Air Commando Chronicles

Book Intro:  Contents  |  Forward  |  Introduction



Acknowledgments                                                                                6

Foreword, by General John L. Piotrowski                                             8

Introduction                                                                                          12

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

Epilogue                                                                                               246

Ben King -- A Final Tale                                                          246

Appendix                                                                                             251

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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