About ACA

Current News

Our Warriors

Our Aircraft

Countries we served in

Unit Patches

Google Custom Search




Reunion Information


Books & Songs



Archival Pages

Air Commando Hat


Chapter 3

Early Deployments

The Call to War

FARM GATE Detachment deployed.

After our Operation Readiness Inspection we were declared combat ready, and shortly thereafter, were notified that we would be heading for Southeast Asia. But even before this occurred, we were tasked to provide two C-47 aircraft and crews to assist in counterinsurgency training in the Republic of Mali, in Africa. This unit, designated Detachment 1, was given the code name of Sandy Beach and departed Hurlburt Field on August 15, 1961. The mission Commander was a young Naval Academy graduate named Captain Tom McEwan. (Tom was later killed while flying an A-1E in Vietnam.)

Upon arrival in Mali the detachment found itself in a most unusual situation. While they were conducting training exercises and para-jump support from one side of an airfield, a Russian transport plane and crew were doing the same thing on the other side of the field. In what would come to be a Commando trademark, the Sandy Beach crews were ready to operate almost from the moment they arrived, and within a day or two they were dropping Mali troopers by the hundreds.



Their stay, although short, was nevertheless very successful. They performed demonstration resupply and paratroop flights for both the U.S. Ambassador and President Modibo Keita. Tom McEwan happened to be a Black Belt-Judo expert, only one of three in that country holding this esteemed rating. He was also the highest-ranking one (in terms of Judo). As such, he spent much time at the Bamako Judo Club working out with the other two and cementing relations between the Mali and the American military.

The political situation in Mali at the time was very unstable, and after several months our team returned to the States as Mali turned more and more toward Communism. Thus, the requirement to send a couple of C-47s and their crews to Mali was possibly the basis for the original directive given to General LeMay several months earlier to provide a sanitized World War II aircraft to a friendly foreign country. The 4400th CCTS was perhaps an evolution of that initial directive. Once it was formed and combat ready, the Vietnam situation presented the Air Staff and the Joint Staff with an opportunity to utilize this unique organization that was waiting in Florida.

Almost concurrent with the Mali deployment we received orders to deploy a detachment of about 150 men, four C-47s, and eight TF-28s to South Vietnam. Additionally, on arrival, we were to be provided with eight B-26s. When the word got out that we were going to Vietnam every member of the organization immediately volunteered for the detachment, but it was limited to 41 officers and 115 airmen. Of course, we were to carry all the equipment we would need for self-sustained operations.

We deployed to Vietnam in early November 1961 in two elements: led by Colonel King, the four C-47s were flown to the destination; the rest of the detachment was airlifted over the Pacific by a number of Military Air Transport Command (MATS) Douglas C-124 Globemasters.



The original order made no mention of how we were to transport the TF-28s across the Pacific. Colonel King sent a wire to TAC Headquarters requesting depot support to disassemble the TF-28s and pack them aboard large transport aircraft. The answer he received was a mild rebuke. It also revealed for the first time, since the entrance interview, what was expected of us. In terse terms, we were expected to use extraordinary means to solve our own problems B in effect, ADon=t call us, we=ll call you.@

This caused a bit of a stir at Hurlburt and resulted in some bizarre proposals to solve the TF-28 movement problem. One suggestion was to replace the props on the TF-28s with counterweights and have them towed in pairs behind a C-124. A pilot or two would fly in each TF-28, and they would be cut loose over each scheduled base to make a no-power landing. Each TF-28 would be equipped with an air-driven generator hung out in the slipstream to provide electrical and hydraulic power. When a few of these ideas filtered up the chain of command, soberness took over and a more prudent solution was sought. We were then given the depot support King requested. The TF-28s were disassembled, flown over in the C-124s and reassembled at Clark Field in the Philippines.

Scheduled to join us at Clark, the C-47s flew the northern route via the Aleutian Islands. The flight was uneventful except for the aircraft piloted by Captain Jess Lewis, who lost an engine shortly after takeoff from Anderson Air Force Base, Guam. Bringing the old overweight Gooney back to Guam was not easy, but Jeff made it back as far as Agana Naval Air Station, also on Guam. After some carburetor repair work he took off the following day. He lost the same engine for the second time, and again he made it back to Agana. Figuring that he had used up all his luck and then some, Jeff insisted on a new engine. This solved the problem and the remainder of the trip was more or less routine.



While at Clark all the aircraft had their USAF insignias removed and replaced with those of the Vietnamese Air Force (VNAF). We also removed the patches from our uniforms but retained our rank insignias. At Clark, Colonel King transferred to a TF-28, and I replaced him as the pilot of the C-47. From there we led our motley group on into Saigon. The six B-26 aircraft did not arrive until a month or two later. The acquisition of these aircraft, as we will see later, is a story in itself.

