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An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

August 2002
A FEATURE STORY
   
 

Mechanics At The Edge Of War
U.S. Ground Forces In Vietnam In

BY JOHN PRADOS 

This is a story from the French War in Indochina. In many ways it was the first American war, or at least a war the United States almost entered ten years before President Lyndon B. Johnson sent ground forces to South Vietnam. Initially, Johnson's action was to protect American aircrews and mechanics already stationed at bases in that country. 

At one point in the French War the situation on the ground had been virtually identical. This happened after December 6, 1953, when the French commander-in-chief, Gen. Henri Navarre, formally accepted the challenge of fighting a major battle at Dien Bien Phu. A large upland valley in the mountains of Tonkin, Dien Bien Phu had been occupied originally as a mobile operating base but was converted into an entrenched camp. The French expected the Viet Minh, as the Vietnamese adversary was then known, to attack on January 25, 1954. 

On January 8, the American in charge of U.S. Army forces in the Pacific theater, Lt. Gen. John W. O'Daniel, was ordered to Washington to participate in emergency discussions on additional aid to the French. The United States already had committed an additional $954 million to the French to pay for the Navarre Plan, the French command's scheme for operations in Indochina. Now the question was what more could be done. President Dwight D. Eisenhower had set up a committee to examine the issue. During January 11-15 conversations, it became clear that Washington needed better information. Gen. O'Daniel received orders to lead a study mission to Vietnam that would assess the military situation. 

Virtually simultaneously, in mid-January, France asked the United States to provide four hundred aircraft mechanics to repair French aircraft in Vietnam. America's Joint Chiefs of Staff, already aware of the possibility, referred to the assignment of mechanics in a January 15 memorandum as one of the additional things the United States could do for France. The formal request arrived on January 18 in a letter from French Prime Minister Joseph Laniel. The letter specified the mechanics should be able to maintain C-47 and B-26 aircraft, that the men would not participate in "perations," and that they could be civilians or work as civilians.

Gen. O'Daniel was asked to comment on the request. O'Daniel's mission visited Indochina from January 23 to February 4, and the general dated his report the next day. He supported the request for American mechanics, writing that if the French wanted to maintain or increase their aerial capability, they would need the Americans and the additional aircraft the United States could give them. But Washington had not waited for O'Daniel. On January 29, Secretary of Defense Charles Wilson ordered the Air Force to provide two hundred technicians for temporary duty in Indochina. The next day Eisenhower's special committee confirmed the consensus, recommending the president approve the measure.  

The assignment went to the Far East Air Force (FEAF), which had its headquarters in Japan. On February 2, the leader of  FEAF's Air Logistics Force, Gen. Albert G. Hewitt, flew to Saigon. The activity would be carried out on a highly classified basis with every participant sworn to secrecy. Hewitt and French Air Force Gen. Pierre Bodet agreed there would be two detachments of Americans. One would be posted at Danang (then called Tourane) to repair B-26 bombers. The second unit would be sent to Do Son in the Red River Delta to fix C-47 transport planes. The United States also made a separate provision to send a unit of pilots to Vietnam. 

In Operation Paul Revere, on February 5 American aircraft flew the mechanics and their equipment from Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines to Danang. The French met them in dress uniform with bands playing. Three huge C-124 Globemaster transports and eighteen C-119 aircraft were necessary for the move. The provisional U.S. unit was led by Lt. Col. Walter A. Miller. As arranged, the Americans established a unit at Danang, and the remaining mechanics flew to Do Son the next day. They became Detachment 2 under Maj. Kenneth Knox.  

Despite the oaths of secrecy, many pilots and ground crews throughout FEAF were aware of the move to Indochina, and authorities decided an unclassified nickname was necessary to refer to the unit in Vietnam. After one false start, about a month after the U.S. moved these maintenance experts to Vietnam, the nickname for their unit became "Duke's Mixture." Most of the men who served there never heard the term.  

Washington also remained very sensitive about the American servicemen in Vietnam and the expanded participation in the French war they represented. The day of the initial move, the Pentagon announced that several hundred Air Force specialists were going to Vietnam with the latest bunch of B-26 bombers. On February 8, President Eisenhower, in a telephone conversation with Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, expressed concern about the technicians. Eisenhower said he wanted them out of Vietnam by the middle of June even if civilian substitutes had to be hired to replace them. 

