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434th Wing looks back on its 50 years of history

Petty Officer 2nd Class Phillip Nielson, Detachment 1 Communications Company corpsman, prepares to raise the American flag at Grissom Air Reserve Base, Ind., June 30, 2017.

KATRINA HEIKKINEN/U.S. AIR FORCE

By CARSON GERBER | Kokomo Tribune, Ind. | Published: January 30, 2021

BUNKER HILL, Ind. (Tribune News Service) — When the 434th Special Operations Wing came to Grissom Air Force Base in 1971, there wasn't a big to-do welcoming members to the military installation.

In fact, the reserve unit was looked down upon by the active-duty units there, according to John Ensign, who came to Grissom with the wing when it transferred from what was then Bakalar Air Force Base in Columbus, Ind.

"It was kind of a messed up time," said the 86-year-old Cass County resident. "They didn't really know what to do with us. The active duty would never admit it, but they seemed to resent us being here on a active duty base. They really kind of resented the reserves at that time."

Fast forward to today, and the unit is known as the 434th Air Refueling Wing. It's the host unit at Grissom Air Reserve Base, and it's the reason the base is still operating today.

Now, the unit is celebrating its 50th anniversary at Grissom, as well as the long road that ultimately led to the 434th becoming the operating unit and employing 1,600 military and civilian workers.

The wing became operational at Grissom on Jan. 15, 1971, but it's lineage dates back far before it came to Indiana.

The unit was founded on Oct. 1, 1942, as the 434th Base Headquarters and Air Base Squadron when Mitchel Field, N.Y., was formed.

In January 1943, the unit was renamed 434th Troop Carrier Group. The headquarters staff were stationed at Alliance Army Air Base, Neb., and trained personnel focused on airborne and glider-towing operations.

During World War II, the unit performed a litany of historic tasks, like dropping glider-troops in Normandy during the D-Day invasion and providing supplies to Gen. Patton's Third Army as it raced across France.

After World War II, the 434th was inactivated, but just a few years later was reestablished and stationed as an Air Force Reserve unit in Stout Field, Indiana. It later moved to then Atterbury Air Force Base, which became Bakalar.

Former reservist Ensign started serving with the unit in 1954 at Bakalar, where he remembers being activated for service during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and then Vietnam. After the war there, the unit was inactivated on Dec. 31, 1969.

But just two years later, it made the move to Grissom, where it would stay for the next 50 years.

Ensign said he came to Grissom in January 1970 to begin the transfer, and the thing he remembers most was the weather. He said the high temperature the first day he started was minus-10 degrees Fahrenheit.

The unit was first assigned a range of fighter jets, and in 1973, it was renamed the 434th Tactical Fighter Wing. In April 1981, the 434th received the A-10 Thunderbolt II for close-air-support missions.

That's when Col. Tim Cahoon came to the base as a reservist to fly the new A-10 planes. When he arrived in 1985, the wing was housed mostly in buildings constructed during the Korean War.

"It was pretty tight quarters for the most part, and they weren't always in the best condition," Cahoon said.

But that didn't change the thrill of flying the A-10 fighter planes — a mission he'd wanted since he first joined the Air Force.

"It's just really invigorating," Cahoon said. "It's a real kick in the pants. When you're 50 feet off the ground and going 300 mph, things go by really fast."

But in 1987, the A-10s were swapped for the KC-135 Stratotanker refueling planes. The same year, the wing was redesignated as the 434th Air Refueling Wing.

Cahoon ended up leaving Grissom in 1989, but he returned in 1993, just a year before the base was set to realign as a reserve base and the 434th would take over operations.

The realignment meant active duty personnel were transferred or retired, and active units were inactivated or transferred.

It also meant more than 2,000 acres of former base area was set aside for civilian use. Many iconic base facilities closed, including the service station, theater, exchange, commissary and the chapel.

Cahoon served there throughout the realignment, and said it's hard to overstate how big of an adjustment it was for the 434th reserve unit to suddenly become the operating unit.

"It was a huge change for a lot of people," he said. "From an emotional and mental standpoint, it was like, 'Holy cow, we're responsible for the base now. We not only have to look at the moment and our immediate mission, but where the base needs to go in the future.'"

In June 2010, that responsibility fell squarely on Cahoon's shoulders when he became commander of the 434th unit. He held the position until his retirement in 2012.

Ensign, who retired from the reserves in 1994, said looking back, it's interesting to see that what started as a kind of tacked-on unit at Grissom in 1971 ultimately became the base's bread and butter.

Now, he said, the community is lucky that the 434th ended up at Grissom and the Air Force kept the installation open to house the unit back when it realigned in 1994.

Cahoon said that decision has led to the base continuing on as one of the biggest economic engines in north central Indiana.

"There's a lot of pride in Hoosiers in having that air base there," he said. "They know it's important. They take a quiet pride that it's there, and I think a lot of people would be heartbroken if at some point the base was closed and the mission went away."

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