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World: The Peanut Air Force

3 minute read

While McNamara was calling for additional U.S. muscle, something of an uproar developed over how the U.S. has been fighting the air war in South Viet Nam. News dispatches from Viet Nam reported that at least two American pilots had died when the wings of their prop-driven T-28 planes ripped off. In Washington, Chairman Carl Vinson of the House Armed Services Committee demanded an explanation from McNamara of whether the U.S. had been using obsolescent aircraft.

The Air Force has indeed operated a mixed-bag of aging airplanes in the war —most notably the T28, originally built in 1949 as a trainer, and the B26, a twin-engine World War II bomber originally designated the A26. About 100 of these planes were sent in after the U.S. entered Viet Nam in earnest in 1961, chiefly because 1) owing to slow speeds and short turning radii, they could be adapted to the close-support missions needed in counterguerrilla warfare, and 2) they were available.

Probably the most accurate explanation of why they were there was offered last week by an Air Force colonel in Saigon: “We looked around for the first things we could lay hands on, and there was a bunch of stockpiled B-26s and T-28s, so we shipped them off to Viet Nam. After that, it was a combination of necessity to make do with what you’ve got and Pentagon lethargy.”

Mme. Nhu Cocktails. While the Army’s ubiquitous helicopters have won most of the glory, “the Peanut Air Force,” as pilots wryly call it, compiled its own respectable record, plastering the Viet Cong with everything from bombs to “Mme. Nhu cocktails” (napalm mixed with charcoal). The Air Force claims that it has accounted for 35% of Viet Cong casualties.

The fact remains that the 28s and 26s, even though beefed-up for combat, were ill-prepared to take the beating of a drawn-out war in Viet Nam—and were kept too long. Many of the T-28s were flown 4,000 hours or more; a B-26 once returned riddled by 40 bullet holes, was back in the air two days later. When Viet Cong firepower increased, so did the stresses on the motley fleet’s wings—already loaded down with armament—as pilots pulled up more abruptly from attack dives. Last week Air Force Secretary Eugene Zuckert conceded that “structural failure may have been a contributing factor” in the crashes of three T-28s. The Air Force also announced that Viet Nam’s entire squadron of B-26s was phased out, ending last month, after a B-26 lost a wing last February during a strafing exhibition at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., killing its two crewmen.

Belated Beef-Up. Last week Pentagon sources revealed that around 50 sturdier Douglas Skyraider dive bombers have already been shipped to Viet Nam and that 75 more would arrive by the end of the summer—to replace both the B-26s and the remaining combat T-28s. Though also a prop-driven World War II craft, the Skyraider is a much more powerful warplane and almost twice as fast as the B26. Armed with 20-mm. cannon, Skyraiders distinguished themselves in Korea for their close support of the Marines. But the improvement is belated. As to the question, “Why not jets?”, Air Force men insist that slower planes are better for Viet Nam’s kind of jungle war.

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