The Last B-26K
By Stephen Wilkinson
The very first American combat aircraft to go to war in Vietnam, in late 1961, weren’t Phantoms or Thuds but elderly Douglas B-26 Invaders --- twin-engine, prop-driven bombers, that has served in Korea and been retired to boneyards. Early B-26s had even done duty lat in World War II as A-26s --- at that time their “attack” designator, to differentiate them from the contemporaneous Martin B-26 Marauder --- and 16 CIA backed B-26Bs had participated in the disastrous April ’61 Bay of Pigs invasion. But the design had a fatal flaw: a weak wing spar.
In 1954 a California company called On Mark began converting surplus Invaders into fast executive transports for high rollers who didn’t mind sitting just aft of two straight-piped 2,500-hp radials. On Mark developed a stout ring spar modification to link the wings inside the fuselage, and the Air Force thought this upgrade, plus some external steel spar straps, could make B-26s redeployable as serious bomb trucks and yank-and-bank ground support ships. They contracted with On Mark to modify 40 old Invaders as B-26K “Counter Invaders,” so named because they were intended to be counterinsurgency aircraft.
The Air Force couldn’t send frontline aircraft to Southeast Asia, since we weren’t supposed to be in the war, which was then assumedly being fought between the South Vietnamese and the Viet-Cong. In fact the B-26Ks didn’t even carry USAF stars and bars --- just camouflage --- and their crews wore nonstandard insignia-less, spooky-black flight suits. They were based in Thailand, at “NKP” --- Nakhon Phanom --- and flown by volunteers of the 609th Air Commando Squadron, the “Nimrods,” mainly to interdict VC on the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
In a fine bit of bureaucracy-dodging, the Counter Invaders were officially redesignated as World War II A-26As, because Thailand didn’t allow the basing of bombers on its territory, though attack aircraft apparently were just fine. Nor did any of the Nimrods get credit for their efforts, since they officially did not exist.
Thirty-eight years after the last Counter Invaders were retired, however, somebody still cares --- an organization called The A-26 Legacy Foundation, made up of the sons and daughters of Nimrod aircrews. The group is focused on raising enough donations to restore the very last B-26K to come out of the On Mark shop, in 1965. Still flyable, the airplane they’ve dubbed “Special K” has much of its original equipment, though it never flew in Vietnam.
The A-26 Legacy Foundation, a 501c3 non profit corporation based in Jaffrey, NH, is soliciting individual and corporate tax deductible donations to restore and operate the plane, which they plan to fly at airshows and use to offer rides to the public. (Bring earplugs.) They can be reached at www.a-26legacy.org and 603-532-5802.