The Propeller versus Jet Controversy

Excerpts from Apollo’s Warriors – Unites States Air Force Special Operations during the Cold War 
Laos 1966  
“I was briefing General Sweeney one time . . . and he said, “I want to tell you one thing, you are no different from anybody else in the Air Force, that silly [Air Commando] hat and all.” I told him, “General Sweeney, we are a hell of a lot better than the average guy I’ve seen in the Air Force.” Boy, that didn’t set very well at all!” 
                                                                      Col Harry C. Aderholt


The exchange between Gen Walter C. Sweeney Jr., commander of Tactical Air Command, and Colonel Aderholt went far deeper than a sarcastic comment about the distinctive Air Commando bush hat (the USAF’s version of the Green Beret) or a personal boast about the relative performance of Air Commando personnel. Both officers were looking at the growing conflict in Southeast Asia (SEA) and the Air Commando mission within USAF from distinctly incompatible viewpoints.


By command, General Sweeney was a major force in the development of the Air Force doctrine designed to counter the major cold war threat to the US: the Soviet air force. Without hope of matching the Soviets’ numerical superiority, the Air Force was committed to meeting that threat with an ultramodern, all-jet force using the latest technology. Given the finite funding available, it was not a commitment that looked kindly on the diversion of vital resources to other purposes, such as the military “aberration” steadily growing in SEA.


By precedent, the Air Commandos were by 1966 the most experienced USAF combat outfit in SEA. They had arrived in South Vietnam five years earlier in an “advisory only” role, only to be committed to direct combat within the year. From the start, the Air Commandos were trained, equipped, and organized to adapt to the people, the land, the weapons, and the culture of the war they found wherever they were sent. In the absence of an Air Force doctrine applicable to their unconventional activities, the Air Commandos developed a pragmatic approach to combat: if USAF doctrine brought victory, use it; if it didn’t, junk it and find a doctrine that would.


By experience, Colonel Aderholt had long since established his formidable unconventional warfare credentials. During the Korean War, he had flown night, low-level infiltration missions deep behind Communist lines while commanding Fifth Air Force’s Special Air Missions Detachment. Seconded to the intelligence community during the postwar years, he provided unconventional warfare planning and oversight expertise to a series of paramilitary operations by US intelligence ranging from Cuba to Tibet to Laos.


It was Aderholt who flew down from Laos to meet the first Air Commando leaders upon their arrival in Thailand in early 1962, providing them with briefings on special operations in SEA.  Upon his return to the US, Aderholt was transferred to the Air Commando base at Hurlburt Field, Florida, with the specific task of spreading his unconventional warfare expertise gained in Indochina. In the following years, Colonel Aderholt, later a brigadier general, would go on to serve more combat tours in Southeast Asia than any other Air Force officer.


Four years later, as the opening quote suggests, a number of things weren’t setting very well with General Sweeney or within the Air Force overall. And the outburst between USAF’s senior fighter pilot general and its most experienced unconventional warfare officer was only one of the visible cracks that were beginning to show the internal rancor. Fueling that rancor was a faceless enemy moving silently southward under the jungle-covered mountains of eastern Laos, gliding slowly but irresistibly like a giant snake.


This deadly, well-camouflaged snake was nearly invisible to Air Force eyes, but it struck back viciously when it sensed danger. Worse yet, like a mythical serpent cut into pieces again and again, it kept bringing itself back together . . . steadily carrying its venom southward towards the South Vietnamese and American forces defending the Republic of Vietnam. The “snake” was the North Vietnamese Army, the likes of which the United States Air Force had never before encountered.   With the consent of its Thai allies, the United States Air Force decided to do a little “neighborhood renovation” of its own in the spring and summer of 1966. This action took form in two initially separate Air Commando deployments from the United States to Nakhon Phanom (commonly shortened by Americans to “NKP”) Royal Thai Air Force Base, smack on the Thai border with Laos . . . and less than 60 air miles from the nearest section of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. NKP was a perfect base for the independent minded Air Commandos.


The Nimrods


What had started out in May 1966 as a six months- only combat trial for the A-26s turned into a dangerous, three-year-long snake hunt. On some nights, the A-26 “stick” hurt the snake badly. On other nights, the snake’s venom left only flames, molten aluminum, and broken Air Commandos in its trail. From the darkness below, its fangs would find a fatal spot deep in the belly of 11 Nimrods before their hunt was over. But in early 1966 that was all yet to come.


As Detachment 1 began its first orientation flights over the Ho Chi Minh Trail, its aircraft took with them the radio call sign “Nimrod.” The call sign soon became synonymous with the aircraft themselves during what became their prolonged “trial through fire” in Southeast Asia. And as an early wartime report observes, the trial standards were designed from the start to push the aircraft and crews to the limit of their capabilities: The aircraft were directed to operate at night in a single ship concept, completely blacked out. . . . The full weapons spectrum of the A-26A would be employed: eight .50-caliber nose guns; eight wing stations and 12 bomb bay stations; 10,000 pounds of conventional aerial munitions in all feasible configurations.


The Big Eagle trial got off to a slow start as the Laotian monsoon season began drenching the country soon after the arrival of the bombers. But by the fall of 1966, improving weather began to make possible the full nighttime truck-killing potential of the Nimrods. Like sharks drawn to blood, the Air Commandos sought out the North Vietnamese truck convoys that became their nightly prey. That December the A-26s were credited with 80 percent of all USAF truck kills for the month in the Steel Tiger area despite having flown only 7 percent of all USAF sorties!


