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Approaching 65 years, veterans reveal Air Force beginnings

Bob Smith, 92, was one of the charter members of the Missouri Air National Guard. The retired colonel was in the 180th Bombardment Squadron, which was among the nation’s first federally recognized Air Guard units nearly 65 years ago.

Bob Smith, 92, was one of the charter members of the Missouri Air National Guard. The retired colonel was in the 180th Bombardment Squadron, which was among the nation’s first federally recognized Air Guard units nearly 65 years ago.

Orville Weisenburger, 93, enlisted with the Army Air Corps at St. Joseph Army Air Field in 1942. The unit became the 180th Bombardment Squadron, which was among the nation’s first federally recognized Air Guard units nearly 65 years ago.

Orville Weisenburger, 93, enlisted with the Army Air Corps at St. Joseph Army Air Field in 1942. The unit became the 180th Bombardment Squadron, which was among the nation’s first federally recognized Air Guard units nearly 65 years ago.

ST. JOSEPH, Mo. -- A veteran who flew through the Air National Guard's inception said recently that citizen-Airmen are stronger today than they have ever been.

Retired Air Force Col. Bob Smith, 92, is among the Air Force's small number of surviving pilots who first flew for the Army Air Corps during World War II and on through Korea, Vietnam and the Cold War.

Smith retired in 1979. He said he experienced a lot in all that flying service, but he believes the Air Guard is better equipped and better trained now than at any time in its history.

"I am amazed at the training you have, the experience you have, the ability you have to defend our country, and you are doing it all over the world," he said.

This year, the Air Force and the Air Guard will celebrate their 65th anniversary, established by Congress, Sept. 18, 1947.

Smith is one of a vanishing group of charter members who remember that post WWII expansion firsthand. He said you can still find some of them where the airplanes are. For him, it was an air show this May at Rosecrans Air National Guard Base. It was the same Army Air Corps base he helped establish for the Air Guard, decades ago.

He joined the Army Air Corps in 1942 and flew the P-38 Lightning in South China; a place he would return to fly combat missions again, decades later, flying a Missouri Guard F-100 Super Saber from St. Louis, during the Vietnam War.

Army Air Corps units across the nation were broken up following WWII and the Air Guard's charter members were veterans who reorganized to form the first federally recognized Air Guard squadrons.

"I joined the 180th [Bombardment Squadron] here, when I came back," he said.

Smith flew the B-26 Invader, eventually flying the light bomber into combat missions over the Korean Peninsula. When not flying, he sold life insurance to whoever he met.

At the air show, it came full circle when Smith took in a mix of vintage warbirds like the P-51 Mustang as well as the Air Force's fifth-generation fighter, the F-22 Raptor. But also on hand was the Invader, the same aircraft he flew for the Air Guard in Korea many years ago.

He flew in the warbird one last time, that afternoon.

"One thing about an antique airplane is the minute you leave the ground, it takes you back to the element it was born in ... it takes you back to those days," said Smith.

In addition to the air show, the 139th Airlift Wing here held an open house, allowing the community to learn more about today's Airmen, their equipment and missions.

"Smith and many other Air Force veterans are often honored guests at Air Force open houses and special events across the nation," said Maj. Ryan Stepp, open house coordinator.

Other veterans here could only remember bits and pieces of their service long ago, and the memories and history seemed uncomfortably lost amidst the air show's crowds and displays.

Orville Weisenburger, 93, began his service with the Army Air Corps here in 1942.

"My outfit, I think, had 2,000 men," said Weisenburger, trying hard to recall.

"My father enjoyed it immensely," said his daughter, Debbie Saliger, stepping in for him. "I had to talk him in to going, but once he got here he was great, he loved it."

Saliger said she did not know until recently that her father had kept track of the base during the last 70 years.

"He had literally seen the things here built and then torn down and built again," she said. "He kept track of it all through the years."

Public Affairs Airmen here took time to record interviews with the charter Airmen for Air Force historians in Washington.

"It is extremely important to honor those who came before us, listen to their experiences and be active stewards in our history," said Stepp.

For Smith, it all made an impression.

"Just look at you guys around here," said Smith. "It's amazing. I'm very proud of the armed forces, particularly the Air National Guard."