The Air Commandos

  • Published
  • By Chief Master Sgt. Edison T. Blair
A sign over the doorway of a squat white building near the Hurlburt Field, Fla., runway of Eglin Air Force Base declares, "The Mission of the Air Force is to Fight."

(Editor's note: This article is reprinted from Airman Magazine, September 1962.)

The men wearing tennis shorts and sneakers, flying suits, bloused-legged fatigues, and combat boots who pass through this doorway are members of the 6th Fighter Squadron (Commando).

Sixth Fighter is part of the 1st Air Commando Group, a re-activated outfit with a pride-stirring World War II history of behind-the-lines fighting in the Burma campaign. It is also a throwback in this jet age, and about the most unorthodox, most dedicated collection of rugged individuals in the U.S. Air Force. These men are participating in the strangest war in the history of the United States, battling communism on terms and terrain of the enemy's choosing.

This is not a shooting war for these men. Yet as they train they fly planes with hot guns, live bombs, and rockets. Men of the 1st Air Commando Group have died in this hottest of cold wars. Their most potent weapons, as strange as the war itself, are their esprit de corps; their toughness, determination, and ingenuity; their ability to do almost any job by the most direct means. They teach the use of tactical air power against insurrection.

They are experts in the art of counterinsurgency, says Brig. Gen. Gilbert L. Pritchard, commander of the USAF Special Air Warfare Center, parent organization of the 1st ACG and its research and development sister, the 1st Combat Application Group. They have been sharpening their techniques for nearly a year at the request of the government of South Vietnam.

In this sort of undeclared war, the general explained, traditional masses of military force are of little use. The communist infiltrates the country and becomes a part of the population where he foments insurgency, organizes guerrilla forces, and tries to impose his control and politics upon the people. Only the people of the country involved can identify and fight the guerrilla. The role of the 1st Air Commando Group is to demonstrate the use of aircraft and train allied Airmen to rout out and fight the guerrilla in his natural element.

The commandos are living contradictions of the "Ugly American." They live and work with the men who fight. Their classroom is the flight line, the cockpit, and the cargo compartments of airplanes flying over guerrilla-infested territory. The paradoxical 1st Air Commando Group contradicts almost all of the conventional rules except those that early in our own history converted a group of non-conforming colonists into the strongest, most advanced nation in the world.

There are no firmly drawn battle lines in a guerrilla war. Counterinsurgency tactical training takes these airmen dangerously close to the enemy. Flying crews are especially vulnerable to capture. Korea disclosed the communist techniques of getting intelligence from downed Airman and the propaganda use they made of it. Because the commandos don't intend to give the communists any information other than their name, rank, and serial number if captured, this article will not mention them by name nor identify them with photos.

We called the commandos a throwback in the jet age. They are.

The 6th Fighter Squadron, for instance, isn't equipped with Century-series jets. Their most versatile aircraft is the World War II B-26 Invader. It carries .50-caliber machine guns in its nose, rockets under its wings, and a wide variety of bombs in its belly. A platform hung from the bomb bay carries cargo, or becomes a jumping off place for paratroopers.

The 13-year old T-28 Trojan was built as a primary and basic fighter trainer, but it resembles and behaves much like the old P-47 Thunderbolt, better known as the "Jug" by the aces who flew it. The pilots of the 6th Fighter Squadron are flying the T-28 just as the old "Jug" was flown. But they have added rocket pods and anything else effective against guerrillas.

The only new plane in the 1st ACG inventory is the L-28, a four-place, high-wing, all metal monoplane originally designed as an executive aircraft. The commandos have nicknamed it the "Super Spad" after the most effective warplane flown by the old Air Service during World War I. It does an outstanding job on reconnaissance, and on small supply drops with a one-man crew. The "Super-Spad" does exceptionally well on infiltration and exfiltration jobs. The plane lands, discharges its load, and takes off in any clearing the size of a football field where a jeep can do 30 miles per hour. All without turning around.

The 319th Troop Carrier Squadron (Commando) looks after the group's heavy hauling needs with their equally antiquated but reliable C-47 "Gooney Birds" and C-46 Commandos. It could be that some of these very same planes first earned their keep flying the Hump during World War II with the original 1st Air Commando group. The only difference in then and now, General Pritchard says, is that then they fought, now they teach. This same equipment is available to every country that is sociologically, politically, or economically vulnerable to communist-inspired insurrection and infiltration.

We have said that the 1st Air Commando Group is unorthodox.

