The Days of Jungle JimShareThis
By Col Bob Gleason (Ret), All photos courtesy of Col Jim Ifland (Ret)
NOTE: To view larger views of embedded photos click on image.
his narrative is composed of the story of 154 heroes. If I included any of their names I would feel compelled to include all their names. That would distort the purpose of this article. Thus, I took the alternative route and included no names (with a few exceptions). However, the reader is directed to an unabridged account of the early days of JUNGLE JIM. Here they will find in detail the names and the anecdotes associated therewith. The book may be downloaded gratis at www.aircommando.org.
he “4400 Combat Crew Training Squadron, (CCTS)/Jungle Jim/Air Commando” concept began in early 1961 as a simple request from the CIA to Gen. LeMay, then Chief of STAFF (C/S) of the USAF, via the Secretary of Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) This request was for a single aircraft (C-47), sans crew) to be given to a single country (not in Southeast Asia), for a single purpose. Obviously it didn’t retain that modest status very long. What evolved several months later was an example of military planning at its best. After staffing, re-staffing and further staffing, there emerged a blueprint for an airpower organization that was decades ahead of its time. It not only met an urgent threat of the moment but also adapted itself to radical changes of warfare ranging from the possibility of nuclear warfare on one end of the spectrum to the certainty of overt/covert insurgency and inner city warfare on the other end. In short as we will see it was a sort of a parallel of the movie of a few years ago: “Back to the future”.
he success of Jungle Jim was directly attributed to the quality of its personnel, both officers and non-commissioned officers, (NCOs). This was not by accident. A special screening board was set up at Hq. USAF and many thousands of personnel records were examined. A large pool of candidates were identified involving several categories i.e. fighter, bomber and transport aircraft crewmembers, together with their support personnel. The Air Staff also designed an entrance questionnaire to be administered verbally by Base Commander’s worldwide to candidates whose records indicated that they should be “invited” to join this select group. Membership in Jungle Jim was not an open proposition for any and all volunteers. Volunteers, yes, but by invitation only.
The Questionnaire mentioned above was a classic. To most military historians knowledge never before or since has such an open-ended commitment been asked of a U.S. military member. First you were sworn to secrecy. Even my boss, who was a Maj. Gen., was unaware of what was going on. The interview consisted of a series of questions. As explained by the Base Commander if your answer was “yes” you would be asked the next question. If your answer was “No” the interview would be terminated and you would be dismissed without prejudice and again cautioned not to divulge the fact that you were even interviewed. The questions started with something like this. Would you volunteer to serve in a foreign country under extreme hardship conditions for extended periods? Would you perform in an overt or covert status? Would you serve out of the US uniform? Would you serve under conditions where the US government may contend that you were a mercenary and denied that you were even associated with the U.S.? Would you forgo the protection of the Geneva Conventions? And so on.
In exchange for this commitment the US Government would guarantee that in the event of your death the US would provide for the lifetime support of your wife and the support of your children through college age. To paraphrase the great Churchill never have so few been asked to commit to so much in the cause of their nation.
THE FINAL SCREENING:
ven after the above screening you were still not a certified full-scale member of the unit. Shortly after reaching our full strength we were visited without notice by a team of psychiatrist from the USAF School of Aviation Medicine. We were first given a battery of written tests followed by an interview with two different psychiatrists who asked searching questions even ones concerning any sexual feelings one might have towards their Mother. (Honestly).
Finally it was made known that Colonel King our commander was directed to transfer out of the unit, without prejudice, anyone who at any time showed the slightest remorse regarding his decision to join the organization. Both of these procedures resulted in some attrition.
bout 5:00 AM on a day in early March, 1961 the phone rang in the bedroom of Colonel Ben King who was then living on Hurlburt Field. It was the Watch Officer from the Control Room at Headquarters USAF directing Colonel King to shortly report to the Command Post at Eglin AFB and be prepared to talk to Gen. LeMay. LeMay first asked Colonel King a few questions to verify that he was the same Colonel, whom he, LeMay, had met on one previous occasion. After verifying that he was, LeMay asked King a few questions along the lines, but not as specific as, those later asked to all candidates who were later interviewed for Jungle Jim. He then told King that he was being appointed the commander of a new and radically different tactical organization and that he would soon be contacted by the Air Staff and more fully briefed on this assignment.
