Herk Heritage: C-130 Vietnam rescue linked to 19th AMXS Airman

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Kristine M. Gruwell
  • 19th Airlift Wing Public Affairs

The Vietnam War neared its end when North Vietnamese forces destroyed nearly 100 aircraft on the flight line at Tan Son Nhut Air Base, Vietnam, on April 29, 1975. Only one flyable aircraft remained: A C-130A Hercules with the tail number 56-0518.

Refusing to let the last aircraft be destroyed, Maj. Phuong, a South Vietnamese instructor pilot, directed his crew to ready the aircraft and evacuate as many people as possible. Over 450 panicked refugees hurried through a sea of flame and smoke ridden planes clinging to their last chance at freedom as they boarded the plane.

This was the last C-130 to fly out of Vietnam, which is now proudly displayed in front of the main gate at Little Rock Air Force Base, Arkansas.

Among those 450 passengers on-board was seven-year-old Tammy Ha, the mother of U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Brandon Ong, 19th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron guidance and control apprentice. Ha managed to escape the Vietnam War with six of her siblings and mother.

Despite the fact that this happened 44 years ago, Ha still remembers the night her family was rescued by the C-130 Hercules.

“I will never forget how my dad carried me on the bus and ran after the bus once it left,” said Ha. “The plane was very crowded and all our belongings had to be offloaded due to weight. I remember the precious dolls my dad gave me being thrown out the ramp.”

Along with losing their belongings, her 13-person family had to be separated. Ong’s grandmother had to make a difficult decision on who to take with her. She would end up taking seven of her children on the C-130, and her husband stayed with the remaining four children in Vietnam.

“The loadmasters said only a certain number of people could come on the plane and the rest would go the next day, but little did they know the next day was the Fall of Saigon,” Ong said. “Since the aircraft was filled to the max, they had to take out the seats and sit on the floor.”

Ong’s grandmother, mother, aunts and uncles sat on the metal floor listening to the loud rumble of the C-130 as it took off, not knowing when they would see the rest of their family.

Ong’s family eventually settled in Houston, Texas, where in 1985 the whole family was finally reunited.

After learning about how his mother came to the United States, Ong became very interested in the Air Force and airplanes.

“When my mom told me she flew out of Vietnam in an Air Force plane and the history and story behind it — I got really interested in planes,” Ong said. “I’ve always loved history, so familiarizing myself with my family background really meant a lot. When my mom said a C-130 was the aircraft she flew out of Vietnam on, I knew that was the plane I wanted to work on.”

Ong enlisted in the Air Force as a Mobility Air Forces integrated instrument and flight control systems specialist and says he was lucky enough to get an assignment to Little Rock AFB and work on C-130J Super Hercules aircraft.

“Finding out that the plane in front of the base was the one that saved my mom means a lot,” Ong said. “It’s fate that it’s here and I am working on the same aircraft. This was an opportunity for me to give back to the United States. Without them and the C-130, I probably wouldn’t be here.”