Reflecting on 75 years with the 51 FW

  • Published
  • By 51st Fighter Wing Historian Office

The 51st Fighter Wing (51 FW) celebrates its 75th birthday in August 2023.

The 51 FW was one of five Pacific Air Force (PACAF) units activated under the Hobson Plan between Aug. 10-18, 1948. The 51 FW was established and activated on Aug. 18, 1948, at Naha AB, Okinawa, to assume the air defense mission for the Ryuku Islands. During its 75-year history, the 51 FW has been redesignated six times since its first activation and located at six different bases in the Pacific Theater.

Although an entirely new organization in the historical and lineal sense was born, the 51 FW was bestowed World War II (WWII) battle honors of the 51st Pursuit (Interceptor) Group and the 51st Fighter Group. This bestowal of WWII honors tradition began in November 1954 as the Department of the Air Force, in a series of letters, bestowed upon each combat wing the history and honors of its similarly-designated predecessor combat groups. This is the reason the 51 FW wing flag and 51st Operations Group flags have campaign streamers from WWII.

The wing was redesignated as the 51st Fighter-Interceptor Wing (51 FIW) on Feb. 1, 1950, and throughout its history was stationed at Naha AB, Okinawa; Itazuke AB, Japan; Kimpo AB, South Korea; Tsuiki AB, Japan; and Suwon AB, South Korea until it was deactivated on May 31, 1971.

1950s – 51st Fighter-Interceptor Wing
At the beginning of the Korean conflict, almost all of the 51 FIW combat missions were flown over water from Japan. One of the reasons for this was the aircraft being flown by the 51 FIW at the time - the F-80C Shooting Star - had to have at least a 7,000-foot runway based on gross weight with full ordnance and fuel load.

In 1950, the only surfaced runway in Korea capable of handling the F-80 was at Pusan. However, most of the time this Pusan runway was beaten into shambles by heavy transport aircraft traffic which brought troops, supplies, and ammunition to the embattled Pusan Perimeter. Another reason for flying from Japan was due to multiple B-29 Superfortress on Okinawa, which at the time were in easy range of Chinese jet fighter fields. The 51 FIW had to remain at Naha AB to defend them.

During the first 18 months of the Korean War, the 51 FIW flew close air support and armed reconnaissance missions with F-80s. In that period, the wing flew 17,551 effective sorties, expended 17,423,999 rounds of 50-caliber ammunition, 26,460 rockets, 1,597 tons of napalm, and 2,946 tons of bombs. Pilots shot down 15 piston engine aircraft and damaged another 11, along with 8 MiGs destroyed and 15 damaged. The unit lost thirteen pilots KIA and four wounded, along with 30 F-80s to enemy action and 40 to other reasons. The unit destroyed an impressive number of trucks, vehicles, bridges, buildings, gun positions, tanks, railroad stock, boats, supply dumps and command and control facilities. After switching to the F-86 in December 1951, the wing destroyed 307 MiGs, damaged 285 more. The wing participated in nine of ten campaigns and received two Republic of Korea Presidential Unit Citations (KPUCs) from the Republic of Korea (ROK) President Syngman Rhee.

During the Korean War, 51 FIW pilots flew more than 45,000 sorties; they shot down 308 MiG-15s and produced fourteen flying aces to include the top U.S. Air Force ace of the war, Capt. Joseph C. McConnell Jr., who had sixteen aerial victories. The ratio of aerial victories to losses for the wing was ten to one. Unfortunately, the wing lost 52 pilots during combat missions. Nine other pilots who were shot down became prisoners of war, but were repatriated after the Korean War Armistice was signed on Jul. 27, 1953. One POW, Capt. Harold E. Fischer, was captured by the Chinese on Apr. 7, 1953, and finally released in Hong Kong on May 31, 1955.

On Aug. 1, 1954, the 51 FIW returned to Naha AB, Okinawa and during the next seventeen 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 51 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 at Naha AB were provided by the 313th Air Division. These circumstances lasted until the 51st Air Base Group was reactivated, assigned to the 51 FIW and delegated base support operations on July 18, 1960. 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 51 FIW deployed eight F-86 Sabres 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 twelve F-102 Delta Daggers to the Philippines and South Vietnam from Aug. 5 to Dec. 4, 1964, to provide air defense against north Vietnamese air attacks.

