In Fly By Knights: Air Force A/B/RB-26 Air Commando Missions in the Vietnam War (McFarland, 290 pp. $39.95, paper; $17.99, Kindle) retired USAF Col. Roger Graham, with help from fellow Air Force flyers, has constructed a roller-coaster ride of stories about daring feats, successes and screw-ups, unimaginable events, close calls, and losses.
The book’s stories come from 35 Air Commandos (and three family members) in parallel with Graham’s account of the aircraft’s evolution from B-26B to A-26A. He interviewed pilots, navigator/copilots, maintenance and armament personnel, and civilian contractors. The men all expressed positive attitudes about the war and their role in it.
The Air Commandos took part in three Vietnam War operations: Farm Gate at Bien Hoa Air Base in South Vietnam from 1961-64, and Big Eagle and Nimrod (Hunter) at Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Base, 1966-1969. From 1964-66 Operation Farm Gate’s B-26s proved to be too old for their task.
The B-26 had excelled in World War II and Korea, and its availability led planners to use those light bombers for close air support and interdiction missions for the “Secret War” in Laos. After 1963-64 incidents in which three B-26Bs lost a wing during low-level pull-ups, headquarters grounded the plane.
Long before that happened, the aircraft had problems. It lacked up-to-date instrumentation. Systems frequently failed. Repairs depended on cannibalization because spare parts seldom were available.
The ancient war plane’s unpredictability grew almost humorous. As an old armorer put it: “The B Model was a maintenance nightmare. It would be just sitting on the ramp with no one around and suddenly decide to start dropping bombs on the ramp.”
Many Air Force units had flown the planes in many different roles and no two planes were alike. Some, for example, had been flown in support of the French at Dien Bien Phu. Despite those handicaps, B-26 crewmen rightfully exuded pride in flying them.
Convinced it was still the best machine for the task, the Air Force corrected the aircraft’s wing spar failures by having On Mark Engineering Company convert 40 B-26s to B-26Ks. Innovative technical and aerodynamic designs brought the airplane up to modern standards.
With the new B-26Ks, the Commandos eagerly deployed to Nakhon Phanom in 1966. Focused on interdicting the Ho Chi Minh Trail, they destroyed or damaged more trucks than anyone else. They operated under the Nimrod call sign, but the plane’s designation was changed to A-26 for political purposes. Those flyers, too, found exceptional satisfaction in their mission and unit camaraderie. Increasingly intense and accurate North Vietnamese Army antiaircraft artillery eventually drove the A-26s from Laos.
Fly By Knights contains unit rosters, squadron history documents, and heart-touching reflections on war by members of flyers’ families. The well-written history documents provide insights on truck interdiction tactics.
Roger D. Graham is a 1963 U.S. Air Force Academy graduate, and served on active duty as a navigator-bombardier and a judge advocate. As an editor, he definitely gets the most from other people’s stories.