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Patrick J. Charles
As I noted in my article on the history of the Air Force Song, in the summer of 1942, Robert Crawford’s “Army Air Corps Song” was at the peak of its popularity.1 Only “White Cliffs of Dover,” “Praise the Lord,” “When the Lights Go on Again,” and the “Star Spangled Banner” were more popular in the “war tunes” category.2 Building off that popularity, Mildred A. Yount, the head of Army Air Corps Song Committee, received General Henry “Hap” Arnold’s permission to publish a book, which would contain several widely known Army flying songs—some as far back as 1922. Titled Air Force Airs, nestled in between “L’Armee DC L’Air Corps” and “The Bombardier Song” is the forgotten and virtually unknown song “The Air Commandos.”3 Composed by Captain W.N. Dekker, written by Colonel Reed G. Landis, and arranged by 1940s bandleader Frankie Carle, the song’s lyrics describe how with “Paratroops and Gliders with hearts like knights of old,” the “air commandos” will “build a front and then another front and tear the foe apart.”4
At first glance, the lyrics seem to describe the events of Operation THURSDAY, where from March 5, 1944 through March 6, 1944, the 1st Air Commando Group (1 ACG), commanded by Colonels Philip G. Cochran and John R. Alison, successfully executed a joint air invasion of Burma as part of larger Allied plan to push back the Japanese forces in the China-Burma-India Theater, and reestablish an Allied land route between India and China. In carrying out the operation, the 1 ACG utilized gliders to land a specialized invasion force deep inside Japanese-occupied territory—a force tasked with establishing an expeditionary airfield, known as Broadway, to land follow-on specialized ground forces, aircraft, and military supplies, all with the objective of disrupting the Japanese military’s infrastructure and lines of communication. And this innovative use of air power, which at the time was a military first, has prompted many historians to designate Operation THURSDAY as the birth of air-centric special operations—that is, a reliance on specialized air power and tactics to carry out military operations.5
The story of Operation THURSDAY is one of special operations legend. It is a story that generally starts with a late August 1943 meeting between General Arnold and Colonels Cochran and Alison. Therein, according to several historical retellings, Arnold recruited Cochran and Alison to lead a joint operation behind Japanese lines. Additionally, Arnold vested Cochran and Alison with broad authorities to assemble and recruit an air-centric special operations force initially known as Project 9, and later be renamed the 1 ACG. Simply put, according to these historical retellings, Cochran and Alison were the principal architects of the air-centric special operations concept that would be forever memorialized as Operation THURSDAY.6
For more than half-a-century, this historical account was accepted by the special operations community as true. However, upon my close examination of the evidentiary record, it became clear that this longstanding historical account overlooked two key facts—facts that undermine the claim that Cochran and Alison were the architects of air-centric special operations.7 First and foremost, as the papers of General Arnold convincingly show, the concept of air-centric special operations was not developed ad hoc by Cochran and Alison in late 1943. Rather, it was thoughtfully devised by Major General George C. Kenney as early as May 1942, and subsequently endorsed and improved upon by Arnold himself.8 Second, not only did Arnold endorse Kenney’s air-centric special operations concept, he formally approved it.9 In a July 17, 1942 press release, Arnold publicly announced the formation of the 1st Troop Carrier Command (1 TCC), consisting of an “air commando force”:
This air-borne attack force does not give us an instantaneous or cheap solution to our war problem. Its creation is calling for a stupendous effort. The time when it will attain its full power is still a long way off…Glider pilots and air-borne combat troops will be in the forefront of attacks…The importance of these swiftly moving combat teams cannot be overestimated. This will be a self-contained force whose soldiers, equipment and supplies are all transported by air. It will be able and trained to strike the enemy where he is least prepared. Although many details must be kept secret concerning its exact size, composition, tactics, objectives, and when and where it will strike it can now be revealed that in size, equipment and fire power the air-borne army ultimately will exceed anything the world has yet seen.10
Despite the perceived flare of Arnold’s Air Commando announcement, the newly formed 1 TCC was in reality nothing more than a reorganization of what had been Air Transport Command—a command that just one month prior had been reorganized out of what was previously known as Ferrying Command.11 And given that both Air Transport Command and Ferrying Command had been tasked with the transporting of military personnel, freight, and mail to the battle front, this remained a key mission of the 1 TCC.12 Where the 1 TCC operationally distinguished itself from its organizational predecessors was the 1 TCC’s additional mission of creating an Air Commando force—a force that would “provide for the air movement of air-landing troops, glider-borne troops, parachute troops and their equipment, evacuation of the wounded, and the resupplying of ground units when required.13 The 1 TCC’s motto was “he conquers who gets there first,” and Arnold surmised that the command’s battlefield employment possibilities were “limited only by the imagination of the theater commander…14
Commandos” song may read as a description of Operation THURSDAY, the song was in fact the product of 1 TCC, which further cements that the initial development of air-centric special operations did not being with Cochran and Alison. Rather, it began with the 1 TCC.
