Air Commando Chronicles
Book Intro: Contents | Forward | Introduction
Foreword, by General John L. Piotrowski 8
Chapter 1 The Genesis of JUNGLE JIM 15
The Interview 15
The Visitor in Black 20
Brigadier General Ben King, USAF 26
Commando Commander Ben King 32
Chapter 2 Training and Aircraft Acquisition 37
JUNGLE JIM 37
Aircraft Acquisition 40
King’s First Bombing Mission 52
The M-16 Rifle 54
More Screening 57
Chapter 3 Early Deployments 62
The Call to War 62
Bien Hoa 65
The B-26 Story 69
Chapter 4 In-Country Operations 72
We Join the War Effort 72
The Attempted Coup 73
Night Operations 78
Father Hoa Support 79
Cross-Border Operations 81
Chapter 5 VIPs 88
A Visit From the Commander, Pacific Air Command 88
A Visit from the Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Command 94
Chapter 6 The War Continues 100
The Phantom Night Invaders 100
The Commando Christmas Party 102
The Last Full Measure of Devotion 106
Chapter 7 A Potpourri of Reflections 113
Guerrilla vs. Conventional Warfare 113
The Assassination of President Diem 117
Roles-and-Missions Impact on the War 118
A Visit to Air America 123
Vietnam Revisited – MACVSOG 126
Chapter 8 Out of Vietnam 131
The Presidential Air Show 131
Chapter 9 Into Latin America 141
Commandos Go South 141
The Anatomy of a Mobile Training Team 144
The Thumbtack Caper 147
Chapter 10 Air Power and Nation Building 153
The Civic Action Programs 153
OPERATION PISTA 163
The Hemorrhagic Fever Project 167
A Museum Piece 173
Chapter 11 Back to Survival Training 178
The Tropic Survival School 178
Chapter 12 An Amazing Turnabout 186
General Sweeney Visits the 605th 186
Chapter 13 - Strategic Air Command 190
General Curtis LeMay and SAC 190
Strategic Air Command vs. Air Defense Command 197
The Lieutenant vs. the Congressman 207
Chapter 14 A Covey of Air Commando Heroes 216
Alfred Brashear -- Airmanship Nonpareil 216
John Pattee -- A Typical Air Commando Officer 223
Charlie Brown -- A Long, Long Night 230
Ben King -- A Final Tale 246
A A Positive Perspective 251
B Songs of FARM GATE 257
C Roster of The Original JUNGLE JIM Organization 263
Colonel Bob Gleason has captured the spirit, tempo, and mystique of the JUNGLE JIM and FARM GATE era, as well as many of the facts of that exciting period. This is a story of heroic young men answering a clarion call for what and where they knew not. They were largely untried in the crucible of combat, toddlers during World War II and too young for Korea, but full of zeal and ready to prove themselves worthy of their warrior calling. I was privileged to have served with this group.
One had to experience the early 1960s to appreciate the mood of the United States that was in a struggle with the Soviet Union for dominance on any number of ideological, economic, territorial, and scientific fronts. President John F. Kennedy electrified us with his well-articulated ideals and challenge to Americans:, "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country." Kennedy brought an uplifting of spirit across the land, coupled with a feeling of commitment to do whatever was necessary to right what was wrong and to build a better world — a democratic world in our own image, or close to it. In this context, a relatively few highly selected Air Force officers, Non Coms (NCOs), and young enlistees across America were asked to blindly commit to service well beyond their commissioning or enlistment oath and to secretly deploy to the four corners of the globe and fight dirty little counterinsurgency wars with the understanding that there would be no recognition or acknowledgment by their government. Colonel Bob Gleason, accurately describes the chilling litmus test for each of the initial JUNGLE JIM volunteers.
This handful of officers and perhaps a hundred enlisted volunteers arrived on the heel of Colonel (later Brigadier General) Benjamin H. King and his initial three staff officers at Hurlburt Field, Florida, on May 7, 1961. All the newcomers were quite professionals, some of the very best at what they did, officer or enlisted, flier, maintainer, or support. All were eager to prove themselves to Colonel King and to each other, and to get ready for whatever President Kennedy and General Curtis E. LeMay might have in store for them. I learned years later that Lieutenant King had been an "Ace" in World War II, with combat in both the Pacific and European Theaters; and later, King, by then a Major, flew more than his fair share of combat in Korea. This highly successful and proven combat leader’s stirring remarks to the JUNGLE JIM cadre on May 8th laid down the challenge and set the tone and tempo for the days ahead. In General George Patton style, Colonel King stated,
Welcome! Some of you are here because you expect spot promotions. Some are here seeking fame and glory, some are here to escape your last assignment, and some are here because your country needs you and you answered the call. Well, all I can promise you are long hours and hard work in preparation for what lies ahead! Dismissed!
Long hours and hard work it was — not by direction, but by choice and in the belief that something important and defining was close at hand. Not quite six months later, the lead element for the first deployment to Bien Hoa Air Base, Vietnam, departed Hurlburt in secrecy — America had joined in the air war against the Viet Cong.
Being an Air Commando meant something; it made one stand taller than the rest of the Air Force — we were doing something, something important on a global scale. Earlier a detachment had deployed to Mali, Africa, and South American operations were on the near horizon. Colonel King’s inspirational and hands-on leadership drove us to excel. He was always out in front, always doing first what he was asking us to do, and doing it more often and better. He flew the first Douglas C-47 sortie and certified the first Commando "Gooney Bird" instructor pilot during the flight. He followed the same pattern for the Martin B-26 Marauder and North American TF-28 Trojan.
