During the Vietnam War, the U.S. Sent Updated World War II Bombers to Hit Laos
The missions were so sensitive, some records are still classified
by JOSEPH TREVITHICK
More than four decades after the fall of Saigon, Washington is still holding on to various classified details about its fight in Southeast Asia. Among the Pentagon media arm’s still-secret records are photos and video of updated World War II-era bombers the U.S. Air Force sent to hit Laos.
In May 1966, pilots and crews from the 603rd Air Commando Squadron brought eight B-26K Invaders from their base in Louisiana to Nakhon Phanom Air Base in Thailand. Desperate to stem the flow of troops and supplies flowing down the Ho Chi Minh Trail from North Vietnam, the flying branch had sent the modified planes to help hunt down enemy convoys.
“It was a fantastic improvement over the old aircraft,” Air Force colonel Joseph Kittinger, a veteran of the deployment, said in an official interview in 1974. “[But] the aircraft wasn’t designed for what we were using it for.”
War Is Boring obtained this and other previously secret internal oral histories through the Freedom of Information Act. As of April 2016, the Defense Media Activity said it had at least two classified items relating to these sometimes hair-raising missions in their archive.
Well before the United States became embroiled in its war in Vietnam, the Douglas B-26 Invader had a storied history in the American military.
Originally called the A-26, the planes had attacked German and Japanese forces during World War II, bombed North Korean and Chinese formations during the Korean War and become a sometimes infamous symbol of small wars and covert actions in the early stages of the Cold War.
For its time, the twin-engine Invader boasted an impressive top speed of over 350 miles per hour combined with a range of 1,400 miles. Designed from the outset to blast troops and other targets on the ground, Douglas’ attacker could lug 6,000 pounds of bombs and rockets on its wings and in an internal bomb bay.
Depending on the version, a B-26 might pack up to 18 .50-caliber machine guns in the nose, wings and two swiveling turrets above and below the fuselage. After the end of the conflict on the Korean Peninsula, the Pentagon transferred these fearsome planes to more than a dozen allies in Latin America, the Middle East and Asia.
The Central Intelligence Agency’s front company Air America managed additional aircraft for secret missions in places such as Indonesia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Some of the aging B-26s flew missions as part of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion to overthrow Fidel Castro’s regime in Cuba.
In January 1963, the Air Force itself still owned 25 of the planes. Less than two years earlier, the flying branch had sent some of its B-26s to South Vietnam, ostensibly to help train Saigon’s own pilots how to fly them.
In reality, American fliers were teaming up with their South Vietnamese counterparts to fly real combat missions against Viet Cong guerrillas. In Southeast Asia and elsewhere, crews were flying the planes so hard, the wings were literally coming off.
“You really had to have a delicate hand with the aircraft,” Kittinger, who was also involved in these early Southeast Asian missions, told his interviewer. “Yes, wings came off. Yes, we had to compromise our tactics because of a known structural problem in the aircraft.”
Built with an eye toward getting them into action as fast as possible, Douglas had not necessarily expected the Invader to stay in service for more than two decades. Attached in part by a center spar, the strain of repeated combat maneuvers eventually weakened this joint.
“During a firepower demonstration at Eglin Air Force Base, in front of several hundred reporters, a wing came off on a strafing pass, of all things,” Kittinger recalled. “A wing came off of a B-26 in front of the whole assembly, and we were grounded from bombing with any Gs over there [in South Vietnam].”
Enter the B-26K, often referred to as the Counter-Invader, a reference to its counter-insurgency mission. The Air Force hoped to fix the Invader’s wing-failure and other serious problems with the K-model. Otherwise, the flying branch figured it might have to stop flying the B-26s all together.
The Air Force turned to a small company called On Mark Engineering, which ran its operations out of Van Nuys Airport in California. In addition to the Counter-Invader, On Mark had made a name for itself turning old B-26s into classy private transports with names such as “Executive” and “Marketeer.”
