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HISTORY OF THE 120TH FIGHTER WING

Posted 3/3/2009 Printable Fact Sheet

The roots of the 120th Fighter Wing date back to the early morning hours of June 22, 1941 when the German military launched a surprise attack on the Soviet Union. "Operation Barbarossa," a simultaneous ground and air offensive caught the Russians off guard and nearly decimated their military. By the end of the first week, the Red Air Force had lost 4,000 aircraft, a number that represented half the air force. Joseph Stalin appealed to the U.S. and Great Britain with a request to be included in the Lend-Lease program. Pres. Roosevelt enacted lend-Lease in March of 1941 as a way to provide equipment and supplies to our British allies without actually entering the war. The British had been fighting the Germans since September 1939.

Upon approval to assist the Soviets, the biggest question became the one of how to get the material to the Soviet Union. Stalin was reluctant to allow American pilots on Soviet soil, but the North Atlantic was controlled by German U-boats. Many Allied ships went down before Stalin agreed to an Arctic flying route.

Great Falls was chosen as the American starting point because of her inland location, over 300 good flying days per year and her alignment with the northern airstrips. On June 22, 1942, the 7th Ferrying Group established headquarters at the Municipal Airport on Gore Hill overlooking Great Falls. They quickly established a military airbase named Gore Field, after local homesteader James D. Gore. On Sept. 2, 1942, two flights of A-20 light bombers left Great Falls and touched down at Ladd Field in Fairbanks, Alaska.

At Fairbanks, the Russian pilots picked up the aircraft and flew them home. Known as the Alaska - Siberian route, or ALSIB, this route saw almost 8,000 aircraft provided to assist the war efforts on the Eastern Front from 1942 to 1945. The 7th Ferrying Group also transported military aircraft to Alaska in support of the 11th Air Force, which was fighting off the Japanese in the northern Pacific Theater. East Base, now known as Malmstrom Air Force Base, was established around the same time, and gradually came to assume many of the Lend-Lease ferrying duties.

In September of 1945, the military installation at Gore Field, by then known as the 557th Army Air Forces Base Unit, was closed down. Following the war, each state was authorized one air unit. Lt. Col. Willard Sperry, a decorated combat pilot stationed at East Base, began building the Montana Air National Guard at Gore Field. On June 27, 1947, the 186th Fighter Squadron was activated and federally recognized. Within two weeks, six P-51 D Mustangs arrived. Eighty-nine days after activation, tragedy struck the fledgling unit. En route to pick up the adjutant general in Helena, the A-26 Invader Lt. Col. Sperry was flying went down in a heavy snowstorm. The wreckage could not be found until the following summer. On board also was Sgt. Charles Glover, for whom the street along the east side of building 64 is named.

In September of 1945, the military installation at Gore Field, by then known as the 557th Army Air Forces Base Unit, was closed down. Following the war, each state was authorized one air unit. Lt. Col. Willard Sperry, a decorated combat pilot stationed at East Base, began building the Montana Air National Guard at Gore Field. On June 27, 1947, the 186th Fighter Squadron was activated and federally recognized. Within two weeks, six P-51 D Mustangs arrived. Eighty-nine days after activation, tragedy struck the fledgling unit. En route to pick up the adjutant general in Helena, the A-26 Invader Lt. Col. Sperry was flying went down in a heavy snowstorm. The wreckage could not be found until the following summer. board also was Sgt. Charles Glover, for whom the street along the east side of building 64 is named.

On April 1, 1951, the unit was activated for Korea. Personnel were sent to Moody AFB, Ga., and ten F-51s were shipped to Korea. (The "P" for "pursuit" had been dropped in 1948 and changed to "F" for "fighter.") The unit received its first jet aircraft in 1952, a T-33 Shooting Star. The first jet fighter landed at Gore Field a year later in the form of the F-86A Sabre Jet, the first F-86 assigned to an Air National Guard squadron.

An F-86 is currently mounted as a weather vane overlooking interstate 15 at the airport exit. The squadron was redesignated the 186th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron and adopted the "Charlie Chicken" patch. The F-89 Scorpion arrived in 1955 and the Montana Air National Guard was redesignated the 120th Fighter Group (Air Defense).

October 1, 1958 saw the beginning of the unit's commitment to five-minute runway alert, a task that would last for 38 years. The arrival of the F-102 DeltaDagger in 1966 ushered in the supersonic age. In 1972, the unit was redesignated the 120th Fighter-Interceptor Group and assigned the F-106 Delta Dart, the first Air National Guard unit to receive this aircraft. With the F- 106, the 120th competed in and won its first William Tell, a live-fire missile competition held at Tyndall AFB, Fla.

The F-16A/B arrived in 1987 and the 120th became the 120th Fighter Wing in 1995. On 2 September 1997 the Montana Air Guard was proud to welcome the 219th RED HORSE Squadron (RHS). The mission of the 219th RHS is to organize, train and equip its 120 personnel for its role as a highly mobile, rapidly deployable, self-sustaining heavy construction and repair unit capable of supporting air power worldwide and especially in remote and austere operating environments.

The 120th FW began a conversion in 2001 migrating to the F-16C/D model aircraft. This conversion replaced the air defense mission with one of general purpose/air-to-ground as part of the Expeditionary Aerospace Force. With the conversion, unit members felt it was time to consider a change in the aircraft tail markings. The most notable change included the 186th Fighter Squadron's nickname of "Vigilantes". The nickname by the pilots of the 186th is intended to honor the first men in the Montana Territory who organized for the safety and welfare of the people. The Wing onceagain found itself on alert status after the terrorism attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C. Base personnel implemented the necessary procedures to establish a secure environment while maintaining a 24 hour alert status for aircraft. Throughout 2002, hundreds of unit personnel were activated and deployed to multiple locations in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and the world.







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