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The making of an air commando

Posted 2/9/2007   Updated 2/9/2007 Email story   Print story


by by James A. George

2/9/2007 - SAN ANTONIO -- [Editor's note: This article reprinted from Airman magazine, December, 1966]

I had never heard the song before, but the melody was vaguely familiar:

"Swamp rat, swamp rat, where do you hi-ide? "Come out in the open and I'll be your guy-ide."

The raspy voice bounced off the tall pines in Kisatchie National Forest in central Louisiana:

I'm a friendly guerilla who'll take you in ha-and. And lead you safely through the en-neh-mee la-and."

The words sounded promising, but the singer's tone didn't inspire much confidence. There were 30 swamp rats in the vicinity, mostly bunched together in groups of three, with maps and compasses, planning their evasion routes. Another five, farther out and hiding behind trees, were acting as sentries for the main party.

A swamp rat is a student in the Air Commando Orientation course, which is also nicknamed Swamp Rat. Designed to give a student an insight into the hazards he might face in a combat situation, the course is primarily for the new Air Commandos who have recently arrived at England AFB. New members of this famed unit are plentiful, incidentally, since the wing moved from Hurlburt Field, Fla., last December, leaving over half of its highly trained members behind to help form the 4410th Combat Crew Training Wing.

The course lasts one week, half of which is completed in classrooms. There the trainee gets basic instruction on escape and evasion, resisting enemy interrogation, contacting friendly forces, survival, map and compass reading, the meaning of the Code of Conduct, history and mission of the other subjects.

The remaining half of the Swamp Rat course is in Kisatchie National Forest, adjacent to England AFB, where the students put their new knowledge to the realistic tests--man again man; man against nature.

The Enemy Camp

The enemy in the Swamp Rat course is outnumbered 35 to 22, but he has the advantage. This is his territory, and he knows it well. He is experienced in these matters, too. The enemy owns and operates a prisoner-of-war camp somewhere between the starting point and finish line of this hostile course. He has ambushed and snared dozen of would-be infiltrators, even when they've had guerrilla guides with them.

The trainee has some help. A small map and compass; a friendly guerrilla he can trust (he hopes) to lead him through enemy territory; and his buddies. Plus trees, the protective cover of night, a canteen of water, the stars if he's lucky, and a piece of parachute to use as cover if it rains or if the ground gets too damp for comfort.

This time the enemy's real name is Joseph J. Przywara, Jr. By trade he's a captain and C-47 pilot in the 317th Air Commando Squadron. But this week he's a volunteer aggressor in the Swamp Rat course. Sweat bathes his face and neck. His starched cap of "bad guy" black with a red star above the bill lies nearby, and his black uniform jacket, which also has red stars on the shoulder boards, is open in the bright Louisiana sun. As POW camp commandant, he is planning evil surprises for the men who will soon begin trickling in after their capture by enemy patrols.

We strolled through the enemy camp, in and out of the barbed-wire enclosure, to a nearby woodsy area used to interrogate and "persuade" prisoners to cooperate, and to the tent area where the aggressors rest between patrols and guarding prisoners. Several of the friendly guerrillas, who would soon be attempting to help the swamp rats, were still in the enemy camp. Capt Burke H. Morgan, course director, conferred with the good guys and the bad guys, who outlined their respective plans of action. Then the friendlies moved out for their own camp, nestled among the tall pines a few miles away.

If the students could successfully make contact with their guerrilla friends, they would be taken to the camp of the friendlies where, hopefully, they might get food and rest before beginning anew their efforts to reach the course finish line--and freedom.

Somehow, however, the enemy force manages to capture nearly every one of the students sooner or later (So they don't always play fair. What's fair in warfare, anyway?)

The escape and evasion portion of the Swamp Rat course is a challenge, what with the crawling and hiding and the mosquitoes and snakes. But the toughest part is reserved for the captured airmen who undergo a realistic interrogation at the POW camp.

The Air Commando Orientation Course is a short version of the survival training given at Fairchild AFB, Wash., and many of the officers and airmen of the 1st Air Commando Wing have been through the longer course, or have graduated from other land, sea, jungle and desert survival schools in the US and overseas. Many of them have also served one or more tours of duty in Southeast Asia, or in the jungles of Central or South America, in Europe, or in the Mediterranean.

A Tough Grind

The making of an Air Commando is a tough grind. It starts at the top and bottom of the command simultaneously with old-fashioned PT--physical training. Col. Hugh G. Fly, Jr., commander of the wing, got things off to a proper start following the wing's move to England AFB, which is now a Special Air Warfare base. The aircraft ramps are the scene of mass morning calisthenics and daily runs often led by Colonel Fly. The length of the runs increase, although most PT exercises are now done in unit or smaller group sessions. Some men prefer the morning hours and others take their exercises around 1500 hours.

