In this DAKOTA HUNTER Blog, you will find the story of an almost forgotten episode in the long and fascinating history of the Civil Air Transport Corp (CAT), in 1959 converted to AIR AMERICA. A misleading name that might give you the impression that this CAT Corp. was a decent airline operator, where you could book a flight for yourself or cargo hauling.
That was correct at the front door operation of the company, but there was also a hidden back door, where you would be very unwelcome for whatever sort of reservation.
Allegedly, CAT was the covert air support operations agency of the CIA and hence involved in all of the more or less stealthy revolts, guerilla’s support, uproars, and other activities directed against the advancing communist influence in SE Asia in the 1940s-1950s.
The CAT Corp. soon had a paricular reputation: where their aircraft arrived in ‘sterile’ or misleading markings, things went awry, turmoil and insurgent uprising were imminent!
CAT was created in 1946 by the legendary Claire Chennault and used mainly WWII surplus aircraft such as the Douglas C-47 and the Curtiss C-46 Commando for supplying foods and medicaments into war-ravaged China.
CAT soon turned into an American support/ supply machine for Chiang Kai-Shek who fought a civil war against the Communists under Mao Zedong right after WWII.
Aircraft crews were selected primarily from the AVG (American Volunteer Group) veterans of Chennault’s legendary combat group, also known as The Flying Tigers.
They flew themselves into the Hall of Eternal Fame even before the USA entered the war, against the Japanese forces in China with their P-40’s Warhawks, decorated with that iconic Shark Mouth nose art
By 1950, Mao had conquered China’s Mainland with his communist Army, and CAT followed the withdrawal of Chiang’s forces to Taiwan. As that meant the end of business for CAT, the CIA stepped in by creating a subsidiary under the same name, but with a distinctly different mission.
CAT maintained a civilian appearance by flying scheduled passenger flights (and still is in operation under that name) while simultaneously using other aircraft in its fleet to fly covert missions, all of them ex-WWII planes which were abundantly available.
From the early 1950s, CAT pilots were involved in shadowy missions in North Korea, China, and Indo-China. They flew the C-47 and Curtiss Commando C-46 as the mainstay of their fleet but also C-119s Flying Boxcars as used during the siege of Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam in May 1954.
That epic battle was lost by the French, heralding the end of French Colonial Rule in SE Asia and it would ultimately lead to the intervention of the US Military in the Vietnam War that lasted from 1960-1975.
The loss of control over Northern Vietnam had a wider psychological effect. I vividly remember the events as it surely triggered serious worries in my family.
As a young boy, I lived with my Mom and Dad in the Borneo Jungle in Indonesia, where the Indonesian President Sukarno faced and embraced a growing role of the PKI, Indonesia’s Communist Party, no doubt sponsored by their ‘Comrades’ from China.
The world heard about the French Colonial defeat in Vietnam and most western governments were convinced that China had adopted the Domino Strategy to conquer all SE Asian nations by settling their Communist Rule. with multiple scenarios to impose this: either by participation in/ acceptance of ‘guided’ democracy, a ‘coup d’etat’ or a Guerilla-war.
Their anti-imperialistic ideology would soon hop over to the Indonesian Government and resulted in a de-facto confiscation of all foreign properties (Shell and Esso Oil explorations/refineries) and expulsion of all Dutch employees.
The outlook of a Commie-ruled Indonesia became a nightmare scenario for the USA. Also. for my Dad, he imagined that his family, in case of a local uprise against Shell, could become trapped on a remote island in an isolated Jungle station, from where we could only escape with a DC-3 or a Shell-owned PBY Catalina.
But would such a plane be able to arrive on time? Such doom scenario was not a paranoid fantasy, the Indonesian Independence war against the Dutch Colonial rule between 1945-1949 had cost thousands their lives in the ensuing turmoil.
Now, just a year later, from 1950, we were living there, in the newly emerged state (with some anti-Dutch sentiments). Their Army had not yet established full military control and peace over the vast expanse of the archipelago, covering a distance that equals the travel from London to Baghdad!
On May 13, 1958, this Catalina was destroyed by Indonesian Air Force B-25s and P-51s as they finally made an air raid that started from Halmahera Island to the Rebel AF Base Mapanget near Manado in Northern Celebes.
This photo was most probably taken on Clark AF Base Philippines, note the aircraft in the background, another PBY-5A Catalina at left, a Curtiss Commando C-46 right behind the black Cat and a Douglas C-47 at right.
But soon there would arrive another hefty fleet extension, in the shape of 15x Douglas A-26 Invaders (see photo), heavily armed with the legendary Killer Nose with 8 machine guns, bombs, external fuel tanks, and underwing racks. Not much to do with scheduled passenger flights, so they probably never appeared on Jane’s list under the CAT name.
