Hurlburt Field, Fla., is home to the Air Force Special Operations Command and the 1st Special Operations Wing and has a long and distinctive history. Hurlburt Field was originally designated as Auxiliary Field No. 9, one of the original small pilot and gunnery training fields built on the sprawling Eglin Air Force Base complex in the 1940s.
The 1st Air Commando Group was created March 29, 1944 in India, where the air commandos won historical fame by providing fighter cover, air strikes, and airlift for "Wingate's Raiders," who were operating behind enemy lines in Burma. It was over Burma's jungles that the air commandos, called "Burma Bridge Busters," earned their reputation as unorthodox air fighters.
During 1943, American C-47s and British Dakotas of Transport Command formed an aerial lifeline to Wingate's Raiders that was never broken. Food, ammunition, clothing and medical supplies were dropped by parachute from 200 feet during the day and 400 feet during the night.
Wingate's successful 1943 campaign promoted further efforts of the same unconventional nature. The 1st Air Commando Group, U.S. Army Air Force, was formed to spearhead General Wingate's operations. The group's inventory reflected as odd an assortment of hardware as could be imagined. It boasted C-47 transports, P-51 fighters, B-25 Mitchell bombers, UC-64 utility aircraft, L-1 and L-5 observation aircraft and a glider force consisting of CC-4As and TG-5s.
The 17th Light Bombardment Wing arrived at Hurlburt Field from Minho, Japan, in 1955 to conduct routine training and, after a three-year stay, was replaced by the 4751st Missile Wing of the Air Defense Command. Its mission was to test surface-to-air missiles launched from facilities on neighboring Santa Rosa Island.
With the phaseout of the Bomarc missile in 1961, the call to train airborne warfare specialists revived the legacy of the air commandos. They were activated April 14, 1961 as the 4400th Combat Crew Training Squadron. Less than a year later the squadron was expanded to become the 4400th Combat Crew Training Group. They were to provide the Air Force with a counterinsurgency military assistance capability. The group, as its responsibilities continued to enlarge, became the 1st Air Commando Wing on June 1, 1963.
The Kennedy Administration and the advent of the policy of "flexible response" revived interest in special operations. As the Vietnam War expanded in scope and intensity, the Air Force increased counterinsurgency capability. Most Air Force special operations resources were dedicated to the war in Southeast Asia.
Propeller aircraft such as T-28s, B-26s, C-47s and A-1s appeared strangely out of place in the jet-age Air Force during this time, but as the commandos commented, "Our planes may be obsolete and unsophisticated, but they can do our kind of job." Whether the job was a C-47 dropping flares to illuminate the target area or a B-26 making repeated strafing, rocket and bombing passes, the jobs got done.
The 1st Air Commando Wing met the expanded requirement of air operations in Vietnam. The air commando units were involved in psychological operations as well as unconventional warfare and foreign internal defense activities. The AC-130 performed the interdiction mission in an outstanding manner and proved to be the most effective "truck killer" of the war.
The 1st Air Commando Wing became the 1st Special Operations Wing of the U.S. Air Force Special Operations Force July 8, 1968. Missions of the Air Force Special Operations Force and the 1st SOW were consolidated July 1, 1974, and the wing was redesignated the 834th Tactical Composite Wing, reporting directly to the commander of Tactical Air Command. The wing once again assumed its name as the 1st SOW July 1, 1975.
Following the consolidation of combat rescue forces and special operations forces under a new numbered Air Force (23rd AF) on March 1, 1983, the 1st SOW no longer reported to Tactical Air Command, but to the Military Airlift Command. The 1st SOW became a unit under the reactivated 2nd Air Division.
The 1st SOW performed an important role in the Vice President's South Florida Drug Task Force beginning on May 1, 1983, by helping curb the flow of illegal drugs into the United States. They transported Bahamian authorities and drug enforcement agents to sites of drug action. This also provided aircrews with realistic, high-stress training.
The 1st SOW mobilized into a fighting force during Operation URGENT FURY in October 1983. The 1st SOW's AC-130H Spectre gunships and MC-130 Combat Talons deployed to the island of Grenada. On board the MC-130s were Army rangers and a combat control team. The purpose was to go in and rescue the American medical students and other Americans on the island. The success of the mission threw the 1st SOW into the limelight and drew national attention for months.
The 2nd Air Division was inactivated Feb. 1, 1987, and the headquarters for 23rd Air Force moved to Hurlburt Field from Scott Air Force Base, Ill., Aug. 1, 1987.
The 1st SOW was mobilized for Operation JUST CAUSE in December 1989. All five flying squadrons under the 1st SOW deployed aircraft, aircrew, and support personnel to Panama. The 1723rd Special Tactics Squadron also participated. The purpose of the operation was to protect the lives of Americans and American interests under the Canal Treaty, to establish law and order, to restore democracy and to bring Panama's dictator, General Manuel Noriega, to justice.
The mission was successful, resulting in the arrest and extradition of Noriega to the United States and the surrender of Panama's Defense Forces.
In mid-January 1991, President George Bush ordered the execution of Operation DESERT STORM to expel Iraq from Kuwait. Hurlburt Field personnel played a significant role in Operation DESERT STORM. The MC-130E Combat Talons dropped leaflets on Iraqi forces and for the first time dropped 15,000-pound BLU-82 bombs in combat. The MH-53J Pave Lows teamed with Army helicopters to knock out Iraqi early warning sites and open a hole in their air defense system. After that they served primarily in a combat search-and-rescue role and rescued a downed Navy flier Jan. 21, 1991. The AC-130H Spectre gunships flew armed reconnaissance and destroyed targets identified during Desert Shield. The MH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters performed combat search-and-rescue and inserted Special Forces behind enemy lines. Also, the HC-130 Combat Shadow tankers flew deep into Iraq to refuel 1st SOW helicopters in a high threat environment. By March 13, 1991, wing aircraft had flown more than 10,000 hours on more than 5,000 sorties. During that time, the 1st SOW lost one AC-130H and its crew of 14 while supporting Marine ground forces. This was the largest single loss suffered by any unit in Operation DESERT STORM.
The 23rd Air Force was redesignated as the Air Force Special Operations Command May 22, 1990. It was concurrently established as a major air command of the Air Force and it remained the Air Force component of the U.S. Special Operations Command.
The 1st SOW was redesignated the 16th SOW on Oct. 1, 1993 by Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Merrill A. McPeak, as part of Air Force-wide unit renumbering.
The mission of the 16th SOW continued to provide a rapid reaction force for global special operations and to train aircrews to instruct and assist allied forces in all phases of special air operations.
On November 16, 2006, the Air Force redesignated the 16th SOW back to the 1st SOW. Hurlburt Field is proud of its history and it stands ready to perform its unique mission "Any Time, Any Place."