They dress for work like no other members of the Air Force. The fatigues and combat boots are standard items of issue, but they wear them differently. The starched and carefully creased pants are bloused over polished boot tops. The fatigue shirt is worn tucked in. Mechanics on the flight line shed the shirt and work in white T-Shirts with their rank insignia stenciled on the left chest. There's always a rag handy to wipe grease and grime off the boots.

Their hat is the crowning inconsistency. It is made of quilt-stitched denim with a wide floppy brim. Unless a local contractor has been found recently they are bought in Southeast Asia. The first commandos deployed to South Vietnam found the local product did an excellent job of shading the face and neck from the broiling tropical sun. They adopted the hat immediately for off-duty wear.

The hat is even more pliable than a cowboy's 10-gallon felt, and it can express the wearer's personality equally well. The Airmen began pinning back the floppy brim with personal souvenirs, frequently one of the metal uniform devices given to them by a Vietnamese buddy. The group commander recognized the morale value of the hat and authorized it as part of the uniform for those who served in South Vietnam. More recently the hat was authorized by the Air Force for all airmen in the group -- all except the combat controllers, who already had their distinctive headgear, a black beret.

Except for the color, it resembles the green beret worn by the Army Special Forces troops. The combat controllers work hand in glove with the special forces so the black beret serves to identify them, their specialized job, and their branch of service even when mixed with troops wearing the same battle dress.

There are other differences found in the 1st ACG. The 6th Fighter Squadron has no first sergeant and only two enlisted airmen, an Air Traffic Specialist and a Personnel Equipment Technician. Like the pilot-officers, they do whatever needs doing. Everyone has at least two jobs. The squadron has no written standing operating procedures. One of the commanders -- they have several fully qualified but only one at a time filling the slot--explained that the absence of SOPs ensures top efficiency. The admonishment "Shape up or I'll write it out" corrects any lax tendencies.

All the officers are experienced pilots or navigators, fully aware of the unit's mission and able to do it without supervision. The only two administrative slots are those of commander and operations officer. Both are filled by combat-ready, sortie-flying pilots. Among these officers are multi-engine jet jockeys, some engineers, some school teachers, a could-be astronaut, and a preacher with a degree from West Point, an Air Force commission, and navigator's wings. They have but few problems they can't solve among themselves.

The rest of the Air Force follows Air Force regulation and AF Manual 66-1 which set down the policies, rules, and methods of aircraft maintenance. The 1st Air Materiel Squadron (Commando) doesn't. It can't. Sometimes it has more airplanes than maintenance men in one or another of its operating locations. In this gung ho organization there are no specialists, just wrench-twisting mechanics. Sure, every man has a primary and control AFSC. But the armament man helps the electrician, the radio man can help change a tire, the prop specialist helps the hydraulic man. One man's job is everybody's responsibility. Even the orderly room is staffed by mechanics on loan from the flight line.

Respect is earned in the 1st Commando Group and every member is respected, not for who he is but for what he does and how well. The maintenance boss, commander of the materiel squadron, is a wiry, soft-voiced major whose opinion is never questioned by mechanics, pilots, or commanders. He started both his maintenance and his flying career with a crop-dusting plane in Arkansas before World War II. He flew the duster and pulled his own maintenance. An Airman working "just a couple of hours overtime" on the line described the major as "the best maintenance officer in the Air Force." He said it emphatically, even a little belligerently, as if ready to back it up with his fists.

The man had just repeated a story that we had already heard twice that day, once from the acting group commander and once from the major. The commandos had been preparing for their overseas deployment to South Vietnam last fall to help stem the tide of communism there. They waited only for word from the White House. Secretary McNamara's "Go" signal reached the 1st ACG hangar at 0800 and the word spread fast. Shortly after 1,000 hours the first of 13 planes lifted off the runway. Eleven fortunate maintenance men went with them to keep them combat ready.

The major, and the colonel before him, had furnished more background that helped explain the obvious pride of these apparently overworked mechanics. Early in the organization of their training schedule the group, known then as the 4400th Combat Crew Training Squadron, had asked another command with B-26 experience for advice on their manning tables. They had recommended a minimum of 29 men to keep two B-26s flying under combat conditions. The commandos trimmed a lot of fat off that manning table.

The same pride of achievement forced the major to reveal a little of the squadron's maintenance figures in South Vietnam. The average Air Force in-commission rate is 75 percent. During their first month in Asia these men had a 90 percent in-commission rate for eight T-28s and 98 percent for four C-47s. The second month the rate dropped to 88 and 96 percent respectively. By the third month the T-28 rate had risen to 92 percent and was 99 percent for the "Gooney Birds." It could have been better, the major admitted, if they hadn't had 24 days with an aircraft-out-of-commission-for-parts. The missing part was a C-47 windshield.

