tail. Terror. It was terror. I never want to forget that day. I really shouldn’t be sitting here talking to you because we were close. We were low and these guys… it was May 13 of ’75.”
O’Brien says the emotional impact of that day didn’t hit him until two years later.
“I was watching a movie, and then I just broke down. But during that day, I remember we all just did our jobs. It didn’t hit me for almost two years later. That’s weird, I know,” he says.
“They didn’t shoot us down. After I made the initial call, it went all the way back to the White House. And then they were contacting us through this satellite, so I could hear Kissinger’s voice on the radio. They were asking us questions, but they said: you’ve got to stay there. Is the plane still fly-able?” And it was. So they said: you’ve got to keep your eye on the ship and let us know what’s going on because they had the crew hostage. This was an American merchant ship. So we had to go back, and keep looking at it. We went back for another five hours, and they were shooting at us. I called up and asked: How high can a .50-cal. shoot? I didn’t know. They had to research it. 5,000 feet. That’s what I did. I got to 5,000 feet. They eventually pulled into a different island, Koh Tang Island and that was the island they started bombing and strafing and then the Marines invaded it. And they lost 41 Marines. Almost instantly, because there were a lot of Khmer Rouge on the island,” O’Brien says.
“The tragedy of it all is they left three Marines behind. In their rifle pits. Firing,” says O’Brien, his voice slowing to a whisper. “They survived for a week by stealing food from the Khmer Rouge. They were eventually captured, tortured and killed by the Cambodians. And those are the last three names on the wall. Those three marines,” he says. “That’s an awful postscript to that war.”
The New York State Military Museum and Veterans Research Center is located at 61 Lake Ave. Saratoga Springs. For more information, go to: www.museum.dmna.ny.gov or call 518-581-5100.