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.