PROJECT FARM GATE:
In parallel to the events in Laos, the situation in Vietnam was also developing in a way viewed with concern by the US government. The Geneva Accords of July 1954 had temporarily divided the country into two parts, pending free elections to be held in 1956. The bulk of the Viet Minh forces withdrew to the North during the second half of 1954 and most of the French troops left the country around the same time. As it turned out, President Diem of South Vietnam refused to hold elections, claiming that his country was not bound by the accords since it was not a signatory. There was no immediate reaction from North Vietnam, which at this time was concentrating on building up its own economy and solving its own internal problems.
In the South, there was growing dissatisfaction with the Diem government, which proved to be increasingly totalitarian and corrupt. Although the US government was at times rather less than enthusiastic about Diem, he still had their political backing. There was some sporadic guerrilla and terrorist activities in the South during 1955 1958 by stay behind communist cells, although as yet with only limited direct support from North Vietnam. But by late 1958 it was becoming apparent to the North Vietnamese that Diem's government, although weak and without popular support, was not about to collapse of its own accord. In May 1959 the Central Committee of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam therefore ratified a decision by the Politburo to intensify the campaign for reunification. This meant setting up training and guerrilla operations centers, and sending large groups of infiltrators into South Vietnam. The number of political assassinations increased dramatically during the latter part of 1959, and for the first time there were attacks on field units of the South Vietnamese Army. Finally, December 1960 saw the official creation of the National Liberation Front for South Vietnam, better known as the Viet Cong.
When President Kennedy came into office in January 1961, the Vietnam war was still largely a Vietnamese conflict, with virtually no direct US involvement. The Geneva Accords specifically banned any foreign troops or bases from Vietnam, and the US government had agreed to limit its military presence to a 685 man Military Assistance Advisory Group. Under pressure from the USA as well as from the Vietnamese themselves, the French had authorized the creation of the Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces in 1950. These were still of moderate size when the USA took over the military training duties from France in 1955, but by 1961 the army had grown to 170,000 men, organized along US lines and using US equipment. They initially outnumbered the Viet Cong forces by a factor of ten, but despite this the war was not going well for the South.
Following the clandestine dispatch of a few hundred additional advisors and Special Forces troops to Vietnam in the spring of 1961, the US government eventually decided to commit itself openly. Not everybody believed that the fall of Vietnam to communist rule would necessarily lead to the loss of the rest of Southeast Asia, but it was nevertheless felt that the time had come to take a firmer stand. Various proposals on the suitable composition of the US forces to be sent to Vietnam were drawn up during the summer and autumn of 1961, and many of these emphasized the importance of air support. President Diem was reluctant to request US ground combat units, but he too recognized the need for tactical aviation.
The first Vietnamese air units had been set up by the French in 1951, as an integrated part of the Army. The Không Quân Viêt Nam, the Vietnamese Air Force, usually abbreviated to VNAF, was formed on 1 July 1955. It initially consisted of 58 transport and liaison aircraft, organized into five squadrons. The 1st Fighter Squadron was created in June 1956, when twenty-three Bearcats were handed over to the VNAF by the French, and for the next few years this remained the only combat unit of the young air force, although kept at full strength by additional batches of Bearcats (for a total of sixty-nine, of which twenty-one were only used for spare parts). President Diem had also requested the French advisory team to create a B 26 squadron for his air force, but since both the French and the US advisors thought that the VNAF lacked the personnel and resources to equip and maintain a bomber unit, this request was refused.
By the late 1950s the Bearcats were becoming increasingly obsolete and worn out, and finding a suitable replacement became a priority issue. Since the Geneva Accords in effect prohibited the introduction of jet aircraft into Vietnam, the replacement would also have to be a piston-engined aircraft. After once more considering the B 26 as a possible candidate, the United States finally decided on the Skyraider, and the first of these began to replace the Bearcats from late 1960. In mid 1961, the VNAF could only muster a single combat squadron of twenty-five aircraft in the war against the Viet Cong. A second unit, the 2nd Fighter Squadron, was due to be formed with T 28s later in the year, but there was little prospect of any immediate expansion of the VNAF beyond that, although several additional Skyraider squadrons were to be formed a few years later.
This was the background to the initial deployment of US strike aircraft to South Vietnam. The USAF unit chosen for use in Vietnam was the 4400th Combat Crew Training Squadron of Tactical Air Command, also known as Project Jungle Jim. The squadron had been formed on the initiative of General Curtis E. LeMay in response to a presidential request for an increased US counter insurgency (COIN) capability - which was prompted by a Soviet pledge in January 1961 to support 'wars of liberation' - and was tasked with the development of tactics for a COIN rôle. The official date of formation was 14 April 1961, which happened to be the day on which Brigada 2506 sailed from Nicaragua for the Bay of Pigs, with the support of another classified American B 26 unit.