This was a brilliant appointment from both the aspects of King and of LeMay. Ponder this. LeMay was a bomber pilot and commander nonpareil throughout his illustrious career. King was a fighter pilot and a fighter unit commander also nonpareil throughout his career. Yet LeMay realized that even an outstanding SAC wing commander, of whom he had many to choose from, had been conditioned to operate close to the book and was used to following rigid guidelines throughout his professional career. Such a personality would not come close to fitting the profile of a Commando Commander where individual initiative, innovation, and raw leadership were the “coins of the realm.” LeMay had met King only once in the distant past during a skeet shooting match. But with the genius that LeMay demonstrated for over 30 years he knew that he had his man. And he had.
From the records he knew that Col. King was much more than a yeoman fighter pilot and unit commander. Among other things King was a WWII Ace. All of his seven victories were against first line enemy aircraft. His first tour was in the Pacific flying the P-38 where he shot down three enemy Zero’s before he himself was shot down. For several months he evaded capture on a Pacific island until things got too hot due to enemy patrols. He then took off with several other evaders in a nondescript boat and was eventually rescued by a Navy flying boat. Shortly after returning to the states King volunteered for Europe. There he completed two more tours as a squadron commander this time in the P-51. During these tours he added four German fighters to his record of aerial victories, two F-109s and two FW 190s. Gen. King holds the distinction of flying combat missions in every significant war that the US was involved in during his military career, and doing so in each rank that he held from 2nd Lt through Brig. Gen. Even as late as the Cuban Missile Crisis he was called upon to assemble and commanded a small detachment of Air Commando AT-28 aircraft and pilots who were positioned forward to act as Forward Air Controllers had that incident turned into a shooting war. The plans to memorialize Gen. King sometime this year by naming a theater on Hurlburt in his honor are more than justified. To rename Hurlburt Field as Ben King AFB suggested by Maj. Gen. Svendsen would be even more appropriate.
ne might wonder what type of personnel resulted from this rather unique recruitment procedure. The best description of this band of brothers was written by Gen. John L. Piotrowski a former Vice Chief of Staff, USAF, who later was appointed Commander In Chief, (CINC) USSPACECOM and CINC NORAD. Gen. Piotrowski was one of those first selected for Jungle Jim. He was the original armament officer and a fighter pilot of the organization. In writing a “Forward” for the book “Air Commando Chronicles” Gen Piotrowski describes his fellow volunteers thusly,” This is a story of heroic young men answering a clarion call for what and where they knew not. They were largely untried in the crucible of combat, toddlers during World War II and too young for Korea, but full of zeal and ready to prove themselves worthy of their warrior calling. I was privileged to have served with this group…Pres. John F. Kennedy electrified us with his well- articulated ideals and challenge to Americans to “Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country”…. “A relatively few highly selected Air Force Officers, Non Coms, (NCOs), and young enlistees across America were asked to blindly commit to service well beyond their commissioning or enlistment oaths and to secretly deploy to the four corners of the globe to fight dirty little counterinsurgency wars with the understanding that there would be no recognition or acknowledgment by their government”.
This “motley group” as Colonel King would affectionately refer to his people was a remarkable cross section of the USAF’s finest talent. It contained personnel of several races. It had fighter, bomber, and transport pilots. It had several officers who were graduates of the US Military or the Naval Academy. The enlisted personnel followed the same pattern. The Loadmasters who became the “go-to-guys” for problems of all types were the most remarkable and resourceful bunch with whom I have ever served.