The fact that Cochran and Alison did not initially develop the air-centric special operations concept is not to historically suggest that their contributions are irrelevant. Far from it. In fact, without Cochran’s and Alison’s operational fortitude and adaptability it is unlikely that the air-centric special operations proof of concept would ever have been realized, at least not by the close of World War II. Additionally, it is fair to say that Cochran and Alison were essential in modifying and adapting several 1 TCC Air Commando capabilities to not only fit the operational needs of British Major General Wingate, but also to expand the proverbial operational box.19 Cochran’s and Alison’s forward-thinking use of helicopters to evacuate several wounded service members is a great case in point.
However, with that said, the historical evidence is clear and convincing that the 1 TCC was at the forefront in developing air-centric special operations tactics, techniques, and procedures well before Arnold, Cochran, and Alison met to discuss Project 9 in late August 1943.20 The 1 TCC’s development of glider capabilities—particularly to build “airheads” behind enemy lines—proves this. So too does the 1 TCC’s training and utilization of airborne engineer aviation units—units that were principally designed to enable air-centric special operations following the force’s initial “vertical envelopment” through the creation and maintenance of “temporary airfields and runways in undeveloped areas.” This in turn provided “a place where men and material could be landed” and “the wounded evacuated…”21 Lastly, there is the 1 TCC’s development of light plane capabilities, which in hindsight proved crucial to the 1 ACG later executing Operation THURSDAY.22
In addition to being at the forefront of air-centric special operations tactics, techniques, and procedures, following Operation THURSDAY, the 1 TCC was tasked by General Arnold with producing two Air Commando squadrons. The 317th Troop Carrier Squadron (317 TCS) was produced by the 1 TCC specifically for the 2nd Air Commando Group (2 ACG). Similarly, the 318th Troop Carrier Squadron (318 TCS) was produced by the 1 TCC specifically for the 3rd Air Commando Group (3 ACG).23
The historical point to be made is simply this—the 1 TCC was crucial to the development of air-centric special operations, and without the 1 TCC it is highly unlikely Operation THURSDAY would have come to fruition. It is a historical finding that corrects my earlier, 2017 assessment that the 1 TCC Air Commandos failed to meet General Arnold’s challenge in creating an air-centric special operations force.24 The 1 TCC did in fact meet the challenge, with Colonels Cochran and Alison adapting and modifying it to operational execution. And it is a historical correction that came about by simply stumbling across a song titled “The Air Commandos.”
In closing, it is worth noting that the Air Force Historical Research Agency (AFHRA) is the sole repository for the original 1 TCC unit histories that shed light on this important historical development. AFHRA is also the sole repository of the original 1 ACG histories. In addition to a copy of “The Air Commandos” song appearing in the 1943 book Air Force Airs, Penn State University Special Collections was kind to provide AFHRA a copy of the score as it was sold to the general public. The score is contained within Fred Waring Scores Collection, wherein there is also Waring’s different instrument renditions of the song. In total 22 music instrument renditions are contained within, including that of piano, guitar, saxophone, bass, and violin.
1 Mildred A. Yount, History of the Official Army Air Corps Song (Maxwell AFB, AL: 1946), 14-16.
2 John Desmond, “Tin Pan Alley Seeks the Song,” New York Times, June 6, 1943, pp. SM14.
3 Air Force Airs (Washington, DC: Army Air Forces Aid Society, 1943), 7-11.
5 For some historical accounts of Operation THURSDAY, see Simon Anglim, Orde Wingate and the British Army, 1922-1944 (New York, NY: Pickering and Chatto, 2010), 175-212; William T. Y’Blood, Air Commandos Against Japan: Allied Special Operations in World War II Burma (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2008), 88-120; Herbert A. Mason, Jr., Randy G. Bergeron, and James A. Renfrow, Jr., Operation THURSDAY: Birth of the Air Commandos (Maxwell AFB, AL: Air Force History and Museums Program, 1994), 1-44; David Rooney, Wingate and the Chindits: Redressing the Balance (London, UK: Arms and Armour Press, 1994), 102-44.
6 This telling of the story is principally derived from historical interviews conducted nearly three decades after the operation. See Colonel Philip G. Cochran, interview by Dr. James C. Hasdorff, 20–21 October and 11 November 1975, USAF Oral History Collection, Air Force Historical Research Agency (AFHRA), Maxwell Air Force Base, Montgomery, Alabama; John R. Alison, interview by Kenneth Leish, July 1960, reel number K1213, AFHRA; Major General John R. Alison, interview by Major Scottie S. Thompson, 22–28 April 1979, USAF Oral History Collection.