It was intended that the 4400th CCTS should be able to deploy anywhere in the world at short notice. In some ways, the squadron could be seen as a permanent version of the Mill Pond unit created in Thailand a few weeks earlier. It was likely to operate from primitive airfields with limited logistical support, and of necessity had to use fairly unsophisticated aircraft. A total of twenty-seven Invaders were taken out of storage at Davis Monthan AFB between March and September 1961, and reconditioned at Hill AFB for use by Jungle Jim. Once reconditioned, many went back into temporary storage, however, and by the end of 1961 the 4400th CCTS only had some fifteen B 26Bs on strength. The unit also used T 28s and SC 47s, again with additional aircraft held in temporary storage.
Jungle Jim had its main base at Hurlburt Field, also known as Auxiliary Field 9 of Eglin AFB, Florida. Hurlburt had seen extensive use during the Second World War, including training for Doolittle's Tokyo raid. Since 1945 it had mainly been used as a test facility, but on occasion it had also served as a base for medium bomber units. Under the command of Colonel Benjamin H. King, the all volunteer 4400th spent the next several months in training, with the first crews becoming ready for operations in September.
President Kennedy officially sanctioned the sending of US forces to Vietnam on 22 November 1961, but by this time the first aircraft of Jungle Jim had already arrived in the country. The President had authorized their deployment on 11 October. On 5 November about half the squadron - some 150 men, together with four SC 47s and eight T 28s - left Florida for Southeast Asia. This was Detachment 2A of the 4400th CCTS, which had received the project name Farm Gate for its service in Vietnam. It became operationally ready in Vietnam with some of its T 28s on 16 November. At the request of the US Ambassador to Vietnam, all Farm Gate aircraft carried Vietnamese national insignia, in order to keep a low profile.
From the outset, the main base of Farm Gate was Bien Hoa Air Base, some fifteen miles north of Saigon. This was a former French base, taken over by the VNAF on formation in 1955. It also housed the 1st Fighter Squadron of the VNAF. The Farm Gate aircraft were initially maintained and serviced by Detachment 9 of the 13th Air Force. The personnel of this unit were mainly drafted from the 6009th Tactical Support Group at Tachikawa, Japan, and had arrived in Vietnam in late October. Later on, the maintenance personnel were seconded from Hurlburt Field.
The initial main mission of Farm Gate was to provide training for the VNAF. There was considerable confusion as to whether or not the US crews could participate in actual combat missions, and Farm Gate received several conflicting directives from different sources. Although a few T 28 missions were flown in support of VNAF Skyraider attacks, the main employment of the unit during the last weeks of 1961 was to reconnoiter the junk traffic along the Vietnamese coast, using SC 47s and T 28s.
When deployed to Vietnam, the detachment had not brought any of its own B 26 aircraft. But, in anticipation of the arrival of the first Invaders a few weeks later, PACAF immediately set about securing spare parts for the aircraft. During the middle of November 1961, instructions were sent to bases in the 5th Air Force area to urgently ship all B 26 spares and engines to Clark Field in the Philippines. All boxes were to be marked 'Project Farm Gate' and no formal shipping documents were required. After having arrived at Clark, the materiel was simply listed as 'found on base,' thereby neatly avoiding a lot of red tape and time- consuming paper work. The total weight of the spares collected in this way was 64,404 lbs.
Farm Gate was initially allocated four B 26Bs already in Southeast Asia. All four were almost certainly aircraft formerly used by Project Mill Pond. They were picked up at the Air Asia facility on Taiwan by Farm Gate crews and arrived at Bien Hoa around Christmas 1961.
It should be noted that the USAF initially tended to refer to all Farm Gate Invaders as 'RB 26s' in their official releases, to imply that they were just harmless reconnaissance aircraft and therefore did not constitute a breach of the Geneva Accords. In reality, however, the B 26Bs were mainly used as strike aircraft, although equipped with one or two K 17C cameras for bomb damage assessment. A strike camera pod could also be carried externally, usually under the left wing.
In January the personnel of 4400th CCTS officially adopted the title of Air Commandos, thus taking up a tradition dating back to the Second World War. During the first quarter of 1962, Farm Gate began gradually to increase the number of combat sorties flown, although activity was still fairly low. Some night missions were also flown from January onwards, but at this early stage the 'flaming arrow' technique mentioned below had not yet been introduced, and the effect of these strikes was rather marginal.
During February, an air operations center was set up in South Vietnam and staffed with a mix of US and Vietnamese personnel, but there were a lot of problems before it was finally made to function properly. Several night incursions over South Vietnamese territory by unidentified aircraft took place during March and on at least two occasions B 26s were scrambled to intercept, but no contact was made with the intruders. These incidents resulted in the deployment of radar-equipped USAF and USN fighters to South Vietnam in late March 1962, as none of the Farm Gate aircraft were suited to air defence missions.
An organizational change took place during March 1962, when the 4400th CCTS became the 4400th Combat Crew Training Group. The following month it was reformed as the 1st Air Commando Group, and Farm Gate now became Detachment 2A of the 1st ACG. At this point there had already been a number of press reports in the USA of US pilots flying combat missions in Vietnam, and the training cover of the unit was wearing thin. After much debate between various high ranking officers and politicians, the following classified Concept of Operations had been agreed upon:
'To develop and improve tactics and techniques for COIN operations and to train the VNAF in such operations. Fulfillment of this task will greatly enhance the RVN [Republic of Vietnam] in country capability to eliminate the communist threat. Operational tasks in RVN include combat and combat support flights as an extension of the training mission. All FARM GATE operations are limited to within the borders of South Vietnam. Combat missions will only be flown when the VNAF lack the capability to conduct the mission (because of lack of aircraft, pilots, training, equipment, etc.) and then only with a combined USAF/VNAF crew aboard the aircraft. Such missions will be for the purpose of providing training for RVN personnel so that the VNAF can perform the missions required at the earliest possible time.'
