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The 609th Air Commando Squadron flew out of Nakhon Phanom airfield in eastern Thailand. (NARA)

Truck Killer

For one mission in Vietnam, the best aircraft for the job was a bomber from World War II

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“I was born 25 years later than I should have been,” muses former U.S. Air Force pilot Tim Black, a veteran of two tours in Vietnam. “I grew up enamored with World War II pilots and planes.”

Born late or not, Black flew combat missions in a World War II airplane. Dropped World War II-era bombs. Even fired leftover .50-caliber World War II bullets.

But that’s not why he volunteered to fly the Douglas A-26 Invader in Southeast Asia in the 1960s. In fact, at the 2009 Air Commando Association reunion in Fort Walton Beach, Florida, every crewman asked said that the old bomber’s appeal had nothing whatsoever to do with historical legacies. “A-26s were the best for the mission,” says pilot Jay Norton, echoing the sentiment of all on hand.

Even in the fast company of F-4s and F-105s, as well as many other types that attacked traffic on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the A-26 became known as “the best truck killer in Southeast Asia.” It had just the right combination of firepower, loitering time, and ruggedness.

In November 1940, the Army Air Corps asked the designers at Douglas Aircraft to create a replacement for their own A-20 Havoc light bomber and, if possible, to surpass North American’s B-25 Mitchell and Martin’s B-26 Marauder as well. “Engineers and technicians tried to make sense of the comments from the field regarding the shortcomings of the A-20, B-25, [and] B-26, and shape a next-generation aircraft,” says Dan Hagedorn, senior curator at Seattle’s Museum of Flight. “The A-26 was far more agile than any of these three, and flew more like a fighter.”

After an impressive prototype dazzled the brass by exceeding performance parameters and out-performing the A-20, the government immediately placed an order. But when design changes and tooling difficulties delayed production, excitement stalled. And challenges in the manufacture of the airplane’s wing spars (not the last time wing spars would haunt the A-26’s story) kept production exasperatingly slow. So slow that General Hap Arnold, commander of the U.S. Army Air Forces, groused, “I want the A-26s for use in this war, not the next war.” The irony, of course, is that Invaders would fly in the next war—and the next.

But the aircraft did make it into World War II. In late 1944 and early 1945, A-26s reached the European theater and the Pacific. The aircraft had a crew of three—pilot, navigator, and a gunner who operated upper and lower remote-controlled turrets much like a B-29’s. Pilots came to appreciate the A-26’s agility and punch. But the various delays kept the total number built by the end of World War II relatively small, with only 2,451 put into service—a quarter of the number of B-25 Mitchells.

In 1948, the military made a switch that would lead to confusion among historians for years to come: The A-26 was redesignated the B-26. The confusion still persists. The B-26 Marauder, manufactured by Martin during World War II, had been retired from the Air Force inventory by 1948. Decades later, John Moench, a retired major general who had been in the Air Materiel Command early in his career, wrote an explanation for the B-26 Marauder Historical Society: “[The Air Force] had no trouble converting a P-51 to an F-51 or a P-80 to an F-80. But, when it [came] to the A-26, there was a dilemma. To preserve the Martin B-26 ‘Marauder’ nomenclature, following my suggestion, the initial attempt…was to pick up a new number…as the next numbered ‘B’ in the sixty series. But [others] did not like this as it upset the progressive numbering attached to advancing design…. As a result, with a lot of reluctance and since there was no Martin B-26 ‘Marauder’ left in the inventory…[the Douglas] ‘A-26’ became the B-26. I resisted the idea as long as a major could, but I never foresaw the extent to which later confusion would arise.” Adding to the confusion, the Invader would have its “A” (for “attack”) designation restored in 1966. To this day, all who flew the Invader from the late 1940s until the early 1960s—including the prologue of Vietnam—still call the aircraft the B-26; those who flew it earlier and later call it the A-26.

About 450 Invaders saw frontline action during the Korean War. The airplane had its problems—especially a top speed half that of the 687-mph F-86 Sabres and MiG-15s—but found a niche in truck and train destruction. The B-26 dropped the first bomb in North Korea and the last bombs of the conflict, just before the armistice in 1953. Then most went straight to storage, or were sold to other countries for counter-insurgency duties.

Early in the Vietnam War, most Invaders were essentially still in their World War II configurations, but without a gunner’s position and the two gun turrets.

From late 1961 through 1964, the old airplane flew mostly in bombing and close-air-support roles against guerilla concentrations—an operation code-named Farm Gate. Initially, the unit was benignly called the 4400th Combat Crew Training Squadron (a Vietnamese airman was required to fly in the third seat, behind the navigator, to uphold the pretense of training), and eventually was renamed the 1st Air Commando Wing.

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