Identifying and recovering the aircraft
By Air Vice Marshal Graham Neil AO, DFC, DFC (US) Rtd
Prolonged and extensive efforts were made by many individuals over a number of years to obtain a USAF aircraft flown by RAAF Forward Air Controllers in Vietnam for display at the Australian War Memorial.The chain of events started with extensive research conducted by a volunteer at the AWM, Alan Storr (ex RAAF) who was tasked in March 1998 by John White, the Senior Curator Military Technology at the AWM, with contacting all RAAF FAC’s who had served in Vietnam, seeking log book details of all missions flown. The responses showed that in all, twenty RAAF FAC’s had flown 77 different OV-10’s. The tail numbers were listed in priority order but the first three had suffered combat losses. The fourth choice was 67-14639, which had been flown for a total 129 missions by eight RAAF FAC’s. Former FAC Ken Semmler shared the information with the OV-10 Bronco Association (OBA) at Fort Worth Texas, which then commenced an exhaustive world-wide search for each identified aircraft. The tail numbers were traced by researching documentation associated with the provision of spare parts to the various air forces flying OV-10’s.
In June 2001, 639 was detected as being in storage in the Philippines and in November that year contact was made through the OBA with Captain Silvestre Glinoga (“Big Mac”) who was a member of the Philippines chapter of the OBA. That discovery, complete with photographs provided by Big Mac, was to assist greatly in fostering support in Australia. The aircraft was indeed in storage at Sangley Point, Cavite City, within a few hundred metres of a large wharf previously used by the US Navy.
The first hurdle was gaining ownership of an American aircraft that had been provided to the Philippines Air Force (PAF) under their Foreign Military Finance (FMF) scheme, where the United States provided the finance for the Philippines to purchase the aircraft subject to US restrictions on disposal. Support was provided by numerous officers within the Australian Defence Department, as well as by serving RAAF officers and former FAC Doug Riding, who was a member of the AWM Council. Lobbying began in earnest with Doug Riding and I signing a letter to the AWM seeking their interest and support as well as gaining permission from the Defence Department to deal directly with successive Defence Attaches in Manila, initially Group Captain Greg Sutton, and subsequently Colonel Chris Burns. The Defence Attaches succeeded in arranging the transfer of 639 from the PAF via the Joint United States Military Advisory Group (JUSMAG) to the US State Department and to the RAAF FAC Association, subject to it being held by the Australian Government.
On 5 September 2003 the US Embassy in Canberra provided a diplomatic note regarding an end-user agreement on weaponry and use of 639. On 13 April 2004 Lt Col Dwight Kenyon, of the Joint US Military Advisory Command, confirmed the donation of the aircraft '…to the Forward Air Controller Association of Australia in cooperation with the Australian War Memorial.' That provided, we concentrated on transportation of 639 and its eventual home in Australia. Approaches were made to the RAAF and RAN and the AWM with the most encouraging transport support being from the RAN. The navy tasked HMAS Westralia to pick up 639 in October 2004 but the absence of adequate quarantine and stevedoring requirements at Sangley Point necessitated road or barge transportation to the Westralia in Manila. As it turned out that shore to ship move was never to be carried out because the Philippines Finance Department vetoed the transfer over a dispute over ownership of 639 at the last minute. But the team had learnt all the requirements for our next attempt.
The RAN forecast some difficulty in tasking another ship for a while so efforts were made to lobby CDF, the USN and the RNZN all to no avail despite their cooperative attitude. Back in the Philippines the new Defence Attache Manila Colonel Chris Burns completed the necessary ownership arrangements, following which the aircraft was formally handed over to Air Marshal Angus Houston at a formal parade on 21 Feb 2005 during his official visit to the Philippines.
In June 2006 HMAS Tobruk was tasked to pick up 639 but that task had to be cancelled because of Australia’s support to the Solomon Islands after a severe cyclone there. Our navy made another attempt to assist with joint visits by HMAS Darwin and HMAS Newcastle (each carrying one container) but that task was thwarted by typhoon Milyeno. The Philippine Defence Force was also fully tied up in post-typhoon tasking. Also, the ships had been provided only eight days’ notice whereas two weeks were needed for the disassembling and preparation of the aircraft.
We took a long hard look at the financial realities of civil shipping along with stevedoring and road transport costs and they were prohibitive for us. The AWM was kept apprised of all efforts and they too had examined what it would cost to have the aircraft prepared and transported to Manila; they budgeted $50,000 for the task. Additionally, an AWM technician, Lee Davies, was attached to Sangley Point to supervise the disassembly of the aircraft and its preparation to meet Australian quarantine requirements. The RAN came to the party once again (fourth attempt) and HMAS Tobruk successfully carried 639 to Sydney in March 2007 and the AWM transported her to their Mitchell Annex in Canberra by road transport.
The immediate following years provided more frustrations, although the AWM was about as keen as we were to start refurbishment they were severely hampered by the Government’s austerity program which prevented any recruitment by the AWM. During that lull our members were canvassed to provide additional log book and sortie details to Darrel Whitcomb (Nail 25) who carefully drafted a nine- page booklet covering the history of 639 in Vietnam, Thailand, Germany, USA, South Korea and the Philippines. In April 2008 the FAC Association held a very successful reunion, organised by Mac Cottrell, which included the dedication of a bronze plaque commemorating FAC service in Vietnam and the presentation of Darrell Whitcomb’s historical account to the AWM. The AWM completed a survey on the aircraft to assess its spares requirements. The AWM’s John White visited the USA for official museum-to-museum matters in January 2011 and managed to include a side trip to visit Jim Hodgson at the OBA. The search for current spare part providers continued with very knowledgeable assistance from Jim Hodgson, Chuck Burin and other OBA members and this was managed by Ken Semmler who had picked up many useful contacts during his visits to the USA.
In July 2013 Doug Riding and I had a very productive meeting with Dr Brendan Nelson, the Director of the AWM, with Tim Sullivan the Assistant Director, Branch Head National Collection and Rebecca Britt, Head Military Heraldry and Technology. During this period Ken Semmler spent a lot of time pursuing contacts with the DA Jakarta and the TNI-AU in our quest for spares.
In 2016 Dick Smith generously provided $50,000 to the AWM for aircraft conservation, which the Memorial allocated to the 639 refurbishment project. In May 2017 Laura Kennedy and Kim Wood visited likely sources of information regarding refurbishment with Tony De Bruyn who runs the Bronco demonstration team in Belgium and the OBA, CALFIRE and Marsh Aviation in the USA. All of these contacts had been refined over the years between the OBA and Ken Semmler.