In reality, no training of VNAF personnel was ever carried out using the B 26s. To satisfy the call for a 'combined USAF/VNAF crew,' any member of the VNAF with or without flight training, and regardless of whether he understood English or not would be put into the cramped jump seat behind the pilots. These Vietnamese airmen sometimes displayed a definite lack of enthusiasm for the proceedings and they filled no function during flight. However, on many occasions missions would be flown in co operation with strike aircraft of the VNAF.
In the second quarter of 1962, the number of missions increased three fold. The Farm Gate B 26s, like all other USAF strike aircraft in Vietnam, were subject to certain Rules of Engagement. In brief, these rules demanded that all day time strikes were carried out under the control of a Forward Air Controller, except when returning enemy ground fire. The FAC could be either airborne or on the ground. During the Farm Gate period, most airborne FACs belonged to the VNAF, which lead to additional problems. Not only were there relatively few VNAF FACs available, but many of them also had rather poor knowledge of English. This problem was commented upon in a report: 'The almost standard phraseology of the FAC is, "I drop smoke, you hit smoke." If the smoke grenade is dropped too high, i.e. 1,000 to 1,500 ft, the grenade detonates in the air and the smoke blows off with the wind. It is not uncommon for a ten or twenty minute discussion to take place in an attempt to determine just where the target is in relation to the smoke.' The report drily concluded: 'It is at this point in the COIN environment that favorable endurance becomes a desirable factor.'
To supplement the four RF 101Cs of Project Able Mable, two RB 26Cs previously used in Thailand by Project Black Watch were re assigned to South Vietnam in April 1962, arriving at Bien Hoa during the following month. Like most of the CIA's 'sanitized' Invaders, they were devoid of manufacturing plates and documentation, and carried some non-standard, civilian type equipment. The RB 26Cs which, to confuse things, the Farm Gate personnel sometimes called B 26Cs could be used for both strike and reconnaissance missions. They carried up to four internal cameras of different types, as well as an external camera pod. In many cases, the RB 26 was found to be more suitable than the RF 101 for the type of reconnaissance missions undertaken in Vietnam. During their first months in Vietnam, the RB 26s were, among other things, used to map the areas where new airfields were to be built in the years to follow. The former Black Watch aircraft also continued to be employed for reconnaissance missions over Laotian territory, and for this purpose were sometimes temporarily based at the Don Muang Airport just north of Bangkok in Thailand.
But most of the Farm Gate missions involved air strikes, against Viet Cong positions throughout South Vietnam. The following entries are extracts from the personal diary of Colonel Roy Dalton, then a Captain and a B 26 pilot. They give an idea of what the Vietnamese air war was like during the early years of the conflict.
Friday 21 September 1962:
'No scramble last night but up at 0345 for a [C-]123 defoliation escort mission in the Delta. Very bad weather going down. Flew at from 200 to 800 ft, was dark, raining and low clouds...After 123s left FAC stated he had targets for us. Huts and boats hidden under trees in VC training area. Destroyed about 7 boats and 2 huts. Coming back, when we hit the Mekong, weather got very bad. Flew up the river toward BH [Bien Hoa] at 100 ft and could just barely see the ground. Near BH weather cleared to about 500 ft. Runway was slick.'
Monday 8 October 1962:
'Out on strike this morning. Terrain very difficult. A valley about 1½ miles long by ½ mile wide with one end closed by mountain and other open. Stream in the middle with rice paddies and houches. The steep sides of the mountains are covered with jungle. The FAC marked at each end and stated that all in between was target area plus one village on the rim. This was a reported VC Battalion training area. We destroyed the village and set lots of fires up and down the valley. Very difficult to get in close and pull up. We saw zip but FAC reported ground fire. The valley was very pretty. I sometimes wonder if we aren't making more enemies for the local government than we are doing good. Sure hope their intelligence was right. On the way back we lost # one engine. Feathered and returned home.'
Monday 25 October 1962:
'Strike this morning. Caught VC on the ground. Number killed unknown [later confirmed at thirty-one]. Mission in support of helicopter assault operation. We flew cover, T 28s flew prestrike sorties. We observed choppers coming and "Butterfly", our FAC, called and put smoke in and directed us to an area about ¼ mile from a bridge. We put in napalm on visible VC. A guess would be 15 to 30. Second pass we straffed. We hit around bridge with napalm and guns as FAC called "many VC in area". Went back up and orbited for another hour and tacked onto a flight of three VNAF AD 6s. Put rest of our ordnance on their target. Headed for home and got call from L 28. Said I was right above him and he had VC on ground. Picked up four VC running and put in short burst, two fell and two made it to a ditch. A chopper hit the two in the ditch.'