In 1958, the CIA under President Eisenhower had its own way of dealing with the Communist Threat that had taken China, the northern part of Korea and Vietnam.
On top, Commies were involved in guerrilla wars in Malaysia and Laos and slowly penetrated deeper into the Indonesian Government via a growing political power of the Communist Party.
In their vision, the Free World’s existence was at stake in SE Asia and all means to stop that fateful development were allowed: since 1957, toppling President Sukarno became the CIA’s covert mission.
The US Government was maybe not the initiator but surely a promoter for the staging and financing of counter actions in cooperation with Rebel Colonels and insurgent populations, even against a ‘friendly’ nation.
In Indonesia with a thousand Islands, a mixed population of almost 80 million people with a dozen languages, cultures, religions and dominated by the Javanese elite, there was always a tribe, region or island to find that had a minor or major problem with the Status Quo of the Java/Jakarta-based Domination.
Evidently, that domination defended the interests of the existing Upper Class in the Government and, last but not least, in the Army.
enough, back in 1955, the US Government grumbled at the way the Dutch “Colonial Ruler” had stubbornly rejected to hand over Western Papua/ Dutch New Guinea (now Irian Jaja) to Indonesia’s then”beloved” President Sukarno.
But only 3 years later, in February 1958, that same US Government felt the urge to support an insurgent movement against that same Sukarno! He went from ‘Hero’ to ‘Zero’ in only three years!
But it is correct to say that the Geo-Political situation in SE Asia had changed dramatically, China’s influence was growing at an alarming pace. (Some pessimists might notice a parallel with the current situation).
The Cat was confiscated by the Dutch Military and never returned. His son Alan wrote to me: “In 1948, my dad was arrested flying guns to British farmers around Malaya and Indonesia.
He had an airline in the Philippines consisting of a half dozen PBYs called Inaco (Insular Airways)”. Connie got locked up for a year and finally went back to Manilla and started flying for CAT in a PBY that got engaged in the 1958 uprise.
Alan: “My Dad was rolling 500lb bombs out the blisters of the Catalina, he said the bombs were spinning off the bomb ramp and thus corkscrewed down to the target and never detonated because they didn’t have the airflow to arm.
They brought in A-26s and shot the place up. Capt. Allen Pope was my Dad’s wingman in that operation when he got shot down.” (Photo A. Seigrist)
In early 1958, CAT supplied 20 Aircraft (a PBY Catalina, 15 Douglas A-26 Invaders, and 4 P-51 Mustangs) to a totally unknown insurgent movement PRRI/ Permesta in Northern Indonesia, led by a group of Army Officers who revolted against the Central Government in Jakarta.
They had managed to conquer Mapanget AF Base near Manado on the Indonesian Air Force (AURA), on the northernmost peninsula of the island of Sulawesi (aka Celebes, see map below) and were soon the CIA’s favorite party to help wipe out Sukarno from Power. How naive that decision actually was, would soon turn out.
The Indonesian Air Force (AURI) was not in shambles, rather a slow but still threatening factor to handle, be it without Jets until mid-1958. Worse, not all island populations were against the Central Government so, the promised massive uprise against Jakarta was not really imminent.
Sure, it was promised in the Permesta Rebel Force Promotion folder, written with tons of wishful thinking, as a lure to drag the US into this adventure. Following the same old song: “Please give us aircraft and pilots, let them do a number of air raids and that will simply do the trick”.
Amazingly, the CIA was so eager to topple Sukarno that they believed all those partly idealistic and partly false promises, a flagrant miscalculation.
The Rent-a-Rebel (CI)A-Team was surely successful in Hollywood film scripts and TV-series, but in the harsh SE Asian reality, it never worked like that, also not in Cuba (Bay of Pigs), and not in Central/ South America (Guatemala and many other countries). But yes, once in Africa, they were successful (see my Dakota Hunter Blog JFK to Mobutu DC-3 present.
With the advantage of hindsight, one could say that, at best, the CIA’s intentions to save the Western World were good. Admittedly, the influence of the PKI (Communist Party) on Sukarno went awry with the nationalization of Western Company’s properties and a total Communist takeover/revolution seemed imminent indeed.
But the CIA’s preparations, execution, and choice of ‘partners” were often simply too sloppy, while efficient and objective local socio-political assessment and feel for virtual “Situational Awareness” was non-existent or “biased”.
Curious to know how it ended up here? Well, just read on in this Dakota Hunter Blog, you will be amazed by the outcome of the story!
