The U.S. Air Force’s Forgotten Mission to Mali

Obscure operation helped establish Air Force role in special operations

The U.S. Air Force’s Forgotten Mission to Mali The U.S. Air Force’s Forgotten Mission to Mali
In the fall of 1961, two worn-out C-47s from the U.S. Air Force’s 4400th Combat Crew Training Squadron lumbered across the Atlantic on their... The U.S. Air Force’s Forgotten Mission to Mali

In the fall of 1961, two worn-out C-47s from the U.S. Air Force’s 4400th Combat Crew Training Squadron lumbered across the Atlantic on their way to Mali. The unit was on a new mission—which the flying branch still performs today.

The 4400th CCTS had stood up earlier in the year to train foreign forces to fight guerrillas inside their own borders. The Air Force still carries out this mission, known to the military as Foreign Internal Defense.

The Pentagon developed FID to help countries fight Communist-backed movements around the globe. Washington also saw political value in forming relationships with foreign militaries.

The U.S. wanted newly independent Mali to stick with the West. Washington hoped that sending a detachment from the 4400th would help influence the right people.

The 4400th’s mission to Mali would also serve as a trial run for a larger mission the Defense Department was planning for South Vietnam.

The mission to Mali—which aviators nicknamed Sandy Beach—had an inauspicious beginning. The 4400th was rushing into action and it showed.

One of the men misplaced his passport and another lost his wallet with all of his official IDs. The first man found his passport in one of his bags after an emergency long-distance phone call to his wife.

The squadron’s commanders also worried that the old planes simply wouldn’t make the trip across the Atlantic. The crews practiced how to ditch the aircraft in the ocean, just in case.

Two Army Air Forces C-47s over France in 1944. The Air Force sent two of these World War II-era aircraft to Mali in 1961. Air Force photo

The World War II-era transports also had a relatively short range. The aircraft had to fly a circuitous route from Florida to Newfoundland and then across the Atlantic.

The landing gear on one of the C-47 needed repairs during the trip and a radio broke in the other plane on the way. In the end, the detachment took a week just to get to France.

The crews then flew south to Mauritania, another newly independent former French colony. French forces still in the country gassed up the 4400th’s planes—and served wine to the crews while they waited in the desert heat.

On Aug. 29, the detachment finally arrived in Mali, two weeks after leaving Hulburt Field. U.S. ambassador Thomas Kenneth Wright and other embassy personnel greeted them.

The Cold War was fully evident. The detachment’s C-47s shared space at Bamako airport with Soviet and Czech planes.

The detachment spent the next three weeks training the Malian army’s new parachutist company. The Americans finished up their mission by dropping paratroopers for the country’s first-ever independence day celebrations on Sept. 22.

The Air Force returned to Mali in 1963 for Sandy Beach II, but by then the war in Vietnam had taken priority. Washington finally lost interest in the country when Pres. Modibo Keita fully embraced the Non-Aligned Movement.

Mali is now back on the Pentagon’s radar. Last year, the Air Force provided vital support to peacekeepers who are fighting Tuareg and Islamist insurgents there.

The legacy of the 4400th also lives on in the Air Force Special Operations Command. The 6th Special Operations Squadron continues the FID mission today—and it all started with a largely forgotten mission in Africa.