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Vietnam the first 'tanker war'

  • Published
  • By Ellery D. Wallwork
  • Hq. Air Mobility Command History Office
Editor's note: This is the seventh article in a series of articles highlighting the history of aerial refueling and the important role aerial refueling has played in American military history.

Air refueling played an important role throughout the air war over Southeast Asia. With distances of 7,100 nautical miles from Travis Air Force Base, Calif., to Andersen AFB, Guam, and another 2,251 nautical miles to Saigon, South Vietnam, all tactical aircraft sent from the United States to Southeast Asia required air refueling. Even the B-52 Stratofortress received a precautionary refueling on its way to Guam.

The destruction of five B-57 Canberra bombers in November 1964 taught Airmen the hard lesson of basing large, vulnerable aircraft in Vietnam. Therefore, during the course of the conflict, Strategic Air Command based its tankers in Guam, Okinawa, the Philippines, Thailand and Taiwan.

In early 1964, SAC deployed its first four KC-135A Stratotankers to Clark Air Base, Philippines. Dubbed "Yankee Team Task Force," this group of tankers was intended to serve on a temporary mission. On June 9, 1964, Yankee Team performed its first combat air refueling of the war, servicing eight F-100D Super Sabres on a mission to strike Pathet Lao anti-aircraft emplacements in northern Laos. Although SAC withdrew the task force by June 22, the Joint Chiefs reestablished the Yankee Team at Clark AB on Aug. 5, following the Gulf of Tonkin Incident.

By late September, the KC-135 force, renamed "Foreign Legion," began regularly supporting fighters engaged in combat. With air refueling contributing direct support to combat aircraft, Vietnam was the "first tanker war."

As the conflict continued to escalate, so too did the number of tankers assigned to the theater. With the number of aircraft, basing locations also continued to grow. SAC established a new wing at Kadena AB in January 1965, with a new nickname, "Young Tiger." This new moniker would come to represent all air refuelers in the theater for the next eight years.

On Feb. 12, 1965, 38 KC-135s supported the deployment of 30 B-52s to Andersen AFB in preparation for bombing operations over Southeast Asia. Arc Light missions focused B-52 bombing missions against Viet Cong jungle strongholds. Tankers from Kadena made it possible for the heavily-loaded bombers to complete the roughly-2,000-mile roundtrip. Arc Light commenced on June 18, 1965, with 30 KC-135s refueling 27 B-52s on their way to Viet Cong targets.

In addition to combat air refuelings, tanker crews began to receive credit for saving tactical aircraft. One of the earliest incidents occurred on Nov. 22, 1965, when an F-105, after releasing its ordinance, began to experience a rapid loss of fuel. A Kadena KC-135, commanded by Capt. Ross C. Evers, rushed over North Vietnamese territory to provide fuel.

Perhaps the best known "save" occurred on May 31, 1967. Major John H. Casteel's tanker crew was engaged in a routine refueling of two Air Force F-104Cs over the Gulf of Tonkin when U.S. Navy aircraft dangerously short of fuel arrived. This KC-135, equipped with a boom-drogue adapter to support the F-104s, refueled two Navy KA-3 tankers, two Navy F-8s, two Navy F-4s, as well as its assigned F-104s. In order to save the aircraft, a brief tri-level refueling occurred with the KC-135 feeding a KA-3 while the KA-3 passed fuel to an F-8. Without the KC-135's help, the Navy aircraft would probably not have reached their carrier. This KC-135 crew earned the MacKay Trophy for the most extraordinary aerial flight of 1967 -- the first time the award went to a tanker crew.

Early 1968 witnessed two important events in Southeast Asia. First, a Korean crisis arose after North Korea seized an intelligence vessel, the USS Pueblo, on Jan. 23. Second, North Vietnam and Viet Cong forces launched a series of attacks, known as the Tet Offensive, throughout South Vietnam on Jan. 30.

In response to the Pueblo crisis, SAC deployed additional KC-135s and B-52s to the region under Operation Port Bow. KC-135s also supported the deployment of tactical aircraft to the Far East, called Operation Combat Fox. Under Operation Commando Royal, KC-135s supported tactical aircraft patrols of the Korean Demilitarized Zone with an average of five refueling sorties per day.

With the Tet Offensive ongoing, and in particular, the Siege of Khe Sanh underway in South Vietnam, the Joint Chiefs authorized the Port Bow tankers and bombers to support Arc Light missions. To support Operation Niagara, relief operations for Khe Sanh, authorized tanker sorties increased from an average of 53 per day to 66 in February.

The increased tanker and bomber missions helped break the siege, and this tanker rate remained authorized afterwards. However, on 1 April 1968, before the daily rate could achieve that authorized level, President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered a halt to all bombing north of 19 degrees. On Nov. 1, 1968, he further stopped all bombing of North Vietnam and the demilitarized zone.

Although combat operations over North Vietnam were suspended after November, tankers -- although nowhere near the numbers of 1968 -- continued to support operations in South Vietnam and Cambodia during the "Vietnamization" of the conflict.

By the end of 1971, South Vietnamese ground forces had largely taken over the ground war, but U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy aircraft continued to provide tactical support. When intelligence reported a likely increase in hostilities in early 1972, the United States sent more aircraft to Southeast Asia. SAC's KC-135s supported the deployment of additional bombers under Operations Bullet Shot I and II and tactical aircraft under Operations Constant Guard I, II and III. As the expected North Vietnamese spring invasion began, SAC also reintroduced large numbers of KC-135s to Thailand and the Philippines to support Operation Linebacker from May to October 1972.

As the offensive faltered, intense negotiations ensued for a permanent ceasefire. In an attempt to show good faith in the negotiations, President Richard M. Nixon again restricted operations over North Vietnam. When negotiations stalemated, Nixon authorized Operation Linebacker II as an intense series of coordinated B-52 and tactical aircraft strikes against strategic military targets in North Vietnam, primarily against the previously off-limits Hanoi-Haiphong area. Throughout this 11-day offensive (Dec. 18 to Dec. 29, 1972), KC-135s enabled the operation of a variety of bombing, strike, fighter and electronic warfare aircraft.

Although a ceasefire agreement was signed within a month after Linebacker II, KC-135s continued to support combat operations in Southeast Asia for another seven months.

The last combat air strike over Cambodia on Aug. 15, 1973, marked the end of the air war in Southeast Asia. KC-135 combat operations lasted 110 months, with the tankers flying 194,687 sorties, transferring approximately 1.4 billion gallons of fuel during 813,878 air refuelings. SAC lost only four KC-135s in Southeast Asia, two during take-offs and two during landings.

In addition to enabling a wide range of operational possibilities in warfare, the efforts of the tanker crews saved an untold number of their fellow Airmen's lives, as well as a large number of aircraft.