70 years of 176th Wing: Lars Johnson architect of 176th Wing, Alaska Air Guard

  • Published
  • By David Bedard
  • 176th Wing Public Affairs

To establish the Air National Guard Sept. 15, 1952, in the Alaska territory before statehood, the effort required a single-minded Alaska sourdough and aerospace visionary in Col. Larry “Lars” Johnson.

According to “The Guard” by 1st Lt. James Richardson, Johnson had worked as a miner at Independence Mine near Palmer before commercial fishing on sailing boats in Bristol Bay. In 1938, he went to the University of Washington for a year before he was drafted and went to Fort Richardson as an administrative officer in the U.S. Army Air Corps having earned his commission through a military training correspondence course.

After subsequent Alaska service in Kodiak, Umnak and McGrath, Richardson wrote Johnson flew A-20 Havoc fighter bombers in the Philippines, starting out as a combat-loss replacement before promotions to assistant flight leader, flight leader and eventually one of the youngest squadron commanders in the Pacific Theater.

“Guys kept getting killed, and I kept moving up,” Johnson recalled in the Alaska Air National Guard’s 40th anniversary volume.

According to the volume, Johnson’s A-20 carried nose art of an arctic tundra wolf with a gold North Star, which would later become the emblem of the 144th Fighter Bomber Squadron and today’s 144th Airlift Squadron.

After the war, the volume detailed, Johnson returned to Alaska and became Alaska’s first adjutant general of the state’s National Guard at the age of 33. After working to field an Army National Guard with its first annual training camp, Johnson approached Alaskan Command commander Air Force Lt. Gen. William Kepner about starting an Air National Guard, securing the general’s endorsement in a letter to the National Guard Bureau in Washington.

“At first, there was some reluctance to establish an Air Guard unit,” Johnson wrote in his forward to the volume. “The territorial legislature did not want to provide money. Some in the military felt the territory would not be able to support a squadron.

“Gov. Ernest Gruening, territorial delegate to the U.S. Senate Bob Bartlett, and territorial Sen. Bill Egan and others knew we could support an Air Guard,” Johnson continued. “Governor Gruening, one day in autumn of 1952, invited Lieutenant General Kepner, Alaskan Command, and Maj. Gen. [William] Old, Air Command, to have lunch with us in Juneau. I presented our plan to seek authority for an Air Guard unit. They agreed it was a good idea.”

According to the volume, Johnson leased an office on Anchorage’s 4th Avenue atop the bus depot, put a recruiting notice in the local newspaper, and requested $20,000 from the state legislature. The Alaska Air National Guard was finally organized Sept. 15, 1952, as the 8144th Air Base Squadron with a roster of five officers and 11 enlisted Guardsmen.

The first aircraft the fledgling unit fielded was the C-47 Skytrain military transport as an administrative aircraft to get around the state. The “Gooney Bird” was shortly followed by a T-6G Texan advanced training aircraft.

The 8144th ABS quickly transformed into the 144th Fighter Bomber Squadron fielding the F-80 Shooting Star and later the F-86 Saber fighter in 1955. Through multiple incarnations, the 144th – the nucleus of today’s 176th Wing and Alaska Air National Guard – eventually became the 144th Airlift Squadron flying the C-17 Globemaster III strategic and tactical airlift aircraft. To the airlift function, the wing has added the missions of homeland air defense and combat search and rescue.

Ultimately attaining the rank of major general, Johnson would later serve as the state assistant adjutant general-Air before serving a long tenure as the state civilian director of the Aviation Division.

Shortly after the Alaska Air National Guard marked 50 years, Johnson died Nov. 1, 2002. In his forward to the Alaska Air Guard’s history, Johnson recalled how he had to assure stakeholders in the early organization that the small group of little more than a dozen Airmen would be equal to the task of building a viable territorial Air National Guard.

“They said they would back it with the assurance we pick up the ball and never drop it until the Air Guard was authorized,” he wrote. “And, as you know, that is exactly what we did.”

Editor’s note: Alaska National Guard historical documents were corroborated with Anchorage Daily News archives to ensure best accuracy for this article.