Air Power and the Battle of the Bismarck Sea

Air Power and the Battle of the Bismarck Sea

By Alan Stephens

This week marks the 74th anniversary of the Battle of the Bismarck Sea, arguably the most significant action fought by Australians during World War II.

Between December 1941 and April 1942, Imperial Japanese forces shocked Australians with their victories over the United States at Pearl Harbor and in the Philippines; and over the British Commonwealth in Malaya, Singapore, the Dutch East Indies and Rabaul. When enemy forces occupied northern New Guinea, an invasion of Australia, with its unthinkable consequences, seemed possible. However, supported by their American and British allies, Australia’s servicemen and women regrouped and fought back.

From mid-1942 onwards, Australian victories with American support at Milne Bay and Kokoda, and the triumph of American naval air power at Coral Sea and Midway weakened Japan’s hold on New Guinea. Further Allied successes on New Guinea’s northeast coast at Buna, Gona and Sanananda between November 1942 and January 1943 left the Japanese position substantially weakened.

Then, intercepted radio messages revealed that an enemy convoy would sail from Rabaul with reinforcements for the vital Japanese garrison at Lae on the northeast coast of New Guinea in late-February. This was likely to be Japan’s last throw of the dice in New Guinea. If the convoy were stopped, then so too would be the likelihood of an invasion of Australia

Allied Air Forces under the command of the American General George Kenney immediately began preparing for an all-out assault against the convoy. A critical factor was the brilliant plan largely conceived by the Royal Australian Air Force’s (RAAF) Group Captain William “Bull” Garing. Garing had already fought in Europe for two years with the RAAF’s No. 10 Squadron, and his experience of maritime warfare was to prove decisive.

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Group Captain Garing RAAF (standing, right) hands over information to his successor Group Captain McLachlan, seated at the office desk, c. 1943. (Source: Australian War Memorial)

It was Garing who convinced General Kenney of the need for a massive, coordinated attack. Garing envisaged large numbers of aircraft striking the convoy from different directions and altitudes, with precise timing.

Initially, the allies would rely on reconnaissance aircraft to detect the convoy, which would then be attacked by long-range United States Army Air Force (USAAF) bombers. Once the convoy was within range of the allies’ potent anti-shipping aircraft – RAAF Beaufighters, Bostons and Beauforts, and American Mitchells and Bostons – a coordinated attack would be mounted from medium, low, and very low altitudes.

During the waiting period, crews practised their navigation and honed their formation flying, bombing, and gunnery skills.

Six thousand four hundred Japanese troops embarked at Rabaul between 23 and 27 February 1943, and the convoy of eight merchant ships and eight destroyers sailed just before midnight on the 28th, planning to arrive at Lae on 3 March. Air cover was provided by about 100 fighters flying out of bases in New Ireland, New Britain and New Guinea.

The enemy convoy initially was favoured by poor weather, which hampered Allied reconnaissance. It was not until mid-morning on 2 March that USAAF B-24 Liberators sighted the ships. General Kenney immediately launched eight B-17 Flying Fortress heavy bombers, followed shortly afterwards by another 20. The B-17s attacked from an altitude of 2000 metres with 450-kilogram demolition bombs. Later in the day, another strike was made by 11 B-17s whose crews reported that vessels were ‘burning and exploding […] smoking and burning amidships’ and ‘left sinking’.

By nightfall, the enemy was only hours from Lae, which meant that in the morning it would be within range of the entire allied strike force. If the coordinated attack were to succeed, the precise location of the convoy had to be known at daybreak; consequently, throughout the night, it was tracked by an RAAF Catalina from No. 11 Squadron, which occasionally dropped bombs and flares to keep the Japanese soldiers in a state of anxiety. Also during the night, eight RAAF Beaufort torpedo bombers from No. 100 Squadron took-off from Milne Bay to try to use the darkness to their advantage. The heavy frontal weather made navigation hazardous, and only two aircraft found the convoy. Neither scored a hit.

The moment the Allied Air Forces had been waiting for came on the morning of 3 March 1943, when the Japanese convoy rounded the Huon Peninsula. For much of the time the adverse weather had helped the enemy avoid detection, but now clear conditions favoured the allies. Over 90 aircraft took-off from Port Moresby and set heading for their rendezvous point. While the strike force was en route, RAAF Bostons from No. 22 Squadron bombed the enemy airfield at Lae.

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By 9:30 a.m. the AAF formations had assembled, and by 10:00 a.m. the Battle of the Bismarck Sea had begun.

The allies attacked in three waves and from three levels, only seconds apart. First, 13 USAAF B-17s bombed from medium altitude. In addition to the obvious objective of sinking ships, those attacks were intended to disperse the convoy by forcing vessels to break station to avoid being hit.

Second, 13 RAAF Beaufighters from No. 30 Squadron hit the enemy from very low level, lining up on their targets as the bombs from the B-17s were exploding. With four cannons in its nose and six machine guns in its wings, the Beaufighter was the most heavily armed fighter in the world. The Australians’ job was twofold: to suppress anti-aircraft fire, and to kill ships’ captains and officers on their bridges.

The Beaufighters initially approached at 150 metres above the sea in line astern formation. The pilots then descended even lower, to mast-level height, set full power on their engines, changed into line abreast formation, and approached their targets at 420 kilometres an hour.

It seems that some of the Japanese captains thought the Beaufighters were going to make a torpedo attack because they altered course to meet the Australians head-on, to present a smaller profile. Instead, they made themselves better targets for strafing. With a slight alteration of heading the Beaufighters were now in an ideal position to rake the ships from bow to stern, which they did, subjecting the enemy to a withering storm of cannon and machine gun fire.

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 A Japanese transport on fire during the Battle of the Bismarck Sea. (Source: Australian War Memorial)

According to the official RAAF release:

[e]nemy crews were slain beside their guns, deck cargo burst into flame, superstructures toppled and burned.

With the convoy now dispersed and in disarray, the third wave of attackers was able to concentrate on sinking ships. Thirteen American B-25 Mitchells made a medium level bombing strike while, simultaneously, a mast-level attack was made by 12 specially modified Mitchells, known as ‘commerce destroyers’ because of their heavy armament. The commerce destroyers were devastating, claiming seventeen direct hits. Close behind the Mitchells, USAAF Bostons added more firepower.

Following the coordinated onslaught, Beaufighters, Mitchells and Bostons intermingled as they swept back and forth over the convoy, strafing and bombing. Within minutes of the opening shots, the battle had turned into a rout. At the end of the action:

[s]hips were listing and sinking, their superstructure smashed and blazing, and great clouds of dense black smoke [rose] into a sky where aircraft circled and dived over the confusion they had wrought among what, less than an hour earlier, had been an impressively orderly convoy.

Overhead the surface battle, 28 USAAF P-38 Lightning fighters provided air defence for the strike force. In their combat with the Zeros which were attempting to protect the convoy, three of the Lightnings were shot down, but in turn, the American pilots claimed 20 kills. Apart from those three P-38s, the only other allied aircraft lost was a single B-17, shot down by a Zero.

