An array of specialized units took on some of the war’s most dangerous missions

The United States counted heavily on technology to overcome the large numbers of communist soldiers and guerrilla fighters in its defense of the Republic of Vietnam. This applied particularly to the U.S. Air Force, whose unofficial presence presaged the United States’ formal introduction of ground combat troops on March 8,1965, and whose last combat missions were flown after the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975.

The years in between saw a wide variety of special operations conducted by highly skilled units of the Air Force.

  • A UH-1 Huey of the 20th Special Operations Squadron, the “Green Hornets,” is being readied to take a reconnaissance team into enemy territory. / U.S. Air Force
  • Active U.S. involvement in Indochina began with Operation Farm Gate. The U.S. Air Force instructed South Vietnamese Air Force personnel on “counterinsurgency training flights” using these Vietnamese-marked T-28D Nomads in 1962. / U.S. Air Force
  • A B-26K Counter Invader has just dropped bombs during Operation Farm Gate. / U.S. Air Force
  • The crewmen of a 20th Special Operations Squadron Huey, on alert at Thieu Atar, near the border of Laos, have to cook chow and stow their belongings into the baggage compartmeon short notice. / U.S. Air Force
  • A recon photograph shows the devastation of bomb drops on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. / U.S. Air Force
  • Fairchild C-123 transports in South Vietnamese air force markings fly a supply mission. C-123s also sprayed toxic chemicals to kill vegetation that fed and hid the enemy. / U.S. Air Force
  • Two Douglas A-1H Skyraiders from the 6th Special Operations Squadron escort a Sikorsky HH-3E Jolly Green Giant rescue helicopter over the Gulf of Tonkin in 1969. / U.S. Air Force
  • A crew member peers through the gun sight in a Douglas AC-47D “Spooky” gunship in 1969. / U.S. Air Force
  • The AC-130H “Spectre,” here in the 6th SOS, had a battery of cannons that made it deadlier than the AC-47. / U.S. Air Force
  • Airman 1st Class John Levitow, whose actions saved crewman aboard an AC-47, received the Medal of Honor. Only 14 Air Force Medals of Honor were awarded in Vietnam—more than half to Special Operations Command airmen. / U.S. Air Force
  • A Helio U-10 Courier of the 5th Special Operations Squadron drops leaflets over Viet Cong positions in 1966. / Getty Images
  • Seismic sensors that can detect ground motion were dropped on the Ho Chi Minh trail to transmit information on enemy activity. / U.S. Air Force
  • The QU-22 aircraft picked up signals from ground sensors and relayed them to an air base surveillance center. / U.S. Air Force
  • A pararescue man (in helmet and wetsuit) guides Marines to a 21st Special Operations Squadron CH-53 Super Jolly Green Giant, during the rescue of the cargo ship Mayaguez on May 15, 1975. / U.S. Air Force

The first such unit was the 4400th Combat Crew Training Squadron, formed on Oct.1, 1961, in response to the activation of the South Vietnamese National Liberation Front, or Viet Cong, in 1960. Equipped with 16 B-26 Intruder bombers, armed T-28 Trojan trainers and SC-47 transports, the “Jungle Jim” squadron’s task, dubbed Operation Farm Gate, was ostensibly to train pilots for South Vietnam’s air force.

In practice, anyone from the already-qualified Col. Nguyen Cao Ky, a future vice president, to an available South Vietnamese soldier sat behind the American pilot with standing orders of “don’t touch anything.” From its first “training” mission on Dec. 19, 1961, to July 28, 1963, when the pretense was dropped and the unit was redesignated the 1st Air Commando Squadron, the 4400th Squadron provided effective close support for the Army of the Republic of Vietnam.

In spring 1964 the 1st Air Commando was reequipped with A-1E Skyraider attack aircraft packed with guns and bombs. By then the American commitment in Vietnam was steadily rising and with it came proliferation in Air Force special units adapting to the various challenges of a most unconventional war. V

This article appeared in the December 2021 issue of Vietnam magazine. For more stories from Vietnam magazine, subscribe and visit us on Facebook.