Stationed at Manado, there arrived 20 aircraft donated by CIA came with pilots, mechanics, and tons of ammo, av-gas, tooling, rigs, and spare parts for keeping that fighting fleet operational. That must have been quite an operation!
The majority had come from Taiwan by ship via the Philippines waters to the Northern part of Sulawesi. This same airfield depicted came finally under the attack of the Indonesian AF (AURI) and they managed to damage this Mustang and destroy the Rebel’s PBY Catalina, maybe the pillar of smoke in the backdrop?
Enter two legendary Rogue pilots, the American citizens William H. Beale Jr. and Allen L. Pope.
Both ‘mercenaries’ had a long career with CAT, engaged in covert operations in Vietnam and other hot spots in Asia. In April 1958, a group of CAT pilots and mechanics arrived from Clark AFB in the nearby Philippines, in order to fly the 20 donated aircraft for the PERMESTA Revolutionary group with their Air Force” AUREV in Manado/ Sulawesi.
In that same month, especially Pope was the most active raider.
On April 27, he attacked in his A-26 Invader the Island of Morotai. This took place a few hours before the Island was conquered by a Permesta’s amphibious force, a very bold assault, targeting the “Ambon” Islands of Halmahera and Morotai. Well-chosen, as on those islands, the revolutionary support against Jakarta was strongest.
Ambonese people have traditionally had an awkward relationship with the Javanese Rulers, so here they found fertile grounds for the start of their planned Eastern Indonesian Revolution.
But soon, Pope took his activities in a new direction. Merchant shipping on the islands of Sulawesi and Borneo ( Kalimantan) came under attack of his A-26 Machine Guns.
Captain Pope attacked and sank three ships in one single day, no bad result, but with a little snag: The boats were Italian (SS Aquila), Greek (SS Armonia) and Panamese (SS Flying Lark).
Had he gone Bananas, by sinking “US-friendly” ships? Well, bananas galore in Indonesia: Pope had found his Star role here in this Mickey Mouse War Theatre.
He attacked the City of Palu, shot 20 trucks to pieces on Ambon Island, bombed the AFB at Kendari, strafed Navy Patrol/ Gun Boats, shot bridges and Military depots and that all in a matter of days! It was a Shooting Fest with surplus WWII veteran aircraft, and would not be the last of such ‘Old School’ Aerial Wars.
The very last one would take place in 1969, see my Dakota Hunter Blog Last of the All Piston Prop Dog Fights 1969)
On April 28, Pope’s friend Beale made a very remarkable attack on ‘my’ old hometown Balikpapan in Eastern Kalimantan (aka Borneo), where I had lived with my family until the end of 1957. (My Dad was employed by Shell that owned the largest Oil refinery in Indonesia).
Beale flew in his A-26 over the Bay and bombed the Royal Dutch Shell refineries and terminal, sinking the British tanker MV San Flaviano. A friend of mine told me that he as an 8-year old boy was attending school while the attack took place in the nearby harbor.
Why did it bring such great panic, were there rumors of an imminent amphibian attack by Permesta troops in order to conquer the oil-installations of Balikpapan? That surely would have created a great source of income for the Rebels, and on top, they had done such amphibian landing a week earlier on Morotai Island.
On the same beach where in July 1945 the Australian troops had landed with help of the USAAF to wipe the Japanese out from their oil-supply stations, there appeared now, 13 years later, armed security troops, watching the sea in day and night time for the feared invasion fleet.
All Dutch women, children were evacuated overnight and shipped to Java, from fear for an all-out war.
It gives some idea of how a single aircraft can terrorize a community, while the Indonesian Military must have believed that the Rebel Forces were much larger and more powerful with the capacity of staging such complex invasion.
The Flying Circus was overactive and created sheer overestimation of its real size. But it was clear for all Military and Political spectators that in those daring and spectacular air raids, the CIA was at work: who else could have staged such long-distance attacks with well-supported American WWII Aircraft in peacetime?
Ship Owners, Shell and the UK were not amused and the US Ambassador in London had the embarrassing task to apologize for this wild Cowboy assault. He must have asked himself, “Who the fracking Hell is behind this Wild Bunch?”
Even the US Embassy in Jakarta secretly sent out a message of protest to the US State Department with a single question: “Could you please call your Mad Dogs back?”. Well, they could but did nothing!
In May, Beale withdrew from the operation by which time a third CAT pilot,Connie W Seigrist, had joined flying a CIA PBY-5A Catalina.
Later, it turned out the CIA had ordered them to target not only Indonesian armed forces but also unarmed foreign merchant ships so to frighten overseas trade away from Indonesian waters.
