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THE NEW DECADE BROUGHT WITH IT A NEW SET OF WINGS.
The Alaska Air National Guard's tough but aging C-47s were replaced by larger C-123J "Provider" tactical airlift transports. With the new aircraft, the 144th Air Transportation Squadron's "light" designation was upgraded to "medium."
The new C-123s were not only larger than the aircraft they replaced, but more powerful. Each was equipped with wingtip-mounted jets to aument their Pratt & Whitney engines. Their 4,600 horsepower and 2,000 pounds of additional thrust helped the C-123s offset the drag and additional weight of their most significant modification: skis.
Early 1964 found the 144th participating in Polar Seige, the largest training exercise ever conducted in Alaska. No one could have known that much greater test awaited.
On March 27, 1964, the most violent earthquake in the recorded history of North America struck Southcentral Alaska. Tsunamis devastated Valdez, Seward and Kodiak. Gaping fissures, crumbled buildings and burst pipes dotted Anchorage.
In the immediate aftermath, Maj. James Rowe arrived at Kulis from the airport, reporting that its control tower had been demolished. Two Air Guard members sped over with a wrecking truck, which they used to free three men trapped in the rubble. Rowe, meanwhile, fired up a C-123 and went aloft, serving as an emergency control tower and relaying what he could see to the rest of the world.
Maj. Gen. Thomas Carroll, the Alaska National Guard's adjutant general, immediately directed Maj. John Podraza to assume command at Kulis and activate the Guard. Downed phone lines made communication difficult, but that didn't matter--within 20 minutes after the quake ended, the Anchorage Times reported, Guard members began streaming into Kulis without being called.
(Indeed, most phone lines were down, and for a time the areas's only reliable communication with the outside world was through the powerful radios on board Maj. Rowe's C-123.)
Every resource at the Guard's disposal was brought to bear in the disaster response effort. Personnel from the Motor Vehicle Section supplied electricity using emergency power units. Maintenance Squadron members took emergency steps to bring heat to strategic buildings, and the dispensary was prepared by medical technicians.
A warehouse on base was converted to a shelter for civillians rendered homeless by the quake, with a makeshift dining hall and over 100 beds. By midnight, 97 of those beds were occupied.
Over the next few weeks the 144th would fly 131,000 pounds of cargo and 201 passengers in support of earthquake relief efforts. It was, by all accounts, one of the Alaska Air National Guard's finest hours, and its performance earned the 12-year-old organization the Air Force's Outstanding Unit Award.
Guard mourns losses
On April 27, 1964 -- barely a month after the quake -- an Alaska Air National Guard C-123 plunged into the ocean shortly after takeoff from the Valdez airport. Killed was the plane's three-man crew, including the pilot, Lt. Col. Thomas Norris Sr.; the co-pilot, Maj. James Rowe (who, circling Anchorage in a C-123 a month earlier, had served as the eyes and ears of the world in the aftermath of the earthquake); and the flight engineer, TSgt. Kenneth Ayers. Also dead was Maj. Gen. Thomas Carroll, the adjutant general of the Alaska National Guard.
A little over a year-and-a-half later, tragedy struck again, as an Air Guard C-123 went down near Cape Romanzof on the Bering Sea Coast. Killed were Lt. Col. John Podraza, Maj. Herb Bedrow, TSgts. Oscar Holland and Freddie Spradlin, and SSgt. Lewis Harris.
The Fairbanks Flood
Swollen by rainfall three times heavier than normal, the Chena river suddenly burst its banks in August 1967, flooding much of the Fairbanks area. One woman whose home was flooded reported that her family didn't even have time to put on their shoes as the waters rushed in.
Within five hours of the first call for assistance, the first of many C-123 flights began carrying supplies into Fairbanks and evacuating area residents. The homeless were flown to Anchorage, where they were offered shelter, food and medical attention, either at Kulis or the Alaska National Guard's newly-named Camp Carroll on Fort Richardson.
During a non-stop nine-day period, the 144th accumulated 223 flying hours using its C-123s and one C-54 "Skymaster" transport to fly 138 sorties. At the end of that period, the unit had ferried 2,371 people and more than 300,000 pounds of supplies. Less than three years after being presented its first Outstanding Unit Award, the 144th would win its second.
By this time, it was becoming obvious that the Alaska Air National Guard was outgrowing its single-squadron status. Laying the groundwork for future expansion, the organization was officially designated the 176th Tactical Airlift Group in 1969. The Group retained the 144th Tactical Airlift Squadron as its flying unit.
TIMELINE - 1960s
The 144th ATS (Light) is given an upgrade to Medium.
In the dead of winter, the 144th uses its ski-equipped C-123s to best advantage, rescuing a group of 11 scientists from the Naval Arctic Research Institute stranded on a floating ice island in the Arctic Ocean.
The AKANG responds to the Good Friday Earthquake. In addition to providing disaster relief, the Guard also asked local merchants to donate baskets, eggs and candy, which Guard members then distributed to children on Easter.
The 144th provides the only airlift support for Polar Strike, a multi-force exercise involving more than 4,000 troops.
The AKANG celebrates its 15th birthday with a visit from its founder, Col. Lars Johnson. "Senator Gruening and I helped with the Guard's organization, but we can't take credit for the success that followed," he tells the men. "Only you can."
The AKANG is reorganized and designated the 176th Tactical Airlift Group, with the 144th Tactical Airlift Squadron as its flying unit. More than 700 personnel positions are authorized within the Group.
176TH WING history