Historian preserves 51st Fighter Wing's heritage

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Alexis Siekert
  • 51st Fighter Wing Public Affairs
Tucked away in a quiet office surrounded by books, photos and newspapers dating back to the start of World War II, the historian, John Okonski, works to preserve the 51st Fighter Wing's proud heritage.

Historians are responsible for collecting current event information for historical documentation to maintain accurate accounts for the future as well as maintain past documents. Much of a historian's time is spent accumulating and organizing.

History happens every day, Okonski explained. It's the historian's job to keep record of it so it may be remembered years from now.

As stated in Air Force Instruction 84-101, historical products, services and requirements, "Air Force historical products provide objective, accurate, descriptive, and interpretive records of Air Force operations in peace and war. By recounting lessons learned, Air Force history enables our nations' military and civilian leaders to approach current problems and concerns more intelligently and professionally... Accurate and timely historical reporting provides decision-makers with information they can use to improve the combat capability of the United States Air Force and the Department of Defense."

Okonski himself is something of Air Force history, having served since 1969 - first as an enlisted military member then as a civil servant.

Born and raised in Chicago with a father who served as an Army infantryman in WWII, military history has always been an interest of his. He recounted being a history buff back in high school.

"My dad talked about [the war] some, but as a kid I really enjoyed the Big Picture that is now shown on the Pentagon Channel. Showing old news reels of WWII, it was my favorite show," he said. "I watched cartoons some too, but I had to watch the Big Picture on Sundays."

By the winter of 1968, the Vietnam War was in full swing. Okonski, then 19, was expecting to be drafted by the Army. Instead, he went to enlist in the Air Force where he was selected to be an information specialist, now known as public affairs.

At the time of his enlistment, public affairs and the history office were combined. In 1974, the career field split making history separate. After his retirement, Okonski chose to continue his career on the history side of the house.

"What I like best about being a historian is having a wide knowledge of the Air Force and different career fields as a whole," he stated. "Knowing how every part and every person fits is important, knowing that everyone is equally important in influencing the final outcome."

Okonski retired as a 30-year chief master sergeant in February 1999; however, a quiet retirement wasn't working for Okonski when he took a job just a month later for the Lackland Tail Spinner as a contractor. He then moved to the Air Force Personnel Center for four years as the electronic forms manager before accepting a position at Osan to be the wing historian in 2004.

"I'm not the type to sit around all day long," he said. "I like to do something that is useful."