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123rd Airlift Wing History

The Kentucky Air National Guard's 123rd Airlift Wing is one of the most decorated units in the United States Air Force, with a proud history of global engagement and unsurpassed achievement. The wing's honors include 18 Air Force Outstanding Unit Awards, four Curtis N. "Rusty" Metcalf Trophies, three 15th Air Force Solano Trophies, three Spaatz Trophies and nine Distinguished Flying Unit Plaques.

The wing traces its roots to the 123rd Fighter Group and 165th Fighter Squadron, which were created on May 24, 1946, as part of a nationwide redesignation of World War II Army Air Corps units. Under War Department orders, the insignia, World War II battle credits and honors of the 359th Fighter Group and 368th Fighter Squadron were transferred to the Kentucky National Guard, and the new unit subsequently received federal recognition on Feb. 16, 1947. The "123rd" designation itself dates to the 123rd Cavalry Regiment, which can trace its lineage to the 2nd Cavalry Regiment, a unit that fought in the Civil War.

Based in Louisville, Ky., the Kentucky Air National Guard was assigned 25 P-51 Mustangs in May 1947. The unit's aircrews rapidly attained a high level of combat readiness, and just two years later, the wing earned its first Spaatz Trophy, an award given each year to the premier Air Guard flying unit.

On Oct. 10, 1950, during the Korean War, President Harry S. Truman placed the 123rd Fighter Group on active duty and moved the unit from Standiford Field in Louisville to Godman Field at Fort Knox, Ky. The unit's P-51 Mustangs were ferried to the Far East, and several of the unit's pilots volunteered for combat duty over Korea. Five were lost in action, including Capt. John W. Shewmaker, for whom the Kentucky Air Guard base was once named.

In November 1951, the wing was ordered to replace the Strategic Air Command's 12th Fighter Escort Wing at Manston R.A.F., England. The 123rd was equipped with F-84 Thunderjets. Aircrews participated in joint NATO deployments through June 1952. Deactivation and a return to peacetime status came in July 1952.

From 1956 through 1957, the unit flew the F-86 Sabre Jet, but the following year, the unit's mission was changed from air defense to reconnaissance with a conversion to the RB-57 Canberra aircraft. In 1965, the unit switched airplanes again, receiving the RF-101 Voodoo supersonic reconnaissance aircraft. Just prior to the arrival of the new airframes, the 165th was awarded its second Spaatz Trophy for superior combat readiness and flight training.

On Jan. 26, 1968, the Pueblo Crisis precipitated the 123rd's recall to federal service. Now officially known as the 123rd Tactical Reconnaissance Wing, the unit flew just under 20,000 tactical flying hours and delivered nearly 320,000 reconnaissance prints to requesting agencies. Assigned personnel served on active duty for 16 months, returning to state service on June 8, 1969. The wing earned its first Air Force Outstanding Unit Award for its exceptional performance during this period.

During 1976, a no-notice conversion announced by the National Guard Bureau brought the two-seat RF-4C Phantom II reconnaissance jet to the KyANG. The unit attained combat-ready status within seven months -- a record time.

The Phantom years were marked by many overseas deployments, participation in international photo reconnaissance competitions and a remarkable flight safety record. In 1981, the unit placed first in the Air National Guard Photo Finish Competition and earned an unprecedented third Spaatz Trophy.

In May 1983 the unit reached another historic milestone when it earned the highest possible rating from Tactical Air Command during an Operational Readiness Inspection. This was the first time a TAC unit had received an outstanding rating.

Airlift became the primary mission of the Kentucky Air National Guard in 1989 when C-130B Hercules transports were assigned. The unit was re-designated the 123rd Tactical Airlift Wing (later, simply 123rd Airlift Wing), and its flying component became the 165th Tactical Airlift Squadron (later re-named the 165th Airlift Squadron).

Although not federally mobilized for Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, 165th TAS volunteers stepped forward to support the war effort. From August 1990 to March 1991, they flew 1,240 airlift sorties worldwide in direct support of the Gulf War, the most for any Air National Guard unit. An additional 88 wing members were activated in support of Desert Shield/Storm.

The 123rd received the 2000th C-130 straight off the assembly line in May 1992 as it began conversion to the C-130H model aircraft. Eight months later, the 123rd deployed to Mombasa, Kenya, to fly relief missions into Somalia for Operations Restore Hope and Provide Relief. Citizen-soldiers from the 123rd flew 150 sorties and transported 720 tons of relief supplies and 1,444 passengers into some of the hardest-hit areas in Somalia.

