1st AIR COMMANDO GROUP



There are countless web sites and books covering the history of the 1st Air Commando Group – far too many to list or include in this document.  Several comprehensive summaries have been included which provide a good, general background and history of this unit.


Imphal, The Hump and Beyond - U.S.A.A.F. Combat Cargo Groups of the Second World War

It was December 23, 1941 when the first Japanese warplanes attacked the Burmese port of Rangoon.  It wasn't long after that, that the Japanese 15th Army began its attempted conquest of Burma.  By March 8, 1942 the city of Rangoon was abandoned and the remaining troops of British General Archibald Wavell were in full retreat back to India.

The British had long thought that Burma's terrain, with its mountains, rivers, roads and valleys which all ran basically north to south would make travel east to west for the Japanese Army difficult and the defense of Burma easier.  But the speed in the Japanese advance stunned the British and very soon, both British Major General William J. Slim and American Lt. General Joseph W. Stillwell's forces in Burma were forced to withdraw from Burma.

It was during this withdrawal that a former British artillery officer, Colonel Orde C. Wingate arrived in India and he began straight away studying the terrain of Burma and tactics employed by the Japanese Army.  He forwarded a report with the idea of fighting the Japanese in Burma with hit and run tactics, these to be carried out by what he called Long Range Penetration (LRP) groups and these operations were to be carried out far behind enemy lines.  British General Alexander was impressed with the report and agreed that the Burmese terrain combined with Japanese tactics ruled out any direct assault on the country, but the Japanese communication and supply lines were still vulnerable to attack.  To be effectual these LRP groups would have to be lightly armed, therefore they would need to be supplied by air and if they needed any additional firepower, it too would have to come from the air.

It wasn't until February 1943 that Wingate would have a chance to put to the test his LRP concept when he was given command of the 77th Indian Brigade and it's 3,000 men.  Wingate was forced to begin his experiment without the benefit of an Allied offensive, which would have helped keep Japanese forces occupied, while he and his group began to carry out their first hit and run raids.  Preliminary LRP raids had mixed results, two LRP columns returned to India after losing their radio's after being ambushed.  Other LRP columns were more successful and had managed to blow up numerous sections of railroad tracks with minimal loses to themselves.  The Japanese, on the other hand, were able to concentrate more attention on these raids, and soon LRP casualties began to mount.  Add to this, poor air supply and evacuation of wounded and it wasn't long before Wingate and his LRP columns were forced to terminate their operations in Burma and withdraw back to India.  Widget's exploits in Burma were reported by war correspondents and soon his group was given the name "Chindits", after a mythological beast, half lion, half griffin, which guarded Burmese pagodas.

Supplying the Chinese to help fight the Japanese in Indo-China was a major operation at this time and the Burma Road was the major supply route into China.  When the Japanese cut the Burma Road, this major supply route was lost.  With this event, the only way to continue to get vital supplies into China was to fly them in over The Hump.  It was to this end, the Air Transport Command began an airlift from bases in India, over The Hump, and into China.  If the Burma Road could not be reopened, China might fall and the Japanese forces in the area could be redeployed to fight elsewhere in the Pacific Theater.

It was during the Quadrant Conference in Quebec Canada, (August 14-24, 1943) that Wingate proposed that his concept be expanded to include eight brigades, four for combat operations and four brigades in direct relief.  President Roosevelt approved this idea and agreed to supply aircraft for support of these LRP units.  The initial request by Wingate was for sixteen (16) C-47's, one bomber squadron per LRP unit for close air support and a light aircraft force for each LRP unit to help evacuate the injured.  Fighter aircraft would also be needed to protect these LRP forces and transport aircraft from marauding Japanese fighters.  General Hap Arnold saw this as the chance to breath life into the CBI Theater and became determined to build a new Air Group that would be wholly dedicated to the support of Wingate Chindits.

In August 1943 Lord Louis Mountbatten, Supreme Allied Commander of SEAC, met with General Arnold to discuss plans for American support for these British Chindit expeditions into Burma.  The new unit changed it name five times as it evolved, from Project 9 to Project CA 281, then to 5318th Provisional Unit (Air), then to Number Air Commando Force and finally 1st Air Commando Group.  The phrase "Air Commando" was allegedly coined by General Arnold to honor Lord Mountbatten who earlier had commanded British Commandos.

Now to find men with the capability to command this new force.  This selection was finally narrowed down to two individuals and being unable to choose between the two it was decided to make them joint leaders.  The first was Lt. Col. Philip G. Cochran, who was a very confident, aggressive and imaginative officer who had an excellent war record as a fighter pilot in North Africa.  (He was also the model for the character of Flip Corkin in Milton Caniff's "Terry and the Pirates" comic strip).  The second was Lt. Col. John R. Alsion, an "Ace" who had flown with Major General Claire L. Chennault's 23d Fighter Group.  After the selection and interview with both men by General Arnold, it is said the General Arnold ended the session with these words, "To hell with paperwork, go out an fight".