* * *

About a year later, after Colonel King had returned from Vietnam, he was directed to report to Tactical Air Command Headquarters to brief General Walter Sweeney, its new Commander. During the briefing King mentioned that we were serving without U.S. insignias on our uniforms. General Sweeney was obviously surprised at that revelation. He stopped King at that point and advised him that this practice would stop immediately. Sweeney further commented that Americans serving under his command would fly and fight only in the uniform of the U.S., and that he would clear the matter with General LeMay. This dictum did not apply to the insignias on our aircraft.

* * *

Every military aircraft that entered Vietnam in those days had to do so via the main international airport at Saigon named Tan Son Nhut, in compliance with an international agreement resulting from the 1954 Geneva Accords and also established a committee that monitored all military equipment entering that country. Upon landing, our aircraft was required to taxi around in front of the administration building, where we would be examined by a team of observers with binoculars posted on the upper levels of the building. We could then proceed to the end on the runway and take off.

Bien Hoa

Our home away from home.



Our final destination was Bien Hoa, the home of the Vietnamese Air Force First Fighter Squadron, about 30 miles northeast of Saigon. It was a typical French colonial military installation with adequate permanent quarters for the officers and their families and dismal facilities for the enlisted personnel. The shop and maintenance facilities were adequate, but the approximately 5,000-foot runway was substandard, having been constructed with pierced steel planking (PSP), a material used by the U.S. for constructing temporary runways during World War II. PSP, only loosely fastened to the ground, was satisfactory for most lighter-weight aircraft but marginal for a heavily loaded B-26. It was most disconcerting for a pilot to watch the runway roll up and take the form of a low wave moving down the runway in front of him during the takeoff. Fortunately, the hump stayed about 20 yards in front of the nose wheel of the B-26s and progressed down the runway at about the same speed as the aircraft.

A few USAF personnel, who had been assigned to the U.S. Military Assistance Group (MAG), were stationed there when we arrived. The Commandos were assigned a large field toward the edge of the base. Tents were erected over dirt Afloors;@ a couple of old, unused flight line buildings were allotted to us for Operations and Maintenance, and we were in business.



It was obvious from the beginning that neither the VNAF nor the MAG was quite sure what we were doing there. The VNAF 1st Fighter Squadron was equipped with old U.S. Navy A-1E Skyraiders, a perfect choice for the type of operation it was involved in. This aircraft was much better than the TF-28. (In later years, the Air Commando units were also equipped with A-1Es.) The VNAF pilots were good at executing the basic tactics that they were employing. Also, they had the assistance of a few MAG instructors who monitored their training and their use of U.S.-supplied equipment. Unfortunately, in the tradition of their former trainers, the French, the VNAF was wedded to its main base at Bien Hoa and not always responsive to the request for air support from the Vietnam Army (ARVN) units in the field. For the first several weeks or so, we flew primarily self-training sorties while Colonel King tried his best to find a niche where we could contribute to the war effort. It was obvious that we were running well ahead of planning and the conceptual thinking that should have proceeded our deployment.

* * *

Our training at Hurlburt had been intense, but brief. Early on, in Vietnam, we acquired the use of a practice bombing and gunnery range. One of our first endeavors was to develop a napalm capability. We had brought none of the necessary supplies or equipment for this operation with us, and we had minimal training in the use of napalm at Hurlburt. Again we turned to our Armament Officer, Pete Piotrowski. At first, Pete could not get the napalm to ignite upon impact. Finally, he got the correct mix and fusing combination and we were in business. The next problem was range safety that is, safety for those on the ground in the vicinity of our target area. This was supposed to be provided by VNAF personnel. To say the least, it was loose.



One morning I set out to drop some napalm and to give final approval to our pilots to use the range. As I approached the target on my first run I noticed groups of people on both sides of the range running as fast as they could towards the target I was zeroing in on. I aborted the run and demanded by radio that the range be secured. I circled as I watched a Jeep go up and down the border of the range with the driver talking to groups of people. I was then informed by radio that the range was secure. I started another run, but the same thing happened. Again I pulled off. Finally, I was told that it was safe to drop on the target and that the village people who were scurrying toward the target were planning to recover as much of the torn and shredded napalm tanks as they could.

After dropping my two napalm tanks it was disconcerting to watch droves of people run forward, drag the tank from the inferno and beat out the fire. Napalm was supposed to be a sort of terror weapon, not one that was a magnet for the villagers. After I landed back at Bien Hoa I summoned our VNAF Liaison Officer and asked what was going on. He replied that Vietnam was what he referred to as a Ametal hungry@ country and that the people would take the scavenged remains of the napalm tank, which contained high-quality aluminum, and fashion pots and pans and other metal implements. So much for napalm, the weapon of terror.

During those early days Colonel King would visit the VNAF Squadron Headquarters in an effort to find a job for our pilots. It wasn=t that they could not use the support. Rather, it was a case of not knowing how to establish procedures to coordinate our efforts with theirs. Our TF-28s were equipped to deliver bombs of several types, including cluster bombs, and could also carry two rocket pods each containing 19 2.75-inch rockets. We had the napalm problem licked and therefore could deliver two napalm tanks. Additionally, our TF-28s were equipped with two .50-caliber machine guns mounted on pods under each wing. This aircraft was extremely maneuverable and could get in and out of places that would have challenged the A-1E. Most important, when flown by a group of young highly skilled pilots the aircraft were a valuable asset to any counterinsurgency effort.



