An Eventful Trip Around South Vietnam
From an interview with Aircraft Engineer, Corporal Colin Creighton, No. 41 Squadron, RNZAF
The New Zealand Government was a reluctant participant in the Vietnam War, and it chose not to commit its air combat squadrons to the conflict. Instead, individual RNZAF pilots were seconded to other air forces. Sixteen helicopter pilots served with the Royal Australian Air Force in South Vietnam and flew troops, supply and gunship missions in support of ground troops. Fourteen fixed-wing aircraft pilots served with the United States Air Force as forward air controllers. RNZAF personnel also contributed to a Combined Services Medical Team.
The RNZAF contributed No. 40 Squadron to airlift NZ troops into South Vietnam on Hercules transporters, and No.41 Squadron flying Bristol Freighters on re-supply missions from Singapore to New Zealand military units and medical teams in South Vietnam. [i]
41 Squadron flights to support the medical team at Qui Nhon and the New Zealand Embassy in Saigon continued after the withdrawal of New Zealand military forces in 1971. At the end of March 1975, a Bristol Freighter was sent from Singapore to Qui Nhon to airlift out the five-member volunteer medical team. The last No. 41 Squadron flight out of the country departed on 21 April carrying 38 embassy staff and refugees.[ii]
Mainlander Colin Creighton, was an aircraft engineer corporal based out of Singapore with No. 41 Squadron RNZAF from 1971 to 1973:
“From Singapore, we covered the entire Southeast Asian Basin looking after all the New Zealand interests in the area, including Vietnam. I was up there from 1971 until halfway through 1973 when I returned to New Zealand. The squadron stayed up there until 1978 before it came home, it’d been up there for a little over 30 years non-stop.”
In 1971 41 Squadron transported five RNZAF helicopter pilots from Hobsonville to fly in Singapore to join the rotary-wing flight of No. 41 Transport Squadron. Three RNZAF Iroquois helicopters were also sent to Singapore in broken-down form by Hercules on September 25th and 26th. Colin was one of the ground crew who travelled with the pilots.[iii]
“Even back then Bristols were big ugly old things. Most of the helicopters could fly faster than we could. But they would get in and out of short strips and cart a five-tonne load, which is quite remarkable for their size and considering that they were built in 1945. They even took part in the Berlin airlift in the late 1940s. They are a well-proven old aircraft.
“I also knew the Iroquois very well, we had those on strength in Singapore. I spent a lot of time in the Malay jungle working with the helicopters up there on exercises, living in tents or in the jungle while you were fixing it.”
One of Colin’s ex RNZAF comrades, who served in Electrical/Avionics from January ‘67 to April ’87, recalled how one of his first jobs after completing his electrical/mechanics course in late 1968 was to “empty the bogger” of a Bristol after a Singapore to Whenuapai flight, “not a nice job”. “However, much more fun leaving one behind in Bangkok with Fuzz Freeman, Colin Creighton and Keith Reilly for a single man’s tour of Thailand in 1973.”[iv]
“40,000 Rivets Flying in Formation”
A typical 41 Squadron fortnightly resupply run was flight No. 5912 on 4th December 1972. The Bristol was loaded up at Tengah airbase in Singapore with supplies and crew, including two flight officers, a mechanical/aviation electronics operator, five service crew including one Flight Sergeant, two Corporals – one of which was Colin Creighton – and two ‘baggies’ or General Service Hands. The first stop was Butterworth in Malaya, then on to Saigon before they headed north to Qui Nhơn where the New Zealand Surgical Team was based. They returned to Saigon via the Republic of Vietnam Air Force (RVNAF) base at Nha Trang, then headed south to Cần Thơ where there was the US and ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) base. Their last leg was back over the South China Sea to Butterworth and finally back to base at Tengah. It was a three-day round trip. [v]
“I remember the Freighter as difficult aircraft to fly well … lacking pressurization, air conditioning, weather radar, retractable undercarriage or state of the art avionics. We cruised at 135 knots TAS, below 10,000 feet, sweating like pigs on the ground and freezing at cruise altitude.” wrote Flt Lt Peter Tremayne, who completed 28 flights with 41 Sqn RNZAF into or through Vietnam from 1965–1968 and 1975, and seven flights into Vietnam with 40 Sqn RNZAF from 1969–1971. The Bristol was often referred to as “40,000 rivets flying in formation”.
An Eventful Trip Around the Regions
“They [the Bristol] had three crew, and when we went on an away trip from Singapore we carried a staff of four servicing crew as well. This is the way I got thrown in the deep end several times. Being a single man, no married man wanted to go up to Vietnam, they would say “you’re single, you can go” and well I didn’t mind. I was young and silly in those days. I was 21 coming up 22 when I went to Singapore, and I was coming up 24 when I came home. I did another six months at Wigram, and then I got out of the Air Force.
“Generally, we’d leave out of Singapore. First, we would head to Malaya to stop off at a couple of army and airforce bases there. From there we’d head on to Bangkok where we dropped stuff off at the New Zealand embassy. Then occasionally we’d fly right up to Chiang Mai. From there we’d fly across the country, down to the base of Thailand again, to the area where the Bridge over the River Kwai film was set.
“We left Thailand and flew to overnight outside Phnom Penh in Cambodia, then fly the short hop into Saigon, landing there at about three in the afternoon. After we got everything sorted out, we went into town and were dropped off at our hotel by an army driver. The hotel was almost completely booked out by American troops on R&R, so we had a good night there. We weren’t allowed out of the hotel, but that didn’t stop us going to the local bar down the road. We just didn’t want to get caught by the local cops because they’d shoot on sight as the city was under curfew, so we had to be a bit careful.
