ARLINGTON, Va. - Their membership gets older and smaller every day. Nearly 60 years have passed since they formed, but time has not removed distant memories of 1946-47 after they had claimed victory in World War II and flew as Air National Guardsmen.
You may have met them on your drill weekends. Maybe outside your shop or at a base function: 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, and how their voices filled the cockpits of retired aircraft and echoed in hangers long since torn down.
They are the Air Guard's charter Airmen, the first to serve. They will be among us when the Air Guard celebrates its 60th birthday this fall. For many, we may never know who they are, where they are or how they helped set the Air Guard on its path. Still others keep in touch with their units and share their whereabouts and experiences through alumni groups, museums, speaking engagements, interviews and, yes, hallways outside your workshop.
Retired Colorado Air Guard Tech. Sgt. Harry Emily missed his last two alumni meetings. He is 90, and he is the oldest living charter member of the Colorado Air Guard and certainly among the oldest in the entire Air Guard. He said he was disappointed about not being able to see his Guard friends, but it was just too much for him to travel. "There is nothing more important than your friends," he said.
"You're talking to a most fortunate person," Emily said about his life as an Air Guard member, a newspaper man, a husband, a father, a grandfather and a great-grandfather. He lives in Denver with his wife Frances.
Emily joined the National Guard in 1938 and was discharged 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 were federalized in Texas, and a photograph was taken of the entire observation squadron. "That photo hangs in the Buckley Air National Guard Base headquarters building in Denver," Emily said.
During the war, many Army Air Corps units were moved or broken up, and their experienced Soldiers were 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 on Sept. 18, 1947.
Emily said what defined the early Air Guard was no different than the National Guard today: the basic 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 were people learn about the role of aviation and the Air Guard in our nation's history.Â The museum recorded and archived Emily's experiences on video.
"At my age all you have left is memories," he said.
The origins of the Colorado Air Guard and Emily's small group are similar to how other Air Guard started throughout the country. Â 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 ANG unit to be federally recognized.
"The original 27 Air Guard members are now reduced to four," Goodrow said.
The unit's second wing commander, retired Brig. Gen. Richard Spear, is one of them. 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," Spear said in a 2006 interview.
Goodrow said the unit leased a hanger from the city, which became home for their training aircraft: a C-47 Skytrain cargo plane and an L-5 Sentinel liaison aircraft. Maintenance was performed on the flight line. The unit provided air and sea rescue on Lake Champlain with its C-47, a five-foot raft, and a 42-foot crash boat.
Today the Vermont Air Guard claims to be "heavily involved in homeland defense. Since 9/11, its 158th Fighter Wing has defended the nation with its F-16 Fighting Falcon fighter aircraft. The facilities, the number of personnel, the cost of each aircraft, even the mission concept of today's 158th Fighter Wing would stagger the imagination of the unit back in 1946. It's no longer dependent on second-hand, cast-off equipment or viewed by the active military and the public as a bunch of 'weekend warriors.' The Vermont ANG and other reserve components have become a vital part of the 'Total Force' concept."
"Sixty years have passed, and so have many who proudly called themselves Vermont Air National Guardsmen," said Goodrow.
Goodrow said the days of knocking on doors of World War II veterans to invite them to sign up for the Air Guard have now been replaced by high tech multi-media marketing plans.
"The ultimate desire to serve and make a difference remains the same," said Goodrow. "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."
The Air Force and the Air National Guard are celebrating their 60th birthday with events from now until September. You can view a schedule of these events and news at www.af.mil/library/usaf60.asp