JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska –
The 144th Airlift Squadron finds its origins in the very beginning of the Alaska Air National Guard and serves as the nucleus of today’s 176th Wing as well as the Alaska’s Organized Militia’s air component.
World War II veteran Col. Lars Johnson was the common thread to all three organizations’ history
According to the Alaska Air National Guard’s 40th anniversary volume, after the war, Johnson returned to Alaska and became Alaska’s first adjutant general of the state’s National Guard. Johnson approached Alaskan Command commander Air Force Lt. Gen. William Kepner about starting an Air National Guard, securing the general’s endorsement in a letter to the National Guard Bureau in Washington.
“At first, there was some reluctance to establish an Air Guard unit,” Johnson wrote in his forward to the volume. “The territorial legislature did not want to provide money. Some in the military felt the territory would not be able to support a squadron.
“Gov. Ernest Gruening, territorial delegate to the U.S. Senate Bob Bartlett, and territorial Sen. Bill Egan and others knew we could support an Air Guard,” Johnson continued. “Governor Gruening, one day in autumn of 1952, invited Lieutenant General Kepner, Alaskan Command, and Maj. Gen. [William] Old, Air Command, to have lunch with us in Juneau. I presented our plan to seek authority for an Air Guard unit. They agreed it was a good idea.”
Frederick Overly, the volume’s editor, wrote Johnson, leased an office on Anchorage’s 4th Avenue atop the bus depot, put a recruiting notice in the local newspaper, and requested $20,000 from the state legislature. The Alaska Air National Guard was finally organized Sept. 15, 1952, as the 8144th Air Base Squadron with a roster of five officers and 11 enlisted Guardsmen.
Overly wrote that Johnson’s A-20 carried nose art of an arctic tundra wolf with a gold North Star, which would later become the emblem of the 144th Fighter Bomber Squadron and today’s 144th Airlift Squadron.
The unit’s first aircraft
In early 1953, a T-6G Texan training aircraft arrived at the fledgling unit, and flight training immediately began at Elmendorf Air Force Base. The unit gained federal recognition July 1, 1953, was renamed the 144th Fighter Bomber Squadron, and acquired F-80C and T-33 Shooting Star fighters.
Overly wrote that the addition of the jet fighters was exciting for the squadron’s pilots.
“The 144th Fighter Bomber Squadron pilots were a colorful lot,” Overly wrote. “Most were veterans of World War II. The Jet Age was new and exciting, and to be a fighter pilot was about a big a high as anyone could attain.”
Early days of excitement unfortunately gave way to difficult times when tragedy struck the unit Nov. 16, 1954, with the loss of two fighters in separate incidents – an F-80 flown by 1st Lt. Albert Kulis and a T-33 flown by 1st Lt. Roger Pendleton with Capt. Lionel Tietze onboard.
“Kulis, Pendleton and Tietze were the first of the Alaska Air Guardsmen to die in the line of duty,” Overly wrote. “Perhaps because they were the first, they seemed to be the hardest to let go.”
In 1955, the unit redesignated as the 144th Fighter Interceptor Squadron, reflecting the fielding of a new aircraft.
“The Alaska Air National Guard took a giant stride towards establishing itself as an independent fighting force,” Overly wrote. “In many places, the Guard had been given only surplus or retired equipment. This time, the unit received F-86 Saber aircraft, which was still considered to be the backbone of the tactical fighter force.”
In March 1955, the squadron moved from Elmendorf AFB to Kulis Air National Guard Base adjacent to the Anchorage International Airport.
A new mission
In July 1957, the unit redesignated as the 144th Air Transportation Squadron (Light), trading their fighters for C-47 Skytrain cargo aircraft.
“The C-47 could get into and, more importantly, get out of the small landing strips, which were common in Alaska,” Overly wrote. “It could land on a snow-covered stretch of terrain, a frozen lake or a sloping runway with vertical drops at each end. It was, however, slow, old and lacked many of the refinements and improvements possessed by newer aircraft.”
The Skytrain’s obsolescence would be remedied in 1960 with the fielding of the C-123J Provider, and the unit redesignated as the 144th Air Transportation Squadron (Medium).
“The C-123Js were equipped with wingtip-mounted J-44 jets to augment the reliable Pratt and Whitney R-2800-99-W engines,” Overly wrote. “This gave the J-model some 4,600 horsepower and 2,000 pounds of additional thrust, which helped offset the drag and the additional weight of the airplane’s most significant modification – skis.”
The Provider’s arctic capabilities would quickly be put to the test when 11 University of Alaska scientists were stranded on a small ice floe in the Arctic Ocean after their gasoline-fed C-47 was mistakenly fueled with diesel, and the aircraft was forced down.
C-123J pilot Maj. Dean Stringer detailed to the Anchorage Daily Times how the ice floe was riddled with pressure ridges 15 to 20 feet high, making for only a small portion flat enough to land and take off.
“[The scientists] had stamped out a runway for us, but I still had trouble getting lined up on it,” Stringer told the Times.
The March 27, 1964, “Good Friday” 9.2-magnitude earthquake devastated communities in Southcentral Alaska, including the state’s most populous city, Anchorage.
In a contemporary public affairs article, Capt. Dempsey Anderson, wrote that the Alaska adjutant general, Maj. Gen. Thomas Carroll, directed Maj. John Podraza to take command of Kulis ANG Base and place the unit in state active-duty status.
“Within 20 minutes after the quake, without being called, Air Guardsmen began arriving at the base,” Anderson wrote.
