Plausible Denial

A daring mission to fly combat in Vietnam came with a catch—no one else could know.

A loaded C-47 is poised to take off from a base in Vietnam, 1967. (USAF)
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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.

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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.

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