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Green Hornets: The History of the U.S. Air Force 20th Special Operations Squadron

by Wayne Mutza. Schiffer Publishing, Atglen, Pa., 2007, hardcover $40.95.

Wayne Mutza, a noted military aviation author, has written a tightly focused account of this renowned unit. The book is 134 pages long, of which 74 are narrative. The rest is a collection of pictures of personnel, patches and aircraft, and a listing of helicopters assigned to the squadron.

The unit was formed as an observation squadron in 1942. The next year, it deployed to the China-Burma-India Theater where it served in combat as part of the 1st Air Commando Group. Disbanded in 1945, it was later reactivated in 1956 as the 20th Helicopter Squadron and assigned Piasecki H-21s to perform general airlift support. It flew that mission out of Sewart Air Force Base, Tenn., and Myrtle Beach Air Force Base, N.C., until it was again inactivated in 1960.

The 20th Special Operations Squadron was reactivated in 1965, assigned 10 Sikorsky CH-3 helicopters and dispatched in December for combat duty in Vietnam. The CH-3s provided general support for special operations such as the “Pony Express,” and flew missions to insert and ex tract small U.S. and allied teams throughout Southeast Asia.

In 1967, the unit was also assigned 10 Bell UH-1F “Hueys.” Fitted with rocket pods and machine guns, they were able to provide very accurate close air support for the CH-3s, and the teams on the ground. The UH-1s were tagged the “Green Hornets.” Recognizing the focused mission for the unit, the USAF redesignated it as the 20th Special Operations Squadron (SOS) in August 1968, and the helicopters were upgraded to the UH-1P model.

The following year, the 20th lost its CH- 3s when they were reassigned to the 21st SOS, which was located in Thailand and operated in North and Central Laos. The UH- 1s, however, continued to provide direct support to special operations units of MACV-SOG, operating in South Vietnam, Cambodia and southern Laos. The author provides several riveting vignettes including the story of the mission for which Captain Jim Fleming was awarded the Medal of Honor. In 1970, the 20th received new UH- 1N helicopters to replace its older UH-1Ps. The 20th continued with its mission in Southeast Asia until the unit was again inactivated in March 1972.

Four years later, the 20th was reactivated for a second time. Once again assigned a mix of CH-3s and UH-1N, it reassumed its role in the special operations realm.

The 20th received a major realignment in 1980. After the failure of the Iranian hostage rescue mission, the unit was assigned nine highly modified HH-53 “Pave Low” helicopters, designated to be the primary lift aircraft for a second rescue attempt. The attempt was canceled, but the HH-53s stayed in the unit.

The Pave Low aircraft were equipped with sophisticated navigation and avionics equipment that allowed them to fly with precision at night and in all weather conditions. When the Air Force Special Operations Command was later created, the CH-3s and UH-1Ns that had continued to operate with the 20th were reassigned, and the unit received several more “Pave Low” aircraft, now designated the MH-53. The 20th subsequently saw heavy action in Operation Just Cause, Operation Desert Storm, Bosnia, and in ongoing operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and other places.

Mutza’s narrative throughout the book is rich and lively. He focuses on operations, and very effectively uses the participants’ own words to tell the story. His account of the Vietnam era contains very detailed data. The later vignettes are much thinner, though, because much of the history has yet to be declassified. Nevertheless, the author does an outstanding job of capturing the history of the 20th SOS. As he so ably shows, the “Green Hornets” have earned their place in aviation history.


Originally published in the June 2008 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.