December 3, 2013
I had a 9:00 a.m. appointment with the curator who oversaw the restoration and display of the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force’s MiG-29. I was early, and since the museum wasn’t open yet and it was cold outside, I sat idling in the car. That’s when I decided to take a closer look at the museum’s Memorial Park, a scattered collection of monuments next to the parking lot.
There was time to kill, so, braving the frigid (from the perspective of a Miami resident) Ohio morning, I strolled over and chose a path at random—one of many meandering through the tall trees. Most visitors, myself included, probably walk past this place quickly on their way into the museum.
What a shame. On this morning hundreds of memorials revealed themselves, many still covered with early morning dew as the fog burned off in the adjacent fields.
There were the expected tributes to the most storied units in Air Force history—the American Volunteer Group (better known as the “Flying Tigers”), and the Eighth Air Force, the iconic group whose B-17s and B-24s showed the value of strategic bombing (of course, depending on who you talk to). These art deco memorials were imposing, and sometimes surprisingly beautiful.
It was easy to overlook some of the smaller markers along the paths, but these also caught my interest. I spotted a plaque dedicated to the 442nd Troop Carrier Group, the ancestor to my old Air Force Reserve unit, the 442nd Fighter Wing. During World War II, the 442nd played a role in the Normandy and Operation Market Garden airborne assaults, and after the war the unit carried on its cargo heritage by flying C-124s and C-130s, until it was re-equipped with A-10 “Warthogs” in the 1980s. Nice to have a small connection here.
Some tributes honored lesser known units like the support personnel of the World War II 390th Bombardment Group and 5th Communications Group during the Korean War. Others were dedicated to a single person, such as 23-year-old Lieutenant David Axthelm, memorialized by the 13th Fighter Interceptor Squadron after the crash of his F-86D in 1953.
Next time you’re in the Dayton area, take some time to walk among the more than 500 memorials honoring the service and sacrifice of Air Force units and individuals.
October 31, 2013
While working on an upcoming story, I was alerted to Sergey Isaev’s research on the transfer of MiG-21s (and MiG-15 trainers, along with air and ground crews) from the Soviet 32nd Air Guards Fighter Regiment to Cuba in 1962. The deployment coincided with the placement of Soviet ballistic missiles on the Caribbean island, which prompted the Cuban missile crisis in October of that year.
Isaev’s father, Mikhail, was one of the MiG crewman. He had steamed across the Atlantic aboard the Nikolayevsk, part of a flotilla of vessels transporting the men, a few nurses, and their aircraft to Cuba. All the Soviet military passengers were dressed in civilian clothes.
According to Sergey Isaev’s account:
All “passengers” were gathered for instructions. The representative drew a picture of “the political moment” and said: ‘ “Comrades, you are here not military servicemen; you are agricultural workers, tractor operators, agriculturists, in no way you here belong to the military service. Remember it!” Therefore, we have turned to “tractor operators”.’
As the flotilla neared the island, the elder Isaev, and others such as Evgueny Vladimirov, aboard the Volgoles, snapped photos of a US Navy P2V Neptune as it shadowed the ships:
August 15, 2013
The V-22 Osprey, the troubled and revolutionary aircraft known for a string of crashes early in its career and for its later redemption hauling Marines and their gear in Afghanistan, is now sporting the glossy dark green of Marine Helicopter Squadron One.
HMX-1, the unit that operates the VH-3Ds that whisk the chief executive to Camp David or Andrews Air Force Base, has now also begun to fly tiltrotor Ospreys (The helicopter is called “Marine One” when the president is on board). The leathernecks of HMX-1 are famous for unwavering precision, as numerous presidents have alighted on the White House lawn and returned a lazy hand to the poker-straight Marine saluting at the base of the helo’s stairs. The squadron is using MV-22 Ospreys for transport of administration aides and reporters.
The Osprey originated from a 1981 requirement for an experimental aircraft that would result in a unique blend of helicopter and turboprop airlifter. The JVX — which would become the V-22 in 1985, and which flew first in 1989, suffered a string of early accidents and controversy. Since 2009 the Osprey has been used in combat in Afghanistan, and it participated in humanitarian operations in Haiti in 2010. Over that period, the Osprey has racked up 160,000 safe flight hours and has gained grudging respect both from helo old hands and grunts on the ground who are spirited to war zones half a world away.