There was however one common deficiency that ran through all the Aircrews. They all came out of jet or turbo prop aircraft units. On the other hand we were to be equipped with WWII prop type aircraft. Training down had many of the problems of training up. But for us it was a lot more fun.
he initial T/A (Table of Authorization) called for a complement 36 aircraft consisting of C-47’s, the Douglas B-26 and T-28’s. These we picked up in dribbles and drabs from storage at various depots. In the meantime we borrowed aircraft for training from anyplace we could. C-47’s came from various bases flight operations, and T-28’s (tail hooks and all) from the Navy in Pensacola. Within a year the C-46 and U-10s were added to our fleet. When we later received the USAF version of the T-28’s they were so anemic compared to the Navy version that we immediately started a search for a replacement. Our first choice was the Navy A-1. The battle over this aircraft raged on in the JCS for a period of time because the Navy refused to relinquish any of the several thousand they had in storage. Eventually we had to settle for the Navy version of T-28’s. A year or so later the AF prevailed and we received the A-1s, which proved to be the finest counterinsurgency aircraft in the world. The T-28’s we converted to attack of AT-28 configuration.
Besides our obsolete WWII equipment we were also used for testing certain new and experimental type equipment. For example we were the first US military organization to be issued the AR-15 rifles. These were the civilian version made by Armalite, and acquired by Gen. LeMay, using special funds under his control. We were also the first unit to be issued backpack single side band (SSB) radios. When a later detachment of Commandos was stationed in Panama they could contact their home station at Howard AFB from just about any jungle location in South America. Our transport aircraft also had SSB equipment.
Most everything else we had was in the nature of bare bones. The simpler the better. What we broke we had to fix. There was no Tech Rep or Depot support assistance within reach of a telephone.
We were expected to solve our own problems. The most sterling example involved getting the aircraft over to Vietnam. The C47’s could fly over. They were formerly Search and Rescue (SAR) models with extra fuel cells. The B-26’s were not combat equipped so they would be left behind. We would pick up others from CIA facilities on Tainan, Taiwan. That left the AT-28’s. We sent a wire to HQ. USAF requesting C-124 airlift support from Hurlburt to Clark AFB in the Philippines where the wings would be replaced. We would then fly them on into Vietnam.
Colonel King received a blistering reply back from LeMay, which said in effect that you are expected to solve your own problems. You haven’t even left the States and you are already asking for help. This proved a reality check for the entire outfit. He was telling us that we really were on our own. We discussed several hair brain plans for getting the AT-28’s over to Vietnam until finally HQ. USAF relented and gave us the C-124 airlift we originally requested except it moved the pickup point to a POE, (Port of Embarkation) in Calif. The AT-28 aircraft with the wings removed were flown in the belly of a C-124 to Clark AFB where the wings were replaced. The US insignias were replaced with VNAF insignias and the aircraft were then flown to Vietnam with King in the lead.
TRAINING AND OPERATIONS:
ever was the “do it yourself” aspects of Jungle Jim more evident than in its training and later its over-seas operation. We borrowed instructor pilots from wherever we could get them to check out at least one of our pilots in each type of our aircraft. Check out usually consisted of one ride and several hours studying the aircraft handbook. The first pilot to check out in each type aircraft would then check out another and those two in turn would check out two more and so on.
The operational training followed the same pattern. For example we were told that we must become proficient in night blacked out infiltration and exfiltration of friendly agents. Colonel King contracted for the use of a nearby cow pasture and we brought down some Special Forces troops to hold up hooded flashlights to form a crude landing strip. King found out about an individual in HQ. TAC (Tactical Air Command) who had some experience in actual operations of this type in Eastern Europe during WWII. So we commandeered him to demonstrate just how to do this. His first student was King. After scaring the hell out of King he then scared it out of me. All the other transport pilots lined up after King and me. They also had the hell scared out of them. The IP (Instructor Pilot) thought it was great fun. After you made a few near crash landings you then really got the treatment. You went out to the Special Forces Guys and stood alongside one of them as the blacked out Gooney bore down on you. The secret was to know just when to drop to the ground if the plane was a little off track, which it usually was. One of King’s beliefs was that in order to appreciate another Guy’s risky operations you must walk in his shoes.
