70 Years of 176th Wing: Remembering decades of Kulis, Alaska’s military history

  • Published
  • By 2nd Lt. Bernie Kale
  • Alaska Air National Guard Public Affairs

The story of Kulis Air National Guard Base originates from a humble beginning.

On Sept. 15, 1952, the federal government recognized the Alaska Air National Guard as the 8144th Air Base Wing.

Eleven enlisted men, five officers and zero airplanes composed the brand new wing whose headquarters was a small Fourth Avenue office in downtown Anchorage.

Once the wing received an aircraft, a single T-6G "Texan" trainer, the members trained out of then Elmendorf Air Force Base. Soon, five more trainers arrived, and the Alaska Air National Guard was on its feet.

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.

Nov. 16, 1954, was a dark day for the young organization.

First, a T-33 Shooting Star on a training flight over Point McKenzie checked in with ground controllers and 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 (also called Shooting Stars) 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 Kulis's fighter went into a steep, diving turn and vanished into a cloud bank.

Two weeks later, wreckage belonging to Kulis' jet was spotted in the mud at Goose Bay, but the fighter sank before recovery.

After an informal vote, the new base alongside Anchorage International Airport was to be named Kulis Air National Guard Base.

Over the years, Kulis Air National Guard Base has filled multiple roles for the nation and state.

The base was the coordination center for disaster relief following the 1964 Good Friday earthquake.

Within 20 minutes after the quake ended, the Anchorage Times reported that Guard members began streaming into Kulis without even being called.

"We had set up 100 beds where people could stay and opened up the mess hall and started serving people who didn't have a place to go," said retired Air Force Lt. Col. Harold Wolverton, former Kulis Air National Guard Base commander between 1963 and 1969.

During the earthquake, the Anchorage International Airport control tower collapsed, leaving no communication between aircraft and the airfield.

Wolverton recalled how the Guard responded within minutes.

"We had set up a mobile control tower in our C-123 [Provider] that was in the air right after the quake," he said. "We were the source of communication for flights in and out of Anchorage."

The Alaska National Guard provided airlift, supplies and shelter for the communities that had been affected by the devastation.

During the next two weeks, the Air National Guard flew 131,000 pounds of cargo and 201 passengers in support of earthquake relief efforts.

The performance earned the 12-year-old organization the Air Force Outstanding Unit Award.

"Our responsive service to the state as well as the nation is our history," Wolverton said. "Our legacy will remain intact."

It is that kind of dedication and commitment that members from the 176th Wing have shown time and time again in the face of disaster, and as the doors close on Kulis, Alaskans are reminded that the proud heritage of Kulis is not in the buildings, but in the spirit of every Guard member who wears the uniform. 

Webmaster's note: This commentary was originally published Jan. 31, 2011, and was written by a Kulis Air Base veteran, then 2nd Lt. Bernie Kale, a public affairs officer.