And, now, from the odd congressional staffer.
June 21, 2013
On June 10, the Royal Air Force Museum successfully raised the only known example of the Dornier 17, a Luftwaffe light bomber that made its debut in the late 1930s and was first used during the Spanish Civil War.
The recovery of the Dornier was hampered by bad weather, but the famously fickle English Channel weather finally allowed the aircraft to rise from the waves more than 70 years after it crashed during the Battle of Britain. First located by sonar in 2008, the aircraft has been sent to the Royal Air Force Museum at Cosford for restoration.
The Dornier participated in an attack on airfields in Kent on August 26, 1940, when it became separated from its formation, and was attacked by RAF fighters.
The recovery is a double find — not only a rare Do-17 (production of the aircraft ended in 1940, in favor of the Junkers Ju-88) — but a genuine relic from the Battle of Britain.
May 21, 2013
Thirty years ago, the A-10 “Warthog” first landed in Europe, ready to bring the fight to legions of Soviet tanks poised to roll through the Fulda Gap and into Western Europe. Designed around the fearsome General Electric GAU-8 Avenger 30-mm Gatling gun, the forward-based Hog pilots were to be the “speed bump” until reinforcements arrived from the States. At one time, there were about 140 A-10s stationed in England and Germany.
As a young Stateside A-10 crew chief in the 1990s, I would occasionally pack my tools and gear aboard a C-130 and follow the jets across the Atlantic to a rabbit-infested German Naval Base on the North Sea — just as my crewmates and I would have done had World War III broken out. There, we practiced crewing Hogs during simulated chemical warfare, complete with explosive charges that signaled a nerve agent “attack.” Hence, much of our work launching jets was done sweating inside gas masks and in head-to-toe chemical warfare gear.
Fortunately, the hostilities would cease most evenings in time for us to sample the foamy offerings at the local biergarten.
Alternately hated, then grudgingly respected, by Air Force senior leadership, the A-10 was headed to the boneyard in the late 1980s until the straightforward genius of its design was validated during the first Gulf War. It went on to fly close air support missions over Iraq (again), and still flies over Afghanistan. Today, with the addition of new targeting pods and upgraded cockpits, the stick-and-rudder old jet — perhaps the cleanest aeronautical expression of “form follows function” — is getting some digital flair. Conestoga wagon meets iPad.
In keeping with its new role, the A-10 has closed the book on its original mission. Just a few days ago, on May 18th, the last Warthog unit permanently stationed in Europe packed up and flew home. The 21 jets of Spangdahlem Air Base’s 81st Fighter Squadron will continue to serve at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona.
The A-10, along with a host of other aircraft, will eventually be replaced by the F-35 Lightning II, but that may not happen until as late as 2040. So, even as it’s surrounded increasingly by sexier pointy jets, the stubborn old Hog will soldier on.
May 1, 2013
Joseph Duehmig is someone I consider a hero. He’s also the father of one of my closest friends, and given our common Air Force background, he and I have had a few good-natured conversations about his son Mark’s questionable decision to join the Navy. One evening, at Mark’s promotion party to Lieutenant Commander, Mr. Duehmig and I spent some time looking through Lackland Air Force Base’s Internet collection of Air Force basic military training photos.
Duehmig was at Lackland in the early 1950s; I was stationed there with the 3757th Student Squadron in 1987. It was thrilling to share that heritage with a fellow Airman who had signed up only a few years after the Air Force came into being as a separate service. After basic training, we both went on — decades apart — to aircraft maintenance school. Joe Duehmig became a flying crew chief on arguably the most important aircraft of the 20th Century — the Boeing B-47 Stratojet.
The U.S. Army Air Forces (the predecessor of the USAF) sought proposals for a turbine-powered bomber as early as 1943; Boeing would roll out its iconic XB-47 — influenced by captured German data on the swept wing — in September 1947. The B-47, with its six podded engines, is the ancestor of every jet airliner in flight today. Duehmig, stationed at Lake Charles Air Force Base in Louisiana, started crewing, then flying, the Stratojet in 1953. He sat on the step below the pilot and copilot; he was strapped in, but wore no parachute, although he had one at the ready. Lucky for him. “We had an engine catch on fire. I couldn’t see anything; the only way I could see was to stand up and look out between the pilot and co-pilot. We were ready to bail out, but I guess they got the fire out.”
Lake Charles had two wings of Stratojets — 90 jet bombers — plus a wing of Boeing KC-97 tankers, with their brutal World War II-era Pratt & Whitney R-4360 radial engines. While he was on temporary duty, Duehmig’s first B-47 was lost in a refueling accident over the Gulf of Mexico. “They dropped the rear gear to slow down; one of the planes came over the top of mine and his gear hit the canopy and knocked it off,” he recalls. The bombardier/navigator, down below in the nose of the aircraft, ejected after hearing the impact and roar of the wind after the canopy separated. He was never found. The pilot and co-pilot brought the crippled jet back to Lake Charles, where it was readied for a trip back to Boeing’s Wichita, Kansas, facility for repairs. When the Bomb Wing would deploy (to posts as far afield as Morocco), Duehmig and his fellow maintenance troops would pack minimal tools to keep their silver Stratojets airborne. Skill, and borrowed wrenches from the transient maintenance crew were all they needed. “Once or twice a year, I flew a ‘globetrotter’ mission,” he says. “We’d be up for 24 hours, refuel four times. Sometimes we’d have a sleeping bag, so the pilot and co-pilot could take a nap.”
Joseph Duehmig also crewed Boeing B-29s and Lockheed T-33s. After he left the Air Force, he returned to Indiana, raised four boys — Mark, Joe, Bob, and Dave (UPS Douglas DC-8 and Boeing 757/767/747 pilot) — and worked in the fledgling computer industry.
He’s a soft-spoken and honorable man, whose term of enlistment included witnessing the dawn of the jet age.
March 13, 2013
It’s not a new debate. For generations, members of the military have compared their service to those of their peers, or had that comparison made for them. Did you serve in the elephant grass of Vietnam, or turn a wrench from a base in Thailand? Was your service as hoo-ah as mine? Either way, we both packed our bags, left our families, and went to war.
The nation formally honors soldiers, sailors, coast guardsmen, airmen, and marines by giving them medals, and we recognize a career of military service with retirement pay and medical benefits. Two recent news stories have opened both practices to question. Do drone pilots — who often control Predators from the United States — deserve their own medal? And should the SEAL who killed Osama bin Laden, but left the service before his 20 years were up, get a monthly pension check?
A recent decision by the Department of Defense created the Distinguished Warfare Medal to recognize drone pilots who pull the trigger without deploying to the front lines. The New York Times quoted former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta: “I’ve seen firsthand how modern tools like remotely piloted platforms and cybersystems have changed the way wars are fought…and they’ve given our men and women the ability to engage the enemy and change the course of battle even from afar.” As you might expect, that provoked some heated discussion from GIs in the blogosphere and in print, and the new medal is already up for formal review.
I served in Afghanistan, but as a support squadron commander at what was arguably the safest place in the country: Bagram Air Field, near Kabul. Still, we had rocket attacks (I brought a piece of shrapnel home in my bag from one), and once a direct-fire assault sent us running for cover. Even as a dedicated REMF (Rear Echelon Bleepedy Bleep), my deployment was a life-altering experience. At any hour of the day or night, we were on hand to honor the remains of those who had fallen. At 0200, you would don your uniform, grab your weapon, line the road leading to the C-17, and salute the transfer case that passed before you. While I was there, I saluted 55 cases. On one occasion I remember lending a firm grasp to the shoulder of one of my young Airmen whose face was wet with tears. Truth was, if I hadn’t been expected to hold it together as the squadron commander, I would have been just as visibly affected.
Secretly, I was ashamed that I wasn’t in as much danger as those whose bodies passed before me on all those windy and dust-choked nights. Most of them were barely out of their teens; some had taken their own lives. I was old enough to be their father – and still alive. After I left, insurgents dropped a rocket on the procession one evening, killing two sleepy soldiers who were simply paying their respects to fallen comrades.
If you’re a GI, whenever you meet a fellow serviceman or woman in dress uniform, your eyes fall on the ribbons. Those tightly packed bits of fabric tell the story of their service to the country. Been to Afghanistan? Or Iraq? There’s a campaign medal — and corresponding ribbon — for that. As a non-flying Air Force officer, you can probably expect to receive the Meritorious Service Medal as a major or lieutenant colonel for a successful squadron command tour in a combat zone. Some above me in the chain of command received Bronze Stars for their time in the desert, which, in its most basic form, is given for achievement in a forward area. A Bronze Star with valor — a “V” — is reserved for direct contact with the enemy. But a Bronze Star is a Bronze Star, whether or not the “V” is attached. The rub, to some, is that the new Distinguished Warfare Medal, which can be earned from the United States, will be worn above the Bronze Star in the carefully prescribed ranking of military decorations. But according to the defense department, it will only be awarded for truly exceptional actions, such as a drone strike on a suspected terrorist. And, it won’t be given for valor — situations that involve risk of life to the recipient.
So why the uproar? When I said goodbye to my family before my tour in Afghanistan, I remember my son sobbing in the driveway as I left. Yet there were thousands of troops who were in far, far greater danger than I. Truth is, unless you’re the one who double-tapped Osama bin Laden, there are always some people closer to the “tip of the spear” and others farther away, even in a war zone. There was virtually no chance I wasn’t going to return to my family. I spent a great deal of my time with Afghan contractors, figuring out how to house 1500 Airmen — mostly in plywood shacks, and I mostly fought boring base administrivia. Not exactly Iwo Jima stuff. If I stand next to an Army Specialist who survived multiple IED attacks, our Afghanistan Campaign Medals are exactly the same. Should his be different to show the greater danger he was in? There are probably many who would say yes.
Similarly, the first guy or gal who gets a Stateside-earned Distinguished Warfare Medal — but who got to go home every night to kiss his or her spouse — will get the GIs talking. The controversy about the DWM is that it expands the traditional definition of what it means to engage the enemy.
Beside awarding medals and ribbons for specific actions, we recognize military service by ensuring a lifetime of retirement pay and medical benefits (starting at age 60 for a reservist) for those with 20 years of active or reserve duty. That’s whether you were a cook, fighter pilot, platoon sergeant, submarine captain, or chaplain. But what about those who leave the service short of 20 years, and therefore receive no retirement, even if they’ve been to Iraq a dozen times? What do we owe them?
That’s the central issue of the Esquire cover story about “The Shooter” who killed Osama Bin Laden. The magazine, one of my favorites, normally features an “it” girl or guy on the cover. The March newsstand issue is swathed in black, with stark white letters screaming that the SEAL trigger man is being screwed by the U.S. government. The Shooter served 14 years of active duty: so, no retirement. Was there a reason he left early? I read and re-read the story, hoping to find out why. The cover blurb and editor’s preface — which, as my editor pointed out, are designed to sell magazines — decry the injustice done to that hero. And he is a hero in my eyes. I wouldn’t last a day in SEAL training, much less be able to do what he did. But consider this: Most of the soldiers who took fire on Utah, Juno, and Omaha beaches during the Normandy invasion had been civilians five years earlier. And many of them didn’t get active retirements either.
There are all manner of troops who don’t make it a career. Some move on, like the Marine Corps staff sergeant who does multiple tours in Afghanistan or Iraq, then gets a degree and a good job in the private sector. There are countless others whose experiences facing roadside bombs or sniper fire were simply waypoints in their life journey. They’re heroes. They deal with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and other ailments, and carry on. Aside from some Veterans Administration benefits, they get no retirement. Every person in the military signs up under the same rule: Twenty years is twenty years. And, today we must recognize that a Stateside pilot or sensor operator can take out a suspected terrorist or bomb-setter. And, whether a kill is made from the cockpit of an A-10 or while piloting a drone from Nevada, the bad guy on the ground is just as dead.
In today’s warfare, it’s more difficult than ever to parse a serviceman’s records and call one deserving and the other not. The Shooter relied on thousands who made that kill possible — most likely even drone pilots or cyber specialists. If the rules need to change for medals and retirement, let’s do it with an eye toward the modern nature of warfare, and not just because we’re valuing one soldier’s, or one group of soldiers’, experience over any other.