In this Dakota Hunter Blog, I describe how Vietnam Veteran Douglas C-47’s Gooney Birds / Dakota’s were dumped in the Andaman Sea, Phuket, Thailand. I was there and it was all done with good intentions, but the outcome was not as anticipated. They finally all disappeared with a mysterious flight into the spooky abyss of the Indian Ocean. Read and share this most fascinating report. (Feature photo depicts the author Hans Wiesman, sitting on the wing of one of the ex-Vietnam C-47’s that was selected for the “ditching”). Click on the photos for enlargement and more details.
Photo above shows a pair of Douglas C-47′s, that after WWII made their second Tour of Duty in the Korean Conflict (1950-1953). From there, they were considered too old to be kept in US Operational Service but too good to be trashed, so they were kept in storage, supplied to the Air National Guards, or to Air America (flying CIA’s undercover Black Operations) in SE Asia, Vietnam, Burma, and China. But also to Government entities that included the USAF, US Army, and for the French Military as they met serious resistance in Vietnam from the communist Viet Minh, starting their war of independence in Sept. 1945.
Essentially, the C-47 was the Odd-Job aircraft that could land on any remote jungle or mountain strip and conduct military operations for the US Government. That under the banner of the civilian air carrier Air America, in areas where the US armed forces could not go due to treaty restraints. Measured in terms of the number of aircraft owned or available, Air America was “the largest airline in the world” at its peak (source Wikipedia). Basically, it is here that the career of the C-47 Gooney Bird started in the Vietnam War, long before the official US Military engagement in that conflict started. A number of them were converted as EC-47’s (see photo above) and supplied with equipment for Electronic Countermeasures. Their mission was to locate the Viet Cong through a process of triangulation or through airborne radio direction finding fixes (ARDF). They received that typical Vietnam Camo color scheme that was also in use for the very lethal AC-47 Spooky Gunship (aka Puff the Magic Dragon). Click here for my earlier blog about the Spooky AC-47 Gunships in Vietnam
Photo above taken in 1966, the 64th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron Convair F-102A-75-CO Delta Dagger 56-1333 landing at Da Nang AB. Note the landing of a Fairchild C-123 Provider at left (that type was used for the air spraying of Agent Orange) and Lockheed Super Constellations in the far backdrop at right.
Yokohama, August 1965. I had just finished a 7-year teenybopper time on a Jesuit College in Holland and was about to fly out to my parents, at that moment living in Japan. I anticipated a long and eventful Summer Holidays and had a magic start with my first intercontinental Jetliner flight. I flew in a KLM DC-8 to Tokyo that went via the Alaska route with a stopover in Anchorage. In full midsummer sunlight flying almost over the North Pole, what a delight was that. Japan was like a beehive, so insanely packed with people and activities. It really impressed me how the younger people of my age (I was 18) were strongly oriented to the West / USA. In every shop, there was pop music with 2 big Smash Hits that I remember so well. The Rolling Stones with “Satisfaction” and a protest song from Barry McGuire, “Eve of Destruction”.
The Vietnam War was raging: it was the first worldwide “live” televised clash between Communist USSR/ China and the Free Word. In awe, I followed the TV reports and footage, with the images of USAF, Marines and US Navy operations from their AFB’s / Carriers while bombing North Vietnam. It came all on screen in Full Color, like a sort of a weird fantasy War Movie, but it was a shocking reality for all those families that lost their dad, son or relatives out there!
Photo above shows U.S. Marine Corps McDonnell F-4B Phantom II fighters of fighter-bomber squadrons VMFA-115 and VMFA-323 being refueled at Da Nang, South Vietnam, in January 1966. (Courtesy of this photo and photo above Wikipedia.org)
It was a year after the Tonkin Incident, which heralded the escalation of that conflict into a full flared war. The song text of the Eve of Destruction was very ambiguous to me; “And don’t you understand What I’m tryin’ to say And can’t you feel the fears That I’m feelin’ today?”. I was absolutely no fan of “Hanoi Jane” Fonda, but for whatever reason, the lyrics of that song are still printed in my memory, even some 60 years later, along with all those TV impressions of that almost real-time reported footage of the first “Hi-Tech” war. Vietnam had drawn my attention already since 1954, the year of the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in northeastern Vietnam. That defeat meant the end of French Colonial Rule in SE Asia and would have far-reaching consequences, sucking the USA in.
