(Uncovering the Abandoned American air bases of the Vietnam War)
It was the war that defined a generation. Between 1965 and 1973, US forces engaged in one of the costliest and most controversial military campaigns in American history. The Vietnam War killed more than three million people, including 58,000 Americans. It divided the US, alienating the nation’s youth. Countries such as Laos and Cambodia were drawn into the conflict, the latter enduring one of history’s worst genocides under Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge.
While the Vietnam War is now long over, the scars, both mental and physical, remain. Unexploded ordinance and wrecked combat vehicles remain throughout the countryside of Southeast Asia, along with the ruins of abandoned American air bases and other military installations. Once centres of military action, many now sit empty, falling into ruin or slowly being reclaimed by the jungle surrounding them. Others have been returned to farmland, turned into housing or repurposed as modern civil airports. This article explores 10 abandoned American airbases of the Vietnam War.
Nha Trang Air Base, Vietnam
(Images: USAF; Bing Maps; Nha Trang Air Base in 1968 (top) and today)
The fall of Nha Trang was a traumatic moment in the collapse of the South Vietnamese government. As Communist forces poured down from the north, thousands fled to the city, believing it to be a safe haven. Much of this belief may have been due to the close proximity of Nha Trang Air Base, home to various squadrons of the South Vietnamese Air Force (VNAF). When the time came, though, the base offered little protection. Nha Trang fell to the North Vietnamese and the airfield was overrun.
In some ways, the history of this one-time American air base made its capture all the more poignant. From 1966-69, it had been home of the USAF 14th Air Commando Wing, a highly-decorated unit. Although under South Vietnamese control for five years after the 14th ACW moved out, the base was still a place of historic American importance. Yet all that would eventually count for nothing. Nha Trang Air Base later became a Vietnam People’s Air Force base.
(Image: Google Earth)
Today it remains in limited use, although the emphasis is on the “limited”. Since 2004, Nha Trang has been largely closed to air traffic and seems effectively abandoned. Google Earth lists the airfield as “closed” and reveals a handful of defunct Soviet-era warplanes on its neglected ramps.
Tuy Hoa Air Base (Now Dong Tac Airport), Vietnam
(Images: Bing Maps; USAF; abandoned Tuy Hoa Air Base and F-100D in 1969)
For decades, Tuy Hoa Air Base stood empty, a ruined reminder of the once-mighty US presence in the region. Unlike some in this article, Tuy Hoa was built by the USA, for US aircraft, and that’s exactly what it served. The 31st Tactical Fighter Wing was based here, with backup from the Air National Guard. Over 100,000 missions were flown out of the base, an impressive number even considering the intensity and air-based nature of much of the war.
And so things continued until 1973, when the US began slowly withdrawing its troops from the troubled region. Tuy Hoa Air Base was cleared out, its runways and hangars turned over to the South Vietnamese, whom it was naively assumed would win the war. Of course, history had other ideas. On April 1, 1975, in the middle of a suffocating heatwave, the South Vietnamese abandoned Tuy Hoa to the advancing Communist forces.
(Images: USAF; Google Earth)
In the aftermath of North Vietnamese victory, the abandoned American air base was left to crumble. A sad military ruin for the rest of the 20th century, it was finally redeveloped in the last few years into the civilian Dong Tac Airport.
Bien Hoa Air Base, Vietnam
(Images: Bing Maps)
Venture outside of Ho Chi Minh City on the crowded roads rolling off into the endless countryside, and you might just stumble across Bien Hoa Air Base. Once a place of huge tactical importance to US forces, Bien Hoa was also the site of one of the worst accidents of the Vietnam War. On May 16, 1965, a bomb triggered its detonator while fitted to a plane on the runway. The resulting blast ignited on-base weapons stores, resulting in a titanic explosion that killed 27 American servicemen and four South Vietnamese. Another 100 were injured, some horrifically. Over 40 planes were lost to the inferno.
Another tale of note. Bien Hoa was one of the last US airfields to fall to the Vietcong. In late April 1975, it was shelled then overrun as the Communist troops marched on what was then Saigon. Less than four days later, the last chopper would leave a crowded rooftop in Saigon and the war would effectively be consigned to the pages of history.
Lima Site 36, Na Khang, Laos
(Image: Google Earth; site of Lima Site 36 and abandoned airstrip)
On the fringes of the mysterious Plain of Jars in Laos lies the remains of Lima Site 36 (LS-36). A small US Air Force support base used from the mid-to-late ‘60s, it was once home to the 38th Air Rescue Squadron. These were the guys with the unenviable task of taking off into the heart of the jungle, looking for ways to rescue those whose aircraft had crashed and who were now at the mercy of local insurgents. Those at LS-36 were frequently targeted by militias. One attack in 1966 was so brutal that napalm strikes were required to clear the area.
Despite this history, very little remains of LS-36 today. Seen from above, the base is little more than a dusty, faded runway, its surrounding land given over to crops and cheap housing. Like so much of American involvement in Laos during the war, it is now little more than a memory, its traces just about visible beneath the accumulated decades.
