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
In the fall of 1961, U.S. Air Force Colonel Benjamin King, a World War II ace and the survivor of a daring escape from behind enemy lines, assumed command of a newly formed unit stationed at an old French airstrip in South Vietnam. On one of his first missions King flew a C-47 dropping propaganda leaflets over villages near the air base. His copilot was a colonel in the Vietnamese air force by the name of Nguyen Cao Ky.
Neither the pilot nor the copilot could speak each other's language, so that day's mission, like many others, was conducted with little clear communication. When the flight came to an end, King, without speaking, simply headed back to land at a short airstrip.
But he had to abort the landing. "I was too long and too hot, and I had to give it power to go around," King recalls. The second try was no better. "I was still too hot, so I went around again." As King prepared to make his third attempt, he glanced over at copilot Ky, who would later become prime minister of Vietnam. "He was just sitting there, shaking his head. I took my hands off the wheel and I asked in English, 'Can you do any better?' " King pauses as if to savor the coming punchline. "Ky went around and landed that C-47 so short, he had to give it power to get it to the end of the strip." With a laugh, King adds, "And I was supposed to be teaching him to fly."
Stories like King's illustrate the irony behind the cover story for his unit--that the Americans were advisors, in the country to train pilots of the Vietnamese air force. "More than 25 years after the fact," says King, "I can say this: We never trained a Vietnamese pilot."
King's unit was the first detachment of U.S. airmen to fly combat in Vietnam. Its code name was Farmgate, and beneath its training cover, its mission was to stop communist guerrilla forces in the south. "Farmgate was a highly classified mission to provide close air support to Vietnamese ground forces and to attack the Viet Cong," says one of the operation's first pilots, retired Major General Richard Secord, who later became a deputy assistant secretary of defense under Ronald Reagan.
The effort was an outgrowth of cold war saber rattling, specifically an ominous 1961 speech by Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev announcing the USSR's intent to support wars of "national liberation," such as "the armed struggle waged by the people of Vietnam."
In South Vietnam, attacks by communist guerrillas supported by North Vietnam sharply escalated in the late 1950s. In 1959, an assassination campaign targeted at South Vietnamese government officials claimed 1,200 lives; in 1961, the number rose to 4,000. Terrorist attacks--usually conducted at night--on villages, military outposts, government offices, and American convoys and servicemen in Vietnam were also rising.
Krushchev's speech made a great impression on newly installed President John F. Kennedy, who urged the U.S. military to expand its counterguerrilla capabilities. As a result, the Army beefed up its Special Forces, the Navy formed the SEALs, and in April 1961, the Air Force established the 4400th Combat Crew Training Squadron, nicknamed Jungle Jim.
Jungle Jim was authorized a scant force of propeller-driven aircraft--C-47 transports, B-26 light bombers, and T-28 trainers--that seemed more appropriate for a museum display than for the modern U.S. Air Force. The aircrews had none of the sophisticated electronic aids their colleagues relied on. "We flew in all kinds of weather'," Farmgate T-28 pilot Frank Gorski recollected in a formerly classified 1973 Air Force interview. "If you wanted to get someplace, you just picked up a canal and went. That was your navigation system. Flew time and distance. Kept one eye on the fuel and one eye out the window and pressed on."
But the old C-47s and T-28s, which flew low and slow, were actually better suited than high-speed craft for the types of activities an airborne counter-guerrilla effort would conduct: dropping supplies and propaganda leaflets, for example, or bombing and strafing small, dispersed targets like huts or boats. The aged airplanes would also be inconspicuous in the Third World nations whose forces the Jungle Jim crews would assist.
In Vietnam, the missions would be flown by pilots wearing plain flightsuits that had been stripped of all identification and insignia, and they would be conducted in complete secrecy--both because they violated the 1954 Geneva Accords, which prohibited the introduction of foreign troops into Vietnam, and to withhold knowledge of the operation from the American public.
The Farmgate mission was so sensitive that even now some of the official documentation remains classified. More than one pilot contacted for this article echoed the comments of former C-47 pilot Bill Brown, who prefaced his remarks with a hesitant "I'm not sure what you're entitled to know."
Not that the documents were plentiful to begin with. "In those days, a lot of times the special operations folks simply didn't keep records," says writer Michael Haas, himself a former air commando, as the men of Farmgate were later known.
The information that is available reveals that in the spring of 1961, the Air Force sought volunteers: elite pilots with at least 5,000 hours of flight time and enlisted personnel, including mechanics, armament specialists, and combat controllers, who ranked among the top two percentile in their specialties. Potential recruits were told only that the program was highly classified and that it would remain so for 25 years after it ended. More than 3,500 men volunteered.