The training programs for all the other aircraft and crews followed the same pattern. We set our own standards and developed our own procedures. After a relatively short training period we were notified that we were to be given an Operational Readiness Inspection (ORI), by a team from HQ. TAC and then scheduled for overseas deployment destination unknown. The ORI was almost anti climatic. Since no one in TAC HQ knew our operations we were asked to write our own test, profiles and standards. Also we wrote our own grading system. Obviously we passed with flying colors.
As indicated previously the C-47’s flew to Vietnam. They landed first at Clark AFB where the insignias were changed to those of Vietnam and then on to Bien Hoa, South Vietnam, (SVN). A detachment from Clark AFB had previously arrived at Bien Hoa and set up a tent city for our use. Nothing else was prepared for our arrival by either the US Military Assistance Command Vietnam, (USMACV), or the Vietnam government.
The Vietnam Air Force, (VNAF) seemed perfectly content to continue fighting the war as they had been for previous years using French taught tactics and procedures. They certainly had the better airplanes; various models of the Douglas A-1 which we had been trying to get but failed. There were two glaring weakness however that substantially hurt the war effort. The VNAF fought their own kind of war and the Vietnam Army, (ARVN) fought theirs. There was very little cooperation or coordination between the Vietnam military services. Secondly, the VNAF simply did not fly at night or operate away from their main bases at Ben Hoa, De Nang or Na Trang. Night was the time that the Viet Con (VC) was most active. The VC owned the night.
Our first weeks in Vietnam were spent with Colonel King daily walking over to the VNAF side of the field, trying to prompt someone in authority to assign at least a few sorties to us. The VNAF were flying daily but we were ignored. This was extremely frustrating for a highly motivated and aggressive Commander like King. We were so isolated that Col. King became concerned about the safety of our aircraft. For the first week or so all members of the unit including aircrews and staff stood night guard around the parameter of Bien Hoa until sufficient ARVIN guards were provided.
The first break occurred when the VC kidnapped the First Sergeant of Gen. McGarr Chief of the USMACV. The ARVN planned a major three-day sweep of all the outlying area around Saigon. No air power was involved. Using the rationale that a US military man was involved King took it upon himself to send in our Combat Control Team with the leading ARVN unit. In the event that there were any political or military problems he personally led the Commando team, tramping around the woods with a radio backpack for two days and nights. All this time we keep one or more AT-28’s or B-26’s on day CAP (Combat Air Patrol) over King’s position. We were on standby alert at night. This caught the attention of both the President of VN as well as the Chief of the USMACV.
From that time on we were occasionally tasked to fly sorties by the ARVN primarily night missions in support of isolated forts and outposts which were under siege. Although the coordination between the VNAF and the ARVN appeared to improve slightly we were never able to make any substantial inroads into the old French installed habits of flying during daylight hours only.
We did make one significant step forward. On one occasion during Colonel King’s absent we were visited by Admiral Felt then Commander-in-Chief Pacific Command, (CINPAC). The Admiral had just returned from a visit with President Diem who had commented that the ARVN was complaining of lack of air support in the center of the country around Pleiku where the VC were the strongest. The VNAF had been telling the president that their airplanes needed too much ground support to operate from such an isolated bases. Diem asked Felt if Jungle Jim could operate from locations such as Pleiku. Diem continued that if we could he would have the proof he needed to force the VNAF to do likewise. Admiral Felt asked if we could do this. I replied that indeed we could and that austere operation was part of our concept. He asked me how long it would take. I replied that in about two or three days we could be ready to accept tasking. Felt expressed some skepticism at this estimate but requested that we move out. We dispatched a composite detachment consisting of two AT-28’s and two support C-47’s the following day and 24 hours later the AT-28’s were dropping bombs against VC targets. True to Diem’s word VNAF A-1’s soon arrived and began operations. Our detachment then returned to Bien Hoa. To the best of my knowledge the VNAF continued to operate out of Pleiku until the end of the war.