The A-26’s firepower, communications capability, and loiter time over the target made the aircraft very popular with everyone (with the probable exception of North Vietnamese truck drivers). Innovative tactics helped, too, as the following account by a Nimrod pilot reveals:


“At dusk, one good road cut [one requiring immediate repairs] is made at a selected interdiction point . . . the A-26 then retires from the scene and loiters nearby [4,000–6,000 feet altitude] while the supporting flareship then drops marker flares [commonly referred to as “bricks” that burn for approximately 45 minutes after hitting the ground]. The [C-123 Candlestick] flareship then departs the scene and as a ruse, dispenses six million candlepower MK-24 parachute flares as though accompanied by an attack aircraft. Prior to burnout [of the original two bricks] the A-26 rolls in, blacked out. . . . Backed-up trucks and road repair crews have been repeatedly surprised by this tactic.” 


A number of other innovations were also taking place, especially in the night interdiction mission. It was during 1967 that the 56th first began testing the effectiveness of the handheld Starlight scope** for spotting trucks traveling through the darkened terrain below the aircraft, primarily in the Barrel Roll sector at this stage of the war.  The A-26 showed more promise.  The impatient Aderholt had another card up his sleeve that promised to expedite still faster the experiments in his wing. The “card” turned out to be a navigator so eager to fly in the A-26 he accepted a bizarre proposal from the 56th commander. Aderholt confesses:


“I told Tom Wickstrom that if he wanted to fly and fight from the front of the A-26, he had first to figure out a system for making the Starlight scope effective from the plane. I needed a third set of eyeballs in the -26s for the scope, and I also had some enlisted Combat Controllers who weren’t getting any combat pay or tax breaks. They were available if Wickstrom could figure something out.”


What Major Wickstrom figured out was that by lying head forward and face down on the belly of the aircraft, with the top half of his body extended out over the open bomb bay, he could get a great view of the ground below. With a harness that kept the bottom half of his body secured to the aircraft, and using the Starlight scope hanging from a bungee cord just in front of his face, he could get the same great view at night. And the great view Wickstrom got on the third night test mission resulted in the North Vietnamese Army losing seven trucks, along with their drivers and supplies—an impressive debut. A man of his word, the wily Aderholt subsequently rewarded Wickstrom by allowing him to risk his life on future missions from the front of the A-26! While the limited number of enlisted combat controllers restrained the program, such innovations continued to rack up an ever-growing tally of truck kills by propeller-driven aircraft fighting over the Ho Chi Minh Trail at night.


Official reports were enthusiastic in their results achieved versus sorties-flown descriptions of the A-26’s night interdiction tests. What it took in terms of human effort to generate these numbers, however, was something that would never find its way into an official report. Through their laughter and their tears, the Nimrod crews recorded some of their thoughts in an unofficial squadron log called “The Funny Book.” Some excerpts give quite an insight into this human drama:


(Nimrod 30): Off 1+45 late. Aborted -645 because #1 gen wouldn’t come on-line. Didn’t know when I was well off. Was given -644 and after one aborted T/O for low torque we went off into murk. After crossing the river [into Laos], we lost both generators and battery went flat. Jettisoned in NKP area and made no flap landing (Thunderstorms, 22-knot crosswind).


(Nimrod 37): Absolutely the worst display of ordnance delivery I have seen in quite some time! And I did it!


(Nimrod 31): Got four trucks, destroyed POL [petroleum, oil, and lubricants] storage areas, 13 secondary fires and three explosions in two areas. Had usual amount of ground fire, but refused to kill any of the gunners. They were so bad, we feared they might be replaced.


(Nimrod 29): Worked in close proximity to numerous red-orange tracers, jutting karst, and thunderstorms. Snapped out of our complacency when two jets invaded our area, at our altitude, and made a couple of 360-degree turns with their lights on. Four 37 mm gunners extremely accurate. Fun and games.


 Considerably less “fun” to record, however, was the inordinately high number of dud munitions noted by the Nimrod crews in their log. Exposing their lives in flying low-level attacks through bad weather, at night, below surrounding mountain tops, and through increasingly accurate ground fire was scary enough. But to do all this and still see the exposed trucks below continue to drive right through a shower of unexploded bombs is to know the real meaning of “helpless rage.” Fortunately, help was on its way and, like the A-26 itself, came from a World War II-era idea. The Air Commandos called it the “Funny Bomb” because of its odd shape. There were still hundreds of them left over from World War II, during which they had been dropped by the thousands on Japan from low-flying B-29s. Who discovered the remaining supply and how they found their way to NKP is still the subject of some dark mystery. But their effectiveness was anything but “funny” to those who saw the incredible results of a well-placed bomb run. Nimrod veteran Tom Wickstrom describes the bomb:


“The World War II-era incendiary bombs each contained several white phosphorous bomblets, which burst from the barrel as they fell in flight. With its content of jellied fuel, CBU [Cluster Bomb Units], and Willie Pete [White Phosphorous], it had a little bit of something for everyone. It split its casing and ignited its contents while still falling, giving the appearance of a burning water fall. When it hit the ground, the CBU bomblets blew it around so it covered approximately a football field. Anyone or anything in that area was . . . gone.”


 USAF records show that during their first eight months of combat, the 10 A-26s were credited with 275 trucks destroyed and 246 more damaged; also hit were 1,223 truck parks, resulting in 1,033 secondary explosions. The Nimrods were unquestionably the biggest stick in the Lucky Tigers  . . . The most dangerous predator on the Ho Chi Minh Trail . . rated “nine times more effective than jet aircraft" against truck traffic and antiaircraft defenses on the trail. 


In 1969 the last of the A-26s were withdrawn from combat for lack of spare parts and combat attrition. Most of the flyable aircraft were flown straight to the Air Force’s aircraft boneyard in Tucson, Arizona. Five were sent to South Vietnam in a variety of noncombat roles.