By John A. Okonski, 51st Fighter Wing historian
/ Published August 14, 2013
OSAN AIR BASE, Republic of Korea -- On Aug. 18, 2013, the 51st Fighter Wing celebrates its 65-year anniversary as an active duty unit of the U.S. Air Force. Throughout those years, the wing has compiled an illustrious record in combat and peace.
The '51st' designation traces its legacy to activation of the 51st Pursuit Group on Jan. 15, 1941 at Hamilton Field, Sacramento, Calif. It was one of the first fighter groups to enter combat action in World War II after the Pearl Harbor attack. The group deployed to India and China, where it served with honor for more than three years in combat against Japanese forces.
After a brief period of inactivation following World War II, the 51st Fighter Group was reactivated at Naha Air Force Base, Okinawa, on Oct. 15, 1946, and assigned to the 301st Fighter Wing. The 301st had a post-war mission to defend the Ryukyu Islands against air attack.
During 1947 and 1948, the newly-independent Air Force tested a "wing-base" plan also known as a Hobson Plan, which brought important changes in the organization of Air Force field units. Each combat wing in the test had a combat, maintenance, medical and supply group. It also had an airdrome, later air base, group to operate base facilities and services. This wing-base test standardized the functions of the wing elements, and permanently aligned the support organizations with the parent wings.
As part of the Hobson wing-base plan, Head Quarters USAF activated the 51st FW on Aug. 18, 1948 at Naha AB. Personnel of the 301st FW became charter members of the newly-activated 51st FW. Subordinate units assigned to the 51st FW included the 51st FG, 51st Air Base Group, 51st Maintenance and Supply Group, 51st Station Medical Group, 529th Aircraft Control and Warning Group, 17 squadrons, 51st Finance Disbursing Unit, 6302nd Boat Unit and the 1404th Military Policy Company.
Although an entirely new organization in the historical and lineal sense, the 51st FW later was bestowed the battle honors, history and colors of the 51st FG. The 51st FW was one of five Pacific Air Force units activated under the Hobson plan between Aug. 10-18, 1948. The other four wings activated at this time were the 3rd Bombardment Wing, 8th FW, 18th FW, and 35th FW. The 51st FW was re-designated the 51st Fighter-Interceptor Wing in 1950.
The 51st FIW entered combat service in the Korean War on Sept. 22, 1950 when it moved to Itazuke AB, Japan, to support the breakout of the 8th Army and Republic of Korea ground forces from the Pusan Perimeter. For nearly four years, the 51st FIW played a key role in the defense of the ROK despite moving to four different locations within a year and operating under austere conditions.
The Korean War record of the 51st FIW was impressive. Wing pilots flew more than 45,000 sorties; they shot down 308 MiG-15s, and produced 14 air aces to include the top USAF Ace of the war, Capt. Joseph C. McConnell Jr., who had 16 aerial victories. The ratio of aerial victories to losses for the wing was 10 to one. Unfortunately, the wing lost 52 pilots during combat missions. Nine other pilots who were shot down, moreover, became prisoners of war, but were repatriated after the Armistice was signed on July 27, 1953. One POW, Capt. Harold E. Fischer, was the wing's first Double Ace. He was captured by the Chinese on April 7, 1953, and finally released in Hong Kong on May 31, 1955.
For its wartime service, the ROK President Syngman Rhee awarded the 51st FIW two Korean Presidential Unit Citations to go with the wing's nine campaign streamers.
On Aug. 1, 1954, the 51st FIW returned to Naha AB, and during the next 17 years, provided the Ryukyu Islands with air defense coverage. While performing this mission, the wing demonstrated its mobility readiness on three occasions in response to regional crises, and experienced several major organizational changes.
Budgetary constraints and manpower reductions in 1957 resulted in the 51st FIW undergoing its first major reorganization. The wing became a "purely tactical organization" on Aug. 15, 1957 with only three assigned units: the 16th and 25th Fighter Interceptor Squadrons and the 51st Field Maintenance Squadron. Base support functions were provided by the 313th Air Division. This circumstance lasted until July 18, 1960 when the 51st ABG was reactivated and assigned to the wing, and delegated base support operations.
Despite the cutbacks in 1957, the wing continued its primary mission of air defense of the Ryukyu Islands while carrying out a mobility commitment throughout the Pacific Theater.
From Aug. 29, 1958 to Jan. 26, 1959, the 51st FIW deployed eight F-86s to Taiwan to fly combat air support missions for Nationalist Chinese forces after mainland Communist Chinese forces shelled the Nationalist-held islands of Quemoy and Matsu.
Six years later, the wing deployed 12 F-102s to the Philippines and South Vietnam from Aug. 5, to Dec. 4, 1964 to provide air defense against possible communist North Vietnamese air attacks.
