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Lebanon and Jordan, 1958
By Tom Cooper, with Ray Kolakowski, CO VF-62 in 1958
Sep 24, 2003, 19:58

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The Suez Crisis in 1956, as well as the increasing Soviet influence in the countries formerly under British or French control resulted with a more significant US engagement in the Middle East. Until the late 1950s this part of the world did not belong to the battlefields of the Cold War: this was to change in the following years, however. In fact, the US administration and the Congress were swift to recognize the signs of the time, and already in March 1957 the documents about the so-called „Eisenhower Doctrine“ were prepared and released, according to which the USA was to offer aid, as well as military support to its allies in the area.

The local states and nations, however, were in general hardly at all interested in participating in the Cold War, and rather in their own business: if there were any similarities in interests and politics between them and the USSR – or between them and the USA, for that matter – then these were rather coincidental than anything else. Egypt was a perfect example for such a situation: the country was certainly not communist, and even the eventual attempts of President Nasser to introduce a socialist system failed miserably, ruining a better part of the local economy.

Nevertheless, due to the fact that none of the Western powers was ready to supply it with weapons Cairo considered as needed for the struggle against Israel, Nasser was forced to cooperate with the Soviets at the time. Moscow was coupling the deliveries of cheap arms and ammunition with political influence, however, so that specific effects could not be avoided. Of course, the communist influence in Egypt was something that was directly opposite to the royalist regimes in Jordan, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. Even more so, the wave of pan-Arabism initiated by Nasser’s survival during the Suez Crisis, in 1956, was something that none of the three Arab royal houses nor any of the so-called „Superpowers“ could tolerate: it instigated the appearance of nationalist movements in other Arab countries, all of which were fiercely against the ruling pro-Western establishments. In most cases Western powers were unable to react in response to revolts motivated by pan-Arabic ideas: in two, however, exactly the opposite was the case.

Despite a defeat in 1956, Nasser's position was soon much stronger than before. Already on 21 November 1956 the Soviets started delivering new MiG-15s to Egypt. In March 1957 additional 50 MiG-17s were delivered on board several Romanian ships, and by April the Egyptian Air Force was two times as large as it was before the Suez Crisis. Egyptian Navy was also reinforced by two Wiskey-class submarines. Influenced by the Anglo-French agression against Egypt, on 15 November 1956 also several Arab states signed a defence pact with Cairo. Soon enough even the pro-Western King of Jordan requested the British troops to leave his country: on 14 February 1957 an agreement between Amman and London was signed, according to which the last British troop contingent was to leave the country within six months.

The Egyptian and Soviet influence were soon to appear strong in Syria too. Originally "delivered" together with the next large shipment of MiG-17s for the Syrian Air Force, in January 1957, this influence was reinforced by the visit of several Soviet warships - lead by the cruiser Zhdanov - in the port of al-Ladhiqiyah. By the end of the year Egypt and Syria reached an agreement to form the United Arab Republic: since these times the Egyptian and Syrian Air Forces became known as the United Arab Republic Air Force (UARAF).

In May and June 1958 unrests spread in Lebanon, a country that became independent from France in 1946, and the situation soon boiled into a civil war. Almost simultaneously the King Hussein of Jordan had to deploy his Army in order to put down revolts in his country. Finally, on 15 July there was a bloody coup in Iraq, instigated by the military led by General Kassem, that removed the King Feisal II and the pro-Western government of Prime Minister Nuri almost before the news reached London and Washington.

The First Intervention of the 6th Fleet

In early 1958 there were first protests against the pro-Western politics of the Christian-Maronitic President Chamoun: originally, the Muslims in Tripolis revolted against his anti-Egyptian statements during the Suez Crisis, but with the time the unrests spread to Sidon, Beirut, and then Balbek, and soon enough Syrian troops crossed the border in an attempt to support the uprising.

President Chamoun mobilized the Lebanese Army and by June there was fierce fighting around Tripolis and Beirut. The situation culminated after the coup in Iraq, and then Chamoun requested help from the USA.

