July: A month of great significance

by Dr. Silvano A. Wueschner
86th Airlift Wing historian

The very mention of July conjures up images of family picnics, fireworks and community celebrations to honor the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. Yet, for the 86th Airlift Wing, the month also holds significance.

The 86th AW, which began life as a bomber group, entered active combat in the Mediterranean theater when the 309th Squadron flew the group’s first combat mission on July 2, 1943, from Trafaroui Air Base, Algeria. The group’s other squadrons began combat operations on July 6 with attacks against Cap Bon, Tunis.

A year later, on July 14, initial elements of the 86th embarked for Comiso Airport, Sicily. The advanced party settled into the airfield at Gela West, with the remainder of the group arriving at Gela West by July 21. The following day, the group flew its first mission from that base, supporting the 1st Division of II Army Corps. By the time the Germans withdrew from Sicily on Aug. 17, the group had flown 2,375 combat sorties in Sicily and along the southern coast of Italy.

Republic P-47 of the 86th Bomber Group 1943
The 86th and its units were deactivated March 31, 1946, only to be reactivated in August 1946. Over the ensuing years, the group went through several changes as a reconnaissance mission was added to its fighter mission. The reconnaissance mission ended in January 1948, and the 86th assumed its former designation as the 86th Fighter Group. Other changes were in the offing, and one of the most significant of these came on July 1, 1948, with the activation of the 86th Fighter Wing, just a week after the Soviets blocked the land routes to Berlin and the Berlin Airlift began. The mission of the 86th FW was to provide defense for the Berlin Airlift cargo flights and general air defense of American occupation zone.

There were a number of changes and redesignations over the years. The transformations that came about since the early 1990s were a result of the major force structure changes that resulted from the end of the Cold War. Arguable, a significant change came on July 1, 1993, when Detachment 1, 435 Operations Group, at Chièvres, Belgium, was redesignated as the Detachment 1, 86th Operations Group, bringing a C-9 into the 86th inventory, as well as responsibility to provide direct airlift support to the supreme allied commander-Europe. After gaining this airlift mission, the wing changed its designation from the 86th Fighter Wing to the 86th Wing. The same day, the 86th also added an aeromedical evacuation mission. The Second Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron and the 55th Aeromedical Airlift Squadron were transferred from Rhein-Main to Ramstein. The 55th ASS added another aircraft type, the C-9A Nightingale, to the 86th Wing inventory.

During this time frame, the decision was made to change the 86th Wing from a fighter wing to a wing devoted to intra-theater airlift, and for the 86th Wing to assume the C-130 airlift mission previously held by the 435th Airlift Wing at Rhein-Main Air Base, Germany, which was slated for inactivation. With the influx of C-130 personnel, the wing’s F-16s were gradually dispersed from Ramstein to other bases. On July 21, 1994, the 86th Wing held a “Fighter Farewell” ceremony for the departure of its last F16s, most to the 31st FW at Aviano Air Base, as the 86th Wing became the 86th Airlift Wing.