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The 318th Troop Carrier Squadron: 80 years of special operations service

  • Published
  • By Capt. Nicholas Nowland
  • 318th Special Operations Squadron

Throughout World War II, Allied forces in the Pacific theater heavily depended on the logistical support of Allied troop carrier squadrons: evacuating casualties, transporting troops and delivering supplies to forward areas. From October 1944 until its deactivation in 1946, the 3rd Air Commando Group’s (ACG) 318th Troop Carrier Squadron (TCS) did just that, providing unfailing service to the joint and allied force depending on them. Unbeknownst to the men of the 318th TCS, their actions would lay the foundation for modern aviation operations in Air Force Special Operations Command’s 27th Special Operations Wing at Cannon Air Force Base, New Mexico.

Like the 318th TCS, the 27th SOW traces its history back over 80 years to the early days of American involvement in World War II. In 1941-1942, Airmen from the 27th Bombardment Group found themselves trapped without aircraft by invading Imperial Japanese forces in the Bataan Peninsula. In desperate need of infantry, the U.S. Army converted this group into the 1st Provisional Air Corps Regiment (PACR), the first and only combat infantry unit in U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) history. The 1st PACR, given the moniker “The Steadfast Line” for their battlefield effectiveness, had no previous ties to the 318th TCS, but the two units’ histories would soon become intertwined.

On October 1, 1943, the USAAF activated the 443rd Troop Carrier Group at Sedalia Army Airfield, Missouri, which would become Whiteman AFB in 1955. One of the squadrons in this new group was the 310th TCS, which was re-designated as the 318th TCS on May 10, 1944. The 318th TCS was then assigned to the 3rd ACG, a composite unit comprised of two P-51 squadrons, a Liaison Squadron flying L-5 spotter aircraft, and the 318th TCS flying C-47 transport aircraft and CG-4A gliders. The 318th TCS’ service with the 3rd ACG would establish it as one of the two original Air Commando squadrons designated by General Hap Arnold, USAAF commanding general.

The activation of the 318th TCS could not have come sooner. By late October 1944, Allied forces were engaged in a titanic and brutal campaign against the Imperial Japanese military in the Philippines, leaving an immense need for Allied airmen to fly missions ranging from transporting supplies to providing close air support. The 318th TCS was ready for the task, and they would eventually return to the same area the 1st PACR had so tenaciously defended years earlier. The 318th TCS would assist the Allies in avenging their defeat and ensuing cruel treatment at the hands of the Imperial Japanese.

Thus, it was with immense excitement and a touch of trepidation that on October 11, 1944, the squadron launched 16 C-47s west toward the setting sun and awaiting combat in the Pacific. The squadron’s ground personnel followed suit on November 7, shipping off to war from San Francisco harbor. Of the approximately 80 Airmen who departed the U.S., 13 would never return to its shores, dying at the hands of enemy fire, the ravages of tropical diseases or the mist-shrouded peaks of the Philippines.

The squadron air and ground echelons regrouped in early January 1945 on Leyte, the Filipino island where General Douglas MacArthur made his famous return months prior. The 318th TCS immediately began flying missions and moving supplies, combat troops and wounded soldiers to enable the Allied offensive grinding through Leyte. The 318th TCS eventually moved to an airfield in Mindoro, another island in the Philippine archipelago, digging hasty fighting positions as protection against occasional Imperial Japanese “Betty” bomber attacks. From Mindoro, the squadron took on more demanding missions, dropping supplies to frontline Filipino guerrillas and U.S. Army soldiers. These operations were complicated by treacherous mountains, narrow valleys, squalid weather, intense turbulence, enemy anti-aircraft fire and tiny drop zones (DZs) that required flawless dead reckoning navigation to find. Often, the DZs were so small and in such hellacious terrain that crews would be forced to fly multiple passes to release their entire cargo load.

In addition to these airdrops, the squadron also ran a routine shuttle to Clark Air Base, Philippines, ferrying supplies and wounded soldiers. These combined missions kept the 318th TCS consistently busy, requiring its men to fly approximately 12 hours daily. While the aviators flew, the ground support personnel, consolidated into the “Engineering” section, did heroic work keeping the aircraft flying. They labored around the clock in the tropical heat, mud and mosquitos to ensure the squadron could continue executing its missions. Although they received little recognition, their grit, endurance and skill enabled the 318th TCS to fly 75% of its aircraft every day, a sortie rate that would make a modern maintenance officer’s eyes water. A U.S. Army Inspector General report in late 1944 noted that “the 318th Engineering seems to do a very fine job with very little outside help.”

Unfortunately, the U.S. Army had little use for the 318th TCS glider pilots, driving them to volunteer to transition to the L-5 Liaison Squadron. The initial group of transitioning glider pilots performed so well that the Liaison Squadron commander requested that all remaining 318th TCS glider pilots transfer to his squadron. These pilots became proto-Forward Area Controllers for infantry units, flying “low and slow” over ongoing battles to direct airstrikes on enemy positions and evacuate casualties. Their combat performance earned them recognition from both their fellow aviators and the infantrymen they supported.

In February 1945, with the help of the 318th TCS, the Allies recaptured Bataan Peninsula, recovering the land the 1st PACR and its Filipino allies had fought so resolutely to hold at the outset of the war. Although the 318th TCS had not been a part of the original Steadfast Line, it would eventually join the Bataan defenders’ modern 27th SOW successors as the 318th Special Operations Squadron (SOS).

By late June 1945, the Allies had successfully retaken the Philippines, causing the 318th TCS to be assigned elsewhere in the Pacific before eventually being based in northern Japan until the end of the war. The squadron was deactivated in 1946, but its legacy did not end there. The U.S. Air Force would reactivate the unit as the 318th SOS from 1971-1974 to fly unconventional MC-130 operations in Vietnam, then finally reactivate it again in May 2008 as an AFSOC Nonstandard Aviation Squadron. Today, the 318th SOS flies the U-28A Draco, providing fixed-wing tactical Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance support to conventional and special operations missions, search and rescue, and humanitarian operations around the world.

The modern 318th SOS is defined and molded by its proud heritage of service across Asia. For over two years, the men of the 318th TCS embodied the Air Commando mindset: training, flying, enduring and sometimes dying together. From the squadron’s origins at a dusty Missouri field in October 1943, to its dissolution in the frigid mountains of a defeated Imperial Japan in October 1945, the men of the 318th TCS established themselves as one of the most effective troop carrier squadrons in the Pacific theater. Their reputation for aggressiveness, flexibility and technical expertise are traits the 318th SOS continues to value and impress on its members. Just as the 318th TCS carried forward the heroic legacy forged by the 1st PACR in Bataan, today’s 318th SOS is proud to stand shoulder to shoulder with the rest of The Steadfast Line to execute unconventional airpower, any place, any time, anywhere.