From Jennies to jets to stealth bombers, the 131st Bomb Wing’s history really began with its co-located flying squadron, now the 110th Bomb Squadron, which traces its roots back to the 110th Observation Squadron.
The 110th OS was organized by Maj. Bill Robertson and his brothers, Lieutenants Frank and Dan Robertson, owners of Robertson Aircraft Company. The Robertsons were aviation pioneers, noted for being the first two pilots from Missouri to enlist in World War I (Dan was too young). Among their associates were a number of former Army Air Corps veterans and visionary young men who shared an interest in organizing a National Guard unit in St. Louis.
They strove to make this vision a reality; they worked with local newspapers to get the word out.
These outlets informed the public that “along with aviators, a number of young men who wanted to learn to fly or maintain flying equipment would also be taken as enlistments.”
Members would be paid for a maximum of 60 “drills” a year, which were described as periods of instruction in ground work, machine-shop practice and flying. They would receive instruction in war maneuvers, and conduct bombing and machine-gun firing practice with targets on the nearby Missouri River.
Personnel assigned to the photo section would learn to “make pictures for use in war” and intelligence personnel would be “trained as Scouts of the Air (observers) and probably will have radio equipment.””
A five-day “recruiting drive” enlisted a total of 110 men, most of whom were World War I veterans. On June 23, 1923, the 110th OS, 110th Photo Section and 110th Intelligence Section (35th Division Aviation Section) of the Missouri National Guard were federally recognized and Maj. Robertson became the first commanding officer.
The first headquarters for the unit was located in a gas station on Manchester Avenue in St. Louis. From there, it moved to a small room over a grocery store on Olive Street Road in St. Louis County. Members participated in training at the airport, which at that time was little more than a pasture.
At first there were no uniforms for the enlisted men. Their first flying equipment was a Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny,” which was purchased through officer donations and used for flight training until early 1924, when they received three additional World War I surplus JN-4Hs.
The pilots were so eager to train; they would often fly three men to an aircraft, with one man strapped to a wing so they could switch off in midflight without having to take time to land.
The planes were housed in corrugated sheet-metal hangars erected on the field that had been built for the International Air Races of 1923. The 110th received additional aircraft and equipment throughout 1924, and by year’s end, they had established a well-planned training program.
The chief pilot on the St. Louis-to-Chicago mail run for the Robertson Aircraft Company was a young aviator named Charles “Slim” Lindbergh, who soon joined his employers at the 110th.
He was a captain in the National Guard in 1927 and had to seek permission from his commanders to make his historic transatlantic 33 hour solo flight from New York to Paris in the “Spirit of St. Louis.” He was rewarded for his efforts by a special act of the Missouri legislature that promoted him to the rank of colonel.
The squadron flew 10 different aircraft from 1925 to 1940, including the De Havilland D-4, the Consolidated PT-1 “Trusty” and TW-3. Aircraft such as the Curtiss Falcon O-11, Douglas 0-2H and O-38B were employed for observation and reconnaissance missions. Squadron photographers honed their skills using the K-17 observation camera.
On Dec. 23, 1940, the unit was called to serve in World War II as a fighter and medium bombardment unit, and commenced training in Little Rock, Ark., and Salinas, Calif. Members flew the Douglas A-20 “Havoc” bomber, Bell P-39 “Air Cobra” and Curtiss P-40 “Warhawk” fighters. The unit was based in Australia, New Guinea and the Philippines, and was credited with destroying approximately 123 Japanese aircraft and approximately 12 ships, earning the squadron a Presidential Unit Citation in 1944.
Upon returning home, the unit was demobilized and in the early summer of 1946, plans were formulated to organize the Air National Guard. Unlike the pre-war unit, which consisted of some 24 officers and 120 enlisted men, Missouri was to receive a fighter wing, utilizing nearly 10 times as many personnel.
An extensive recruiting drive was undertaken, facilities at Lambert Field in St. Louis were reoccupied and the unit was designated as the 57th Fighter Wing and 110th Fighter Squadron. Federal recognition was granted in September. The unit was equipped with the North American P-51 “Mustang,” then recognized as the fastest fighter aircraft of World War II.
In 1947, the wing was re-designated the 71st Fighter Wing. During this period, Maj. Charles DuBois, World War II ace and former member of the famed Flying Tigers, took command of the 110th Fighter Squadron and soon gained recognition as one of the unit’s most aggressive commanders.
Three years later, on Nov. 1, 1950, the wing was re-designated the 131st Composite Wing, and began pursuing intensive training to raise the wing’s readiness to the highest possible degree.
