Not just weekenders Anniversary: Members of the Maryland Air National Guard, formed 75 years ago, stand ready to serve whenever and wherever they are called, most recently on missions to Bosnia.

June 15, 1996|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,SUN STAFF

Air combat has come a long way since its birth in World War I, when pilots dueled in balletic dogfights over trenches and dropped bombs by hand.

So has the Maryland Air National Guard, which has been around almost since that beginning. Its pilots have gone from weekend warriors flying fabric-covered biplanes in the 1920s to patrolling the skies over Bosnia in jet fighter-bombers and hauling cargo around the world.

Formed less than three years after World War I, the Maryland Guard aviation unit was among the country's first and will celebrate its 75th anniversary at 11 a.m. today at Warfield Air National Guard Base at Martin State Airport in Baltimore County.

At the ceremony, the Guard also will formally adopt its new designation, 175th Wing, which will embrace the formerly separate 135th Airlift Squadron and 104th Fighter Squadron and their ground-support units.

The reorganization streamlines the command structure for occasions when the Guard is called to active duty with the regular Air Force, said Col. Walter T. "Ted" Thilly, the vice wing commander.

That is happening with increasing frequency. As budget constraints shrink the Air Force, the citizen-soldiers of the Guard are shifting from supporting the regulars to replacing them on some missions, said Col. David A. Beasley, commander of the 175th Wing.

"Our motto is 'Poised in Readiness,' and that typifies our history. When we've been called, we've been ready at a moment's notice," said Brig. Gen. Bruce M. Tuxill, assistant state adjutant general for air and a former commander of the old 175th Tactical Fighter Group.

Nationwide, the Guard provides 40 percent of the Air Force's airlift capacity and 30 percent of fighter support, the general said.

Militia nation

"We are a militia nation," Tuxill said. "We never had a standing army until after World War II. In these days of declining budgets, the Guard costs less to maintain and can be tapped at any time."

The Guard is no less ready to fight than the regular military.

The Maryland wing's 1,800 men and women must meet the same exacting training standards as the Air Force. Flight crew members average 166 days a year in training and on active duty, while the rest drill for 48 days and train in the field 15 days annually, Beasley said.

They have earned top marks in Air Force readiness tests and have been tapped for every important mission from Somalia to Bosnia, as well as in Haiti, Korea, Panama, Honduras, Liberia and in drug interdiction in Central and South America.

Supplies to Bosnia

Maryland Guards from the 135th are on assignment flying supplies from Germany to United Nations peacekeeping troops in Bosnia. The fighter squadron has been to the Balkans several times since 1993, including earlier this year.

The Maryland Air National Guard began at the urging of a group of returned World War I fliers. The 104th Observation Squadron of the National Guard's 29th Infantry Division was sworn in June 29, 1921.

Operating from Logan Field, a private airfield that is now the site of Logan Village in Dundalk, the pilots trained in Curtis JN-4 "Jenny" biplanes borrowed on weekends from the Army Air Corps.

In those heady days, "It was a fun thing, like a country club. We even had a lacrosse team," recalled John Owen, 74, of Bel Air. He originally joined the National Guard's 5th Regiment in 1938. "But then I saw those guys flying around overhead," he said, "and I transferred to the air corps quickly and became a radio operator in the 104th."

As World War II loomed, the National Guard was federalized in February 1941. After Pearl Harbor was attacked on Dec. 7, the 104th was sent to Atlantic City to fly anti-submarine patrol along the East Coast.

Members dispersed

The squadron eventually was disbanded, however, as the men were dispersed to other units. Owen, for instance, trained as a night fighter and ended the war flying against the Japanese in the Pacific.

A number of Guard pilots served with distinction during the war, including now-retired Maj. Gen. Edwin Warfield III, for whom the Air Guard base is named.

In July 1945, Warfield, who later commanded the 104th, ditched his P-51 Mustang in the Pacific after it was damaged by flak during a raid near Tokyo. Warfield, who later served in the House of Delegates and as state adjutant general, spent four days in a life raft before his rescue by a Navy submarine.

Re-formed after the war, the 104th was still "fun, with lots of camaraderie," said Owen, but combat had given the men new seriousness.

Although the 104th was not called as a unit to fight in the Korean, Vietnam or Persian Gulf wars, a number of its members took part in each conflict.

Mission fulfilled

The unit continued to train, however, and in 1993 got the call to action supplementing the Air Force in the Balkans.

TC Two Maryland Air Guard pilots made the first U.N. air strike, in 1994. Flying A-10 Thunderbolt II planes, they destroyed a Serbian anti-tank gun after the Serbs violated an agreement and re-took U.N.-confiscated equipment.

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