The venerable C-47, other that being considerably overweight, was ideally suited for this kind of conflict. Additionally, the VNAF possessed many C-47s, so we could tap into the MAG supply system for replacement parts. If there is one truism in counterinsurgency it is this: There is never enough airlift to go around. Additionally, Psychological Operations were practically non-existent in the Vietnam conflict at that time, and we had both the people and the equipment to do the job. No aircraft served so many purposes for so long a time as did the old Gooney.

I recall a remark made several years earlier by a guest speaker at the Air War College. We were being addressed by Astronaut Frank Borman about the APOLLO (moon shots) space program, which at the time was only in its planning stage. Borman was asked what kind of a rocket or missile system we would use to reach the moon. Borman said that he didn=t know the answer but that he was told by the NASA people that once the astronauts landed on the moon they would travel around its surface in the old C-47 Gooney Bird.

The B-26 Story

Ghost of Dien Bien Phu.

Around December 1961, we received word that our B-26s were ready for pickup at Kadena Air Base on Okinawa. How they arrived there typifies the type of operation that we were engaged in and the ingenuity of our people. This story had begun several months earlier back at Hurlburt. One morning Colonel King called Captain Piotrowski to his office and told him to pack his bags and depart for the Air Asia facilities in Taiwan. Upon arrival he was to locate and, with the help of the local maintenance people, make airworthy six B-26 aircraft. He was instructed to travel in civilian clothes and otherwise obscure his identity as a member of the 4400th CCTS or for that matter of the U.S. military. Air Asia was the maintenance facility on Taiwan that provided major maintenance service for Air America airplanes. Both organizations were leased or otherwise controlled by the CIA.



Upon arrival Pete found the B-26s in the local bone yard that were left over from the French campaign in Indochina following their defeat at Dien Bien Phu. Fortunately, the Marauders were in fairly good condition. Besides making the aircraft airworthy, Pete was to install a modification that would permit them to carry external bombs and rocket pods, in addition to the internal weapons that the B-26 was originally designed to carry. This modification was not very popular with our pilots because it slowed the aircraft by about 40 mph. It became affectionately referred to as the AKing Baldwin@ modification, a name derived from the Baldwin Locomotive steam engine that the pilots now thought the aircraft resembled aerodynamically. King wanted the extra bomb/rocket capacity for a very good reason. Guerrilla targets were both small and fleeting, lending themselves to a greater number of small bombs rather that a smaller number of large bombs. (In later years, even the massive B-52 carpet bombings seemed to have only marginal effect on the tactical progress of the war.) Further, Colonel King reasoned that defensive fire from guerrilla units would be weak at best, so the degradation of speed resulting from this modification would not present an undue hazard to the aircrews.

While Pete was recovering the B-26s, he was trying to maintain his civilian identity. On one occasion an Air Force Colonel was dispatched from the States by the Air Matériel Command (AMC) to see what was going on. Normally, retrieving airplanes from storage and returning them to flying condition was the job of AMC. However, following their procedures would take months rather than days, and Captain Piotrowski did not have that much time. Somehow or other, AMC heard about a guy over in Taiwan getting into their business, and they wanted to find out about it. To avoid having a confrontation with this irate Colonel, Pete hid out in the ammo dump every time the Colonel came on base. This cat-and-mouse game continued until the Colonel finally gave up and returned to the States.



After the aircraft were modified and ready to go, Pete checked out the Air Asia pilots who then flew the aircraft to Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, where our pilots would receive them. Before departure from Taiwan, Pete tried to put Vietnam insignias on these aircraft in accordance with King=s instructions, but the CIA people would have none of that and would not release the aircraft until he affixed USAF insignias.

Apparently, the CIA was gun-shy after the French fiasco at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. The French not only had lost many of these aircraft but had done little to protect the role of the CIA, who had supplied them with the B-26s in the first place. Thus, the CIA had felt very vulnerable and had been hesitant to release any more aircraft to a lowly Air Force Captain who possessed only obscure credentials.

* * *

The most potent weapon of the B-26 was its nose guns. Our version of the Marauder was referred to as the Ahard-nose@ model (as compared to the glass-nose version designed for level bombing). It contained eight forward-firing .50-caliber machine guns. If you zeroed in on a bamboo building and let go with all eight guns, the building exploded in front of your eyes. At night it was even more spectacular. Every fifth round was an incendiary bullet that allowed the pilot to determine the impact area of the ordnance. These tracers literally lit up the sky with flaming streaks. The ricochets coming off the ground added to this display, which must have been a frightening sight to someone on the ground. If the firing run was too long or too low, it was also disconcerting to the men in the cockpit, for these incendiaries would be flying up all around them. They also knew that for every tracer that saw buzzing by, there were four other .50- caliber slugs that they did not see but were also in the area.

* * *



back to top