Today’s Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) had their beginnings in the jungles of Burma during World War II. There, the upstart 1st Air Commando Group waged an unconventional and unorthodox war against the Japanese, often operating behind enemy lines. The Air Commandos were an irreverent, unruly band of mavericks who cared little for the spit and polish of military life but fought courageously. They operated independently of the rest of the military chain of command and felt free to introduce new ideas to warfare – among them, a new kind of flying machine called the helicopter, one of which would perform the world’s first helicopter rescue.
In 1943, when new pilot 2nd Lt. Carter Harman and a few others accepted an unusual assignment to the Sikorsky plant in Stratford, Conn., the new craft was being routinely called a “whirlybird” or an “eggbeater.” Harman learned to fly one of the newfangled machines, called the YR-4B, and then took it halfway around the world to Burma.
The Air Commandos’ chance to test the new machine came when Tech. Sgt. Ed Hladovcak, the intrepid sergeant-pilot known as Murphy (“Do you see anybody around here who knows how to pronounce Hladovcak?”) crashed in an L-1 Vigilant liaison plane, along with three British soldiers.
Hladovcak and the trio of His Majesty’s soldiers were miles behind Japanese lines. Another liaison plane, an L-5 Sentinel, pinpointed their location but could not land in vegetated terrain crisscrossed by paddy fields. Harman and his crew chief, Sgt. Jim Phelan, were 500 miles away in India when they received the message: “Send the eggbeater in.” The R-4 would have to carry extra gas and would be able to lift only one survivor at a time.
A Vultee L-1 Vigilant like the one that went down in Burma, making it necessary to launch the Air Commandos’ Sikorsky R-4 Hoverfly on its rescue mission. Robert F. Dorr Collection photo
It was the sort of thing these early, special ops airmen were good at. Independent, untidy, at times arrogant, and commanded by a mere colonel who answered only to Washington – Philip “Flip” Cochran, the real-life model for Terry and the Pirates – the Air Commandos constituted the personal air force of Brigadier Orde C. Wingate, the unorthodox British commander in the CBI. Their tools were the P-51A Mustang fighter, B-25 Mitchell bombers packing a 75 mm cannon in the nose, the L-5 Sentinel liaison aircraft, the Waco CG-4A glider, the trusty C-47 Skytrain and, now, the R-4.
“There was a small group of us, three pilots and half a dozen crew chiefs and others, including Jim Phelan, and this new gadget called a helicopter was pretty interesting. Sikorsky acted as a training school and graduated the first class of Army Air Forces helicopter pilots. In October 1943, I became the seventh Army pilot ever to solo a helicopter.”
Upstarts who would have failed a white-glove inspection were the norm among the Air Commandos. “Irreverent?” asked Col. Fleming Johnson, an Air Commando veteran: “Hell, we were damn near insubordinate half the time. We wouldn’t have shined on anybody’s parade ground. We weren’t good at snapping salutes or saying, ‘sir.’ And regular Army officers didn’t understand that we were different.” In fact, Cochran, Johnson, and the other Air Commandos were more than different: They were the point of the spear.
The L-1 Vigilant crash took place on April 21, 1944. “Maybe the L-1 had been flying too low,” Hladovcak acknowledged later. “Who was to say? The L-1 was a sturdy aircraft used for operations behind Japanese lines. It performed well. But when my L-1 went down in a rice paddy, an embankment caught the plane’s fixed landing gear and snapped it off, ending any prospect of that particular L-1 ever flying again.”