Muang Phalan TACAN Site, Muang Phalan, Laos
(Image: Google Earth; site of abandoned Vietnam War era Muang Phalan TACAN site)
If you were travelling through Laos and found yourself standing on the exact site of the old Muang Phalan TACAN site, you’d be hard-pressed to tell that there had ever been anything of military note there. While some sites featured here have been repurposed, or have left very distinct ruins, the Muang Phalan TACAN site has simply vanished into the mists of time. Rickety housing now stands in its place, dusty homes with iron roofs and thin walls. Of the abandoned US TACAN base, little evidence remains.
To be fair, “base” may be overdoing it. Small navigational arrays, TACAN (or tactical air navigation system) sites usually required a handful of people, a large transmitter, and that was it. No giant hangars. No permanent runways. They were designed to pinpoint the location of an aircraft with terrifying accuracy, not leave a large ground-level footprint. As a result, it’s perhaps no great surprise this old site has been forgotten, remembered only in military memoirs and hidden history websites like this one.
Khe Sanh Combat Base, Vietnam
Of all the abandoned American air bases on our list, Khe Sanh Combat Base may be one of the more well known. Not because it was the most significant base during the Vietnam War (though it was involved in many important actions), but because of its life after fighting ceased. Left to go to ruin and overgrown with grass and banana plants, it was eventually reopened to tourists who wished to explore its haunting military remains. Seen today, on a day trip from Huế, it offers an interesting snapshot in time.
Historically, Khe Sanh Combat Base was the site of the 1968 Battle of Khe Sanh, which saw the US respond to a Vietcong siege by dropping over 100,000 tons of bombs onto the surrounding area. Although the base was subsequently destroyed by retreating US troops, it was later pressed back into operation for secret bombing runs into Laos. Abandoned again in 1971, it spent the next few decades as little more than a ruin.
Marble Mountain Air Facility (Da Nang East Airfield), Vietnam
Not far from the awesome sight of Vietnam’s five great limestone Marble Mountains, lie the ruins of the old Marble Mountain Air Facility (also known as Da Nang East Airfield). Built in August 1965 as a helicopter base, the abandoned American air base operated up until 1975, first under US control and then under the South Vietnamese. Overrun by the Vietcong in March 1975, the facility was deserted and left to decay; a condition parts of the site remain in till this very day.
Seen in 2017, Marble Mountain Air Facility is a dramatic wreck. A highway was cut through the old base in 2000, and soon after companies started developing commercial properties on its land. The result is an odd mish-mash of the old and ruined and the modern, jostling for space amid the remains of the former military site.
Cam Lộ Combat Base, Vietnam
(Image: Google Earth)
In the rush of development that has taken place in Vietnam since the war’s end, many traces of the country’s more turbulent past have been lost. As we’ve already seen, stretches of countryside that were once major military bases have since become fields. Villages have sprung up over ruins. In some cases, like that of Cam Lộ Combat Base, the burying of the past has been even more complete. Nothing remains as a reminder of the war. Whatever was once here has long since been lost beneath a rapidly-expanding town.
Even during the military phase of its life, Cam Lộ was a less major player in the Vietnam War. While many marines were stationed here, the real action was happening elsewhere, around bases like Khe Sanh. Yet even this relatively-small base suffered its fair share of tragedies. Between February-March 1967, for example, a series of military engagements in the surrounding countryside saw nearly 100 marines killed; a reminder of the numbing brutality of this painful war.
Phan Rang Air Base, Vietnam
(Images: USAF; Google Earth; Phan Rang Air Base)
Despite being on this list of abandoned American air bases, Phan Rang (sometimes called Thành Sơn Air Base) was only under US control for a small fraction of its long life. When it was first constructed, the concept of the Vietnam War would’ve been the last thing on anybody’s mind. It was 1942, and World War Two consumed the minds of many. For the Japanese personnel who built it, there were far more pressing worries.
(Image: USAF; Phan Rang during its time as an American air base)
Of course, World War Two ended with a Japanese defeat, and Phan Rang passed on to new owners. The French used then abandoned it. The Americans came and rebuilt it, before withdrawing from Vietnam altogether and handing the base over to the South Vietnamese. In 1975, Phan Rang was finally seized for use by the Vietnam People’s Air Force, in whose hands it has been ever since. Even today, in 2017, it remains in use; making it by far the longest-lived of all the abandoned American air bases of the Vietnam War featured in this article.
Vĩnh Long Airfield, Mekong Delta, Vietnam
(Image: Google Earth)
The lush green waterways of the Mekong Delta are the stuff of legend. Known as the ‘Rice Bowl of Vietnam’, they are today a place of colourful floating markets, surreal stretches of lonely river, and backpackers jostling for space alongside luxury tour groups. In the 1960s, though, they were a place of fear and loathing for US troops stationed there; a place of savage fighting and amphibious attacks that could emerge from the dark, still waters at any time.
It was into this world that Vĩnh Long Airfield was born. Active from 1963 until the conclusion of the war, it became a site of fierce fighting during the Tet Offensive, a bloody 1968 push by the North to overwhelm US and South Vietnamese forces. Today, though, there’s little to commemorate the bloodshed that took place here. Vĩnh Long is now little more than a dusty patch of wasteland, lost in the middle of the mighty Mekong Delta.