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Down in the Weeds: Ranch Hand

DAYTON, Ohio - C-123K Patches and Ranch Hand exhibit in the Southeast Asia War Gallery at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo)

DAYTON, Ohio - C-123K Patches and Ranch Hand exhibit in the Southeast Asia War Gallery at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Provider unloading U.S. Marines at Calu, South Vietnam. On this airlift, 13 C-123s delivered 475 troops and over 12,000 lbs of equipment. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Provider unloading U.S. Marines at Calu, South Vietnam. On this airlift, 13 C-123s delivered 475 troops and over 12,000 lbs of equipment. (U.S. Air Force photo)

C-123Bs in the U.S. in the 1950s. The external tanks next the engines carry extra fuel. (U.S. Air Force photo)

C-123Bs in the U.S. in the 1950s. The external tanks next the engines carry extra fuel. (U.S. Air Force photo)

C-123B dropping ammunition to forward-deployed troops in South Vietnam in 1966. (U.S. Air Force photo)

C-123B dropping ammunition to forward-deployed troops in South Vietnam in 1966. (U.S. Air Force photo)

The ten C-123Js built had J44 jets mounted on their wingtips, and the type saw extensive use in the arctic. This C-123J is pictured at Thule Air Base, Greenland, in 1958. (U.S Air Force photo)

The ten C-123Js built had J44 jets mounted on their wingtips, and the type saw extensive use in the arctic. This C-123J is pictured at Thule Air Base, Greenland, in 1958. (U.S Air Force photo)

Two Providers were heavily modified for night operations under PROJECT BLACK SPOT. Designated the NC-123K (or AC-123K), this type had an infrared scanner, low-light level television, a laser range finder and cluster bomb dispensers to attack enemy trucks on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Two Providers were heavily modified for night operations under PROJECT BLACK SPOT. Designated the NC-123K (or AC-123K), this type had an infrared scanner, low-light level television, a laser range finder and cluster bomb dispensers to attack enemy trucks on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Flight engineer SSgt. Leonard Gill, Jr. examines the J85 engine on a C-123K at Kham Duc, South Vietnam, in 1967. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Flight engineer SSgt. Leonard Gill, Jr. examines the J85 engine on a C-123K at Kham Duc, South Vietnam, in 1967. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Patches early in the Ranch Hand program when it was still a C-123B. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Patches early in the Ranch Hand program when it was still a C-123B. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Patches in the summer of 1971. Unlike most C-123s later in the war, Patches was not camouflaged. The natural metal was a way to indicate to the communists it was spraying to control the mosquitoes—a common enemy—thereby making it less likely to be shot at. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Patches in the summer of 1971. Unlike most C-123s later in the war, Patches was not camouflaged. The natural metal was a way to indicate to the communists it was spraying to control the mosquitoes—a common enemy—thereby making it less likely to be shot at. (U.S. Air Force photo)