Friday 16 November 1962:
'Fri flew strike in Delta. Was giving close air support to ground operation when five hidden boats were found. Got three. Couldn't hit my butt. Everyone else busy so even though I have duty officer, Charlie and I pull alert. Got scrambled at 2300. Fort under attack at Can Tho. Covered it for two hours. Appeared to be good mission. Fort called flareship and told them to thank us. Had been up since 0600 Friday morning. Finally got to bed at 0330 Sat morning.'
Saturday 17 to Monday 19 November 1962:
'Slept most of Sat. Duty officer Sunday. Poker Sun night. Lost $12. Flew mission # 100 Monday. Made a total of 25 passes on a large target area. Hit boats, houches and personnel. Word came in on Friday night's fort defense mission. 18 VC confirmed KIA.'
Tuesday 20 November 1962:
'Zip today. Yesterday's mission. 6 structures, 14 boats and 25 VC confirmed KIA. They certainly were everywhere. Dave...told me about one of their missions. The FAC directed them at VCs under trees. Just before they dropped Dave saw women under a tree. They didn't drop and pulled off. We agreed that it sometimes gets to be a gut call. The FAC, who is Vietnamese, is in a position to see and he directs the fire, still it's pretty bad sometimes. Some time I'm going to add up the total KIAs and destruction and then again it would probably be better if I didn't.'
There were two B 26 losses during the autumn. The first of these was RB 26C 44 35813, seriously damaged at Bien Hoa on 10 October. 'My camera crew was uploading photo flash cartridges for a night photo mission,' Colonel (then Captain) Jimmy Ifland recalls. 'Although properly grounded, all cartridges ejected from their dispenser during camera preflight and exploded four seconds later on the ramp beneath the aircraft. As you can imagine, there was quite an explosion - eye witnesses claimed that the aircraft was lifted off the ground four to six feet (I find that hard to believe). Fortunately, there was no fire, although the aircraft had just been fully fuelled. My two Camera Repairmen, who were both in the cockpit running the preflight, frantically climbed out of the aircraft and ran to the tip of the wings and then leaped to the ground - both suffering broken ankles, wrists, etc, and needless to say having the s--- scared out of them.' The reason for the accident was never fully established, but was thought to be stray voltage across the flare firing pins due to a nearby thunderstorm. The Invader was eventually patched up sufficiently for a one-time, gear-down flight to the depot at Tan Son Nhut, where it was given further work and then flown to Clark Field for refurbishing. It was subsequently returned to service, but only after very extensive repairs.
The other loss was a B 26B shot down in the Mekong Delta on an outpost air support mission during the night of 4 5 November. The night sorties formed an important part of the Farm Gate mission in South Vietnam. The VNAF had no night time strike capability at this point, and consequently the Farm Gate B 26s and T 28s were the only aircraft available for air support between sunset and dawn.
Most of the night sorties flown were in support of outposts, and this was a very demanding type of mission. Flares were dropped over the target by Farm Gate C 47s, or by VNAF C 47s with American co pilots (a total of thirty USAF C 47 pilots, known as the 'Dirty Thirty,' were on loan to the VNAF), and the B 26 worked under the flares, placing ordnance under the direction of a ground controller inside the outpost. Sometimes the B 26 had direct radio contact with the ground forces, and sometimes the instructions had to be relayed by the C 47. In some cases there was no radio contact at all, and the drops were made by observing the flashes from the ground fire, or in the direction the outpost's 'flaming arrow' was pointing: most outposts were equipped with one of these arrows, consisting of flare pots or electric lights on a large platform which could be rotated to show the direction of the enemy. A simpler alternative consisted of straw or reeds laid out in an arrow shape and set on fire. In most cases, however, the Viet Cong broke off the attack as soon as the air support arrived.
Invariably the tactic was to drop some napalm first. This gave the pilot a better ground reference and rockets, bombs and guns could then be used as required. Working at night, under flares and using suction gyros, with poorly lit cockpits and either bad weather or light reflecting off water filled rice paddies, was guaranteed to give the pilot a severe case of vertigo, and only extensive training made such missions possible. But they were still seen as the most rewarding missions, since they challenged the skill of the crews and also because the results were immediately obvious. The provision for a navigator in the B 26 was a decided advantage at night. The antiquated cockpit lighting system of the Invader often made it necessary for the navigator to use a flashlight, however, in order to find the armament switches. The obsolete instrumentation also provided some additional hazards, as a report observed: 'The navigator assists at night by giving the pilot a friendly tap on the shoulder when approaching minimum altitudes.'
'Ops Duty officer tonight,' Roy Dalton wrote in his diary for the night of 4 5 November 1962. 'Things quiet until about 2015. One C 47 and B 26 were scrambled to the Delta...Got them off OK. Then at 2300 scrambled another 26. Bennett and Tully took this one. First 26 got back about 2400. At 0130 got word that the flareship had lost contact with the 26 and saw fire on the ground. Called Lt Col Doyle [the Farm Gate commander] and scrambled another 47 and 26. At sun up JOC [Joint Operations Center] sent two VNAF AD 6s and we sent another 47 to act as radio relay. Had been up for 24 hours so went to tent to sleep. Doyle went to area in L 28. Got up about 0900 and heard that one of the ADs was also down and that the 26 had been located. Went to the line about noon. The AD pilot had been killed and also Bennett, Tully and the VNAF on board. Bennett was my room mate. In a four man hut Charlie and I have lost two room mates. Doyle had a meeting about 2000. They, of course will never know exactly what happened. Shot down or just flat flew into the ground. That's easy at night on napalm runs. The VC had gotten to the A/C and taken everything available. The bodies were recovered.'
