Throw out the accolades as one of the top National Guard bases in the nation, if there has been one distinctive thing about the 185th Air Fighter Wing of the Iowa Air National Guard in Sioux City, it is a familial feel of support among those stationed there, said a half-dozen retired past leaders of the 185th Wednesday.
Speaking at a time when the 185th is making its most drastic change in a history that dates to 1946, the guard retirees talked warmly about their fellow officers and non-coms during a press conference. The on-the-record talk wasn't puffery either, as the informal introductions upon filtering into the room betrayed a strong warmth by men who had served their country going back to 1953.
Along with several wisecracks about infirmities due to aging and on nicknames recalled, the men were also a bit sober on their time of service at the 185th. Simply said, "We were a family," noted Darrell Lake, who had served from 1957 and 1984.
Robert Sorensen, the only enlisted man in the group, served the 185th from 1954 to 1994 in maintenance, fire department and safety positions. "This has been my life here," he said. "We not only knew each other's name, we knew their wives and kids."
Bill Hagemeyer, who flew at the base from 1966 until retiring in 1992, recounted that compared to his other career as a commercial pilot, "The Guard was the real thing. This was flying. ... The people, the camaraderie, that is what kept me around. "
The big change at the 185th is that military officials decided the primary plane at the base would move from being a fighter plane to a refueling tanker, the KC-135. That means the 174th Flying Squadron of the 185th will turn from single-seat fighters to a more sedate plane. The prior fighter planes at the base included the F-100 in 1961, the A-7 in 1977 and, most recently, the F-16 in 1992.
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While a few of the men noted the KC-135 is seen as something of a step down to the pilots, it needs to be accepted at a time when the military is downsizing. That was the view of Hagemeyer: "The glory is more in the fighters (planes), it always has been." He continued that the reality is that for the other base members, the change may not be so disconcerting. "The unit will continue and what jets we have sitting out here on the ramp really doesn't make all that much difference," said Hagemeyer. "The big thing is the unit. But you are going to have some disappointed fighter jocks."
That was the take, too, of Larry Harrington, who called the switchover "something we have to deal with ... we are willing to accept changes, which occur all the time." And the "we" is apt, since Harrington, former support group commander at the 185th, has three sons who are members of the 185th: Larry Jr., Pat and Nick, who will fly KC-135s. While one of the Harrington sons told their father it is "only" a tanker, the KC-135s definitely have a punch of thrust to them too.
As for the history of the 185th, it is a proud one and the story is not just about fighter pilots, but a host of others performing duties to get the planes up in the air.
The men agreed the highlight of the unit included the call to active duty missions in the Vietnam War, a time when they all were at the base.
Lake, an F-100 pilot in Vietnam, called the Vietnam 1968-69 deployment "one of my best memories of our unit." At time they were called up, every pilot had flown over 1,000 hours in F-100's, making them incredibly qualified compared to others. Lake said the forward air controllers "were very impressed with our work. The maintenance and the ground crew that we had, and still have, were outstanding. We were never afraid to fly the airplane, because we knew we had these top-notch people working for us. I am extremely proud and still am proud of the unit, and I am glad to see it is still continuing on as part of the Air Force."
Gordon Young, who was commander of the Vietnam 174th Squadron, recounted that the unit was "more qualified and experienced than any of the Air Force units over there. Our maintenance was so superb that we flew many more missions than any other unit in Vietnam in that year we were there. We would have almost all of our aircraft in commission almost every day, which is unheard of today."
Lloyd Pippett, a 185th member from 1953 to 1979 and the maintenance chief in Vietnam, explained that upon getting word to move in May 1968, 22 F-100's at the base departed for the conflict. "The Air Force people told me they had never heard of an outfit flying that far, and bringing that many airplanes, and landing in Vietnam," Pippett said. Of those 22, only three planes were shot down and only two members lost their lives.
Said Lake, "You could always tell our aircraft, because they always looked brand new when you went down the flight line. The other squadrons looked they had been through the Civil War."