A1C Robert Norton, Patches’ last crew chief in Southeast Asia, at Bien Hoa Air Base. Note that the number of hits is at 553 at this date. (U.S. Air Force photo)
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A1C Robert Norton, Patches’ last crew chief in Southeast Asia, at Bien Hoa Air Base. Note that the number of hits is at 553 at this date. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Patches’ nose art near the end of its service in Southeast Asia. Someone has humorously written the number of misses above the number of hits. (U.S. Air Force photo)
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Patches’ nose art near the end of its service in Southeast Asia. Someone has humorously written the number of misses above the number of hits. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Chase XG-20 glider, from which the C-123 evolved. There was no provision for fuel in this glider, so the C-123’s fuel tanks were located in the rear part of the engine nacelles. (U.S. Air Force photo)
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Chase XG-20 glider, from which the C-123 evolved. There was no provision for fuel in this glider, so the C-123’s fuel tanks were located in the rear part of the engine nacelles. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Ranch Hand aircrews prided themselves on excellent formation flying. This photo was taken when Ranch Hand aircraft were beginning to be camouflaged. Also, their designation was changed from C-123B to UC-123B. (U.S. Air Force photo)
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Ranch Hand aircrews prided themselves on excellent formation flying. This photo was taken when Ranch Hand aircraft were beginning to be camouflaged. Also, their designation was changed from C-123B to UC-123B. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Ranch Hand UC-123 clearing a roadside in central South Vietnam in 1966. Note the aircraft’s very low altitude. (U.S. Air Force photo)
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Ranch Hand UC-123 clearing a roadside in central South Vietnam in 1966. Note the aircraft’s very low altitude. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Fairchild C-123 in flight. (U.S. Air Force photo)
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Fairchild C-123 in flight. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Ranch Hand crews showed a sense of humor by painting  purple bulls-eyes on their aircraft. (U.S. Air Force photo)
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Ranch Hand crews showed a sense of humor by painting purple bulls-eyes on their aircraft. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Members of Ranch Hand in 1964/1965, at a time when the program had only four C-123s. The aircraft on the right is the museum’s Patches. (U.S. Air Force photo)
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Members of Ranch Hand in 1964/1965, at a time when the program had only four C-123s. The aircraft on the right is the museum’s Patches. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Many Ranch Hand personnel received Purple Hearts for wounds in action. They also recorded them as hearts on the side of their aircraft. Here, A1C Michael L. Shuppert points to his on the C-123 named Leper Colony. (U.S. Air Force photo)
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Many Ranch Hand personnel received Purple Hearts for wounds in action. They also recorded them as hearts on the side of their aircraft. Here, A1C Michael L. Shuppert points to his on the C-123 named Leper Colony. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Communist trench revealed by Ranch Hand spraying. It normally took about three days for the spray to start affecting the vegetation. (U.S. Air Force photo)
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Communist trench revealed by Ranch Hand spraying. It normally took about three days for the spray to start affecting the vegetation. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Four-ship formation on a defoliation spray run. (U.S. Air Force photo)
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Four-ship formation on a defoliation spray run. (U.S. Air Force photo)

A1C Richard Wolfe checks the herbicide level as it is pumped into the storage tank aboard a UC-123K in 1969. (U.S. Air Force photo)
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A1C Richard Wolfe checks the herbicide level as it is pumped into the storage tank aboard a UC-123K in 1969. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Early in the program (and later on anti-crop missions), Ranch Hand C-123s carried South Vietnamese Air Force markings and a South Vietnamese military representative on board. (U.S. Air Force photo)
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Early in the program (and later on anti-crop missions), Ranch Hand C-123s carried South Vietnamese Air Force markings and a South Vietnamese military representative on board. (U.S. Air Force photo)

The dense jungle in Southeast Asia allowed the enemy to ambush vehicles and boats on transportation routes, creep close to stage attacks on bases, move men and materiel and hide their own camps. Ranch Hand crews denied the enemy this cover by spraying herbicides in key areas. 

To accomplish the mission, Ranch Hand crews flew their UC-123 transport aircraft on straight runs at very low altitude over a well-armed enemy. Ranch Hand UC-123s received over 7,000 hits, developing a reputation as the most shot-at U.S. Air Force aircraft in Southeast Asia.

Creating the Mission: 1962-1964
In 1961 South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem requested USAF help to remove enemy cover. The USAF's Special Aerial Spray Flight was already using C-123s in the U.S. to control mosquitoes. After some modifications to the aircraft (which included adding armor for the crew), three C-123B aircraft arrived in Southeast Asia in January 1962 under the code name Ranch Hand. 

The defoliation mission was a new one, and Ranch Hand crews experimented with techniques against different types of plants using a defoliant called Agent White, and they learned much in the process. Early on, Ranch Hand primarily cleared friendly transportation routes to deny the enemy ambush cover. In late 1964 the crews also began flying anti-crop spraying missions to deny the enemy food and divert resources to food production. 

During this early period, Ranch Hand never had more than five C-123Bs. Sometimes these aircraft had their spray equipment removed to conduct regular airlift flights, and it appeared that the defoliation mission might be eliminated altogether. With the increased U.S. commitment in South Vietnam in 1964 and 1965, however, requests for defoliation soared. 