But the intended weakening of the Indonesian economy and undermining of Sukarno’s position would never lead to a massive popular uprise against his regime.
Actually, the Flying Rebel Circus manned by the Mad Dogs felt free as birds in the sky. With no predators around, they must have loved their job.
On May 1, 1958, while attacking the Maluku Islands, during a strafing run, Pope’s A-26 starboard engine suffered an explosion. He aborted the assault and with all of his luck, he managed to limp his aircraft home on one engine.
On May 7, he strafed a Douglas C-47 and a P-51 Mustang, and while returning one day later, he destroyed an Indonesian AF PBY Catalina and the runway of Liang AFB. On May 15, the pro-active raider was back in business and attacked merchant ships, and harbor installations, but when he returned, he found his Home/ Rebel Air Base being attacked while he was out.
The Rebel’s only Catalina was smoldering in ashes and their P-51 Mustang was badly damaged. Pope’s luck was about to run out, while the Indonesian Air Force showed first signs of resurrection after a long period of “Dolce Far Niente” (Sweetly doing nothing).
On May 18, 1958, Pope went out to attack the Ambon harbor again with his A-26 and he spotted an enemy fleet of Transport ships with troops on board. He started a bombing run but was not aware of the fact that the Indonesian AF had finally managed to scramble their (single?) operational P-51D Mustang against him.
While during 4 weeks, Pope had the Northern Indonesian Airspace as his exclusive Playstation, where he could do bombing and strafing assaults at will, the Indonesian Air Force was not capable of intercepting that nasty Cowboy of the Flying Rebel Circus.
But now, finally, they had it all organized and that iconic WWII fighter must have arrived as a total surprise for Pope and his navigator who were very busy in their cramped cockpit, planning a new bomb run.
Out of the blue, the AURI P-51D Mustang jumped on their back and the Navy boats shot their AA guns. Whatever hit him first, the starboard engine of the A-26 exploded and the wing was soon engulfed in flames.
They decided to bale out and in the process, Pope’s escape was hindered by the dive of his plane in agony. The tail fin had fractured his leg, but he could manage to parachute and land on a nearby small island.
In the stress of the imminent detection by the searching soldiers, he made a capital blunder and forgot to clear his pockets. They found a flight plan of his last 8 flights, delicate documents, and his CAT ID Card! Pope’s capture with these documents fully exposed the level of CIA support for the Permesta rebellion.
For the Eisenhower Administration, it became a very embarrassing situation, in which there was no more room for denial of engagement from the USA. The CIA had to drop the total plan and the support to the Rebel Force was skipped overnight.
The Revolutionary Movement Permesta soldiered on until 1961 when their agony came to a bitter end. Pope was brought into a Military Court in 1960 and sentenced to death. Amazingly, his ordeal was used as a bargaining chip in Indonesian negotiations with the United States for arms supply.
In February 1962, under JFK’s Administration, US Attorney General Robert Kennedy paid President Sukarno a goodwill visit and pleaded for Pope’s release.
On July 2, 1962, Pope was discreetly released and brought over to his homeland by a US Government plane. He seems to be still alive and kicking but would the CIA have learned from this “mishap”?
Frankly, they did, at least in Indonesia. Seven years later, the CIA was finally able to knock Sukarno out of his throne, while teaming up with a much smarter local partner, this time from within the ruling system, an Army General namedSuharto.
But that is another story, in which the PKI was wiped out in a very bloody episode, starting in Oct. 1965, allegedly costing over 500.000 people their lives.
General Suharto’s Presidency ran from 1967 until 1998, it stabilized the nation and radically kept out the much-feared Communist influence.
On top, in Dec. 1965, Indonesia paid Shell 110 million US dollars for the total of their lost oil-production properties, so it all seemed to have a Happy Ending. However, one little snag remained: over the next two decades, corruption would make Mr. President and his family filthy rich.
They may have ended in the top of the ‘Alltime Greatest State Robbers’, along with the Mobutu family from the Congo, the Saddam Hussein family from Iraq, the Marcos from the Philippines, the Gadaffi’s from Lybia, and a few more.
They made the illustrious post-war High Society of some of these newly emerged States. Their place in history could be justified because their regimes brought stabilization but never was a guarantee for enduring prosperity or peace for its entire population.
Nevertheless, Indonesia fared pretty well in comparison with the other states that were robbed for decades by their Presidents and families.
If you like this story, I have a lot more for you to read. See my two BOOKS and 70 BLOGS about Vintage Aviation & War History, all fascinating stories, illustrated with photos, like the report you can read above. For more episodes/ blogs, come to ” The Dakota Hunter”, dc3dakotahunter.com.