Contrary to the UK and France during the Suez Crisis, the USA proved to be able of an almost immediate reaction. Since 1946, namely, they had a special formation of the US Navy deployed in the Mediterranean Sea with the sole purpose of presenting and defending US interests. This formation, designated 6th Fleet, consisted usually of at least two carrier battle groups and three amphibious formations, at least one of which was almost permanently underway somewhere between Cyprus, Greece and Malta. As such, the 6th Fleet was a perfect mean for military interventions. In this case, it was ordered to move all the available forces towards Lebanon as soon as possible, and then help evacuate some 2.500 US citizens from Lebanon, before helping restore peace and security in the country.

Hardly 27 hours after the call for help from Beirut, on 15 July 1958 around 1700hrs the first of 1.700 Marines from the 2nd Battalion 2nd Marine Regiment went ashore some eight kilometres south of Beirut. Within only one hour the Beirut IAP was already under their control, while the FJ3s and F2Hs from the Essex closed the airspace over the Lebanese capital. Several destroyers of the 6th Fleet were positioned off shore to act as artillery support – if needed.

Within the following two days the 6th Fleet concentrated no less but 70 ships off Lebanon, including the carriers USS Essex (CV-9) and USS Saratoga (CV-60).

USS Essex as seen in 1957 - barely a year before the ship became involved in the US intervention in Lebanon. Of interest is the "angled deck", installed while the ship was re-built along the SCB-125 plans (based on the so-called "27 Charlie" design), between March 1955 and March 1956. (via Tom Cooper)

Urgent Response

The USS Essex was anchored in the port of Piraeus, in Greece, since several days, with a better part of the crew on leave when the order to move came. The ship had aircraft of the ATG.201 on board, including F2H Banshees of the VF-11 and FJ-3M Furies of the VF-62, as well as VA-83 with A4D-2 Skyhawks, VA-105s with AD-6 Skyraiders, and VAH-7's AJ-2 Savage bombers. Around 04:00 hours on 15 July 1958, the crew of the ship was awakened by the noises of pulling up anchor and getting underway shortly after. This came so suddenly, that many officers and men on liberty did not have a chance to get back to the ship. Therefore, while USS Essex was leaving the port the ship's helicopters were picking them up and bringing them to the ship. This operation went on as long as feasible; however, in the end 27 officers and 81 enlisted men were left behind in Greece.

As soon as things settled down, there was a meeting of the key ATG.201 officers and ships's company. They were told that USS Essex had been tasked to provide fighter cover to a marine assault force that was scheduled to go ashore at Beirut that afternoon. The logical planes for this task were FJs of VF-62 and F2Hs of VF-11. Ray Kolakowski, then CO VF-62 "The Boomerangs", recalled:

- Squadron commanders of both units were told to prepare two divisions to carry out the assigned mission. We were too far away to be able to do this without refueling. We were told that Washington had made arrangements for our refuelling at the Akrotiri Royal Air Force Base, on Cyprus. From there we would have fuel enough to proceed to Lebanon, cover the landings, return to Cyprus for refuelling and return to Essex.

Our schedule was worked out so that we would arrive over Beirut at the appointed time. The flight from Essex to Cyprus was uneventful and as soon as I landed I asked to see and was taken to the Base Commander's office. He said he was surprised to see US Navy planes landing at his field and in the view of the situaiton he did not know whether he should greet us or arrest us.

I told him what I knew about the situation - the arrangements that we were told that Washington had made - and he finally agreed to refuel us, and provide power to get our planes started. We were little behind schedule when we took off, but we managed to make this up and were in our combat air patrol positions when the Marines went ashore.

From our standpoint this was an uneventful mission. We were there just in case some unfriendly aircraft should choose to intervene in the Marine landings. A secondary objective was "to show the flag". The President of Lebanon had US support, and our planes could immediately be seen by more people than could see the landings.

We continued to fly daily sorties over Lebanon until our mission was terminated, in August 1958.

Unaware of political problems surrounding the whole operation, the fliers from USS Essex in fact increased their operational area during the following days, in strong power demonstration, as Ray Kolakowski recalled:
- On board the carrier I was not privy to the political problems that may have existed. I do remember that on the second or third day on station I was directed to fly my entire squadron down the middle of the Dead Sea, from north to south at low altitude. I think we flew at 500 feet...

