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Air Commando Hat

Brigadier General Ben King, USAF


Taken from Col Robert Gleason's, USAF Ret, Chapt 1 of his book "Air Commando Chronicles" with his permission.

A fighter pilot's fighter pilot.

Perhaps now is the time to introduce the person whose personality dominates most of this work, Benjamin H. King. This man=s unique brand of leadership permeates this entire story. Sometimes it=s obvious, sometimes it=s subtle, but his spirit is always somewhere behind the thoughts and the words.

Ben King was not only my senior in age but also in wisdom. He was born and raised in Oklahoma and never quite lost the spirit of the free range. More than anything else, a review of his remarkable combat record gives a quite accurate impression of the underlying character of this man.


His first combat tour came during the Second World War. He was assigned to the Pacific Theater flying out of Guadalcanal and up and down the Solomon Island chain. In King=s own words, his first combat mission flying a Lockheed P-38 Lightning was anything but auspicious. His fighter element had located an enemy U-boat that could not submerge. While they bombed the sub, or rather tried to, the crew raked the planes with machine-gun fire. The result was a sort of standoff. King and his buddies didn=t sink the U-boat and it didn=t down any of the aircraft. However, it was probably a victory of sorts for the U-boat, for King had to belly-land his aircraft back at the home base because of battle damage to the landing gear.

It was in the P-38 that Ben King shot down three enemy fighter Mitsubishi Zeros. Most victories in war do not come free, and King=s was no exception. Toward the end of his Pacific tour King was also shot down almost 400 miles deep in enemy-held territory.

After ditching, he spent seven days in a one-man dinghy all the while paddling toward an island 40 miles away. Incidentally, this was one of the first, if not the first successful ditching of a P-38, that had the reputation of converting to a submarine the moment its belly touched water. When he reached the island, he joined six other American pilots who had also been shot down. The island was occupied by about 100 Japanese soldiers who searched day and night for the Americans. After about three months King and three other Americans took off by boat toward U.S.-held territory. After paddling some 70 miles they were picked up at night by a Navy Consolidated PBY Catalina flying boat.

After completing his Pacific tour, King was assigned to a training unit in the States. However, stateside duty was not for this aerial warrior. He immediately volunteered for another P-38 unit that was scheduled to leave for England, and he arrived there in early 1944.


Ben completed his 100-mission tour in P-38s and immediately volunteered for a third combat tour while still in England, this time in North American P-51 Mustangs. A short time later he became the Commander of the 368th Fighter Squadron. It was on this tour that he shot down four German fighters, two Messerschmitt BF-109s and two Focke-Wulf FW-190s. Thus, King joined the exalted ranks of American fighter aces. It is significant that all his aerial victories were against enemy fighters and not the more easily downed transport or bomber aircraft.

After World War II, Ben King followed the usual path of most peacetime pilots who remained in the service. He attended several service schools, held various staff jobs, and commanded several tactical units. King was transferred to Alaska, where he played a key role in constructing Eielson Air Force Base, which he holds out as perhaps his most challenging peacetime assignment. Here we find an Air Force Major, the Commander of a fighter squadron, trying to control 4,000 civilian contractor personnel who were building the longest runway in the world.

Eventually, King was returned to the States and assigned to one of the early North American F-86 Sabre squadrons. While he was ferrying the last of these newly assigned aircraft to his home station in Maryland on a Sunday morning, the Korean War broke out in 1950. King immediately contacted a friend in the Pentagon and requested a transfer to Korea. Two days later he was on his way. However, what he thought was an en route stop in Japan turned out to be his next duty assignment. A very unhappy USAF Major was retained in Japan as the Commander of a fighter interceptor squadron. The other two squadrons of that group had already left for the war in Korea, and the remaining squadron had to remain in Japan for air defense protection.


When King protested this diversion to his Commander he was told that as soon as he had established four Ground-Controlled Interceptor (GCI) sites protecting Tokyo and had made the system operationally ready he would be released for combat in Korea. This took just three months, and true to his word, his superior arranged for his reassignment to another squadron scheduled for Korea. In the meantime, King was slipping in and out of Japan at every opportunity, going over to Korea and flying combat missions in P-51s belonging to the other two squadrons from his parent group. This Abootleg@ combat operation netted him more than 40 missions. After arriving in Korea, King became the Commander of the 8th Fighter Squadron where he flew additional 226 combat missions in the Lockheed F-80 Shooting Star.

* * *

After returning from the Korean War, Ben King, like many other pilots of that time, continued his military career with a variety of peacetime command and staff assignments, attending military schools and upgrading into new types of aircraft, etc. Since his career had always been oriented toward air defense operations, King eventually wound up at Hurlburt Air Force Base as director of the Joint BOMARC test staff. During that tour King=s team improved the launch reliability of the BOMARC from about 10 up to 82 percent. The Boeing BOMARC CIM-10A was a supersonic surface launched and guided air defense missile that became operational in 1961.


