'Cold Warriors' return to Elmendorf

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Jack Waid
  • 3rd Mission Support Squadron
The smell of jet fuel from the F-102As, the "Delta Dagger," exhaust is gone from the  flight line here. Gone are the bright "indigo" orange flight suits of the 1960s and gone is the 317th Fighter Interceptor Squadron.

Long gone, but not forgotten, for the 45-plus past Airman and family members who converged on Anchorage and Elmendorf Air Force Base Sept. 14-18 for the 12th reunion of the 317th FIS. For many, this was their first trip back to Alaska since leaving.

Activated in 1942, the 317th FIS was eventually transferred to Elmendorf during 1957 where it would remain through 1969. The squadron was tasked with defending Alaska and the northwestern approaches to the lower 48. The mission of the 317th was extremely challenging especially in the 1960s when the 449th FIS was deactivated. This left the 317th FIS as the largest and only squadron in the area of responsibility. Providing top cover was no small task, over extending the 60 pilots and 40 aircraft assigned to the squadron.

As with any military era, the Air Force and 317th had their joys and tribulations. During the '60s there was no talk of deployments to faraway lands. They were already engaged on the frontlines of the Cold War. At times the frontline seemed right outside the front door of the squadron as one Airman recalled escorting "Bears" west, back across the Alaskan coastline.

"Intercepting Russian aircraft was a common occurrence ...," said retired Lt. Col. Wallace Mitchell. The Soviets continuously push the frontline as far as they could to test the pilots' response times and resilience.

Things could get very tense when intercepting Soviet aircraft, "... You never knew if you might get shot at," said retired Lt. Col. Ray Janes, who also authored the 317th FIS "Cold Warriors" history book.

As the pilots recalled some of the missions they participated in, retired Maj. Harry Sage said Soviet pilots and he would, "exchange the 'finger' when parting ways," after he escorted them out of Alaskan air space. On the other hand, Mitchell said things were not as tense for him, "... when leaving Russian pilots, I would wave at them and they would wave back."

Adding to their tasks were the alerts the unit pulled during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the March 1964 Alaska earthquake and aftermath. For their efforts, the squadron was recognized for "maintaining full-combat readiness" during the time after the earthquake. At times situations made the aviators very anxious; however, most of the time it was mission as usual and this is how it was for the 317th Cold Warriors.

The 317th Airman recalled their challenges with pride while touring Elmendorf and smiled at about their successes. Many of the lesser challenges they faced have faded with time as have memories of many aspects of the base.

While the Cold Warriors toured the base, they commented on how many things had changed. Today, Elmendorf has more than 180 miles of paved roads. Members of the 317th could only remember one paved road on base in the 1960s. Things were gone here and there, like the base water tower that stood in front of the wing headquarters building and the building of the 317th was missing as well. The base seemed a lot bigger to these Airmen, the location of the 90th Fighter Squadron was "a long way out" and the current location for the base hospital was the "boonies."

One thing that hasn't changed for these past aviators was their ability to "talk smart" with current Elmendorf aviators. Past pilots and family members were at home with the sights and sounds of the flight line. They posed for pictures at Heritage Park with Elmendorf's Delta Dagger static display seemed to bring back good memories.

The unit's reunions help with the memories and are important to these past aviators and family members. This reunion is extremely significant; it marked the first and possibly only reunion here in Alaska since the unit was deactivated more than 40 years ago. Among all the happy memories was a hint of sadness, as thoughts turned to those who have been lost since the last reunion. Making it all the more important to maintain ties; ties not severed, just lengthened by time and distance.

Cold Warriors unable to attend asked their children to participate on their behalf. For instance, Robert and Lou Ann Tomlinson represented their parents - retired Col. Frank "Tommy" and Sally Tomlinson, who could not attend due to ill health. It was a natural fit; the Tomlinson children grew up with many in attendance. As a matter of fact, Lou Ann was one of two children who retired Col. (Dr.) Al Kahne, an honorary 317th member, delivered here at Elmendorf. Kahne was the squadron flight doctor in the mid '60s and was accompanied by his wife, Millie.

"We are all family here," said retired Maj. Bob Thomason, co-organizer of the reunion. "We were very close. We had to be, because we had little contact with family in the lower 48. You couldn't just jump on a plane and a phone call to states cost over $7 a minute."

The ties are as strong as ever, and Elmendorf Arctic Warriors were immediately welcomed as a part of the 317th extended family.

Current Cherry Hill Housing Area residents share ties with families of the 317th. A bus trip to Cherry Hill was by far the highlight of the tour. In the '60s, officers and their families lived in the then, specifically, officer housing. As the bus rolled closer to the top Cherry Hill the conversations quieted. It was as if the Airmen were being transported back in time.

There was so much silent energy on the bus as it crested the hill and, at that moment, Colonel Kahne exclaimed, "Millie and I used to live right there, right there on the corner." The bus passengers erupted into laughter and the stories began to flow.

"There were some serious parties that went on in this neighborhood," said Robert Tomlinson. To top the visit off in their old housing area, a porcupine made an appearance and both tour buses stopped so occupants could take photos.

Members of the 317th FIS reunion finished their tour with a briefing from Col. Mark Camerer, 3rd Wing vice commander. Colonel Camerer took the opportunity to brief on current and future events at Elmendorf. Also, the colonel impressed upon all present how important the intrepid warriors and families were to Elmendorf.