This was the third USAF strike aircraft lost in Vietnam, the previous ones being two T 28s shot down in August and October. In addition, a B 26 was damaged when the undercarriage collapsed during a landing in July 1962, and another Invader lost an engine to ground fire on 13 November. Several other aircraft also received superficial damage from small arms fire.
The serviceability of the B 26 initially left a few things to be desired. During the second half of 1962, only an average of 54.5 per cent of the Invaders were serviceable at any given time. This was by far the lowest figure for any contemporary USAF aircraft in Vietnam. In comparison, the T 28s managed an average of 80.3 per cent serviceability.
In providing information for this chapter, Roy Dalton commented: 'I was surprised when I reread the diary to note the difficulties we had with the aircraft and armament systems. Keep in mind that these were aircraft that had probably been used in WW II and certainly in Korea. They were old and had had little modification...However, every man associated with the operation was dedicated to make it work. Therefore we had few qualms about flying aircraft that might not be 100%. Had we not done so, operating under the conditions with which we were faced, we would not have been effective.' The below list details the malfunctions encountered by him during a three month period in 1962:
16 Aug Six bombs stuck in bomb bay
20 Aug Bombs in bomb bay failed to release
22 Aug Could get only 50" manifold pressure on no. 1 engine
No.2 engine backfired if throttle was moved rapidly
Gear handle came up only when manual detent button used
(Aircraft flown anyway)
2 Sep Rockets failed to fire
5 Sep Airborne radio failure
20 Sep Bombs fell out of bomb bay when battery switched on
26 Sep Hydraulic line on brakes blew on landing
28 Sep No. 2 engine failed on pull out from bomb drop
30 Sep Brake failure on landing
2 Oct Left magneto failed on run up
7 Oct Hydraulic leak in left wheel well on start up
Right generator out
Right cowl flap inoperable
Only two of eight guns would fire
(Aircraft flown anyway)
8 Oct No.1 engine failed on return from strike; feathered
12 Nov Unsafe gear indicator (bad switch)
To a large extent, these problems were due to the age of the aircraft and the limited rehabilitation given them before being sent to Vietnam. The Invaders had between 1,800 and 4,000 flying hours each, and had been through varied degrees of modification. A report from April 1963, at which point fourteen aircraft were at hand, remarked that, 'none of the B 26s at FARM GATE are configured alike. Each IRAN depot and each work package change within each depot resulted in some variation in electrical wiring, communications equipment, location of cockpit controls, etc. As one result, valid wiring diagrams do not exist for many of the aircraft...Armament switches for the various stores and stations are placed in five separate locations in each of the four different armament switch configurations within the B 26 fleet.'
These variations in aircraft configuration had caused exactly the same problems for the USAF squadrons using the B 26 in Korea. They, too, had received aircraft which had been in storage for several years, and only given a minimum of rehabilitation before being sent to the combat units. Apparently these lessons had been forgotten by the time the Invaders were wheeled out of storage for the second time.
But, all in all, the B 26s were still effective aircraft, and were considered definitely superior to the T 28s. Despite the slow start, Farm Gate had flown a total of 1,135 B 26 combat sorties by the end of 1962, and some crews had completed over 100 missions in less than four months. Four additional B 26Bs had arrived at Bien Hoa during the summer. The first two, ferried in from Kadena on Okinawa in June, were in very poor shape, and both had to limp in to Clark on one engine for emergency repairs before eventually reaching Bien Hoa.
Farm Gate also received four Helio U 10A (formerly L 28A) Super Couriers during the year, and on New Year's Day 1963 the total unit strength stood at twenty-four aircraft, or almost forty per cent of the total number of USAF aircraft in South Vietnam. This total included seven B 26Bs and one RB 26C. Although the whole of South Vietnam could be covered from the base at Bien Hoa, three B 26s were based further north at Pleiku from that day, to improve the response time. From February 1963, the strength of the detachment increased to six B 26s. On occasion, B 26s were also temporarily based at Da Nang.
The military situation had remained fairly stable during 1962, with neither the Viet Cong nor the South Vietnamese forces achieving any decisive victories. If anything, the Viet Cong forces were somewhat worse off than a year earlier. The resentment of the Diem regime had deepened, however, partly as a result of the 'fortified hamlets' concept. Under this scheme, a large part of the rural population was more or less forcibly relocated to newly constructed villages under stricter government control.