This FJ-3M Fury of the VF-62 ("The Boomerangs") was based aboard USS Essex in the summer of 1958. This unit was under command of Cdr. Ray Kolakowski at the time. For their first operation in support of landings in Lebanon, the USN fighters had to land at RAF Akrotiri and refuel there - initially to quite some surprise of the British, which appear to not have been informed about such an agreement between Washington and London in time. (Artwork by Tom Cooper)

Saratoga's Participation

The other US Navy carrier sent towards Lebanon was USS Saratoga, a brand-new ship - and only the second “supercarrier” ever. On the morning of 15 July 1958, the ship was in the Western Mediterranean: too far away to cover the landings in Lebanon. Essex thus had to work alone. Nevertheless, for completely unclear reasons USS Saratoga caught much public attention at the time. Thanks to an article in the Newsweek magazine it appeared that USS Saratoga was covering the landings, while Essex, "came steaming with reinforcements". Exactly opposite was actually the case, but many subsequent publications cited Newsweek.

At the time the USS Saratoga carried F8U-1 Crusaders of VF-32 - the first unit equipped with the type - and F3H-2N Demons of VF-31. Both units operated as part of the Carrier Air Group 3 (CAG-3), which also consisted of VA-34 (with A4D-1 Skyhawks), VA-35 (with AD-6 Skyraiders) VAH-9 (with A3D-2s), and VFP-61 (with F9F-6P Panthers).

Consistent with their SIOP-tasks (SIOP = Single Interservice Operational Plan; a plan for a nuclear war against the USSR), both carriers permanently held several A4D Skyhawks of the VA-34 and VA-84 armed with nuclear bombs - and ready to scramble on short notice. Nevertheless, they had now to prepare a large number of fighters and fighter-bombers for flying combat air patrol over Lebanon, so to ensure that no foreign powers could intervene. Despite having some 160 combat aircraft on board, both carriers were therefore further re-inforced by additional aircraft. More F8U Crusaders, for example, were sent from the US East Coast to USS Saratoga, flying via Azores to Lyautey, in Morocco, and then directly to the carriers. For a unit equipped with a new type, the VF-32 had a highly successful cruise: within the 23 days of operations off Lebanon, the pilots accumulated 1295 flying hours without a single accident.

Soon enough, the naval aviation units of the 6th Fleet of the Lebanese coast were not only to establish control of the Lebanese borders (there were some concerns that the Israelis might attempt to attack southern Lebanon), but also to claim a complete air superiority over Lebanon: no other military in the whole Middle East could compete with their firepower at the time.

The F8U Crusader was also a brand new interceptor in 1958: the VF-32 has got its first Crusaders barely a year before the outbreak of the crisis in the Middle East. Nevertheless, this outstanding fighter was rapidly developed for carrier service and to prove its worth off Lebanon, the pilots of the VF-32 eventually accumulating no less but 1.295 flying hours during this emergency, in July and August 1958. Note special colour markings on the F3H above and the F8U here, each being of specific significance. Official rules of the USN at the time specified strict aircraft numbers and trim colours to be used by each unit embarked on an aircraft carrier. For example, the first unit in each Carrier Air Group (CAG) had to designate its aircraft with serials 101 and up, and had Insignia Red as trim colour (as on the VF-31's Demon above). During the 1958 cruise on board USS Saratoga, VF-32 was the second unit within the CAG, and therefore had to designate its aircraft with serials 201 and up, and the Orange-Yellow trim colour. Interestingly, although these rules were largely forgotten during the Vietnam War, both the VF-31 and VF-32 were to keep their colours (red and yellow, respectivelly) from the 1950s and 1960s in their markings until today. (Artwork by Tom Cooper)

On 16 July the 3rd Battalion 6th Marine Brigade was deployed to Beirut IAP aboard C-124 transports of the MATS, followed by 1.750 paratroopers of the 24th Airborne Brigade US Army, brought in aboard C-130 transports of the 322nd Air Division from Germany (interestingly, at the time there were no major diplomatic problems because of overflight rights of different countries in the Europe, even if the skies of the neutral Austria were (mis)used by the USAF). The final landings occured on 18 July when the 1st Battalion 8th Marine Brigade arrived directly in Beirut. Two days later the US Army had 8.000 troops and the USMC some 6.000 Marines in and around a 20 kilometres wide and 16 kilometres deep bridgehead inside and around the Lebanese capital.