As an aside, during Admiral Felt’s visit he gave directions that the Commandos were to get rid of those crazy non-military hats that they were wearing. That night I sent a message through CIA channels bypassing all military stations, informing Colonel King of this event. Early the next day I received a message through military channels that the Commando hat had just been approved as an official part of AF Commando uniforms. It was signed simply LeMay. An info copy was sent to the Admiral’s Headquarters. Our Mentor was still looking after us.
The name of the game in those early days was innovation, experimentation, and leading by example. These efforts included night attacking under flares, much more close air support of ground operations, and Physiological Operations, (Psy. Ops.) Which included both leaflet drop and loudspeaker operations. In fact it was during a leaflet drop that the US suffered its first combat loss in Viet Nam. A spray aircraft went down prior to our loss but it was later determined to be a non-combat loss.
Our C-47 went down on a return flight from Da Nang during the TET celebration of 1962. It was dispatching leaflets bearing a TET greeting from President Kennedy. Obviously its flight path was over known VC villages. Back in those days there was no Search and Rescue, (SAR) functions in Vietnam. No SAR system, no SAR aircraft, and no SAR personnel. When out C-47 failed to check in on schedule a village-by-village communication search was conducted for us by the ARVN. One village reported an explosion a few miles out of town following a leaflet drop. We quickly assembled a “do it yourself” SAR Team consisting of the author, our flight surgeon, several control team members and a few others. Using ARVN helicopter lift and an ARVN Ranger Regiment for protection we found the wreckage early the next day. No one could have possible survived the impact of the plane into the side of a mountain. We recovered the bodies and sadly returned to base.
Upon returning from Vietnam many of the Commandos were sent to Panama, (BOLD VENTURE), where they undertook another and entirely different mission. But that’s another story.
“QUO VADIS?” SPECIAL OPERATIONS. (Whither Goest Thou?)
JUNJLE JIM was a noble and glorious experiment whose progeny continues even today in the embodiment of the AF Special Operations Command (AFSOC). While we of the “old days of glory” continue to bask in the memories of our times, there has emerged a new group of Commandos, eager to further our finest tradition and to proudly carry forward the legacy of JUNGLE JIM.
These men of AFSOC are paving their own path to glory. Matching hero for hero in the finest tradition of the men of JUNGLE JIM. Yes, the names of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia have been replaced with names like Kosovo, Kuwait, Iraq, and Afghanistan, but that special form of “dedication without reservation” has prevailed and our country reaps the benefits.
Inevitably, a discussion of Jungle Jim and Air Commandos harkens back to the exploits of the WWII Air Commandoes which captured the imagination of America for some 12 years through the comic strip “Terry and the Pirates” by Milton Caniff. The WWII 1st Air Commando Group led by the legendary Cols Phil Cochran and John Alison performed heroic tasks behind the enemy lines in the CBI (China Burma India) theater. Exploits that will probably never be equaled in the future annals of military special operations.
However, it was as brief as it was intense, lasting for less than two years.
We honor their record, not envy it. However now we have arrived at the 50th anniversary of the post WWII Special Air Warfare era. The very modest start of the Jungle Jim experiment has now morphed into a Major Military Command that has developed its own tactics, designed several generations of new and specialized aircraft, and developed many state of the art weapons that have furthered our success in anti-insurgent and similar type warfare. However, in order to begin and to help propagate fifty years of growth in the arena of so-called low intensity conflicts, this “motley group” named JUNGLE JIM must have done some things right.
“Any Place, Any Time, Any Where”