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.
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
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