In February 1963, the firm delivered the first Counter-Invader prototype to the Air Force. In addition to refurbishing the older bombers to prevent the wing collapse and other structural failures, On Mark added newer, more powerful engines and wider propellers.
With those features, the B-26K could carry an extra 2,000 pounds of ordnance compared to its predecessor. The California plane-maker kept the eight machine guns in the nose, but scrapped the .50 caliber weapons in the wings and ditched the turrets.
With improved internal fuel reserves, plus extra tanks on the wing tips, the Counter-Invader had a range of 2,700 miles. The now-heavier Ks could still get to a top speed of more than 320 miles per hour.
Painted in an unusual emerald-green-over-gray camouflage scheme, some of the first aircraft went to the CIA-supported mercenary air arm in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Others quickly made the trip to Thailand wearing a more traditional three-color paint job over a black belly.
Staunchly anti-Communist and fighting their own insurgency, the Thai authorities had agreed to let the Pentagon use their bases for missions throughout the region. In 1961, the U.S. Marines, Air Force and CIA had flown troops and various aircraft into the country — including a number of older B-26s — as part of an earlier, top-secret plan to strike targets Laos.
“The Thais were not only sensitive to international opinion in these matters, but were wary of the political, social and economic impact of large U.S. forces on the country,” a now-declassified 1969 history of the Air Force in Thailand noted. “Even when agreements were reached, USAF commanders, whose units made up-the bulk of American forces in-country, continuously expended considerable time and effort fostering and maintaining good relations with nearby Thai communities and people.”
In 1966, one of Bangkok’s biggest concerns was how the appearance of American bombers might look to the Communist regime in Beijing and to leaders in Moscow. The flying branch solved that problem by reviving the Invader’s old A-26 moniker.
With no objections to attack planes coming in, the 603rd’s crews were free to bring in the Counter-Invaders. But just getting there turned out to be a harrowing experience.
The Air Force commandos’ last stop before getting to mainland Southeast Asia was Clark Air Base in The Philippines. The final leg of their trip took the Counter-Invaders right over the Ho Chi Minh trail and other Laotian battlefields full of enemy anti-aircraft guns — but without any weapons.
“I felt that if we were going to be flying over Laos we might as well have ordnance in our airplanes, at least .50-caliber machine guns,” Kittinger said. “So I got Charlie Dave, who was one of our super sergeants — I said, ‘Charlie, how about getting some ammunition and loading those guns up.’”
Just one problem. The Air Force hadn’t sent any armorers to load weapons with the planes on their ferry flight, which also included two C-97 cargo planes. Those would be waiting for the crews at Nakhon Phanom.
“So Charlie Dave went out to the ammo dump and stole, I think, a hundred thousand rounds of .50-caliber machine gun ammunition and hand-loaded, himself, eight B-26s, eight guns apiece, on the ramp at Clark,” Kittinger explained. “We violated more regulations than they wrote in a year at that time.”
“When we actually left there, … Charlie Dave had loaded up an additional 50,000 rounds of .50-caliber [ammunition] in the C-97s that we took into NKP with us,” he added, using a commonly acronym for the Thai base.
This attitude on the part of the Air Commandos and their superiors prevailed for the next three years. The flying branch had originally only expected the planes to be in Thailand for six months for an evaluation.
“Interdict the trail, whatever it took,” is how Maj. Frank Gorski described the unit’s mission in another now declassified oral history interview in 1973. “If it just took hunting trucks or if it was hunting ‘sicolo’ [bicycle] drivers with bags of ice [sic: rice], if it was a guy in a sampan, anything moving down from the north to the south — involved people, trucks, sampans, everything.”
Flying at night and at low level to hide from North Vietnamese defenses, the missions were dangerous. Nicknamed “the Nimrods” after their radio call sign, the group’s pilots were learning new lessons on the job every day.
