This article was originally published Oct. 1, 2020.
U .S. Air Force presence in Southeast Asia eventually reached 95,000 military members and 1,800 aircraft. Nobody ever imagined it would escalate to that level when the first USAF unit deployed to Vietnam.
It began in November 1961 with a detachment of 151 Airmen and 16 propeller-driven airplanes to the old French airfield at Bien Hoa, north of Saigon. The airstrip was 5,300 feet of pierced steel planking, badly in need of repair. The Airmen initially slept in tents set up for them by an advance party.
The New York Times was told by an “informed source” in Washington that the reason for the deployment was supply and “on-the-spot” training of South Vietnamese pilots. That was at least misleading, if not an intentional deception.
The operation was designated “Farm Gate.” The pilots wore plain flight suits and their aircraft were painted with Vietnamese markings. They were secluded at Bien Hoa from the press and outside observers.
We never trained a Vietnamese pilot.Col. Benjamin King, Farm Gate commander
The detachment was from the newly formed 4400th Combat Crew Training Squadron at Eglin AFB, Fla., but the unit nickname, “Jungle Jim,” was more indicative. The Airmen were primarily a fighting force, not trainers or advisers.
“Those completing the program were certified to be emotionally mature, highly motivated, and stable,” said R. Frank Futrell in the official USAF history of the advisory years in Vietnam. “Unfortunately, not all were mentally attuned to teaching members of other cultures, or in fact to perform a training mission—they were combat-oriented.”
Within a month, the mission—as described behind the screen of secrecy—had evolved from “training” to “advice in combat” to “combat training sorties,” soon indistinguishable from direct combat.
By U.S. rules for combat engagement, there was always a Vietnamese national aboard the airplane, sometimes a pilot, sometimes not, but either way, his function was to legitimize the mission. He was nominally in command but took no part in the operation.
The pretense continued. President John F. Kennedy, asked in February 1962 whether Americans were engaged in combat in Vietnam, said not “in the generally understood sense of the word.”
The involvement grew from there, gradually and increment by increment, more often as a matter of mission creep than from any comprehensive analysis of overall strategy. The inclusive dates for Farm Gate are subject to opinion, but the consensus is that the operation ran from Oct. 1, 1961, when the deployment decision was made in Washington, to July 28, 1963.
The Geneva Accords of July 1954 temporarily divided Vietnam into two parts along the 17th parallel, pending all-Vietnam elections in 1956. Neither South Vietnam nor the U.S. signed the accords, and South Vietnam declined to participate in the reunification elections.
“You have broader considerations that might follow what you would call the ‘falling domino’ principle,” said President Dwight D. Eisenhower. “You have a row of dominoes set up, you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is that it will go over very quickly.”
In December 1960, North Vietnam created the National Liberation Front—the Viet Cong—to wage guerrilla warfare in the south, directed, equipped, supplied, and reinforced from the north. The struggle in South Vietnam was underway in earnest.
Kennedy came to office in January 1961, spring-loaded for action in Vietnam. He subscribed to the Domino Theory and was determined to demonstrate U.S. credibility and commitment to preventing the spread of Communism in Asia.
At the same time, the new gospel of “counterinsurgency” or COIN swept like wildfire through the U.S. armed forces, inspired by Kennedy’s interest in guerrilla warfare. As far back as a speech in 1958, Kennedy had identified “limited brush-fire wars” as a new threat.
He was further influenced by “The Uncertain Trumpet” (1959) by Ret. Gen. Maxwell D. Taylor, former Army Chief of Staff, a champion of “flexible response,” calling for greater priority on ground forces and less reliance on strategic air power.
In February, 10 days after the inauguration, Kennedy directed the Department of Defense to put more emphasis on development of counter-guerrilla forces. In May, he approved 500 military advisers, most of them from the Special Forces, for South Vietnam and ordered the start of clandestine warfare.
During Kennedy’s tour in office, the number of US military “advisers” in Vietnam rose from about 700 to more than 16,000.
The Air Force contribution to the counterinsurgency buildup was the Jungle Jim squadron, activated by Tactical Air Command in April 1961 at Hurlburt Auxiliary Field No. 9 at Eglin with Col. Benjamin King as commander.