At a press conference the next day, Wilson made public the June 15 termination date at a Pentagon press conference. Eisenhower was asked about the technicians at another press conference at the White House on February 10. From Congress, Democratic Sen. John Stennis of Mississippi attacked the move as the leading edge of a growing U.S. engagement in Vietnam. 

Hardly aware of the politics or any of this high-level maneuvering, the Americans in Vietnam focused on their jobs. Maj. Knox at Do Son was very quick off the mark, taking the first French C-47 into his shop on February 9, only three days after arrival. The Dakota (the name the French used for their C-47s) went back to the French three days later. Dakotas were critical for the French, who were entirely dependent on aerial deliveries to supply Dien Bien Phu.  

The plan was for the French to perform normal field upkeep on the Dakotas while Knox's mechanics did intermediate maintenance and performance checks. This division of labor led to the first differences between the French and Americans. A meticulous officer, Knox insisted on maintaining the C-47s to American standards. The French, desperate to keep as many Dakotas as possible on the flight line, worried that those standards would slow down the rate at which  planes came back from maintenance. This caused tensions from an early date but led to real problems later.  

The other big headache was security. Do Son was a base in the middle of a war. It was located south of Haiphong, on the headlands of a peninsula jutting into the Baie d'Along. The Americans first arrived soon after a Viet Minh commando raid had destroyed five C-47s. The body of one of the raiders lay on the beach where the enemy had tried to escape. As early as February 13, Knox's Americans could hear the sounds of fighting in the Red River Delta just ten to fifteen miles away.  

A broadcast on Beijing radio on the 15th mentioned the U.S. servicemen and called them combatants who could be attacked at will. When Gen. Pierre Fay, the French Air Force commander, visited Do Son two days later, he expressed safety concerns. Washington already had asked the French if adequate preparations had been made to safeguard the Americans in case of an attack. On February 18, Knox learned that heavy guns, bombs, and napalm were being used in Delta fighting. None of this prevented sabotage: On February 20 the Americans discovered that aviation gasoline stocks had been contaminated with large amounts of water. 

The original French request for American technicians complicated security because Paris had promised that the Americans would not be used in operations. This translated into no guns for the 52 men who arrived with the first contingent. When Lt. Russell DeSomer, Knox's security officer, asked Seventh Air Force headquarters in Japan for self-defense weaponry he was denied on the grounds the Americans were noncombatants. After a few sabotage incidents and more evidence of fighting in the Delta, DeSomer was able to get weapons from the Thirteenth Air Force in the Philippines. They sent M-1 carbines and even a .50-caliber machine gun.   

DeSomer then had to make sure the technicians learned to use the weapons. In one of the training sessions a bumbling airman almost shot him. The Americans were eventually given a sector of the base perimeter to defend. It was along the beach facing the Baie d'Along.     

Communications were problematical as well. The Americans in Vietnam included the maintenance men and operational units - the Air Force pilots with their provisional 816th Squadron nicknamed "Cat's Paw" - and military attaches. Everyone had a different chain of command and communications net. With the business-as-usual attitude, some of these nets only worked for part of the day.  

Sgt. Jack McDonald ran the radio van at Do Son and also set up the network linking that base with Danang and Saigon. When Do Son was attacked while the Americans were there, he could not raise either of the other posts because the radios had shut down for the day. McDonald finally had to resort to an informal ham radio connection to reach anyone at all. He finally raised a radioman at Clark Air Base and passed word of the attack. McDonald received a reprimand for going outside channels. 

One alternative to taking a Viet Minh attack was to get out of Do Son. As early as the day following his arrival, Knox toured the area to scout an escape and evasion plan. But fleeing by land was not practical in an area saturated with Viet Minh guerrillas. By late February, Knox was in discussions with Maj. Ed Yarbrough of the Cat's Paw C-119 detachment, flying out of nearby Cat Bi field, on a plan to evacuate the mechanics using Yarbrough's planes. By early March plans were complete. The first briefing of the men featured a CIA officer who came down from Haiphong to brief the Americans on the threat. Jack McDonald's family back in Cleveland learned he was in Vietnam when they saw him in a photograph taken before the briefing that appeared in American newspapers. 

At Danang, Detachment 1 of the 6424th Air Depot Wing (the formal designation for Col. Miller's unit) had its own C-47 to evacuate the men in case of attack. In late February, Viet Minh raiders blew it up. The subsequent escape plan became an awkward thing. At first, the airmen were supposed to flee across a bridge to an island, but French security discovered Viet Minh frogmen in the water. They had wired the bridge for demolition.

