Colonel Michael Haas, USAF Retired
Author of: IN THE DEVILS SHADOW: UN Special Operations During the Korean War
United States Naval Institute Press, 2000
In a classic understatement, one post-war study with access to highly classified material described the 6004th Air Intelligence Service Squadron (AISS) "the first covert collection agency of a tactical nature in the history of the U.S. Air Force." Much more revealing was the three-word description of the man around which the squadron was organized, a man described simply but accurately as a "one man war" by 5AF commander Maj Gen E. E. Partridge. The coming together of the organization, the man, and the moment, in history were so unique that never since has the U.S. Air Force attempted-or been allowed to-duplicate an organization like the wartime 6004th AISS.
The activation 6004th in April 1951, represented the expansion and redesignation of existing intelligence operations run by its organizational predecessor, Special Activities Unit Number One. The "SAU" in turn had evolved from an even more obscure organization, but the one constant throughout all these changes was "Mr. Nichols," a Counter-Intelligence Corps Master Sergeant promoted to Warrant Officer the day war broke out. Possessing only a sixth grade education but fluent in the Korean language, Nichols had established an extensive intelligence network throughout pre-war Korea since his arrival on the peninsula in 1946. Though difficult to imagine in these times, this U.S. Air Force sergeant also directed penetration operations against political opponents of South Korean President Syngman Rhee, becoming in the process one of the very few Americans trusted by the suspicious Rhee.
A number of special missions were assigned to Nichols by Partridge during the first year of the war, as the latter came to learn that neither the 5AF, MacArthur's Far East Command, or the newly arrived CIA could match the network developed by Nichols throughout the war torn peninsula. By spring 1951, Nichols was providing 5AF with "one stop service" for behind-the-lines requirements ranging from sensitive espionage operations to airborne-ranger-type assaults against high-priority targets. As one of Nichols' executive officers later explained, "His [Nichols] men included scholars with advanced degrees, and burly athletic-types without higher education, but who could walk all night through enemy forests, ride horses, paddle canoes, parachute from low-altitudes, and kill a man with a single karate blow and be able to speak three or four foreign languages."
With the expansion and redesignation of the SAU to the 6004th AISS, the new squadron was sub-divided into three primary detachments with distinctly different missions, as described from official records:
Det One: Collect Air Technical Intelligence and conduct prisoner of war interrogations.
Det Two: Collect and disseminate Air Intelligence information. Due to the unusual nature of this work and other circumstances, both primary and secondary missions have been classified Top Secret by the Commanding General, Fifth Air Force.
Det Three: Plan, coordinate, and support Escape & Evasion activities for the recovery of UN airmen downed in enemy territory.
Det 2 performed the most dangerous work, as the Korean agents that filled its sub-detachments were sending radio reports back to the 6004th from positions deep behind enemy lines. Detachment manning records show that in January 1952, U.S. citizens represented less than six percent of the detachment's 665 assigned personnel, the remaining billets filled by Korean civilian and military nationals. Ultimately the Korean contingent grew beyond the nine hundred mark within this U.S. Air Force "detachment."
U.S. Far East Air Forces (FEAF) records for 1953 note that by this stage of the war the 6004th had become "the primary collection agency for FEAF." The records continue "While an exact parallel with CIA's operations and Navy's cannot be drawn, it may be noted that in Korea we now have a detachment operation (Det 2) on an equal basis with a CIA operations of regimental strength and a Navy operation equivalent of a Group."
The 6004th AISS was never given the mission of commanding large guerrilla forces, as had the military's CCRAK or the CIA's JACK. Nonetheless, the 6004th may well be considered to have been the most effective UN/US special operations/intelligence organization of the war.
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