The United States established the Military Assistance Advisory Group-Indochina in Saigon in 1950, to assist the French in combating Ho Chi Minh’s attempt to drive them out. After the French withdrew from Southeast Asia in 1954, US advisors remained to help South Vietnam in its continuing conflict with the North. Direct US participation in the war began the first year of the Kennedy Administration. The President and his staff were convinced that counterinsurgency or guerrilla warfare was the correct strategy against infiltration from the North.
In April 1961, USAF established the 4400th Combat Crew Training Squadron (“Jungle Jim”) at Hurlburt Field, Fla., to develop counterinsurgency tactics and train air commandos. The first detachment, code named Farm Gate, consisting of eight armed T-28s, four RB-26s, and four SC-47s, arrived in South Vietnam in November and December 1961. Its mission was to train South Vietnamese Air Force (VNAF) crews and to support Vietnamese Army (ARVN) Special Forces by air-landing and air-dropping at more than 20 remote locations.
Farm Gate crews were forbidden to fly combat missions unless accompanied by VNAF personnel “in training.” That restriction often was honored more in the breach than in the observance, especially by the SC-47 crews, for whom any warm VNAF body would do. The rule was lightly enforced, sometimes with tongue in cheek. On one occasion, four Farm Gate pilots in two T-28s helped break up a Viet Cong night attack. The pilots were commended for their initiative and reprimanded for flying combat with no VNAF crewmen aboard.
This story is about the Farm Gate SC-47s, of which there were never more than seven. The SC-47 was a beefed-up version of the reliable “Gooney Bird.” Like all C-47 variants, it was heavy on the controls, slow to respond, and tough to land in a crosswind–a bird that wasn’t designed for short-field operations. Nevertheless, the strips to which the SC-47s were dispatched were short–generally around 2,500 feet–narrow, rough, and often surrounded by tall trees. Since there were few navigation aids at that time, most flights to remote Mekong Delta and jungle strips were made under a liberal interpretation of visual flight rules. It was a tough, demanding environment with a seven-day work week, but Farm Gate men were imbued with the commando spirit.
Few Farm Gate missions could be considered routine. One on the night of July 20, 1963, definitely was not. An SC-47, Extol Pink, on ground alert at Bien Hoa took off before midnight on a flare mission over the Delta. Along with Capt. Warren P. Tomsett were Capts. John R. Ordemann and Donald R. Mack, TSgt. Edsol P. Inlow, and SSgts. Jack E. Morgan and Frank C. Barrett. Two hours later, the operations center at Saigon radioed Tomsett, asking if he would attempt a pickup of badly wounded ARVN soldiers at Loc Ninh, a jungle strip along the Cambodian border. Tomsett and his crew agreed to give it a try. They knew the strip, which was limited to daylight use. A pronounced hump rose in the middle of the runway, with tall trees at both ends.
Loc Ninh had no navigation aids or lights. Finding it in the jungle on a dark night would be a major achievement. The ARVN troops had soaked strips of paper in gasoline and ignited them, dimly outlining the landing area. On his first try, Captain Tomsett came in too high, but on a second attempt, full flaps, power off, he made it over the trees and, despite a crosswind, kept the SC-47 on the narrow runway. Six ARVN soldiers were hastily brought aboard with an American Special Forces medical advisor to care for them. Small-arms fire came from both sides of the strip, but the aircraft was not hit.
Takeoff with a load of fuel would have been a challenge under the best conditions. As the aircraft began to roll down the dark strip, its instrument panel lights went out. A crew member lit the panel as best he could with a pocket flashlight, while enemy fire continued to search for the darkened plane. Over the hump in the middle of the runway and down the reverse side lumbered the heavy transport. Captain Tomsett horsed back the control column. With engines screaming at full power, the plane barely cleared the trees at the end of the runway. After that, the flight to Bien Hoa was a breather they all needed.
On July 9, 1964, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Curtis LeMay awarded the crew of Extol Pink the Mackay Trophy for the most meritorious flight of 1963 by an Air Force pilot or crew. Six Farm Gate air commandos thus joined the roll of Mackay Trophy recipients that includes Hap Arnold, Eddie Rickenbacker, Jimmy Doolittle, Ira Eaker, and Chuck Yeager–distinguished company for a distinguished crew.
Published October 1993. For presentation on this web site, some Valor articles have been amended for accuracy.