Colonel Fly thinks the Air Commandos have the "best mission in the Air Force," one they have to be prepared for physically and mentally. His deputy commander for material, Col. Malcolm L. Nurnberg, is physically active, too. He won the England AFB tennis championship this summer. Why the emphasis on physical fitness? Because the Air Commando's job assignments are almost always strenuous, and the hours long. Assignments range from civic actions in rugged, primitive corners of the world to training the air forces of newly developed nations in Special Air Warfare operations and conducting counterinsurgency air strikes or psychological warfare mission in combat situations.

Assault airlift, photo and visual reconnaissance, psychological warfare, interdiction, close air support for ground forces, and other highly specialized tasks are included in the Air Commando's mission.

The 1st Air Commando Wing (or Air Force units which were specially trained by the Air Commandos) has performed whichever of these or other demanding jobs were required in Mali, the Dominican Republic, South Vietnam, Guatemala, Honduras, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Colombia, Argentina, Ecuador, Chile, Peru, Thailand, Greece, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and other nations.

In short, the Air Commando must be physically and mentally prepared to perform at peak efficiency in all situations, regardless of environment. Daily calisthenics and running are just a small part of the training program. The majority of instruction is highly specialized and aimed at making each man a ruggedly potent individual who is a specialist in several career specialties.

On Land or Sea

The Flight Medical Division of the 1st Air Commando Wing, for example, includes four pararescue specialists. MSgt Francis Dean, NCOIC, has spent 15 years perfecting his air rescue skills, and his qualifications are similar to those of his teammates.

He is a parachutist; scuba diver; weapons expert; first aid corpsman; demolitions specialist; radio operator; and has had arctic, jungle, sea and mountain survival training. He is also skilled in hand-to-hand combat. Over the years this giant of a man has managed to become proficient in quite a few Air Force skills. He is also HALO-qualified. (Most Air Commandos who are jumpers are high-altitude/low-opening experts as well.)

The four medical officers and 12 medically trained airmen of the division spend a great deal of time on temporary duty in a dozen or more foreign countries. They work as members of the wing's Mobile Training Teams, often in primitive areas where no outsiders have ever visited below.

You Name It

Having a primary Air Force Specialty doesn't mean a thing to an Air Commando.

Maj. Frank Oncay, Jr., is a good example of the versatility expected of everyone. A senior navigator, he's the wing director of training; wing navigator; an operations staff officer and monitor for on-the-job training; Zero Defects and Cost Reduction project chief; instructor of aircrew trainees; and member of several wing boards. He also has other duties! He has over 9,000 flying hours on the books, and has flown over the North and South Poles during his Air Force service.

"The people in this wing do an amazing amount of work although we're tremendously understaffed because of heavy SEA commitments," he told me. Like other Air Commandos, he adds continuous training flights to his already long duty days Major Oncay flies A-26 night strike training missions whenever he can.

The 1st Air Commando Wing, depleted heavily prior to its move to Louisiana, is still only at roughly half its authorized strength, which was 1,389 (268 officers and 1, 121 airmen). "We have about 900 men on hand right now," Colonel Fly said, "and some 200 of them are overseas. Most of the rest are in some kind of training program."

What this all boils down to , is that everyone is doing double or triple duty, sometimes more, during the wing's rebuilding phase. A lot of top-notch men were left behind at Hurlburt Field, Fla., where they are training aircrews bound for Southeast Asia flying slots.

When I asked about the training of Air Commandos, Major Oncay singled out the combat controller and combat weathermen. "They do it all," he said, "anything and everything."

"We get all kinds of jobs, anything that comes up in a hurry," Capt. John R. Watts echoed later, with pride. He's chief of the Combat Control Team.

"Controllers in the 1st Air Commando Wing are different from controllers in other commands. As a matter of fact, a combat controller's real training starts after his arrival here. We go a lot further to prepare a drop zone, for example, than a controller would normally be required to do. When we clear a DZ, likely as not that means to hack a clearing out of a jungle with machetes."

Captain Watts showed me some of the equipment his men must know how to use with skill. This included mobile communications stations ("That's not a jeep with radio gear... It's a radio station with a jeep attached."), portable runway lights, and the Fulton Recovery System for rescuing downed airmen on land or at sea.

"We're the best equipped combat controllers in the Air Force," he said. "And every man in this outfit is a volunteer for Vietnam (here he threw up his hands in a gesture of mock complaint), or Africa, or anywhere else, for that matter. When we get a requirement for a man to go TDY everybody goes into that quonset over there. Next thing I hear is a lot of scuffling around. Pretty soon one tattered man comes out, grinning wide, and says "When do I leave?" and the problem of picking a man is settled." It was hard to tell whether Captain Watts was kidding me or not.