With my Dad as an expat Shell oil-exploring engineer, we lived in the early 1950’s in a remote jungle settlement in Borneo when the news of that French humiliation trickled in one day. Dad had the fear that the “Commie Conspiracy for World Domination” would spread out soon to Indonesia. If that scenario would ever happen, we’d be trapped in our Jungle “prison”, such was the prevailing opinion. As young kids, we heard about the harrowing stories of what Commies did with Capitalists. Paranoia had slipped in maybe, but it was close to what we hear now from ISIS. We had only one way out: the DC-3/ Dakota that had flown us in, she could pick us up in case of an emergency call. In a sort of stand-by mode that came up in the naive mind of a 7-year old boy, the Dak got the status of our Life Line. With that, she became my superior Savior and Hero for a spectacular Escape from Hell in due time.
Luckily, it didn’t happen that way, but the passion for that DC-3/ Dakota would stay with me forever and one day in 2008, I got a telephone call from Thailand. The stranger had heard of my name via my friend Bart Nopper, who had recommended me as being “The Dakota Hunter”. The man made me a proposal to join him in a special operation that would involve the salvaging of 5 ex-Vietnam C-47’s and 7 Sikorsky H-34 / CH-34 Choctaw Helicopters. As I heard the name C-47/ Dakota, my brains flipped instantly, and a day later I was booked on a plane. I was on my way to Thailand, a visit that brought me in contact with some weird souvenirs of the past. It soon turned out that I had not entered a dream but a nightmare with a title: The Eve of Destruction.
Photo above: U.S. Air Force Lockheed F-104C Starfighters of the 475th Tactical Fighter Squadron at Da Nang Air Base, South Vietnam, 1965. The F-104 always had a special place in my heart, even with all its shortcomings (In Europe, many fatal accidents with the type gave her the bizarre nickname Widowmaker). Note with the photo at right: Back in Japan in 1985, I bought a Gentex F-104 pilot helmet that came straight from the Vietnam surplus stock. I still wear that same helmet (now painted black, to avoid brain boiling. lol) with pride on my long Harley Davidson trips in Europe, USA, and Canada. And yes, some ex-USAF jet pilots recognized that legendary helmet and gave me thumbs-up during my ride outs to Sturgis or Vancouver Island. Some started asking me where I got that helmet from. It is a wonderful world, for sure, it came from the scene that you see in the left side photo from Danang AB!
Vietnam must have housed in 12 years of hostilities between 1964 and 1975 thousands of US-owned aircraft. God knows whatever happened to all of them during and after that conflict. We know that by the end in 1974-1975, loads of aircraft were transferred to the Philippines and to Thailand. The final loss of South Vietnam to the Communist North Vietnamese Army gave rise to the idea that this conquest was only part of a Domino strategy, in which the united Communist nations were pressing on to their next targets, Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines, and Thailand. The dominance of the whole SE Asian region was at stake in the eyes of many a Western politician and the US Military were alert to stop this expansion by all means. In that light, hundreds of the C-47’s that had been engaged (most in camo battle dress colors) in Vietnam, were now flown over to Thailand (and Clark AFB/ Philippines). The 3 -Wars Veterans came over for their last trick, the defense of the Thai Kingdom against the (guerilla) hordes of the new Djengis Khan from the North, China.
Photo above: Five C-47 aircraft and seven helicopters in the backdrop were prepared for the making of an artificial reef, in order to attract scuba divers to this submerged Aviation Museum of ex-Vietnam war planes. The concrete frames were attached on the underside for better sinking and final anchoring to the sea bottom. Very unfortunately, exactly here is the snag that completely screwed their plan to conserve the airplanes as an underwater monument.
An estimated 60 Douglas C-47’s were transferred, including the EC-47 Electronic Countermeasures aircraft and the awesome Spooky AC-47 Gunships. They were to be incorporated in the Royal Thai Air Force (RTAF) as part of their defense system against Communist insurgents and infiltrating guerrillas. From 1975 to 1995, a large fleet operated from the Lopburi AFB and from U-Tapao, the largest airfield in SE Asia from where the heavy US Bombers B-52’s and the four-engine Boeing KC-135 Stratotankers took to the air for the refueling of aircraft just before and after they hit North Vietnam.(Source Wikipedia).What few people know is that during the Vietnam War, about 80% of all USAF air strikes over North Vietnam were originated from those air bases in Thailand. At its peak in 1969, more US airmen were serving in Thailand than were serving in South Vietnam!
By the mid-1990’s, most of the “Old Soldier” C-47’s were to be phased out from RTAF service and were stored, stripped or simply abandoned as being old scrap with no more future. Not for conservation, as all of these planes were “on loan” as part of a US Miltary Aid Program (MAP). Officially, they still had a protected status as US Military property, strictly forbidden for trading or export. But in 2007, something very special happened in that secluded Thai Military world. It would shake their society and was possibly only one of the factors that brought the country to the brink of disaster when the riots broke out in November 2008. And that was just in the time that I was there, dealing with the Military over … yes, the purchase of MAP restricted C-47 parts, that were not even their property! I walked right into an intricate labyrinth of military and ex-military officers who had set up a scandalous scam with the collecting of money for an underwater museum that would have 5 ex-Vietnam C-47’s placed on the bottom of the sea, bombastically heralded as the “Dakota Reef Squadron”.
