Air Guard’s Postwar Beginnings

In 1948, after I had served a tour as an Air Attaché in Norway, I got a chance to be part of the humble postwar beginnings of the New York Air National Guard.

The Guard was organizing squadrons, groups, and wings in New York, and I was assigned as one of the Air Force advisors. In those days we were called “instructors.” Col. Erickson Nichols was the Senior State Advisor, and Col. Verle Luehring was the Wing Advisor. I was sent to Westchester County Airport to be attached to the 137th Fighter Squadron—that was like being attached to nothing, because the squadron existed only on paper.

Actually, there were some names on the paper—a Squadron Commander, Lt. Col. James A. Clark, a former Eagle Squadron pilot and Deputy Commander of the 4th Fighter Group in England during World War II. An ace during the war, he was now a stockbroker in New York. There were about a dozen other names, even some enlisted personnel.

Westchester County Airport was just that, a county airport near White Plains. There were no buildings, hangars, or parking area for military aircraft. There were no aircraft anyway. We were destined to get P-47Ds, the famous “Jug” from World War II days. A few of these planes had been assigned to an ANG B-26 squadron at Floyd Bennett Field, so they would be readily available when we activated. Every Saturday and Sunday, pilots like Jim Clark, Joe Kelly, and Art Stelges would fly them to Westchester. There, I rechecked, and then checked out others. Most of the guys had flown Jugs before and were excellent pilots so the process was very informal, but dangerous by today’s terms of a recheck. I must have had 500 hours in the P-47 during World War II, so it all fit together well, and I loved being back in the bird. The Jug was strong and reliable.

Quonsets and Cross-countries

The manager of the airport gave us a two-wheeled trailer with a little 10′ x 10′ house on it that had previously served as a guard shack. We used it as an assembly point for scheduling our flights. Things began to happen. Someone had pre-positioned dismantled Quonset huts in the area nearby, anticipating that we would need temporary buildings before a hangar could be built. As soon as we found them we began to assemble the Quonset huts. Also, the runway was lengthened by about 1,500 feet and a few more taxiways put in.

On drill nights we met in an Armory in White Plains, for roll-call, basically. It was a beginning. When summer came, we met in the area where the huts were being erected. We actively recruited officers and enlisted men, and one day we had enough of both to be federally recognized. That was a stand-up procedure to prove that it was feasible to have a squadron at that location—that the area was populous enough to supply officers and enlisted men to fill the units. We were about a dozen miles north of New York City and had a big population to draw from. We had to prove that everything a base needs—water, sewage, electricity, runway lengthening possibilities, building expansion ability—was available. We made the grade while we were still in the Quonset huts.

With that approval we could hire technicians, then called “Caretakers.” They were qualified Air National Guardsmen, but worked full time for the Guard. They were all from World War II and had lots of experience. They slapped up five Quonset huts in a hurry, and they also crewed the planes that began to arrive. That part was fun. The planes had been in storage at Atlanta, Ga. Nothing like a cross-country flight for those who had not done it in some time. A great experience for all.

In the meantime, contracts had been let to build a hangar, a warehouse, and an aircraft parking ramp. With these in place and a full complement of men, we had a going concern—complete with all the problems of a base: budget, maintenance, accidents, deaths, recruiting, and pay.

There were two master sergeants in my office, one a maintenance type and the other an administrator. Our job was to see that things were done in accordance with the Air Force regulations. I taught checked-out pilots in the aircraft, set up training programs, and served on the board that evaluated our officers for federal recognition. As in any fighter squadron, combat readiness was the number one objective. Our biggest problem was the lack of gunnery and bombing ranges. It was next to impossible to schedule time on one of the ranges hundreds of miles away. All in all, a very challenging and interesting job in those days for a major.

After about eighteen months we were going along smoothly. We had a full complement of effectively flying pilots, air technicians on the ball end lots of new young men from Yonkers, the Bronx, and Westchester. Some of the youngsters were still in high school and had never traveled far from home until we took them on a C-47 navigation flight to Washington State via Texas and California. They had permission for absence from their teachers and had to write essays about their flights. There were lots of questions along the way, but I never saw any of the papers. We didn’t get any complaints from teachers. In any event, the training paid off when we flew tactical aircraft and participated in air defense exercises.

