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By Joseph Trevithick, War Is Boring
On Dec. 24, 1970, an odd airplane touched down at an air base in Thailand. Though it might not have looked like it, this was a top secret U.S. Air Force propaganda plane and the crew had just flown the last of a series of classified missions over neighboring Cambodia.
The Pentagon sent the pilots from the Pennsylvania Air National Guard to help the government in Phnom Penh spread propaganda in remote, rural areas. Though brief, the obscure operation — nicknamed Commando Buzz — paved the way for an all new kind of psychological warfare operation.
By 1970, Washington had been fighting a broad and bloody war in Southeast Asia for nearly five years. North Vietnamese troops funneled weapons, ammunition and other gear through Laos and Cambodia into South Vietnam.
A seemingly endless stream of ideas, from the practical to the absurd and sometimes terrifying, had all failed to cut the communist supply lines. In Laos, with the help of a friendly government, the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency launched a covert bombing campaign and backed a secretive guerrilla army on the ground.
But Cambodia leader Norodom Sihanouk refused to break ties with the Soviet Union and Communist China. An avowed neutralist and supporter of the non-aligned movement, Sihanouk tried to play off all the sides of his advantage.
Ultimately, he found himself surrounded by enemies. Sihanouk coined the French term “Khmer Rouge” — Red Khmers — for his leftist opponents. He similarly derided right-leaning critics as the “Khmer Bleu.”
In March 1970, military officers led by Gen. Lon Nol seized control as Sihanouk was on a world tour of Europe, the Soviet Union and China. Lon and his compatriots believed he gave the North Vietnamese too much freedom and empowered Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge.
The junta rushed to Washington for help. A month after the coup, American and South Vietnamese troops launched an attack into Cambodian territory. In July 1970, the campaign ended after delivering a major blow to Hanoi’s forces.
Unfortunately, Lon’s government couldn’t capitalize on the victory. The U.S.-led offensive drove the communists deeper into the Cambodian countryside, where they could count on popular support.
The Cambodian military, with its poorly-trained and underpaid soldiers, was also no match for the battle-hardened rebels without American aid.
Enter Commando Buzz. The Pentagon hoped the EC-121S could help their struggling allies fill the information gap.
During World War II and the Korean War, the Air Force had dropped leaflets and blared recordings from loudspeakers mounted on cargo planes. But as radio and television became more common, the Pentagon took an interest in using those mediums for propaganda, too.
In 1965, Washington had dispatched troops to help put down a rebellion in the Dominican Republic. During the intervention, rebels drummed up support and mobilized their sympathizers through a local radio station.
After the frustrating experience, the Pentagon ordered the Air Force to come up with a new psychological warfare method, according to a Pennsylvania Air National Guard history. War Is Boring obtained a copy of the document through the Freedom of Information Act.
The U.S. military did not just want to block enemy transmission during future conflicts. They wanted gear that could replace the messages with friendly broadcasts. Strangely, the mission fell to the Pennsylvania Air National Guard for political rather than practical reasons.
At the time, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara was pushing to shrink the size of the Air National Guard. “Congress was never too happy with the Secretary of Defense’s plan to inactivate Air National Guard units,” the history noted. “Beginning in fiscal year 1966, Congress mandated … that the Air Force maintain 25 airlift squadrons.”
Lawmakers intervened to stop the cuts, but the question of what to do the units and their aircraft remained. So, the National Guard Bureau offered up Pennsylvania’s 168th Military Airlift Group for the propaganda job.
The group had a total of eight C-121 transports on hand. The four-engine propeller planes were the military version of Lockheed’s famous — and beautiful — Constellation airliner.
Two years after the Dominican operation, Lockheed Aircraft Company set about modifying four of the aircraft for their new mission. In the summer of 1968, the first EC-121S Constellation arrived at Olmsted Airport to join what had become the 193rd Tactical Electronic Warfare Group.
Unlike the white and gray C-121s, the new EC-121S radio plane had a white top and a dark blue stripe running down the center of the fuselage. Aside from an American flag on the tail, they lacked traditional Air Force markings. The converted aircraft had large domes on top and below the center of the fuselage. Wire antennas ran from various aerials and the wing tips back to the tail.
For the next year and a half, the crews trained with their new planes. In May 1970, 50 airmen from the 193rd traveled to Pope Air Force Base in North Carolina for one exercise colorfully titled Exotic Dancer III.
The next month, a task force of 75 fliers took two EC-121S and two regular C-121 transports and headed for Thailand. The Air Force already had equally classified EC-121Rs based in Korat as part of a separate project to build an electronic fence to monitor communist insurgents in Laos.
Since the two planes were similar enough, mechanics at Korat knew how to keep the aircraft flying and supplied with parts. There was space for extra shops to work on the S variant’s unique radio gear, codenamed Coronet Solo.
The 193rd referred to the top secret assignment as a “volunteer training exercise.” In reality, the special planes would rebroadcast Cambodian civil radio messages, full of pro-government messages and information, over the country’s “fringe” areas.
On Aug. 5, 1970, the EC-121S flew its first real world mission. On Dec. 24, one Constellation flew the last radio orbit over Cambodia. Afterwards, the U.S. Army took over with a transmitter on the ground in Thailand, according to the Air Force’s Statistical Digest for the 1974 fiscal year.
We don’t know how successful the broadcasts were at convincing average citizens to oppose the North Vietnamese or the Khmer Rouge and support Lon’s regime. The Air Force gave the unit an Outstanding Unit Award with a “V” device for valor after the crews returned to Olmsted.
Commando Buzz remained classified for at least another three decades. Lockheed eventually finished at least the original four S versions for the Air Force.
As late as 1974, photographs show the aging planes still flying, but with their radio gear apparently removed.
By this time, the Constellations were reaching the end of their service lives. The Air Force then moved the Coronet Solo gear onto newer C-130s.
In March 1979, the 193rd got their first radio-broadcasting EC-130E. The following month, the last EC-121S flew to Lackland Air Force Base in Texas to go on display as a museum piece.
The Constellations proved the worth of the flying propaganda broadcasts. In 1983, the EC-130Es flew missions during the invasion of Grenada.
Since then, the planes have been a regular and important part of the Pentagon’s operations. The Air Force continued to improve the broadcast equipment, turning the airplanes into flying television studios, as well as radio stations.
In 2004, Lockheed delivered the latest version of the plane, the EC-130J Commando Solo. As of 2016, the Pennsylvania Air National Guard’s 193rd Special Operations Wing is still the only unit responsible for this unique propaganda mission.