Douglas A/B-26 Invader

The A-26 and the cold war

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Douglas Invader light bombers from 1948 to 1969
Concentrating on strategic bombing, not close support of ground forces, the USAF had built no light bombers after the war, and had even dropped the A designation for attack bombers in June 1948, changing the Douglas Invader from A-26 to B-26. Many were relegated to non-combat duties, like 152 A-26Cs that in 1945-1947 became the Navy's JD-l and JD-1D unarmed target-towing and drone-control planes, redesignated UB-26J and DB-26J in 1962. 

Surplus Invaders left over after World War II appeared in many countries around the world involved in Cold War rivalries. The first of these exports resulted from the Truman Doctrine opposing Soviet pressure on Turkey, which inspired the transfer of 45 B-26s to the Turkish Air Force, beginning in March 1948.

The unexpected war begun in Korea on June 25, 1950, confronted America with the need for immediate support of ground troops. While the small North Korean air force was easily demolished soon after fighting began, stronger ground forces were not routed until September. North Korea was defeated in three months, but China entered the war in October, extending that war to a 37-month stalemate.

When war began, there were 1,054 B-26s in the USAF inventory. All were in reserve units or storage except for 26 B-26Bs in Japan with the 3rd Bombardment Wing (Light), and 46 RB-26C night reconnaissance aircraft serving with Tactical Reconnaissance wings (TRW).

The 3rd Bomb Wing flew the first American bombing mission into Korea on June 28, 1950, against a railway supplying enemy forces, and the following day, 18 B-26Bs struck North Korea with a successful attack on the principal enemy air base. That same unit dropped the last American bombs in Korea on July 27, 1953, and an RB-26C flew the last combat sortie of the Korean War the same evening. Other B-26 Wings in Korea were the 452nd reserve Wing in October 1950, replaced by the 17th Bomb Wing in 1952. 

During that war, 60,096 B-26 and 11,944 RB-26 sorties were made, the majority at night, with 226 aircraft lost, including 56 to enemy action. In 1954, there were four B-26 and two RB-26 active wings in the USAF. They were replaced by B-57 and RB-66 jets by 1956.

Another war was going on at the same time in Vietnam, and the French asked to borrow Douglas Invaders, then the only bomber type available to form their first post-WW II bomber force. On January 1, 1951, GB l/19 was formed with 17 B-26B and 8 B-26C bombers and was soon joined by four RB-26C Invaders of a reconnaissance unit. By July 1954, four groups had received 111 B-26s, but French defeat at Dien Bien Phu halted the fighting with a cease-fire signed July 21, and surviving planes were returned to the USAF in 1955.

French B-26s were also at war in Algeria where, from 1957 to 1962, they were being used by escadrons GB.1/91, 1/91 and ERP.1/32 (RB-26). Saudi Arabia's first combat planes were nine B-26Bs received in 1955, establishing an air force that would be helpful in 1991's desert war.

After the Korean War ended, American B-26s were supplied to various small air forces and used in several covert operations arranged by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). An excellent book by Hagedorn and Hellstrom* describes the operations in these countries in such detail that only a brief survey shall be made here.

Latin American deliveries began when Peru acquired eight B-26Cs in October 1954, followed by ten for Chile in November, as well as allotments to Colombia and Brazil, and later replenishments for each of them. Guatemala got eight B-26s, its first bombers, in 1961.

Cuba became an Invader combat area when the Batista government used 16 B-26Cs received in November 1956 against Castro's rebels. After Castro won power, most remained for his FAR (Revolutionary Air Force). When the anti-Castro Cuban exiles prepared for the Bay of Pigs invasion attempt, the CIA took about 20 B-26s out of USAF storage for the exiles based in Nicaragua. Painted in false FAR markings, they launched the attack on April 15, 1961. B-26s fought on both sides, but Castro forces defeated the exiles by April 20, and seven surviving B-26s were left to the Nicaraguan air force.

Four USAF B-26Bs joined the "Farm Gate" detachment in Vietnam in December 1961 and two RB-26Cs were added in May 1962, along with about ten more B-26Bs by January 1963. They served the 1st Air Commando Squadron on attack missions until February 11, 1964, when all the B-26s were grounded because of inflight structural failures due to age. 

There was still a demand for the Invader's services if a safe remanufacture could be arranged. On Mark Engineering, a firm experienced in modification of B-26s to custom executive transports, had started rebuilding a B-26C in October 1962 to become the YB-26K prototype. First flown January 28, 1963, it had completely rebuilt wings and fuselage, 2,500-hp water-injection Pratt & Whitney R-2800-103W engines with reversible propellers, permanent wingtip tanks, eight wing weapons pylons, and 14 fixed guns, but turrets were omitted.

Forty more conversions were ordered by the USAF in November 1963, the first B-26K flying May 26, 1964 with R-2800-52Ws. Similar to the YB model but for deletion of prop spinners and six wing guns, the B-26K was armed with eight .50-caliber nose guns and 4,000 pounds of bombs in the bay, or up to 8,000 pounds on the wing pylons. Besides the fixed-wing tip tanks, two 230-gallon drop tanks or a 675-gallon bomb bay tank could be carried. 

Most of the remodeled aircraft completed by April 15, 1965, went to the 1st Air Commando Wing at Hurlburt Field, Florida. Five had been sent to the Congo, beginning in August 1964, to be flown by Cuban exile pilots against the so-called Simba rebels.

In 1967, B-26K aircraft were redesignated A-26A, supposedly because bombers could not be stationed in Thailand at that time. The A-26As came to Thailand in June 1966 with the 609th Special Operations Squadron (originally the 606th Air Commando). Operating on night interdiction missions against trucks on the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos, the squadron made the last American combat sorties with the A-26A on November 9, 1969. .

Nearly 25 years had passed since the first major A-26 combat mission. In between the major sorties into Germany and Laos had been many obscure actions in Indonesia, Angola, and Biafra. The Invader's long life was due to being the best of its generation of attack bombers, with no rivals in sight for more than a decade.