JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska —
It’s been said that every successful air mission begins and ends on the flightline. That’s true for a Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson unit with a long legacy.
The 3rd Airdrome Squadron was born out of necessity on November 7, 1942 at Lockburne Army Air Base, Ohio.
Tasked to rapidly deploy and establish airstrips in remote locations, the 3rd AS advanced through the Pacific during the island-hopping campaign of World War II. From one location to the next, service members mapped, dug, dragged, plowed, cleared, filled, paved and maintained landing strips, in support of air operations from New Guinea to the Philippines, Okinawa and Japan – all the while combating torrential weather and a relentless enemy.
“You have to be a student of history to understand where we’re going, and you have to be a student of history to know where we can go,” said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. John Rogers, 3rd Operations Support Squadron commander. “[The squadron showed] you need to have an expeditionary function in your OSS. You don’t just show up with airplanes on an airfield without having someone on the ground doing all the prep work.”
In a Library of Congress archived interview, then-Army Air Corps Capt. Gilbert Brahn, 3rd AS aircraft engineer officer, recalled some of the ever-present dangers faced during the war.
“I remember very vividly a kamikaze plane punching into the water not far off from the ship I was on,” he said. “The anti-aircraft had shot down that plan and another one. There were other planes that were warded off because of it. Things were clear and the sky was clear.”
The heavens would not remain clear for long as Mother Nature had different plans.
“In November 1944, there was 40 inches of rain [in Leyte, Philippines],” Brahn said. “We were in awful mud. There was a real problem with the preparation of the airfields.”
Despite atmospheric drawbacks, the men went on enduring much of the same – ultimately reaching Japan in the summer of 1945.
“The squadron was involved in the Japanese surrender at the end of World War II,” said Christopher Koonce, 673d Air Base Wing historian. “They were brought to Atsugi, Japan just before the formal surrender to establish U.S. presence for Gen. Douglas Macarthur’s arrival. This was the first transient point in the early stages of U.S. occupation.”
By war’s end, the squadron had navigated across three countries, covering more than 3,500 miles in the process. The unit was inactivated soon after the war, reactivated for a short while in Kimpo, Korea, and finally inactivated Oct. 8, 1948.
The 3rd AS remained dormant for 43 years before being rebranded the 3rd Operations Support Squadron and reactivated at then-Elmendorf Air Force Base Dec. 6, 1991.
“It’s a very diverse squadron, and I think being Arctic Wolves, embodies the squadron,” said U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Paul Babbitt, with 3rd OSS aerospace flight equipment. “If only one wolf in the pack goes out to hunt, not everyone gets to eat. That fearless adventurous spirit. That’s the spirit of the 3rd OSS.”
Today, 225 Airmen across 26 different Air Force Specialty Codes make up the 3rd OSS.
“[The 3rd OSS] is really unique because you have people like us in aircrew flight equipment who pack chutes and making sure all the survival equipment is good to go so pilots can survive in the sky,” Babbitt said. “You have people in Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape teaching aircrew how to survive. You have airfield management who ensure the airfield is good and planes can take off and land, and many others.”
Taking a page from the history books, the Air Force in some ways is reverting to those early days of the squadron, Koonce said.
“With the new Agile Combat Employment, we’re going to a location, flying for a few hours or days, and moving to a new location,” Koonce said. “That’s essentially what they did in WWII. They would get to an island; sometimes the air field would be a small dirt strip and maybe they’d have to extend or expand. Maybe there would be holes because they dropped bombs on it so they’d have to repair that.”
Today’s OSS Airmen face a different set of challenges; with each technological advance comes the need for more stringent airfield requirements. What may have worked for propeller aircraft of days past may not be sufficient for fifth generation fighters.
“We’re now in a position where we’re doing that exact same thing,” Rogers said. “I’m sending people to austere locations, and asking what would it take to get an airplane here?
“This is the most diverse OSS in the Air Force,” he said. “You trust us to go out to these airfields that are in the middle of nowhere, and not only to deploy there and support operations that are ongoing, but research and come up with the shopping list of things we have to get to open them and enable them. That has a national-level impact. That’s a pretty amazing thing.”