Then the airmen were supposed to run to the beach, put to sea in rubber boats, and be recovered by an American submarine. It is not known if any submarine was assigned this mission, but the Bluegill was operating off the Vietnamese coast at this time.  

Miller's airmen had a more difficult time getting down to the business of servicing the French B-26 twin-engine bombers. This had less to do with the planes than with living conditions at Danang, which lacked suitable quarters for the Americans. Miller had his men spend their first couple of weeks erecting barracks. Only then did their efforts turn fully to the maintenance activity.  

Danang had a 7,800-foot asphalt runway but no strip lights or airfield maintenance buildings. The sheds that substituted came with shops from which Vietnamese peddlers sold wine, beer, and cheese. Airman Paul Cable recalls the French mechanics would work for a couple of hours early in the morning, then break off for breakfast. He thought the planes were not used much, and he found empty wine bottles and other trash in the cockpit of a bomber. 

Back at Do Son, the situation daily seemed gloomier. One night during the final week of February, 41 Viet Minh suspects were arrested in the village that overlooked the base. The French decided to move all their civilian personnel out of the area. Conditions improved for Knox's Americans after refrigerators and movie projectors arrived and a PX opened up, but the French were actively disputing with Knox on work arrangements. A few days later, a squad of Viet Minh soldiers were captured in a late afternoon incident. 

During the early morning of March 4, only about ten hours after the incident at Do Son, the storm hit Gia Lam in the form of another commando raid. Yarbrough's Americans, who were coincidentally in Haiphong for a party sponsored by his C-119 pilots, were safe, as were their planes. But the Viet Minh placed gasoline cans wired with explosives under the engines of ten Dakotas and destroyed them. Despite elaborate defenses at Gia Lam, the Viet Minh escaped and only one was killed.   

The French declared a state of emergency around Haiphong.  Near Hanoi they also arrested two hundred Vietnamese in surrounding villages who had worked at Gia Lam base. At Cat Bi, they increased security. Intelligence officers reported to Knox that the entire length of the highway from Cat Bi into Haiphong had been put under heavy guard, and that the French were stringing barbed wire along it. On March 6 the road from Do Son to Cat Bi was closed altogether.   

All the precautions went for naught: The Viet Minh mounted another big raid on Cat Bi before dawn the next day. Several B-26s and spotter planes were destroyed. The French captured a Viet Minh officer and several men and claimed five of the enemy killed, but they were obliged to call up a paratroop battalion to re-establish the security of the base. From then on, when the general commanding the air division visited his airmen at Cat Bi, he went in full combat gear, wearing a flak jacket, with pistols strapped to his legs and carrying a submachine gun. In contrast, the Americans on the base were virtually unarmed. 

A sense of impending doom increased steadily at Do Son. The French dive-bombed positions just four miles east of the field the day after the Cat Bi raid. They also evacuated Do Son village preparatory to shelling it. Later, they converted the village into a military compound and brought in additional airfield guards. Over the next few weeks, Do Son was reinforced by five companies--three of North African soldiers and two of paratroops. 

Yet the road to Cat Bi was closed for most of a week, and on March 12 the entire base was put on a super-high state of alert by Gen. Navarre, who ordered all able aircraft to leave Do Son. The next day, Viet Minh raiders demolished key points on the road and railroad that connected Haiphong and Hanoi. 

On that day, March 13, Viet Minh Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap opened the battle for Dien Bien Phu with a bombardment of the French entrenched camp and its strong points. In the Delta, the Americans and French already felt as if they had been through the wringer. 

With the Dien Bien Phu battle now underway, the Viet Minh went after Do Son itself on March 17. By then, there were 105 American airmen at the base. Jack McDonald arrived back that afternoon from a troubleshooting foray to Danang. He had the security detail (mostly because he had nowhere to sleep) and shared his bunk with another airman who was off duty. In the evening, French troops picked up two Viet Minh on Do Son hill. They had been carrying a machine gun and half a dozen plastic explosive bombs. The French then had a heavy bomber hit the other side of the hill with four 500-pound bombs.   

That night the searchlights blazed up to cut through the dark, and firing erupted around Do Son. McDonald tried to get through on the radio with no luck. His boss, Capt. Winifred Ellis, got the armed security people onto the perimeter as the rest of the Americans stayed in their barracks. In the face of all the defenses - which included three barbed-wire barriers with attack dogs running between the inner ones - the Viet Minh still got through. 

