A Look Into Air Mobility Command History: Operation Combat VEE

By MS. TRENDELYN ROSS, STAFF WRITER

Mosquitoes are universally disliked, but from 1967 to 1971, they were even more of a nuisance. During this time, mosquitoes were the main spreader of the dangerous Venezuelan Equine Encephalomyelitis (VEE), a nerve disease that causes swelling of the brain. The disease mainly affects horses but can also spread to humans and is known to be fatal. This outbreak originated in Colombia, South America, around December 1967. The warm, humid climate associated with the continent, along with flooding, allowed the mosquito population to thrive and spread the disease quickly. Over three years, VEE spread through Central America and Mexico until it finally reached the United States.

On July 3, 1971, the first case of VEE was confirmed in the United States, more specifically, in Brownsville, TX, a small town along the border of Mexico. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) had been tracking the disease and contacted the U.S. Air Force (USAF) for assistance. The Air Force jumped quickly into action and by July 6, 1971, operations against VEE began. Dubbed “Operation Combat VEE,” the 4500th Air Base Wing, based out of Langley Air Force Base (AFB), VA, deployed two C–123 spray aircraft to Texas. This organization was a special unit dedicated to aerial spray operations and had been running anti-mosquito operations since 1948. Within a few days, the aircraft had sprayed 2,400 gallons of insecticides over 120,000 acres around the Brownsville area.

Even with the fast response of the Air Force, the disease continued to spread, leading USDA to ask the USAF for a larger operation. Hence, additional C–123s, sent from the 319th Special Operations Squadron at Hurlburt Field at Eglin AFB, FL, arrived to assist the 4500th Aerial Spray Flight.

On July 17, Col Edward F. Borsare of the Tactical Air Command’s 1st Special Operations Wing took command of the Combat VEE task force. On July 20, Borsare requested the eight C-123s report to Ellington AFB near Houston to reorganize the operation. The 548th Special Operations Training Squadron also deployed nine C–47s to Ellington to support the operation. The next day, Operation Combat VEE was relaunched under new guidance.

An aggressive effort was underway to prevent any more mosquitoes from spreading the infection. Over the course of a month, 63,391 gallons of insecticide were sprayed over 3.5 million acres, spanning from Texas to Louisiana. A total of 597 flying hours were flown during this time. Aerial spraying took place primarily in the morning because the insecticide used needed a mild temperature. During this time, another C-123 spray aircraft was sent to aid Combat VEE from the 24th Special Operations Squadron based at Howard Air Force Base in Panama, Central America. This addition brought a total of 18 aircraft to the mission: nine C-123s and nine C-47s.

By mid-August, the quick actions of the Air Force helped to halt the spread of the epidemic and kept the disease contained to a small area of Texas.

Reports of the outbreak highlighted that 2,000 horses and 110 humans were infected with the disease, with 1,426 horse deaths confirmed. The assistance USAF employed proved invaluable; without it, VEE may have spread through the United States and infected many more horses and humans alike.