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 7 of 8)
By this time, the escalating hostilities in Vietnam were attracting worldwide attention. The U.S. government had long been denying that U.S. troops were engaged in combat in Vietnam--at a news conference held in January 1962, President Kennedy issued a flat denial when asked the question--but reports in the U.S. press made clear that American trainers and advisors were firing and being fired upon. In March 1962, the New York Times reported that U.S. pilots were "engaged in combat missions with South Vietnamese pilots in training them to fight Communist guerrillas."
Farmgate became increasingly subject to public scrutiny. "Reporters were snooping around, and they would watch the airplanes take off," says Farmgate medic Hap Lutz. "They discerned that the Vietnamese on board weren't pilots." Ironically, journalists were confused by markings on the aircraft. The Vietnamese air force insignia so closely resembled that of the U.S. Air Force--only a subtle variation in color distinguished the two--that the reporters described the Bien Hoa aircraft as having American markings, thus inadvertently revealing the truth about which nation actually owned them.
Publicity only made the Farmgate operation more complicated and cumbersome to carry out. As more Air Force personnel became aware of Farmgate's activities, King says, "all the bureaucracy started, and we got orders from everybody." Over the years, wrote Air Force historian Carl Berger, Farmgate's simple rules of engagement "grew into many pages of detailed operating instructions telling Air Force pilots what they could or could not do in combat."
Other problems plagued Farmgate. The dangerous missions had produced a high rate of casualties: In 17 months from early 1962 to mid-1963, 16 Farmgate crewmen were killed in action. But crews in some B-26s and T-28s were dying as a result of what some euphemistically termed "equipment failure." In fact, the airplanes were falling apart in mid-air.
"These airplanes had been used in World War II and Korea, and they were tired," Kittinger says. "And we were using them as fighter-bombers." The old airframes simply were not up to the new task: "The wings started coming off them.
"If a wing comes off, you get just violent roll," Kittinger says. "The G-force would preclude you from doing anything. You can't get out. You don't have a chance."
In February 1964, after a number of B-26 losses, a wing failed on a B-26 during a demonstration at Hurlburt Field, killing two crewmen. The entire B-26 fleet was grounded.
There was a brief journalistic outcry surrounding the problems with what Farmgate crews irreverently termed the "folding-wing version" of the B-26. Soon after the Hurlburt Field incident, U.S. News & World Report published some of Jerry Shank's letters home, in which he complained about conditions in Vietnam. Among them was an indictment of the B-26: "That airplane is a killer." The letters were all the more arresting because they had been supplied to the magazine by his wife shortly after Shank had been killed when one wing of his T-28 sheared off during a bomb run.