The end of the Cold War left the United States needing fewer military forces. A smaller force required fewer bases to support it and, organizationally, fewer units to hold those reduced numbers. For the Air Force, as it set about eliminating excess bases through the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process and excess wings through inactivations, it quickly became apparent that some of the wings it was standing down had an awful lot of important heritage associated with them. “If we’re not careful,” Air Force Chief of Staff, Gen Tony McPeak, warned, “we’ll whittle away at our legacy, we’ll create a new kind of hollow Air Force – one that’s lost its heritage, its heroes, its famous campaigns, its core values.”
So the Air Force set about restoring its “most distinguished flags” by starting at the beginning. “We decided first to preserve our 13 oldest wings,” McPeak explained. One of these original 13 was the famous 17th. This was the unit that flew the Doolittle Raid. It was the first US air unit to sink an enemy submarine during World War II, and the first to sink subs along both coasts. It was the first to bomb all three Axis countries, and the first to earn the French Croix de Guerre Avec Palme. Its personnel provided the core cadre for so many World War II bomb groups that it earned the sobriquet, “The Daddy of Them All.”
This was the kind of heritage General McPeak dared not let perish. So he pulled the 17th out of retirement and returned it to active duty at Goodfellow Air Force Base, Texas, on 1 July 1993. There, as the 17th Training Wing, the unit would produce intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) specialists and firefighters for the uniformed services while keeping alive the heritage of the original 17th.
That heritage begins with the emblem, whose vertical line of crosses counts World War I battle credits belonging to the 95th Aero Squadron. When the 17th first stood up, as the 17th Pursuit Group at March Field, California, in 1931, the 95th was a founding member.
At March, the group flew Boeing P-12 and P-26 pursuit aircraft before transitioning to the Northrup A-17 attack bomber and assuming the designation, 17th Attack Group, in 1935. Four years later the group was redesignated again, becoming the 17th Bombardment Group (Medium) and acquiring the Douglas B-18 and B-23 bombers.
Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, the 17th Bombardment Group flew antisubmarine patrols from Pendleton, Oregon, with the new North American B-25 Mitchell medium bomber. As the first operational unit to fly the B-25, the 17th claimed another first on 24 December 1941 when one of its Mitchells dropped four 300-pound bombs on a Japanese submarine near the mouth of the Columbia River. Three months later and 3,000 miles away, the group became the first to sink submarines on both coasts of the United States.
By then, 120 volunteers from the group had transferred to Eglin Field, Florida, to practice short take-offs and landings for yet another first. On the morning of 18 April 1942, some 600 miles east of Japan, the aircraft carrier Hornet launched sixteen B-25s crewed by 80 Airmen for an incredibly daring assault on Tokyo and other Japanese cities. A boost to American morale, the Doolittle Raid marked the first combat launch of bombers from an aircraft carrier and the first American aerial attack on the Japanese mainland. Piloting the 16th B-25 was 1st Lt William Farrow, a Goodfellow graduate. After completing his mission, Farrow was captured and later executed by the Japanese.
Following the Doolittle Raid the group transferred to Barksdale Field, Louisiana, to begin training on the B-26 Marauder medium bomber. In December, following the British-American landings in French North Africa, the group moved to Telergma, Algeria, to begin combat operations in the Mediterranean theater. Upon the expulsion of Axis forces from North Africa in May 1943, the 17th moved to Sedrata, Algeria, to commence air operations against Pantelleria. Five by eight miles in dimension, the Mediterranean island sheltered an important Axis airfield with hangars carved into solid rock. Its sheer cliffs provided a daunting obstacle to amphibious invasion but precision bombardment by the 17th and other air units secured the island’s surrender in less than a month through the use of air power alone.
Over the course of the rest of the war, from bases in Tunisia, Sardinia, Corsica, and France, the 17th bombed critical targets throughout the Mediterranean, Italy, southern France, and Germany. It received a Distinguished Unit Citation for its support of the Allied drive on Rome and another for outstanding performance against ground units near Schweinfurt, Germany. For operations in Italy from April through June 1944, the 17th became the first American air unit to receive the French Croix de Guerre Avec Palme. All told, the group conducted 606 combat missions in 11 campaigns during 124 days of combat before returning to the United States after the war and inactivating in November 1945.
With war in Korea came the activation of the 17th Bombardment Wing (Light) at Pusan-East Air Base on 10 May 1952. Their hard-nosed B-26B and glass-nosed B-26C Invaders painted black, the “Black Knights” of the 17 BW logged nearly 11,000 combat sorties attacking North Korean trucks and trains on nighttime interdiction missions. Operating continuously until the end of the conflict, the wing earned another Distinguished Unit Citation and the Republic of Korea Presidential Unit Citation.
After the war the wing transitioned to the Martin B-57 Canberra and the Douglas B-66 Destroyer medium bombers, operating briefly at Miho Air Base in Japan and Hurlburt Field in Florida before inactivating on 25 June 1958. Four years later, the Air Force redesignated the wing as the 17th Bombardment Wing (Heavy) and assigned it to Strategic Air Command (SAC) for activation at Wright-Patterson AFB on 15 November 1962. There, the 17th maintained a long-range refueling and strategic bombing capability flying the Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker and the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress. The wing also provided B-52 aircraft and crews for the war in southeast Asia. One of these, as part of a Linebacker II mission on Christmas Eve, 1972, scored the second and last B-52 shoot down of an enemy jet aircraft when gunner Albert Moore fired upon and destroyed an attacking MiG-21.
In September 1975, the wing moved without personnel to Beale AFB, California, where it absorbed the resources and mission of the inactivated 456th Bombardment Wing. At Beale, the 17th continued to operate B-52 and KC-135 aircraft, remaining on global strategic bombardment alert until inactivated again, on 30 June 1976.
Six years later, the Air Force redesignated the 17th as a reconnaissance wing, activating it at RAF Alconbury in the United Kingdom on 1 October 1982. Operating the TR-1 tactical reconnaissance aircraft, a larger follow-on to Lockheed’s U-2, the wing flew high-altitude tactical and strategic reconnaissance missions in support of US and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) objectives in Europe. As the first and only TR-1 wing in the Air Force, the 17th heavily supported Air Force intelligence requirements during the Persian Gulf War before inactivating later that year.
The unit’s redesignation as a training wing and its activation at Goodfellow AFB two years later preserved its association with intelligence. Over the next two decades the wing produced intelligence operators and firefighters in ever increasing numbers, while the transformation of Air Force ISR brought fundamental change to the training arena, revising the curriculum to match the restructuring of ISR specialties while fostering a new pedagogy that replaced repetition and memorization with a fresh focus on critical thinking and analysis. Training production also increased, as the wing more than doubled the number of graduates it sent to the field. Over the same period the wing rebuilt the base, replacing much of the original World War II “temporary” construction and transforming this very old base into one of the most modern in the Air Force.