Operation Thursday continued.
Cochran and Alison, old friends, realized that two equal heads of the unit would not work. They agreed that, for administrative purposes, Cochran would be the commander and Alison his deputy. In practice, the two had such a close and harmonious working relationship that decisions made by one were automatically endorsed by the other. Project 9 would experience five name changes, including Project CA 281, followed by the 5318th Provisional Unit (Air), then the Number 1 Air Commando Force, and finally the 1st Air Commando Group (the name they received during operations in Burma).
They compiled a list of their needs and used their broad authority with a vengeance. For troop transport, they requisitioned 13 C-47s, 100 CG-4A Waco gliders, and 25 TG-5 training gliders. For casualty evacuation, they obtained a combined total of 100 Vultee L-1 Vigilant and Stinson L-5 Sentinels. For fighter cover, 30 North American P-51 Mustangs were acquired, and after some extraordinary wrangling that included intervention by Harry Hopkins, President Roosevelt’s special assistant, so were four Sikorsky YR-4 helicopters. Later, in India, the Air Commandos would be augmented with 12 B-25 Mitchell medium bombers.
Given the unique status of Project 9, Cochran and Alison only wanted volunteers. Thanks to their extensive contacts, they were able to contact the type of people in the Air Corps who they felt could get the job done. No person interviewed was told where he would be going or what the mission would be. He was only told that it would involve combat, that it would last six months, and that he should not expect a promotion. A total of 87 officers and 436 enlisted men, including former child actor Jackie Coogan, accepted the mysterious offer, and on Oct. 1, 1943, began an intensive training program in North Carolina. Two months later, the unit was in India training with the Chindits.
On March 5, 1944, Cochran, now a full “bird” colonel, announced to his men, “Nothing you’ve ever done, nothing you’re ever going to do, counts now. Only the next few hours. Tonight you are going to find your souls.” Operation Thursday, part of the most complex and innovative combined operations action of World War II prior to Operation Overlord, was on. Operation Thursday was part of British Gen. William Slim’s strategic response to Operation U-Go, the planned Japanese invasion of India. Slim’s two-month campaign was the first to combine tactical air support at every level (1st Air Commandos) with the extensive and far-flung ground operations (Chindits) conducted deep behind enemy lines. This support included air interdiction, transport, supply, medical evacuation, and reinforcements. Such assistance was critical for the Chindits’ success because distance and terrain isolated many of the Chindit units, making the Air Commandos the only means of logistic and combat support readily available.
Initially in Operation Thursday, the Air Commandos would land a glider force of Chindits, engineers, and supplies that included bulldozers and pack animals at two jungle clearings deep behind enemy lines code named “Broadway” and “Piccadilly.” The engineers would develop these clearings into air strips that would be utilized for the duration of the campaign. Gliders would be lifted off the airstrips using the new “snatch” technique, in which a hook attached to the end of a boom that extended from a C-47 Dakota flying 20 feet above the ground would grab a glider’s tow rope that had been suspended in a frame about 12 feet off the ground. As the campaign commenced, this boom and hook system would also be used to disrupt Japanese communications. Low-flying planes would snare telephone and telegraph lines, sometimes uprooting the poles as well. A last-minute aerial photoreconnaissance of Piccadilly revealed that it was littered with fallen logs, making it a deathtrap for gliders. Thus all gliders were ordered to land at Broadway. Alison, now a colonel, led the Air Commandos on the mission and was in the second glider that landed. The men in the gliders discovered, too late, that Broadway had numerous natural obstacles as well, and landing gliders slewed in ground filled with ruts or struck tree stumps that ripped off undercarriages.