History of the 3rd Air Commando Group
Conceived originally as a direct, but more powerful and efficient, descendent of the First Air Commando Force of Burma glory, the 3rd Air Commando Group arrived in the Philippines in December, 1944 only to find-like many other youngsters that attempts to follow his father’s footsteps-the “times had changed.”
Jap tactics and the Pacific terrain were such that a genuine Commando operation (involving descent from the sky, behind-lines operation, and so on) held no real place in theatre strategy, and the specialized combination of fighter planes, liaison planes, and troop-carrier planes which had been training in the States for at least one major expedition as an Air Task Force had now to adapt themselves to a more regulation type of war.
For a time there was possibilities of a Commando move against the Jap-held islands of Panay and Negros, but supply channels, which were first seriously snarled when flight echelons of the Group operated from New Guinea while ground echelons continued to Leyte, could not provide the necessary equipment in time-and the project died.
Under the command of Colonel Arvid E. Olson, Jr., and old “Commando” of the Cochran-Wingate school, the three diverse arms of the Fifth Air Force’s only Commando Group, the three diverse arms took stock of their changed situation during operationsless days on Leyte in early January 1945.
Past concepts of the how, and where, and when of Commando functions were dropped, and in their place was installed an elastic decision to try anything, to fit in any place, to tackle any assignment that could possibly be carried out with the means at hand.
Instead of running close interferences for each other (the Mustang’s covering the 47’s, the Grasshoppers backing them up), it was decided to give every section its head, let the 51’s slug it out wherever they could reach the Japs; let the light planes run observation or evacuations wherever they were needed; let the wide-winged Skytrains carry as much freight as they could haul, and for anyone who wanted it.
But as the bottom of it all, the old “One for all, all for One” motif was to be kept alive through close integration of every command function and through a mutual interdependence on the Group’s full facilities.
In the months that followed, the Japs felt the weight of this little kingdom’s armed might from many quarters. The fighter planes withered the deified sons of Shinto with bombs and bullets; the L planes roamed in front of, over and behind enemy lines carrying in badly needed supplies and carrying out men who had to be hospitalized immediately, if they were to live. The C-47’s with myriad functions, also evacuated wounded, landed on guerrilla-held airstrips to unload fuel, food, and munitions, carried record-breaking freight hauls all over the theater, and in addition, supplied the Group proper with all operating essentials during the time when the Laoag airstrip area was inaccessible except by air.
A quick glance at the record will show how rewarding has been the “elastic” approach-both from the Group and the theater point of view.
In the period from January, when the Philippines campaign was at its height, through June, the Light plane section-consisting of the 157th, 159th, and 160th Liaison Squadrons, Commando and the 341st Airdrome Squadron-evacuated more than 20,000 doughboys from the front lines on Luzon and other Philippine Islands. To do this they had to carry an average of 110-wound men daily in their single-passenger “kites.”
Their courage and perseverance has been attested in commendations from both G/A MacArthur and General Kreuger.
Not satisfied with such routine accomplishments, the Liaison Section moved on to new fields in early July-hopping off from Laoag strip in Luzon and heading over 720 miles of water to Okinawa, where they again took up the task of ferrying sick and wounded.
After lengthy experimental tests had been run to gain the approval of higher headquarters, the little planes were rigged with 75 gallon belly tanks, tuned to a fine pitch by their enlisted pilots, given fighter cover, and launched upon the journey. The entire junket took a little over seven hours, and the entire flight landed without mishap at Yontan strip on Okinawa. This is believed to be the longest time that a light plane has been in the air without refueling.
The Commandos also led the way in the theater by being the first to rig the light planes with VHF, making it possible for the pilots to act as controller on closely-coordinated air strikes for the Infantry. This new technique was especially helpful to the guerilla forcers who, hitherto, were unable to utilize air power because of lack of control.
Meanwhile, the Troop Carrier Section-318th Troop Carrier Squadron, Commando and 343rd Airdrome Squadron-were also piling up credits. In the single month of June the Squadron’s 18 C-47’s flew an aggregate total of 2,800 hours, and the total weight lifted (including freight, passengers, and air evacuees) exceeded 7,000,000 pounds.
This is considered an all time high for tonnage transported in the theater, and possibly in the entire Army Air Forces.”
“Biscuit Bombing” was the principal preoccupation in the Philippines campaign. Though not Commandos in the original sense, the white-tailed “”Rhncarbs” were constantly at the aerial spearhead of our Luzon advances and in the month of February along-a month of rapid ground progress-the Squadron’s planes were the first to land on 10 newly-won air fields. With enemy ground fire still a hazard to foot shoulders-and themselves too-they set first wheels down on make-shift runways at Piddig, Laoag, Luna, Burgos, Parez, Hapid, Rosales, Quezon City, and Nichols Field.