Photo above depicts the first Vietnam Veteran C-47 that goes overboard in the Andaman Sea near Phuket, Thailand for the creation of the Dakota Reef Squadron . A Divers Paradise was planned around the 5 derelict C-47’s and 7 Sikorsky Helicopters. I was called in for the purchase of components to be separated from the derelict airframes before they were all gone into the deep. You can see me there standing on the barge deck at right, throwing flowers as a part of the burial ceremony with the Buddhist priests for this C-47. There were dignitaries, from the local Governor to the High Brass Thai Military, but no US Military on this funeral, while it was their property that went down here!
Photo above: the ex-Military organizers of this sinking party promoted the plan as being “Good for the Sea, the Reef, and scuba diving Tourism”. But they had a hidden agenda, which promoted primarily their own income. I was called in to buy the wingtips and give consultancy for the proper and rapid sinking of such floating body as an empty aircraft hull with wings. Not as easy as it appears, we perforated the wings with holes in order to let water in and trapped air out. If not done in balance, the aircraft can make a sudden roll with devasting effects on the airframe and hoist. You see me standing on the wing, doing a final inspection of the even inflow of water on both sides of the aircraft. This was the last picture ever made of this Old Soldier, that had served the Free World in three wars with unparalleled reliability, dedication, and longevity. Bravo, she would have deserved a better delegation at this funeral.
But the greatest surprise came at the very end of this tale. You can read in my book “The Dakota Hunter” the full details of the scam, but also how the “aquarium captured” C-47’s refused to accept their final graveyard. They opted for their own secret destination: Old Soldiers never die and believe it or not, in a final surprise act, they have flown out from this museum/ divers attraction, gone forever into the abyss of the Indian Ocean.
You want to know what happened out there? Interested in more details and more photos? And how finally the Pentagon came after me, accusing me of illicit trading in MAP related aircraft parts!! This is no BS, but it turned all OK, and the political turmoil cleaned the air. I returned empty-handed but with a story to tell. My book has 320 pages with this and 10 more identical stories that I experienced in 20 years “in search of the Legendary DC-3, at the last frontiers”, fully illustrated with 250 photos. You´ll be stunned to read that a 70-year-old aircraft can still evoke such hefty hassles and a “harrowing of Hell”.
In the book The Dakota Hunter, you will read most intriguing and engagingly written stories about the last and lost Dakotas but also Catalinas, Connie’s, Curtiss Commandos and DC -4/6/7’s of this world, crashed, abandoned or still flying. Come follow me to Alaska, the Caribbean, Venezuela, Honduras, Brazil, Madagascar, Africa, Thailand, Venezuela, The Yukon, Bolivia and Colombia, the Amazon region where I still found the Dakota operational in flocks.
My book The Dakota Hunter can be ordered straight away, only a mouse click away if you go to this Amazon link for ordering and reading reviews of my book. Or if you like, go to my webshop where you can order my book in signed version or see my Publisher Casemate site at The Dakota Hunter book content/ ordering.
For more info, a sneak preview, reviews and chapters of the book, come to my website dc3dakotahunter.com, where you can also read my previous blog posts.
If you like this blog post, please share with friends and give it a like by subscribing to my Blog posts. If you have any remarks, photos, facts about the post-war career of the Dakota/ DC-3/ C-47 that can add positively to this report, please send them with your email to me via my website contact. I welcome your ideas, photos, and submissions for new fascinating subjects (also of other vintage aircraft) to be used in my future blogs about war history and vintage aviation. Stay tuned for a very exciting new C-47 related product that will come for sale in a Limited Series. You can soon own your own authentic piece of this War Bird!
Cheers, Hans Wiesman/ The Dakota Hunter.
PS. I just received from England, a most enjoyable review. Mt John Houghton from London wrote me that he bought all the existing DC-3 books available in the market about its production, history and full of figures. But The Dakota Hunter is: “… the only book I have read that covers the subject in an informal manner whilst also telling stories of your travels, helped a lot by Julie (Alaska) and Daniela (Bolivia). Also the technical bits about onboard engine fires and the use of full power during takeoffs. …Thanks for writing a very interesting and knowledgeable book on the legendary DC-3, Best wishes, Yours sincerely”.
The book’s Jacket is shown below. Click on the picture for enlargement and all details. Click here to enter my website dc3dakotahunter.com