It was while in this assignment that Colonel King received the early morning call from General LeMay notifying him that he was to be the Commander of the 4400th Combat Crew Training Squadron. This tour again led him directly back into combat in Vietnam in the fall of 1961. A short time after he returned from Vietnam, King was assigned as the Commander of the Combat Application Group (CAG) of the Special Warfare Center. This he considers one of the biggest disappointments of his life. For here he was leaving a combat unit with a great mission and people to match for a newly formed support group. The mission of CAG was to develop and procure equipment for the expanding USAF Special Air Warfare Force.

* * *

However, other events were taking place throughout the world about that time. The predominant one was the Cuban missile crisis in the early 1960s. The Air Commandos were tasked to provide a number of Forward Air Controllers to direct the firepower of the high-speed strike aircraft. Although King was not in a combat element of the Special Air Warfare center, there was little doubt whom Brigadier General Gilbert Pritchard, the Commander of the Special Air Warfare Center, would select to organize and lead this critically important mission.

Thus, King again found himself on the verge of combat. He was given a force of TF-28s and Helio Super Courier U-10s together with their crews and sent to an advanced staging location at Opa Locka in southern Florida. Crews were briefed, targets were assigned, and all were placed on ready alert. Their mission was to locate and mark the Cuban missile sites for the bomb-carrying fast movers (jets). One problem that they faced was that the TF-28 tactical fighters had insufficient range for this mission, considering target loiter time. King knew that the TF-28s pilots would have to rely on a water rescue by the Search and Rescue (SAR) forces to get back to the mainland, but that was part of war. Fortunately, a few hours before the Aballoon was to go up@ the Russian cargo ships turned around and war was averted.

* * *


King had other opportunities for combat operations several years after he left the Air Commando organization and, as might be expected, he grabbed them with gusto. He eventually wound up in Bangkok, Thailand, as the Deputy Director of the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) Advisory Research Project Agency Field Unit. King regarded this assignment as a first- rate boondoggle and he resented it. However, this did offer him another opportunity to join the war effort by occasionally slipping over to Vietnam and flying with the Vietnamese Air Force (VNAF) or going up into Thailand and flying combat missions with his old Commando buddies in their TF-28s or B-26s. Often while other people were taking Rest and Recuperation trips to exotic places, King was spending his R&R by signing up for unscheduled combat flights.

* * *

After returning from the Thailand tour, King (now a Brigadier General) was assigned to the USAF Office of Flying Safety as chief of the Fighter Division. This was toward the latter years of the Vietnam War. Reports were coming back to the States that many of our fighter pilots were not wearing a specially designed fire-retardant NOMAX flying suit, intended to help pilots survive a crash landing. However, many pilots considered the suits too hot for comfortable use in a tropical environment. King saw a final opportunity for one more combat tour.


King assembled a team of officers qualified in all the fighter-type aircraft flying in that Theater and headed west toward Vietnam. His approach to the problem was straightforward. First, he decided to set a personal example by using the NOMAX suit himself. Of course, it took him 35 to 40 combat missions in the North American F-100 Super Sabre and other aircraft before he became completely satisfied that the suits could be worn safely. Having proved his point, General King advised the Wing Commanders that if they did not enforce the directive requiring their pilots to wear this suit, upon his return they would be reported to Air Force Headquarters. That did the trick. The number of pilots killed during crash landings dropped significantly as a result of the additional protection provided by the NOMAX suit. When he had stayed in Vietnam for as long as he thought he could get away with it, King returned to his assignment at Norton Air Force Base, California, where he completed his military career and retired.

Truly, Ben King was attracted to aerial combat like a bee is to honey. Taken individually, each of his many tours is impressive. When considered collectively, they present a picture that very few if any combat USAF veterans, present or past, can match. General King flew nine combat tours that spanned three wars and involved many different type aircraft, while serving in just about every rank between Second Lieutenant and Brigadier General. During his remarkable career of combat flying, King amassed an impressive array of awards and decorations numbering over 35, including a Distinguished Service Medal, a Silver Star, and a host of other awards from both the U.S. and friendly foreign nations.

* * *

Various Air Force publications from time to time contain a list of famous fighter pilots along with their victories in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. All of these airmen deserve the fame and praise that they have receive. However, someday someone will get around to publishing a list of fighter aces who flew the most combat missions, involving the greatest number of wars, over the longest time period. When they do Ben King will be at the top of that list.

