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The 43rd and Operation New Life

  • Published
  • By Dan Knickrehm
  • 43rd Airlift Wing, Public Affairs
While recently on a temporary duty assignment to Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala., I discovered an interesting bit of 43rd Airlift Wing history in the archives of the Air Force Historical Research Agency. Imbedded in a wing history from 1975 was a 64-page after action report on the Wing's involvement in Operation New Life, the support and airlift of evacuees from Vietnam just before the fall of Saigon.

The report tells of many heroic actions and selfless service that I have come to recognize in the 43rd AW and at Pope.

By April 22, 1975, with the political situation deteriorated in Saigon, and with the advance of the North Vietnamese Army southward, a "hurried and intensive airlift operation" was ordered. From April 23 to August 19, 1975 the 43rd Strategic Wing (it was then a bomber wing under Strategic Airlift Command) took part in an "unprecedented and unplanned" operation that resulted in thousands of evacuees being cared for and transported in and out of Andersen, AFB, Guam. With only 18 hours advance notice, the 43rd AW handled direct support while the US Navy had overall responsibility for the operation in the Pacific.
There had been basic plans laid out previously, indicating that both the US Navy and Air Force could house and support up to 10,000 evacuees with the majority being cared for on the Navy installation. This number would be vastly exceeded during the course of the 4-month operation.

With America's part in the war in Vietnam over, there were unused facilities on Andersen that the 43rd AW employed. The 43rd Civil Engineer Squadron re-opened and renovated an area called "Tin City." Tin City was a barracks area used for storage. Preparations for the expected influx of evacuees meant that members of the 43rd CES invested an extra 21,000 man-hours to get these buildings back in shape. Efforts included over 600 plumbing repairs. Engineers from the 43rd were also instrumental in reopening a dining facility capable of feeding up to 5,000 people. The CES worked to the last minute literally leaving the buildings when evacuees were entering to occupy them.

While preparations were in full force the arrival of people from war-torn Vietnam meant an increase in activity far beyond anything members of the 43rd AW expected. Each evacuee was screened by qualified medical personnel. People with contagious diseases were quarantined. The seriously ill were routed to one of two field hospitals constructed for the evacuees. Attention was given to exterminating flies, mosquitoes and other disease carriers to reduce the potential for serious outbreaks in the evacuee population. As a result of medical efforts, no serious threats occurred of an epidemic during the entire operation.

The personnel office devised a simple data form for evacuees to fill out, sometimes with the assistance of translators. This information was then given to data processing personnel who transferred the data on to key punch cards for input on the base computer. There was one computer for the entire base. The Navy also used the same form and fed their evacuee information into the same computer. This information was used throughout the operation, including during relocation to US refugee camps.

By the second day it became obvious that the 43rd AW was heading into uncharted territory. Tin City, which was originally intended to handle only 2,900 of the 10,000 total evacuees estimated for Guam, found its numbers increased to 4,400. To make matters worse, it was peak tourist season on Guam and local hotels that might have been used to house evacuees were already full. Military Airlift Command helped by bringing in material so the Navy could construct a tent city on a nearby abandoned air strip near Orote Point, Guam.

Aircraft maintenance personnel had to take care of their own B-52s and aircraft bringing evacuees into Andersen as well as maintain aircraft taking refugees to the US. Fuel specialists distributed 25 million gallons of fuel to non-SAC aircraft and 11 million more gallons to SAC aircraft.

Transportation specialists, moving people from one area to another carried a total of 315,000 passengers for a total distance of 157,000 miles with only minor vehicle damage from accidents and no personnel injuries. Vehicle maintenance Airmen supported this effort with a 98 percent in commission rate.

Thousands of personal bags were brought into the base. Each one was inspected and, while many people were separated from their baggage in the chaos of transportation and lodging efforts, by the end of the operation there was only a handful of unclaimed bags left in the terminal.

April 30, 1975, Saigon finally fell to the North Vietnamese army and the air evacuation of refugees stopped. Even so, there were many refugees in boats that continued to flow into Guam. Over 44,000 evacuees arrived in this manner, and all of them were eventually airlifted out of Andersen.

Chaplains, family service workers and Red Cross volunteers helped "feed the body and soul" of refugees. Their efforts reunited countless separated families and soothed feelings of fear and uncertainty. Chaplains offered Catholic, Protestant and Buddhist services in Tin City and elsewhere.

The 43rd Security Forces Squadron faced numerous situations while dealing with the influx of people. Some issues were the potential for infiltration by Communist agents, immigrations and customs regulations, including anti-hijacking procedures, black marketing, prostitution, profiteering, theft and vandalism in housing areas abandoned while families volunteered with the efforts. They also performed customs inspections and aircraft inspections for contraband. Security Forces Members reduced the guards stationed every 50 feet around the perimeter and replace the barb-wire fencing around Tin City with a nylon rope security cordon.

Evacuees swarmed onto the island. While the vast majority of them descended on the Navy base, practically every one of the evacuees was processed through and flown out of Andersen. There were as many as 3,700 evacuees processed and airlifted in a day. The majority of them were flown to camps in the U.S., including Eglin AFB Fla., Camp Pendleton Calif., Camp Chafee Ark., and Indiantown Gap Camp in Pa. As word of the locations made its way down into the ranks of the refugees, many ardently expressed their preference to go to Florida and California. At times it was difficult to convince them
to go to the other locations.

By May 10, 1975, an interagency task force took over the major portions of the operation. All operations were moved to Tin City, and augmentees from the states were brought in to replace the beleaguered 43rd AW. Soon, all but about 90 Andersen personnel returned to normal duty.

Toward the end of June, leadership became concerned about the welfare of evacuees in the event of a typhoon. With typhoon season just around the corner, the 43rd AW was directed to surge operations to evacuate all but 10,000 refugees from the island by June 24, 1975. Since 10,000 was the number of people who could be reasonably protected from storms, this meant a significant increase in efforts. Even while this surge was going on morale problems increased.

Numerous refugees had been sent to Wake Island and had become separated from families. They became upset that they had not yet been reunited. In an effort to assist these people they were flown from Wake Island to Guam prior to being sent to the US. In some cases this meant that people would get off one plane, get processed in short order and proceed directly to another plane to fly to America. In one case a flight was literally held over to ensure a family was reunited prior to leaving Andersen.

The people of the 43rd AW, with "little warning, no specific operations plans or directives," improvised and, through trial and error, accomplished an amazing feat. During the course of Operation New Life, Andersen experienced an influx of 39,141 refugees. This equates, roughly, to the entire population of Goldsboro North Carolina. The 43rd also airlifted 109,805 refugees to the US and elsewhere.

It is amazing the think that more than 30 years ago the men and women of the 43rd AW and their families, who volunteered numerous hours in the effort, were able to take in a small city, care for them, house them and feed them. They then turned around and airlifted more than 100,000 people across the Pacific Ocean to safety and comfort. We have quite a legacy to live up to!

This article may be a bit long, but I wanted to include as many of the facets of the effort as I could. The distillation process to reduce the information in the report to a much shorter version will undoubtedly leave out significant events and actions. If interested in viewing the entire report, readers should feel free to visit the Wing Historian's office.