USAF screened thousands of personnel records to find “candidates whose records indicated they should be ‘invited’ to join this select group,” said Lt. Robert Gleason, who later followed King in command. “Membership in Jungle Jim was not an open proposition for any and all volunteers. Volunteers, yes, but by invitation only.”
Pilots had at least 5,000 hours of flying time and enlisted personnel were rated among the top 2 percent in their specialties. There was also a secret commitment.
Those invited to volunteer were asked, “Would you volunteer to serve in a foreign country under extreme hardship conditions for extended periods?” Gleason said. “Would you perform in an overt or covert status? Would you serve out of the U.S. uniform?” It was understood that the government might deny knowledge of such measures.
Jungle Jim was outfitted with three types of vintage airplanes both as part of the cover story and also because the Geneva agreement of 1954 prohibited jet aircraft in Vietnam. The United States elected to abide by the agreement even though it was not a signatory.
The Jungle Jim fighter-bombers were T-28D Nomads, a modification of the single-engine T-28A Trojan the Air Force had used previously for primary undergraduate pilot training. The fighter variant carried rockets, bombs, and machine guns.
The B-26 Invader was a twin-engine light bomber and ground attack aircraft. During World War II, it was designated as the A-26. In April 1961, the CIA had used the same kind of aircraft, the B-26 Invader, purchased from USAF surplus, in the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, where it was flown by American volunteers.
The SC-47 was a modified C-47 transport, configured for dropping flares and supplies as well as for such psychological operations as delivering leaflets and making loudspeaker broadcasts.
In October 1961, Kennedy sent Maxwell Taylor and Walt Whitman Rostow of the White House staff to Vietnam to explore courses of action. One part of the program—deployment of the Jungle Jim detachment—was already decided but unannounced.
When Taylor and Rostow returned, The New York Times, again quoting unnamed “officials,” reported that Taylor “did not look favorably” on U.S. combat troops for Vietnam and that Kennedy was also “strongly opposed.” In fact, Taylor had recommended an “initial commitment” of 6,000 to 8,000 ground troops.
At a conference in Hawaii in December, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara “opened the meeting by stressing that the President did not desire to introduce American combat troops openly into Vietnam at that time,” said historian Futrell.
The Farm Gate contingent at Bien Hoa consisted of eight T-28s, four B-26s, and four SC-47s. The T-28s and the SC-47s went by way of Clark Air Base in the Philippines where they were re-painted with South Vietnamese markings and underwent some modification. The B-26s—better equipped than the ones back in Florida—were drawn from CIA facilities in Taiwan.
Employment from Bien Hoa began with reconnaissance of the junk and sampan traffic in Vietnam coastal waters. The first “combat training sortie” was Dec.19.
Command and control was awkward. Nobody in the Pacific had been told much about Farm Gate. “There was the matter of who we reported to,” King said, according to Air & Space Magazine. “A lot of people had questions about that, including me. … I took my orders from two lieutenant colonels in the bottom of the Pentagon building.”
The military assistance and advisory group could not direct combat operations, so an “advanced echelon,” the 2nd ADVON, was established by 13th Air Force in Saigon and put in charge of Farm Gate. In February 1962, the ADVON became subordinate to the newly created Military Assistance Command, Vietnam. MACV introduced a different kind of problem, its structure being dominated almost completely by Army officers. No better solution was found until the Second Air Division, precursor to 7th Air Force, was activated in October 1962.
“This regularization of USAF unit organization indicated a movement away from counterinsurgency concepts and toward the conventional,” said historian Futrell.
Farm Gate attracted some attention despite the secrecy. At a news conference in March 1962, McNamara disclosed that, “There has been sporadic fire aimed at United States personnel and in some minor instances they’ve had to return fire. Americans are under instructions not to fire unless fired upon.”
In May, however, Undersecretary of State George W. Ball was sticking to the cover story, declaring that there were no American combat forces in Vietnam and that the United States was neither fighting or running the war.
The Odd Couple
The Joint Chiefs of Staff had no concerns about Farm Gate undertaking combat missions, provided that a Vietnamese national—any Vietnam national—was aboard the aircraft and designated as in command.
“On every mission, we carried a VNAF who sat on a pull-down seat behind the navigator and the hydraulic fluid reservoir,” said B-26 pilot Jack Williams. “We were ostensibly there to advise the VNAF, but our advice was simple: ‘Don’t touch anything.’ We did not carry the aircraft forms with us and in the event of a crash, the VNAF was flying and we were along to give him advice.”