The two new commanders were given complete freedom to gather men and materials.  Thirteen (13) C-47's were acquired along with one hundred (100) CG-4A Waco Gliders for transport operations.  Twenty-five (25) TG-5 training gliders were acquired for glider transport use into remote areas.  A dozen (12) Noorduyn C-64 Norseman airplanes were acquired, these to serve in a capacity between that of the C-47 and the gliders and the planned light aircraft which would be used to evacuate the sick and wounded.  For light aircraft, one hundred (100) Vultee L-1 aircraft were chosen due to their ability to carry 2-3 stretchers.  It soon became apparent that this number of L-1's was not available, so the balance of the light aircraft became the Stinson L-5 Sentinel.  The L-5, although faster then the L-1 could only carry one stretcher and required a longer take-off area.  Last but not least, Lt. Col. Alison convinced the brass at Wright Field to send a Technical Representative to India to put to the test, the new Sikorsky helicopter, the YR-4, under actual combat conditions.  The fighter requirement was covered when thirty (30) North American P-51A Mustangs were acquired.

Project 9 was finally organized at Seymour-Johnson Field in North Carolina in October 1943 and then redesignated 5318th Provisional Unit (Air) before reporting for duty in India.  The Units objective had been carefully defined by General Arnold to: 1: To facilitate the forward movement of Wingate's columns;  2: To facilitate the supply and evacuation of these columns;  3: To provide a small air covering and striking force and 4: To acquire air experience under the conditions expected to be encountered.  Within six months the 5318th Provisional Unit (Air) was in India, ready to begin operations.

In early 1944 Wingate and his 3d Indian Division, also known, as "Special Force" was ready for action.  Together with Cochran and Alison he began the planning of behind the lines operations of his forces.  Plans called for the gliders to fly Chindits and engineers into small jungle clearings, here the engineers would carve out landing strips for C-47's and the balance of Wingate's brigades.

On February 15, 1944, an unfortunate night training accident occurred while a C-47 was towing two gliders.  Which resulted in the death of four British and three American troops.  The next day, Wingate's unit commander sent a note to the flyers, simply stating: "Please be assured that we will go with your boys Any Place, Any Time, Any Where".  This phrase was adopted as the motto of the 5318th Provisional Unit (Air) and has been used in the Air Commando and Special Operations community since.

The 5318th Provisional Unit (Air) at this point was still missing the medium bombers also needed for close air support operations.  These had been planned for and requested from Royal Air Force.  The RAF being unable to fulfill this commitment forced Lt. Col. Cochran obtained twelve (12) North American B-25H Mitchell bombers which were initially destined for the 14th Air Force.  These bombers with their four-.50 cal. machine guns and a single 75-mm cannon mounted in the nose were to prove priceless in the close air support role.

On March 5, 1944 the first major joint operation involving Wingate's Chindits and the 5318th Provisional Unit (Air) was to begin.  This operation, code named "Operation Thursday" would finally test the Chindits and the 5318th Provisional Unit (Air) ability to work as one.  But this is another Chapter in the History of the 1st Air Commando Group.  In late March 1944 the 5318th Provisional Unit (Air) was redesignated as the 1st Air Commando Group.


Special Forces Web Site (http://www.specwarnet.com/americas/usaf.htm - NO LONGER ACTIVE)

The US Air Force Special Operations Wings provide US forces with the ability to insert or extract or perform search and rescue missions behind enemy lines at night or in bad weather.  The USAF Special Operations Wings have a history that dates back to W.W.II.  Officially, the 1st Air Commando Group came into being on March 29, 1944.  However, the group had existed before under different names.  Army General Arnold had tasked Lt. Colonel Phil Cochran (a war hero and basis for the comic strip "Terry and the Pirates") and John Alison (former deputy commander of the 75th Fighter Squadron; the USAAF group that the AVG Flying Tigers became when they were absorbed back into the American force structure) with the creation of an Air Corps unit to support a guerrilla force being created to harass the Japanese in Burma in early 1943.  Cochran and Alison succeeded in training 523 men to operate as a cohesive, highly effect special operations force.  It should be noted that the normal compliment of an Air Corps Wing was around 2,000 soldiers, nearly four times what they had on hand.  Moreover, their training was cut short and they were deployed to the Pacific theatre after only a month of flying.  After training with the Chindits (the force they were supporting) for three months they performed their first mission.

The unit eventually operated 346 aircraft; including L-1 and L-5 scout aircraft for scouting and light medevac, P-51 Mustang's for fighter/attack cover, B-25H's for heavy attack, C-47's and CG-4A Waco Gliders for assaults and resupply, and four YR-4 helicopters.  They were the first to use the helicopter in combat, and perfected the "glider snatch" technique, in which an loaded glider on the ground would be grabbed and towed aloft by a low-flying C-47 cargo plane.  The unit was so under staffed that it was not a rare occurrence for the pilots of one type of aircraft to hop into another and go up for a second flight after finishing the first mission.

