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919 SOW celebrates 50th anniversary, recalls early years

July 30, 2021 (by Retired Brig. Gen. Donald E. Haugen) - "As the first commander of the 919th and now a resident of Niceville, I have kept a close watch on the unit over the years. The 919th SOW is a special outfit in many ways. One reason the 919th is special is its heritage. Those who gave birth to the original organization were true pioneers.

MC-130E Combat Talon I #64-0565 rolls down the taxiway at Duke Field on April 15, 2013, for their final sorties before retirement. The last five Talons in the Air Force belong to the 919th SOW and are scheduled to be retired at a ceremony on April 25. They will make one final flight to the “boneyard” at Davis-Monthan AFB by the end of the fiscal year. [USAF photo by TSgt. Samuel King Jr.]

The Air Force is very careful in planning, programming, and budgeting. Any changes in units and missions are planned three to five years ahead of implementation. This allows time to build facilities, arrange for aircraft, equipment, manpower needs, and training.

But this did not occur in creating the 919th! The requirement for the 919th appeared almost overnight.

In the spring of 1971, I was attending Air War College at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama. Upon graduation, I anticipated returning to my old job in Minneapolis as the Tactical Airlift Group commander.

Two weeks before graduation, the AFRES commander called advising me of a new Reserve unit to be formed immediately at Duke Field, Florida and I should drive down and take a look at the situation.

I had never heard of Duke Field. I found it in the middle of nowhere and it looked like a ghost town with antiquated facilities. The base was barren and I saw nothing to accommodate a C-130 mission. When I relayed this to the AFRES commander, he said it would have to do and congratulated me as the new Commanding Officer. My job was to recruit, train, and house a 500-man unit with a C-130 tactical airlift mission ASAP! I could have cried.

I reported to the senior Eglin commander and introduced myself as one of his tenants. He said he had no facilities available but I could use an office in the command section until the occupant returned from leave.

This was the beginning of the 919th.

I called people who were qualified for senior staff positions but received a minimum response. No one wanted to leave their secure position for a lateral transfer to a unit with an uncertain future. Later, I learned of senior AFRES officers who were wagering this new unit would never succeed. Those who responded to my call knew they had accepted the challenge of their lives. True Pioneers!!

Hiring the senior staff was tough but recruiting the remaining 500 persons was harder. There was no AFRES recruiting service. There was no money for newspaper, TV, or radio advertisements. The local population base did not appear large enough to support a reserve flying unit.

We had no aircraft, buildings, or activity that suggested we were real. Potential recruits had a hard time finding us. We had no listing in any telephone directories.

As new members were brought into the unit, we turned them into recruiters and sent them to schools, shopping malls, fairs, etc. to spread the word of the opportunities available at the 919th. We even briefed barbers on our program in hopes they would pass on the information to their customers.

Lack of facilities was another problem. My requests for facilities were denied. Nothing was available. When I found the Duke Field base ops building, it had one dispatcher and several rooms filled with janitorial supplies and broken furniture. I demanded the use of the space and moved in. Telephones were ordered and we had our first headquarters.

Later we discovered another small abandoned building (Bldg. 3016). It had been used by the Son Tay Raiders for weapons storage. We claimed the building, scrubbed the cosmoline grease from the floor, and set up aircraft maintenance.

By this time AFRES civil engineers were planning new buildings. The projects looked great but construction would not be finished for 30 months or more.

Before the 919th had their own supply account, someone in the system decided to help us get started. [Approximately] $65,000 worth of equipment was sent to the 919th in care of Hurlburt Field. Hurlburt did not know we existed and it took weeks for them to track us down. We were eager for any new equipment but to our dismay, the shipment was new mattresses. We had no billeting, no beds, and no place to store the mattresses.

In October 1971, we received three RC-130A aircraft. They were photo mapping aircraft with sheet metal patches covering the openings in the fuselage where cameras had been. They were not capable of performing our tactical airlift mission but would serve as aircrew trainers.

By then, our biggest problem was maintenance support. We had no hangar, equipment, or spare parts at Duke Field. Every aircraft part, paper clip, or can of hydraulic fluid had to be transported 15 miles from Eglin.

All maintenance was done on the parking ramp during the day because we had no lighting. Ground support equipment was borrowed from Eglin. The inefficiency was maddening.

With maintenance limited to daytime only, we scheduled aircrew training at night. The problem with that was Duke Base Operations worked only eight hours a day. Therefore, we would launch aircraft before the runway closed in the afternoon and fly all night, staging out of Eglin main. The final sortie would recover at Duke when the runway opened at 7 a.m. The aircraft was turned over to maintenance until late afternoon when we would repeat the same pattern.

In early 1972, we acquired five vacant open bay barracks at Duke Field (the buildings across the street from Duke’s present-day shoppette). The barracks had been built during World War II as temporary facilities to last five years. Eglin would not renovate them because they were projected to be condemned and torn down. To us, the barracks looked like heaven. AFRES gave us $50,000 for materials. Reserve civil engineers from all over the U.S. performed their annual tours at Duke Field converting the old barracks into office space. The buildings are still here today.

Anyone who was in the 919th during the first two years will never forget the experience. Overcoming the challenges of the lack of facilities, equipment, communications, transportation, and supplies were shared by all.

Strangers came together for the first time and became a family with a common purpose. That family became an institution that has continued to grow stronger with each passing year.

The 919th Special Operations Wing is truly a very special outfit."

Courtesy of 919th Special Operations Wing

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