The Korean War

About this time the Korean War broke out. Our armed forces were probably at the lowest ebb ever and some Air Guard units were called to active duty. A B-26 unit in our wing went to Korea. We thought we would get the call any day, but it never came. At this time many of the pilots resigned from the Guard to join the Air Force—including the squadron commander, Jim Clark.

One day, Colonel Nichols came to me and said, “You have done such a good job organizing this unit that we want you to go to Schenectady to do the same.”

Oh boy, back to square one! However, it worked out pretty well. I had a P-47 to fly back and forth, per diem when I stayed over, and all that good experience at Westchester behind me.

Schenectady was in no better shape than Westchester had been. No facilities, but the Airport Manager got us started with a couple of rooms in a building. The first thing I did was put a story in the local papers, asking anyone who was interested to meet with me at the Naval Armory. Standing on a naval gun platform, I talked to those who showed up about the Air Guard. From there we progressed just about the same as we did at Westchester.

Again, men and pilots were good. The hangars and facilities were built, they got their own advisor, and I didn’t have a chance to miss that commuter flight as we were converting to P-51Hs. I was off to learn this new bird.

The last of the P-51 line, the H was a smaller plane than earlier models. A real beauty that never get into combat. It had only four .50-caliber guns. Its speed and altitude were way up there because of a manual supercharger. On a cross-country we would cruise at 35,000 to 40,000 feet with a great groundspeed. It also had a radio compass, the first for me in a fighter.

The Westchester unit probably had more fun than most units, which was a big help toward its success. Some of the pilots were born comedians, plus they were from all walks of life. Besides Jim Clark, the stockbroker, there was a taxi driver from New York City; a vacuum cleaner salesman who said he spent most of his time in daytime movies; John Jelke, the margarine heir; a doctor; lots of salesmen; two airline pilots; and even a couple of unemployed guys who were around a lot and would fly anywhere when needed.

Many of them were happy to go to active duty during the Korean War. They liked flying and wanted it as a steady thing. Many even stayed on after the Korean War.

Sherman Tanks and DFCs

We wanted to let the local people know that the Air Guard was in existence, so on the first Air Force Day after we were legalized, we put on a real publicity effort. We got different types of aircraft flown in, and even a tank from the Army Guard. When the tank arrived, the fighter pilots had to check out in it—from then on it became the commuter vehicle going from one point to another in a straight line, regardless of terrain. Many people were startled to see a Sherman tank cruising along, coming to a stop in front of the coffee shop and a bunch of guys in flying suits hopping out.

We also arranged a parade and decoration ceremony for Air Force Day. Although the Air Guard is not noted for its marching capabilities, we managed to please all the visitors. Since we had no one to decorate, we ‘”redecorated” a lieutenant with a Distinguished Flying Cross he had received during the war. We couldn’t find anything against pinning it on a second time. Col. Bernt Balchen, the famous Arctic explorer and pilot for Richard E. Byrd on his Atlantic and South Pole crossings, did the honors. Bernt called it the “great hoax,” but he went along with the ceremony.

The only blight on the day was that we had not anticipated such a response to our invitations. Roads were blocked for miles around the airport, and the police had their hands full for many hours. But it was a happy crowd and a successful day.

When I was with the ANG in 1948, I noticed that they don’t have some of the problems that the Air Force does. Their people don’t move around—there is no constant flow of new pilots and inexperienced mechanics. Of course, most of the Guardsmen are part-timers. Nonetheless, when they have an important commitment to the Air Force, they do an excellent job. And in case of an emergency, when the unit is called up, all the Guard personnel go, regardless of their civilian jobs. This was not so closely defined in 1948-51, but it is today.

Today the Guard is a true partner in the Air Force mission. The Portland Guard, for example, has an air defense alert commitment. The Schenectady unit now has the job of supplying the DEW Line, using C-130s, some of them equipped with skis. When I visited the unit several years ago, they were no longer fighter pilots, but they loved the job they were doing and felt they were making a real contribution to the Air Force and their country. And so they were.

Col. Lester J. Johnsen, USAF (Ret.), has commanded fighter squadrons, groups, and a fighter wing. He has flown fighter aircraft from the P-40 to F-106s. His two sons are pilots. He and his wife now operate a Christmas tree farm in Shelton, Wash. An occasional contributor to AIR FORCE Magazine, his most recent article for us was “From Fighter Pilot to Diplomat,” p. 76, June 1981.