Volunteer Airmen: The Berlin Crisis

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt Teri Eicher

    In 1961, the first Six Flags amusement park opened in Texas. Pampers began manufacturing the first disposable diapers, and a stamp cost five cents. The average American salary was $5,700, minimum wage was $1.15 per hour, and if you wanted to see “West Side Story,” or “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” in the theater, a ticket would cost you 25 cents.

On the world stage, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was the first man in space on April 12, and on May 5th NASA’s Freedom 7 brought the first American, Alan Shepard, to space. On May 25th, President John F. Kennedy asked Congress for $531 million with the goal to put a man on the moon before the end of the decade. The United States took their first direct action in Vietnam, and 20 percent of East German residents sought refuge in West Germany. On August 13th, 1961, the German Democratic Republic closed the border to West Germany, and on August 17 began construction on the famed Berlin Wall.

In response to aggressive action at the border by Soviet troops, President Kennedy called 148,000 National Guardsmen and Reservists to active duty. It was this recall that brought the 134th Fighter Interceptor Group’s 151st Fighter Interceptor Squadron to Ramstein Air Base, Germany. Retired Lt. Col. Charles Brakebill recalls how the unit arrived in Germany in November of 1961.

“Our airmen were so over-qualified that we had to have what I called an ‘altitude adjustment,’ because we had guys who came to us from Nashville with five or six years of experience, and the active duty guys we were there to help only had two,” Brakebill said.

Brakebill served on active duty and reserve status before joining the 134 FIG for its inception in 1957. When he traveled with the 151 FIS he was once again in active status. The eight-month mission during the Berlin Crisis was to fly alert combat patrols. During this time, the 151 FIS set a U.S. Air Force Europe record of 836 hours and 5 minutes flying time in May 1962. Additionally, they set the record for the highest flying time ever recorded for an Air Force jet fighter in a single month. The 134th Volunteers set the standard for Air National Guard performance on active duty.

“I am 100 percent sure that what the 151st Fighter Interceptor Squadron did at Ramstein proved what well-trained guard units could do,” Brakebill said.

However, the wins did not come without losses. On March 19, 1962, 1st Lt. James Rideout III and 1st Lt. Edward Schultz died while attempting to land their F-104 Starfighter. On Memorial Day 2017, these men were added to the East Tennessee Veteran’s Memorial in Knoxville’s World’s Fair Park in honor of their sacrifice to their nation.

Upon completing the deployment, the 134 FIG was chosen to be the subject of the fifth National Guard Heritage painting by Ken Riley. Titled, ‘Watch over the Rhine,’ it depicts a 134th pilot flying an F-104 over the Rhine River, and was the first of the series to hang in the Pentagon.

The 134th FIG returned home to a new challenge: The Cuban Missile Crisis prompted the Air Force to call the F-104s to Florida, and the 134th had to convert to the F-102A Delta Dagger. After completing the conversion in only six months, the 134th FIG was combat ready and prepared for the next task. In 1964 the 134th received a new mission as the 134th Air Refueling Group and converted to the KC-97 Stratotanker. With the nation now in the grips of the Cold War, the 134th ARG was set for an expanding role in global defense.