Tech. Sgt. Mike R. Smith
National Guard Bureau
(Note: This reposted article was originally written and published April 9, 2007)
ARLINGTON, Va. (AF NEWS) — Their membership gets older and smaller every day. Nearly 60 years have passed since they formed, but time has not removed distant memories of 1946 and 1947 after these veterans helped claim victory in World War II and flew as Air National Guardsmen.
You may have met them on your drill weekends outside your shop or at a base function. He was that man with the silver hair who grabbed your elbow in the hallway one Saturday afternoon to tell you about those who came before you. Or it was another senior citizen describing how his and other Airmen’s voices filled the cockpits of retired aircraft and echoed in hangars long since torn down.
They are the Air Guard’s charter Airmen. They will be there when the Air Guard celebrates its 60th birthday this fall.
Some of these charter Airmen keep in touch with their units and share their whereabouts and experiences through alumni groups, museums, speaking engagements, and interviews.
Retired Colorado Air Guard Tech. Sgt. Harry Emily, 90, is the oldest living charter member of the Colorado Air Guard.
Sergeant Emily joined the National Guard in 1938 and left after World War II. He helped train pilots, navigators, and aero engineers on B-25 Mitchell bombers, and he went to school to serve in a P-38 Lightning fighter squadron. He said there were 17 members in 1946 when they reorganized the 120th Aero Observation Squadron into the 120th Tactical Fighter Squadron, which flew P-51 Mustang fighters. They were the first Air Guard members in the country to be federally recognized.
They federalized in Texas, and still have a photograph taken of the entire observation squadron. “That photo hangs in the Buckley Air National Guard Base headquarters building in Denver,” he said.
During the war, many Army Air Corps units were moved or broken up, and their experienced Soldiers scattered throughout the Army. After the war, the new Air National Guard Airmen came from a war-expanded and reorganized Army Air Force. These veterans were already forming Air Guard squadrons in their hometowns when Congress established the Air Guard Sept. 18, 1947.
Sergeant Emily said what defined the early Air Guard was no different than the National Guard today: The primary intent to take care of the state and to protect the nation in case of a national emergency. Everything has gotten bigger, he said, but the individuals and the families that sacrifice time to serve their state and country remain the same.
“They are doing a wonderful job, and, God, we can’t do enough to support them,” he said.
He and others from the original Colorado Air Guard do their best. The group helped build a museum. Established in 1994, the Winds over the Rockies Air and Space Museum in Denver is a place where people learn about the role of aviation and the Air Guard. The museum recorded and archived Sergeant Emily’s experiences on video.
“At my age, all you have left is memories,” he said. Sergeant Emily was an Air Guard member, a newspaperman, a husband, a father, a grandfather, and a great-grandfather. He lives in Denver with his wife, Frances.
The origins of the Colorado Air Guard and Sergeant Emily’s small group are similar to how other Air Guard units started throughout the country. Most units existed as a handful of seasoned combat flyers and mechanics from the war. Others were the Air Guard’s first recruits.
Lt. Col. Lloyd Goodrow, a public affairs officer for the Vermont Air Guard, said 27 World War II combat veterans organized the Vermont Air Guard, which was the fifth Guard unit to be federally recognized.
“The original 27 Air Guard members are now reduced to four,” Colonel Goodrow said.
The unit’s second wing commander, retired Brig. Gen. Richard Spear, is one of them. General Spear, who now lives in Arizona, was a pilot during World War II and started his own business when he returned home. But he left it when he heard there would be a flying unit in Burlington.
“We had just a big, empty field. There was absolutely nothing there,” the general said.
Colonel Goodrow said the unit leased a hangar from the city, which became home for their training aircraft, a C-47 Skytrain cargo plane, and an L-5 Sentinel liaison aircraft. Maintenance performed on the flightline. The unit provided air and sea rescue on Lake Champlain with its C-47, a 5-foot raft, and a 42-foot crash boat.
Today the Vermont Air Guard is involved in homeland defense. Since 9/11, its 158th Fighter Wing has defended the nation with its F-16 Fighting Falcons.
“Sixty years have passed, and so have many who proudly called themselves Vermont Air National Guardsmen,” said Colonel Goodrow.
He said high tech multimedia marketing plans have now replaced the days of knocking on doors of World War II veterans to invite them to sign up for the Air Guard.
“The ultimate desire to serve and make a difference remains the same,” Colonel Goodrow said. “These gentlemen, our original pioneers, lit the spark that became the powerful fire that is now the Air National Guard, and our gratitude for their courage and determination will remain. Our challenge is to carry on their great legacy.”
(Photo U.S. Army Spc. Jessica Stone)