"Patches" on the ramp at a base in Southwest Asia. Forty years after the C-130's hair-raising flight into Khe Sahn, the airlifter still flies combat missions (USAF photo).
Forty years ago this month, soldiers from the 2nd Battalion, 7th Calvary linked up with Marines at Khe Sahn, ending the 77-day siege of the U.S. base (and with it) one of the epic battles of the Vietnam War.
While much has been written about Khe Sahn, the strategy and goals of North Vietnamese forces remain something of a mystery. Launched at the same time as the Tet Offensive, the operation at Khe Sahn tied up thousands of enemy troops--units that could have been used for other attacks across South Vietnam.
Some retired generals and military historians believe the siege was nothing more than a diversionary feint, forcing American commanders to pour resources into the battle. Others claim it was a legitimate attempt to inflict a crushing defeat on U.S. forces, along the lines of the French debacle at Dien Bien Phu. The "riddle of Khe Sahn" will remain unresolved until historians gain full access to the archives of the Hanoi government, something that probably won't happen in our lifetime.
Whatever North Vietnam's intentions might have been, the siege became a testament to the resolve, determination and bravery of the Marine garrison--and those who supported them. The Marines at Khe Sahn dug in and defended their base tenaciously, despite near-constant bombardment by enemy mortars and artillery. Attack jets and heavy bombers flew hundreds of sorties, pounding North Vietnamese positions around Khe Sahn. Helicopter and transport crews risked their lives to resupply the installation and evacuate the wounded. According to one Air Force estimate, airlift crews delivered more than 15,000 tons of supplies to Khe Sahn, running a gauntlet of concentrated enemy fire.
At least one veteran of the siege is still on active duty, five decades after the battle ended. Known by the nickname "Patches," this particular warrior is a C-130E transport, tail number 62-1817. She recently arrived in another combat zone, pulling duty with the 746th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron in Southwest Asia:
"She's a great lady," said Lt Col Daniel Tulley, 746th EAS commander. "I've seen a picture of her at Air Mobility Command headquarters at Scott Air Force Base, Illinois, and it was interesting to read about her crew's contribution to history. I'm proud to have her on our ramp."
The "contribution" mentioned by Lt Col Tulley occurred during a run to Khe Sahn, on 5 February 1968. "Patches" was carrying a load of badly needed ammunition, but weather conditions at the besieged base were at flight minimums. Still, the aircraft navigator, Maj Gerald Johnson, believed he could find the runway with an airborne approach radar. His aircraft commander, Lt Col Howard Dallman, elected to press on with the mission. Dallman was a highly experienced pilot, a veteran of more than 40 combat missions during World War II.
Lt Col Dallman and his crew would need all of their skills to survive their flight into Khe Sahn. John Frisbee recounted their valiant mission in a July 1989 article for Air Force magazine:
"..At a sweaty 300 feet they broke out of the overcast, the strip directly ahead. Then as the C-130 ground and bucked to a stop, the big bird was hit by a shell that ignited ammunition boxes in the cargo compartment. Johnson and loadmaster SSgt. Wade Green immediately began fighting the fire, assisted by Behnke, who had called the tower for a fire truck, and flight engineer SSgt. Charles Brault.
Seventeen tons of ammunition could explode at any moment, closing the runway and flattening the built-up area of Khe Sanh, with many casualties. Dallman began backing the Hercules to a safer area at the far end of the runway, where the five-man crew, with help from the fire truck, finally extinguished the fire and helped offload still-smoking ammo boxes.
All was not yet over. As the last pallet of ammunition was unloaded, one of the tires was blown by a sniper's bullet, and a mortar attack bracketed the C-130. Dallman told the crew to leave the plane, which was drawing most of the fire, but every man remained with the aircraft as it was towed for a short distance, then taxied to a maintenance area. There Brault repaired an aircraft jack and managed to change the damaged wheel, all the time under fire from mortars, rockets, artillery, and heavy machine guns.
While the wheel was being changed, Dallman agreed to fly a Marine corporal and his out-of-commission bulldozer back to Da Nang. The 'dozer was loaded and the aircraft positioned for takeoff when one engine, which had ingested debris from an exploding mortar round, quit. The 20,000-pound bulldozer and a disappointed corporal were unloaded and Dallman left the bird to get permission for a three-engine takeoff. In the 10 minutes it took to get clearance from Airlift Control Center, Behnke and Brault got the fourth engine started. Dallman sprinted back to the C-130 as Behnke, a qualified aircraft commander, opened the throttles for takeoff. The Herk was hit again as it took off, but without serious damage. Dallman and his crew had saved a valuable transport plane, delivered a load of ammunition to the surrounded Marines, and prevented major damage to a battered outpost.
For his heroism and leadership, Lt Col Dallman received the Air Force Cross--the first airlift pilot to win that honor; the rest of his crew received Silver Stars. Patches was repaired and soldiered on, serving with a number of units through the years. At the time of its most recent deployment, the venerable "Herk" was assigned to Pope AFB, North Carolina. One crew chief from Pope reports that he has deployed with "Patches" at least three times.
Like everyone who flew C-130s, I have a soft spot for the old war bird. Closing my eyes, I can still feel the rumble of those Allison turboprops vibrating through the fuselage. There was something reassuring about that sound--and the knowledge that you were flying a great airplane, built to bring the crew home time and time again.