With their armament expended the allied aircraft returned to Port Moresby. However, there was to be no respite for the enemy. Throughout the afternoon the attacks continued. Again, B-17s struck from medium level, this time in cooperation with Mitchells and RAAF Bostons flying at very low level. (Incidentally, the Bostons were led by Squadron Leader Charles Learmonth, after whom the RAAF’s present-day base in north-west Australia is named.) At least 20 direct hits were claimed against the by-now devastated convoy.

That was the last of the coordinated attacks. The victory had been won. For the loss of a handful of aircraft, the Allied Air Forces had sunk twelve ships – all eight of the troop transports and four of the eight destroyers – and had killed more than 3,000 enemy soldiers.

The brilliantly conceived and executed operation had smashed Japanese hopes of regaining the initiative in New Guinea and had eliminated any possibility that Australia might be invaded. In the words of the supreme command of the Southwest Pacific Area, General Douglas MacArthur, the Battle of the Bismarck Sea was ‘the decisive aerial engagement’ of the war in the Southwest Pacific.

However, there was still a terrible yet essential finale to come. For several days after the battle, Allied aircrews patrolled the Huon Gulf, searching for and strafing barges and rafts crowded with survivors. It was grim and bloody work, but as one RAAF Beaufighter pilot said, every enemy soldier they prevented from getting ashore was one less for their Army colleagues to face. Moreover, after fifteen months of Japanese brutality, the great immorality, it seemed to them, would have been to have ignored the rights of their soldiers.

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A Japanese destroyer steaming astern while under attack by USAAF bombers during the Battle of the Bismarck Sea. (Source: Australian War Memorial)

Japanese media never mentioned the battle, but in a macabre footnote, two weeks later, Tokyo announced that in future all Japanese soldiers were to be taught to swim.

The Battle of the Bismarck Sea was a master-class in air power. The RAAF and the USAAF had smashed Japanese hopes of regaining the initiative in New Guinea; they had forced the enemy into a defensive posture from which ultimate victory was unlikely, and they had eliminated any possibility that Australia might be invaded.

This was arguably Australia’s most important victory in World War II.

This post first appeared at The Central Blue, the blog of the Sir Richard Williams Foundation.

Header Image: During the Battle of the Bismarck Sea in which the Japanese suffered heavy losses while attempting to reinforce their garrison at Lae, a RAAF Beaufighter attacks a camouflaged Japanese transport. A burst is poured into the burning vessel. (Source: Australian War Memorial)

‘Integrating’ the Italian Air Force after the Armistice

‘Integrating’ the Italian Air Force after the Armistice

By Ross Mahoney

If there is one description of the multi-national and cosmopolitan composition of Allied forces in the Mediterranean theatre during the Second World War, it is ‘complex.’ This comment may seem obvious at first; however, were there not only British and American troops in the theatre but also forces from the Commonwealth and Empire and ‘free’ forces such as those from France and Poland. Also, in the aftermath of the Italian surrender in September 1943, there were also those of the former regime.

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The first Prime Minister of Italy after the fall of Mussolini, Field Marshal Pietro Badoglio with the Head of the Military Mission in Brindisi, Lieutenant General Sir Noel Mason-MacFarlane. Photograph taken at the Italian Naval Headquarters at the Castle, Brindisi. (Source: © IWM (NA 7029))

By the terms of the instrument of surrender, units of the Italian navy and air force were to be transferred to the control of Allied forces. Once the Italian government under Marshal Badoglio moved to Brindisi, and the long terms of surrender were signed, the Allies set up a Control Commission to enforce the surrender terms. However, even before the Control Commission was established, General Eisenhower had dispatched a Military Mission to Brindisi to transmit military instructions to Badoglio, collect intelligence, and most importantly, co-ordinate the use of Italian armed forces in the war against German.[1]

It is clear that the use of Italian forces was designed, where possible, to complement Allied combat power in the Mediterranean theatre; however, this came up against a number of challenges that highlight the problem of integrating former enemies into the Allied force structure. Furthermore, as Marshal of the Royal Air Force Lord Tedder, who at the time was in charge of the Mediterranean Air Command, reflected in his wartime memoirs that, while he was keen to support the use of the Italian air force, that Services needs came secondary to the Allied war effort.[2] Challenges for re-building the Italian air force included administrative, logistical, resource and personnel issue as well as cultural and language difficulties.

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Air Vice-Marshal Robert Foster, Air Officer Commanding the Desert Air Force, sitting in his office trailer at DAF Advanced Headquarters at Cesena, Italy. (Source: © IWM (CNA 3338))

The head of the air section of the Military Mission was one Air Commodore Foster, later Air Chief Marshal Sir Robert Foster who later commanded the Desert Air Force and the 2nd Tactical Air Force in Germany in the early 1950s. In Foster’s personal papers, held by the Royal Air Force Museum in London, is an interesting record of his service with the Military Mission between September 1943 and March 1944.[3] In this recollection, which is what it is as it is clearly entitled the ‘Personal Record of ACM Sir Robert Foster’ and as such probably written after his retirement in the 1950s, Foster details the work he undertook.

The first challenge recalled by Foster was that of morale and linked to that the issue of attitude. Italian forces had by the time of surrender been fighting on multiple fronts and, for a variety of reasons, suffered significant defeats. Added to this, as Foster recollected, was the fact that the Italian’s were being asked to fight with their former enemies against their former allies. Furthermore, motivation was considered to be challenging because of conditions in Italy for the civilian population and the separation of personnel from their families. This was an outcome of the character of the Italian campaign and German failure to withdraw from the peninsula. That Foster identified this as his first requirement was hardly out of character. It was recognised by British forces that the generation of combat power was related to good leadership, command and morale. As such, managing issues such attitude, culture, identity and loyalties were essential to ensure the provision of an effective force. As Foster wrote:

It was perfectly clear […] that the first step must be to establish a sense of purpose and to find officers with sound qualities of leadership, with good operational experience, and with the basic enthusiasm which would make their Air Force and efficient and useful addition to the allied war effort.[4]

Foster was aided in attempting to implement his first step by recognising the need to gain support from Badoglio’s government and to help with that he appointed Squadron Leader Roger Francois whom both spoke Italian and was a ‘firm Italophile.’

Importantly, it was agreed that Italian units would be grouped to maintain identity, though the Allies would provide stores and logistical support and eventually re-equipment of units. Linked to this were administrative challenges concerning issues such as an operational headquarters to control units that not only served the purpose of Italians but also fitted with existing Allied arrangements. Added to this was the need to communicate to Allied air commanders that the addition of Italian units would be of benefit to the war effort. Foster recollected the ‘excellent service’ of his Italian staff officers fondly and that ‘at heart, the Italian Air Force air crew were dissimilar to ours.’[5]

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An Italian Macchi C.205 Veltro aircraft found on Catania airfield, Sicily by personnel of No. 450 Squadron RAAF and subsequently serviced by the squadron’s fitters. (Source: Wikimedia)

Ultimately, without further research, it is difficult to assess the effectiveness of Foster’s effort to rebuild the Italian air force on the Allied war effort. At a simple level, were the outcomes achieved greater than the effort expended? One thing is certain, while an attempt was made to utilise the Italian air force it was hampered by the fact that the Allies secured only some 300 aircraft and that many continued to be used by forces that remained loyal to the regime in Northern Italy. This led to Italian units being used by the Balkan Air Force and re-equipped with Allied types. Nevertheless, perhaps the key outcome of this effort was that it laid the foundation for the post-Second World War Italian air force, as such, while the Service might not have been militarily effective in reinforcing Allied combat power, it served a political purpose in the longer term.

This is by no means an exhaustive discussion of the effort to rebuild and utilise Italian forces after the 1943 surrender; however, while it is dangerous to draw historical parallels, the experience of Italian forces after 1943 begs the question of the purpose of rebuilding forces of defeated enemies and the challenges inherent in that process. It is evident from Foster’s recollection that while there were technical and logistical challenges, the key to his ‘success’ was the need to recognise the problem of working with the Italians to ensure that they felt part of the Allied team. A need to maintain some form of identity was paramount to Foster’s work and the subsequent integration of Italian forces who subsequently felt valued as they were able to ‘prove [their] worth under the new circumstances.’[6]

Header Image: A formation of Macchi C.200 of the Regia Aeronautica, c. 1941 (Source: Wikimedia)

[1] On the development of the Allied Control Commission, see: C.R.S. Harris, Allied Military Administration of Italy, 1943-1945 (London: HMSO, 1957), pp.105-28.

[2] Marshal of the Royal Air Force Lord Tedder, With Prejudice (London: Cassell, 1966), p. 469.

[3] Royal Air Force Museum, Personal Papers of Air Chief Marshal Sir Robert Foster, AC75/34/8/23, Personal Record of A.C.M. Sir Robert Foster of Service with the Italian Air Force, September 1943-March 1944, N.D..

[4] Ibid, p. 2.

[5] Ibid, p. 5.

[6] Ibid, p. 6.

From Balloons to Drones – Top Posts of 2016

From Balloons to Drones – Top Posts of 2016

By Ross Mahoney

Happy New Year!

Now we have reached 2017, and that From Balloons to Drones has been up and running for around six months, it thought it would be worth posting our top five posts of 2016 based on views.

  1. At the head of the list is ‘Supporting the Secret War: T-28s over Laos, 1964-1973 – Part 1: Training.’ This is the first of a three-part article by Jeff Schultz that examines the use of the North American T-28 during the war in Laos in the 1970s. Parts two and three can be found here and here.
  2. In second place is my research note on ‘Air Power and the Challenge of Professional Military Education’ that was based on my thoughts on an excellent conference at the Royal Military College of Canada in November. An important subject that I hope to return to in 2017.
  3. In third is Brian Laslie’s commentary, ‘TheF-35 is here!’, which deals with some of the issues surrounding this program and the important role that training will play in developing the aircraft’s use.
  4. In fourth, and timed in conjunction with the types eventually retirement for the United States Air Force, Mike Hankins provided a timely discussion of the development of the McDonnell F-4 Phantom II in his piece ‘Remembering the F-4 Phantom – Part 1: A Product of Its Time.’ The second part of this article can be found here.
  5. Finally, but no means last, Alex Fitzgerald-Black’s research note ‘Operation HUSKY’s Air Battle by the Numbers’ provided a useful discussion of the importance of the air battles fought during the invasion of Sicily in 1943.

These are just a selection of the highlights of our half year in existence. We are keen to expand our list of contributors and if you are interested in writing about air power issues – both historical and contemporary – then you can find out how here. If you have any questions then please leave a comments here or emails us at airpowerstudies@gmail.com.

Header Image: A row of T-28s in Laos. (Source: USAF)

Supporting the Secret War: T-28s over Laos, 1964-1973 – Part 3: Other Roles and Conclusion

Supporting the Secret War: T-28s over Laos, 1964-1973 – Part 3: Other Roles and Conclusion

By Jeff Schultz

Editor’s Note: In the final instalment of a three-part series, Jeff Schultz examines the use of the North American T-28 Trojan during the so-called Secret War in Laos during the Vietnam War. In this part, Schultz examines the aircraft’s other roles, such as reconnaissance. Parts One and Two can be found here and here.

Other Roles

The T-28 performed a range of other missions such as search and rescue (SAR), reconnaissance, night interdiction, observation and leaflet dropping. Early SAR missions sometimes featured T-28s, flown by Air America crews depending on the situation. They were often the closest assets available depending on where in Laos the pilot was shot down; he had a ‘better chance of being rescued by […] Air America.’[1] Working in conjunction with Air America T-28s, unarmed helicopters rescued some downed American pilots including US Navy Commander Doyle W. Lynn in June 1964.[2] Air America continued to fly T-28s in support of SAR missions into the late sixties, often flying as overhead cover.[3] In 1968, Air America helicopters rescued some American pilots, such as A-1 Skyraider pilots Lt. Colonel William Buice, and Major Howard Jennings, with perhaps 30 total U.S. military pilots rescued in Laos and North Vietnam.[4] T-28s also covered the insertion of road watch teams in Military Region IV (MR IV), which attempted to radio information about traffic on the Ho Chi Minh Trail.[5]

Reconnaissance missions were another mission flown by a few of the T-28s provided to the RLAF, as ‘RT-28s,’ with mounted cameras under the fuselage.[6] The RT-28s were used to take photographs while on recon flights and provided the RLAF with a modest ability to conduct their reconnaissance. According to a report from 1965, the need to process the RT-28 mission film needed to be given higher priority.[7] Night Recon missions were considered but then dismissed in favour of ‘Yankee Team’ reconnaissance planes, which were evaluated as more effective at night.[8] A Thai recon pilot was shot down in an RT-28 in August 1964 near Phou Khout ridge in the Plain of Jars.[9] Another example from 1964 showed that even when three RT-28s were available to the RLAF, only one was flyable due to lack of parts or other serviceability issues.[10] USAF Captain Jack Drummond, assigned to help the RLAF via PROJECT 404 based at Pakse and Savannakhet, related one case where photographs of a Chinese-built road in north-west Laos were needed. He went to Udorn, Thailand and using an RT-28 from the base, eventually flew the recon mission himself to get it done.[11]

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Damage caused by a communist ground attack on Luang Prabang airfield, Laos, 1967. (Source: USAF)

The war in Laos changed once the American ‘Raven’ FAC (forward air control) pilots, previously known under the callsign ‘Butterfly,’ got involved in 1966 directing strikes in Cessna O-1s, U-17s and T-28s, which significantly improved the situation in favour of the US aims.[12] Ravens, according to a contemporary:

[w]ere all six-month volunteer air force types, civilian clothes, discharged from the service for six months and then automatically became back into the Air Force after six months […][13]

Drawing out the enemy in a war of attrition to be destroyed by air power worked, at least briefly, in Laos in 1967 when the careful use of Ravens, RLAF T-28s, Douglas A-26 ‘Nimrods’ and other American air support contributed to defeat repeated NVA assaults on Na Khang and assisted with forcing the withdrawal of the NVA 316th Division.[14] Another Raven, First Lieutenant Jim Lemon, recalled:

[w]orking under low cloud cover, using Lao T-28s, American A-1s and T-28 Trojans from NKP [Nakhon Phanom] we killed three trucks and a bulldozer.[15]

Some of the Ravens, contrary to orders, also flew combat missions with T-28s such as USAF Major Tom Richards in 1968.[16] Another Raven, USAF Colonel Joseph Chestnut, was shot down and killed flying a T-28 in October 1970 near Luang Prabang, Laos.[17]

By 1966 another use of T-28s was for night interdiction by the ‘Zorros’ of 606th Air Commando Squadron of the 56th Air Commando Wing, which attacked the Ho Chi Minh Trail at night from neighbouring Thailand.[18] Their mission was to destroy trucks and other targets of opportunity moving along the trail.[19] The ‘Zorros’ benefited from the T-28’s slower speed and accuracy to strike vehicle convoys or other objectives, similar to what the A-26 Nimrods had done.[20] By 1968, the ‘Zorro’ AT-28s were replaced with Douglas A-1 Skyraiders, ending this chapter of the T-28 involvement.[21] Coming budget cuts as part of Vietnamization would reduce the ability to interdict the trail even more.[22]

Lastly, a few examples exist of the T-28 used for psychological warfare leaflet drops, which led to some Pathet Lao defections, according to a 1964 report from Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Green.[23] Another source mentions the use of T-28s for leaflet drops and some leaflet drops took place in conjunction with SAR missions.[24]

Conclusion

An unsung trainer turned fighter-bomber went on to be one of the most significant propeller aircraft in Laos from 1964-1973, even on to 1975. It served all over in the strike, recce, and SAR roles as a reliable, simple platform to bring the fight to the Pathet Lao and the North Vietnamese Army. T-28s bombed the Ho Chi Minh Trail and flew with Lao, Hmong, Thai and American pilots. T-28s met the needs for a COIN aircraft that allowed a relative novice to become a skilled aviator, such as in the cases of Ly Lue, Vang Sue and Vang Bee. Some of the last planes flying in Cambodia in 1975 were T-28s of the Khmer Air Force. The venerable trainer was, therefore, active from 1961 in South Vietnam all the way to the fall of Laos and Cambodia in 1975.[25] The T-28s alone, however, could not change the outcome in Laos, much as American airpower alone did not defeat the North Vietnamese. In his end-of-tour report in 1969, Major General Seith, Deputy Commander, 7/13 Air Force, summed up the T-28s role:

USAF and the RLAF T-28 force have performed remarkably well in defense of friendly ground positions, in providing close air support for offensive moves, and in destroying enemy supplies, equipment and bivouac areas.  But air forces cannot substitute for ground force; they can only supplement them and increase their fire power and maneuverability.[26]

Header Image: An unmarked North American T-28D Trojan. This aircraft was probalby transferred to Laos in 1964. It was an USAF aircraft maintained by Air America at Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Base, but flown under the command of the USAF Attaché, Vientiane, Laos. It was transferred to the Royal Laotian Air Force in February 1973, its eventual fate being unknown.

[1] Joe F. Leeker, Air America in Laos I – Humanitarian Work, Part I, CAT/Air America Archive at the Eugene McDermott Library, University of Texas at Dallas, p. 54.

[2] Anthony and Sexton, War in Northern Laos, 1954-1973, p. 111.

[3] Leeker, Air America in Laos I, p. 47.

[4] Marrett, Cheating Death, pp. 84-6; Leeker, Air America in Laos I, p. 53.

[5] CHECO Reports: RLG Military Operations and Activities in the Laotian Panhandle,  01 January 1981, Folder 24, Box 01, Contemporary Historical Examination of Current Operations (CHECO) Reports of Southeast Asia (1961-1975), The Vietnam Center and Archive, Texas Tech University, p. 40.

[6] Adcock, T-28 Trojan in Action, p. 37.

[7] Project CHECO Southeast Asia Report #254 – Continuing Report: YANKEE TEAM – May 1964-June 1965, 08 March 1966, Folder 0201, Box 0044, Vietnam Archive Collection, The Vietnam Center and Archive, Texas Tech University, p. 16.

[8] Ibid, p. 26.

[9] Conboy and Morrison, Shadow War, p. 112.

[10] Anthony and Sexton, War in Northern Laos, 1954-1973, pp. 141-2.

[11] Chinnery, Air Commando, p. 202, 206.

[12] Short Story – USAF – re: 1960 to summer of 1962, 06 November 1997, Folder 01, Box 03, Jan Churchill Collection, The Vietnam Center and Archive, Texas Tech University, p. 2; Quincy, Harvesting Pa Chey’s Wheat, p. 278.

[13] Interview with Larry Clum, 29 February 2000, Larry Clum Collection, The Vietnam Center and Archive, Texas Tech University, pp. 22-3.

[14] Quincy, Harvesting Pa Chey’s Wheat, pp. 278-9.

[15] Ralph Wetterhahn, ‘Ravens of Long Tieng,’ Air & Space Magazine, (November 1998), p. 3.

[16] Christopher Robbins, The Ravens: The Men Who Flew in America’s Secret War in Laos, p. 59, 167.

[17] ‘Chestnut, Joseph Lyons Biography,’ P.O.W. Network.

[18] Chinnery, Air Commando, pp. 183-4.

[19] Hamilton-Merritt, Tragic Mountains, pp. 149-50.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Bernard C. Nalty, The War against Trucks: Aerial Interdiction in Southern Laos 1968-1972, (Washington D.C.: Air Force History and Museums Program, 2005), pp. 28-9.

[22] Lewis Sorley, A Better War: the Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America’s Last Years in Vietnam, (New York: Harcourt Inc., 1999), p. 177.

[23] Marshall Green, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, ‘Immediate Actions in the Period Prior to Decision,’ (Part VIII of Working Group Outline), 7 November 1964, The Pentagon Papers, Gravel Edition, Volume 3, pp. 606-10.

[24] Joe F. Leeker, Air America: North American T-28s, CAT/Air America Archive at the Eugene McDermott Library, University of Texas at Dallas, p. 65.

[25] Albert Grandolini, Tom Cooper, and Troung, ‘Cambodia 1954-1999; Part 2,’ ACIG.org.

[26] Barrel Roll 1968-73 : An Air Campaign in Support of National Policy,  01 September 1996, Folder 04, Box 07, Glenn Helm Collection, The Vietnam Center and Archive, Texas Tech University, p. 45.

Supporting the Secret War: T-28s over Laos, 1964-1973 – Part 2: Attack Role

Supporting the Secret War: T-28s over Laos, 1964-1973 – Part 2: Attack Role

By Jeff Schultz

Editor’s Note: In the second of a three-part series, Jeff Schultz examines the use of the North American T-28 Trojan during the so-called Secret War in Laos during the Vietnam War. In this part, Schultz examines the aircraft’s attack role. Part One can be found here.

Perhaps the most important mission performed by T-28s was in the attack role, dropping ordnance and strafing ground targets, which was the most commonly performed mission in Laos by T-28s. The armed trainers were flown by some different operators carrying a broad range of ordnance on multiple bomb racks such as .50cal gun pods, unguided bombs and rockets, napalm and/or cluster bomb units.[1] The cluster bomblets would fall in a series and per a former pilot could be devastating to troops in the open.[2]

In 1963, former Thai pilot Chert Saibory, now flying for the RLAF, defected to North Vietnam, his T-28 later returned to service for the VPAF as its first fighter plane, which per one source, nearly shot down a Nationalist Chinese C-123 during a night attack mission in 1965.[3] An early example of the attack role of T-28s came from June 1964, when the first US Navy aviator was shot down over Laos. Lieutenant Charles Klusmann was on a ‘Yankee Team’ RF-8 reconnaissance mission when Pathet Lao ground fire hit his plane.[4] During nearly three months of captivity, while being transported at one point to Vientiane via truck, the column was ‘halted by intense air raids by jet aircraft and T-28s,’ per his POW debriefing.[5] T-28s also flew in support of search attempts following Klusmann’s shoot down.[6]

In 1964 not only Air America pilots (forming the so-called ‘A-Team’), but also Thai volunteer pilots flew T-28s (as ‘B-Team’) and the Laotians as ‘C-Team’ which, would be much easier to explain than downed Americans.[7] The Thai ‘B-Team’ pilots flew missions under the call sign ‘Firefly’ and conducted attacks on the crucial Plain of Jars (French: Plaine des Jarres) region in north central Laos, knocking out two enemy trucks in one particular mission.[8] In June 1964 the CIA evaluated the T-28s as probably having more effect on enemy morale than otherwise, owing to the lack of RLG (Royal Lao Government) forces supporting them.[9] RLAF T-28s also flew the first missions against the Ho Chi Minh Trail in October 1964, which acted as the unofficial beginning of the later American attacks against the Ho Chi Minh Trail in December, known as BARREL ROLL.[10] Laos often featured very heavy AAA, another hazard to the T-28s, as Ted Maudlin, a former Air America pilot, related in an interview.[11] From 1964 to 1969 the RLAF flew occasional missions against targets in the Laotian panhandle, but eventually AAA became too heavy for daylight attacks.[12]

As a witness to T-28 missions in Laos, Reginald Hathorn flew with the American 23rd Tactical Air Support Squadron out of Nakhon Phanom, Thailand and coordinated air strikes in Laos as a Forward Air Controller (FAC). He provided an account of the role of RLAF T-28s in a strike mission in support of a Laotian Army base then under mortar fire from the Pathet Lao in 1968. After Hathorn had marked the intended target with unguided white phosphorus rockets, the accompanying T-28s dropped their ordnance accurately. He pointed out he could never be sure who was flying the RLAF T-28s they worked with, until this time an American voice came over the radio in contrast to the Lao or Thai pilots.[13]

Captain George Marrett, who flew USAF A-1 Skyraiders from 1968-69, summarised the war in Laos as follows:

All the ground fighting – and dying – was done by a group of mountain people known as the Hmong. Early in the war, they provided much of their air support, flying mission after mission until they died.[14]

Among the T-28 pilots produced in the American-led Water Pump training course at Udorn, Thailand were several standouts: Ly Lue and Vang Sue. According to one source, Ly Lue could be called the ‘Hans-Ulrich Rudel of the Laotian war’ about his effective bombing exploits, flying over 5,000 missions.[15] At his funeral in Long Tieng in July 1969, a Distinguished Flying Cross was placed on his casket by Colonel Tyrrell, the USAF Air Attaché for his incredible feats.[16] Vang Sue flew at least 3,000 combat missions in four years.[17] Both of these men went on to great success but like all the Hmong fliers they lived with the unfortunate reminder as fellow pilot Vang Bee recalled, ‘Hmong pilot have no limit to missions, they fly until they die.’[18] Depending on the source consulted, about 20 of the 37 total Hmong pilots survived the fighting.[19] An American who served with the Hmong called them, ‘some of the finest pilots in this world.’[20]

In 1969, during the early days of Vietnamization, Kissinger sent a memo to President Nixon advocating, among other things, more T-28s for the RLAF since he intended for them to be supported but without being able to send more evident help in the form of Thai ground units or B-52 strikes. The reliable T-28 remained the simplest way to support our ally given the existing rules of engagement.[21] In 1969, RLAF T-28s knocked out a former ad hoc guerrilla weather station captured by the enemy using bombs and napalm.[22] As an indication of the T-28 contribution in the attack role, from November to December 1969 alone Thai, Lao and Hmong pilots flew an impressive 4,629 sorties with an average of only twenty-eight T-28s available on a given day.[23]

By 1970 the Thai T-28 ‘B-Team’ pilots became redundant and were phased out since enough RLAF pilots existed for the task.[24] In 1971, an article in the Milwaukee Sentinel discussed the grim situation in Laos and ominously mentioned the likelihood that the Nixon Doctrine would not protect the small country from North Vietnam with or without more aid, with only two new ‘T-28 propeller driven bombers’ provided to the RLAF per month as replacements.[25]

Eventually, the Plain of Jars suffered so much from air attacks that it became, according to one source, ‘the most intensely bombarded place on the face of the planet’ while Laos itself was eventually hit by 2 million tonnes of bombs.[26] In 1970, John Halliday, an American C-123 “Candlestick” flare-ship pilot, described the situation supporting friendly forces at night near the Plain of Jars region:

Our flares light the area below for…our Laotian allies fighting the Pathet Lao bad guys. The light we provide…is their only security against being overrun in the dark by overwhelming enemy forces.[27]

 The situation in Laos declined during Nixon’s Vietnamization, and as a 1970 Life magazine article pointed out, ‘In the last two years the pendulum of war in Laos has been swinging harder and wider, and each wet-season dry-season offensive has mounted a little higher than before.’[28] In 1971, the NVA attacked Long Tieng and forced the T-28s based there to withdraw, while others arrived to strike at the attackers.[29] In 1972 when USAF General John Vogt, commander of Seventh Air Force, visited the base at Long Tieng he was impressed by the Hmong pilots and ‘awed.’[30] A CIA officer working with the Hmong, James Parker, Jr., described the role of Vang Pao’s pilots in 1972 as follows:

There was no politics involved, no sterile high-tech environment where the converted T-28 trainers from the Second World War were parked. It was honest warring, primitive, a throwback to combat flying in the First World War. The Hmong flyers strapped as many bombs and bullets as they could get on their planes and went out and found North Vietnamese to attack – flight after flight, hour after hour, day after day […] the major part of our close fire support was left to the T-28s.[31]

The steady attrition of Vang Pao’s CIA-backed Hmong army and the slow drawdown of American financial and material support until the 1973 ceasefire, all contributed to the sense that things looked much worse. Since the Pathet Lao and NVA had won in Laos, it was simply a matter of time until the final defeat. In 1973, in one of the coup attempts involving T-28s, after years in exile in Thailand, Laotian General Thao Ma attacked Wattay, near Vientiane, along with other loyal RLAF personnel. Shot down while landing; General Ma was soon after that executed for his part in the coup attempt.[32] Also in 1973, the USAF Ravens withdrew from Laos, which forced Vang Pao to provide his FAC ability via what T-28s were available.[33] By 1974, the CIA withdrew all support, and by 1975, Laos was overrun. Per one source, Vang Pao sent RLAF T-28s on one last attack against a Pathet Lao column even as late as April 1975, just before the collapse.[34] Further south in 1975, the Cambodian Khmer Air Force T-28s flew support for the American withdrawal from Phnom Penh, Operation EAGLE PULL, when only weeks remained for Cambodia.[35]

Header Image: A row of T-28s in Laos. (Source: USAF)

[1] Chinnery, Air Commando, p.73; Ginter, North American T-28 Trojan, pp.54-6.

[2] Interview Notes – Unknown Source – re: Joe Holden, Missions in Vietnam and Laos, ca. October 1998, Folder 01, Box 03, Jan Churchill Collection, The Vietnam Center and Archive, Texas Tech University, p.8.

[3] Conboy and Morrison, Shadow War, p.103.

[4] Anthony and Sexton, War in Northern Laos, 1954-1973, pp.109-10.

[5] Initial Debriefing of Klusmann, 02 September 1964, Folder 16, Box 13, George J. Veith Collection, The Vietnam Center and Archive, Texas Tech University, p.2.

[6] CHECO Report: U.S. Air Force Search and Rescue in Southeast Asia (1961-1966), 24 October 1966, Folder 09, Box 05, Allen Cates Collection, The Vietnam Center and Archive, Texas Tech University, p.34.

[7] Leeker, Royal Lao Air Force / Raven: North American T-28s, p.1.

[8] Conboy and Morrison, Shadow War, p.110.

[9] Current Intelligence Memorandum: Effectiveness of T-28 Strikes in Laos, 26 June 1964, Folder 14, Box 03, Douglas Pike Collection: Unit 01 – Assessment and Strategy, The Vietnam Center and Archive, Texas Tech University, pp.1-2.

[10] Conboy and Morrison, Shadow War: The CIA’s Secret War in Laos, p.121.

[11] Interview with Ted Mauldin, Undated, Ted Mauldin Collection, The Vietnam Center and Archive, Texas Tech University, pp.69-70.

[12] CHECO Reports: RLG Military Operations and Activities in the Laotian Panhandle, 01 January 1981, Folder 24, Box 01, Contemporary Historical Examination of Current Operations (CHECO) Reports of Southeast Asia (1961-1975), The Vietnam Center and Archive, Texas Tech University, p.27.

[13] Reginald Hathorn, Here There are Tigers: The Secret Air War in Laos, 1968-69 (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2008), pp.45-55.

[14] George J. Marrett, Cheating Death: Combat Air Rescues in Vietnam and Laos (New York: Harper Collins, 2006), p.25.

[15] Boyne, ‘The Plain of Jars,’ p.78; Chinnery, Air Commando, p.201.

[16] Jane Hamilton-Merritt, Tragic Mountains: The Hmong, the Americans, and the Secret Wars for Laos, 1942-1992 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999), pp.213-5.

[17] News article – ‘Meo Pilots: Flights Against the Odds,’ No Date, Folder 01, Box 01, Tom Matthews Collection, The Vietnam Center and Archive, Texas Tech University.

[18] Interview with Vang Bee, No Date, Vang Bee Collection, The Vietnam Center and Archive, Texas Tech University, p.11.

[19] Danya Hernandez, ‘Hmong Pilots Saluted in Maplewood,’ TwinCities.com Pioneer Press, June 15, 2012.

[20] Interview with Ronald Happersette Lutz, Jr., 05 November 2002, Ronald Happersette (Hap) Lutz, Jr. Collection, The Vietnam Center and Archive, Texas Tech University, p.49.

[21]Document 112 – Memorandum from the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger) to President Nixon, Sep 2, 1969,’ in Edward C. Keefer and Carolyn Yee (eds.), Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969–1976, Volume VI, Vietnam, January 1969–July 1970 (Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, 2006).

[22] Bernard C. Nalty, The War against Trucks: Aerial Interdiction in Southern Laos 1968-1972, (Washington D.C.: Air Force History and Museums Program, 2005), p.32.

[23] Anthony and Sexton, War in Northern Laos, 1954-1973, p.322.

[24] Conboy and Morrison, Shadow War: The CIA’s Secret War in Laos, p.264.

[25] Rowland Evans and Robert Novak, ‘US Aid Cut, Laos at Hanoi’s Mercy,’ Milwaukee Sentinel, September 29, 1971.

[26] Kenton Clymer, ‘The War Outside Vietnam: Cambodia and Laos,’ in Andrew Wiest (ed.), Rolling Thunder in a Gentle Land: The Vietnam War Revisited (New York: Osprey Publishing, 2006), p.106; George Herring, American’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975, (New York: McGraw-Hill Education, 2014), p.353.

[27] John T. Halliday, Flying Through Midnight (New York: St. Martin’s Paperbacks, 2005), p.62.

[28] Greenway, ‘The pendulum of war swings wider in Laos,’ pp.32-3.

[29] News Article – ‘Reds Shell Laotian Outpost,’ 17 February 1971, Folder 01, Box 01, Tom Matthews Collection, The Vietnam Center and Archive, Texas Tech University.

[30] Parker, Codename Mule, p.129.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Conboy and Morrison, Shadow War, pp.406-7.

[33] Dommen, The Indochinese Experience of the French and Americans, p.932.

[34] Conboy and Morrison, Shadow War, p.415.

[35] Albert Grandolini, Tom Cooper, and Troung, ‘Cambodia 1954-1999; Part 2.’ ACIG.org.

Supporting the Secret War: T-28s over Laos, 1964-1973 – Part 1: Training

Supporting the Secret War: T-28s over Laos, 1964-1973 – Part 1: Training

By Jeff Schultz

Editors Note: In the first of a three-part series, Jeff Schultz examines the use of the North American T-28 Trojan during the so-called Secret War in Laos during the Vietnam War. In this part, Schultz examines the aircraft’s training role.

Scant attention has been paid to the two-seat T-28 Trojan trainer (or armed versions called the ‘Nomad’), of all the aircraft associated with the Vietnam era, and its important role in Laos during the Vietnam War. The most important single aircraft for the prosecution of the ‘secret war’ was the venerable T-28, used as a light ground attack aircraft adapted for counterinsurgency (COIN) warfare.[1] The T-28 sustained this COIN effort through a variety of missions and operators, eventually becoming a nearly ubiquitous fixed-wing aircraft during the Vietnam era. Its users included the US Air Force (USAF), Air America, South Vietnam, Thailand, Laos (including the Hmong), Cambodia, and even North Vietnam.

This article chronicles the mission types flown by the T-28 in Laos over the period 1964 to 1973. According to one source, ‘Laos has been a prisoner of geography, fought over and plundered by powerful neighbors,’ and the period after the 1954 French withdrawal only confirmed this notion of geographical entrapment.[2] American involvement in Laos before 1964 included a brief period of direct participation under President Kennedy until the 1962 Geneva Accords forbade outside intervention in Laos in an attempt to create a supposedly ‘neutral’ state. While America and the Soviet Union did withdraw their forces, the same could not be said of North Vietnam. After that the United States would attempt, from the Kennedy to the Nixon years, to maintain a supposed ‘civilian only’ presence in Laos so as to not violate the accords. This meant that in practice the ambassador and the embassy acted as the American command for Laos and therefore it was not a military, but rather a civilian affair. The ambassador occupied a critical role in the future of the country, as he controlled the means to support the Lao government such as financial and military support in the form of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and other covert means.[3] As a CIA-owned subsidiary, Air America, provided a considerable portion of the aerial support for the war in Laos and in particular for the Hmong and Lao Army, in addition to search and rescue (SAR). As one source pointed out, the 1962 Geneva Accords ‘prohibit foreign military aircraft in Laos, but they say nothing about civilian planes.’[4]

‘Why the T-28?’ one might ask. The answer was simple enough: availability, simplicity and a proven record. USAF pilot Major Richard Moser flew the T-28s in his training phase and enjoyed flying the trainer he called ‘a memorable airplane’ with a ‘very classic sound.’[5] Already serving as one of the primary trainers for USAF/US Navy pilots, it operated a basic tricycle landing gear arrangement attached to a rugged airframe meant to teach trainees how to fly and could take some punishment from the fledgeling aviators.[6] Also, the airframe demonstrated its usefulness when the French used it with success as a COIN aircraft from 1961-62 during the Algerian War where they were called the T-28S ‘Fennec’.[7] T-28s also saw action as COIN aircraft in the Congo and Ethiopia against insurgents during the 1960s.[8]

Training Role

091029-f-1234o-002
A row of T-28s in Laos (Source: USAF)

The most basic mission the T-28s performed was the critical role of training new pilots, the trainee pilots sitting in the rear seat as ‘backseaters’ until they completed language and flight training phases progressing to graduation.[9] While the USAF could not openly operate in Laos per the 1962 Geneva Accords, it could do as it pleased in neighbouring Thailand. When the issue of training Lao and Thai pilots arose, the USAF did the same thing they had done in South Vietnam in late 1961, using special air warfare (SAW) personnel to ‘train foreign indigenous air force personnel in counterinsurgency operations.’[10] In South Vietnam, it was called Project FARMGATE as the Americans trained the pilots of the South Vietnamese Air Force (VNAF); the new unit set up in Thailand to train the Lao pilots used the name WATERPUMP.[11] Coincidentally, Captain Robert L. Simpson, the first American fighter pilot killed in South Vietnam, was from FARMGATE, who died when his T-28 Nomad crashed on 28 August 1962.[12] The VNAF pilots trained by FARMGATE went on to fly strike missions against the Viet Cong using American pilots and Vietnamese ‘backseaters’. In one 1962 instance, according to author Neil Sheehan, it was evident that the:

converted T-28 Trojan trainers were better than jets for this work because the pilots could dive more slowly and see better to strafe and rocket.[13]

American WATERPUMP personnel from the USAF 4400th Combat Crew Training Squadron (4400 CCTS) based at Eglin AFB, Florida made the Royal Laotian Air Force (RLAF) T-28 mission possible in Laos, but Thais and Americans flew T-28s such as Air America pilots and later the USAF ‘Raven’ forward air controllers (FACs) for some missions.[14] Another group of operators to fly the T-28s were Thai mercenary pilots, who also flew under RLAF colours but with no outward distinction as to their non-Lao identity, sometimes referred to as ‘Friendly Third World Power’.[15]

The American-backed RLAF used the T-28 as its primary strike aircraft from 1964 until its demise in 1975.[16] The Lao operated T-28s featured:

[t]hree-sided frames on the fuselage into which metal insignia plates could be slid: the Lao insignia on one side, Thai insignia on the other, or no insignia at all.[17]

It was Project WATERPUMP that turned the RLAF recruits into T-28 pilots starting in 1964, and later in 1967 Hmong were also accepted for training, which concerned some of the non-Hmong RLAF who viewed them as ‘mere savages.’[18] A RAND study from 1972 characterised the relative Lao performance in a negative light: ‘The consensus of those who have worked with them is that the Lao make poor soldiers.’[19] Combined with lacklustre leadership which lacked aggressiveness and a general inability to maintain aircraft properly, the RLAF never progressed beyond flying the propeller-driven T-28s to operating jets like the American-supported VNAF (South Vietnamese Air Force), for example, had done.[20] The RLAF gained T-28s from the VNAF after they replaced them with the larger and more robust Douglas A-1 Skyraiders in 1964.[21] Before the T-28s were available, the RLAF operated a few old WW2-era North American T-6 Texan armed trainers, which quickly demonstrated the need for a more capable strike capability to counter the Pathet Lao, as the T-6s were able to carry little ordnance to make any significant impact.[22] In the initial RLAF that flew T-6s, Thai pilots augmented the few available Lao pilots to increase the sortie rate.[23]

One man, Vang Pao, rose from relative obscurity to change the fortunes for the Meo (or the Hmong) people, an ethnic minority that did not consider themselves the same as the lowland Lao. Many of the Hmong tribesmen had never seen aircraft before the French arrived, but a few of them, such as Vang Bee, would later go on to fly T-28s. The Hmong slowly transformed into regimental-sized groups from their original guerilla warfare orientation, so powerful was the inducement of air power, which represented a watershed in the manner in which the Hmong fought.[24] During the Dien Bien Phu era, Vang Pao had witnessed what airpower could do to the Viet Minh, and that impression heavily influenced his future.[25]

Header Image: Damage caused by a communist ground attack on Luang Prabang airfield, Laos, 1967. (Source: USAF)

[1] Al Adcock, T-28 Trojan in Action (Carrollton, TX: Squadron Signal Publications, 1989), p.31.

[2] Hugh S. Greenway, ‘The pendulum of war swings wider in Laos,’ LIFE, April 3, 1970, p.34.

[3] Interview with John Webb, 1999, Wisconsin Veterans Museum Research Center, p.12; Interview with Larry Clum, 29 February 2000, Larry Clum Collection, The Vietnam Center and Archive, Texas Tech University, p.22.

[4] Richard Halloran, ‘Air America’s Civilian Façade Gives It Latitude in East Asia,’ New York Times, April 5, 1970.

[5] Interview with Richard Moser, 24 February 2006, Richard E. Moser Collection, The Vietnam Center and Archive, Texas Tech University, p.15.

[6] Steve Ginter, North American T-28 Trojan: The T-28 in Navy, Air Force and Foreign Service – Naval Fighters Number Five (Simi Valley, CA: Ginter Books, 1981), p. 29; James E. Parker, Jr., Codename Mule: Fighting the Secret War in Laos for the CIA (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1996), p.103.

[7] Adcock, T-28 Trojan in Action, pp.42-3.

[8] Ibid., p.33.