The Air Commando story and its legacy are built on the solid foundation of strong charismatic leadership, can-do attitude, and unwavering commitment by Colonel Ben King, its Commander, Lieutenant Colonel Bob Gleason in Operations, and Major Homa B. "Rocky" Stillwell in Maintenance. In 38 years of service, I never came across another operational unit that was so rich in senior leadership and talent across the board. In a few months, Bob Gleason would move out from under the shadow of Ben King and demonstrate outstanding leadership and exceptional political acumen as Commander of Air Commandos deployed to Central and South America. His operation proved a successful counter to the Soviets who were driving hard and spending big money to enlarge their sphere of influence in our back yard. There were many standout role models, but Colonel Ben King was the kind of leader I strove mightily to emulate throughout my Air Force career. King was driven to fly, fight, and lead men into combat — he excelled at all three. The challenges and the opportunities he gave us to reach and achieve well beyond what was normally allowed or expected of company grade officers and NCOs made the JUNGLE JIM and FARM GATE experience the defining and pivotal assignment for many.
The success of General LeMay’s "experiment" and Colonel King’s leadership has stood the test of time and has become even more relevant as dramatic changes sweep over the geopolitical landscape. Congress, in recognition of Special Operations’ important contributions to national security and global stability, directed that Army Green Berets, Navy SEALs, and Air Force Air Commandos operate jointly in a Unified Command led by a four star Commander-in-Chief (CINC). In OPERATION DESERT STORM, in January 1991, all performed with distinction. Equally noteworthy, the current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Hugh Shelton, is a Green Beret who spent most of his career in Special Operations.
Today, Air Commandos are spread thin across the entire globe serving quietly but effectively freedom’s cause in scores of Third World countries. They continue to stand tall; they continue to make a difference. Their story is well-worth reading and remembering.
General John L. Piotrowski, USAF (Ret.)
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For years, the conventional thinking among authors whose works deal with the United States’ engagement in Vietnam was that the genesis of that involvement revolves around two well-known events. The first was a speech given by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, in January 1961, in which he referred to "wars of liberation." Khrushchev clearly articulated his intention to encourage such wars and, through his support, advance the spread of Communism throughout the underdeveloped countries.
The second event occurred a few weeks later when our newly elected president, John F. Kennedy, in his Inaugural Address, gave notice that such wars of liberation would not go unchallenged by this nation. This exchange, and the well-publicized series of messages, speeches, and congressional hearings that followed, certainly played a major part in guiding later U.S. actions, but our initial involvement in South Vietnam may well have been stimulated by a series of quite different occurrences.
Unfolding, about that time, were other events — events that seemed so mundane as to pass unnoticed by all except those directly involved. Very little has been written about these happenings, then or since, but they may have provided a "trigger" mechanism that spurred us toward deeper involvement in Vietnam. One of these incidents occurred in early 1961 during a routine meeting of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS). It may have set the stage for our later and deeper involvement in what became ten years of national anxiety.
One of the main motivations of this work is to inform the reader about these lesser-known events. A second motivation is to relate the heroic but generally unheralded actions of my many brave comrades in arms who played a pivotal role in these early years. Except for a few cases, their exploits and accomplishments have generally gone unrecognized by both military and non-military historians, for a variety of reasons. One was the secrecy that veiled the formation, and in fact, the very existence of the 4400th Combat Crew Training Squadron (CCTS), much less its activities overseas.
Another and perhaps more cogent reason for the lack of recognition is that later, when the Vietnam War became more visible to the American people, it became more distasteful. It seemed that U.S. citizens would rather not hear about this unpopular conflict raging in a far-off and somewhat obscure corner of Indochina. The disparity between the degree of honor and adulation this nation bestowed upon U.S. Air Force Captain Scott O’Grady, who was shot down over Bosnia in June 1996, is in sharp contrast to the lack of national interest shown in thousands of similar tales of courage emanating from the Vietnam conflict. This is not meant to begrudge O’Grady his claim to fame. He deserved every bit of it. However, there were hundreds of equally courageous acts of heroism that passed unnoticed during the Vietnam War. The Appendix of this work includes just one of these remarkable sagas involving a friend, Colonel Charlie Brown.
Finally, it should be noted that this is not a highly footnoted historical work, with chronological preciseness. It was not intended to be. Rather it is a story of the courageous people and the human events that lie behind every history. Although the official unit histories were at hand and referred to as I wrote this book, the stories are related as I recall them. I have tried to keep to a minimum hyperbole and verbal garnish. Most of the tales stem from my personal involvement either directly or indirectly. Where I relate an anecdote not of my personal knowledge, I have tried to locate the principal who could verify the details of the event. In most cases I have been successful. Perhaps these tales will have some value to future historians. If so, it was worth the effort. Even if this work has no historical value, I still consider the effort worthwhile. The numerous phone calls, letters, and e-mails associated with my research provided me, in effect, with a electronic reunion with comrades that I had hoped, but never expected, to hear from again.
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By way of clarification, it should be explained that a number of terms are used extensively through this book, sometimes interchangeably, sometimes separately. These terms refer to the various names for the 4400th Combat Crew Training Squadron (CCTS) and its sub-units.
The 4400th CCTS was the official designation of the initial and parent unit formed in early 1961. This was later changed to Air Commando (wings, squadrons, or detachments). JUNGLE JIM was first a code name and later a nickname of the original 4400th CCTS.
BOLD VENTURE was a detachment (Det. 1) of JUNGLE JIM that deployed to Mali in mid-1961, and a detachment (Det. 3) that deployed to Panama in early 1961. FARM GATE was the designation of a detachment (Det.2) of JUNGLE JIM that deployed to South Vietnam in late 1961.
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