Imphal, The Hump and Beyond
U.S.A.A.F. Combat Cargo Groups of the Second World War
1st Air Commando Group Beginings
| It was December 23, 1941 when the
first Japanese warplanes attacked the Burmese port of Rangoon. It wasnt 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 Burmas 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. Stillwells 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 wasnt 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 its 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 radios 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 wasnt long before Wingate and his LRP columns were forced to terminate their operations in Burma and withdraw back to India. Widgets 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-47s, 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 Caniffs Terry and the Pirates comic strip). The second was Lt. Col. John R Alsion, an Ace who had flown with Major General Claire L. Chennaults 23rd 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-47s 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-1s 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 3rd 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-47s and the balance of Wingates 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, Wingates 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 Wingates Chindit's 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.
Bill Bielauskas Feb 2001 © 2001
References: Any Time, Any Place by Philip D. Chinnery 1984
WWII Air Commandos Volume II 1994
Official History of the 159th Liaison Squadron Commando
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