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Ky. Air Guard marks 50 years since Pueblo Crisis call-up in Korea

Five former members of the Kentucky Air National Guard attend a ceremony at the Kentucky Air National Guard Base in Louisville, Ky., Sept. 16, 2018,  marking the 50th anniversary of the unit’s call-up for the Pueblo Crisis in 1968. The Airmen, all of whom were federally mobilized for the crisis, are (left to right) former Staff Sgt. Ches Wheeler, retired Master Sgt. Bob Denton, retired Col. Thomas Marks, retired Col. Ed Hornung and retired Master Sgt. Philip Bizzell. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Master Sgt. Vicky Spesard)

Five former members of the Kentucky Air National Guard attend a ceremony at the Kentucky Air National Guard Base in Louisville, Ky., Sept. 16, 2018, marking the 50th anniversary of the unit’s call-up for the Pueblo Crisis in 1968. The Airmen, all of whom were federally mobilized for the crisis, are (left to right) former Staff Sgt. Ches Wheeler, retired Master Sgt. Bob Denton, retired Col. Thomas Marks, retired Col. Ed Hornung and retired Master Sgt. Philip Bizzell. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Master Sgt. Vicky Spesard)

Fifty years ago, in 1968, more than 750 Airmen from the Kentucky Air National Guard were called to federal duty after the North Korean military seized a U.S. Navy vessel, the U.S.S. Pueblo, killing one crew member and capturing 82 others. This video highlights the service of the Kentucky Air Guardsmen during 17 months of active duty, much of it spent in South East Asia.

LOUISVIILLE, Ky. -- The Kentucky Air National Guard recently marked the 50th anniversary of one of the most significant events in its history — the federal activation of 754 Airmen in response to the Pueblo Crisis of 1968.

In January of that year, a U.S. Navy intelligence vessel operating in international waters off the coast of North Korea was seized by the North Korean military, killing one crew member and capturing 82 others. The capture of the USS Pueblo raised international tensions to near-crisis levels, leading President Lyndon Johnson to call up the Kentucky Air Guard.

During 17 months of active duty, much of it spent in South East Asia, the wing’s Airmen served with great distinction, earning the unit its very first Air Force Outstanding Unit Award. That legacy of service continues today, noted Col. Jeffrey Wilkinson, commander of the 123rd Airlift Wing, during a ceremony at the Kentucky Air Guard Base Sept. 16 to commemorate the call-up.

“Earlier today, we celebrated three key events,” Wilkinson told the Airmen and retirees who gathered for the ceremony. “First, our Global Mobility Squadron was named Contingency Response Unit of the Year for the entire Air Force. Second, the wing earned its ninth Distinguished Flying Unit Plaque, which is awarded to the top five Air Guard flying units each year. And third, the wing accepted its 17th Air Force Outstanding Unit Award, a nearly unprecedented feat.

“But this legacy of excellence did not happen overnight,” Wilkinson continued. “It is deeply rooted in our history and our culture, dating back certainly to the time in 1968 when our Airmen answered the call to the Pueblo Crisis.

“It’s said that we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. With respect to the men and women of the Pueblo call-up, we truly stand on the shoulders of giants.”

With military forces heavily engaged in Vietnam, President Johnson mobilized Kentucky’s 123rd Tactical Reconnaissance Wing on Jan. 26, 1968. Air Guard units in Arkansas and Nevada were attached the Kentucky wing for administrative purposes, and those units also were called to federal service.

The no-notice recall brought 104 officers and 650 airmen of the Kentucky Air Guard to active duty abruptly, giving them no time to adjust from civilian life, according to an official history of the activation. Nonetheless, within 24 hours, all members of the Kentucky unit reported for active duty.

By Jan. 29, the Kentucky Airmen launched into serious training efforts. Aircrews were sent to Sea Survival School at Homestead Air Force Base, Florida, and to tactical training at Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina, home of the Tactical Air Reconnaissance Center. Other training included camera repair, aircraft maintenance, photo processing and interpretation, and intelligence debriefing.

On May 28, the unit was alerted that it would be moved to Richards-Gebaur Air Force Base, Missouri, located south of Kansas City. Farewell ceremonies were held in Louisville July 9 for the departing Airmen, and RF-101 Voodoo aircraft from Kentucky and Nevada were deployed July 12 to Missouri.

Back in Louisville, personnel from the inactivated portions of the Kentucky Air Guard were beginning to leave for other assignments. More than 130 Kentuckians were reassigned to 30 separate bases in the continental United States, and 173 were sent overseas. Of those leaving the country, 156 went to six bases in Korea, 14 to two bases in Japan, one to South Vietnam and one to Libya.

The main group of personnel assigned to Richards-Gebaur reported July 22, and the wing’s 165th Squadron began its rotation to the Far East in January 1969, bound for Itazuke Air Base, Japan.

While overseas, the unit flew 18 sorties per day as directed by the operations center at Osan Air Base, Korea. Most of the photo targets were bridges, railway complexes, communication facilities, airfields and radar sites. One of their biggest jobs was pre-strike photography for Exercise “Focus Retina,” then the longest airborne assault in history, which took place in March.

In late April, the 165th returned to Richards-Gebaur, and the following month, From May 18 to the 25, the Kentucky and Nevada contingents returned to their respective Air National Guard bases. A deactivation ceremony for Kentucky Air Guardsmen was conducted in Louisville on June 9, 1969.

During the recall period of 17 months, the entire wing compiled an enviable record, logging approximately 20,000 tactical flying hours, from a total of 11,561 sorties, and delivered almost 320,000 reconnaissance prints to requesting agencies.

The command was deployed on important missions to the Panama Canal Zone, the Alaskan Air Command and to Itazuke Air Base. It also lost one of its aircrew members, Capt. Robert W. Sawyer, who was killed when he ejected from his disabled RF-101 Voodoo during a flight near Kansas City on Aug. 5, 1968.

At various ceremonies, 37 individual awards were presented to Kentucky Air National Guardsmen for outstanding performance during the recall, including the Bronze Star Medal.

In his comments to the Airmen of the 123rd following the unit’s deactivation, Wing Commander Brig. Gen. Jack Owen spoke of the unit’s impressive accomplishments under trying circumstances.

“As we close out our active duty service,” Owen said, “we can look back upon the outstanding service of this wing, particularly its tactical squadrons which have complied a tremendous record in Japan and the Republic of Korea. Operationally, this wing is without equal anywhere in the Air Force. We have flown more hours, more sorties and more fragged missions than any comparable unit anywhere. If we are a little proud of ourselves, we have good cause.”

The USS Pueblo remains in North Korea today, displayed as part of the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum.

To view a video on the wing’s participation in the Pueblo call-up, visit: