Airlift wing carries legacy into the future

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Matthew Rosine
  • Air Force Print News
While much Air Force history can be found in volumes of books at the local library, its living heritage is not so easy to find.

Or so most people think. In reality, Air Force heritage and history is easy to find in its Airmen and the units in which they serve.

The 15th Airlift Wing at Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii, is a living example of Air Force heritage and mission success.

"Of course, we're proud of our heritage here," said Col. John Torres, the 15th AW commander. "We take our heritage from the 15th Pursuit Group and we understand that we need to continue that lineage."

The modern-day transition of the wing to its current mission has been long and full of activity over the past 60-plus years. The unit has successfully evolved from a World War II fighter base to an airlift wing.

Today, the wing is the airlift arm of U.S. Pacific Command. Wing members have the job of supporting airlift operations for the command, whose mission is helping promote security and peaceful development in the Asia-Pacific region by deterring aggression, advancing regional security cooperation, responding to crises, and fighting to win.

It is a mission for which the wing has had to evolve to do.

Originally activated Dec. 1, 1940, the 15th Pursuit Group was a fighter unit that flew aircraft out of Wheeler Field, Hawaii. A year later, its Airmen fought the Japanese during the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor.

As the war progressed, the group continued fighting and supporting the aerial mission in the Pacific. In 1942, it evolved to meet future missions and became an interceptor unit. Later that year, its name changed to the 15th Fighter Group to reflect its new mission. It also received the mission of providing combat training for pilots.

In 1944, the group's mission advanced again when it began training for "very-long-range" bomber escort duties. These missions proved to be a vital success in the Pacific as its P-51 Mustangs escorted B-29 Stratofortress bombers that struck targets in the heart of Japan, like the Nakajima aircraft plant near Tokyo and airfields on Kyushu Island.

But its combat mission continued. One major example was when the group supported ground combat with bombing and strafing runs as Marines took the island of Iwo Jima.
In the 1950s, the group evolved again as it was re-designated to fly an air defense mission over Niagara Falls, N. Y. -- its new home.

The unit's evolution continued two years after its inactivation in 1960 as the 15th Tactical Fighter Wing at its new home, MacDill AFB, Fla. As the Cuban Missile Crisis heated up, the mission changed again -- from training to mission capable.

Deploying to Southeast Asia to provide air defense and combat support, it was wing pilots Capts. Thomas Roberts, Ronald Anderson, Kenneth Holcombe and Arthur Clark, who scored the first Air Force aerial combat victories in Vietnam -- two MiG-17 Fresco fighters July 10, 1965.

The wing inactivated at MacDill AFB in 1970, but returned to its Pacific home when it re-activated Nov. 1, 1971, at Hickam AFB. It was here that the newly designated 15th Air Base Wing began its newest mission for the Air Force.

During the next few decades, the wing continued to manage various Air Force bases and smaller subsidiary bases as well as providing en route support operations in the Pacific.

The wing made its most current evolution April 28, 2003. The newly designated 15th Airlift Wing began its combined active duty and associate Air National Guard C-17 Globemaster III operations. The C-17s changed the wing's en route support mission to local and worldwide airlift operations in support of combat and humanitarian missions. It gave American commanders in the Pacific both strategic and tactical airlift capability.

"From the very first day the United States was attacked (Pearl Harbor), [Airmen] have provided aerial defense support for the island," Colonel Torres said. "We are very proud to be tied to that heritage. Just as in World War II, Hickam is leading the way as the power projection platform in the Pacific."

Today the wing continues its heritage of excellence partnered with the 154th Wing of the Hawaii Air National Guard and Air Mobility Command's 735th Air Mobility Squadron -- both located at Hickam AFB.

But the wing's mission goes beyond the Pacific Rim.

"We are doing our part over in the desert," the colonel from Enterprise, Ala., said. "We are more than just flying planes. Our outstanding Airmen are participating in all aspects of the war on terrorism."

Over the past three years, the wing has also supported numerous humanitarian missions in addition to its combat role. The wing has flown many tsunami relief missions and was a heavy contributor supporting the humanitarian mission after the Philippine mudslides.

And while the wing's mission has evolved and grown many times to meet "future" challenges, its heritage is one of adapting and overcoming any challenge the future holds for the unit.

"The future will change the dynamics of our mission," Colonel Torres said. "But, like any great organization, it evolves and we will evolve to meet and beat and challenge.

The U.S. Air Force Academy 1985 distinguished graduate said for wing Airmen, the sky is the limit for operations from Hawaii.

"We are proud of the heritage we have and of the heritage we are going to have," he said.

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