TAMPA, FL (1SG Timothy Lawn) – Against seemingly all-odds and employing unconventional standards, a select group of aviators flying a group of composite aircraft, including the first use of the helicopter in combat, successfully launched and supported one of the first aerial invasions, making aviation history. That mission’s legacy still lives in today’s Air Commandos.
General Henry (Hap) Arnold, U.S. Army Air Forces Commander, hand-picked Lt. Col Philip Cochran and Lt. Col. John Alison as co-leaders of the unit that gave birth to the Air Commandos. Arnold provided initial (but loosely defined) directions. His orders were to assemble a composite task force that could provide aerial support for the allied mission and be self-sufficient for a minimum 90-day window.
Cochran and Alison, in what was known as Project 9, hand selected a bold crew of volunteers and chose a varied assortment of aircraft that allowed the Air Commandos to conduct a wide range of missions; these consisted of fighters, gliders, transports, liaison, bombers and the first U.S. military helicopters.
As a composite group, they were tasked to conduct and support an airlift of glider and airborne allied and British irregular forces called “Chindits,” under the command of British General Orde C. Wingate.
The concept was considered controversial due to Burma’s rugged mountains and deep jungles. The mission was to carry troops via cargo and glider aircraft deep behind enemy lines to hastily constructed landing zones in dense jungle. The reason they chose the glider airborne operation was to spare the Chindit force a dangerous and exhaustive jungle march and to beat the oncoming monsoon season.
In February 1944, Lt. Col Cochran and a handful of pilots manned their P-51A Mustang fighters and embarked on a daring secret mission. Launched from a remote airstrip in India about 100 miles from the Burma border, it was the culmination of the planning phase for an unorthodox raid on Japanese ground targets behind enemy lines. The raid was the opening phase of an operation designed to destroy Japanese targets and deflect attention from the Allies’ true intention.
The Air Commandos also were given their motto “Anytime, Anywhere, Anyplace” by the British forces during a mission rehearsal following a glider accident that claimed several lives.
The ground assault, organized under the command of Wingate, was scheduled to commence in early March and was created to rid Burma of Japanese forces.
Wingate tasked the Air Commandos to conduct a night combat landing to hastily establish airfields and defend them. This portion of the overall mission was known as Operation THURSDAY. These airfields allowed crews to land and exfiltrate troops, re-supply troops by air, evacuate the wounded and provide air superiority for the assault on Japanese-controlled Burma.
Hailing their motto, the Air Commandos conducted Operation THURSDAY with success. A spot was selected and constructed more than 165 miles behind enemy lines. Within a five-day window, more than 9,000 troops and tons of supplies were airlifted and delivered.
From an air power perspective, Air Commandos led and maintained the first American special forces invasion conducted almost exclusively via air movement.
They conducted, developed and honed the use of air superiority by successfully defending the landing force from enemy air.
Throughout the mission they refined the employment of aircraft to provide close air support in the form of air artillery support via the use of rockets launched from the fighters and continued to improve their tactics, techniques, and procedures.
The Air Commandos used aircraft to evacuate casualties from improvised airstrips and in combat conditions.
The first aerial combat rescue mission using a helicopter made aviation history for the Air Commandos.
The composite Air Commandos irregular tactics, varied equipment and successful mission employment deep behind enemy lines helped lay the foundation and justification for future Air Force special operations forces and missions.
Some of the lessons learned from the first group of Air Commandos are employed even today. The Air Commandos pioneered or honed the use of air platforms as gunships, close air support, airborne forward controllers, air medical evacuation, air reconnaissance, air resupply and aerial civil affairs missions, and psychological operations.
The Air Commandos legacy is still alive today, their heritage is embodied and lived through the men and women of the U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command, stationed at Hurlburt Field, Florida
Today’s Air Commandos fill a need when a more indirect method to accomplish a task or mission is called upon. Mainly operating at night, they can conduct a wide range of unconventional tasks such as combat search and rescue, close air support, air drop, and more.
AFSOC continues on with its proud heritage and the legacy of the first Air Commandos, standing ready, “Any Time, Any Place.”