A daring mission to fly combat in Vietnam came with a catchno one else could know.
- By Susan Katz Keating
- Air & Space magazine, May 1997
(Page 3 of 8)
Those who made the first cut were given a set of increasingly bizarre tests, which included standing for long periods on ice while naked and culminated in a three-week mountain survival course and an excruciatingly realistic mock prisoner-of-war camp.
Bill Brown, who tops six feet, spent about three hours of POW training stuffed inside a refrigerator-size cubicle. "It was torture treatment in a way," Brown says. "But I stuck it out."
Most did not. Says King: "The Pentagon told me that of the initial 3,500 applicants, only about 350 made it. They were an amazing group of people."
The men of the 4400th were taught to fly the air commando way. While in training at Eglin Air Force Base's Hurlburt Field in Florida, the pilots used C-47s to practice short-field landings, airborne loudspeaker broadcasting, leaflet drops, parachute drops of men and equipment, and night operations, including landing on short, unprepared strips in the dark. In T-28s and B-26s, they practiced strafing and bombing.
Once trained, the new unit fielded one group to the African republic of Mali and another, Detachment 2, to an unfamilar hot spot in Southeast Asia. "This was some months after the Bay of Pigs episode," says Secord. "We thought we were going to Cuba. Imagine our surprise when we wound up in Vietnam."
By then code-named Farmgate, the initial Detachment 2 consisted of 41 officers and 115 enlisted men, each of whom had been assigned a secret clearance and authorized to bear arms. The unit was allotted a portion of the 4400th's fleet: four C-47s, four B-26s (which served in World War II as the Douglas A-26) and eight T-28s, which would be used as fighters.
Officially on 179-day temporary duty (that status would change for succeeding crews), the men and their airplanes converged on Bien Hoa, a languid, colonial-style provincial capital about 30 miles northeast of Saigon. The airstrip, which was surfaced with pierced-steel planking, was home to the First Fighter Squadron of the fledgling Vietnamese air force, whose members the Farmgate men were to "train." The Vietnamese were stationed on one side of the field, the Americans on the other.
The atmosphere at Bien Hoa was thick with secrecy. The men of Farmgate were confined so as to conceal the fact that Americans were there; the U.S. aircraft were disguised in Vietnamese air force colors. All news agencies were forbidden. Not even the men's families knew where they were stationed; nor did the rest of the Air Force know what they were up to.