In 1961, a special category of U.S. Air Force special operations forces was reestablished. Called Air Commandos during World War II, they now wear the emblem of the 16th Special Operations Wing at Hurlburt Field, Fla. The wing's lineage dates back to the 1st Air Commando Group created March 29, 1944 at Hailakandi, India. The unit first won fame providing fighter cover, air strikes, and airlift for Wingate's Raiders, who operated behind enemy lines in Burma. It was over Burma's jungles that the Air Commandos earned their reputation as unorthodox air fighters. Called the "Burma Bridge Busters," they were awarded the Distinguished Unit Citation for extraordinary heroism. The group was transferred back to the United States and disbanded with full honors Oct. 8, 1948. The Air Commando legacy was revived with the activation of the 4400th Combat Crew Training Squadron April 14, 1961. Less than a year later it was expanded to the 4400th Combat Crew Training Group. By June 1963 the group was further expanded and converted to the 1st Air Commando Wing. It 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. The wing was redesignated the 834th Tactical Composite Wing, reporting directly to the commander of Tactical Air Command. The wing once again assumed its more historic name July 1, 1975 as the 1st SOW, but then reported to the commander of the 9th Air Force.
The 1st SOW took part in "Desert One" April 25, 1980, the daring attempt to rescue American hostages from Iran. As a result of the mission, eight 1st SOW crewmembers lost their lives. Desert One became the pivotal event of modern special operations, resulting in new equipment, increased training, and congressionally mandated special operations funding independent of the service branches. The 20th Special Operations Squadron began an important role in helping to stop illegal drugs from entering the United States May 1, 1983. Termed "Operation BAT" for Bahamas and Turks, they provided transportation support for the Vice-President's South Florida Drug Task Force. The operation greatly assisted Bahamian authorities in closing in on drug traffickers, but it also provided aircrews with realistic, valuable training experience.
Late in October 1983, the 1st SOW mobilized into a fighting force called "Urgent Fury." The 1st SOW's AC-130H Spectre gunships and MC-130 Combat Talons deployed to the Island of Grenada. On board were Army rangers and a combat control team. They rescued American medical students and other Americans on the island. The resulting national attention continued for months afterward.
Following the consolidation of combat rescue forces and special operations forces under a new numbered air force March 1, 1983, the 1st SOW no longer reported to Tactical Air Command through 9th Air Force. The 1st SOW became a unit of Military Airlift Command under the reactivated 2nd Air Division at Hurlburt Field. The 2nd AD assumed most of the planning and intelligence functions that had been under the 1st SOW. The 2nd AD deactivated Feb. 1, 1987, and the 1st SOW reported directly to 23rd Air Force. The 23rd AF headquarters moved to Hurlburt Field Aug. 1, 1987, from Scott Air Force Base, Ill.
In December 1989, the 1st SOW was mobilized for Operation "Just Cause." 1st SOW flying squadrons, support personnel, and the 1723rd Special Tactics Squadron deployed to Panama. 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 Desert Storm to expel Iraq from Kuwait. Hurlburt Field personnel played a significant role in 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 at the start of the war. After that they served primarily in a combat search-and-rescue role. They were serving in this capacity when they rescued Lieutenant Devon Jones, a downed Navy flier, Jan. 21, 1991. This was the first U.S. combat rescue since Vietnam.
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 over 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 Desert Storm.
In the aftermath of Desert Storm, MH-60G Pave Hawk, MH-53J Pave Low helicopters, Combat Talon I and II, and Combat Shadow tankers have flown missions in support of Operation PROVIDE COMFORT, aiding the Kurdish refugees in Turkey and northern Iraq. In 1992 and 1993, the Pave Hawks flew hazardous search-and-rescue missions under enemy fire. In 1994, Pave Hawk helicopters and Combat Shadow tankers combined forces to provide search and rescue for two helicopters shot down over the no-fly zone of Northern Iraq.
