Truck Killers of The Night

As soon as President John F Kennedy took office in January, 1961, he recognized the need for a counterinsurgency military force. In particular, he knew the U.S. Air Force would need to train and equip for such an operation. Kennedy directed U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff General Curtis Lemay to form such an organization.

A call went out for Airmen, officer and enlisted, to volunteer for a secret operation and they weren’t told what the operation would be… just that it would be unconventional, dangerous and that the U.S. government might disavow knowledge of their actions. The Air Force received more volunteers than it could use. In April, the “4400 Combat Crew Training Squadron (CCTS)” was formed at Eglin Auxiliary Field #9… Hurlburt Field. Calling the 4200nd a “Combat Crew Training Squadron” was a euphemism to keep secret what would soon become the 1st Air Commando Wing. Thus, the Air Commandos were reborn. (I say reborn here because the Air Commandos have a history back to WWII. I can’t possibly do the Air Commandos proper justice here, so I’ll recommend two books: “From a Dark Sky” and “Any Time Any Place” (Click on the pics to check them out on Amazon.)

Initially, the 4400 CCTS was equipped with C-47s, T-28s, and B-26 Invaders*. The operation was called, “Jungle Jim.” In December 1961, the 4400 CCTS was the first USAF unit to deploy to Southeast Asia (SEA) under the code name, “Farm Gate.” They were initially tasked with the job of training the South Vietnamese Air Force. Almost immediately, the “training” became full-on combat missions.

Early days of Jungle Jim. This Douglas B-26 had the reconnaissance glass nose installed. Most had the eight 50 cal guns nose installed. (USAF Photo)

The B-26 Invaders of the 4400 CCTS were very effective in their counter-insurgency role. They flew both close air support and supply interdiction missions. I should note here that B-26s were deployed to Takhli, Thailand as early as December 1960 and in April 1961 as part of operation Mill Pond. Mill Pond was designed as a counter-insurgency mission in Laos.

The B-26s continued to operate in Vietnam until they were grounded in April 1964 as a result of “wing spar fatigue.” During an airpower demonstration at Eglin Field #52, a B-26 on a strafing run in front of Senators and Congressmen lost a wing and crashed. Both crew members were killed. About the same time, a B-26 on a combat mission in Vietnam lost a wing, again killing all crew members.

To fix the problem, On Mark Engineering was selected to upgrade the B-26s. Besides fixing the wing spars, changes included better engines, propellers, brakes, wing-tip tanks, increased ordnance capacity, and revisions to the tail section for better controllability in the counter-insurgency role. The upgraded aircraft were re-designated as the B-26K Counter-Invader.

(Note: Originally there had only been B-26A/B/C models, so this was a skip all the way to K. A little later, you’ll see why “K”  now carries on.)

DAYTON, Ohio — Douglas B-26K Counter Invader at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo)

A total of 40 B-26Ks were built at a cost of about 12 million dollars. I want to note here that there were 300 serviceable B-26A/B/C aircraft from the boneyard that were available to On Mark Engineering. These and more could have been converted to the B-26K configuration. While in production, On Mark delivered 4 conversions a month. But, in their great wizdom, the Air Force leadership (especially General “Spike” Momyer) wanted an all-jet Air Force. After all, why buy 40 B-26Ks when you could buy about seven F-4s for the same money. I’ll bring this up again later.

In June of 1966, the B-26Ks were set to deploy to Southeast Asia… Nakhon Phanom (NKP), Thailand specifically. But, the government of Thailand did not allow bombers to be based there at that time. So, the B-26K reverted to their original 1945 designation; A-26A.* (Later B-52s would be stationed at U-Tapao after the Thai government changed their policy.)

The deployment was called operation “Big Eagle.” A detachment of eight aircraft from the 603rd Air Commando Squadron arrived at NKP. At the time AC-47s had been used with success against the Ho Chi Minh trail. But, the NVA brought in 37mm AAA guns and several of the Spooky gunships were shot down. The A-26s were being tested as a replacement.

The Detachment Commander at NKP was Colonel Domenico Curto. When he was asked what they wanted for their call-sign Col. Curto chose from the Book of Genisis in the bible. He chose, “Nimrod”… a great hunter. Some accounts say some guys in the detachment were “less than enthusiastic” about the call-sign. But since he was a “Full Bull,” the name stuck. Almost immediately, the Nimrods proved they were great hunters.