[9] Phillip D. Chinnery, Air Commando: Fifty Years of the USAF Air Commando and Special Operations Forces, 1944-1994 (New York: St. Martin’s Paperbacks, 1994), pp.201-2.

[10] Corona Harvest Waterpump 1964 – 1965: A Special Report by Captain Thomas Knox, USAF (January 1970), 1964-1965, Folder 01, Box 01, Edward H. Douglas Collection, The Vietnam Center and Archive, Texas Tech University, p.ii; Victor B. Anthony and Richard R. Sexton, War in Northern Laos, 1954-1973 (Washington DC: Center for Air Force History, 1993), p.67.

[11]  Ibid., p.67, pp.96-97.

[12] Chinnery, Air Commando, p.75.

[13] Neil Sheehan, A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam (New York: Random House, 1988), p.85.

[14] Chinnery, Air Commando, p.71; Walter J. Boyne, ‘The Plain of Jars,’ Air Force Magazine, June 1999, p.78.

[15] Roger Warner, Shooting at the Moon: the Story of America’s Clandestine War in Laos, (South Royalton, VT: Steerforth Press, 1996), p.132 and 136; Christopher Robbins, The Ravens: The Men Who Flew in America’s Secret War in Laos (New York: Crown Publishers, 1987), p.163.

[16] Joe F. Leeker, Royal Lao Air Force / Raven: North American T-28s, p.1.

[17] Roger Warner, Shooting at the Moo, p.132.

[18] Keith Quincy, Harvesting Pa Chey’s Wheat: The Hmong and America’s Secret War in Laos (GPJ Books, 2011), p.280; Anthony and Sexton, War in Northern Laos, p.259.

[19] Douglas S. Blaufarb, Organizing and Maintaining Unconventional Warfare in Laos, 1962-1970, p.47.

[20] Boyne, ‘The Plain of Jars,’ p.78; Christopher Robbins, The Ravens, pp.58-59, p.64.

[21] Chinnery, Air Commando, p.94.

[22] Anthony and Sexton, War in Northern Laos, p.37, p.40; Arthur J. Dommen, The Indochinese Experience of the French and Americans: Nationalism and Communism in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002), p.591.

[23] Kenneth Conboy and James Morrison, Shadow War: The CIA’s Secret War in Laos (Boulder: Paladin Press, 1995), p.50.

[24] Keith Quincy, Harvesting Pa Chey’s Wheat, p.279-80.

[25] Roger Warner, Shooting at the Moon, p.29.

A Case of Mistaken Identity: Colonel Edgar Stanley Gorrell – Part 3: Postscript

A Case of Mistaken Identity: Colonel Edgar Stanley Gorrell – Part 3: Postscript

By Johannes Allert

The lingering question remains as to why Edgar Gorrell is repeatedly misidentified as a stalwart advocate for strategic bombing. One clue, in particular, involves his analytical work compiled in the First World War entitled ‘The Future Role of American Bombardment Aviation.’ The plan above called for a robust air campaign aimed at German industry designed to break both German production and morale; however, the plan was shelved once Armistice was declared.[1] Withdrawing from the world’s stage, America quickly re-embraced isolationism. Yet, air strategists in their stubborn willfulness remained convinced that subsequent wars required sufficient strategies and weapons designed to mitigate problems associated with trench warfare.[2] Then, in 1935, technology and theory merged with the development of the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress and the coincidental discovery of Gorrell’s of plans by a fervent disciple of “Billy” Mitchell – Lieutenant Laurence S. Kuter, later a General. This serendipitous moment reinforced his existing argument for strategic bombing in lectures he conducted at Maxwell Army Air Base. Believing strategy and technology could transition from theory to reality, the impressionable young Lieutenant arranged a meeting with its author to verify the data. Upon arrival, Kuter was surprised to discover Gorrell invited former members of his staff to corroborate the information. To a man, each concurred that the Lieutenant’s lecture matched the original plans. Vindicated, Kuter departed for Maxwell confidently stating:

We may return to our steel desks considerably refreshed by the knowledge that our school plans and our theories are not only supported by, but [are] identical with the plans of the level headed commanders in the field when the grim realities of actual war demanded effective employment.[3]

raid_by_the_8th_air_force
A Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress during the raid on the Focke Wulf plant at Marienburg, 9 October 1943. (Source: NARA)

Overlooked in the young Lieutenant’s statement, was the slight detail involving ‘employment of effective plans’ that, in reality never occurred. Furthermore, aircrews did not fly steel desks and the advent of the Second World War revealed a savage reality of aerial combat consisting of unexpected headwinds, radio interference, dispersed targets obscured by cloud cover, and skies filled with flak and fighters. Only the arrival in late 1944 of long range Allied fighter escort in substantial numbers alleviated the bomber’s plight. Kuter simply made a mistake common to us all – he saw what he wanted to see. Gorrell and his staff merely reinforced it.

Thus, the combination of events served as the catalyst for initiating a narrow and ideologically driven agenda. History, however, reveals Gorrell’s penchant for tackling any project assigned to him by meticulous analysis and hard work. Consequently, his recognition of aviation’s vast potential resulted in expansion and development of airlift capability that far surpassed his ‘significant achievement’ of 1918. It is also interesting to note that while analysis of his bombing study receives frequent coverage, his ‘Gorrell Histories’ remains virtually untouched. This is ironic given the fact that its intended purpose was to ‘assist in establishing Army aeronautics on a sound basis for the future.’[4] Furthermore, the manner that Gorrell’s obituary was written indicates Kuter, another West Point alum, as partly responsible for crafting the legacy of the late air executive to reinforce the ‘bomber mafia’ narrative. Gorrell’s ‘mistaken identity’ simply coincided with the leading aviation proponents’ narrative. Consequently, his death combined with strategic bombing’s overwhelming consensus sufficiently prohibited others from offering a counter-narrative.

Yet, it is the development and expansion of air transportation that endures. The ability to transport and sustain forces globally on a consistent basis in peace and war for over seventy years remains an underappreciated, yet unique and critical feature of the modern U.S. Military arsenal. Whether it is airlift’s support in battle or providing humanitarian aid in peacetime, success simply cannot occur without it. Gorrell recognised this early on and, in keeping with his philosophy of constant analysis, laboured ceaselessly to improve and expand it.

Similarly, it is the task of the historian to revive and revise Gorrell’s story and contribution. Unlike proponents of strategic precision bombing, historians must instead consider the broader actions and provide a greater contextual understanding of events and individuals of human history.

Part One and Two of this article can be found here and here.

Header Image: A Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress (Source: Wikimedia)

[1] Mark Clodfelter, Beneficial Bombing: The Progressive Foundations of American Air Power, 1917-1945 (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2010), pp.22-9.

[2] James P. Tate, The Army and its Air Corps: Army Policy toward Aviation: 1919-1941 (Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University Press, 1998), pp.166-7.

[3] Clodfelter, Beneficial Bombing, pp.58-9.

[4] Edgar S. Gorrell, Gorrell’s History of the American Expeditionary Forces Air Service, 1917-19 Record Group 120 (National Archives, Washington, D.C. 1923), pp.1-4.