Ranch Hand Matures: 1965-1969
Ranch Hand grew into an essential part of the war effort, with over six million acres sprayed in South Vietnam between 1965 and 1969. Beginning in 1965 with only four aircraft, by the middle of 1969 Ranch Hand had about 25 UC-123 aircraft available for missions. 

In 1965 Ranch Hand began using a very effective defoliant called Agent Orange, and the range of targets grew considerably. Operation Sherwood Forest sprayed the key Viet Cong-controlled Boi Loi Woods northwest of Saigon, and Operation Swamp Fox targeted the mangrove forests used by the communist for shelter in the Mekong Delta. Late in the year, operations extended into the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. A flood of defoliation requests came in, and the small number of crews flew constantly. 

The defoliation of vital enemy strongholds, transportation routes, and crops forced the communists to vigorously defend against the spraying. Ranch Hand aircraft regularly received damage on missions -- considering their low altitude, low speed and large size, they were easy to hit. Ranch Hand maintainers worked constantly to repair the damage and get their UC-123s ready for the next mission. In addition to engines and flight controls shot out, and several crewmen wounded and killed, Ranch Hand lost five UC-123s in combat between 1966 and 1968. 

During the Tet Offensive in early 1968, spraying operations were temporarily halted in favor of airlift missions. Between Feb. 5 and March 20, Ranch Hand UC-123s flew 2,866 airlift sorties. 

Ranch Hand Ends: 1970-1971
With the Vietnamization drawdown in 1969, Ranch Hand was reduced from 25 to 13 aircraft. In 1970 Agent Orange was discontinued, and the existing stocks of Agent White ran out in May 1970. After the last anti-crop mission in January 1971, anti-mosquito spraying continued for a short time after, and then Ranch Hand ended. 

A Typical Ranch Hand Mission 
Each Ranch Hand mission took careful planning and expert execution. A request for defoliation went through a complex approval process to ensure friendly areas were not sprayed. The missions took place early in the morning or late afternoon when the temperature was less than 85 degrees Fahrenheit to prevent the herbicide mist from rising rather than falling. Also, the wind speed had to be less than 10 mph to keep it from drifting off the target. 

Typically, a tight formation of UC-123s would approach the area as low as 20 feet above the treetops, climb to a slightly higher altitude, then fly straight and level for about 8-10 minutes until the defoliant ran out. They would then drop back down and exit. Excellent navigation and airmanship were essential to ensure they precisely sprayed the target area only and didn't fly into any obstructions or the ground. 

Fighter and attack aircraft, directed by a USAF FAC (forward air controller) usually accompanied Ranch Hand UC-123s to suppress enemy ground fire. Also, air rescue helicopters flew nearby to pick up downed crewmen if necessary. As Ranch Hand missions drew greater enemy reaction, a tactic called "heavy suppression" was used whereby several fighter aircraft bombed the target area a few minutes before it was sprayed. If the primary target was too "hot," the Ranch Hand flight would spray a pre-planned secondary target. 

Defoliants
The defoliants sprayed by Ranch Hand crews were common agricultural herbicides that had been used commercially for several years in the U.S. and abroad. The formulas were named by the color band used on the barrels to identify them. Ranch Hand primarily sprayed Agent Purple, Agent White, and the most widely-used herbicide, Agent Orange, for defoliation. Agent Blue was used for crop destruction. 

Ranch Hand Esprit de Corps
The roughly 1,250 Airmen who served in Ranch Hand had strong unit pride, or esprit de corps. Ranch Hand personnel, nicknamed "Cowboys," made purple their signature color. Also, the fact that they were shot at so often became not only a source of great respect, but also the subject of humor. 

Click on the following links for more information about Ranch Hand.

Fairchild C-123K Provider
Maj. Ralph Dresser
Navigating Ranch Hand
Ranch Hand Insignia and Other Items

Click here to return to the South Vietnam: The Advisory Years Overview.

 

Find Out More
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Lectures
Jeff Duford: "Ranch Hand and the C-123" (00:46:59)
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Other Resources
Operation Ranch Hand: The USAF and Herbicides in SEA, 1961-1971 (Provided by AFHSO)
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