Thai base used in tsunami aid mission was Vietnam-era R&R stop
January 27, 2005
UTAPAO, Thailand — The route in from the gate to the Royal Thai Navy Air Base at Utapao winds past shabby three-story concrete barracks that once housed U.S. troops preparing for missions over Vietnam.
The 11,500-foot runway, now used by planes carrying life-saving supplies to tsunami-battered nations, once held aircraft such as B-52 Stratofortresses, KC-135 Stratotankers and even several C-130 Herculeses now posted to Yokota Air Base, Japan.
The U.S. military’s relationship with the base and its Thai hosts dates back four decades, to when it was a strategic forward-operating base and one-time home to thousands of U.S. troops during the Vietnam War.
The base, about 100 miles south of Bangkok, is proving its value again, this time as the headquarters for the massive U.S. military relief mission to South Asia.
Today, planes from the United States and Japan stop at Utapao before making their way to disaster areas in the region.
Three of the eight C-130s working out of Utapao now have traveled the runway before.
“[Some] of the ones we have over there now [were] here in the mid-1970s (during Vietnam),” said Dr. Robert B. Sligh, Air Forces Forward historian and the 374th Airlift Wing historian at Yokota.
“There’s some great historic connections here,” added Col. Mark Schissler, commander of Air Forces Forward and the 374th Airlift Wing at Yokota.
“The reason I know that is because some of my friends from my very early days in the Air Force were here during Vietnam. So I was pretty surprised to find out that I was coming back to command the base that they operated out of during Vietnam.”
When Schissler first learned to fly C-130s, his instructors at Little Rock Air Force Base, Ark., told him stories about their days in the region and at Utapao.
“We enjoyed it,” said retired Lt. Col. Ron Crump, Schissler’s former navigator instructor, who teaches C-130 navigation at Little Rock today. “It was a different pace than Vietnam. Guys looked forward to it.”
On their off time, some Vietnam fighters visited nearby Pattaya Beach, the same place popular with servicemembers today.
“The Utapao trip was always one of the most sought-after trips,” said retired Air Force Lt. Col. Mike Long, a pilot instructor at Little Rock and another of Schissler’s former instructors. “Good quality of living. It was just a really friendly place.”
C-130 pilots during the war would come to the base for two or three weeks before returning to bases in Japan and Taiwan.
Long said he flew to the base in two of the three Yokota-based C-130s now working in Utapao.
“It’s kind of amazing that some of the same aircraft are back over there,” he said.
Back then, the aircraft were just a few years old.
“They were literally getting shot up in Vietnam,” Schissler said. “They were big magnets for fire. They took a lot of hits.”
“Sometimes you wouldn’t even know you’d been shot until you got back and saw the holes,” Crump said.
The C-130s kept the ground fight going, carrying in rations, bullets and mail. Crump recalls carrying performers with Bob Hope’s show around the region.
Utapao and Pattaya were a welcome break for all servicemembers who flew missions to or served in Vietnam. For many they were places to escape from the rigors of war.
“The Vietnam War saw the start of Pattaya’s international reputation, for the fledgling resort was used as an official R&R center for U.S. forces,” reads The Pattaya Guide, a guidebook for the modern town. “They were flown into Utapao Airport which was built for American use at the time.”
It’s believed 7,000 U.S. servicemembers once were stationed at Utapao, Sligh said.
The U.S. military built the runway in the mid-1960s, and many of the buildings it constructed — including a chapel, barracks and clubs — still stand on the base.
The Department of Defense continues to make improvements. U.S. dollars paid for a new hangar and the small compound currently serving as the Operation Unified Assistance command post.
The compound is called “Camp Red Horse” in honor of the U.S. Air Force Red Horse group of engineers, Sligh said.
Since the end of the Vietnam War, the base been among those used for the regional exercise Cobra Gold.
According to globalsecurity.org, the base has served as a stop for warplanes en route to Afghanistan and Iraq for operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom.
The base also has strategic value for its proximity to the rest of Southeast Asia.
But it’s the hosts who make it an important hub, both today and in the past, Sligh said.
“We have a good working relationship with the Thais,” he said.