(p.357) Appendix E “…Execute EAGLE PULL”
(p.357) Appendix E “…Execute EAGLE PULL”
Author’s Note: U.S. Air Force evacuation and tactical aircraft in Thailand were on alert 11 April anticipating the command to execute EAGLE PULL, Noncombatant Emergency and Evacuation Plan for the Khmer Republic. Amphibious Ready Group Alpha (ARG ALPHA), with her flagship, the USS Okinawa, was on station just off the coast of Cambodia. ARG ALPHA, with Marine forces and helicopters of the 31st Marine Amphibious Unit, had been in position since 27 February when the alert status was increased for the possible evacuation operation.
It was reported that about 780 evacuees might be expected. The USS Hancock, with Marines helicopters placed upon her deck in Hawaii steamed at maximum sustained speed to take her position with ARG ALPHA. She arrived at 1800 hours on the 11th.
Conditions had eroded in the Khmer to such a point that options in the EAGLE PULL plan to utilize fixed wing aircraft and Phnom Penh’s Pochentong Airport were impractical. The Khmer Rouge had moved to within three miles of the airfield and were pounding it daily with about 40 rounds of 107 mm rockets and 105 mm artillery shells. Several Khmer nationals working at Pochentong with the American Airlift of supplies had been killed or injured by exploding rockets and artillery, and a few fires had been started. While resupplying Phnom Penh, no U.S. casualties or major damage to U.S. aircraft had occurred.
The Communist insurgents had strengthened their position around the capital city and appeared to be preparing for an all-out drive. A commercial C-47 had been hit by enemy fire during takeoff this day (11 April). It crashed while attempting to return for an emergency landing at Pochentong, killing the crew of five.
When the situation seemed to have become irreversible, U.S. (p.358) Ambassador John Gunther Dean requested through the Department of State that the Department of Defense evacuate the remaining U.S. citizens and designated aliens from Phnom Penh.
USSAG at Nakon Phanom Royal Thai Air Force Base received the “execute message” on 11 April.
The USSAG/7AF Tactical Air Control Center, “Blue Chip,” was a beehive of activity by 0400 hours on 12 April. Noncommissioned officers busily plotted the vast number of sorties that had been fragged for the day on 15 display boards. Weather personnel, after making last minute checks of Phnom Penh wind direction and speed, reported 2/8s cloud cover and an anticipated high temperature of 95 degrees—a perfect day, weatherwise.
Operations specialists carried out communication checks and verified sorties schedules with all involved organizations. All organizations were ready and all systems were operational.
USSAG Assistant Chief of Staff/Operations, Major General Earl J. Archer, Jr., evacuation force director, conducted a brief staff meeting about 0430 hours. “Okay, this is it!,” he told the fifty-man battle staff. “We’ve done our homework and the plan is in being, but we know that we can anticipate questions as the situation develops. I want you to be ready to provide the answers and keep us informed in the cab (Director’s Room). There will be worldwide interest in what transpires today and rightly so.”
USSAG/7AF Commander, Lt. Gen. John J. Burns and USSAG Deputy Commander, Major General Ira A. Hunt, Jr., (USA) arrived at the nerve center of the operation to exercise command and control.
The Airborne Command and Control Center, an Air Force C-130—“Cricket” launched from U-Tapao Royal Thai Navy Base at 0500 hours. EAGLE PULL was in progress!
An RF-4 took off from Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Base at 0514 to make yet one more check of the weather conditions. Another C-130—“King” was airborne at 0609 hours from Korat Royal Thai Air Force Base. “King” would provide helicopter control, as well as search and rescue coordination should anyone have trouble during the events of the day. A variety of tactical aircraft was aloft.
At 0654, a four-man Combat Control Team left Ubon Royal Thai (p.359) Air Force Base aboard HH-53s belonging to the 40th Air Rescue and Recovery Squadron. The team was inserted at Landing Zone Hotel (LZ “H”) at 0850 hours and joined the U.S. Marine Ground Security Force Command Group which was already in position. Colonel Sydney H. Batchelder led the command group. LZ “H” was a soccer field near the American Embassy. The field could hold three helicopters at one time. It was open on three sides and a four-story building bordered the fourth side.
Three minutes later, three CH-53s from the Okinawa landed carrying the first elements of the 360-man Marine ground support force. There was no way to anticipate what resistance the ground support force would face as it moved in to secure and control the LZ. But any temptations that anyone among the thousands who gathered to watch the evacuation might have had gave way when they observed the heavily armed Marines tactically deployed around the LZ.
The Marines helicopters lifted off 13 minutes later carrying the first 123 of the 287 persons to be evacuated. The smaller than expected number of evacuees was accounted for, in that many persons had left the besieged city in recent days aboard contract C-130s returning to Thailand after delivering supplies to Phnom Penh.
A second wave of choppers quickly extracted 68 persons. No passengers were ready to board when the third wave landed and, not wanting to remain on the ground needlessly, they returned to the Okinawa empty.
At 1000 hours, the fourth wave of choppers lowered into LZ “H.” Among the passengers boarding these three aircraft was Ambassador Dean. They were off the ground by 1015.
The ambassador reported that all U.S. personnel who wanted to leave the city had been evacuated and the Marines immediately started extracting the ground support force. The first two waves of choppers removed Marines swiftly and without incident. Then at 1050 hours— exactly two hours after the evacuation had begun—LZ “H” reported incoming rockets.
The 14-member ground support force command group and the embassy evacuation coordinator still remained on the ground, but the last wave of Jolly Greens, HH-53s, had to wait for a pause in the incoming fire to extract them. (p.360)
Then came an unnerving silence in Blue Chip. At 1101, the HF radio frequency—the communications lifeline—went out. Five seconds later it came back on, but those were a long five seconds.
Shortly, “Cricket” reported that the choppers had gotten in and that all Americans had been cleared from the landing zone at 1115 hours.
EAGLE PULL operations on the ground in Cambodia had lasted two hours and 25 minutes. Sighs of relief were audible throughout Blue Chip. Smiles began to spread across the faces of seasoned combat veterans.
No shots had been fired by the Marines, who had encountered only minimum indirect fire, and no tactical airpower, though visibly present, had been required. At 1243 hours, upon learning that all EAGLE PULL aircraft were over friendly territory, General Archer directed all aircraft still airborne to return to their home base. EAGLE PULL had been executed!
—Captain Paul Felty,
USAF USSAG Historian