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The history of the 1st Special Operations Wing revisited

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Jeff Michalke
  • 16th Special Operations Wing History Office
The 1st Special Operations Wing has a rich and honored history that began in Burma and continues at Hurlburt Field.

The 1st SOW can trace its lineage back to "Project 9" which evolved into the 1st Air Commando Group during World War II.

During the Quebec Trident Conference of August 1943, it was decided to coordinate the land and air forces of Britain and the United States in Southeast Asia under one commander (at that time, they were three separate commands); to increase the amount of supplies going over the "Hump" into China; and to launch a campaign in Burma toward the end of 1943.

During the conference British Army Brig. Gen. Orde Wingate, who successfully led large numbers of troops, known as Wingate's Raiders behind the Japanese lines in Burma, presented an elaborate plan which involved the employment of a much bigger force for his next Burma operation.

President Franklin Roosevelt ensured British Prime Minister Winston Churchill that the United States would assist the British with the campaign and appointed Gen. Henry "Hap" Arnold, Army Air Corps commander, to support Wingate's forces.

Gen. Arnold seized on the opportunity to use the flexibility of air power to fully support ground combat operations. He chose Lt. Cols. Philip G. Cochran and John R. Allison to develop this radically new concept and unique application of airpower, and called this top secret mission "Project 9." Gen. Arnold also chose the name Air Commando to describe the men undertaking this mission as a tribute to the Supreme Allied Commander for Southeast Asia, British Adm. Louis Mountbatten. Mountbatten had previously trained and organized the first British Commandos.

Could airpower infiltrate, supply, maintain, and exfiltrate a sizeable ground force into jungles deep behind enemy lines? In September 1943, Colonels Cochran and Allison began recruiting a 528 man all-volunteer force, and by December 1943, men and equipment were in place in India and early operations began.


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 allowed 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 approximately 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.

The 1st Air Commando Group inactivated after World War II on Nov. 3, 1945. It appeared that the group was doomed to remain a non-entity, especially after the Air Force disbanded the organization on Oct. 8, 1948. However, events in Asia during the 1960s revived the need for the type of air warfare developed by the 1st ACG during World War II.


Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev announced in 1961 that catastrophic results of a general war did not suit communist ends, and that limited wars could escalate to general wars and thus should be avoided. However, to help achieve their objectives of conquering the world, communists found a safe level of combat and a much cheaper one. Khrushchev proclaimed that the communists would wholeheartedly and without reservation support wars of liberation. This type of communist warfare involved subversive political activity designed to undermine the confidence of citizens in civil authority and to overthrow duly constituted governments, thus opening a door to communism. This was known as insurgency.

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy recognized the threat posed by communist subversive tactics, and directed the armed forces to add still another military dimension to the capabilities of meeting general or limited wars. This military dimension meant the development of a full spectrum of military, quasi-military and civil actions. President Kennedy issued a call to train airborne warfare specialists in response to Kruschev's declaration directing the spread of communism throughout the Third World.

The counterinsurgency concept entailed a joint action of military services with United States civilian agencies in assisting friendly governments to prevent the emergence of insurgency through civic action programs. The concept would also maintain or restore internal security under circumstances in which armed insurgency was threatening the existence of friendly governments.

The project to answer the call for counter-insurgency, code-named "Jungle Jim," began the revival of the Air Commando legacy here. Tactical Air Command activated the 4400th Combat Crew Training Squadron on April 14, 1961. Less than a year later, it expanded to become the 4400th Com-bat Crew Training Group, which provided the Air Force with a counter-insurgency and military assistance capability. The 4400th CCTG consisted of the 6th Fighter Squadron, Commando, the 319th Troop Carrier Squadron, the 1st Air Materiel Squadron, and the 4410th Combat Crew Training Squadron. As its responsibilities and size grew, the group assumed the Air Commando name and became the 1st Air Commando Wing on June 1, 1963.

Members of the new organization were required to undergo specialized technical training in flying, survival and hand-to-hand combat. Wing personnel also studied foreign languages and trained with small arms. Flight training included day and night assault landings, personnel, leaflet, and cargo drops, loudspeaker announcements, and various other techniques which would be helpful to foreign aircrews engaged in civic action or combating insurgency in remote areas. The 1st ACW flew thousands of hours in C-46 Commandos, C-47 Gooney Birds, B-26 Invaders, T-28 Trojans and U-10s. As time passed, C-123 Providers and A-1E Sky raiders were added to the mix.

