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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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."

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