Birth of the Air Commandos

Colonels Allison and Cochran confer with British General Orde Wingate in India before Operation THURSDAY. Wingate’s concept of long-range penetration (LRP) proved to be successful when coupled with the capabilities of the 1 ACG. The ability to rapidly insert supplies, equipment, and fresh troops, as well as evacuate wounded was a major factor in the success of the Burma operations.

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Colonels Cochran (l) and Allison (c) discuss an upcoming mission with Lt Col Arvid Olson (r), 1 ACG operations officer. Because of the relatively small size of the pre-World War II Air Corps, Colonels Cochran and Allison were able to choose individuals whom they knew to fill key spots on their force. Note the five diagonal stripes painted on the P-51 "Mustang" in the background. All of the 1 ACG aircraft had these distinctive markings representing the original five sections: fighters, light aircraft, transport, gliders, and bombers.

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General Henry H. (Hap) Arnold coined the term "Air Commando" in early 1944. This term referred to a group of Air Corps personnel established in India to support British long-range penetration forces in Burma. Its lineage began with the highly secret Project 9, the organizing and recruiting stages in the United States. Project 9 became the 5318th Provisional Group (Air) in India, which airlifted British General Orde Wingate's Special Forces into Burma during Operation THURSDAY in March 1944. Before the end of the month, it had changed, in name only, to the 1st Air Commando Group (1 ACG). The men of this all-volunteer unit established the high standards of innovation, ingenuity, courage, and resourcefulness to which air commandos have looked ever since.

General Arnold selected Lieutenant Colonels Philip G. Cochran and John R. Allison to develop this radically new concept and unique application of airpower. Could airpower infiltrate, supply, maintain, and exfiltrate a sizeable ground force in the jungles deep behind enemy lines? Their unorthodox tactics proved highly successful, and laid the foundation and provided the justification for special operations refinements beginning in 1961.

The air commando force consisted of C-47 and UC-64 transports, P-51 fighters, L-1 and L-5 utility aircraft, CG-4A and TG-5 gliders, B-25 bombers, and six YR-4 helicopters (two were destroyed enroute). One of these new helicopters executed a combat rescue and is credited with the first combat use of a helicopter. The high priority given Project 9 allowed them to obtain four helicopters for combat evaluation. From a weak but successful beginning, the helicopter evolved into the proven weapons systems of Vietnam.

The variety of aircraft in this small command, the 5318th and then the 1 ACG, was unprecedented at the time. It wasn't until the 1990s when the Air Force began officially organizing composite wings consisting of more than one type of aircraft to meet the anticipated challenges of a changing world. However, the air commandos in Burma, the air commandos of the 1 SOW in the 1960s, and the Air Force special operations forces up through the present day, have operated a composite force and operated it very effectively.