At Hurlburt Field, the new MC-130H Combat Talon II arrived in 1992. This advanced version of the MC-130E reduced the crew compliment from nine to seven and had a larger cargo capacity. The Talon II squadron, the 15th Special Operations Squadron was activated on October 1, 1992.
In February 1993, the 1st SOW and the 834th Air Base Wing were consolidated. This merger corrected the sometimes-awkward arrangement between the support and operations organizations which had been assigned to different MAJCOMs since 1990.
June 1991, wing aircraft had flown over 10,000 hours on more than 5,000 sorties. This United Nations Somalia (UNOSOM) operation was the continuation of Operation RESTORE HOPE, to facilitate humanitarian relief efforts where civil war and famine threatened the lives of countless citizens. The gunships departed in July, yet were tasked to return in October 1993. The AC-130 gunships were deployed once more to Somalia to support Operation UNITED SHIELD for the withdrawal of UN forces in January 1995.
The 1st SOW was redesignated the 16th SOW on October 1, 1993 by Air Force Chief of Staff General Merrill A. McPeak, as part of Air Force wide renumbering. The name changed, but the commitment to "Any Time, Any Where" remained firmly in place.
The end of communist rule and subsequent breakup of Yugoslavia into several nations, and the ensuing civil war in Bosnia again involved the people of the 16th SOW. Operation PROVIDE PROMISE was a multinational effort to support humanitarian activities in Bosnia-Herzegovina. MH-53Js from the 20th SOS delivered relief supplies to areas accessible only to helicopter.
Operations in the Balkans have evolved from DENY FLIGHT, to the present Operation JOINT ENDEAVOR. Based out of Brindisi, Italy, and San Vito Air Base, Italy, the 16th SOS and 20th SOS provided support for UN ground forces in Bosnia, as well as providing search and rescue capability. This function was aptly displayed in the successful recovery of American pilot Scott O'Grady, as well as the attempted rescue of the aircrew of French aircraft "EBRO-33" and the crash of Transportation Secretary Ron Brown's plane in Bosnia. AC-130Us from the 4th SOS and Combat Talons from the 8th SOS have also participated in operations in the Balkan region.
The Caribbean region became unstable in September 1994. The return to power of the ousted Haitian President received UN and U.S. support in Operation UPHOLD DEMACRACY. Although elements of the 16th SOW deployed to froward locations, they were not needed as the opponents of the legitimate government acquiesced to the will of the Haitian people.
In April 1996 aircraft, crews, and support personnel from the 16th SOW assisted U.S. forces in a non-combatant evacuation (NEO) of over 2200 people, including 436 American citizens from Monrovia, Liberia in West Africa.
The capability of the 16th SOW to deploy anywhere in the world in a short time was displayed in two different events in late 1997 and early 1998. In October 1997 two AC-130Us departed Hurlburt Field and arrived 36 hours later at Taegu Air Base, Republic of Korea. This feat included seven aerial refuelings and required crew monitoring by medical personnel.
In February, Iraqi refusal to allow UN inspectors into suspected sites in Iraq forced a rapid buildup of U.S. forces in southwest Asia. The 16th SOW, in an unusual move, requested that the real-world deployment be observed by Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) Inspector General personnel as part of the impending Operations Readiness Inspection. This was the first time an inspection occurred in conjunction with a deployment of this nature. At the same time, AC-130H gunships were deployed to South Korea as replacement for naval forces deployed to Southwest Asia. Normal rotation of crews continued in Brindisi for operations over Bosnia as well.
With the Iraqi crisis ended, personnel were able to re-deploy, and by July 1998, the Brindisi operations were the only deployments of AFSOC resources. But as has been demonstrated, the 16th SOW is both willing and able to pick up and move anywhere around the world at a moment's notice.
The gunships returned from Brindisi operations July 18, 1999, ending the six-year presence at the deployed location.
Aircrews from the 20th and 55th Special Operation Squadrons, rescued two downed Air Force pilots during Operation Allied Force in Kosovo.
The 55th SOS was inactivated Sept. 16, 1999. The squadron's MH-60G helicopters were transferred to Air Combat Command.