Volunteer Airmen: The Cold War Tanker Era

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Teri Eicher
  • 134th Air Refueling Wing
In 1964 The Beatles held the top five spots on the Billboard Top 40 list, and Sidney Poitier became the first black actor to win the “Best Actor” award at the Oscars. The first Ford Mustang rolled off the production line as President Lyndon B. Johnson signed The Civil Rights Act of 1964, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The average annual salary in the United States was $6,000 and a loaf of bread cost 21 cents.

On the world stage, Britain and France announced plans to build a tunnel under the English Channel, and Nelson Mandela was sentenced to life in prison in South Africa. Global tensions rose as any conflict worldwide quickly involved the United States and the Soviet Union. The two political poles were in constant competition and were quick to ‘assist’ their allies as needed. Following World War II, the Berlin Crisis, and the Cuban Missile Crisis, the world was firmly entrenched in the Cold War.

In Knoxville, Tennessee, Airmen of the 134th Fighter Interceptor Squadron were facing their own challenge in 1964: the Volunteer force had to complete another conversion, and this time it wasn’t another fighter jet. McGhee Tyson Air National Guard Base was not only changing from Air Defense Command to Tactical Air Command, they were also converting from a fighter unit to a tanker unit. In what was now a tradition, the 134th completed the conversion in the then-record time of only eight months, and was the first National Guard unit with the KC-97G to become operational. The Volunteers soon faced another change in 1965 as they converted to the KC-97L, which had two jet engines in addition to the four piston engines on the aircraft.

By this time, America and the USSR and are in the midst of the Space Race, each hoping to land on the moon first. In the U.S., the Civil Rights movement has continued to gain traction and the passing of the 1965 Voter Rights Act guarantees Americans of any race the right to vote. The U.S. is committed to the Vietnam War, and has sent another 150,000 troops to Vietnam. By 1967, the U.S. military devoted so many aircraft to the Vietnam War that the air refueling operations in Europe are diverted to Asia. National Guard units are now tasked with this mission, which continues for ten years and is known as Operation Creek Party. The Tennessee Volunteers provide refueling support to protect Western Europe from the Soviet threat, and always have stories to share. Retired Lt. Col. Robert Bock recalls one such flight:

“I made maybe my most memorable European trip with Gen. Robert Akin as aircraft commander,” Bock says. “We had flown to Torrejon Air Base, Spain, in April 1968. After the news of the riots in Memphis during the sanitation strike and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. reached us, Akin needed to boogie back to Tennessee. Akin, flight engineer Douglas Livesay and I got together to see if we could make it to McGhee Tyson without landing and refueling at Dover. We could, but it was tight. We landed with the fuel reserve, and I claim a record east to west crossing for the 97L.”

By 1976 the U.S. withdrew from Vietnam, while the USSR and U.S. agreed to a joint space venture, officially ending the Space Race. The 134th faces another conversion, this time to the KC-135A, and now falls under the Strategic Air Command. Warmer relations with the USSR have not ended the Cold War, and the Volunteers now have a nuclear mission with 24/7 Alert capabilities.

Through the next 15 years, the world saw the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Olympic boycotts by both the U.S. and USSR, and the eventual reunification of Germany. Meanwhile, the Volunteer Airmen maintained the KC-135s and the Alert mission, with the only change being a conversion to the KC-135E in 1982. The 134th Air Refueling Group, as they were now known, was never directly involved in conflicts with the USSR during the Cold War. However, the Cold War itself was less a direct conflict than an ominous threat that loomed on the horizon, and the 134th had spent its first 34 years performing every mission under that threat. With five different airframes, three commands, and numerous deployments—including two major operations—the 134th continued to shine as they adapted to every change with true Volunteer spirit.

With the dissolution of the Soviet Union in December of 1991, the Cold War officially ended. However, it would not be the end to world conflicts. The 134th Volunteers soon found themselves tasked in a new conflict: Operations Desert Storm and Desert Shield.