1st Air Commando Group — Viet-Nam 1963
Near the main gate at Hurlburt Field in Mary Esther, FL, is a static display of airplanes flown by the Air Commandos. In front of the A/B-26 Douglas Invader is a plaque:
Dedicated to the men of the 4400th Combat Crew Training Squadron (CCTS) (Jungle Jim) and to their commander BG Benjamin H. King. In the spring of 1961, the 4400th CCTS code named “Jungle Jim” was formed at what was then known as Eglin Air Force Auxiliary Field 9 (Hurlburt Field). The initial unit was comprised of 124 officers and 228 airmen, and had 32 aircraft: eight B-26s, eight T-28s and 16 C-47, C-46 and U-10 aircraft were added shortly before the unit was expanded and designated the 1st Air Commando Group (1st ACG).
Each man initially assigned to this elite, all-volunteer unit was required to declare that he was willing to fly and fight for his country either in or out of uniform, and to agree that his country may be required to deny that he was a member of the U.S. Military.
In May 1962, the name of the 4400th was changed to 1st ACG, and is the present predecessor of the USAF Special Operations Command. During 1961-63, Jungle Jim Detachments were deployed to Mali, South Viet-Nam, Panama, Thailand and Laos.
It is to the revered memory of those American patriots, living and dead, who volunteered for the dangerous missions envisioned for the 4400th CCTS/1st ACG, that this plaque is proudly dedicated — 13 October 2002.
Hurlburt was an interesting place. While there I overheard two permanent party members discussing some magazine photos of a B-26 shot down in the Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba. They both agreed that that B-26 had been at Hurlburt.
Toward the end of our training we had a formal dinner at which our squadron leader spoke. He explained our presence in Viet-Nam. When the French were defeated at Dien Bien Phu the Catholics fled to South Viet-Nam. The Catholic Refugee Organization went to Cardinal Spellman to request protection for the Catholic refugees. Cardinal Spellman contacted then-Senator Kennedy who sponsored the first legislation relating to Viet-Nam.
I was initially assigned to fly with Capt. Andy Mitchell. Capt. Jerry Campaign reported in and they assigned the captains to fly together. I was then assigned to fly with Mike Newmeyer, an excellent pilot and a good friend. The end of our training was marked by a speech and a parade. We stood in formation dressed in our 1505 (khakis, with short sleeved shirt). I could not hear much of the speech but there was a lot of talking in the ranks. A voice behind me said, “What are they going to do to us? Send us to Viet-Nam?” A few giggles and we marched past the reviewing stand. We then all dashed back to our home bases where we signed in and out the same day and reported back to Hurlburt to begin our 165-day TDY in Bien Hoa, about 25 miles north of Saigon.
I was part of the April 1963 rotation to Bien Hoa, South Viet-Nam. Each rotation had four B-26 crews, consisting of a pilot and navigator. Our three months’ training to transition to the B-26 consisted of low level cruising (25 to 50 feet), bombing, strafing and aerial photography. My transition was from B-52 EWO (electronic warfare officer) to B-26 navigator. Our navigational instruments were a magnetic compass and an ADF (audio direction finder). There were no ADF stations in Viet-Nam at the time. We flew low to make us a more difficult target.
We flew B-26 Douglas Invaders with VNAF (Vietnamese Air Force) markings. The A-26 Douglas Invader flew in WWII and Korea; the French used them against the Viet Minh and the Chinese Nationalists used them against the Communists. The A designation was changed to B during the Korean War. The gun turret, top and aft of the bomb bay was removed, but the gunner’s compartment remained and three wing pylon stations were added to each wing.
We carried 14 50-caliber guns, eight in the nose and three in each wing, along with 500 pounds of napalm or, occasionally, 500-pound bombs on the wing stations. Our internal load usually consisted of about 4,000 pounds of frag cluster bombs. Our runway was 5,300 feet of PSP (pierced steel planking) and we lifted off at about 128 knots using about 4,500 feet of runway.
Our missions were strikes, escorts (boats, trains and motor convoys), air cover for ground and airborne operations and weather reconnaissance and the Invader had about 5½ hours endurance.
