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Air Commando aircraft history ahead of its time

HURLBURT FIELD, Fla -- (This is part two in a series of Air Commando history articles leading up to the re-activation of the 1st Special Operations Wing here Nov. 16)
The World War II Air Commando force consisted of C-47 and UC-64 transports, P-51 fighters, L-1 and L-5 utility aircraft, CG-4A and TG-5 gliders, B-25 bombers and YR-4 helicopters. One of these new helicopters executed a combat rescue and received credit for the first combat use of a helicopter. The high priority given to Project 9 al-lowed them to obtain four helicopters for combat evaluation. From a weak but successful beginning, the helicopter evolved into a proven weapons system in Vietnam.

The variety of aircraft in this small command, the 5318th and then the 1st Air Commando Group, set precedence at the time. It took the Air Force until the 1990s to begin officially organizing composite wings consisting of more than one type of aircraft to meet the anticipated challenges of a changing world.

However, the Air Commandos in Burma, the Air Commandos of the 1st SOW in the 1960s and the Air Force special operations forces up through the present day have operated a composite force and operated it very effectively.

The experiment was a phenomenal success. In February 1944, the fighters and bombers softened enemy opposition by attacking the main line of Japanese communications. Before, during and after the assault landings deep in the jungles of Burma, the transport planes hauled supplies, animals and equipment required for the operation, known as Operation Thursday. After sites for the landing areas had been selected, located approximately 200 miles behind enemy lines, gliders landed bulldozers and engineers on March 5, 1944, to prepare the field for the transports, which arrived on March 6. A foothold had been established.

Although Lt. Cols. Phil-lip Cochran and John Allison's men were Air Commandos from the beginning, the 1st ACG was officially constituted on March 25, 1944, and activated on March 29, 1944. The 1st ACG continued to support British forces in Burma through April in an impressive manner.

The P-51 fighter assault element and B-25 bombers provided close air support for Wingate's columns. A Royal Air Force officer on the ground would pin-point targets by using mortar smoke to direct the Air Commando aircraft to their prey. On other occasions light planes based behind enemy lines dropped down to tree-top level to mark targets with smoke bombs. For the transport and glider elements in the group, the bulk of the work had been performed in the assault landings. During the remaining part of the operation the transports carried freight and passengers while the gliders were requested to move heavy construction equipment or armored cars to forward areas.

The most spectacular performance of all the 1st ACG's aircraft in the early phase of its history was that of the 100 light planes, L-1s and L-5s, assigned to operate approximately 150 miles within enemy territory.

Forty of the aircraft were lost from March through May 1944, but none had been shot down by enemy planes or ground fire.

Their achievements included more than 5,000 combat sorties during which they evacuated ap-proximately 2,000 wounded, dropped supplies to friendly forces, landed reinforcement troops, evacuated prisoners, flew reconnaissance, spotted targets, dispatched mail and transported commanders. One naval officer who observed the operation said the light planes had been the backbone of the Wingate penetration force.

On April 4, P-51s armed with rockets attacked a concentration of Japanese aircraft at a northern Bur-ma base. Caught by surprise, P-51s destroyed 26 Japanese aircraft along with two probables and eight damaged in this seven-minute attack; whereas a single P-51 took only a bullet to the wing. In late April, when a light plane carrying three wounded soldiers conducted an emergency landing on a road behind enemy lines, an Air Commando helicopter piloted by Lt. Carter Harmon, responded to recover them.
Due to engine overheating and the limited payload capacity of the R-4B, it required four hazardous trips and two days to complete the mission. This became the first, but not the last, combat helicopter rescue.

The Air Commandos of World War II, with their unorthodox tactics, proved highly successful and pushed American airpower into a new dimension by establishing a number of firsts in our military history, including:
- first air unit designed to support a ground unit
- first composite air unit
- first nighttime heavy glider assault landing
- first military unit to employ helicopters in combat

The men of this all-volunteer unit established the high standards of innovation, ingenuity, courage and resourcefulness to which Air Commandos have possessed ever since.