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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Publicity only made the Farmgate operation more complicated and cumbersome to carry out. As more Air Force personnel became aware of Farmgate's activities, King says, "all the bureaucracy started, and we got orders from everybody." Over the years, wrote Air Force historian Carl Berger, Farmgate's simple rules of engagement "grew into many pages of detailed operating instructions telling Air Force pilots what they could or could not do in combat."

Other problems plagued Farmgate. The dangerous missions had produced a high rate of casualties: In 17 months from early 1962 to mid-1963, 16 Farmgate crewmen were killed in action. But crews in some B-26s and T-28s were dying as a result of what some euphemistically termed "equipment failure." In fact, the airplanes were falling apart in mid-air.

"These airplanes had been used in World War II and Korea, and they were tired," Kittinger says. "And we were using them as fighter-bombers." The old airframes simply were not up to the new task: "The wings started coming off them.

"If a wing comes off, you get just violent roll," Kittinger says. "The G-force would preclude you from doing anything. You can't get out. You don't have a chance."

In February 1964, after a number of B-26 losses, a wing failed on a B-26 during a demonstration at Hurlburt Field, killing two crewmen. The entire B-26 fleet was grounded.

There was a brief journalistic outcry surrounding the problems with what Farmgate crews irreverently termed the "folding-wing version" of the B-26. Soon after the Hurlburt Field incident, U.S. News & World Report published some of Jerry Shank's letters home, in which he complained about conditions in Vietnam. Among them was an indictment of the B-26: "That airplane is a killer." The letters were all the more arresting because they had been supplied to the magazine by his wife shortly after Shank had been killed when one wing of his T-28 sheared off during a bomb run.

Scarcely had rebuilt B-26s, intended to meet the demands of counter-guerrilla warfare, entered the inventory when, in mid-1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, which authorized the increased use of American forces in Vietnam. In May 1965, the Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade arrived at Bien Hoa. The airmen were followed by B-57s, F-100s, C-130s, F-102s, and more, as well as by surface-to-air Hawk missiles, a medical unit, and a civic action program to perform charitable duties for the civilian population.

The Farmgate operation lingered on for a time, but the arrival of the regular Air Force overshadowed it. Fittingly, Air Force historians can offer no precise date for the operation's end, although its parent organization--the 4400th Combat Crew Training Squadron--was deactivated in October 1969.

Farmgate crew members still speak of the waning of the operation with regret. "With Farmgate, we tried to contain the war as a counterinsurgency operation," Gleason says. "But events sort of swarmed in and changed the world. What we dreaded most was what happened, which was the conventionalization of the war. You can't fight Viet Cong in the field with B-52s or with huge battleships patrolling offshore."

"Things just got bigger," explains former C-47 crew chief Bill Conklin. "It wasn't Farmgate anymore. It was a war."

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