Worldwide deployment quickly became a way of life for the air commandos. Only four months after activation, the first deployment occurred. Detachment number 1, code-named "Sandy Beach 1", deployed to Mali, West Africa, in August 1961 to train paratroopers. Before Dot. number 1 returned home, Dot. number 2, code-named "Farm gate," departed Hurlburt in early November for South Vietnam to perform a six-month assignment, which was later extended. They trained South Vietnamese air force personnel and flew some of the earliest U.S. combat missions of the war. The Farmgate contingent represented a significant portion of the 4400th CCTS's authorized manning of 124 officers and 228 enlisted. This initiated the high operations tempo and hazardous duty, which came to be the hallmarks of air commando activity.

Detachment number 3 personnel and aircraft, also known as Bold Venture, deployed to Panama to initiate air commando involvement in Latin America. This country became a major area of interest to which mobile training and civic action teams deployed regularly. Panama benefited from the development of airfields, schools, water and sanitation projects, and medical care in the interior. Other countries in which air commandos operated in 1962 included Venezuela, El Salvador, Dominican Republic, Paraguay, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, Greece, Crete, Iran, Turkey and Germany.


The gunship became the most important special operations development to evolve from the Vietnam War - the AC-47, the AC-119, and at its best, the AC-130. The AC-130 performed its interdiction and close-air support missions in an outstanding manner and proved to be the most effective "truck killer" in the war.

This radical concept, calling for a transport aircraft with side-firing guns, met considerable opposition initially within the Air Force. However, after equipping and testing a C-47 in Vietnam, the results proved convincing.

Although vulnerable to enemy ground fire, the gunship had the advantage of being able to keep a target under constant fire. In the face of heavier ground fire, the Air Force responded by improving avionics and in-creasing gunship firepower to permit it to operate at higher and safer altitudes. The 1st Air Commando Wing concentrated almost exclusively on training aircrews enroute to Vietnam and in-creased in size significantly. By October 1965, the wing had 10 different types of aircraft, 165 in all. Due to a number of aircraft and training requirements, the Air Force split operations into two wings-one at Hurlburt Field and one at England Air Force Base, La. 1st ACW transferred to England AFB and the 4410th Combat Crew Training Wing took charge at Hurlburt Field on January 15, 1966.

Split operations continued until July 15, 1969, when the 1st ACW transferred back to Hurlburt Field. During that time, the Air Force redesignated the 1st ACW as the 1st Special Operations Wing effective July 8, 1968.


As the Vietnam War began winding down, Air Force special operations forces capabilities gradually declined as well. In June 1974, the 1st Special Operations Wing was redesignated the 834th Tactical Composite Wing, effectively bringing to a close the most aggressive, far reaching effort by the U.S. Air Force to support unconventional warfare.

In July 1975, the Air Force renamed the 834th TCW back to the 1st SOW, and by 1979 it was the only special operations wing in the Air Force. The wing possessed AC-130H Spectre gunships, MC-130E Combat Talons and CH-3E Jolly Green and UH-1N Huey helicopters.

In 1979, Iranian "students" overran the American Embassy in Tehran and took Americans hostage. When all diplomatic efforts proved unsuccessful, U.S. special operations forces attempted a daring rescue in April 1980 with the 1st SOW playing a key role. Before the rescue could be at-tempted, however, weather and mechanical problems caused the mission to abort.

As the rescue forces began evacuating the area, a U.S. Navy CH-53 helicopter piloted by a U.S. Marine Corps pilot, crashed into one of the EC-130s resulting in the death of eight crew-members five from the 8th Special Operations Squadron. While this effort did not free any hostages, it demonstrated to the world the highest commitment to those in need and the willingness of the Air Commandos to risk and sacrifice their lives if necessary.

On May 1, 1983, the 1st SOW's 20th SOS aircrews received an important role in the vice president's South Florida Drug Task Force.

The 20th SOS helped curb the flow of illegal drugs into the United States through the Bahamas in Operation BAT (Bahamas and Turks) by transporting Bahamian authorities and American drug enforcement agents to sites of drug action.

In almost two and a half years, the squadron flew more than 1,100 sorties which supported the capture or destruction of more than $1.5 billion in drugs, vessels, aircraft, equipment and weapons. During the operation, one 20th SOS UH-1N helicopter crashed at sea resulting in the death of three squadron members.