The 603rd had to coordinate with its superiors at Nakhon Phanom, other American aircraft wherever they might be flying and Laotion irregulars on the ground who might not have the best command of English.
The pilots came to know these individuals by the sound of their voice and gave them nicknames. But trained by American advisors, these local troops knew the terrain and how to call in air strikes.
In his interview, Gorski recounted a story of how their instructions might seem absurd, but turn out to be right on the mark:
I think I was talking to Red Hat. He says, ‘Good. From your flare go 500 meters and drop a bomb where the road turns or a bend in the river there or something.’ I put a bomb down there. He said, ‘Okay, now go 500 meters the other way and put a bomb there.’ I said, ‘Well, this is getting kind of ridiculous, 500 meters.’ He said, ‘Okay, now hit everything between the two.’ I got credit for, I think, [for] two and a half trucks and a bunch of guys eating rice. He just gave me the parameters. He said, ‘Now, let them have it.’
The crews regularly teamed up with other types of aircraft. C-123 and C-130 cargo planes would often show up to drop flares so the attackers could see the pitch-black battlefield below.
In addition, the 603rd experimented with early “starlight scopes” to cut through the night. These early night vision optics amplified any available light source, such as the moon and stars.
“We had some of the handheld star-light scopes and what have you,” Gorski explained. “It was too close to the canopy and you’d bounce it off the darn thing.”
Back in Louisiana, the rest of the 603rd tried out an alternative arrangement that put a larger scope inside the bomb bay. But someone would have to sit in there with it, strapped in a harness and call out targets on the intercom to the crew in the cockpit.
“We ended up on a very moonlit night, and I had the starlight scope, and we opened the bomb-bay doors and flew down on the trails,” Kittinger said, describing one of the first missions with the new arrangement. “I didn’t see any on the particular mission I flew this night.
“We ended up going down the roads … with the bomb-bay doors open and me shooting clips of M-16s, and we laughed our heads off thinking about the gooks reporting this new secret weapon of a B-26 with a tail gun,” Kittinger added, using a racial slur for Vietnamese and other Asians.
And during their time over Laos, the Nimrods carried a variety of more conventional weapons, including cluster dispensers, napalm canisters and white-phosphorus bombs and rockets, along with their own flares. Shortages forced the crews to choose different weapons based simply on what was available, rather than what would be best for blasting their primary target — cargo trucks.
“You get in trouble when you describe a typical mission,” Kittinger said. “I think that people have over-stressed ordnance shortages. I think that you can change your tactics and use what’s available.”
Regardless of whether it had an impact on operations, it was a real concern. At the end of 1966, the Air Force started looking into new incendiary weapons to replace rapidly-shrinking stocks of World War II-era thermate bombs.
When this didn’t work, the flying branch decided to simply start making the archaic munitions again. The Nimrods were among the most notable recipients of these flame weapons, dubbed “funny bombs.”
Kittinger said he believed the most effective weapons during his tour were simple cluster-dispensers that would spit out strings of tiny grenades over a target. Even if the tiny bomblets didn’t blow up the truck, they’d often kill the crew and stop it. The plane could then double back and hit the now stationary target again.
Early on, the Nimrods put up impressive results. In December 1966, the Air Force credited the A-26s with 80 percent of the total trucks destroyed that month, despite only having flown seven percent of all missions along the Ho Chi Minh trail.
The next year, the elements of the 603rd in Thailand became an entirely new squadron. The 609th flew the Counter-Invaders for the rest of their time in Southeast Asia.
Unfortunately, despite the improvements On Mark had made, the planes simply could not escape their age. In 1969, Air Force pulled the remaining A-26s out of Thailand due to combat losses and a dwindling supply of spare parts. In seven years of operations, the flying branch had lost more than 20 Invaders of all types.
Air Force commandos in Panama retained some number of A-26s for a short period afterwards. Colombia was reportedly the last operator of Invaders in the world, finally striking its last aircraft — likely hidden away in hangars for years already — off the rolls for good in 1980.
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