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Kentucky Airmen responded to Pueblo crisis 50 years ago

By John Trowbridge | Kentucky National Guard | June 8, 2018

FRANKFORT, Ky. -This year and next mark the 50th anniversary of the activation of the Kentucky Air National Guard's call-up and 17 months of federal service in support of the Pueblo crisis.

On Jan. 23, 1968, the United States Naval Ship Pueblo (AGER-2), a technical research ship (Naval Intelligence) was boarded and captured by the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, off the coast of North Korea, in what has become known as the Pueblo incident or alternatively as the Pueblo crisis.

This incident precipitated the recall to federal service of the Kentucky Air National Guard's 123rd Tactical Reconnaissance Wing at Shewmaker Air National Guard Base in Louisville on Jan. 26. Orders for the Wing and all other units of the Kentucky Air National Guard (except for State Headquarters) called for 24 months' active duty, unless sooner relived.

This no-notice recall abruptly brought 104 officers and 650 Airmen of the Kentucky Air National Guard to an active duty status, giving them no time to adjust from civilian life. Nevertheless, within 24 hours, all members of the Kentucky units reported for duty.

By Jan. 29, the initial "recall shock" leveled off, and the Kentucky units launched into serious training. Aircrews were sent incrementally to Sea Survival School at Homestead Air Force Base, Florida, and to tactical training at Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina, home of the Tactical Air Reconnaissance Center. Other training included camera repair, aircraft maintenance, photo processing and interpretation, and intelligence debriefing.

On May 28, the unit was alerted that it would be moved to Richards-Gebaur Air Force Base, Missouri, located south of Kansas City. On July 9, ceremonies were conducted at Shewmaker Air National Guard Base for the departing units.

Aircraft from squadrons in Kentucky and Nevada were deployed in flights destined for Richards-Gebaur. By July 14, back at Shewmaker, personnel not assigned to Richards-Gebaur were beginning to leave for other assignments.

The main part of the personnel assigned to Richards-Gebaur reported July 22. On July 23, the 154th Squadron was launched for temporary assignment to Itazuke Air Base, Japan. This was the first rotation of wing units to the Far East.

The Wing supported two other major operational commitments, "Coronet Sombrero" and "Cool Optic II." The "Coronet Sombrero" deployment was to Howard Air Force Base under the Southern Command in the Panama Canal Zone. The "Cool Optic II," deployment was to Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska, under the Alaskan Air Command.

The 192nd Squadron's detachment was deployed to Panama on Aug. 8. On Aug. 16, the 165th Squadron sent its detachment to Elmendorf.

By Oct. 16 the rotation of personnel in the detachment at Howard Air Force Base was due and a contingent from the 165th departed for Panama. There they replaced the 192nd Squadron, to continue "Coronet Sombrero."

The 154th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron returned to Little Rock Air Force Base for deactivation Nov. 20-21. The 154th and 123rd Reconnaissance Technical Squadron were returned to state control in ceremonies held a month later.

In January 1969, the 165th Squadron began its rotation to the Far East, bound for Itazuke Air Base, Japan. The unit flew 18 sorties per day routinely as directed by the operations center at Osan Air Base, Korea. Most were photo reconnaissance missions of bridges, railway complexes, communication facilities, airfields, and radar sites. One of their biggest jobs was prestrike photography for Exercise "Focus Retina," the longest airborne assault in history, which took place in Korea in March.

In late April the 165th returned to Richards-Gebaur. From May 18-25, the Kentucky and Nevada contingents of the 123rd Wing departed from Richards-Gebaur returning to their respective Air National Guard bases. A deactivation ceremony for the Kentucky Air Guard members was conducted at Louisville June 9, 1969.

During the recall period of 17 months, following several major reorganizations including the inactivation of Group Headquarters, together with most of its component units, the entire Wing compiled an enviable record. The 123rd Wing units had flown approximately 20,000 tactical flying hours, from a total of 11,561 sorties, and delivered almost 320,000 reconnaissance prints to requesting agencies. The command was deployed on important missions to the Panama Canal Zone, the Alaskan Air Command and to Itazuke Air Base, Japan.

When the unit went onto active duty they had 20 RF-101s (G and H-models), two TF-101s (Voodoo Trainer), one Douglas C-54 Skymaster transport and three Lockheed T-33 Shooting Star Trainer. They acquired one additional C-54 while on active duty and lost one RF-101 in Missouri in a crash that killed Capt. Robert W. Sawyer.

During their time on active duty, the Wing had two Airmen killed in aviation accidents; the first was Staff Sgt. Ralph G. Baumgart, serving with the 123rd Consolidated Aircraft Maintenance Squadron. He was killed in the crash of a 1946 Aeronca aircraft on Feb. 3, 1968, while on leave visiting his family at Lanesville, Indiana. Baumgart had his private pilot's license and was flying with another member of the Lanesville Aero Club at the time of the accident; both were killed in the crash. At the time of his death Baumgart was 24. He was a graduate of Lanesville High School, an employee of Paul Moffit & Associates of Sellersburg, and a member of the St. John's Lutheran Church in Lanesville.

Capt. Robert W. "Buzz" Sawyer, of the 165th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron, was the second casualty of the Wing. While on a routine training flight Aug. 5, taking aerial photographs of a section of Missouri, without radioing that he was in trouble, Sawyer ejected from his aircraft just before it crashed near Kansas City. According to Col. Verne Yahne, Sawyer was killed when his parachute failed to fully deploy. At the time of death, Sawyer, a native of Buffalo, New York, and graduate of the University of Buffalo, was 30, living at Nashville, Tennessee, and working as a pilot for American Airlines.

During the recall, a total of 69 members of the Kentucky Air National Guard were discharged on expiration of enlistments. Only five of these were released for hardship reasons—an outstanding record of sacrifice and service.

At various ceremonies, 37 individual awards were presented to Kentucky Air National Guard members for outstanding performance of duty during the recall (1-Bronze Star Medal, 1-Joint Service Commendation Medal, 1-Meritorious Service Medal, and 34-Air Force Commendation Medals). Performance during the period attained the unit its first Air Force Outstanding Unit Award.

Kentucky Units affected by the recall (with their gaining command in parentheses) were:

HQs, 123rd Tactical Reconnaissance Wing (Tactical Air Command)

HQs, 123rd Tactical Reconnaissance Group (Tactical Air Command)

165th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron

123rd Tactical Hospital

123rd Combat Support Squadron

123rd Consolidated Aircraft Maintenance Squadron

123rd Supply Squadron

123rd Communication Flight (Air Force Communications Service)

165th Weather Flight (Air Weather Service-MAC)

Non-Kentucky units of the 123rd Wing affected by the recall were:

189th Tactical Reconnaissance Group and subordinate units, Little Rock, Arkansas. 123rd Reconnaissance Technical Squadron, Little Rock, Arkansas.

152nd Tactical Reconnaissance Group, Reno, Nevada.

123rd Units not affected by the recall:

190th Tactical Reconnaissance Group, Hutchinson, Kansas.