“We got picked up in the morning and taken back out to the Saigon airfield [Tan Son Nhut Air Base] where we were dropped off at the big US Navy mess [US Army, Navy, Airforce and Marine corps were stationed there], which held about 300 people having breakfast. Everything was on display, including ice cream and jelly, and it only cost twenty-five cents.
“Six of us sat down to have breakfast when an almighty bang went off behind us. A soldier over the other side of the room jumped up and yelled: “get out of the room, there’s incoming!” Three hundred odd people just disappeared, leaving us Kiwis sitting there thinking “what the hell’s going on?” We thought we’d just finish our breakfasts and as we got stuck in another bang went off. This one was much closer and it made the fried eggs on my plate flip up and land on the table! Well, we thought “OK, what do we do now?” There was no-one else around, so I got up and went and helped myself to more fried egg, sat down and we all finished our breakfast!
“After breakfast we went outside, there was nobody around, so we jumped in the Land Rover and drove around the corner to the passenger terminal where we were to meet the aircrew. From there we could see everything that was going on on the airfield. The rockets started coming in right about then, in groups of three or four, and there were about a hundred during the morning, finishing at 11 am. Just as we would think “thank god, it’s all over,” the next lot started coming in so we had to stay put. All the windows in the passenger terminal were perspex and they were shaking in and out by about 150mm with each big bang.
“When we went outside there were pieces of metal lying around the building. We had to do a good clean around the area, pick up the shrapnel and make sure none was trapped in the aircraft, and there were no holes in it. The shrapnel was still blue with heat when we picked it up. When we finally got out of there, as we taxied out we could still see the smoke from rockets going off in the distance.”
“From Saigon, we went up to near Cam Ranh Bay [Vietnam], which was a big naval base, then inland from that was an American airfield and we landed there. As we taxied in we could see there was an aircraft with a group of Viet Cong prisoners getting ready to be taken out. We went around the corner and parked, and as we were changing over our cargo, a machine gun on the hillside opened up – a big 12.7 mm Chinese or Russian machine gun.
“It was spraying bullets around – it wasn’t personal at that point – and I got the task of sitting on top of our aircraft and shooting back. After about three magazine-fulls the machine gun stopped, a gunship had come in from one side of the hillside and levelled all the trees with its mini Gatling guns. During that time I heard one round go past my ear with a hell of a bang, that’s when you know its getting personal!”
Stuck in the Middle – the Risk of Friendly Fire
“We very hastily got out of there and flew back to Saigon, with just one more stop to go. We changed over freight and passengers and heading back down south. We flew at about 11,000 feet over the ground, so we’re out of the way of machine gunfire. As we were heading south, I looked up through the observation dome in the back, and I could see three contrails about 30,000 feet up. I said to the pilot over the intercom “be aware that we’re flying under a B-52 flight.” And he said, “don’t look down then will you.” Which I did and here are three big long, thick strips of jungle erupting underneath us. Each B52 aircraft was carrying 120 – 500 pounders, they’re big bombs, One of those would level about six houses and we went diagonally straight through the middle of it. We didn’t see them until they’d blow up underneath us, but we could feel the impulse of them as we flew over top!”
The Yanks weren’t too Impressed
“We got down to our last point, which was just a dirt landing strip. As we came in over the end of the runway, there was an almighty bang from under the freighter as we went over the fence line. We taxied in, I jumped out, and everybody came out and went looking around the aircraft expecting to see a big hole in it, but there was nothing. However, underneath the plane there were four aerials with a big lead between them, one had come adrift and slapped down under the belly of the aircraft. The Americans had put a pole up, with what looked like a big soccer ball on top, like a homing beacon to guide aircraft onto the runway. They’d put it up the day before, we took it off the next day, the Yanks weren’t too impressed!”
The Fall of Saigon – NZ Moves out
At the beginning of April 1975, New Zealand Embassy officials cabled Wellington and reported that the situation in Saigon was deteriorating rapidly. Norman Farrell, the New Zealand Ambassador, recommended the immediate evacuation of non-official New Zealand citizens. The civilian medical team had already been evacuated from Qui Nhon at the end of March.
Over the next two weeks the Singapore-based 41 Squadron RNZAF, which sent a detachment to Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut airport, made a series of flights to deliver humanitarian aid and evacuate New Zealand citizens and various South Vietnamese nationals granted ‘unofficial’ refugee status. Some of these refugees, dependents of New Zealanders living and working in South Vietnam, were evacuated without the approval of their government. The last of these flights, on 21 April 1975, carried Ambassador Farrell and most of the remaining staff of the New Zealand Embassy. [vi]
“The enemy was coming in over one side of the airfield as our aircraft got out the other side. They had the New Zealand High Commissioner and his staff and equipment onboard these two aircraft, and they just got out of there by the skin of their teeth. This was our New Zealand High Commission that had been based in Saigon. These planes were loaded up with his staff, all their official documents and secret gear, some of their Vietnamese staff and anything else they needed to rescue. They were on the two aircraft with their aircrew and servicing crew on board. They operated out of there for about a week before that final day carting stuff out. But the very last flight out was the High Commissioner and his staff, and they were just getting out of there by the skin of their teeth. The old aircraft [Bristol Freighter] stood proud in the time it was up there.”