Their primary job was interdiction of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Strategists thought that if we could stop the flow of men, munitions, and supplies down the Ho Chi Minh Trail to South Vietnam, the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese army would not be able to wage war there.

Forty-five days after their arrival, Col. Curto flew to Saigon to brief “Spike.”… Ummmm General Momyer on the Nimrods progress. Col. Curto pointed out that while the A-26s flew only 8% of the missions, they had accounted for 50% of the vehicles destroyed on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The facts were there to back that up. But in typical “Spike” fashion, Momyer poo-pooed anything to do with propeller aircraft.

Upon his departure from NKP, Col. Curto sent a memo pointing out that the 4 hour loiter capability of the A-26 should be taken advantage of. He said that it would take six jet aircraft with a loiter capability of only 40 minutes to do the same thing. Pointing out that the Nimrods would be better suited to the task, the memo stated, “Assuming that 18 A-26 sorties were available per night, 118 jet aircraft sorties could be diverted to other areas.”

Well, you can imagine how that went over with Spike.

Just the same, the Nimrods were so successful that by October, ’66, the Ambassador to Laos, William Sullivan, requested eight more A-26s to support operations in Laos. The request was initially rejected by 7th AF. (I read into that rejected by Spike.) But, Ambassador Sulivan went over Spike’s head to CINC PACAF, Admiral Ulysses G. Sharp with his proposal.  Admiral Sharp (and the Joint Chiefs of Staff) agreed with the evaluation of the A-26s success so far but only authorized an additional four aircraft.

So impressive were the Nimrods that four Forward Air Controllers (FACs) of the 23rd Tactical Air Support Squadron wrote a little ditty sung to the tune of Ghost Riders of the Sky.

By November the Nimrods were also tasked to support operations in the Barrel Roll area of Laos. Every year, there was a see-saw battle over the Plain of Jars in the northern part of Laos. The North Vietnamese would build up their forces, and supplies to attack at the beginning of the dry season. The Nimrods were used to attack those North Vietnamese forces.

Beginning on 1 Nov, the Nimrods were tasked for four sorties per night into Barrel Roll. In the seven days from 2 Nov to 9 Nov, those four per night sorties damaged or destroyed 67 trucks, one bulldozer (destroyed), four antiaircraft guns destroyed, and 384 enemy troops killed with many more wounded. By 10 Nov, Hmong commanders reported, “little [North Vietnamese] traffic was moving along Routes 6 & 65 as a result of successful A-26 bombings.” The same report suggested that the NVA had fewer than 20 trucks remaining in the region by 12 Nov.

In December, the USAF flew 447 sorties in the Barrel Roll area resulting in 31 truck kills. The A26s flew only 20 of the sorties and were credited with 27 trucks “killed. For December in the Steel Tiger area (Ho Chi Minh Trail) the USAF flew 2,546 sorties with 163 trucks damaged or destroyed. The A-26s flew 175 of the sorties with 99 of the kills.

You do the math. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the Nimrods had proven themselves to be the best truck killers of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Still, Momyer was against anything with a propeller that wasn’t a transport.

I should mention that the numbers I used for sorties and kills are taken from a project CHECO report, “Lucky Tiger Combat Operations, 15 Jun 1967, HQ PACAF. This CHECO was prepared by the well-respected Mr. Warren A Trest.

The Nimrods continued to operate under the 606th Air Commando Squadron until the 56th Air Commando Wing was established in April 1967 under the command of Col. Harry “Henie” Aderholt. Don’t ask me where the nickname Heinie came from… no one seems to know. In September 1967 the Nimrods were formed into their own squadron… the 609th Air Commando Squadron. (Like all Air Commando Units, they were later changed to Special Operations designations.)

Versatile and when necessary the Nimrods could be used for close air support. In May of 67, they were diverted to Barrel Roll and stopped an attack by the NVA attack on a Lima Site. In Feb 68 the 609th ACS flew sorties supporting the Marine Corps firebase at Khe Sanh.

In the second quarter of 1968, the Nimrods established the record for truck kills. In April they took out 459 truck kills which set and still is the single month record by one Squadron. For the quarter, they had 831 truck kills… also still the record for one squadron for the April – June quarter during the war. I should note that April to June is typically the beginning of the rainy season and the trucks quit moving down the HCMT. So the 831 kills during a time with fewer trucks is an even more amazing achievement.