On March 1, 1951, as a result of the Korean emergency, the wing was recalled to active federal service for a period of 21 months, with moves to Strategic Air Command at Bergstrom Air Force Base, Texas, and then later in the year to George Air Force Base, Calif., with the new designation as the 131st Fighter-Bomber Wing.
The medium bomber North American B-25 “Mitchell,” the North American T-6 “Texan” trainer, the Douglas B-26 “Invader” and military transports Douglas C-47 “Skytrain” and Beechcraft C-45 “Expeditor” joined the 131st fleet throughout the 1950s.
During the Korean conflict, the wing took on an increased role of flying bombers, but the mission would change quickly to that of a fighter role. Fighters would be the 131st mission for 40 more years, but bombers would ultimately become the future.
During assignment to George AFB, a large number of personnel were sent to overseas assignments. Tactical units were rotated in support of NATO operations in Iceland and many individuals saw action in the Korean arena. By November 1952, demobilization was completed and the wing was returned to Lambert Field.
After the Korean call-up, the wing was re-designated as the 131st Light Bombardment Wing. The wing entered the “jet age” in the late ’50s with the arrival of the Lockheed F-80 “Shooting Star” and the Republic F-84F “Thunderstreak.” The Lockheed T-33 “T-bird” entered service as the wing’s training aircraft.
During the Berlin Crisis, the wing was again recalled to active service, this time deploying to Toul-Rosieres Air Base, France, to augment NATO forces. They stayed in France from October 1961 to August 1962, helping to airlift food and medical supplies into Germany.
Returning home in 1962, the unit received the North American F-100 “Super Sabre,” which remained an integral part of the now 131st Tactical Fighter Wing and 110th Tactical Fighter Squadron for more than 17 years.
In 1977, Ann Morrow Lindbergh, Charles Lindbergh’s widow, gave the governor of Missouri permission to designate the 110th TFS as “Lindbergh’s Own.” Today, the words remain a unit slogan of the 110th BS.
In the summer of 1978, the F-100 was replaced by the F-4C “Phantom,” which was built across the runway from the wing’s hangars by McDonnell-Douglas. In 1985, the C-model Phantoms were replaced by the newer E-model Phantom II. Additionally, the F-4E (tail number 68-338) was honored with a special paint scheme to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the first flight of the F-4 Phantom and the unit hosted a gathering of F-4s to celebrate.
In 1982, Betty Robertson, sister of the three Robertson brothers and a pioneer aviator in her own right, helped dedicate the new wing headquarters as Robertson Building 131 in their memory.
Tensions in the Middle East impacted the Air National Guard along with the rest of the military.
Members from the 131st deployed in support of Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm in the early 1990s. Deployments continued in support of Operations Provide Comfort, Northern Watch and Southern Watch.
In September 1991, the F-4 Phantoms gave way to another St. Louis-built fighter when the unit transitioned into McDonnell-Douglas F15-A and B model “Eagles” and went to an air superiority mission. The conversion was completed in a minimal time frame and the wing was back up to full speed within 18 months.
Called to service again to assist in battling the Great Flood of 1993, more than 500 Citizen Airmen served throughout the St. Louis area in support of this natural disaster. 1993 also saw the arrival of the Fairchild C-26A Metro Liner, a twin-engine turboprop with the capability to quick change to passenger, medevac or cargo interiors.
The F-15s of the 131st would be put to test with deployments to Turkey in 1996, 1997 and 1998, Denmark in 1999, Saudi Arabia in 2000, and Iceland in 2001 and 2006. Between the overseas trips, the tempo was kept at a high pace with various deployments to stateside exercises such as Red Flag and Combat Archer.
The dramatic events of Sept. 11, 2001, led the wing to stand up to full alert within eight hours of the initial terrorist attack, with several units mobilized within days. Throughout the following months, wing members mobilized or deployed in support of Operations Noble Eagle, Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation New Dawn. Despite the demands of high tempo global operations and response to natural disasters, the 131st continues to fulfill its daily training missions and excel in higher headquarters-directed inspections.
During the winter of 2001 to 2002, the 131st FW completed a 90-day air expeditionary force rotation in Keflavik, Iceland, allowing other units to support other global operations.
During the fall of 2004, the unit began its transition from the F-15A/B to the F-15C/D model aircraft, becoming the first combat-coded F-15 unit in the ANG to have the C-models. In August 2005, the 131st FW became the first operational ANG unit to fully fly the F-15C model.
In the late summer of 2005, 131st FW members were among those to deploy to the Gulf Coast to assist with hurricane relief efforts in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. In St. Louis, wing personnel worked in concert with local officials to establish a shelter for evacuees expected to arrive in St. Louis. Although it was prepared, the shelter was never used.