"The recruiting was rather unique in my 38-year Air Force career," says retired four-star General John "Pete" Piotrowski, who in 1987 became the head of the North American Aerospace Defense Command and the U.S. Space Command. A recently promoted captain at the time, Piotrowski was told to meet with a general who was visiting Luke Air Force Base in Arizona. "When my turn came I was ushered into a small office, dark except for a light that shone on the interviewee," Piotrowski recalls. "The officer conducting the interview was barely visible--a shadowy figure in the darkness."
The interviewer asked three questions: Are you willing to fly old obsolete aircraft? Are you willing to fly combat? If shot down and captured, are you willing to be disowned by your government? With some hesitation over the third question, Piotrowski answered yes to all three, after which the interviewer said only, "You may go now."
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.
Sometimes the pilots themselves did not know what they were truly being used for, as evidenced by an incident that took place in early November 1963. "I had just taken off from Bien Hoa in a B-26," Joe Kittinger says, "when I happened to look over to the side and saw the most amazing thing: Airplanes were bombing the palace in downtown Saigon! I said, 'My Lord, what is happening?' "
Kittinger immediately radioed the Air Force command center in Saigon to relay the information. He was instructed to report what he saw. It was the beginning stages of the coup that would result in the overthrow and assassination of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem.
"I could see tanks and bombing, and a battle was going on," says Kittinger. "They kept running me from place to place to see what was going on. I was an airborne command post." The amazed pilot remained aloft nearly four hours before he began to run low on fuel.
In retrospect, Kittinger believes that his commanders had intended for him all along to witness the coup, which the United States--although it had earlier supported Diem--had come to believe was necessary.
"The only people who knew the truth about our assignment besides the 4400th commanders and the deployed troops themselves were the Joint Chiefs and President Kennedy, and they weren't talking either," wrote Secord in his autobiography, Honored and Betrayed.
The result was a command structure that, in its beginning covert stages, sometimes confused even the Farmgate leadership. "There was the matter of who we reported to," King says. "A lot of people had a lot of questions about that, including me. We were serviced and supplied theoretically through Ninth Air Force. I never met anyone in Ninth Air Force. I took my orders from two lieutenant colonels in the bottom of the Pentagon building. It seemed odd to me at the time, given that I was a full colonel."
But the unusual command structure worked to the airmen's advantage as well, as evidenced by an incident involving, of all things, the commandos' headgear. The episode originated in late 1961 when King realized that even though the men of Farmgate had been driven almost to the limits of human endurance in preparation for their clandestine mission, they had not been properly equipped for the extremes of Southeast Asian weather.
"It was hotter than the hubs of Hell," says King, and rainy, and for headgear the men had been issued only baseball caps. As Farmgate's first commander, King jettisoned the caps in favor of the more practical broad-brimmed cowboy hats worn by the Vietnamese air force.
Later, after King had returned to 4400th CCTS headquarters at Hurlburt Field, Lieutenant Colonel Robert Gleason took command of Farmgate. Gleason soon hosted a high-powered delegation from CINCPAC (Commander in Chief, Pacific), which included no less a figure than Admiral Ulysses S. Grant Sharp. Sharp apparently was unaware that he did not have operational control over the unit. He ordered the men to stop wearing "those crazy cowboy hats."
Aiming to ward off trouble, Gleason sent a hasty message that night to King, describing the hat order. "Within 24 hours I received a message sent through channels, including CINCPAC, stating that the cowboy hats had now been declared official USAF headgear for commando units." Gleason says. "It was signed by Curtis LeMay, Chief of Staff, United States Air Force."
Of course, the unit had far weightier concerns. "One of the first things we had to contend with was the methods of the Vietnamese air force," Gleason says. "They had been trained under the French colonial system, and the French were very gentlemanly about fighting wars. They wouldn't fight at certain times, including at night. The enemy was well aware of the reluctance of the VNAF to fly at night, so they fought at night and wiped out the VNAF as a potential threat."
The Americans knew that making headway against the guerrillas would require flying when they could not see what was going on in the shadows below. The solution came after a sergeant mentioned that illumination flares had been used at night in Korea. Gleason and Piotrowski, who had been named the Farmgate armament officer, set to work on the suggestion. After some experimentation, a system using magnesium flares was put into use.
To illuminate the target, three or four parachuted flares would be dropped from the cargo hold of a C-47 at an altitude of about 1,500 feet. T-28s or B-26s would then immediately follow to strafe or bomb the target. By the end of 1963, tactics had become so refined that flareships were on constant alert, and most South Vietnamese army units in the IV and southern III Corps--the nearest of the four tactical zones U.S. military advisors had created--could get night illumination plus close air support within 20 to 60 minutes.