Operation Commando Hunt I began in November 1968. Commando Hunt I was an all-out attempt to stop the flow of men, munitions, and supplies down the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Since President Lyndon B, Johnson had ordered a halt to the bombing of North Vietnam, the Air Force had at its disposal the full force of every aircraft in the theatre to attack the Ho Chi Minh Trail. F-105s at Korat and Takhli and F-4s at Ubon and Udorn were sent against the Ho Chi Minh Trail. US Navy and Marine aircraft also participated in Commando Hunt I.

The numbers become a little hard to pin down because different reports use different metrics. So, take the following as an estimate of the scope of the operation. The U.S. (Navy, Airforce, Marines) flew 72,258 sorties in the 151 days of Commando Hunt I. There were 6108 trucks destroyed or damaged. Seventy aircraft were lost. The Nimrods flew 2,718 of the sorties and damaged or destroyed 1,718 trucks. The Nimrods would have had even more kills, but they were often “called off” to allow flights of F-4s or F-105s to make their pass because the jets were low on fuel. The Nimrods would go into holding orbits while the jets made their “runs.”

The F-4s were notorious for missing by a large margin. They simply weren’t designed for those kinds of missions. When the Nimrods were called back to resume their attack, the trucks had gone into hiding. The Nimrods did lose one aircraft and crew to enemy AAA during Commando Hunt I.

She was a tough old bird. A/C 645 was patched up and continued to fly combat missions until the Nimrods were withdrawn. Unfortunately, her fate wasn’t good. On 10 November 1969, she was turned over to the South Vietnamese Air Force. In March 1975 she was blown up at Nha Trang to prevent her from falling into North Vietnamese hands. (USAF Photo)

One other factor I want to point out. A later study showed that the cost for an F-4 to kill one truck was about $700,000. The cost for an A-26 to kill a truck was about $50,000. Again, the exact numbers can be disputed depending on which report you want to cite. Just the same, the orders of magnitude are not out of the question. For about the cost of one truck kill by an F-4, the USAF could have bought two more A-26s.

It’s clear that the Air Force should have bought hundreds of A-26s as well as other Air Commando type aircraft like A-1s when they had the chance to. If there had been several squadrons of A-26s, then maybe there would have been a much more significant impact on the flow of men, munitions, and supplies down the Ho Chi Minh Trail. But there I go again… trying to rewrite history. It didn’t happen.

In November 1969 the Nimrods were withdrawn from service and most of them sent back to the boneyard. The reason stated was supply problems supporting the aircraft and their vulnerability to the increasing AAA covering the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Supply problems was a bogus excuse. There were supply problems for every aircraft in the theatre and were not any worse for the A-26s. It probably was better than others for the A-26… there were still 260 in the boneyard to pick parts from.

One of the reasons the A-26 was so effective was the bomb load it could carry. This was just the load for the wings. The bomb-bay had another 12 stations that could carry a variety of ordinance. The ordinance loads shown in this picture were likely fragged for missions into Barrel Roll. (USAF photo illegally taken by A1C Robert Dennard in 1969 just before the Nimrods were retired.)
Took a lickin’ and kept on tickin’. This A/C (tail #660) was also patched up and flew till withdrawn from combat. But her fate wasn’t any better than 645. She was flown back to the boneyard at Davis Monthan and “reclaimed” in 1972. (USAF photo)

It is true that AAA was becoming a problem. With the bombing halt, the NVA moved AAA from North Vietnam to the Ho Chi Minh Trail. It had been suggested to 7th Air Force… General Momyer… that the F-4s could be used for “flack suppression” so the A-26s (and by then A-1s) could work the trail. Well… you know how Spike took to that.

It would have been unthinkable for Spike to have F-4s fly AAA suppression for prop-driven attack aircraft. Spike simply couldn’t grasp the concepts necessary for limited war operations such as the interdiction of the HCMT. As early as Nov ’66 he said the mission in Laos could be performed more effectively by F-4s. It was only because of the shortage of F-4s that he allowed the A-26s to continue until more F-4s were available. Spike just didn’t get it.

In a post-war writing, General Momyer stated the Air Force, “should not waste scarce time and money developing specialized aircraft for counterinsurgency.”