In addition to these strips-which have since become well established links in Luzon airways-the Sisth Army’s pell-mell descent on Manila created demands for several important cargo deposits along the Kreuger right-of-way, and more than one 318th pilot or crew member has memories of the way it feels to set 14 or 15 drums of gasoline down on a nearly flooded rice paddy.
Gasoline, incidentally, was one of the major cargoes of the 318th Commandos, both at Mangaldan Strip and at Laoag they provided a sort of flying pipe-line from Clark Field’s big fuel dumps, and the “feverishness” which marked all Commando ventures cropped up again.
With normal C-47 loads running to 12 fifty-gallon drums, the 318th looked abut for some way to increase its lift. The obvious, but previously overlooked, fact that the Sky-trains themselves were carrying max tank loads proved a solution. The plane’s surplus fuel was drained and replaced by added drums-for other planes-and the normal Laoag-Clark shuttle eventually carried 16 full drums on a minimum of operating gasoline.
Fair-haired boys of the Commando Group, of course, are the singing P-51 of the Fighter Section-the 3rd and 4th Fighter Squadron, Commando and the 334th and 335th Airdrome Squadrons. Where the achievements of the Stinsons and the Douglas’s may well and honestly mirrored with facts and figures, the mercurial Mustangs need, and deserve, a little more personal treatment.
There was the time, for instance, when a flight of 16 P-51’s circled the crowded airdrome at Tanawauan in a tight show formation, then broke, buzzed the strip in flights of four and started to peel off for a landing.
The steel-matted landing strip was wet and slippery, and just as the first plane turned on its base leg an excited vice from the tower called “Zebras, Zebras you are landing too close! Pull up and go around!”
Lt Col Walker M. Mahurin, who became Group Commander in early September, and who was leading the flight, calmly radioed back to the fluttering tower operator: “Leave the Zebras alone, tower. These pilots have been flying like this for a long time. They know what they are doing.”
Meanwhile, the P-51’s continued to roll down the slippery strip in pairs; the entire 16 ships were on the ground in less than three minutes.
Although the people in the tower didn’t realize it, and the pilots flying the planes thought nothing of it, all were witnessing what later was to become a revolutionary move in speeding up traffic in the Pacific Theater of Operations. It was not a “hot-pilot” trick, but a genuinely efficient maneuver, and the two-plane Commanding Landing became SOP on narrow, heavy-traffic strips shortly after.
The incident occurred at Tanauan on the island of Leyte on January 6, 1945. It was the 3rd Air Commando’s fighter planes introduction to the theater and it marked the first time that P-51’s flew as a combat operational unit in the Pacific.
That was the Commando’s first first. Their second innovation came when they moved to Mangaldan an airstrip in Luzon. There they found a hard, broad dirt runway, wide enough to start four ship take-offs. Immediately they sought permission for such a tactic. They knew they could do it; they had practiced similar formations when in training back in the States. At first permission wasn’t granted, but when the airdrome began to carry the heaviest load of any field in the Pacific and undue delays began to bob up on rendezvous’ and TOT’s, the skeptics who though the idea was impossible and too dangerous decided to give the innovation a trial.
The results were astounding. Even to this writing the Commandos never have had a take-off accident. Eventually, the medium bombers followed the lead of the fighters and finally the skeptics were convinced. Later, higher headquarters issued an order that all fighters should take off in similar formation whenever possible.
“Too little and too late,” that old cry of Allied dejection in the early stages of the war, may still be applied to Commando experience in air combat with the enemy. There was too little of it, because the unit arrived overseas to late-at a time when Jap air strength in the Philippines was already on the wane.
In a bit more than six months of combat operations, the planes of both the 3rd and 4th Fighter Squadrons managed to bag-and confirm-only seven Nip ships, though three probables may be added to the score. In all the pilots of both Squadrons saw but a total of 12 enemy planes in the air. On the ground, however, 53 of the Sun-Emperor’s aircraft were merged with the dust.
The two Squadrons flew more than 21,000 combat hours, dropped 2,150 tons of bombs, and destroyed-among other miscellaneous items-one enemy destroyer and one submarine.
Under consistently unfruitful stalking conditions they turned to long-range fighter sweeps across Luzon and Formosa as a partial answer to the problem of finding the Jap. In the early days of the Luzon campaign their most noteworthy achievement was the carrying of a ton of bombs-two wing-borne 1,000 pounders-450 miles to Baguio, the summer capital of the Philippines and then the headquarters of General Yamashita, overall Japanese commander in the captive Commonwealth.
It was the first time such a feat had been accomplished in the Southwest Pacific by a single-engine fighter plane. The effect of the bombing was excellent, but the results themselves were somewhat overshadowed by the means. It was no small achievement to pilot such a delicate plane over so great distance with such a heavy load.