The system made its mark on the enemy as intended. "Initially, it was merely sufficient for a flareship to appear over a besieged position and expend flares to cause the VC to break off an attack," read a then-classified 1967 Air Force tactical evaluation report.
Night operations also led to a novel signalling technique. "We worked out a system with [the South Vietnamese army] at these little outposts, where they would set up a flaming-pot system pointing out the direction of the enemy," King says. "Later on it became a flaming metal arrow."
The large arrows, covered with woven bamboo, were laid directly on the ground. "They would point the arrow in a certain direction, and it would come over the radio: 'Drop your ordnance 200 meters away from the fire arrow,' or 100 meters, or some such," says Farmgate pilot Joe Kittinger.
"Sometimes it worked very well," says King. "Other times it didn't work worth a damn." When it didn't work, the fire arrows became merely another part of the confusion. Gorski recalled one such occurrence, while on a night mission in support of a besieged South Vietnamese fort shrouded in fog. "We could circle above this dude and pick up the fire arrow, but as soon as you tried to get some sort of angle on it, you lost it. Of course, the flareship was dropping flares and they would go down in the fog and that would really play havoc with your sight," he said in 1973. "But we would try everything we could because we had a limited resource, and we did things that maybe now we would say were a little bit harebrained or foolish."
For all their ingenuity, however, the Americans could not escape one cumbersome requirement: To keep up the appearances of a training role, they were required to fly all combat missions with a Vietnamese "trainee" on board. In contrast to the skills of the longtime Vietnamese pilots, whom King characterizes as "some of the best qualified I flew with," new classes of VNAF fliers had not been properly certified.
"Actually, they never were allowed anywhere near the controls of the aircraft," says Bill Brown. When possible, the crews restrained the new aviators with safety straps to prevent them from reaching the controls. Otherwise disaster lurked. Secord and his Vietnamese copilot barely escaped crashing when the terrified backseater repeatedly grabbed the controls of Secord's T-28.
Gorski reported having trouble with a young pilot who could not seem to control the aircraft: "Every time I'd give him the darn airplane, he'd just go completely bananas all over the sky," he told Air Force interviewers in 1973. A subsequent debriefing of the pilot by Gorski revealed unsettling information. "I asked him how much time he had," Gorski said. "He said he had about 500 hours'. I said, 'How much solo time do you have?' He said, 'I've got one hour solo time.' "
Often the backseaters weren't pilots at all. "We'd carry anybody that was available," B-26 pilot Roy Dalton recalled in a formerly classified 1973 Air Force interview. "We'd go over to the Vietnamese base commander and he would give us the guy who was sitting around either typing or sweeping the floors--and he would fly with us."
The Americans were further hampered by the requirement that all strikes be made at the direction of an airborne Vietnamese forward air controller, theoretically so that he could "authenticate the target," Gorski says. The FAC was essential to the mission: "Once we showed up on the scene, if the FAC wasn't there, we didn't strike."
Sometimes, the FAC's target selection mystified the Americans. "We were totally at the mercy and the direction of the [Vietnamese lieutenant] that came along and said, 'Hit this target!' " Dalton recalled. "We had no intelligence of our own, no hard intelligence, on who we are hitting."
Aside from these concerns, the commandos had problems communicating with the FAC. At times the radio did not work, or there was language difficulty. T-28 pilot Edwin "Jerry" Shank described the system in a letter home: "One of our complaints [to a representative Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara sent to Vietnam] was that we can't understand the air controller, so he suggested that we learn Vietnamese. We said we didn't have that much time, so he suggested we stay here for two years. A brilliant man. He's lucky to be alive. Some of the guys honestly had to be held back from beating this idiot up."
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.
Scarcely had rebuilt B-26s, intended to meet the demands of counter-guerrilla warfare, entered the inventory when, in mid-1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, which authorized the increased use of American forces in Vietnam. In May 1965, the Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade arrived at Bien Hoa. The airmen were followed by B-57s, F-100s, C-130s, F-102s, and more, as well as by surface-to-air Hawk missiles, a medical unit, and a civic action program to perform charitable duties for the civilian population.
The Farmgate operation lingered on for a time, but the arrival of the regular Air Force overshadowed it. Fittingly, Air Force historians can offer no precise date for the operation's end, although its parent organization--the 4400th Combat Crew Training Squadron--was deactivated in October 1969.
Farmgate crew members still speak of the waning of the operation with regret. "With Farmgate, we tried to contain the war as a counterinsurgency operation," Gleason says. "But events sort of swarmed in and changed the world. What we dreaded most was what happened, which was the conventionalization of the war. You can't fight Viet Cong in the field with B-52s or with huge battleships patrolling offshore."
"Things just got bigger," explains former C-47 crew chief Bill Conklin. "It wasn't Farmgate anymore. It was a war."