The wing again became involved in an event of international and regional importance when on Jan. 23, 1968, North Korean naval forces seized the USS Pueblo. From Jan. 30 to Feb. 20, 1968, the 51 FIW sent twelve 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, the U.S. Air Force announced major force reductions and realignments of units in Japan, to include the 51 FIW. On May 31, 1971, deactivation of the 51 FIW ended almost nineteen total years of service in the Pacific from Naha AB as the base was transferred to the Japanese Self Defense Forces.

1970s – 51st Air Base Wing & 51st Composite Wing
Amid the organizational turbulence throughout the Pacific in 1971 due to the Vietnam drawdown and realignments in Japan, PACAF headquarters assigned new unit designations to three support wings at Hickam AFB, Osan AB, and Yokota AB. The PACAF commander wanted to revive the historic lineage of decorated WWII units. As a result, on Nov. 1, 1971, the redesignated 51st Air Base Wing (51 ABW) replaced the 6314th Support Wing as the host unit at Osan AB, ROK. The wing 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 ten remote sites around the Korean peninsula. To carry out these roles, the wing's aircraft inventory consisted of C-47 Skytrains, C-123 Providers, T-33 Shooting Stars, VT-29, and CH-3s.

The wing’s status as a non-combat wing lasted less than three years. On Sept. 30, 1974, PACAF redesignated the 51 ABW as the 51st Composite Wing (51 CW) when it added two flying missions: F-4 Phantom IIs and OV-10 Broncos under the 36th Fighter Squadron and the 19th Tactical Air Support Squadron (19 TASS).

In 1976, the wing assumed additional missions 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 (KTACS). 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 51 CW to return once again to a tactical fighter mission.

1980s – 51st Tactical Fighter Wing
Preparatory to this move, the 51st gained a squadron of A-10 Thunderbolt IIs based at Suwon AB on Jan. 1, 1981. The 25th Tactical Fighter Squadron (25 TFS) 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 redesignated a fourth time as the 51st Tactical Fighter Wing (51 TFW) on Jul. 1, 1982.

In August 1988, the wing's 36th Tactical Fighter Squadron converted from the F-4 to the F-16 Fighting Falcon. Concurrently, planners also projected the 25 TFS would convert to the F-16 in 1990, however, this action never occurred after the fall of the Soviet Union in August 1989. Less than a year later, the 25 TFS was deactivated and replaced by the 19 TASS, which flew the A/OA-10.

The post-Cold-War period resulted in the most extensive reorganization of the U.S. Air Force in its 43-year history under the "Objective Wing" concept. From 1990 to 1994, the 51 TFW experienced many organizational changes from activations, deactivations, and redesignations.

The most significant occurred on Oct. 1, 1990, when the wing reverted to a group-structured organization for the first time since 1957. It assigned seven groups, eighteen 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 sixteen months.

1990s – 51st Wing
On Feb. 7, 1992, the wing was redesignated a fifth time when it became the 51st Wing (51 WG) 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-12 Hurons.

1993 to Today – 51st Fighter Wing
On Jan. 1, 1993, the 38th Air Rescue Squadron was assigned to the wing. Ongoing refinements to the "Objective Wing" concept led to a sixth redesignation of the wing. On Oct. 1, 1993, the wing was redesignated once again, returning to its original designation from 1948 as the 51 FW. At the same time, the 25 TFS was reactivated as the 25th Fighter Squadron and replaced the 19 TASS.

Throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s, the wing carried out its multi-role mission of defending the ROK 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 51 FW transitioned from the A-10A to the A-10C becoming the final U.S. Air Force organization out of all active duty, Reserve, and Air National Guard units to receive the upgraded aircraft.

Since 2011, the 51 FW has continued the mission of equipping and training personnel to employ the F-16 and A-10 aircraft, provide mission ready Airmen to execute combat operations and receive follow on forces to defend the base, execute contingency operations, and sustain the force and be the most ready, cohesive team in our Nation's Air Force with priorities of readiness, teamwork, and camaraderie.

The 51 FW continues to provide combat ready forces for close air support, air strike control, forward air control-airborne, combat search and rescue, counter air and fire, and interdiction in the defense of the ROK while also executing military operations to beddown, maintain and employ follow on forces for Osan Air Base, including three major flying tenants and large multiservice fighting units.

Throughout its 75 years of service, Airmen of the 51 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 two more KPUCs in 1972 and 2019 alongside and sixteen Air Force Outstanding Unit Awards since the war.