In late October 1983, the 1st SOW provided three AC-130H Spectre gunships and five MC-130E Combat Talons to support Operation Urgent Fury on the island of Grenada, off the coast of Venezuela. The U.S. government considered Americans, primarily medical students studying in Grenada, in imminent danger from anti-American elements. The U.S. organized a joint task force of Air Force, Army, Navy and Marine elements to expedite their rescue with the 1st SOW aircraft leading the air assault.

Without the AC-130Hs to suppress ground fire, the MC-130Es could not have successfully dropped the Army paratroopers.

Wing personnel earned, among other awards, the Mackay Trophy for the most meritorious flight of the year, and the William H. Tunner Award for Military Airlift Command's outstanding aircrew of 1983.

Six years later, in December 1989, relations between the U.S. and the Panamanian government deteriorated to the point that the National Assembly of Panama, under Gen. Manuel Noriega, declared war on the U.S. Panamanian Defense Force personnel harassed Americans and even killed without provocation.

An American court had previously indicted General Noriega on drug charges, but he resided in Panama, thus not under American jurisdiction.

These events caused President George H. W. Bush to order the execution of Operation Just Cause on Dec. 20, 1989.


Operation Just Cause objectives included capturing General Noriega, delivering him to the United States to face drug charges, protecting American personnel and U.S. interests under the Panama Canal Treaty, and restoring democracy to the Panamanian citizens which had been suppressed by General Noriega.

All five 1st Special Operations Wing flying squadrons, the 8th, 9th, 16th, 20th and 55th Special Operations Squadrons, plus maintenance and other personnel saw action in Operations Just Cause. With precise timing, despite very bad weather enroute, the Talons and gunships flew directly to their targets in Panama.

This extremely complex joint force operation started in the early morning hours when the 16th SOS Spectre gunships opened fire on General Noriega's military headquarters. Following the headquarters attack, U.S. forces coordinated attacks on other key military targets throughout Panama.

The massive air and ground assault in Operation Just Cause effectively defeated General Noriega and his PDF on the first day, leaving scattered uncoordinated resistance. Despite accomplishing all operational objectives, General Noriega remained at large until January 3, 1990.

In one of the highlights of Just Cause, an 8th SOS aircrew flew Noriega from Howard Air Force B, Panama, to Florida, and then onto prison to await trial. The 1st SOW flew over 500 sorties and over 1,300 hours on schedule with no aircraft losses and no ground or air aborts while deployed to Panama.

The 1st SOW distinguished itself during Operation Just Cause by garnering the Tunner Award, the Jabara Award, and the Mackay Trophy. One squadron earned the Air Force Daedalian Maintenance Award for displaying the highest degree of maintenance professionalism. These honors climaxed wing efforts that resulted in the Air Force Outstanding Unit Award for the period May 1988 through April 1990.

The 1st SOW personnel returned from Panama in early 1990 after missing Christmas and New Year's Day with their families. Less than six months later Iraq invaded Kuwait dashing hopes of 1st SOW personnel in spending their next Christmas season at home.

President George H.W. Bush ordered ground, sea and air forces to Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf as part of a multi-national operation named Desert Shield on Aug. 6, 1990. Even with more than 500,000 troops, this massive and technologically superior force failed to convince Iraq President Saddam Hussein to withdraw form Kuwait and end his aggression.

In mid-January 1991, when all prospects for a peaceful solution had evaporated, President Bush ordered the execution of Operation Desert Storm to expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait. 1st Special Operations Wing personnel played a significant role in Desert Storm as part of Task Force Normandy.
Task Force Normandy consisted of 20th Special Operations Squadron MH-53 PAVE LOWs navigating a route for U.S. Army Apache helicopter gunships, which knocked out Iraqi early warning sites. This attack opened a hole in the air defense system to start the air war.

After Task Force Normandy, the PAVE LOWs served primarily in a combat search and rescue role and rescued a U.S. Navy flier, 1st. Lt. Devon Jones, on Jan. 21, 1991, resulting in the first successful combat rescue behind enemy lines since Vietnam.

The MC-130E Combat Talon crews dropped psychological operations leaf-lets on Iraqi forces and deployed a total of 11 15,000-pound BLU-82 bombs in combat.

The AC-130H Spectre gunships flew armed reconnaissance, destroyed targets identified by intelligence and provided close-air support of ground forces when requested.

The 55th SOS MH-60 Pave Hawk helicopters inserted Special Forces be-hind enemy lines and performed CSAR.

Also, the 9th SOS HC-130P Combat Shadow tankers flew deep into Iraq to refuel 1st SOW helicopters in a high threat environment.

