By Michael W. Michelsen, Jr.
Their stories were never featured on the nightly news. Questions about their existence were greeted with a terse “no comment” from government officials. The missions they flew were perilous, and carried out under extreme secrecy.
Today, more than 40 years later, their experiences are coming to light and being honored by some of the very people their efforts sought to protect, their sons and daughters.
Few people have heard of the 609th Special Operations Squadron, which operated under the call sign “Nimrods,” and even fewer have ever seen their trademark aircraft, the Douglas A-26K Counter-Invader in flight over American skies.
But thanks to the A-26 Legacy Foundation, made up of a small group of sons and daughters of Nimrod crewmembers, the last airworthy aircraft of its type is now flying across the United States. The mission of this aircraft is to fly in honor of the Nimrods, giving the public the opportunity to learn about their clandestine, but heroic, mission.
The A-26K Counter-Invader
All of this started about 10 years ago when one of the Nimrod co-pilot/navigators, the late Tom Wickstrom (Lt. Col., USAF, Ret.), heard about two of the aircraft used in the filming of the 1989 Steven Spielberg drama, “Always,” starring Richard Dreyfuss, John Goodman, and Audrey Hepburn.
Since filming ended, the aircraft had been neglected in an abandoned field in Billings, Montana, eventually becoming overgrown with weeds and the home of vermin of all types.
Within days, Wickstrom told another former Nimrod, co-pilot/navigator, Nolan Schmidt (Col., USAF, Ret.) and Donald Vogler, son of the late Nimrod pilot Charles Vogler (Lt. Col., USAF, Ret.), about the aircraft. Vogler got in contact with the owner of the A-26, a firefighting tanker business owned by the Lynch family in Billings, who told him that the aircraft were for sale. “Pick one,” the owner told him.
“While these aircraft were never used in combat, they were both genuine A-26K models that have been modified for use as firefighting tankers,” Vogler said.
“When I heard that they were for sale, I thought what a perfect tribute it would be to make one of them airworthy again and have them used as a flying museum in tribute to the men who flew them in Southeast Asia,” he said.
Vogler contacted several other sons and daughters of Nimrod crewmembers, including Michael W. Michelsen, Jr., son of the late co-pilot/navigator, Michael W. Michelsen, Sr. (Major, USAF, Ret.), and James E. Sizemore, son of the late pilot, James E. Sizemore (Major, USAF, KIA), for help in a fundraising effort. The Greatest Generation Aircraft Foundation at Meacham International Airport in Fort Worth, Texas, also joined the effort in fundraising, as well as providing the primary restoration.
The Men and the Mission
The A-26 actually started its life as the B-26 in the closing years of World War II, seeing action with the 9th Air Force in Europe. In both theaters the aircraft held the mission of tactical bombing and close air support.
B-26s were used in the Korean War not only in an attack role, but for weather observation and photo reconnaissance missions.
After the Vietnam War began, A-26s were used for a limited number of missions over South Vietnam and Laos, but by 1961, the Air Force was once again looking for an aircraft that could take over the counter-insurgency role against supply and troop movements on the Ho Chi Minh trail. For this, the Air Force selected the B-26.
Unfortunately, several accidents that occurred during testing at Eglin Air Force Base and during Farm Gate in South Vietnam caused the Air Force to go back to the drawing board in its efforts to make the aircraft more appropriate for counter-insurgency functions.
At the same time, the Thai government gave the Air Force use of a tiny base in the northwest border of their country with Laos, Nakhon Phanom RTAFB, but for political reasons would not allow the placement of bombers in their territory. Air Force Chief of Staff George Brown solved this problem with a flourish of his pen, changing its designation from “B” to “A,” standing for attack aircraft.
To make the A-26 more appropriate for its new mission, the Air Force sent 40 of the aircraft to On Mark Engineering in Van Nuys, California, for upgrades of the engines, propellers, brakes, re-manufactured wings, and wing fuel tanks. The final model was designated the A-26K Counter-Invader.
The A-26Ks proved to be a deadly truck killing aircraft. Aircrews and their redesigned aircraft had a destructive effect far out of proportion to their numbers. Awarded the Presidential Unit Citation for “extraordinary gallantry in connection with military operations in Southeast Asia,” the Nimrods received recognition as the best truck killers of the war.
Only six of the original 40 Douglas A-26s that On Mark rebuilt as A-26Ks survive today. Bearing USAF serial 64-17679, the A-26K is the last Counter-Invader that is flying again. Four others are on static display in American museums. Another, Charles Vogler’s TA/64-651, aptly named “Mighty Mouse,” is on display in the KAI Aerospace Museum in South Korea.
Restoring the A-26
“When I first heard that the A-26 Legacy Foundation had been formed for the purpose of buying and rebuilding an A-26, the first thing that occurred to me was how much work it was going to be to get it airworthy,” Schmidt explained. “Any aircraft that has been sitting in a field for as long as these have been is going to be in serious need of work. I was very pleasantly surprised when I discovered that the aircraft was finally being flown.”
Under the leadership of former Nimrod crew chief Lindsay Jackson (CMSgt., USAF, Ret), the group was given a ferrying license, which allowed them to fly the aircraft to Fort Worth. Restoration work started in 2016. Since that time, more than $1 million has gone into restoration by the all-volunteer crew numbering 65.
First order of business: Pulling two garbage cans’ worth of bird nests and debris from the airframe that had been parked in Montana for so long.
The final product is an aircraft affectionately known as “Special Kay.”
“Whatever you want to call it, however, tail number 64-17679 is truly a special plane with a very special mission in her future,” Vogler said.
“The restoration has been much more expensive — $60,000 for each engine alone — and more detailed than we ever imagined, but the Greatest Generation Aircraft Foundation is a top-notch group that left no stone unturned to make sure the restoration was done right,” he added. “That tells me that the work is worth the price.”
“Whatever was done to the aircraft we have tried to keep everything true to the original, including the paint job, which we ended up being lucky on because we discovered that the company that did the original paint job was right down the ramp from Greatest Generation Aircraft.”
Since 2017, the Special Kay has performed for airshow audiences nationwide to captivate public imaginations and especially to raise awareness among younger Americans of the now declassified military service provided by the heroic members of the 609th in Southeast Asia.
In 2018, Special Kay was featured at Warbirds in Review at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh, where it earned Best Bomber and a Silver Wrench award.
About the Author: Michael W. Michelsen, Jr. is a freelance writer who lives with his family in Southern California. His father, the late Nimrod co-pilot/navigator, Michael W. Michelsen, Sr., flew the A-26 twice in his career, in photo reconnaissance missions during the Korean War and attack/bombing and aircrew rescue missions during the Vietnam War.