Operation THURSDAY began on March 5, 1944, when the first C-47 launched from India towing two overloaded gliders filled with Wingate’s troops, equipment, and supplies. A total of 26 transports towing gliders comprised the first wave. The gliders, carrying from 1,000 to 2,000 pounds of excess weight, strained the C-47 tow planes and ropes and caused significant problems. With eight of the first wave of C-47s each losing a glider, Colonel Cochran decided to limit one glider to each remaining transport. This decision allowed the air commandos to successfully deliver Wingate’s initial and succeeding forces to the jungle clearings over 200 miles behind Japanese lines in Burma.
During the first day the strip, designated “Broadway,” was improved so transport, glider, and liaison aircraft could land safely. They brought supplies, equipment and reinforcements, and evacuated the injured. A second strip, opened by glider assault, relieved congestion at Broadway. Airlift inserted almost 10,000 men, well over 1,000 mules, and approximately 250 tons of supplies. Casualties from the high-risk, untested concept, including missing, were less than 150, and for the first time in military history aircraft evacuated all killed, wounded, and sick from behind enemy lines.
The air commandos also protected the British ground forces by harassing the Japanese. This harassment, conducted by P-51s and B-25s equipped with a 75mm cannon in the nose and 12 .50 caliber machine guns, included bombing bridges, strafing and bombing parked aircraft, air-to-air combat, and destroying the communications, transportation, and military infrastructure.
In a unique technique, P-51 pilots cut Japanese telephone lines by attaching a weighted cable to the aircraft. This hung down like a pendulum and cut the lines as the aircraft flew over. In another, not-recommended instance, the pilot flew through the wires and broke them with his airplane.
Although Cochran’s and Allison’s men were air commandos from the beginning, the 1 ACG was officially constituted on March 25 and activated on March 29, 1944. The 1 ACG continued to support British forces in Burma through April in an impressive manner. On April 4, P-51s armed with rockets attacked a concentration of Japanese aircraft at a northern Burma base. Caught by surprise, 26 Japanese aircraft were destroyed along with two probables and eight damaged in this seven-minute attack; whereas a single P-51 took only a bullet in the wing.
On April 21, four P-51s used 1,000-pound bombs in a dive-bombing tactic to destroy a major bridge that had survived numerous attacks by other bomber forces. In late April, when a light plane carrying three wounded was forced down on a road behind enemy lines, an air commando helicopter was called on 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 this mission. As mentioned earlier, this was the first, but not the last, combat rescue by helicopter. The passengers were only the first of thousands in subsequent years who would bless helicopters and their courageous crews for often hair-raising rescues.
Air command gliders continued to play an important role in supporting British forces with supplies and equipment for building additional airstrips in Japanese-held Burma. Although glider losses had been high in the initial stages of Operation THURSDAY with landings in rough and unimproved clearings, casualties had been surprisingly light. Without gliders the invasion could not have succeeded. In contrast, the C-47s had a remarkable accident-free record. They flew almost 95% of their missions at night on instruments over hazardous terrain, utilizing short, rough landing strips deep behind enemy lines. Yet these pilots sustained no casualties and lost only one C-47. It struck a water buffalo during a night landing. The UC-64 light transports conducted 510 missions, flew 1366 combat hours, and moved 510,780 pounds of cargo – impressive statistics made more impressive considering the small number of aircraft available. Most of the 40 L-1 and L-5 liaison force losses in March and April occurred on landings and takeoffs from the primitive strips, but none from enemy action. Light plane activities were perhaps the most impressive, logging an estimated 5,000 to 7,000 sorties. Over 2,000 casualties were evacuated from behind enemy lines, including non-battle casualties such as malaria, fatigue, and general sickness. This capability contributed significantly to morale. No longer did the sick and wounded have to be left behind. Operation THURSDAY’s success resulted in the Distinguished Unit Citation for the 1 ACG.
The air commandos of World War II pushed American airpower into a new dimension, and established a number of firsts in our military history, including:
– first air unit designed to support a ground unit
– first composite air unit
– first air unit employed with total autonomy
– first aerial invasion into enemy territory
– first nighttime heavy glider assault landing
– first nighttime combat glider recovery
– first gliders airlift of large animals
– first major employment of light aircraft in combat
– first military unit to employ helicopters in combat
– first helicopter combat rescue
– first use of aircraft-fired rockets in combat
The 1st Air Commando Group inactivated after World War II, on November 3, 1945, and was disestablished by the Air Force on October 8, 1948.