“We’d carry anybody that was available,’ pilot Roy Dalton recalled. “We’d go over to the Vietnamese base commander and he would give us the guy who was sitting around either typing or sweeping the floors—and he would fly with us.”
Not all of the Vietnamese who flew with Farm Gate were unqualified. Col. King’s copilot on an SC-47 leaflet-drop mission was Col. Nguyen Cao Ky, later chief of staff of the Vietnamese Air Force and prime minister from 1965 to 1967.
Several Farm Gaters likewise went on to greater fame. John L. Piotrowski, the first Farm Gate armament officer, became commander in chief of U.S. Space Command. Richard Secord was a deputy assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration.
The Air Force tried to get the requirement for a Vietnamese “commander” rescinded, but the State Department and the Office of the Secretary of Defense would not relent.
Farm Gate carried the air war to the Viet Cong throughout Vietnam. The T-28s also provided escort and support for U.S. Army helicopters and for Air Force C-123s in Operations Mule Train (airlift) and Ranch Hand (defoliation).
The number of combat missions increased steadily. The low-level attacks became more hazardous as the accuracy of the enemy’s small arms fire improved. Sixteen Farm Gate crewmen were killed in action between early 1962 and the middle of 1963. In-service rates declined for the T-28s and B-26s—old to begin with and given limited rehabilitation before going to Vietnam. Attrition losses from structural failures increased. The detachment was augmented with additional aircraft and aircrews.
Along the way, Farm Gate mixed in some training with the combat, but it was not the “on-the-spot” training of South Vietnamese pilots declared by the “informed source” in November 1961. Looking back years later, Col. King said, “We never trained a Vietnamese pilot.”
End of the Beginning
By 1963, U.S. military strength in Vietnam was 16,263, of which 4,630 was Air Force. The fiction of Farm Gate as a non-U.S. enterprise was wearing thin. Air Force chief Gen. Curtis E. LeMay argued that the main effect of the secrecy was to impose an administrative burden and persuaded the Joint Chiefs of Staff to declassify the mission.
In April 1963, the Farm Gate unit was transferred to Pacific Air Forces. It was disestablished in June as a detachment of the Special Air Warfare Center at Eglin, and its assets—now 41 aircraft and 474 men—went to the 1st Air Commando Squadron, activated in place of Farm Gate and assigned to the 34th Tactical Air Group of the Second Air Division.
“This organizational change made little difference in the role of the unit and missions continued to be carried out in much the same way as before,” said Eugene D. Rossel in a retrospective for the Air Commando Association. “Now that Farm Gate was no longer classified, some attempts were made to drop the code name, but it had become so well-known throughout the USAF that it was finally decided to keep it.”
The demand for Farm Gate-style sorties continued. The Air Force proposed replacing the T-28s and B-26s with jet aircraft, but McNamara approved A-1E Skyraiders instead, propeller-driven attack bombers that nevertheless represented a substantial increase in capability and effectiveness. The A-1s took over in the spring of 1964.
The war shifted gears in August 1964, when Air Force fighters deployed in strength to Southeast Asia in response to an attack by North Vietnamese patrol boats on U.S. ships in the Gulf of Tonkin. In 1965, the Air Force and Navy launched Operation Rolling Thunder, the sustained air campaign against North Vietnam. In the south, two A-1E squadrons continued to fly 80 percent of the sorties in support of the South Vietnamese Army.
Today’s Air Force special operations establishment traces its lineage to World War II. Indeed, there had been U.S. air commando actions in that war, notably in Burma, but they were limited and local.
It was Farm Gate that created the real basis for what was to come as air commandos moved into the Air Force mainstream. This one detachment led the USAF expansion in Vietnam. It also carried the brunt of the air war against the Viet Cong for two years and demonstrated the value of employing air power in less conventional modes.
It is a reasonable question whether it would have happened without the secrecy and deception early on.
Air Force Special Operations Command is presently headquartered at Hurlbut, where the 4400th Combat Crew Training Squadron and the Jungle Jim aircrews began their activities almost 60 years ago.
John T. Correll was editor in chief of Air Force Magazine for 18 years and is a frequent contributor. His most recent article, “Rise of the Air Corps,” appeared in the September issue.