All in a day’s work
Our day began with a short briefing in the briefing room — the only place on base with air conditioning. Then we went to base ops and waited for a “frag” order, a location to meet a FAC (forward air controller). We flew to the destination and contacted the FAC who marked a target and told us to bomb his smoke. We confirmed. Bombing runs were commenced at 3,500 feet. Once on target, Mike never took his eyes off the target. We set the arming switches, set the props to 2,400 rpm, throttle to 32 inches, manually charged the nose guns and went into about a 60-degree dive. At about 1,000 feet, I tapped Mike on the shoulder to remind him it was time to begin our pull-out, when we pulled about four or five Gs and dropped one bomb at a time.
Our strafing and napalm runs were made at 25 to 50 feet and again we dropped one at a time. When our weapons were expended, we were expected to do initial bomb damage assessment (IBDA). That required overflying the target at 1,200 feet at 180 knots and taking photos. This was not our favorite pasttime as the folks on the ground were in a very bad mood by that time.
Night missions were a little different. We overflew the hamlet to see the “fire arrow” which was pointed in the direction from which the attack had come. Someone in the hamlet told us by radio how far away the VC were in “klicks.”
We flew in the direction of the fire arrow to where we estimated the VC to be and began our bomb and strafing runs. Viet-Nam could be very dark at night and when in the dive you felt as though you were suspended; the only noticeable movement was the unwinding of the altimeter. You then pulled out and flew through your ricochets. Every few rounds was a tracer — a spectacular sight.
One night we had support from a gun boat in the Mekong River and the combined pyrotechnics rivaled any fireworks demonstration I have ever seen.
There was an SFC who used to salute and say something like, “Good morning Lt. Fuzz.” I would return the salute with a “Good morning, Sgt. Snorkel,” and we would both grin. One day he and another sergeant showed up at my tent with two cases of C-rations, a greatly appreciated gift.
The Vietnamese government allowed us a maximum of $100 per month and, as officers on TDY, we received about $3.50 per day for meals. That was enough to cover three meals a day, but the problem was that we paid $15 per month for maid fees, $10 for base operations clean up and $5 for the flower fund. That left $70 per month for laundry soap, toilet articles, entertainment and food. I preferred to eat my one meal a day at supper, so those C-rations were a godsend.
We could exchange our dollars for piastres (the local currency) on base at the rate of 72 ps to $1, but most of us used the black market. We took the bus to Saigon, and walked up Tudo Street to the Modern Tailor shop; it wasn’t hard to find. Once inside we asked to see a “Vietnamese shirt,” and were escorted into a room with a guy who had two cardboard boxes: one with piastres, the other dollars. The exchange rate varied from 86 to 92 to $1.
We were not the only unit on base; we had a group of VNAF airmen who flew with us. On every mission we carried a VNAF who sat on a pull-down seat behind the navigator and the hydraulic fluid reservoir. We were ostensibly there to advise the VNAF, but our advice was simple: “Don’t touch anything.” We did not carry the aircraft forms with us and in the event of a crash, the VNAF was flying and we were along to give him advice.
One guy who flew with us filled five barf bags on one mission; he never complained, just keep puking.
There was a VNAF fighter squadron on base equipped with A1 Sky Raiders, a newer and better airplane than the B-26. Each morning at 0830 the VNAF dashed out to their airplanes, started their engines and revved them up; scarves flying in the prop wash. At 0900 they switched off their engines and went back to base ops and played ping-pong until 1530 when they again dashed to their airplanes. This time only half would start and the lucky pilots whose engines started flew off into the wild blue yonder and were not seen again until they landed at 1615.
We could not figure out what they were doing for 45 minutes. Some of the guys removed their gunnery film and developed it and found out they were dropping bombs into the South China Sea, the Mekong River or on a Montagnard village.
En route to Bien Hoa I met a C-123 navigator who described the B-26’s as “snake-bit.” He was right. The “snake” was that paragon of cost-cutting Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. Money was saved by not repacking the parachutes, not installing transponders in the airplanes and by returning to base with any unexpended ordnance. Landing with 3,000 pounds under the wings resulted in a large negative G force that severely weakened the wings. Mitchell and Campaign had been “in country” less than two weeks when they lost a wing over the target.
Capt. Bob Binderim was flying their wing and saw the accident. He said, “The wing came off, they did a snap roll and went into the ground.” Remedial action consisted of installing positive and negative G meters. We were instructed to pull no more than 1G. When you fired the nose guns the G meters were pegged in both directions.