Up at Cat Bi, Maj. Yarbrough alerted his C-119 pilots for an emergency landing at Do Son to get the Americans out, as per the evacuation plan. But no night landing proved necessary. The battle died down at about one o'clock in the morning. No one was hurt and no damage to aircraft had resulted. Nevertheless, the Americans began to call the Viet Minh "Ho Chi Minh's Red River Delta Boys." 

After this incident, the United States stationed two C-46 Commando transports at Do Son with the express purpose of evacuating Americans if attacked. Over subsequent days there was recurring news of fresh Viet Minh forays. French bombing of nearby targets and the arrival of paratroops did not seem to matter. Viet Minh in the Do Son sector were estimated at two thousand. One troublesome band of four hundred was attacked repeatedly for weeks but always came back. That was true throughout the Delta.

Despite the French tanks and armored cars, artillery and aircraft, the toll mounted from the constant ambushes, small fights, and booby traps. French casualties in the Red River Delta during April amounted to 163 dead, 346 wounded, and 197 missing. That was the equivalent of a full battalion. The French did not have so many battalions, especially ones available for mobile operations, and their best were at Dien Bien Phu.  

Nor did the French have enough aircraft mechanics. Their promises to replace the Americans by mid-June had rung hollow before March ended, when an American general doing a survey in Indochina was asked if the technicians could be extended at least through the end of August. The Air Force had its own problems there in addition to the danger - it had recruited airmen for Indochina by promising extra leave and credit toward a return stateside. In the middle of the Vietnam mission the service changed its policy and refused to honor the original promises.  

The rate of volunteering had dropped from 30 percent to 5. With approved temporary duty stints of just 90-130 days, the Air Force was likely to be unable to fill its Indochina personnel slots. By the end of April, the Air Force had 399 men in Indochina. That number increased to 462 before the end of May. 

Meanwhile, Dien Bien Phu made the French increasingly desperate. As far as Dakota maintenance at Do Son was concerned, they went over Kenneth Knox's head to his superiors. Knox's April Fools' present was an order to maintain the C-47s only to French standards, not his own. Then, as one more U.S. general inspected the place, Knox was given a tongue lashing. Sgt. McDonald saw the officers standing in the evening, the sun's afterglow silhouetting them, and then heard that Knox was being fired. In fact, he was replaced by Maj. Harry Schiele on April 11. A 90-day temporary duty for Knox would have ended on May 6, ironically the very moment that Dien Bien Phu itself fell. 

Dien Bien Phu was completely overrun, and its commander surrendered on May 7. This crystallized the question of the return of the American airmen. As late as May 20, President Eisenhower was still saying he wanted them out of Vietnam by the original planned date. But the French air commander in Indochina refused to sign a maintenance contract with the civilian alternative, Aviation International Limited.  

The French said they could replace the Americans with their own civilians at a rate of about a hundred a month, ensuring the airmen would be out of Vietnam by September 1. The Air Force had its own reasons for wanting to hold on in Indochina. Americans could better safeguard U.S. equipment on loan to the French, and pulling them out would have a negative psychological impact on French Union military forces. Washington decided to keep the air units, but to substitute men where necessary and to consolidate the Americans as far away from the Viet Minh as possible. 

Movement to Danang began on May 13, a few days after the fall of Dien Bien Phu. On the 23rd, the C-119 unit at Cat Bi also redeployed to Danang. Americans there continued to service B-26, C-47, and C-119 aircraft and to pack parachutes for the French. They also were under orders from Gen. Hewitt to take all measures necessary for their own safety and security. This kept the Americans confined to base for the most part, except for such organized outings as beer parties on China Beach.  

Airmen's frustrations grew with the length of their assignment in Vietnam. On June 15, five Americans took a truck to China Beach for a private beach party. A Viet Minh patrol happened upon them, and they were taken away to a POW camp in the hills overlooking the central Vietnamese coastal plain. The five became the first American prisoners of the Vietnam War. They were held until August 31, 1954, after the Geneva Agreements had been signed. 

The French almost made good on their promise to enable the American airmen to leave by the first of September. In fact, the Far East Air Force pulled its units out of Vietnam on September 6, 1954.  They spent almost exactly twice the time in-country that had been originally intended. Unlike a decade later, however, in this first commitment the Americans did come home before the leaves fell.         

   

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