TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE — Vietnam was just beginning to wind down as President Richard Nixon announced his Vietnamization strategy to bring American military forces home and slowly turn the war over to the Vietnamese.
Operations at Travis were beginning to wind down, too.
By 1975, the number of personnel and cargo moving through Travis was dropping back under a million a year to 338,529 personnel and 82,870 tons of cargo.
Travis not only moved troops to and from Vietnam, it also flew missions carrying Army and Marines to major American cities to be ready to protect government installations from protests against the war in case they got out of hand. This also included transport missions to Chicago, Oakland and Washington in April 1968 after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated; to Chicago in August 1968 during the Democratic National Convention; to Washington in May 1971 during antiwar protests; and to Miami in July 1972 during the Republican National Convention.
By January 1970, the 60th Military Airlift Wing was sharing the base with a new tenant, the Air Force Reserve’s 349th MAW. It was transferred to Travis from its old home at Hamilton Air Force Base in Marin County on July 25, 1969, to become an associate wing, sharing many of the same resources with Travis, from its aircraft to its facilities.
Travis’ first C-5 Galaxy arrived on Oct. 24, 1970, going to the just reactivated 75th Military Airlift Squadron. It was designed to carry anything in the Army’s inventory and, operating with the C-141, gave Military Airlift Command the capability to deliver men and equipment anywhere in the world.
In early 1971, the C-5s started arriving at about one a month until the base ended up with 33 of the large transports. It also spelled the end of Travis’ C-133 Cargomasters, the last of which left the base for Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona in August 1971.
The arrival of the C-5s also meant a construction boom for the base. Between 1969 and 1980, approximately $11 million was spent building hangar and maintenance space to support the large airlifter.
Racial problems rose to the surface of the base in May 1971 when a fistfight between two airmen over a noisy party escalated into a night-long riot in the dormitory area that saw cars smashed, 30 injuries, including a lieutenant colonel beaten when he tried to restore order, and the partial burning of the visiting officer quarters building. At one point, police in riot gear fought an estimated 200 airmen. This ended in 135 arrests and 80 detentions. A curfew was imposed and police from the surrounding communities were brought in to reinforce base security police.
The riot shocked the Air Force into restructuring its programs dealing with equal opportunity, creating a new Social Actions Directorate and ordering mandatory education in race relations to help officers and enlistees improve communications across racial and ethnic barriers.
Travis’ involvement with the nation’s space program continued through this period, flying C-141s and C-130s in support of the Apollo 9, 10, 11, 12, 13 14 and 15 missions. In the case of the Apollo 12 mission, it flew a mobile quarantine facility, with the three astronauts inside, to Texas. In 1975, it was support of the Apollo-Soyuz mission, and later missions supporting the launch of the shuttles Columbia and Challenger.
In October and November 1973, another military crisis, this time the Yon Kippur War when Egypt and Syria attacked Israel, sent Travis aircraft to Lod International Airport as part of Operation Nickel Grass, carrying armor, artillery, munitions, medical supplies and other assistance to the Israeli military.
Most of the missions to Southeast Asia between 1970 and 1973, when the Paris Peace Accords were signed, involved bringing back all those service members from Vietnam.
Part of that was Operation Homecoming, the return of the POWs from North Vietnam, which was planned by the 22nd Air Force as a massive aeromedical evacuation from Hanoi to Clark Air Base. The first three C-141s landed at Gia Lam Airport on Feb. 12, 1973, to pick up the first 116 POWs, who were taken to Clark for medical care and then back to the U.S.
Lt. Col. Richard Brenneman was one of those POWs, describing the C-141 with a large red cross painted on its tail parked at the Gia Lam Airport as “the most beautiful aircraft I had ever seen.”
After the quiet, subdued walk to the aircraft and the cheering after it took off, Brenneman promised himself, “When I get to be an older pilot, I will be flying one of those.”
A 7th Military Airlift Squadron C-141 brought the first 20 POWs to Travis, landing at 4:30 p.m. on Valentine’s Day. The first POW down the stairs was Navy Capt. Jeremiah Denton, who was greeted by cheers and applause from a crowd of more than 400 family, friends and off-duty Travis service members. He was the first of 280 former POWs who came through Travis from then to March 31.
“As we neared Travis, we asked the aircraft commander for a good look at the Golden Gate Bridge. So many guys had dreamed of the bridge while they were gone,” said former POW Col. James Sehorn in a 2002 interview. “The aircraft commander got special permission and did a loop around the bridge. The guys crowded into the cockpit and around every window to get a glimpse. The Golden Gate Bridge was a symbol of being home.”
Two years later, in March 1977, Travis aircrews brought back the first remains of those who were missing in action. Those missions have continued.
As South Vietnam fell apart under a North Vietnamese offensive in 1975, Travis aircraft returned to the country in spring 1975 to evacuate the remaining American personnel and, under President Gerald Ford’s order, Vietnamese orphans in what was soon called Operation Babylift.
Disaster struck the operation on April 4, 1975, when a Travis C-5 carrying 228 orphans and 86 passengers had a rear cargo door break loose shortly after it left Tan Son Nhut, decompressing the aircraft and sending it into a rice paddy two miles southeast of the airfield. It killed 78 orphans and 60 other passengers. The survivors were put on another aircraft and flown to San Francisco.
Travis also took part in Operations New Life and New Arrivals, which flew more than 150,000 people from Southeast Asia to the United States between April and September 1975. Most of the flights went to Hickham Air Force Base, but several landed at Travis after the resettlement centers in Hawaii were filled. The base commander even set up 300 beds in the base gym to handle the newcomers.
Travis went under the budget-cutting knife along with the rest of the federal government in 1976, when President Jimmy Carter started cutting the government employee workforce. Travis lost about 19 percent of its civilian workforce between then and 1980.
In April 1979, Travis again became the destination of contract civilian flights from refugee camps in Asia organized by the State Department. That brought more than 68,300 refugees through the base until those flights were moved to Oakland in April 1980.
Interspersed between all these military operations were a host of humanitarian missions, such as earthquake relief for Lima, Peru, in May 1970, and for Managua, Nicaragua, in December 1972, as well as for victims of Cyclone Tracy that tore through Darwin, Australia, in December 1974. In the case of Typhoon Pamela that hammered Guam in May 1976, Travis aircraft flew 31 C-5 and C-141 missions to that island to help it rebuild.
Reach Ian Thompson at 427-6976 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ithompsondr.