Week of September 3
On September 5, 1961, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara informed the service secretaries that he planned to establish a new command, under the Military Assistance Advisory Group, Vietnam, that would experiment with counterinsurgency and anti-guerrilla tactics in Southeast Asia. As part of this new command, John F. Kennedy ordered the air commandos of the 4400th Combat Crew Training Squadron to deploy to Vietnam. The 4400th was an elite unit of volunteers, often better known by their nickname, "Jungle Jim".
As the Cold War with the Soviet Union and China heated up with the so-called proxy wars of the 1950s and 1960s, the Kennedy administration directed the military to devote significant time and resources toward developing improved special and clandestine warfare capabilities. "Jungle Jim" became part of the Air Force's expanding counterinsurgency effort.
The 155 Airmen of the 4400th who went to Vietnam in 1961 were codenamed FARM GATE. Because the United States was not yet openly involved in the war, the 4400th's official mission was to train South Vietnamese air force pilots to fly reconnaissance, combat, and ground support sorties using bombs, machine guns, and rockets. They primarily did this using World-War-II-vintage planes. FARM GATE aircraft included C-47 Skytrains, B-26 Marauders, T-28 Trojans, and a few A-1 Skyraiders.
Despite their official role as trainers only, the American pilots soon began flying combat missions themselves. To disguise their missions as training flights, they flew South Vietnamese planes and carried South Vietnamese personnel aboard, making it possible to deny direct U.S. participation if they crashed in enemy territory.
The air commandos of the 4400th Combat Crew Training Squadron were all volunteers, and they were elite pilots. They flew from remote locations and primitive runways made of dirt or sod. Most of their missions involved striking Communist insurgents along the Hồ Chí Minh Trail and other sites of significant Việt Cộng activity (which was on the rise in 1961), especially in the rugged Central Highlands. FARM GATE Airmen also supported South Vietnamese ground troops with airlift, air support, and reconnaissance sorties.1
1Robert F. Futrell, The United States Air Force in Southeast Asia: The Advisory Years to 1965 (Washington DC, Office of Air Force History, 1981) 63-134; David J. Dean, "The USAF in Low-Intensity Conflict: The Special Air Warfare Center," in Air University Review, Jan-Feb 1985 (http://www.airpower.maxwell.af.mil/airchronicles/aureview/1985/jan-feb/dean.html; accessed 3/9/14); Jacob Van Staaveren, The United States Air Force in Southeast Asia: Interdiction in Southern Laos, 1960-1968 (Wash. DC, Center for Air Force History: 1993), 6, 19; John Schlight, A War Too Long: The USAF in Southeast Asia, 1961-1975 (Wash. DC, Air Force History and Museum Program: 1996), 5-6; Spencer C. Tucker, ed., The Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War: A Political, Social, and Military History (2nd edition; Santa Barbara, Ca.: ABC-CLIO, 2011), 204. James H. Willbanks, Vietnam War: The Essential Reference Guide (Santa Barbara: ABC CLIO, 2013), 55-56.