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EVERY STORY STARTS SOMEWHERE,
and the story of the Alaska Air National Guard starts with Col. Lars L. Johnson.
Tough and determined, Johnson came to Alaska in 1938, and was called to active duty when America entered World War II three years later. He served with distinction in Alaska and the Philippines, and when the war ended was assigned as a flight instructor in Bogota, Colombia. In 1949 he returned to Alaska, intending to work as a miner and commercial fisherman. Those plans were set aside when then-Territorial Governor Ernest Gruening named him the first official adjutant general of the Alaska National Guard.
Cleared for takeoff
At the time, Alaska was the only U.S. state or territory without its own Air Guard unit. Almost immediately, Johnson and his aide, Lt. Lee Lucas of Juneau, set about changing that.
"There was some reluctance," Johnson would write years later. "The territorial legislature did not want to provide money. Some in the military felt the territory would not be able to support a squadron."
With support from Gruening and U.S. Senate territorial delegates Bill Egan and Bob Bartlett, Johnson made it his personal crusade to bring the doubters around to his point of view. He spent countless hours lobbying state and federal officials, and personally made several trips to Washington D.C. to make his case.
In July 1952, at a meeting for city officials and businessmen at the Anchorage YMCA, National Guard Air Division Commander Maj. Gen. Earl Ricks announced that Johnson's drive had paid off. He said the government was willing to invest $1.5 million to establish an Air Guard unit in Anchorage, either at the city's international airport or on Elmendorf Air Force Base. The only condition: that Johnson prove he could find enough people to man the unit.
A quick survey initiated by Johnson indicated widespread interest in the idea, and on Sept. 15, 1952, the federal government authorized and recognized the 8144th Air Base Squadron.
Getting off the ground
At its creation, the 8144th included 11 enlisted men and five officers (including Johnson, who shortly thereafter separated from the Army National Guard to accept a commission in the Air National Guard and simultaneous appointment as its commander and adjutant general). It had no planes. Its headquarters were located in a small office above what was then the bus depot on Fourth Avenue. Because the office was so small, the men convened for their first training assembly in a nearby Quonset hut.
The unit's first aircraft, a T-6G "Texan" trainer, arrived in February 1953. In that month's issue of The Men in Blue, an early unit newsletter, Lt. Lucas noted that the arrival provided the men with their "first real wings" and that "pilots of the squadron will put the recent arrival from the sunny south to immediate use."
Soon five more trainers arrived, operating out of Elmendorf's Hanger #3. In keeping with the Air Guard's mission to provide national air defense, the pilots began training in earnest for their planned transition to jet fighters. As that training progressed, the unit was re-designated the 144th Fighter-Bomber Squadron in July 1953.
The first jet, a T-33A trainer, arrived in October, shortly followed by F-80C "Shooting Star" jet fighters. By late autumn of 1954 the growing unit was fully equipped with 14 F-80s, two T-33s, three T-6G trainers, two T-6 observation planes and a single C-47A "Gooney Bird" transport.
Then disaster struck.
November 16, 1954 was a dark day for the young organization.
First, a T-33 on a training flight over Point McKenzie checked in with ground controllers, then simply vanished. Neither the plane nor its occupants, Lt. Roger Pendleton and Capt. Lionel Tietze, were ever seen or heard from again.
Less than a half-hour later, a training flight of three F-80s led by 1st Lt. Albert Kulis passed in formation over the Goose Bay area, on the west side of Knik Arm. His wing man watched as Lt. Kulis' fighter went into a steep, diving turn and vanished into a cloudbank. Two weeks later, wreckage belonging to the jet was found in the mud at Goose Bay, but sank before it could be recovered.
That spring, the Alaska Air National Guard moved out of Elmendorf and onto its new base near Anchorage International Airport. After an informal vote, the base was dedicated in honor of Lt. Kulis.
Sadly, the tragedy was just the first of several the Air Guard unit would experience over the next few years.
In October 1955, a T-6 crash near Eagle River killed 1st Lt. Clermont O'Born and an Army Guard observer, SFC Norman Henry. Six months later, Capt. Blinn Webster died following a mid-air collision with an Air Force trainer. In February 1957, Capt. Richard Otto was killed in a crash while participating in an Army National Guard training exercise north of Anchorage.
The lowest point came in November of that same year. Four Alaska National Guardsmen -- Capt. Robert Kafader, 1st. Lt. Dennis Stamey, SSgt. David Dial and SSgt. Floyd Porter -- died when their transport plane crashed near Gustavus in Southeast Alaska.
At that time the new Air Guard organization was small enough so that everyone knew each other, and every member felt these deaths personally. However, that did not stop them from pushing ahead with their mission.
While other Air Guard units around the country were receiving surplus aircraft, in 1955 the 144th's F-80s were exchanged for brand-new, top-of-the-line F-86 "Sabre" fighter jets. Along with the new aircraft came the unit's third designation in as many years, this time the 144th Fighter Interceptor Squadron.
That designation also proved short-lived. A decision was made at the national level to shift the Air Guard's emphasis from air combat to airlift, and the once-again-rechristened 144th Transportation Squadron (Light) turned in its Sabres for C-47 "Gooney Birds" in 1957.
With the abrupt switch came many long faces among the 144th pilots. In the end, however, the new mission proved to be a perfect marriage with the needs of the soon-to-be-recognized state of Alaska. The C-47s may have been old and slow, but they were strong, versatile and capable of taking an enormous amount of abuse. Alaska's rugged geography and unpredictable weather would put those qualities to the test.
TIMELINE - 1950s
Col. Lars Johnson's efforts result in federal recognition of the 8144th Air Base Squadron. Johnson separates from the Army National Guard to accept a commission in the Alaska Air National Guard and simultaneous appointment as its commander and adjutant general.
The new unit gets its wings. With the arrival of the T-33s and F-80s, the unit is re-designated the 144th Fighter- Bomber Squadron.
Two separate flying accidents within one hour take the lives of the first AKANG members to die in the line of duty, including 1st Lt. Albert Kulis.
The AKANG moves into its new base near Anchorage's international airport. Unit redesignated 144th Fighter Interceptor Squadron.
Unit redesignated the 144th Transportation Squadron (Light). In December, the 144th air-drops food, clothing and toys to the Yukon River village of St. Mary's Mission. Thus is born Operation Santa Claus, the AKANG's annual airlift of donated toys and clothing to rural communities around the state.
Col. Lars Johnson retires as Chief of Staff of the organization he almost single-handedly created. Former barnstormer and bomber pilot William S. "Pappy" Elmore becomes the new AKANG commander.
176TH WING history