Operation Thursday: Air Commandos get their start

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  • By Jamie Haig
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Sixty-two years ago, the forerunner of the 16th Special Operations Wing got a fast start in making history. 

On March 5, 1944, the U.S. Army Air Forces top secret program, Project 9, went into action. 

According to the study “Operation Thursday – Birth of the Air Commandos” — written by Herbert Mason Jr., Air Force Special Operations Command historian and former historians, Staff Sgt. Randy Bergeron and Tech. Sgt. James Renfrow Jr. — Operation Thursday was the code name of the first-ever U.S. military air invasion. The mission was to drop men, equipment, mules and supplies behind enemy lines in support of British commandos fighting against the Japanese in World War II. 

The British were having problems with the Japanese in the China-Burma-India theater of operations. Gen. Henry “Hap” Arnold met with British Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten in August 1943 to discuss possible American air support of the British commando expeditions. 

At the end of the meeting, General Arnold asked Lt. Col. Philip Cochran and Lt. Col. John Alison to come up with a self-reliant force in support of British Brig. Gen. Orde Wingate and his ‘Chindits’ for long-range penetrations into Burma. 

General Arnold had envisioned a special air unit that would transport forces into northern Burma, land in a jungle clearing and build an airstrip. From there, other planes could bring in troops and supplies to create a stronghold from which to attack the Japanese.
His vision became reality. 

Three sites were selected and given code names Piccadilly, Broadway and Chowringhee. The sites were chosen because they were in inaccessible areas, better to avoid Japanese ground troops and airplanes since the sorties were to be flown at night.
Colonels Alison and Cochran contemplated the type of aircraft that would be needed for this incursion. The Chindits used pack mules to carry equipment and supplies in the jungles, but mules couldn’t be parachuted. The colonels came up with the idea to use cargo gliders, which could hold 4,000 pounds of equipment, towed by C-47s. 

The plan was relatively simple. 

The first wave of gliders was to land troops to secure the area. A second wave would land more troops, American engineers and equipment to build an airstrip. Once the airfields were constructed, the C-47s could bring in the remaining troops, supplies and equipment needed. 

But, the operation needed the right men to complete the task.
Colonels Alison and Cochran were allowed to recruit anyone they wanted, so they chose experienced pilots and senior enlisted men. Most of the recruits possessed more than one skill. 

When Colonel Alison had everyone assembled in the training center, he told them he needed volunteers for a dangerous job and he couldn’t tell them what the mission was or where they were going — only that it would be very hazardous. 

The response was so overwhelming that he had to turn people away. With the exception of Alison and Cochran, all 523 men in the special unit were volunteers. 

It took months of intense training and planning to get the operation ready. 

The day of the first launch, a reconnaissance plane was sent out to photograph the three sites. The photographs showed that Piccadilly had been blocked with tree trunks covering the landing area. 

Unsure whether the site had been discovered by the Japanese, they aborted the use of Piccadilly. Broad-way still showed clear, so all 80 gliders were directed there. 

Before the mission started, Colonel Cochran told the British-American forces “Nothing you’ve ever done, nothing you’re ever going to do, counts now. Only the next few hours. Tonight you are going to find your souls.” 

At 6:12 p.m., the first two heavily-loaded gliders lifted off behind the C-47s. Colonel Alison was a pilot in one of the first gliders. 

They arrived over the landing area and it looked different than in the aerial photos. The area was obstructed with various debris, some trees and holes. 

Since only two radio sets were used that first night, and only to transmit the code words that would abort or continue the mission, the incoming pilots couldn’t be forewarned of the dangers. 

When the gliders landed, they were to be pushed out of the way of the next incoming aircraft. Due to the problems with the landing site, several gliders did crash, making it impossible to move them. 

Colonel Alison finally radioed the abort code which enabled Colonel Cochran to recall the remaining gliders to base. 

At dawn, Colonel Alison performed a battle damage assessment. Examining the wreckage from the gliders, he determined that while only three gliders were intact, the rest were repairable. 

Colonel Alison radioed back to base to advise Colonel Cochran of the situation.
Since the site hadn’t been attacked, as the code word had indicated, Colonel Cochran sent in light planes to evacuate the wounded. 

Construction of the landing strip began immediately even though the commander of the construction unit was one of 23 men killed the previous night. 

The engineers employed every available man and built the landing strip. That evening, another wave of six planes took off for Broadway and by the end of the evening, 55 of the C-47s had reached the site and more than 100 sorties had been flown. 

On March 6-7, 12 gliders were flown to the second site, Chowringhee, to set up the landing strip. 

The glider containing the bulldozer had crashed and another one from the Broadway site had to be flown in. 

Upon completion of the landing strip at Chowringhee, General Win-gate visited both of the areas. He was concerned about the location of Chowringhee in relation to the enemy. He ceased further operations from this location, ordering that all flights go through Broadway. The day after the site was abandoned – the Japanese had discovered and destroyed Chowringhee. 

By March 11, 9,052 troops, 175 horses, 1,283 mules and 509,083 pounds of supplies had been delivered successfully. 

After six days and nights, Operation Thursday officially ended as planned and Project 9 officially became the 1st Air Commandos Group. 

In less than a week, two British long-range patrol units were deep behind enemy lines without the knowledge of the Japanese. That was the beginning of the end for the Japanese communication lines and supplies. 

By creating the 1st Air Commandos Group, General Arnold showed American air power in a new light. 

One British commander stated “Please be assured that we will go with your boys any place, any time, anywhere.” 

The 1st Air Commando Group was the ‘first’ in several areas of military thinking and that practice continues today.