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Volunteer Airmen: The Cold War Fighter Era

F104 Starfighter aircraft line the tarmac at McGhee Tyson ANG Base, Tenn.

F104 Starfighter aircraft line the tarmac at McGhee Tyson ANG Base, Tenn.

McGhee Tyson ANG Base, Tenn. -- In 1957, Americans were listening to a hot new musician named Elvis Presley and enjoying the affluence of a booming economy following World War II. The average American salary was $4,550, a new 3-bedroom home cost less than $15,000 and gas was 24 cents a gallon. The same year, the Soviet Union launched the world's first satellites, Sputnik I and II, into orbit.

Although America was moving forward post-war, a lingering shadow of conflict remained. Diplomatic Relations between the United States and the Soviet Union broke down as the two nations assembled their allies and antagonized each other on the world stage. Nuclear capabilities were a carefully guarded secret, and the Air Force relied on McGhee Tyson Air Force Base in Eastern Tennessee to protect Oak Ridge facilities and other nearby assets.

On Dec. 15, 1957, McGhee Tyson was officially converted to an Air National Guard unit — the 134th Fighter Interceptor Group. The unit flew F-86D Sabre jets under Air Defense Command. In less than half the time given, the 134th FIG established its daytime readiness alert mission on Oct. 11, 1958 and began its legacy as a pillar of defense to the Nation and the State of Tennessee.

In 1960 the Soviet Union shot down U.S. aircraft on two separate occasions, John F. Kennedy was elected president and the 134th received new aircraft, despite being a relatively young unit. Retired Chief Master Sgt. Gomer Gaby, having previously served in the active duty Air Force, recalled joining the 134th just as Tennessee’s Volunteer unit was transitioning from the F-86D to the Air Force’s first Mach 2 fighter — the F-104 Starfighter.

"It was a really young group of guys at that time, and the best bunch of people I've ever worked with," Gaby said. "From Maj. Robert Akin to the chief of maintenance, down to the gate guards … we had this can-do attitude and any project that came up, we just said, 'We can handle it.'"

The 134th Fighter Interceptor Group finished the conversion in 1961, and was soon deployed to Germany to support the U.S. efforts during the Berlin Crisis. Shortly after returning from that deployment, the Starfighters were sent to Florida to help with the Cuban threat and the 134th received new aircraft.

In 1962, as the Beatles released their first single and Spider-Man made his comic book debut, the 134th again set a new benchmark as Airmen converted operations to the F-102A Delta Dagger in just six months.

From 1957 – 1964, the 134th FIG flew three different aircraft and completed each conversion in record time. The Volunteer Spirit was tested and honed with alert missions, overseas deployments, and numerous organizational transitions. The new unit performed well and built a reputation as a dependable, adaptable fighting force, proving its value to the Air Force and the State of Tennessee.

In 1964 the 134th was tasked with its biggest change to date when it transformed from a combat-tested fighter unit to an in-flight refueling unit, ending the unit’s Cold War - Fighter era.