Project 9 arrives in the China-Burma-India theater

  • Published
  • By W. Keith Alexander
  • 1st Special Operations Wing Historian Office
Starting with the Dec. 7, 1941, surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese forces advanced throughout the Pacific. Within weeks after the Pearl Harbor attack, Japan had captured Guam, Wake Island, Hong Kong, Malaya, Thailand, French Indochina, and the Dutch East Indies. More importantly, they also started an operation toward the conquest of the Philippines, while renewing their efforts to defeat China. For example, on Dec. 23 of that year, Japanese troops attacked Burma, located between China and India. Allied leaders worried that Japan would use Burma to isolate and defeat China. Furthermore, allied commanders recognized Japan could use Burma as a platform for invading India, while expanding their hold in Asia. In order to prevent Japan from isolating China and invading India, the allies decided to fight the Japanese in Burma. 

From December 1941 to May 1942, the allies relied on conventional forces in Burma. British Maj. Gen. William T. Slim commanded a force that included several British infantry battalions, as well as Indian, Chinese and Burmese troops. Poorly equipped and trained, General Slim's Army was no match for Lt. Gen. Skojir Iida's 15th Army, which used the Burma jungles to move behind General Slim's troops. Once behind General Slim's forces, General Iida's soldiers established road blocks and ambush sites. These tactics allowed the Japanese to defeat General Slim's army, resulting in his force to withdraw into India during May 1942. 

Next, the allies conducted irregular warfare against the Japanese in Burma. In February 1943, Brig. Gen. Orde C. Wingate's "Chindits" infiltrated behind Japanese lines, where they launched attacks. Although they enjoyed some success, there were problems such as resupplying troops, which prevented General Wingate's command from inflicting more damage upon the Japanese Army. General Wingate's limited success prompted the formation of a top secret special force called Project 9. 

After months of meetings and planning, General Henry H. "Hap" Arnold, the commanding officer of the United States Army Air Forces, approved Project 9 in the fall of 1943. Colonel Philip G. Cochran commanded Project 9, which was a force numbering 523 volunteer soldiers and 348 aircraft. This tiny force included the following aircraft: 150 troop gliders (CG-4A), 100 light planes (L-1 and L-5), 30 P-51A fighters, 25 training gliders (TG-5), 13 large transports (C-47), 12 small transports (UC-64), 12 bombers (B-25H), and six helicopters (YR-4). Colonel Cochran created a force capable of flying the "Chindits" into hasty developed airfields in the Burma jungles. Once there, these aircraft conducted re-supply missions and evacuation of the wounded. In addition to those missions, Colonel Cochran's command was capable of conducting airland and airdrops, providing close air support, shooting down Japanese fighters in the sky, and bombing enemy positions. Project 9 represented the birth of the Air Commando. In fact, Project 9 is the predecessor of the modern day 1st Special Operations Wing. 

During early October 1943, Colonel Cochran's command started arriving at Seymour Johnson Field and Raleigh-Durham, N.C. The Colonel assigned his fighters and gliders to Seymour Johnson Field, while he placed the light planes at Raleigh-Durham. While in North Carolina, the command conducted training for the fighters, gliders, and transports. Furthermore, the Colonel's command continued to collect the necessary equipment for operating behind enemy lines. Colonel Cochran's unit believed they had 45 days or more for training since their projected departure date was Dec. 15, 1943. However, their departure schedule was accelerated to early November 1943, forcing the command to discontinue its training program. 

For movement around the world, Project 9 was split into sections. On Nov. 3 1943, Colonel Cochran left Miami, Fla. Accompanied by a small advance party, Colonel Cochran's team flew from Miami to Puerto Rico, then on to Karachi, India, now part of modern day Pakistan. 

Meanwhile, Lt. Col. John R. Alison, the command's deputy officer, remained in the United States, where he oversaw the movement of the main body. Project 9 transported most of their aircraft and supplies by sea. Crews strapped the P-51s to the decks, while the gliders, light aircraft, and helicopters were broken down and crated in the cargo hulls. The heavy transport aircraft, the C-47 Dakotas flew a similar route as Colonel Cochran. All of the aircraft were sent to Karachi, except for the gliders, which were shipped to Calcutta. Amazingly, these ships managed to navigate the Pacific unmolested by Japan's Navy. 

When Colonel Cochran arrived in India, he began scouting for bases from which to conduct operations. His first task was to establish a headquarters for his unit, which was re-designated as the 5318 Provision Unit (Air) (5318 PAU). He established his headquarters at the Malir Airfield, near Karachi. Next, Colonel Cochran arranged to use Karachi Airport's dirigible hangars for storing and reassembling his aircraft. Then, he secured stone barracks for housing the men when they arrived in December 1943.
In the meantime, the ships started delivering the aircraft during mid-December 1943. In East India, for instance, most of the gliders reached Calcutta. There, they were reassembled, and towed to their bases at Assam. One Hadrian glider was sent accidentally to Karachi, where it was assembled, and also towed to Assam with the other gliders. Not all the aircraft arrived in operational condition. Two shipments of P-51A Mustangs were damaged by storms and saltwater corrosion. Nevertheless, the maintenance crews worked around the clock preparing each aircraft for duty. Finally, the crew painted the aircraft with "five white diagonal stripes banding the fuselage, aft of the cockpit." This act symbolized the unit's movement toward achieving a combat readiness status. 

On Christmas Eve, Colonel Cochran, Colonel Alison, and a small party flew to Northeast India, where they examined several possible bases for operational use against the Japanese. At Lalagahat and Hailakandi, this party found primitive settings. First, the grass airfields were in poor conditions, and the living quarters consisted of basha huts, which were made from bamboo. Despite the flaws, these two bases had several positive points. For example, the two bases were located within 10 miles of each other. Next, the grass runways were easy to extend. When the engineers finished lengthening the runways, Lalagahat was 6,300 feet long, while Hailakandi was 4,500 feet long. In addition to the work on the runways, the engineers built or oversaw the building of new roads, ammunition depots, drainage ditches and living quarters. Colonel Cochran placed the transports and gliders at Lalagaht. In addition, he placed the fighters and light airplane, as well as the medical unit at Hailakandi. 

Within weeks of their arrival in the CBI, Colonel Cochran's unit was operating from two bases, which included conducting training with their Chindit counterparts.