Defoliant Operations in South East Asia(SEA)

This article is taken from the USAF booklet "Air Commando, 1950-1975: Twenty-Five Years at the Tip of the Spear" written by USAF TSGT Dale K. Robinson. It is the story of a group of dedicated and brave airmen who flew low and slow to reduce the risks to our soldiers on the ground and to expose the enemy.   

In early November, 1961, Tactical Air Command was notified by HQ USAF to modify six C-123 Provider tactical transports for Project RANCH HAND, the name given herbicide spray operations in South Vietnam. Volunteer crews were solicited from the list of non-selected volunteers for the 4400th Combat Crew Training Squadron ("Jungle Jim") recently activated at Hurlburt Field, Florida.

Ranch Hand's first three aircraft and crew arrived at Tan Son Nhut Air Base near Saigon, South Vietnam, on 7 January 1962, for what was expected to be a 120 day tour. A successful test mission was flown on 10 January, with the first operational missions beginning three days later. The goal of the herbicide missions was to deny the communist Viet Cong the continued safety of their traditional strongholds in Vietnam's thick forests and jungles.

During the early spray missions, and Air Commando C-47 (from the original Farm Gate Detachment) preceded the spray missions by dropping thousands of leaflets, and conducting Vietnamese language voice broadcasts to the villages below. The communications explained to the population what the defoliant flights were, and why they were necessary. Within three months of their arrival the Americans would also be reminded this was no simple "Forest Service" operation.

On 2 February 1962, a Ranch Hand crew became the first Air Force fatalities in Vietnam. Captain Fergus C. Groves II, Captain Robert D. Larson and Staff Sergeant Milo B. Coghill were killed while on a training mission. Although there was no evidence the aircraft was struck by ground fire, Air Commando T-28s were tasked to fly armed escort on future missions. Ranch Hand operations continued unabated throughout the rest of the year.

Between January and June 1963, Ranch Hand was additionally tasked to transport cargo, munitions and personnel throughout South Vietnam. In August, the unit deployed to Thailand on a humanitarian mission at the request of the Thai government. Once there the Ranch Hand C-123s effectively sprayed crops in Thailand with an insecticide developed to combat a plague of locusts.

In December 1963, Ranch Hand began testing the feasibility of night defoliant operations in Vietnam. If night missions proved practical, they would seem to provide greater scheduling flexibility and reduced risk to enemy small arms fire. With one aircraft dispersing flares overhead for illumination, the lower-flying spray plane's runs were declared highly successful on the first night's test.

But the second night's mission was greeted by heavy small arms fire from an obviously alerted Viet Cong. As a result, night defoliant operations in the future were conducted only on a random basis. Whatever their tactics, the Ranch Hand crews found that as their skills increased with experience, so did enemy gunners who quickly grasped the defoliant spray mission flight patterns. By 1964, the Air commandos were being greeted by heavier and more effective ground fire virtually everywhere they flew.

In July, 1964, Ranch Hand was assigned to the 309th Air Commando Squadron, 315th Troop Carrier Group (later redesignated the 315th Air Commando Group). In 1965, the 309th's aircraft were re-designated UC-123s to differentiate them from standard cargo versions of the Provider. In December, 1965, the unit moved from Tan Son Nhut to Bien Hoa airfields (both near Saigon), and their Area of Operations expanded to include parts of Laos for the first time. Increased defoliation requirements created a demand for more aircraft and crews, and in May, 1966, eleven more UC-123s were authorized and scheduled for arrival before the end of the year.

In June, 1966, Project Ranch Hand recorded its first combat loss. Two Providers flying a defoliant mission over Quang Tri Province in South Vietnam's northern sector began taking sporadic hits from enemy ground fire on their runs. On their fifth pass over the target area, one of the twin-engine aircraft took a fatal hit in an engine and crashed. A U.S. Marine Corps helicopter nearby responded almost immediately, rescuing the three crewmen near the burning wreckage. A second aircraft was lost in October; its crew also rescued.

On 15 October, 1966, Ranch Hand became the 12th Air Commando Squadron, in the 315th Air Commando Wing. Three months later, the squadron lost a third aircraft to ground fire, this time over Laos and this time with no survivors. In February, Ranch Hand was ordered for the first time to fly missions over the De-Militarized Zone (DMZ) separating North and South Vietnam. These missions helped uncover infiltration routes from the north and expose stockpiles of supplies hidden in the DMZ. By June, 1967, the number of UC-123s had increased to 20, but in July, a fourth aircraft was downed with the loss of all four aboard.

During 1967 the Ranch Hand squadron typically flew 18 to 27 sorties each day, with three to four aircraft per spray mission. Each aircraft had a 1,000 gallon herbicide tank, feeding to dispersal spray booms mounted under each wing and the tail. Spray missions were flown at 130 knots and as low as possible, leaving a herbicide path more than eighty yards wide and up to ten miles long. Ranch Hand Providers normally carried a crew of three or four in addition to a Vietnamese observer. The Vietnamese was, ostensibly, the aircraft commander as required by the Rules of Engagement.

In January, 1968, Ranch Hand flew 589 sorties before standing down for the traditional Vietnamese Tet holiday. This brief respite ended abruptly on 31 January, when their airbase at Ben Hoa (and every other city in South Vietnam) was attacked by Viet Cong forces in the largest coordinated enemy offensive of the war seen to date. In response the Ranch Hands crew flew 2,866 emergency airlift sorties throughout the country.

Defoliant missions resumed two months later and in May, a fifth Ranch Hand aircraft was downed with all hands lost after encountering heavy fire. Also in May, the first UC-123K arrived. The K-model boosted the -123's twin piston engine power with an additional two, J-85 jet auxiliary engines mounted under the wings; much appreciated insurance as it improved the odds for survivability in the event of single-engine loss.

On 1 August 1968, the 12th Air Commando Squadron became the 12th special Operations Squadron (12 SOS), and in February 1969, all operational Ranch Hand aircraft were moved north from Bien Hoa to Phan Rang in anticipation of another Viet Cong Tet offensive. In spite of increased enemy activity the unit continued to fly herbicide missions without loss.

By April 1969, all Ranch Hand aircraft had been modified to the K-model version. Ground fire was still a problem, however, and in July, new escort tactics were adopted. propeller-driven A-1 Skyraiders would provide flank protection while F-4 jet fighters orbited overhead to attack enemy positions after the spray pass. The new tactics proved successful in reducing the number of hits Ranch Hand aircraft took on when escorted in this fashion.

As 1969 wound down, so did Ranch Hand missions. From an average of 400 sorties per month in 1969, the number of sorties decreased to only 43 in the last quarter of 1970. the 12th SOS was inactivated on 31 July 1970, with the UC-123Ks becoming "A" Flight, 310th Tactical Airlift Squadron. Ranch Hand flew its last mission defoliant mission on 7 January 1971, passing out of existence later that month.

In nine years of defoliant operations, Ranch Hand aircraft and crews had dispensed between 17.7 and 19.4 million gallons of herbicide in Southeast Asia. Just over half, approximately 10.6 to 11.7 million gallons, was the controversial herbicide "Agent Orange."

President Gerald Ford issued Executive Order #11850 on April 8th, 1975, renouncing first use of herbicides in war by the United States, except for control of vegetation on and around the defensive perimeters of U.S. bases. With this order, President Ford ensured that an operation like Project Ranch Hand could never happen again.