Another significant innovation made by the Commandos was the unusual preparation for close support missions made with the Ground Forces. On one occasion along the Villa Verde trail-an area studded with steep, over-grown hills which proved a “natural” for Jap protective measures-our Infantry, was stymied when the Nips dug in on the reverse side of a sharp slope. From his sheltered position the enemy was able to lay down artillery whenever the hillcrest was threatened, and the terrain made it impossible for our troops to offer an effective counter-barrage.
The scant 250 yards separating both forces made an ordinary air strike seem impractical and dangerous to ground observers, but the 3rd Air Commandos were carrying out what the 32nd Division felt were its best co-coordinated strikes, so they called upon Colonel Olson and asked what he thought might be done.
The Colonel had a new answer. He sent flight leaders to the Infantry command post and into the front line positions with orders to stay there for as long as it might take to reach a decision, one way or another, with the ground commander.
The front-line pilots learned that it would be strategically dangerous to pull any men back from forward positions to allow a normal strike, and they finally convinced the Infantry command that the strike could be carried out as desired without withdrawal of troops or without any undue hazard to the forward troop elements.
They made a complete review of the situation from the ground, returned t the air field, briefed the other fliers, and then carried out such a successful attack, that according to their commander, the infantrymen “moved forward immediately after the strike and took the position practically standing up.” He was so enthused that he offered the pilots all the souvenirs his boys took that day.
After that, pilots’ visits to front-line command posts became regular practice. Commending this unorthodox approach, Major General W.H. Gill, commander of the 32nd Infantry, wrote: “On several occasions we were forced to ask that these air strikes be made within fifty to one hundred yards ahead of the infantry…. these strikes were, to my mind, perfection itself.”
“It is my belief,” he continued, “that this is the first time that pilots of the supporting arm have visited the forward ground units in the combat zone to view terrain and study the tactical situation in which they were to be deployed.”
When Laoag strip, the Air Force’s most northerly Philippines base, was occupied in strength during April, Colonel Olson became the Base Commander and Group Headquarters assumed all base administrative functions.
Surrounded on three sides by the enemy-admittedly retreating as fast as he could-the strip and its assigned organizations were supplied entirely by air for more than a month, and the Commando 47’s did most of this laboriuous hauling. After its establishment, Laoag strip became an important refueling point on the route to Okinawa, and an even more important emergency and rescue base for planes returning from Formosa and China Coast strikes.
With result on the Japanese home island pending in the fall, the Commando Group moved North to Ie-Shima in the Ryukyus in early August. But our war had really begun and ended in the Philippines. The advance or boat, echelon first set foot on actual Japanese soil on the 9th of August1945. The next day (premonition) the Japanese announced to the world that they would consider the Potsdam terms.
On crowded Ie most of the unit’s energies were devoted to preparing for the inevitable move to Northward into Japan proper. Only two or three combat missions were flown and these were for patrol and reconnaissance only. More time and effort were expended in keeping tents and equipment typhoon-proof than in actual operations.
In the first week of September our actual occupation of Japan began with the movement forward of the 318th Troop Carrier Squadron, 343rd Airdrome, and other elements of Group Headquarters and the Fighter sections. Based at Atsugi airdrome, just southeast of Tokyo, the troop carriers set first American feet upon Many a Jap airdrome as they evacuated prisoners of war from all parts of the islands and brought the to rehabilitation centers in the Tokyo area and at Okinawa. Among their passengers in the first hectic occupation days were James Deveraux of Wake Island fame)”Send us more Japs”), Admiral Richard E. Byrd, Archbishop Francis J. Spellman, and numerous Russian, British, and other Allied “wheels.”
Final phase of the long road from Leyte to Hokkaido opened on September 5th when the rear echelon, still at Ie, boarded LST’s for one of the most painful boat expeditions in history. Hardly off-shore when the great typhoon that prostrated Okinawa struck, they scuttled about the North Pacific for more than a week in an unhappy attempt to “ride it out”, put back into Buckner Bay for a recapitulation of forces, and then set sail again on 18 September. After 23 full days at sea (in the harbor at Otaru, Hokkaido, marveled at the comparative stability of Japan’s soil, and prepared to assume the burdens of occupation.
The main job had been done.
In retrospect, the 3rd Air Commando Group’s combat operations seem to have had more of the “commando” about them than first appeared possible on Leyte. A willingness to improvise—and even to innovate—proved profitable in the long run not only to the organization but also to the various commands it has served.
In so brief a summation as this much of the worthwhile detail in our activities must be neglected. Noticeably missing, for example, are the individuals’ exploits and heroic deeds of the pilots and their crews and the most miraculous achievement of the loyal “ground-stompers.” But they are, in a sense, the key to our entire success; and they will be remembered without a re-telling.
Major General Gill, 32nd Infantry Division Commander, unwittingly gave the reason for the Commando’s overall ability when, in a commendation, he wrote that the officers and men of the Group “struck me as superior.”
“I’m proud to say that I have had such an organization as a supporting arm to my offensive in the Philippines.”