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The story behind Air Commando stripes

  • Published
  • AFSOC History

Harkening back to the unique paint schemes of Project 9 aircraft in World War II, the Air Commando stripes now appear in a variety of places. Each stripe has a meaning, which should never be lost in Air Force Special Operations Command culture.

They originally appeared in white paint on aircraft fuselages to easily identify Allied Air Forces planes – primarily the B-25s, C-47s, and P-51s flown by Project 9 American airmen supporting British Chindits – during combat operations in the China, Burma, India (CBI) campaign of WWII, circa 1944.

Each stripe represents the five operational sections of Project 9, and eventually the 5318th Provisional Air Unit – ancestor to the 1st Special Operations Wing of today. The sections were:

  • Fighters (P-51 Mustang and P-47 Thunderbolt)
  • Bombers (B-25 Mitchell)
  • Air transport (cargo planes C-47 Skytrain or Dakota, UC-64 Norseman)
  • Gliders (CG-4 Hadrian)
  • Liaison aircraft (light utility planes, L-1 Vigilant and L-5 Sentinel)

These markings appeared after the leader of the Fighter Section – Lt Col Grattan “Grant” Mahony – said he did not want to be fired on by his own fighters during the chaos of combat in the skies of the CBI Theater.  Approved by Col Phil Cochran, Project 9 commander, ground crews painted the stripes on P-51 Mustang fighters, L-series aircraft, UC-64 Norseman transports and (later) B-25H Mitchell bombers during reassembly in theater. Whatever the origin, these markings had a second purpose, according to a book on the original Air Commandos. The stripes were “to let the Japanese know who was dominating the skies of Burma.”

Because Lt Col Johnny Alison, co-commander and planner for Project 9, helped plan D-Day operations, some consider the black and white paint scheme on invasion aircraft a lesson-learned from his days with Project 9.