Pictures of USN aircraft from the 1950s and early 1960s are rarely seen outside specialized publications, and therefore the gaudy markings of US Naval Aviation from these times largely unknown in the public. The same can be said about several fighter and fighter-bomber types that saw service with the USN at the time. This F3H-2N Demon of the VF-31 (note the "Felix The Cat" squadron insignia on the top of the fin) was at the time one of the most modern interceptors of the World, just for example, equipped with Hughes APG-51A radar, four Sidewinder missiles and limited all-weather capability. It's potential firepower was therefore significant, especially when compared with the fact that at the time the Soviet Air Force (and several Middle-Eastern air forces too) was still largely equipped with MiG-17s, while the subsequent versions of the Demon were armed with AIM-7C Sparrows as well! Although plagued by engine problems early during the service, with the time the F3H was developed into a very fine and potent aircraft. During the Lebanon crisis the VF-31 bore the brunt of interceptor tasks - together with the VF-32 (see bellow). (Artwork by Tom Cooper)

The USAF was also activated for the intervention in Lebanon, and the Adana airfield in Turkey became the main hub for a concentration of some 150 tactical fighters in these days, including four squadrons of the 354th TFW – originally stationed at Myrtle Beach AFB – equipped with F-100Ds, which were actually involved in extended exercises in long-range deployments with help of aerial refuelling. At another Turkish airfield, in Incrlick, also five RF-101Cs of the 18th TRS (Shaw AFB) were stationed, followed by a number of B-57Bs of the 345th BG from Langley AFB.

Such concentration of forces appeared needed because in 1957 the Syrians started building a large new airfield near Palmyre, and also enlargened several existing airfields – all with Soviet help. It was expected that the Soviets or the Syrians might attempt to intervene as well.

British Reaction

Jordan was heavily hit by the coup in Iraq: originally, it was planned that these two countries – both rulled by Kings from the family of the Hashemite – were to become a union. Shortly after the coup in Baghdad, however, there was also a coup attempt in Amman: the King survived, but he felt there was a need for help from outside and on 16 July London received a corresponding request. Similar to the USA the British responded wihin the shortest possible time: they, however, had no similar forces in the area any more.

At dawn of 17 July 200 troops of the 2 Battalion 16 Para Regiment were brought to Amman by Hastings transports of the No.70 Sqn. This small force was initially very isolated then the Israelis would not permit any British aircraft to use their airspace. Under the pressure from the USA, however, the situation changed. Besides, the fighters from USS Saratoga and Essex were also sent to patrol the Jordanian airspace, and escort additional RAF transports that by the following day brought some 2.200 troops of the 16 Para to Amman, together with some light artillery.

At the time, VF-62's fighters from USS Essex were still patrolling east of Cyprus, where they several times encountered RAF Hunters from Acrotiri, as Ray Kolakowski recalled:
- The only aircraft that I recall seeing were British Hunters out of Cyprus. We would frequently get into friendly dogfights with them. When we stopped seeing them for a few days, I made a low pass over their airfield and dropped a note in effect saying, "We have missed you up here. Surely the mighty Hunter isn't affraid of the Fury!" The next morning they were in the sky again....

Additional reinforcements were simultaneously brought to Cyprus, where heavier equipment was delivered by Comet C.2s of the No. 216 Sqn, Shackletons of the 42 and 204 Sqns, and No. 84 Squadron’s Beverleys. In total, some 1.000ts of equipment and ammunition, 120 vehicles, and 18ts of fuel were brought to Amman by 20 July, when also No.208 Squadron’s Hunter F.Mk.6s were stationed on the local airfield.

The US intervention in Lebanon and the British in Jordan could not influence the situation in Iraq any more. But, the rapid reaction of the two powers certainly stabilised the situation. In Lebanon, new elections were organized in September and a new government under the President Fuad Chahab was successful in restoring peace and order.

The situation in Jordan was potentially more dangerous, then the Royal Jordanian Air Force (RJAF) was nowhere near being able to stand an attack by Syrian and Iraqi Air Forces. At the time, the RJAF operated only nine Vampire FB.Mk.9s and seven Vampire FB.Mk.52s (donated by Egypt). The USA and the UK could not know, namely, that the Iraqi Air Force (IrAF) was severely purged of officers considered as “royalists” too: in fact, many of the IrAF commanders were either executed or imprisoned by the new regime. Those arrested were to spend a number of years in prison, while dozens of the others had to leave the country.

Consequently, even if considerably reinforced by Soviet aircraft in the following years, the IrAF was not really operational before 1960.

