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Volunteer Airmen: Operation Creek Party

McGhee Tyson ANG Base, Tenn. -- In 1967 the most popular television program was “The Andy Griffith Show,” and The Monkees sold more albums than The Beatles and The Rolling Stones combined. Lite-Brites and talking G. I. Joe action figures were at the top of children’s wish lists, and Rolling Stone Magazine printed its first issue. McDonald’s debuted the Big Mac for 45 cents in Uniontown, Pennsylvania. The average annual salary in the United States was $7,300 and a ticket to see “Barefoot in the Park,” or “You Only Live Twice,” cost $1.25.

American race riots continue in cities like Cleveland, Newark, and Detroit. After hearing “Loving vs. Virginia,” the Supreme Court rules that interracial marriage is constitutional and bans states from making it a crime. Israel, Syria, Jordan, and Egypt become embroiled in the Six Day War, which ended with Israel controlling a great deal more territory. NASA launches Lunar Orbiter 3, whose mission is to photograph the moon to determine safe landing sites for future missions, and it successfully ends in October. The United States has 475,000 troops in Vietnam and faces increasing protests against the war.

With no foreseeable end to the Vietnam War, many young men seek service in the National Guard to avoid being drafted and immediately shipped out. The guard gives them an opportunity to serve closer to home in a job of their choosing, and rapidly has more volunteers than jobs for them. However, public opinion casts a shadow on this service, likening it to ‘draft dodging’ and coloring the National Guard with a less-favorable image. Due to the increasing U.S. commitment in Vietnam, active duty air refueling components are struggling to support the mission in Asia on top of their commitment to the nuclear deterrent mission and refueling missions in Europe. The Air Force calls in support from the Air National Guard, and the 10-year-long Operation Creek Party begins.

Operation Creek Party was the first known practical application of the ‘Total Force’ concept, which sought to utilize guard and reserve personnel to augment active duty in peacetime missions and reduce reliance on the military draft. The mission involved 11 ANG units, including the 134th Air Refueling Group. The units worked on a rotating basis out of Rhein-Main Air Force Base in Frankfurt, Germany, and deployed aircraft and support personnel for 14-day rotations to support the refueling needs in Europe. Traditional guardsmen would typically serve their required two week commitment at Rhein-Main AB, and some took advantage of the opportunity to do additional traveling in Europe. Retired Master Sergeant Richard Hicks explains that while they were allowed leisure time, they were still working hard while deployed to Germany.

“Something like 6,500 sorties, 47,000 hook-ups, and 137 million pounds of jet fuel offloaded during that 10 years,” Hicks said. “It’s just amazing to think that you could do that without any accidents. We had some close calls along the way, naturally, but fortunately no serious accidents and no loss of life during that time. It’s pretty amazing, with all of that travel back and forth to the states. A lot of times on our rotations we would actually pass in the air, and be able to see whoever we were replacing or who was replacing us.”

Operation Creek Party became an enduring legacy of the 134 ARG. Members forged close bonds as they served year after year in a foreign country that began to feel like a second home. Creek Party also helped to establish the Air National Guard as a capable, mission-ready force.

“We pretty much operated completely independent from the Air Force,” said Hicks. “We were using their facilities, but we had our own little part of the ramp, and we had our own offices there and our own set up. I think it was a good thing, we kind of proved our worth to the Air Force that we can do the job and do it efficiently. To my knowledge, we missed very few refueling missions while we were there, a lot of times just the weather might prevent us from doing it, or the fighters might cancel. For the most part, we took it real serious and tried to support our side of it and be available to do the refueling commitment.”

Operation Creek Party began on May 1st, 1967, and ended on April 30th, 1977. The 134 ARG flew the KC-97 for the majority of the commitment, and began converting to the KC-135 in 1976. The Volunteers also received a new mission of nuclear deterrence in addition to conventional operations, and fell under Strategic Air Command. For the next 15 years, the 134 ARG would see a dramatic turn-over as the original members of the wing retired and new Airmen that had never seen fighters on the ramp took their place. This new generation would face their first major conflict in the early 1990’s with Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm.