Air Force combat operations in the Southeast Asia war were heavily dependent on the support of Boeing KC-135 Stratotankers. They made it possible for Guam-based B-52s to reach their targets and for fighters to range from one end of Vietnam to the other, greatly increasing the flexibility of tactical air operations. Fighter strikes in the northern route packages were totally dependent on the tankers.
Air refueling tracks flown by the KC-135s were in northern and eastern Thailand, northern Laos, and over the Gulf of Tonkin, north of the demilitarized zone (DMZ). Regardless of established limits on how far north they could go, however, tanker crews often went into North Vietnam and the extreme north of the Gulf to rescue F-105s and F-4s and often Navy fighters that needed fuel to get home. The number of aircraft and crews they saved cannot be precisely determined, but it was substantial.
The KC-135s were not the only tankers used in Southeast Asia. HC-130 Combat Shadows refueled HH-3E Jolly Green Giant and HH-53 helicopters of the Air Rescue Service. The Navy also had tankers, the carrier-borne KA-3 Skywarriors and KA-6 Intruders, but the majority of refueling for combat operations was provided by KC-135s. Though the tankers and their crews were a key element in the air war and have given the Air Force rapid, worldwide reach, they have not received the general recognition they deserve. “General recognition” certainly does not include the crews they saved.
The number of KC-135 tankers deployed to the western Pacific paralleled the tempo of combat operations, reaching a peak of 195 at the end of 1972. Those responsible for refueling B-52s were based at various times in Okinawa, Taiwan, and the Philippines. The tankers assigned primarily to fighter support were concentrated on bases in Thailand.
Between 1965 and US troop withdrawal from Southeast Asia in 1973, Strategic Air Command tankers flew about 195,000 sorties, made nearly 814,000 refuelings, and offloaded almost 9 billion pounds of fuel. That war, with its military achievements and political handicaps, could not have been fought without them.
A unique refueling mission on May 31, 1967, epitomizes the skill, determination, and heroism of the tanker crews. At that time, the 30-odd KC-135s primarily responsible for refueling the fighters were under the 4258th Strategic Wing. A crew consisting of aircraft commander Maj. John H. Casteel, copilot Capt. Richard L. Trail, navigator Capt. Dean L. Hoar, and boom operator MSgt. Nathan C. Campbell was assigned a refueling track over the Gulf of Tonkin. There was no reason to think this mission would be anything more than a normal day’s work.
Soon after they had established their track, Major Casteel’s crew was alerted to refuel a pair of Air Force F-104 fighters on a support mission north of the DMZ. (Early in the war, a few F-104s and F-102s were based briefly in South Vietnam, primarily for air defense.) While refueling the F-104s, Casteel was informed that two Navy KA-3 tankers, desperately short of fuel, were on the way to his tanker. Both KA-3s had fuel they could transfer but could not use themselves. After receiving a partial load, the F-104s stayed with Casteel’s KC-135 to defend it against possible MiG attacks while it refueled the Navy aircraft.
The first Navy tanker took on a minimum of fuel then broke off to allow the second KA-3 to hook up. At this point, two Navy F-8s were vectored to the KC-135 for emergency refueling. One F-8 was so low on fuel that the pilot could not wait for the second KA-3 to complete refueling. The Navy pilot hooked up to the KA-3 that still was taking on fuel from the KC-135. That is believed to have been the first trilevel refueling ever. While the dual transfer was in progress, the first KA-3 passed fuel to the second F-8, then returned to the KC-135 to complete its own refueling.
This joint-service operation was still in progress when two Navy F-4s with bingo fuel were vectored to the KC-135 for emergency service. While waiting for the F-4s to appear, Casteel’s crew gave the two Air Force F-104s another shot of fuel, then transferred enough to the Navy F-4s to get them to their carrier.
After this series of 10 refuelings, the KC-135 did not have enough fuel to return to its base in Thailand. It headed for an alternate in South Vietnam while refueling the two F-104s a third time to provide enough fuel to get them to their base.
For this remarkable series of refuelings that saved eight aircraft and their crews, Major Casteel and his crew were awarded the 1967 Mackay Trophy for the most meritorious Air Force flight of the year. In a sense, that award honored the hundreds of tanker crews that served with little acclaim during the eight years of tanker operations in the war.
Published January 1996. For presentation on this web site, some Valor articles have been amended for accuracy.