The Defense Base Closure and Realignment (BRAC) in 2005 ushered in yet another change for the 131st FW and 110th Fighter Squadron, proving to be both dramatic and historic. As a result of BRAC law, the F-15 Eagles were scheduled for withdraw from the Missouri ANG, but 100 percent manning remained in place, readying the wing to accept a new mission.
In March 2006, the Department of Defense announced that the 131st would become an ANG associate unit at Whiteman AFB. While the active duty would have primary ownership over the aircraft, Missouri’s Guardsmen would maintain and fly the B-2 Spirit stealth bombers alongside their active duty counterparts.
During the summer of 2006, severe storms swept through Missouri, resulting in massive power outages. Missouri called on its National Guard to provide equipment and manpower to support the community. Citizen Airmen of the 131st FW responded to the crises. Efforts were repeated after an ice storm struck the region in December 2006.
In September 2006, the B-2 “Spirit of Pennsylvania” became the first B-2 to land at Lambert International Airport when it made a visit to the 131st FW to familiarize wing members with their upcoming mission.
The years 2007 and 2008 saw planning and preparation to fully implement the new B-2 mission and the start of the departure of F-15C aircraft for their new homes at other bases. The first four aircraft left Lambert Field mission ready to assume their new duties in Montana in August, 2008.
Flooding again struck the Missouri region in summer of 2008 and Citizen Airmen answered the call around the metro region in support of the natural disaster. While not as devastating and far reaching as the flood of 1993, the 131st FW proved yet again their willingness to help in their communities.
During 2008, members began to transfer to Whiteman AFB, Mo., in support of a new mission to maintain and fly the B-2 Spirit stealth bomber. The Missouri ANG would operate alongside the 509th Bomb Wing of the active duty Air Force in classic associate role becoming the first ANG unit in the B-2 mission.
On June 18, 2008, Col. Gregory Champagne, 131st FW vice commander, and Maj. David Thompson, 131st FW, achieved a major milestone in the transition to the B-2 mission by completing the first B-2 sortie flown and launched by Missouri ANG personnel. Fall 2008 saw the ribbon-cutting ceremony at Whiteman AFB of Bldg. 3006, the headquarters to “Detachment 2″ of the 131st FW. By 2010, Det. 2 would lose that designation and become the primary headquarters of the 131st Bomb Wing.
At a Lambert Field ceremony on June 13, 2009, more than 2,000 people saw the launch of the “Blues Jet” (tail number AF 81-043) and the wing commander’s jet “Spirit of Saint Louis IV” (AF 78-025) to their new home with the Hawaii ANG at Hickam AFB. With the launch of the remaining Eagles, flight operations at Lambert airport ceased after 86 years. It was the “End of an Era.”
On April 11, 2011, a category EF-4 tornado swept across Lambert International Airport, the south side of Lambert ANG Base, and down the I-70 corridor past the city of Bridgeton, Mo. Thankfully, no lives were lost, but property suffered heavy damage in the area, including more than $10 million of damage at the guard base and the total loss of the base community center, the supply warehouse, and the Lambert headquarters building. Guardsmen banded together for cleanup efforts and brought operations back online quickly with no major disruptions to service to the 131st members stationed at Whiteman AFB.
Throughout the history of the wing, many members with historic significance have served. Charles Lindbergh is obviously the most famous, but the 110th FW had the distinction of having three air-to-air World War II aces serving at the same time. Maj. Gen. Charles DuBois had five kills, Brig. Gen. Glennon Moran had 17 ½ kills and Maj. Robert Garlich had six kills; all served in the years following World War II.
In 2011, Operation Odyssey Dawn saw the B-2 taken into combat operations in Libya and 131st wing members were full participants in the mission. Most recently, 131st members have played key roles in support of Missouri state-sponsored agricultural development teams in Afghanistan.
At a ceremony held at Lambert Field in the 1970s, Maj. Gen. DuBois spoke of the history and future of the ANG, the wing and general aviation.
“The spirit of the 110th, like its equipment, was originally inherited from the Airmen of World War I who first fought from the sky and from men like Billy Mitchell, Jimmy Doolittle, Eddie Rickenbacker, and many others,” said DuBois. “Like all aviation, its roots are in the recent past, but its eyes look to the future of aerospace. Our squadron grew up with general aviation and it is this theme that we intend to stress, that it is a part of a broad based civil and military aerospace program. Our purpose is to recognize the richness and glory of the past as generating the future of all phases of aviation and contributing to the health of every segment of flight.”
(Tech. Sgt. Christopher Boehlein, 131st Bomb Wing, and Mr. Charles Machon, Missouri National Guard Museum Curator, contriibuted to this story)