Col. Finan and I went to Tainan, Taiwan, to bring back a B-26 that been rebuilt by China Air Transport (CAT). It looked new and was just beautiful. We flew back via Clark AB and landed at Bien Hoa in the late afternoon. I was on night alert with George Phillips; I found George and told him abut the “new” B-26 but George had already pre-flighted another B-26 which we flew that night. The next day John McClean and “Skip” Bedal flew the “new” B-26. They lost a wing over the target and we lost two more good guys.
Flying low level in Viet-Nam was hot. The B-26 had no air conditioning and no air circulation; you could lose 15 pounds over a five-hour mission. I wore a survival vest over my fatigue jacket and in the outside pocket I kept a bottle of water purification tablets, but I sweated the label off of that bottle.
Once I made the mistake of giving our maid an unopened box of laundry detergent that she probably sold, since it was a full box, and instead washed our clothes in the local soap made with fish oil. Not only were we sweating in the aircraft, but we itched and smelled like two dead fish. From then on the maid got just enough soap to wash for that week.
We used to joke that we endured hours of monotony interspersed with moments of stark terror. We made a pass in the delta and just as we pulled up it got dark. The windshield was covered with mud! Mike looked at me and said, “I thought those were trees.”
I replied, “Nope, rice plants.”
We stopped on the runway and used the water in our canteens to wash off enough mud so we could see to taxi in. There were several times that I saw B-26’s parked with tree limbs hanging out of the bomb bay, but no one else brought home mud on the windshield. Other notable moments came when we found that one B-26 would not pull out of a dive with the bomb bay doors open. On some you had to waggle the wings to get the ordnance to fall off. Then there was the time that a wingman called us on the radio to tell us the arming propeller on our starboard 500-pound bomb was turning! We hit the “salvo” button and said, “Thanks!”
One time we had just touched down with a full load when, in the blink of an eye, we were on the left side of the runway with dirt flying everywhere. A few hundred feet in front of us was a large hole, dug to reinforce the point where the runway joined a taxiway. I asked Mike if he could get back on the runway. He said, “No, but I can straddle that hole.” Straddle it we did, carrying six cans of naplam under the wings. Mike went back with the ground crew to inspect the area. The nose wheel missed the hole by 2½ inches. The right main tire came so close that dirt spilled into the hole. Mike could put a B-26 anywhere he wanted!
A good mission was called a “Zap” mission. Most of the time we never saw the target and never paid much attention to the results. We got a call late one afternoon from an Army Republic of Viet-Nam (ARVN) battalion commander asking for an immediate air strike because the VC had pinned down his battalion near Ca Mau. He feared that once it got dark the VC would annihilate his battalion. We got to his position just about dusk and made radio contact and the ground troops marked the target for us. Unfortunately, we began having engine trouble: fluctuating fuel pressure (prelude to a fire) in both engines.
Number one was running rough and number two was backfiring. Our problems were obvious to those on the ground but we made one or two passes and dropped everything we had, including six cans of napalm. We struggled to 1,200 feet and called Paris Control Air control at Saigon and gave them our position, altitude and heading. We were only about 60 miles from Saigon but they could not find us (a transponder would have been helpful). We knew we were on our own.
We limped back to Bien Hoa and landed. The battalion commander was on the phone and thanked us for saving his battalion. They counted over 200 VC KIAs. We got an Air Medal for “overflying a known enemy position.” After all, we were only advisors.
There were probably more stories that were hard to understand but one happened to Larry Granquist. Larry and his pilot, Howard Purcell, were flying out of Da Nang on some sort of easy mission; Sgt. Raphael Cruz was riding along in the gunner’s compartment. The engines were running when the base Intelligence Officer, Neil McKinney approached the plane and asked to go along for the ride. Howard turned to Larry and commented to the effect that McKinney was bored and that he, Larry, had plenty of flight time. Howard asked Larry to let McKinney go in his place. Larry agreed, got out and McKinney took his place. They took off and the plane was never seen again. No one had any idea what happened. Some speculated that they flew into a “box” canyon and could not get out.
The first B-26 was lost in December 1962, about a month after eight B-26s were stationed at Bien Hoa. The airplane was shot down by ground fire and the pilot rode the plane down. The navigator bailed out and was rescued after a few days of wandering around in the jungle.
Howard Cody, pilot and “Atie” Lielmanis, navigator, were lost in November 1963. They bailed out of their shot-up B-26; neither parachute opened. They had not been inspected or repacked for about a year. Atie had his first ride in a B-26 with Mike and me.
It was a memorable nine months with some great guys — courageous men who would defend America anytime, anywhere under any conditions.