The current in-commission rate are classified but there are no reports of rupture on the commando flight lines in the States, in South Vietnam, or in Panama. The group has its own flight surgeons and medical technicians just as versatile and self-sufficient as the rest of the group.

Doing things normally considered impossible seems to be a way of life with the commandos. The captain commanding the 319th Troop Carrier Squadron (Commando) talked casually about some of the low-level missions they are flying with high-value cargo in South Vietnam. Any daylight mission that lifts them more than 50 feet above the tree-tops is a high-altitude flight. At night safety demands an altitude of 200 feet above the jungle. At these altitudes the old "Gooney Birds" and C-46s slide across a jungle clearing pretty fast. It makes them poor targets for ground fire.

The C-47s flown by these transport pilots have been strengthened for better operations from rough dirt, sod, or at best, pierced steel plank runways. Admittedly, neither type of transport is useful for high-volume cargo but here the emphasis is on value and mobility. And again, their job is to train the South Vietnamese how to get the most out of the equipment they have available. The "Gooney Birds" have and are doing a big job all over the world -- the Russians have a copy of it.

So far, the modern commandos haven't airlifted any mules or horses as the old outfit did in China, but they have still had a wide variety. Their cargo has included live chickens -- there's no refrigeration in the jungle -- rice, rubber soled canvas shoes, propaganda leaflets, ammunition, and of course, troops. Sometimes their high-value cargo has been a tape recorder with a loud speaker system slung under the fuselage. They delivered messages of freedom, hope and security.

Cargo is delivered by whatever method deemed best for the load and the circumstances. Like everyone else in 1st ACG, the 319th loadmasters were chosen for their resourcefulness and experience. They have loaded, rigged, dropped, and unloaded almost every type of item ever airlifted by the Air Force. Their experience stretches from the Dew line and Arctic Station Bravo to the South Pole; from missile plants to atomic test sites; from South American earthquake scenes to UN battle lines in the Congo.

If there is experience they don't have, they are looking for it. Several of them are already parachute qualified, the rest are waiting for quotas from jump school. Meanwhile they teach themselves in sky-diving clubs. They are also learning to pack their own cargo and personnel parachutes. Not because they expect to jump and fight, but for the same reason the rest of the group is learning parachute techniques, sometimes the only way to get from an airplane to the place you are needed on the ground is by jumping there. Nearly all the loadmasters are graduates of an aerial port squadron and are thoroughly familiar with Army airborne and special forces operations.

Unlike the very few other Air Force commands still flying C-47s and C-46s, the commandos carry navigators on both their high and low altitude flights. It is a demanding job. There are few navigation aids in the areas where the commandos operate. They eyeball their course, use landmarks as checkpoints, and fly by the seat of their pants.

But on a troop infiltration or exfiltration mission timing is more than precise, it must be exact. Missing an objective -- a tiny clearing usually -- by more than a minute and a half is a crime akin to murder. There's no time to circle and line up on a drop zone or landing zone. To a guerrilla an orbiting plane speaks louder than a circling vulture.

Oftentimes these troops are the commando combat control teams or include at least a member of the team who directs the operation. They too have several jobs -- so many that they consider themselves misnamed. They seldom deploy in full team strength as do their counterparts in the rest of Tactical Air Command. They take on the additional duties of forward air controllers, traditionally a fighter pilot's job, to direct air strikes as they handle air traffic control and operations duties for the detachments. And, when needed, they can do more than a commendable job as loadmaster or drop master.

We said that these men were rugged as well as dedicated individuals.

Shorts and sneakers are optional uniform for the first half hour of the commandos' working day. That's when everybody -- the colonels and the lieutenants, the sergeants and the airmen -- turn out for physical training. The Five Basic Exercises (5BX) plan now standard throughout the Air Force is the skeleton for the air commando physical fitness program. They just beef it up with another 19 minutes of modified exercise and finish with a full mile of distance run. The extra time is a conditioning program to ready them for jump training.

It also helps to keep them lean and fit for their jobs -- jobs they literally bought with several pounds of flesh. Completion of a specially lengthened and toughened survival, evasion, and escape course at (former) Stead AFB (in Reno, Nev.) is mandatory for Commando volunteers. Those who survive the course and are accepted in the outfit lose an average of 15 pounds. The men who find the course too tough for them are free to drop out and return to their old organization without prejudice. The commandos' job requires them to be self-sufficient in practically everything. They seldom have nor do they depend on the normal support services available to most Air Force units.