The wing again became involved in an event of international and regional importance. On Jan. 23, 1968, North Korean naval forces seized the USS Pueblo. From Jan. 30, to Feb. 20, 1968, the 51st sent 12 F-102s to Suwon AB, South Korea. As the crisis abated, the fighters redeployed to Naha AB only to return to Suwon in June 1968, and continue its air defense role there through March 1971.
In 1971, HQ USAF announced major force reductions and realignments of USAF units in Japan to include the 51st FIW. On May 31, 1971, inactivation of the 51st FIW ended almost 19 total years of service in the Pacific from Naha AB as the base was transferred to the Japanese Self Defense Forces.
Amid the organizational turbulence throughout the Pacific in 1971 due to the Vietnam drawdown and realignments in Japan, HQ PACAF assigned new unit designations to three support wings at Hickam AFB, Osan AB, and Yokota AB. The PACAF commander noted that he wanted to revive the historic lineage of decorated World War II units. As a result, on Nov. 1, 1971, the 51st Air Base Wing replaced the 6314th Support Wing as the host unit at Osan AB.
The '51st' designation was once again in the ROK, but now served as a support organization without a combat mission for the first time. Aside from operating Osan AB, the wing also was responsible for the Koon-Ni air-to-ground range complex and up to 10 remote sites around the peninsula.
To carry out these roles, the wing's aircraft inventory consisted of C-47s, C-123s, T-33s, VT-29s, and CH-3s. Its status as a non-combat wing lasted less than three years. On Sept. 30, 1974, HQ PACAF re-designated the 51st ABW as the 51st Composite Wing when it added two flying missions - the wing gained an F-4 (36th) fighter squadron and an OV-10 (19th) tactical air support squadron.
The wing assumed additional missions in 1976 with a tactical control squadron, direct air support squadron, and a tactical air control center squadron. These units comprised the Korean Tactical Air Control System. By 1980, control of KTACS was passed to the 5th Tactical Control Group which was assigned to the wing until June 1982. At that time, the group was reassigned to the 314th Air Division at Osan AB as earlier planning scheduled the 51st to return once again to a "pure" tactical fighter mission.
Preparatory to this move, the 51st gained a squadron of A-10s based at Suwon AB on Jan. 1, 1981. The 25th Tactical Fighter Squadron remained in unmanned status until Jan. 28, 1982 when the squadron's first A-10 landed in the ROK. These changes led to the wing being re-designated a fourth time as the 51st Tactical Fighter Wing on July 1, 1982.
In August 1988, the wing's 36th TFS converted from the F-4 to the F-16. Concurrently, planners also projected that the 25th TFS would convert to the F-16 in 1990; however, this action never occurred after the fall of the Soviet Union in Aug. 1989. Less than a year later, the 25th TFS was inactivated, but replaced by the 19th TASS which flew the A/OA-10.
The post Cold-War period resulted in the most extensive reorganization of the USAF in its 43-year history under the "Objective Wing" concept. From 1990 to 1994, the 51st TFW experienced nearly 100 organizational changes from activations, inactivations and re-designations. The most significant occurred on Oct. 1, 1990. The wing reverted to a group-structured organization for the first time since 1957. The wing was assigned seven groups, 18 squadrons, three detachments, and six operating locations.
The October 1990 reorganization returned the A-10 mission to the wing as well as the KTACS responsibility. However, this organization lasted only 16 months.
On Feb. 7, 1992, the wing was re-designated a fifth time when it became the 51st Wing given its mix of missions and diverse assets. It added an airlift support role in August 1992 with assignment of the 55th Airlift Flight and its two turboprop C-12s.
On Jan. 1, 1993, the 38th Air Rescue Squadron was assigned to the wing. Ongoing refinements to the "Objective Wing" concept, though, led to a sixth re-designation of the wing. On Oct. 1, 1993, the wing was re-designated once again, returning to its original designation in 1948 as the 51st FW. At the same time, the 25th TFS was reactivated as the 25th Fighter Squadron, and replaced the 19th TASS.
Throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s, the wing carried out its multi-role mission of defending the ROK and Osan, and receiving and supporting follow-on forces.
In September 2002, the wing experienced another change in organization as part of the Air Force-wide plan to enhance its expeditionary force capabilities. From a management-type of organization, the wing refocused its effort on essential core capabilities of operations, maintenance, and mission support.
From February 2010 to March 2011, the 51st FW transitioned from the A-10A to the
A-10C becoming the last USAF organization - active duty, Air Force Reserve, and Air National Guard -to receive the upgraded Warthog.
Throughout its 65 years of service, Airmen of the 51st FW have answered the call to duty with exceptional distinction. Aside from being awarded two KPUCs and nine campaign streamers for its Korean War record, the wing has earned a third KPUC and 14 Air Force Outstanding Unit Awards following the war.