7 See generally Patrick J. Charles, “Dissecting the Origins of Air-Centric Special Operations Theory,” Journal of Military History 81 (July 2017): 803-28.
8 Ibid., 814-15.
9 Ibid., 815.
10 General Arnold’s Air Commando press release appeared in newspapers across the country. See, e.g., “U.S. Air Commandos Prepare for New Offensive Actions,” Lock Haven Express (PA), July 21, 1942, p. 3; “Air Commandos Set to Strike Enemy Where Least Prepared,” Oakland Times (CA), July 18, 1942, p. 3; United Press, “Army Forms Corps of Air Commandos,” New York Times, July 18, 1942, p. 6.
11 Brief History of the I Troop Carrier Command from April 30, 1942 to April 20, 1943 (Maxwell AFB, AL: AFHRA, 1943), 1.
13 “Brief Outline of Facts and Functions of I Troop Carrier Command,” December 7, 1942, Brief History of the I Troop Carrier Command, Exhibit B. See also Historical Data: I Troop Carrier Command from Activation to June 30, 1942 (Maxwell AFB, AL: AFHRA, 1942), 1.
15 See, e.g., Fred S. Borum, “Here Come the Airborne Troops!” Air Force Magazine, February 1943, pp. 8-9; “Air Commandos and Pilots for Air Borne Command to be Trained at Local Base,” Alliance Times and Herald (NE), November 3, 1942, p. 1; Donald E. Keyhoe, “This Week: Commandos on Wings,” Indianapolis Star (IN), November 1, 1942, p. 10; “Ships for Our Air Commandos,” Popular Science, October 1942, pp. 70-72; “Army Glider Pilot Training Program,” US Air Services Magazine, July 1942, pp. 15, 46; “Glider ‘Commandos of Air’ Training at U. of Detroit,” Detroit Free Press (MI), August 23, 1942, p. 5; “39 Texans in Glider Group,” Fort Worth Star-Telegram (TX), August 10, 1942, p. 7; Frank L. Nelson, “U.S. Winged Army, Once a Dream, Now a Reality,” U.S. Air Services Magazine, August 1942, pp. 11-12, 38; “New Glider-Pickup May Be Used by Air Commandos,” Alton Evening Telegraph (IL), July 29, 1942, p. 2.
16 See generally Army Air Forces, I Troop Carrier Command Glider Program, vol. 1 (Maxwell AFB: AFHRA, 1945).
17 Ibid., 3.
18 “The Air Commandos” song was composed by Colonel Landis and Captain Dekker sometime before August 28, 1942. See “Plans Made for Community Sing at War Memorial,” Indianapolis News (IN), August 28, 1942, p. 24 (noting the singing of the song at Stout Field). See also “Waring to Salute Del Valle Air Base,” Austin American (TX), January 4, 1943, p. 7 (noting the popularity of the song among the 1 TCC glider corps).
19 Charles, “Dissecting the Origins of Air-Centric Special Operations Theory,” p. 828.
20 See, e.g., William D. Old, “TCC Front-Line Teamsters,” Flying Magazine, January 1946, p. 28, 102 (noting that the 1 TCC was in part responsible for training and equipping “Cochran’s First Air Commando Group); H.B. Dickson, “Our Troop Carriers in Burma,” Air Force Magazine, June 1944, pp. 4-5 (noting the 1 TCC’s contributions in the China-Burma-India Theater and Operation THURSDAY).
21 1st Troop Carrier Command, Special Projects of I Troop Carrier Command: The Training of Airborne Engineer Aviation Battalions within I Troop Carrier Command (Maxwell AFB, AL: AFHRA, 1945), 7.
22 See generally 1st Troop Carrier Command, Special Projects of I Troop Carrier Command: Provisional Troop Carrier Group (Light) (Air Cavalry) (Maxwell AFB, AL: AFHRA, 1945).
23 1st Troop Carrier Command, The Training of Troop Carrier Air Echelons (Maxwell AFB, AL: AFHRA, 1946), Appendix I.
24 Charles, “Dissecting the Origins of Air-Centric Special Operations Theory,” p. 828.
A grayscale emblem of the Troop Carrier Command depicting a stylized condor clutching in its dexter claw a Paratrooper carrying a "tommy" gun, ready for action. On the scroll: Vincit Qui Primum Gerit (He conquers who gets there first).
Poster advertising free "Airborne Attack" demonstration at Stout Field by the Troop Carrier Command, AAF; Army Ground Forces; and Airborne Infantry.
Poster advertising free "Airborne Attack" demonstration In Indianapolis, Indiana, 29 April 1945, by the Troop Carrier Command, AAF; Army Ground Forces; and Airborne Infantry.
"Bayonet Fighter with Wings" by Alexander Seydenfrost