Two 144th ATS C-123Js transported Alaska Army National Guardsmen to Seward and Kodiak. Podraza ordered the conversion of a Kulis warehouse into a shelter that would ultimately house 97 earthquake victims.
“Before a week ended, the Air Guardsmen had flown some 25 missions involving 77 sorties and airlifted 201 passengers and 131,054 pounds of cargo,” Anderson wrote.
In 1969, the unit redesignated as the 144th Tactical Airlift Squadron.
Fielding Hercules and taking on a global role
In 1976, C-130E Hercules cargo aircraft replaced the C-123Js, later to be replaced by C-130H models in 1983.
Following the March 24, 1989, Exxon Valdez Prince William Sound oil spill, the 144th TAS delivered oil containment booms, supplies and personnel to the Port of Valdez, Overly wrote.
During operations Desert Shield/Desert Storm, the squadron augmented the allied air campaign.
“The crews airlifted cargo and personnel being staged for deployment to the [Persian] Gulf, filling the gap left in airlift by so many aircraft deployed to the war,” Overly wrote.
In 1992, the unit redesignated as the 144th Airlift Squadron, the name it carries to this day.
During Operation Restore Hope in Somalia during 1992, the 144th AS flew relief missions to stem widespread famine effecting the country during a civil war.
Lt. Col. George Cannelos, 144th AS mission commander, wrote in the Anchorage Daily News that the Joint Task Force JTF was delivering more than 660,000 meals per day using a small fleet of airlift aircraft.
“Thanks to our four maintenance personnel, Alaska's single C-130 never failed to generate a mission,” Cannelos wrote. “The Alaska Air Guard outflew all other aircrews and aircraft from Mombasa, [Kenya]. During December , for example, the aircraft accumulated over 209 flight hours.”
The 144th AS also provided airlift support for peacekeeping operations in Bosnia in 1998, and they would return in 2003.
Throughout the first decade of the century, the squadron supported Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and Operation Iraqi Freedom.
In a March 24, 2006, Anchorage Daily News article, then 176th Wing commander, Brig. Gen. Tony Hart said the squadron served as the focal point for area airlift operations and deployed Guardsmen for two-month rotations to Bagram Air Base, a busy air operations hub with 10,000 personnel.
"It's a big place, a lot of commotion going on, and people are trying to figure out, ‘What do I need to do to fit in?’” said 144th AS 1st Sgt. Bill Hall. “It challenges people immediately on arrival.”
Upon closure of Kulis ANG Base in February 2011, the 144th AS moved to its current home at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson.
The Regular Air Force activated the 537th Airlift Squadron April 29, 2011. The unit served as a Total Force Initiative partner with the 144th AS “owning the iron,” and the 537th AS providing additional aircrews, maintenance and support personnel. The 537th AS inactivated Sept. 11, 2013.
In spring 2016, the 144th AS deployed C-130s to Kuwait for Operation Inherent Resolve, the operations to combat the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The 144th AS divested the last of its C-130s by March 2017 with the Alaska Air National Guard closing out their purely tactical airlift mission. Many of the unit’s Arctic Guardians moved to the 176th Wing’s 249th Airlift Squadron, a C-17 Globemaster III unit. This is where the fate of the two squadrons diverged.
“The question came up: What’s going to happen to the unit?” said Alaska Air National Guard Master Sgt. Colton Nelson, 144th AS C-17 loadmaster. “The 144th is the founding unit of the Alaska Air National Guard. Is it going to be deactivated? Inactivated? Are they going to get another mission?”
The Globemaster III
The answer to Nelson’s question requires an understanding of 249th AS. The unit began operations in the summer of 2007 as a detachment of the 176th Operations Group, flying the C-17 in association with the Regular Air Force’s 517th Airlift Squadron of the 3rd Wing. The 249th AS was officially constituted and allocated to Alaska for activation and assigned to the 176th Operations Group Sept. 1, 2009. Almost immediately upon associating with 517th AS, 249th AS crews were flying missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In May 2017, the C-17s transitioned from a traditional TFI affiliation to an active affiliation where the Air National Guard owns the aircraft, and the Regular Air Force provides additional Airmen.
After adding strategic airlift to their tactical airlift portfolio, the unit also branched out to supporting rescue operations. For several years, the 249th AS and later the 144th AS has partnered with 176th Wing’s 212th Rescue Squadron and other pararescue units to support rapid long-range search and rescue support of NASA’s manned space flights.
“NASA needed support for commercial spaceflight, for SpaceX and Boeing sending their commercial capsules up,” said Lt. Col. Joseph Leman, a 144th AS C-17 instructor pilot. “They wanted assistance in the event of a non-nominal landing occurrence with the launch or return, for recovery of their astronauts.”
The 249th AS inactivated, and the 144th AS assumed the C-17 mission Aug. 8, 2018, combining the Alaska Air National Guard C-17 heritage with the long history of the older unit.
In August 2021, the 144th Airlift Squadron supported Operation Allies Refuge, a massive effort that, according to a Pentagon statement, evacuated about 88,000 American citizens, civilian allies, Afghan special immigrant visa applicants and other vulnerable Afghans.
“We’re extremely proud of the fact that we have folks supporting this mission,” said Lt. Col. Nathan Schauermann, 144th AS commander. “This is the most historic airlift mission we’ve had since Desert Storm in 1991 and is comparable to Operation New Life in Vietnam in 1975. I’m so proud of our personnel for volunteering to go out there at a moment’s notice, and to help with such a significant and imperative mission.”
Today, the 144th AS operates eight C-17s with global mobility mission sets including intercontinental and theater airlift, aeromedical evacuations, humanitarian assistance and tactical airdrop.