A half hearted attack by a South Vietnamese regiment at Ap Bac on 2 January 1963 resulted in several casualties among the participating US advisors, while the Viet Cong troops escaped under cover of darkness. The incident was seen by many as an example of the low morale and general ineptitude of the South Vietnamese forces, and there were calls for increased US control of the war. But even before this battle, President Kennedy had approved a request for Farm Gate reinforcements made the previous September. General Anthis, the US air component commander in Vietnam, had asked for ten more B 26s and five more T 28s and these arrived from late January 1963 onwards. In fact, it appears that eleven rather than ten new B 26s arrived at this time. Unlike the previous B 26s and RB 26s allocated to Farm Gate, which had all come from other classified projects and had only received limited overhauls, the new arrivals had all been through a complete IRAN at Hill AFB under Project Big Fence. General Anthis later also asked for a further B 26 squadron of twenty-five aircraft, but this never materialized.
Two of the new aircraft reaching Farm Gate in early 1963 were rather special Invaders, known as RB 26Ls. They had been modified by General Dynamics at Fort Worth - with assistance from E-Systems at nearby Greenville - during 1962, under Project Sweet Sue. Apart from the multitude of conventional cameras and associated equipment carried by both aircraft, one of them was also equipped with a Reconofax VI infrared aerial mapping system, which could be used for night time surveillance of suspected Viet Cong lines of march and communication. The two RB 26Ls arrived at Bien Hoa on 3 March 1963 and from 5 March they were flown daily, on a maximum effort basis, virtually replacing the RB-26Cs in the reconnaissance role. At this point they were the only aircraft in South Vietnam with any real night reconnaissance capability, apart from the single RC 97 of Project Brave Bull. Unfortunately, the infrared system was difficult to be made to work properly in the damp and dusty climate, and did not prove as effective as originally hoped for. A third RB 26L was kept at Eglin in Florida, for training. It was also employed on a moose count project in Isle Royale National Park, Michigan!
By 1 April 1963 the Farm Gate strike aircraft strength stood at twelve B 26Bs and thirteen T 28Bs. The number of personnel had more than doubled, to around 350, but there was still only one air crew available for each aircraft. Together with the two VNAF squadrons, which had a total of some fifty Skyraiders and T 28s, these twenty-five aircraft formed the only dedicated air strike capability in South Vietnam. The planning called for a further increase of Farm Gate strength, the target figure for the Invader being eighteen aircraft on hand in Vietnam, including the RB 26Ls. A further three Invaders were to be held in reserve within the Pacific Air Forces area. This target was reached for a brief period in mid 1963, but later the number decreased gradually to a dozen or so aircraft at hand, mainly due to the increasing aircraft losses during the year and the need to rotate aircraft to Taiwan for maintenance.
The last four B 26s to be received by Farm Gate, arriving at Bien Hoa in the summer of 1963, were survivors of the CIA operation in Indonesia in 1958. They differed from all other B 26Bs in Vietnam in still having their wing guns mounted. As explained elsewhere, all the aircraft involved in Indonesia had been struck off charge as 'obsolete' in 1957, and officially they no longer existed. Three of those given to Farm Gate had been reserve aircraft during the operation, and had spent most of the time since 1958 in storage with Air Asia in Taiwan as CIA assets, until finally being allocated to Farm Gate in the spring of 1963. The fourth is probably the one which managed to intrigue even the Farm Gate personnel. In a report it is mentioned that one of the B 26s 'was "found" at Clark Air Base in 1961 and put into commission for a ferry flight to Tainan for limited clean up. No historical records exist for the aircraft and the accountability of the aircraft itself remains a puzzle.' It is quite likely that the aircraft in question was 44 34376, which had participated in actual operations in Indonesia. When the operation was wound down it had presumably been flown back to Clark, where nobody was terribly eager to get involved with this 'non existent' bomber. So it was simply ignored and left to rot in some quiet corner of the field, until eventually brought to Taiwan in 1961.
A report from 1963, titled 'Tactical Analysis of B/RB 26 Aircraft in Republic of Vietnam,' listed the various types of COIN missions undertaken in Vietnam, and analyzed the strength and weakness of the B 26 in each one. The following is a summary of the findings. The percentages given indicate the proportion of each type of mission, out of the total number of Invader combat missions flown during the first quarter of 1963.
This heading covered all strikes against a pre determined target, with the exception of close air support, and was by far the most common type of mission. The B 26 was considered effective in this rôle, judging from the mission results reported by ground forces. Since the targets attacked were often buildings or structures in wooded or jungle areas, they were seldom observed directly by the B 26 crews. The crews had to rely totally on the directions of the FACs.
Close Air Support (18%):
The B 26 was found to be suitable for air support of friendly ground forces, mainly because the variety and amount of ordnance carried permitted sustained delivery of firepower against multiple and varied targets. However, firing patterns generally had to be made to the left, since the pilot could not see his target in a right hand turn. This rather restricted the options in any given situation and made the strike patterns more predictable. But the Viet Cong apparently never caught on to this.
As already mentioned, the B 26 was found to be particularly suitable for outpost defence at night, which accounted for about a quarter of the close air support missions flown. This was of major importance, since most Viet Cong activity took place at night.
Air Cover (15%):
The long endurance of the B 26, giving it up to five hours over the target, made it effective in this rôle. A major problem, however, was the lack of compatible communications. The Vietnamese ground forces primarily used VHF FM radios, while the Farm Gate aircraft were equipped with VHF AM radios. This meant that all information had to be relayed through an airborne VNAF FAC, even if there was a FAC on the ground. From August 1962, VHF FM was gradually introduced in the B 26s, but it was a very slow process.