By March 13, 1991, the 1st SOW aircraft flew more than 10,000 hours on more than 5,000 sorties.

The loss of Spirit 03, a 16th SOW AC-130H gunship, and its crew of 14, resulted in the largest single loss suffered by an Air Force unit in Operation Desert Storm.

The gunship, supporting U.S. Marines in a battle for the town of Khafji, remained in the area too long, and the morning light afforded the enemy the opportunity to shoot it down.

Heroism often has an extremely high price.

In this case, the aircrew of Spirit 03 certainly recognized the potential cost to them and benefit to the Marines and accepted the risk.

Post-Desert Storm

The end of Desert Storm did not end the 1st Special Operations Wing's involvement in that part of the world. While other units returned home, the 9th and 20th Special Operations Squadrons remained in Saudi Arabia in the event Operation Desert Calm needed combat search and rescue for aircraft operating in Saudi Arabia and southern Iraq. Also, with Iraqi forces no longer occupying Kuwait, Saddam Hussein could once again turn his attention on the Kurdish population of northern Iraq.

Saddam Hussein had ruthlessly quashed a Kurdish rebellion in the late 1980s. New fears of further Iraq reprisals forced the Kurds to flee into southern Turkey. Operation Provide Comfort began humanitarian airlift of basic necessities to the Kurds in Iraq and Turkey, and the United Nations established a no-fly zone over the Kurd's homeland. The 1st SOW's 9th and 55th SOSs provided CSAR capability for forces flying relief supplies into this rugged area and patrolling the no-fly zones.

Units of the 1st SOW also participated in the beginning months of Operation Provide Promise in the former country of Yugoslavia. The operation began in July 1992 and lasted through March 1996.

1st SOW becomes 16th SOW

On Oct. 1, 1993 the United States Air Force redesignated the 1st SOW as the 16th SOW. The redesignation occurred as part of then Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Merrill A. McPeak's effort to protect Air Force heritage.

Upon becoming Chief of Staff, General McPeak tasked the Air Force Historical Research Agency at Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala. to develop a historical scoring system for wings and squadrons that would permit the Air Force leadership to keep those unit designations with the most history points during down-sizing actions. The historical agency personnel developed a scoring system based upon a unit's total years of service, service streamers, campaign or expeditionary credits, combat decorations, foreign decorations, non-combat decorations and aerial victory credits.

General McPeak directed that no active duty units would have the same designation. At the time, the 1st SOW shared its numerical designation with the 1st Fighter Wing, Langley AFB, VA, and the recently inactivated 1st Space Wing, Peterson AFB, Colo. Under the AFHRA scoring system, the 1st FW accumulated the most points, thus the 1st SOW had to be renamed.

To comply with General McPeak's requirement, the AFHRA personnel reconstituted the 16th Fighter Group and consolidated it with the 1st SOW. The 16th FG had a unique but short history in that it was activated in the Panama Canal Zone on Dec. 1, 1932 and served as part of the then very crucial defense of the Panama Canal. The unit flew P-12, P-26 and P-36 aircraft. In 1939, the unit was redesignated the 16th Pursuit Group (Interceptor), and in 1941, the 16th Fighter Group. The unit flew the P-40 until the unit was disbanded on Nov. 1, 1943. The 16th was of historical importance in that it was one of the original 13 Air Force units created between 1918 and 1932.

The 1st Air Commando Group was activated March 29, 1944, and through various redesignations over the years became the 1st SOW. By consolidating the 1st SOW with the 16th Fighter Group, the 16th SOW Air Commandos ended up with a rich lineage and honors heritage of both units while keeping the 1st SOW emblem. In addition, the wing's history now reached back to 1932 versus 1944 when the 1st Air Commando Group was activated. In addition, the unit added the American Theater Campaign streamer to its many awards and decorations.

Former 16th SOW commander, then Col. Maxwell C. Bailey, summed it up best by stating, "What ultimately matters is not what number we have, only that the wing is combat ready and capable of performing as professionally as the Air Commandos and special operators of the past 50 years. I also feel that retention of our current emblem and our current motto, 'Anytime, Anyplace' is an important part of the decision."

1st SOW reborn at Hurlburt Field

As the Air Force prepared to stand up a new Special Operations Wing at Cannon AFB, N.M., it was decided that the 1st SOW heritage should remain at Hurlburt Field. So today, a new chapter in the 1st SOW heritage begins.

The decision to resurrect the 1st SOW designation rose from the fact that the 1st SOW had a strong heritage with Hurlburt Field.