22 May 2015

The Birth of the Air Commandos: The Roots of USAF Special Operations

Colonel Orde Wingate, a most unconventional British officer
The fall of Burma in early 1942 threatened to derail the Allies' plans for Asia. The British withdrawal from Burma to India was the biggest, costliest, and longest not to mention most humiliating withdrawals in the military history of the British Empire. Coupled with the loss of Singapore, it left India as the only bulwark against Japanese expansion in Southeast Asia. With 12 million acres of rice paddies and an annual rice production of 8 million tons, Burma was an important logistical asset to the Japanese Empire and it also gave them control over the southern end of the Burma Road, a 717-mile supply route that was being used to provide supplies for General Chiang Kai-Shek in central China in his fight against the Japanese. Japanese military planners hoped that cutting off Chiang would mean less troops would be needed in central China to keep him in check. With dark days ahead on the minds of British officials in India, a most unconventional British officer arrived with an audacious plan to take the fight back into Burma. Colonel Orde Wingate had already gained a reputation as an unconventional war specialist leading guerrilla units in Africa and the Middle East against Axis forces. What he lacked in conventionality for a British officer he more than amply made up in his leadership abilities to inspire the men in his command. He created a jungle force made up of Indians and British called the "Chindits", which was a corruption of the Burmese word "chinthe", the fierce dragon that statues that guarded Burmese temples depicted. In February 1943, Wingate led 3,000 Chindits in Operation Longcloth. They penetrated deep into Burma on foot and scored early successes cutting Japanese rail routes. But Wingate lacked heavy guns as the Chindits were on foot and the Royal Air Force proved unable to provide the necessary air support. Wingate also counted on a conventional counter-offensive to keep the Japanese occupied while he harassed their rear supply lines. When that didn't happen, the Japanese were able to focus on defeating the Chindits and in early June, Wingate and only 2/3 of his Chindit force made it back into India. 

Phil Cochran and John Alison, the first leaders of the Air Commandos
Despite the disaster of Operation Longcloth, Wingate gained the support of Prime Minister Winston Churchill who was a known admirer of the unconventional in military operations. When Churchill headed to Quebec to meet with President Franklin Roosevelt to confer on war plans, Churchill brought Wingate to explain to Roosevelt plans for a second assault on Burma. While Churchill was thinking ahead and wanting a new Burma assault as a means of strengthening the British Empire in Asia, Roosevelt was intrigued with Wingate's plans as it could reopen the Burma Road and strengthen Chiang Kai-Shek's position in China which might provide the Allies bomber bases for which to take the war to the Japanese Home Islands. As Wingate briefed Churchill and Roosevelt, he had in mind a much bigger operation that Operation Longcloth with a much larger Chindit force that had its own air transport and air support, in effect, giving the Chindits their own air force. Roosevelt was captivated by the plan and passed it on to the head of the USAAF, General Hap Arnold, to organize the air assets that Wingate and the Chindits needed. Ordinarily this sort of order would have been a distraction from General Arnold's vision of a massive strategic bombing campaign against Germany and Japan, but he saw a chance to prove the value of air power in supporting a large ground formation deep behind enemy lines. General Arnold needed a USAAF officer who could lead the new unit and interviewed Colonel Phil Cochran who made his name as an aggressive pilot in North Africa. The other was a friend of Colonel Cochran, Colonel John Alison, who had flown hazardous supply missions "over the Hump" from India to China to keep Chiang Kai-Shek supplied. Prior to that, Alison had six kills while flying P-40s with the Flying Tigers in China. Each man recommended the other to General Arnold as they each wanted a fighter combat command in Europe. General Arnold settled the issue by choosing both Cochran and Alison to get Wingate's air force organized with the order "To hell with paperwork; go out and fight!" Figuring that two commanders made no sense, they agreed that Cochran would be the commander and Alison would be his deputy. But their long prior friendship made them highly attuned to each other's thinking as they set out to create the most unique force in the history of the USAAF. 

Initially calling their outfit Project 9, they went to London to meet with Wingate and Lord Louis Mountbatten, the supreme Allied commander in Southeast Asia. Cochran and Alison quickly enlarged their force well beyond what Wingate initially requested and one month later, briefed General Arnold and Arnold's own boss, Army Chief of Staff General George Marshall. The Project 9 force was more than just C-47s and some medium bombers. It would have its own fighters, light aircraft for jungle resupply missions, gliders for insertion of troops and even helicopters. Arnold and Marshall were impressed with the plan and gave them the go-ahead. Instead of the Chindits marching back into Burma, the Project 9 transport force of C-47s and gliders would insert the entire Chindit force deep into Burma and keep them resupplied. Medium bombers and fighters would provide dedicated air support to the Chindits and no one else. All the pilots were volunteers and training began in North Carolina on 1 October 1943 at Raleigh-Durham Airport and Seymour-Johnson Army Air Field. The Project 9 force grew to 346 aircraft with Douglas C-47s and Waco CG-4 gliders for transport. Stinson L-1 Vigilant and L-5 Sentinel light aircraft would be used for air evacuation and resupply given their short field performance. North American B-25 Mitchells and P-51 Mustangs formed the sharp end of the force's spear with a handful of Sikorsky R-4 helicopters which were still in testing at Wright Patterson Field. Even General Arnold was impressed with the resourcefulness of Cochran and Alison in getting what was still an experimental program added to their force. 

Emblem of the 1st Air Commando Group, the first Air Force special operations unit
After arriving in India, the Project 9 force was designated the 5318th Provisional Unit (Air), but General Arnold had always been referring to the group as air commandos, so on 29 March 1944, they were redesignated with his blessing to become the 1st Air Commando Group. For most of early 1944 the air commandos trained with Wingate's Chindits but they weren't sure if the Chindits were comfortable with flying into Burma at night on the C-47s and CG-4 gliders. Wingate sent a message "Please be assured that will go with your boys any place, any time, any where." The gliders even carried pack mules which would be used in moving about the jungle in Burma, hence the mule on the patch of the 1st Air Commando Group. 5 March 1944 was the go-day for Operation Thursday when the air commandos and Wingate's Chindits would take the war back to the Japanese in Burma. But that'll be a subject for a future blog post! The 1st Air Commando Group is now the 1st Special Operations Wing of the USAF Special Operations Command based at Hurlburt Field in Florida. Wingate's assurance "Any place, any time, any where" remains the motto of the air commandos with the emblem of the 1st SOW showing the words "Any Time Any Place".

Source: From a Dark Sky: The Story of U.S. Air Force Special Operations by Orr Kelly. Pocket Publishing, 1997, pp 21-42. Photos: USAF, Imperial War Museum, Wikipedia.

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