News>95-year-old Air Commando legend shares history with today's special operators
Retired Air Force Maj. Gen. John Alison (left), deputy commander of the 1st Air Commando Group in 1943, is greeted by Maj. Brian Strang (right), Headquarters Air Force Special Operations Command, after the general's presentation at the U.S. Air Force Special Operations School at Hurlburt Field May 6. General Alison shared with the auditorium filled with today's Air Commandos his experience participating in Operation Thursday, during which the 1st ACG alongside the British "Chindits" penetrated deep behind Japanese lines and conducting the first nighttime airfield seizure. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Jason Epley)
Retired Air Force Maj. Gen. John Alison signs a photo displayed in the Air Force Special Operations Command headquarters building, dedicating the photo "in memory of my good friend, Phil Cochran." The 96-year-old general is recognized as the first Air Commando, who, at the personal request of Gen. Henry "Hap" Arnold, helped Col. Cochran plan and execute Operation Thursday, a mission during which the Air Commandos alongside the British "Chindits" penetrated deep behind Japanese lines and conducted the first nighttime airfield seizure. (U.S. Air Force photo/Lt. Gen. Donald Wurster)
Retired Air Force Maj. Gen. John Alison (front center), recognized as one of the the first Air Commandos in World War II, participates in a tour of the Hurlburt Field airpark May 7, 2008, escorted by Lt. Gen. Donald Wurster (left), commander of Air Force Special Operations Command. The 95-year-old general was hand-picked by Gen. Henry "Hap" Arnold to help plan and execute Operation Thursday, an air campaign to support British ground troops in Burma in 1943. (U.S. Air Force photo/Capt. Robert Lyons)
Retired Air Force Maj. Gen. John Alison, deputy commander of the 1st Air Commando Group in 1943, recounts for an audience gathered at the U.S. Air Force Special Operations School at Hurlburt Field May 6, his experiences standing up the outfit in the China-Burma-India theater during World War II. Alongside the British commandos, called the ?Chindits,? the 1st ACG executed Operation Thursday on March 5, 1943, penetrating deep behind Japanese lines and conducting the first nighttime airfield seizure. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Jason Epley)
by 1st Lt. Amy Cooper
Air Force Special Operations Command public affairs
5/9/2008 - HURLBURT FIELD, Fla. -- One of the founding Air Commandos visited the U.S. Air Force Special Operations School here May 6 and recounted for today's Airmen his experiences operating during World War II in the China-Burma-India theater.
Retired Air Force Maj. Gen. John Alison, deputy commander of the 1st Air Commando Group in 1943 told the audience of special operators gathered in a building named in honor of the general what it was like being a part of the covert operations in Asia.
"I don't think that very many people understand the importance of that war (in the China-Burma-India theater) and how the Japanese were defeated," said the 95-year-old general. "Politically, this campaign was tremendously important to the outcome of the war."
Before helping to establish the 1st ACG, General Alison was a decorated fighter pilot. He shared a story about a dogfight he experienced in his P-40 against Japanese KI-21 bombers.
During the engagement, where he took on three of the bombers, his aircraft was riddled with bullets from the enemy's 7.6 mm machine guns, piercing his radio, propeller, parachute and seat.
But General Alison didn't pay much attention to the damage his P-40 was taking.
"There I was, just fat, dumb and happy, not knowing what was going on," the general said.
He successfully shot down all three bombers, but due to his aircraft's damage, he couldn't land at the base. Instead, he landed in a river in China where he was pulled to safety by a villager.
He admits his moves were risky, but the adrenaline was pumping on what was his first of many combat missions.
"I should have known better...I was so excited and didn't want him to get away, so I went full out and didn't realize how fast I was going," he said.
He went on to become an ace with six confirmed aerial victories during World War II.
In 1943, Gen. Henry "Hap" Arnold, head of the Army Air Forces, hand-picked then-colonel Alison as the co-commander of the 1st Air Commando Group. However, he and long-time friend Col. Philip Cochran, who was also picked as co-commander by General Arnold, decided that instead of co-commanding, Colonel Cochran would be the commander and General Alison would be the deputy. In that assignment, the team set the foundation for what would 50 years later become Air Force Special Operations Command.
Alongside the British commandos, called the "Chindits," the 1st ACG executed Operation Thursday on March 5, 1943, penetrating deep behind Japanese lines and conducting the first nighttime airfield seizure.
The group's arsenal of airplanes, which was just as diverse as AFSOC's fleet today, totaled 348 and included CG-4A troop gliders, P-51A Mustang fighters, C-47 "Gooney Bird" transports and B-25 Mitchell bombers. General Alison piloted one of the first gliders that arrived at the landing area, known as Broadway.
After the operation, the 1st ACG continued to perform resupply, rescue and other support missions for the Chindits.
Another significant achievement of the 1st ACG was the incorporation of the first helicopters, the YR-4, in combat, for which General Alison was personally responsible. He admits that convincing leadership to give him the six helicopters, "wasn't easy."
Frank Gregory, the helicopter program manager, repeatedly told General Alison that the helicopter was under powered and not ready for operations. Eventually, the general convinced him.
"I told Frank to give me the helicopters," said General Alison. "He said 'over my dead body.' So I said, 'Frank, lay down.'"
After overcoming some turbulence getting the helicopters into theater - one was lost when the aircraft carrying crashed, another flew into telephone wires and another was delivered without its tail rotor, which was later found - four of the six helicopters saw combat operations.
However, General Alison admits that the program manager was right, and that the new technology wasn't quite ready for combat when the 1st ACG acquired it.
One problem, he pointed out, was that they didn't have enough range to get all the way to the target. The solution: the helicopter would stop half way and the pilot would get out with a gas can and refuel. But that introduced additional obstacles.
"The minute he landed, the Burmese began running toward the aircraft," he said. "But we anticipated that."
While the pilot refueled, he would be protected overhead by P-51s - an early version of close air support.
The hot jungle climate also proved difficult for the helicopters.
"In hot weather, it was very difficult to get off (the ground) with a heavy load," General Alison said. "I was told about one instance when the pilot kept bouncing the helicopter, and he finally bounced it up and got it airborne."
Even though the general estimates that the helicopters only lifted about 20 people to safety, he says that just putting it in action at all was significant.
"The helicopter saga was very interesting, because it proved as bad as they were and as inadequate as they were, they could still be used in combat operations," he said. "And that was the beginning of the great helicopter operation forces that you see today."
When asked how he felt about starting an organization that used gliders and C-47s that has since morphed into an Air Force major command with more than 14,000 people, it's the command's helicopters that impress him the most.
"When I look at the helicopters you're using, and now at the stage of retiring because they are so old, and when I think that I commanded the first outfit that took helicopters into combat, I don't think of myself as being that old, but I guess I am," he joked. "Technologically so much has happened in a very short time, and it's amazing."
Although the technology has changed greatly and the words of the Air Commando slogan have changed slightly over the years, General Alison believes that it's the young Airmen who will win the fight against today's enemies.
"As a first generation Air Commando, I would like to be able to tell the men today how to do their job, but I can't," the humble general said. "They know more about what they do than I do. But the thing that makes a difference...is the Air Commando slogan, 'Any where, any place, any time.' That's the kind of attitude that contributes substantially to the morale of the troops when they go into battle.
"I have great confidence in the military, the young military in particular," General Alison said. "We've got something that's really worth fighting for. If our young people don't lose their spirit and enthusiasm, and I don't think they will, in the long run, we will be victorious."