100 years of 3rd Wing service

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. James Richardson
  • 673d Air Base Wing

From humble beginnings across the southwestern United States in 1919 to their dynamic presence in today’s global theater, on July 1, 2019, Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson’s 3rd Wing celebrated 100 years of service.

The 3rd’s lineage originated July 1, 1919, when the War Department activated the Army Surveillance Group at Kelly Field, Texas, in response to the Battle of Juarez during the Mexican Revolution. Flying British-designed, American-made DeHavilland DH.4 aircraft, the Army Surveillance Group was scattered in small outposts from Brownsville, Texas, to Nogales, Arizona, to patrol the border and monitor the unrest in northern Mexico. 

Adapting new technologies and advances in aerial warfare during the interwar years, the Army Surveillance Group changed their name to the 3rd Attack Group. The group’s primarily focus consisted of aerial experimentation and the progression of American combat doctrine. Over this 20 year period, the 3rd was integral in the evolution of American aerial warfare. The 3rd pioneered dive bombing, skip-bombing, and parafrag attacks that were later employed by U.S. Army Air Corps/Forces bomber squadrons during World War II.

Following the attacks on Pearl Harbor between 1941 and 1942, the 3rd conducted a series of dangerous combat operations against Japan. Flying with one operational squadron, the missions yielded immense losses but highlighted the group’s institutional innovation and continued heedfulness. Through the resourceful acquisition of aircraft and supplies and imaginative maintenance, the group forged together enough A-20 Havocs, A-24 Banshees and B-25 Mitchells to continue combat operations until American manufacturing could foster replacements.

In 1942, the 3rd became the 3rd Bombardment Group, although unofficially keeping the historic 3rd name after being equipped with new low-altitude strafing bombers (a tactic they helped developed). Using field modifications devised by the Major Paul “Pappy” Gunn on the new B-25 bombers, the 3rd saw notable success during the Battle of Bismarck Sea, the Battle of Rabaul, and the air bombings of the Imperial Japanese Air Force at Wewak, New Guinea.

The 3rd spent 41 months in combat, destroying 642 ships, more than 2,000 planes and killing an estimated 41,000 enemy troops with their specialized low-level bombing and strafing techniques. These victories did not come without setbacks, as the 3rd lost 1,634 men and 174 aircraft from April 1, 1942 to Aug. 9, 1945.

After WWII, the 3rd was widely renowned for their ingenuity and combat proficiency. When diplomacy failed and tensions escalated on the Korean peninsula in 1950, the 3rd Bombardment Wing, Light (the name changed in 1948 due to the new Air Force organizational configuration and the 3rd BG lineage was bestowed to the wing) was called on to provide the war’s first bombing mission. On June 29, 1950, 18 B-26 Invaders took off from the 3rd’s airbase in Iwakuni, Japan, and bombed the Heijo Airfield destroying an estimated 25 aircraft. Additionally, the 3rd was credited with the first aerial victory of the war when Army Air Forces Sgt. Nyle Mickley, a B-26 gunner, shot down a North Korean YAK-3 fighter aircraft. 


Re-designated as the 3rd Tactical Fighter Wing in 1964, the unit moved from Kunsan Air Base, Republic of Korea, to England Air Force Base, Louisiana. Once established at England AFB, the 3rd immediately began training for escalating tensions in Southeast Asia. The Vietnam War stretched the 3rd thin. At one time or another, the 3rd operated out of Takhli Air Base, Thailand; Clark Air Base, Philippines; Da Nang Air Base, Vietnam; Bien Hoa Air Base, Vietnam; Pleiku Air Base, Vietnam; and Phu Cat Air Base, Vietnam. Primarily flying B-57 Canberras and F-100 Super Sabres, the 3rd flew more than 200,000 combat sorties.

In keeping with their heritage of innovation, the Air Force selected the 3rd as the only unit to combat test the new F-5 Tiger multirole aircraft. The evaluation lasted from October 1966 to March 1967. During the trials, the 3rd introduced several significant modifications that helped usher in future F-5 models. Flying out of Beien Hoa and Da Nang Air Bases, the 3rd conducted over 2,600 combat missions over Vietnam and Laos and lost only one F-5 to enemy fire. These combat tests allowed Northrop to evolve their fighter aircraft technology and led to the creation of the McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet.

After the Vietnam War, the 3rd permanently moved to Clark Air Base. While at Clark, the 3rd produced what would eventually become Red Flag-Alaska – the world’s most premiere international air combat exercise. Known then as Cope Thunder and featuring F-4 Phantoms, the exercise focused on creating a simulated, air combat environment that allowed U.S. and international forces the ability to improve joint combat readiness. Red Flag-Alaska 19-2, the most recent iteration of the exercise, completed a few weeks before the 3rd’s 100th anniversary, yielding 2,000 sorties from a magnitude of U.S. and international aircraft. With more than five countries and over 2,000 people participating, Airmen flew over 1,700 flying hours during the two-week exercise.  

With a detachment of F-4 personnel deployed to the Middle East in support of Operation Desert Storm in 1991, Mount Pinatubo erupted in the Philippines leaving a layer of ash and debris across Clark Air Base. Damages deemed too costly, coupled with an increase in terrorist activities in the region and growing discontent in the Philippine government, the Department of Defense decided to move the 3rd to Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska. Re-designated then as the 3rd Wing, the wing included two squadrons of F-15 Eagles, one squadron of F-15E Strike Eagles, one squadron of C-130 Hercules’, and a squadron of E-3 Sentries.

In 2007, the 3rd traded in their F-15s for the world’s first combat-ready fifth-generation fighter – the F-22 Raptor. With the introduction of the F-22, the 3rd’s role in the Pacific, if it wasn’t already known, became immediately known as the F-22 fighter added a greater level of technological superiority to region. Using state-of-the-art stealth technology and many other high-tech features, F-22s regularly launch from alert cells at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson to successfully intercept Russian bombers drifting into Alaskan airspace.

The 3rd’s current mission is to provide the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command with trained and equipped tactical air dominance forces, command and control platforms, and strategic and tactical airlift resources for contingency operations. The wing also provides the commander of U.S. Northern Command with immediate early airborne detection, warning, surveillance and interception of hostile forces within the Alaska North American Aerospace Defense Command Region. Since the 3rd’s move to Alaska, the wing has successfully contributed to Operations NORTHERN WATCH, SOUTHERN WATCH, ALLIED FORCE, ENDURING FREEDOM, INHERENT RESOLVE, counter-drug operations in Panama, humanitarian aid missions throughout the world and continue to stand ready to support the defense of the United States and Pacific region. Although aircraft and Airmen will change, the foundation of the 3rd is firmly planted in the soil of American military history. 


For a detailed history of the 3rd Wing from the 673rd Air Base Wing History Office, please visit the following link:



Source: 673 ABW History Office, JBER, AK