When the world's attention shifted to Eastern Europe in February 1993, the 123rd responded again, deploying in support of Operation Provide Promise. The unit's all-volunteer force flew 1,082 airdrop and airland sorties and delivered 2,215 tons of food and supplies into war-torn Bosnia-Herzegovina. The unit would continue to support this mission with numerous deployments until the end of the decade.

In July 1994, the 123rd answered another call for help and deployed within 72 hours of notification to fly relief missions into Rwanda and Zaire for Operation Support Hope. Operating out of Mombasa, Kenya, unit personnel flew 147 sorties over 300 hours, transporting 652.5 tons of relief supplies to beleaguered Rwandan refugees. Personnel from the unit's 205th Combat Communications Squadron also deployed to Haiti that year as part of Operation Uphold Democracy, providing satellite communications links for the theater commander.

In 1995, the base moved to a new 88-acre facility on the northeast side of Louisville International Airport, providing the unit with state-of-the-art facilities and room to grow.

By April of 2000, the 123rd Airlift Wing had received its 10th Air Force Outstanding Unit Award, and global deployments continued to mark the wing's activities. More than 580 Kentucky Air Guard members deployed overseas from December 2000 to March 2001 as part of Air Expeditionary Forces based in Germany and Southwest Asia. Other unit members were sent to South America to participate in drug interdiction efforts. The largest contingent of Kentucky Airmen -- nearly 470 aircrew, maintenance and support personnel -- operated from Ramstein Air Base, Germany, in support of Operation Joint Forge, the multinational peacekeeping mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina. While there, unit members transported approximately 2,500 passengers and 410 tons of cargo to locations like Sarajevo and Tuzla, Bosnia; and Taszar, Hungary.

Other KyANG members deployed to Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey in support of operations Joint Forge, Southern Watch and Northern Watch. The latter two missions were responsible for enforcing no-fly zones imposed upon Iraq after the Gulf War.

Following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, 637 members of the Kentucky Air Guard were placed on active duty for varying lengths of time in support of real-world missions around the world. These deployments included missions to support homeland defense (Operation Noble Eagle), the war on terrorism abroad (Operation Enduring Freedom) and the war in Iraq (Operation Iraqi Freedom). Of these 637 Kentucky Airmen, 454 deployed overseas for U.S. military operations in dozens of countries, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Algeria, Bosnia, Croatia, Romania, Senegal, Serbia and the Ukraine.

Most of these federalized troops were taken off active duty in early 2004, but the wing continually deploys troops around the world as needed to meet operational requirements. In 2006, for example, 560 Kentucky Air Guard troops deployed to such location as Afghanistan, Iraq, Curaçao, Qatar, Kyrgyzstan and Antarctica. In 2007, more than 210 wing members deployed to Afghanistan to fly airlift missions that delivered thousands of tons of equipment and supplies to forward-deployed troops who were engaged with the enemy. And nearly 300 Kentucky Air Guardsmen returned to Afghanistan in 2009 for the same mission, transporting 20,000 troops and 6,000 tons of cargo across the theater of operations during a two-month deployment.

The wing also has been heavily engaged in disaster-relief efforts, deploying special tactics troops to New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, where they established and operated a helicopter landing zone on a highway overpass to evacuate nearly 12,000 citizens. In early 2010, the wing deployed members of its 123rd Contingency Response Group to the Dominican Republic to establish and operate one of the primary airlift hubs responsible for bringing relief supplies into earthquake-stricken Haiti.

More recently, about 160 Kentucky Airmen broke airlift records when they airdropped or transported a record amount of cargo and personnel in support of Operation Enduring Freedom while deployed to Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, from October 2010 to January 2011.

The unit returned to the U.S. Central Command Area of Responsibility in 2012 for a four-month deployment to the Persian Gulf, where more than 90 of its Airmen flew more than 1,400 combat and combat-support missions, airlifting over 5,300 tons of cargo and 15,000 passengers to locations as widely separated as Iraq, Egypt and the Hindu Kush Mountains in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The 123rd Airlift Wing earned its 18th Air Force Outstanding Unit Award in 2018, a rare level of achievement by any unit in the United States Air Force.

Current as of 1 Nov 2018