Thursday, October 14, 2010

Operation Birmingham

Operation Birmingham began on April 24, 1966, just 11 days after the first attack on the Tan Son Nhut airfield mentioned previously. The Operation involved 3 Brigades of our 1st Infantry Division and the Vietnamese (ARVN) 5th Division. The purpose was to catch the Viet Cong 9th Division in a hammer and anvil maneuver. I was assigned as the C-130 Mission Commander, at Tay Ninh 3, which was near the Cambodian border. This was to be the anvil. The hammer was to originate at two other airfields to the east.
I'm not sure why I was assigned this mission, since I was a C-118 pilot and was assigned to the 315th Air Division headquarters, instead of one of the 130 squadrons. However I flew with them during my off-duty time while


in-country, so I could better understand their problems at different locations.
I like to believe it was recognition of decisions I had made on other occasions that prompted my appointment, like actions during the mortar attack. In addition, I had authorized three engine take offs twice. The first required Hq 315AD headquarters approval, but I pre-empted it for a plane that was loaded with casualties. Later the rule was changed and required approval of the Commander 315 AD. However, a pilot called in from some remote strip and said, “It's getting dark out here”. I approved that three engine take off, because we had just lost 3 aircraft at An Khe in similar circumstances. I fully expected harsh discipline after reporting my action, but I never heard a word. The other reason I could have been made mission commander was they didn't mind risking a headquarters “weenie”. (Just kidding)

Here is an account of the operation, written by Col. Ray Bowers, in the October 2003, Air University Review.

Operation BIRMINGHAM, the four-week invasion of Tay Ninh province, was launched 24 April 1966 and involved all three brigades of 1st Division. Movement to the operational area was entirely by air. Planning initially called for delivery of five infantry battalions, five artillery batteries, and two brigade headquarters, all in 75 C-130 loads on D-day. Concern for possible saturation at the 4600-foot laterite dirt strip just west of Tay Ninh caused changes: some units were positioned by C-123 at two dirt strips (Soui Da and Dau Tieng) east of Tay Ninh. On D-day morning the initial four C-130s arrived at Tay Ninh in close trail formation, landing with textbook precision at 30-second intervals and depositing 400 troops. During the first day, C-130s made a total of 56 sorties into Tay Ninh, with none of the feared congestion. Flights originated from the base camp strips (Lai Khe, Phu Loi, and Phuoc Vinh). Weather was ideal; the only delays came from several instances of tire damage. Ground fire hit one ship, wounding two men.”
Col. Bowers was obviously along on the initial flight of four.

As we approached Tay Ninh 3, we were supposed to be cleared in by two green ball flares (one red, if unsafe) from a Special Forces camp, about a mile away. We didn't get anything, but activity looked normal at the camp so we landed. I was impressed by how quickly the 400 troops disembarked and disappeared into the woods, to the west. However, I was a little surprised they didn't set up a defensive perimeter to protect the remaining arrivals (and me). Sgt Langston, was the only one with me, and we quickly set up our table, chairs and radios. Sgt Langston had a bad cough, aggravated by the activity on the landing strip, so I sent him back after about 45 minutes. Traffic of 130's was pretty heavy for a while and I had to make a couple 130s make 360 degree turns to provide clearance for departing aircraft. Other than that things went smoothly.

After about an hour, a green beret sergeant came strolling over from his camp. He just wanted to know what was going on, then strolled back. I didn't broach the subject, but there was a breakdown in communication about the flares.

During the afternoon, traffic slowed considerably, but on two separate occasions,an army Huey came by and deposited about a dozen 55gal drums of fuel on the middle of the runway. I was unable to contact the Huey by radio (the Army used completely different radio frequencies from the Air Force). I was unable to wave him off and had to run a couple hundred yards to move the drums to the side of the runway then race back to man the radios. Another breakdown in communication.

Late in the afternoon, it got real quiet and I had a chance to reflect on the operation. The aircrews and the troops did a great job of maintaining the schedule and unloading of personnel and equipment. I had only heard about four widely spaced shots and speculated somebody was looking for target practice. When I found out later about the two casualties on an inbound flight, I surmised it was friendly fire. Just before dark a 130 came and picked me up. (I had hoped they would remember me).

That night, before going to sleep, I thought---The troops from my site went to the west and the troops positioned at the other two sites were east of me. That meant I was between the hammer and the anvil---hmm. Well, I was well armed, with a 38 and 18 cartridges. That was probably a little short of what I would need to take on a full Division.

The well planned Operation Birmingham was only able to account for about 100 VC, but large caches of ammunition and supplies. Apparently the VC Division was able to slip back into Cambodia. That happened a lot in Vietnam.


  1. Excellent memory Bud, and interesting reading. Know what you mean about a Communication break down. Hand and arm signals were usually the best. My biggest problems were the different Battery landlines. Not good to call an immediate Fire For Effect down to the 175's when we had just adjusted with 8 inch. Keep em coming.....

    In 1997, they came out with a 50 year USAF Commerative bottle of wine. Dark Blue with silver lettering. That year it was easy to come up with a Christmas present for two very good friends who had retired out of SAFB. I still have the bottle I got for myself.

  2. Fantastic story Bud. I passed this along to my friends. These stories I would like to say that comms got better...but they didn't...the just got bad information was quick to get to the wrong people.