Most of his controllers are men who retrained from other career fields, and now they're doing exactly what they want to be doing. A2C George F. Maxwell, Jr., a former jet engine mechanic and first-termer, told me he'd stay in the Air Force if he can stay with the Air Commandos.

Before joining the 1st ACW these men attended the Ft. Benning Army jump school and the combat controller school at Sewart AFB, Tenn. After reporting to England AFB, their training includes HALO jumping; scuba diving; parachute rigger school; first aid; the Swamp Rat course and other survival schools; radio operations and maintenance; hand-to-hand combat and other specialized studies.

(Air Commando parachutists are also trained as jumpmasters. On TDYs overseas any member of a Mobile Training Team may be called upon to help instruct foreign paratroopers.)

The subject of weather always bored me until I met Capt. Keith R. Grimes and his cloud-sounders. There are no other weathermen like them in the US Air Force. I'll wager. I entered their hot, humid quonset on an afternoon so muggy that my camera lens was all steamed up.

"We're going for seven today, sarge," the Combat Weather Team chief said pleasantly, "Join us?"

I found out he meant seven miles, and he and his men were planning to run it in the hottest part of the day. Since I failed track in school, I declined. The 16-man Combat Weather Team runs at least three miles every day, and one man--Sgt. Wayne L. Golding--used to rack up 20 miles a day with no sweat. (Well, maybe a little.)

The weathermen's credentials as Air Commandos are significant. Captain Grimes, for example, speaks four languages and has two degrees, one in meteorology and another in geology. In 1965 he spent a total of 307 days on temporary duty, mostly in Southeast Asia. The members of Detachment 75, 5th Weather Wing, are a combination of officer and airmen forecasters, weather ob- servers, and weather observer technicians.

"The men on this team are all hand-picked," Captain Grimes told me. "Every one is a fully qualified weather observer and has already been to jump school before volunteering for Combat Weather Team duties."

Proud of his unit and of his men, Captain Grimes refers to them as "airmen first, and weathermen second" because of their special missions. Alone, or as members of Air Commando Mobile Training Teams, they penetrate some of the wildest areas in the world to establish weather nets and train foreign, sometimes primitive people to man these vital sites, take readings, and transmit data to weather collection centers.

"In our business you have to learn to live with all kinds of people, in many lands, and to prove yourself first a compadre before you can be accepted as an ally." Captain Grimes said "Like the Air Commandos we work with, our men are often busier building huts or showers or schoolrooms in some primitive part of the world, than they are with weather work. But when you can do something for a man or his family or village and work right alongside his people at some community project, then you're a friend--not just an outsider. This is our philosophy."

The 1st Air Commando Wing is the most decorated unit in the US Air Force, and with good reason. Their assignments have never been easy, although, their accomplishments sometimes make these successes appear almost effortless. Obviously, they accept the difficult jobs they are given as routine.

Not every man in the Air Commandos is jump qualified, or a scuba diver. Aircrew members concentrate on flying the A-26 or the U-10, the AC-47 Dragon-ships, the T-28s and A-1Es and C-123 Providers on air strikes, psychological leaflet or speaker missions, re-supply air drops, night flare operations, and other special air warfare missions.

Maintenance crewmen and armament specialists concentrate on their primary jobs, as do the communicators and medics, intelligence specialists, photographers, and all the other highly motivated technicians. All of them, regardless of their primary roles in the wing, are trained in hand-to-hand combat, weapons utilization, the Special Air Warfare mission, escape and evasion, and all are daily devotees of the physical conditioning process that is so evident everywhere on England Air Force Base.

Individual training is a key factor in Air Commando readiness, but so is joint training. The 1st Air Commando Wing is frequently involved in joint exercises with the Army's Special Forces, the US Strike Command, or the armies and air forces of other nations.

There are other training activities also, including courses at the Air Ground Operations School, or correspondence courses from the Army's Special Forces. It all boils down to the making of an Air Commando.

His purpose: to assist the underdeveloped or threatened nations which seek American aid against sickness, disease, poverty or tyranny.

The Air Commando pays a price in order to be of service--a price that all US fighting men pay when they are separated for long weeks and months from their families and the comforts of home.

But though he may carry loneliness in his heart for things which are precious to him, he does not walk alone. His deep belief in something--his religion, his country, his unit, his family--sustains him, and gives him the courage to live in hostile environments thousands of miles from his native soil.

His Air Commando training gives him the self-confidence he must have if he is to complete his mission successfully. And his motto states simply his readiness to face the challenge:

Any Time, Any Place

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