Back in Jordan, by 11 August King Hussein received guarantees of loyalty from all the influential Bedouin tribes, and the British troops were then free to leave: the last of them have left Amman on 2 November 1958. The USAF, even if also heavily engaged in “fighting” the Cold War, was more than glad to subsequently take over the control of the Lebanese airspace after the USS Saratoga and USS Essex were ordered to leave Lebanese waters, on 23 August 1958 - even if subsequently the USS Forrestal (CV-59) was sent into the eastern Mediterranean, carrying also the F8U-2s of the VMFA-333 on board.

Through the rest of August and September 1958 USAF fighters flew dozens of reconnaissance sorties over the country. During one of these an RF-101C was damaged by small-arms fire from the ground. The last US troops have left Lebanon on 25 October 1958: both emergencies, that in Lebanon and the one in Jordan were solved without any fighting.

The aircraft carriers of the US 6th Fleet proved their worth on this occasion beyond any doubt, presenting the enormous US firepower very clearly to all the potential opponents. They also showed the immense capabilities of the US military to move large troop contingents from Europe anywhere into the Middle East, and support them sufficiently.

Interestingly, although they meanwhile knew very well how to use their carriers as powerful means of deterrent, the Americans failed to recognize their potential role in conventional warfare, especially in cases of smaller wars or emergencies like the one in Lebanon, in 1958, and this failure was to hit them heavily hardly a dozen of years later, during the war in Vietnam. In fact, the USN was not entirely to get free from the thinking in the frames of a massive nuclear war against the USSR until the 1980s, and even by the mid-1990s it was still foremost attempting to build a force that was to fight the Soviet naval power in the open seas of the northern Atlantic and Pacific, as well as in the Mediterranean. Surely enough, the USN was still careful enough to train for conventional wars as well. In fact, time and again its leadership stressed that the USA always had an excellent capability to fight "small wars", due to the mobility and ability to carry and deliver large amounts of ordnance with help of its fast carrier task forces. In fact, when Cdr. Ray Kolakowski was Navy liaison officer to the Air Force Systems Command, in 1960, there was a special office devoted to conventional war and the development of weapons and tactics in such warfare within the USN.

Few additional observations in regards of the US naval aviation of the late 1950s by Mr. Kolakowski:
- In the late 1950s each cruise was scheduled for about seven months. The USS Essex cruise in 1958 was unusual in that as our cruise was nearing it's end and the ship was anchored in the Bay of Naples we received orders to proceed to the Western Pacific In th area of TAIWAN - because of the Formosa Crisis - by way of the Suez Canal. We were tasked to cover the evacuation of the Ta-Chen Islands by those Chinese who wanted to escape to Formosa rather than live in communist China. We didn't mind the mission. What made us unhappy was that we were going to relieve a carrier that had left it's home port after we had left Mayport. This resulted in our not getting home until 16 November.

With regard to squadron readiness: when squadrons were operating from their home base they were always in training. There were hours of tactical air-to-air combat training. For actual air-to-air firing, training squadrons would deploy to an area where pilots could fire on a towed sleeve. In the case of VF-62 we deployed to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for a month of intensive gunnery training.

When I took command of VF-62 none of the pilots were qualified to land aboard a carrier at night. After all, they said, we are a day fighter squadron. My response was, "what happens if you are coming in to land at about dusk and the deck is fouled because of an accident and your landing is delayed and night falls? So there you are, low on fuel and faced with your first night landing. What are your chances? Everybody night qualifies before we deploy."

Night qualification consists of many hours of practicing carrier type landings on a designated area of a runway (at night) until the Landing Signal Officer feels that the pilot is qualified to make a night landing on a carrier - under ideal conditions. When all of the pilots are ready a carrier is assigned so that each pilot can make six satisfactory landings to achive qualification.

Maintenance of aircraft is a continuing operation and during carrier operations goes on 24 hours a day...Some problems are routine and can be fixed relatively easily. Sometimes the determining factor is the availability of spare parts. The Navy does a great job in keeping the squadrons supplied with spare parts but it is impossible to forsee every contingency. Frequently a plane that is down for lack of a part will be cannabalized for parts to keep other planes flying. In spite of every effort I considered that we were doing well to have 12 of our 15 planes flyable at any one time."

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