Commando Commander Ben King

ABut I wouldn=t say no.@


Ben was a born leader of men. During Commander=s call with all the aircrews assembled, he would sometimes come out with an off-the-wall statement on some mundane subject or other. Nearly everyone knew what he was saying was not in the cards, but still we would all leave the meeting half believing it was true. One of his favorite expressions was, ANow I wouldn=t say no.@ For example, someone would stand up and ask, AColonel, we heard that all JUNGLE JIM crewmen were going to receive an extra promotion. Is this true?@ Ben=s answer would be, AWell, I haven=t heard anything official yet, BUT I WOULDN=T SAY NO.@ Sometimes the pilots would ask outlandish questions just to hear Ben go through that routine. Later when we were over in Vietnam, Captain Dick Tegge wrote a song titled AWell I Wouldn=t Say No.@ (Tegge and his guitar were a morale booster for our troops back in those days.) This was not done out of disrespect for King, far from it. He was universally admired by his men, and when the chips were down you always got straight answers.

King had the rare ability to humble someone without humiliating him. If during Commanders call some pilot stood up and indirectly questioned one of his policies, the Colonel had a stock answer. He would say,

Now Captain so and so, I want you to keep a notebook. In that notebook I want you to list every mistake that you think I have made. Now when you become a Commander, I want you to review that book periodically just to make sure that you don=t make the same mistakes. Oh yes, don=t make any new ones either. Now you will be on your way to becoming the greatest Commander in the history of the Air Force.

Even with King=s occasional reminder that all he could promise us was hard work and little glory, only one officer of the original group requested a transfer. This is a remarkable tribute to both his leadership and the quality of the original men of that unit.

* * *



Colonel King often repeated his philosophy for a successful military career. He was not afraid to stand above the crowd when his principles or core values were involved. He often expressed it this way to me, ABob, I like to keep a balanced personnel file with at least one letter of commendation to balance out each letter of admonition or reprimand that I receive.@ He had lots of both.

Sometimes King came close to the edge and survived. Shortly after General Walter Sweeney took over as Commander of Tactical Air Command, he sent a letter out to all Commanders covering personnel policies. King thought that a few of the items were too rigid for a unique outfit like the Commandos so he arraigned a meeting with Sweeney and told him straight out that he didn=t think that he could continue to command the Commandos under these additional restrictions, and continued to explain why. General Sweeney, a man not easily swayed by arguments questioning his published policies, listened to Colonel King=s explanations and then simply stated that King would return to his unit as Commander, and in those cases where he could follow the policy, he would appreciate it if he would do so.

* * *

King was a fighter pilot through and through. I always suspected that he had a rather low opinion of any pilot who could handle more than one throttle at the same time. I believe that one of the biggest disappointments of his professional life was discovering that this guy Gleason, a pilot with a background in bombers, was to become his Operations officer. Although I could never prove it, I always suspected that many of the Colonel=s early trips to TAC headquarters were for the sole purpose of obtaining a fighter pilot for his Operations Officer.



The closest that I ever came to receiving a compliment from this man was the day after we successfully completed our Operational Readiness Inspection (ORI). As we passed in the Operations office, Ben stopped for a moment and said, ABob, that was a fine show you put on during the inspection. I=m glad that I finally found something that a stupid ass SAC pilot could do.@ (I chose to believe that he intended the remark as a compliment.)

Colonel King reserved his most colorful comments for General LeMay. It was not that he disliked LeMay as a person or as a commander. In fact, he begrudgingly admired him. It was just that he disliked all bomber pilots, and LeMay, as the former Commander of SAC, was the personification of that breed.

I, of course, admire both men immensely. Both were great leaders of men but at different levels. If both LeMay and King were called upon to inspire a room full of aircrew members just before flying a dangerous mission King would win hands down. If, on the other hand, they both were called upon to inspire thousands of airmen, very few of whom they had ever met, and retain that inspiration over long periods of time, LeMay would probably come out first with King not far behind.

* * *


Over the years I have often pondered why King never progressed beyond the rank of Brigadier General, which normally is an interim rank on the way up the ladder. It seemed clear to me that he certainly had more than the required qualifications. Only recently did I learn the answer. Shortly after he was promoted to the rank of Brigadier General, King was given a physical examination to assure the Air Force that he would be physically fit to serve another five or ten years. It was then discovered that he had bladder cancer. Shortly thereafter, General Jack Ryan, who was then Chief of Staff, USAF, had an occasion to visit Hamilton Air Force Base, California, where King was stationed at the time. He met with King and informed him that because of his cancer he could either retire early in his present rank of Brigadier General or if he preferred, stay on and serve a few additional years. However, General Ryan made it perfectly clear that because of his affliction he would not be considered for further promotions. King chose to stay on active duty as a Brigadier General. Since retirement he has had major surgery for throat and other cancers. At this writing he has just passed the magic five-year point since his last operation. (King=s post-retirement activities are summarized in the epilogue of this work.)

* * *

Autographed copies can be obtained from the author by contacting him via e-mail at rlgleason@cs.com or by phone at 336-766-9974. The price of the book is $28.45 incl. S/H. His address is 3775 Brookdale Dr, Clemmons, NC 27012.



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