The early USAAC (United States Army Air Corps; the forerunner of the US Air Force) built a tradition of excellence and determination, coining the still-used motto of "Anytime, Anyplace." The motto came into being after one of the gliders crashed in a night-time training accident.  The Chindit's commander, British General Wingate, was very impressed with the ability of the newly-formed air commandos and sent them a message that despite the crash, "we will go with your boys any place, any time, any where."

The 1st Air Commando Group went on to take place in Operation Thursday, a disruptive action that successfully stopped the Japanese invasion of India.  On the first night, March 5 1944, they successfully delivered over 500 men and 15 tons of supplies behind Japanese lines to landing zone Broadway using gliders and C-47 cargo aircraft.  Two nights later Operations reached a high tempo and no less than 92 planes loads (roughly one every 4 minutes) arrived in the small jungle clearing in a night.  Because of the Chindits (made possible by the air commando's insertion and resupply abilities) raids and sabotage, the Japanese invasion failed.


Airlift History Web Site

From its inception, airlift of personnel and cargo has been a major mission of forces who have been associated with the term "special operations."  At the same time, conventional airlift squadrons have frequently been assigned missions that fall under the category of "special."  Though modern USAF SOF personnel like to think of themselves as being "special," the two missions are actually two sides of the same coin.

The first American mission that would fall under what today's military considers "special operations" took place on Christmas Eve, 1942 when two C-47s dropped 32 paratroopers from the 509th Paratroop Battalion behind enemy lines to blow up the El Djem Bridge in Tunisia.  The pilot of the lead C-47 was Lt. Col. Philip Cochran, commander of a P-40 squadron who had attacked the bridge and was supposedly familiar with its location.  The plan called for the troops to be dropped five miles north of the bridge, then they would march south to the objective.  The drop went well and the assembled troops marched south - for hours and hours and hours!  Cochran had dropped them south of the bridge and they were going away from it!  After discovering the mistake, the troops hurried the 20 miles to the bridge and rigged it for demolition.  As German troops closed on them from both directions along the railroad, the paratroopers set off their charges then set out into the desert for the 110-mile journey back to friendly lines.  Only eight made it; the rest were either killed or captured.

Nearly a year after the episode in North Africa, Colonel Cochran, along with former Flying Tiger Lt. Col. John R. Allison, was selected by General Henry H. Arnold to organize and train a new unit to support British Brigadier Orde Wingate's special force during long-range penetrations missions into Burma.  British and Chinese troops had been operating in Burma ever since the country fell to the Japanese, while being supplied by the troop carrier squadrons of the over-extended Tenth Air Force, with occasional support by Air Transport Command aircraft pulled off of the Hump Airlift.  Cochran's new command, the 5318th Provisional Unit, included the 319th Troop Carrier Squadron as well as fighter, bomber and liaison squadrons.  Their mission was to provide close air support, airlift - including gliders - and casualty evacuation for Wingate's Chindits.

By early 1944 Cochran's unit was in India, and plans were made for an aerial invasion of Burma.  The 319th was assigned to tow the gliders while 10th Air Force troop carrier transports provided the airlift.  On March 5, 1944 the gliders assaulted onto LZ BROADWAY, only to discover that the field was full of buffalo wallows.  After 37 gliders were cut loose, the remainder aborted the mission.  Most of those that landed were damaged beyond repair, but enough men and equipment was brought in to construct an airstrip for C-47 landings, which began the next day.  A similar mission was flown into ABERDEEN two weeks later.  In late March, 1944 Cochran's unit was redesignated as the 1st Air Commando Group, in recognition of the role of British Lord Montbatten, the British commander in Burma, with the British commando forces.  While the Chindits were working in southern Burma, the American 5307th Provisional Unit commanded by BGen Frank Merrill was making its way toward the town of Myitkinya, while supported entirely by airdrops made by troop carrier command and air commando transports.  The "Marauders", as the 5307th has gone down in history, captured the airfield at Myitkinya after a long trek and established an airhead for the ultimate capture of the city, and eventual return of Burma to Allied control.

The air commando troop carrier squadrons worked closely with the the Tenth Air Force C-47 units in support of Allied units operating in Burma.  In addition to C-47 airdrops and landings, the air commando liaison squadrons delivered supplies into remote jungle airstrips and brought out casualties.  The air commando fighter and bomber squadrons were also used to drop supplies.  Fighters often dropped water in special tanks suspended from their wings.  Helicopters were also a part of the air commando forces.  They were used primarily for search and rescue operations.

Three air commando groups were eventually organized during World War II.  The 1st and 2nd were both assigned to the CBI, while the 3d was attached to the Fifth Air Force in the Philippines in late 1944.


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