Photo Reconnaissance (13%):
Around 70% of the photo targets assigned were not completed due to low cloud ceiling, particularly in the mountainous I and II Corps areas. Another problem was that the pilot could not sight directly over the nose of the RB 26, so the navigator had to move to the nose position to direct him.
Again, the favourable endurance of the B 26 made it suited for most escort duties. Escorting trains or convoys was accomplished by a slowly advancing race track pattern, always keeping within sight of the escorted vehicles. No attacks were ever carried out against any escorted vehicles, at least not up to mid 1963. The B 26 was less suited for helicopter escort, due to its poor low speed capabilities.
Armed Reconnaissance (5%):
The long endurance of the B 26 theoretically made it suitable. However, since no strikes could be undertaken without a FAC, it was not much use flying this type of mission: even if a target was spotted it could not be attacked. Armed reconnaissance was therefore only carried out during deployment flights, seldom yielding intelligence and never resulting in strikes.
Visual Reconnaissance (0%):
Since the B 26s could be more profitably used on strike missions, visual reconnaissance was usually left to other types of aircraft.
The B 26 could theoretically carry a total of 7,500 pounds of disposable armament. But in Vietnam they seldom carried more than 6,000 pounds, and usually even less. One reason was the condition of the runway at Bien Hoa. Up to April 1963, when a 10,000 feet concrete runway was built, it was only 5,300 feet long and consisted mainly of deteriorating pierced steel planking. Since many of the strike missions were carried out in mountain terrain, it was also important to have the extra climb performance given by a lighter load. A typical ramp alert ordnance load consisted of two 500 lb napalm bombs and two LAU 3A 2.75" rocket launchers under the wings, plus six 100 lb GP bombs and six 120 lb frag clusters in the bomb bay. In addition, each nose gun had 350 rounds of .50 ammunition, giving a total ordnance load of about 4,000 pounds. Other alternative loads included six napalm bombs under the wings and twelve frag clusters in the bomb bay. Or two rocket pods and four 500 lb GP bombs under the wings, and six more in the bomb bay.
The minimum release altitude for bombs was usually 1,600 feet, with a pull out altitude of 1,000 feet to avoid bomb blast damage. Bombs were normally delivered in steep dives, and conventional straight and level bombing missions were rarely if ever flown. Rockets and guns were fired at considerably lower altitudes, while napalm was dropped as low as 50 200 feet.
A major problem was the two G load limitation imposed on seven of the Farm Gate B 26s after it had been discovered that the original waist gun optic sight mount, replaced by a plywood floor during previous IRANs, had been part of the load bearing structure of the fuselage. Most of the ordnance delivered by these aircraft therefore had to be released at a fairly high altitude, to permit a gentle recovery.
The rehabilitation status of the B 26s improved during 1963, with aircraft being rotated to Air Asia on Taiwan, or to Clark Air Base for IRANs. Some of the in country maintenance work was also contracted out to Air Vietnam. But there was still reason to agree with the report claiming that, 'to term the present B 26 an unsophisticated aircraft is to pay it an unwarranted compliment,' and the type was still seen as temporary equipment only, pending more suitable equipment, such as the Skyraider or the B 26K then under development.
During 1962, most B 26 missions had been carried out by single aircraft, while the T 28s usually flew in pairs. But with the loss of two Invaders to ground fire in February 1963, and the near doubling of the number of available aircraft, it became common to use pairs of B 26s instead of single aircraft, so that one Invader could suppress the ground fire while the other one carried out the actual strike. Similarly, T 28 missions were often increased from two to four aircraft.
In February 1963, General LeMay argued that it was now well known that Farm Gate was a purely American unit and that it was time to stop pretending otherwise: to continue to run it as a classified operation was just an administrative burden. The classification was dropped during the spring of 1963 and on 8 July that year the unit was reformed as the 1st Air Commando Squadron (Composite) of the 34th Tactical Group: a regular and official USAF combat squadron, dropping the pretense that they were in any way controlled by the VNAF. The Farm Gate aircraft were at this point officially assigned to 2nd Air Division Headquarters. This organizational change made little difference to the rôle of the unit, and missions continued to be carried out much in the same way as before. However, the two RB 26Ls and two RB 26Cs now operated under the direction of Detachment 1 of the 33rd Tactical Group at Tan Son Nhut. Now that Farm Gate was no longer classified, some attempts were made to drop the code name, but it had become so well known throughout the USAF that it was finally decided to keep it.
Around this time, the national insignia on most of the aircraft were also repainted to resemble USAF markings. But it appears that not too much effort was put into this change, and the result was often a mix between USAF and VNAF insignia. As before, they were usually only applied to the fuselage sides. The only other markings normally carried by the Farm Gate Invaders was the black serial number on the fin. Most of their early aircraft had a natural metal finish with anti glare panels and engine nacelles in black. Later aircraft, which had been through the IRAN program at Hill, were overall grey (FS 595a 36373) rather than natural metal. A few Invaders, those received from CIA stocks at Tainan, were overall black and had their serials painted in red.