As we entered into the Second Indochina War, widely held Air Force policy was that we should prepare for general war. Momyer and others believed that spending money on less than general war would hamper the general war capability.

I do have to concur with General Momyer in one sense. He did not want to pick off trucks one by one out on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. He once said, “Nothing on the Ho Chi Minh Trail is worth the loss of one pilot.” Instead, Spike wanted to knock them out at their source in North Vietnam; Hanoi, Hai Phong, and Vinh with unrestricted attacks… for which F-105s, F-4s, and B-52s were well suited.

I can’t close this without mentioning the aircraft that took over truck killin’ duties after the A-26s were withdrawn. The AC-119 and AC-130 gunships became the most dominant aircraft on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Of the total USAF sorties flown against the HCMT during their time, only about 10% were flown by the gunships. But… of the 40,000 trucks claimed as damaged or destroyed, the gunships accounted for about 66% of them.

One more set of numbers to throw at you; During the following two dry season Commando Hunt operations (III & V). F-4s flew over 13,000 truck attack sorties and killed 3,712 trucks. In the same time frame, gunships flew about 3000 sorties and killed a whopping 19, 512 trucks. (Taken from CHECO “USAF Operations in Laos, 1 January 1970 – 30 June 1971”)

Early A/C 130 gunship over the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. (USAF Photo)
Later model of the AC-119K of the 18th SOS. Note the jet pods on the wings. This aircraft was probably flying out of NKP, mid-1971 through December 1972. (USAF Photo)

It’s interesting to note that after General Momyer left the 7th Air Force, F-4s were used for flack suppression for the gunships. The F-4s did a great job at it allowing the gunships to concentrate on killing trucks.

Mark Twain is famously quoted as saying, “There are lies, there are damned lies, and there are statistics.” Some critics have said the reported “kills” were over-inflated. And I suspect that is true. But I don’t think anyone one group was better at over-inflating than any other. So no matter what percent you might want to discount the numbers, it’s clear that the gunships were the best truck killers of their era.

When I was in 11th grade I took a shop class and the teacher told us, “always use the proper tool for the job.” It’s a shame General Momyer wasn’t in that shop class with me.

Earlier I mentioned the letter designation “K” for the B-26K now has extra meaning. You see… there is only one B-26K still flying; A/C tail #679. It was the last aircraft to be modified by On Mark Engineering and delivered to the Air Force. In a tradition older than the Air Force, many of her older “sisters” were nick-named by the pilots who flew them. A-26 Nimrod aircraft had names such as: “Nother Trucker,” “Sweet Therese,”  “Mighty Mouse,” and “Batplane.” (Batplane was flown by All “Batman” Short and Larry “Robin” Counts. I wish I knew how Batman and Robin got their nicknames.)

Here “Batman and Robin” were doing their walk-around prior to delivering “Easter eggs” to Uncle Ho. (USAF photo)

The last flying B-26K, A/C 679, has been given the nick-name, “Special Kay.” She has been restored to all her glory and is now operated by a group of dedicated volunteers at the Vintage Flying Museum in Dallas Texas.

Their mission is to keep Special Kay flying as, “a ‘flying’ memorial to the valiant secretive service of the men of the United States Air Force who flew and maintained her during the Vietnam War. Their famous aircraft will be shared with air-show visitors nationwide in a tailored aerial display; designed to captivate public interest and attention … and … to raise younger Americans’ educational awareness of the now “declassified” military service provided by these heroic Air Commandos in Southeast Asia.”

Special Kay. The last flying A-26 (B-26K) in the world. Photo was stolen from the A-26 Special Kay Facebook page.

In the interest of full disclosure, I guess I should mention that I am not a totally objective observer. I spent eleven months of my time at NKP as a member of the 609th Special Operations Squadron. I’m very proud to have been a member of the Nimrods.

*There is confusion about the B-26 because two different aircraft have been designated as a B-26. First, the Martin Marauder B-26 was used in WWII. Near the end of the war another aircraft, built by Douglas, was introduced as the A-26 Invader. Then when the Martin Marauder was retired, the A-26 Invader continued in service and was re-designated as a B-26. All variants of the Douglas Invader then carried the “B-26” designation including the “K” model until the “K” was introduced into the war and stationed at NKP. When stationed at NKP the designation was changed to A-26A.