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Air Force Special Operations History

A "Rich Legacy"

High over Nazi-occupied France, an all-black B-24 Liberator plowed through the night. Homing on a beacon from Resistance fighters on the ground, the Liberator approached its intended drop zone. The crew intended to sneak in and sneak out, but all eyes were alert for muzzle flashes that would reveal they’d been spotted. At exactly the right moment, the Liberator opened its bomb bay and disgorged its cargo – not bombs but human beings, Allied secret agents being deposited surreptitiously behind the lines.

Not long ago, the Secretary of the Air Force told airmen in special operations units that they “represent a rich legacy of service to our nation.”

Special Operations airmen fight like no one else, depositing Green Beret teams in the enemy’s back yard, aiming gunfire from orbiting gunships, using aviation as a tool to disrupt an enemy’s command, control, and communications.

When the lone B-17 made an unscheduled stop at a North Africa base, GIs were surprised to see a motley gaggle of folk in non-regulation attire with no insignia of rank. Those who began the special operations tradition had no need for formality. They knew each other. That was enough.

Today, their tools are digital, their techniques polished, and their mission after Afghanistan an accepted part of the nation’s work. But the “rich legacy” began amid manual typewriters, vacuum tubes, and sputtering piston engines.

The first true special operations sortie took place Dec. 24, 1942, when two C-47 Skytrain transports dropped paratroopers behind German lines to blow up the El Djem Bridge in Tunisia. Pilot of the first Skytrain was Lt. Col. Philip G. “Flip” Cochran, a fighter pilot who’d strafed the bridge and knew it well. As German troops closed in on them, the paratroopers set off their charges, then trekked 110 miles across the desert to friendly lines. Only eight made it; the rest were either killed or captured, but the bridge went down. Cochran was soon to reappear in the world of unorthodox air action.

In mid-1943, the Army Air Forces were ordered to develop a behind-the-lines capability to support the clandestine warfare efforts of the Office of Strategic Services. In October 1943, the 5th Bombardment Wing in North Africa launched a mission in what may have been the first special operations airplane, a modified B-17 Flying Fortress bomber.

As they settled into their work, these men became flaky and irreverent compared to the spit-and-polish traditional military. When the lone B-17 made an unscheduled stop at a North Africa base, GIs were surprised to see a motley gaggle of folk in non-regulation attire with no insignia of rank. Those who began the special operations tradition had no need for formality. They knew each other. That was enough.

“Carpetbaggers”

In November 1943, although it had no bombers to spare, the AAF yanked the 492nd Bombardment Group from daylight missions, moved the group to a new base at Harrington, England, and gave it a new job. Col. Clifford J. Heflin’s unit became known as the “Carpetbaggers.”

Carpetbagger Lib and crew

A Carpetbagger crew in front of their gloss black-painted B-24 Liberator. National Archives

Heflin’s airmen dropped agents and resupplied resistance forces. The 492nd was directed not by the military chain of command but by the OSS. With nose guns removed and a new paint coat of gloss black, B-24 Liberators with names like Baby Bug II and Tiger’s Revenge flew 2,809 sorties to drop agents and supplies. Although their war was in Europe, the Carpetbaggers sent one B-24 to Myitkyina, Burma to explore the possibility of supporting clandestine operations there.

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Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...