The unit personnel received some official, albeit indirect recognition in November 1963, when the 4400th CCTS was awarded the Air Force Outstanding Unit Award for the period May 1961 to May 1962. Although the Farm Gate operations were not specifically cited in the award, they had no doubt been taken into consideration during the selection work.
The US military involvement in Vietnam had continued to grow at a modest pace, but there were still formal plans for a phasing out of the troops in the not too distant future. The total collapse of the Diem regime during the last part of 1963, culminating in the murder of President Diem himself in early November, plus the successful Viet Cong offensive towards the end of the year, finally led to all such plans for a US withdrawal being shelved in early 1964.
Many members of the US government were convinced that the Viet Cong was wholly dependent on aid and control from Hanoi, despite intelligence analyses to the contrary. A programme of covert operations against North Vietnam was therefore put into action in February 1964, in an effort to put pressure on the North Vietnamese. However, these operations were unlikely to have any decisive effect, and on 17 March President Johnson ordered that detailed planning for more direct action was to be carried out. These plans included bombing raids against military and possibly also industrial targets in North Vietnam, to be carried out by the VNAF and by Farm Gate, the latter reinforced for this purpose by three squadrons of B 57s to be flown in from Japan. The plans were never carried out and it was not until a year later that the first USAF bombing of targets in North Vietnam took place.
But even if the plans had been implemented immediately, it would have made little difference to Farm Gate: time had finally caught up with their B 26s. The heavy underwing loads used by Farm Gate imposed high negative G forces on the wings when taxiing the aircraft on the bumpy airfields in Vietnam, and the structures were becoming increasingly fatigued. The fact that the aircraft were used as dive bombers did not help either, especially as the aircraft initially had no G meter to tell the crew how many Gs they were pulling. (G meters may have been fitted after 1962, however.) After a B 26 had lost a wing during a mission on 16 August 1963, strict limitations were imposed on the stressing allowed during missions. But when Captains Herman S. Moore and Lawrence L. Lively were killed in B 26B number 44 35665 on 11 February 1964, the decision was taken to withdraw the B 26 from combat altogether. Moore and Lively had been flying in a fire power demonstration at Eglin AFB range 52 when the left wing of their aircraft separated during pull out from a strafing run.
When news of this second accident reached Vietnam, one B 26 was airborne on a strike mission. The crew were given orders by radio to return immediately to Bien Hoa, making sure not to put any undue stress on the aircraft on their way back. From this day on, the Farm Gate B 26s were, for all practical purposes, grounded.
The conversion of B-26Bs into B 26Ks had commenced in November 1963, with the intention of replacing the Farm Gate B 26s during the second half of 1964, but there was no way the old, unconverted B 26s could be kept in service until then. The remaining thirteen aircraft were flown to Clark Field during the first week of April, where they were officially taken on charge by the Super Sabre-equipped 405th Tactical Fighter Wing. Four of them were to become involved in the Congo operations, and two RB 26s made it back to the USA to be reclaimed at Hill AFB, but the majority were scrapped in the Philippines in late 1964 or early 1965.
The T 28s of Farm Gate had also started suffering losses from structural failures by the spring of 1964, and as a consequence they, too, were withdrawn, temporarily putting the unit 'out of business.' Beginning in May 1964, an initial twenty-five Skyraiders were received as replacements for the B 26s and T 28s, and this type became the standard equipment of all the Air Commando squadrons in Vietnam for the next few years.
The training squadron at Hurlburt Field, by now known as the 602nd Fighter Squadron (Composite) of the 1st Air Commando Wing, had also had their old B 26s grounded in February. By the end of April most had gone to Davis Monthan for temporary storage or directly to On Mark for conversion to B 26Ks, with the last stragglers leaving Hurlburt in late June. This left only three B 26Bs (44 34350, 34596 and 35428) in squadron hands, with the 605th Air Commando Squadron at Howard in the Panama Canal Zone, but on 12 October 1964 the last of these also arrived at Davis Monthan for storage. Thus ended the twenty years of first line service of the B 26B/C and the RB 26 with the US armed forces.
Although really outside the scope of this book, it may be appropriate to give some details of the few B 26s, other than On Mark conversions, remaining on USAF strength after this date. Five former Air Commando B 26Bs remained in storage at Davis Monthan until October 1969, when they were authorized for reclaimation, together with JB 26C serial 44 35627 used for testing at Detroit until July 1965, and B 26C N800W (44 35725) employed by the Weather Bureau until February 1965. The three VB 26Bs of the Air National Guard Headquarters at Andrews AFB were struck off charge on 19 November 1969 (44 34665), 10 December 1970 (44 34360) and 12 October 1972 (44 34610), respectively.
But these were all outlived by B 26B serial 44 35232 used as an instructional airframe by the Inter American Air Forces Academy at Albrook in the Canal Zone since the 1950s. Admittedly, the aircraft had not flown for many years by the time it was terminated as 'obsolete' on 17 June 1974, but it had been kept in flyable condition and was not re designated as a GB 26B (meaning 'permanently grounded') until November 1973. It did, in fact, even outlive the last A 26A on USAF charge by more than a year.