“Pappa Tango/Song Be
Pappa Tango was the navigation beacon identifier for Phan Thiet, South Vietnam, a small fishing village on the coast east of Saigon and south of Cam Ranh Bay. I remember it fondly for its small rock lobsters that cost 10 cents apiece. I’ll use this memory to recount flying in the Mekong Delta, the lower quarter of South Vietnam centered around the capital, Saigon.
Thirty-three years later, I flew through Vietnamese airspace in an air force C-5 enroute to U-Tapao, Thailand. I had to pause before transmitting to the Vietnamese controller to keep from calling her “Saigon Center,” using instead the now-proper “Ho Chi Minh Center.” That rankled. I dearly wanted to send a message by using Saigon, but I didn’t. The name Ho Chi Minh connotes a gray old man with a scraggly beard; Saigon connotes a vibrant, voluptuous, dynamic, naughty city of lights and noise. The comparison seems appropriate, and the Vietnamese suffer still with the lesser symbol.
Although stationed at Cam Ranh Bay on the central coast, we rotated Caribou crews to Tan Son Nhut Air Base outside Saigon to cover the Delta on a weekly basis. Included on these missions were, by far, the most interesting locations in Vietnam.
I’ll start with the last day of the rotation. We’d fly north to Song Be, back to Saigon, west to Tay Ninh, back to Saigon, then return to Cam Ranh with an intermediate stop at Phan Thiet on the way.
Song Be sat next to a lone mountain on the delta plain that guided us visually to the field straight north of Saigon about sixty miles. We brought supplies for the surrounding army posts but rarely stayed long. The most notable Song Be memory was of the Vietnamese kids who lived around the field. I had brought candy on a previous rotation, and they would send scouts to the plane to see if I was on board. When the alert was given, a gaggle of twenty or thirty kids would race to the plane and mob me, beseeching the candy they knew I would have. They would tug and pull at my arms and flight suit as I held the candy canister over my head. After teasing them briefly, I would surrender the canister and watch the scramble as the wrapped candy poured onto the tarmac.”
(Excerpt from “Flying the Line, an Air Force Pilot’s Journey,” book one. Book series web site: saigon-tea.com).
Photo of early days at Song Be during the monsoon.