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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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.

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