Four men who have led the 436th Airlift Wing look back at 50 years of historic accomplishments at Dover AFB

It has a history stretching back to the middle of World War II, when it ferried troops and cargo in support of the war against the Axis.

Today, the 436th Airlift Wing continues that service at Dover Air Force Base, where its mission now encompasses the entire world.

Although no formal ceremonies are planned, the wing will mark the 50th anniversary of its tenure at Dover on Sunday, Dec. 27.

 Snow galore

Almost since the beginning, Dover’s primary mission has been that of moving men and cargo to locations in Europe and beyond. Through its early history, the base hosted the 1607th Air Transport Wing (ATW) but through a major reorganization of the Air Force in 1965, the 1607th was deactivated and the 436th Military Airlift Wing (MAW) (renamed the 436th Airlift Wing in May 1991) came into being on Dec. 27 of that year.

 A low key ceremony marked the transition on Jan. 8, 1966.

Now retired, Senior Master Sgt. Larry Koewing was serving as an airman second class when the changeover took place. It had to be a low key affair, he said.

“I was there but we were having one of the nastiest winters ever,” Koewing said. “There was snow galore. They didn’t have a parade because it was just too darned cold.”

With the changeover, the Air Transport Service (ATC) of which the 1607th was a part, became the Military Airlift Command with a full general in charge, as opposed to a lieutenant general under the ATS, airlift operations got a new emphasis in the Air Force, Koewing said.

“Things were really warming up for the Vietnam War, and the whole airlift system was shaken up and streamlined,” he said. “Before the changeover, Dover was really a backwater. Vietnam really put things on the front burner.”

Brig. Gen. John B. Wallace, commander of the 1607th ATW, took the reins of the 436th. A veteran of World War II, Wallace’s three-year tenure ushered in the jet age of airlift, with the base replacing the propeller-driven C-124 Globemaster II with the highly capable C-141 Starlifter.

The Starlifter was instrumental in the role Dover played during the Vietnam War. Beginning in November 1967, the 436th took part in Operation Eagle Thrust, flying more than 10,000 U.S. Army infantry soldiers and more than 5,000 tons of cargo directly from Kentucky to Vietnam. The operation was the single largest transfer by air of men and equipment to Southeast Asia, and earned the wing the first of more than a dozen Air Force Outstanding Unit Awards to date.

Retired Lt. Col. Harry Heist, who had served as a navigator at Dover from 1955 to 1964, returned to the base in 1969 as its chief military personnel officer. He found little had changed in five years.

“A lot of the buildings were the same, but the base was very, very busy,” Heist recalled. “We had five flying squadrons, our missions to Vietnam were still going on, and we had a lot of cross-channel traffic going to Europe.”

In April 1971, one of the biggest changes took place, with Dover becoming the home of the new C-5 Galaxy cargo airlifter. The C-5 was accompanied by a cadre of military and civilian experts, many of whom stayed at Dover after their initial assignments were completed.

The monstrous C-5, which still serves at Dover after more than 40 years, was a sight to behold, Heist said.

“Getting on that airplane was an amazing thing,” Heist said. “I’d never seen anything like it. All of those controls and computers, it was a real eye-opener.

“We did have problems, there was no doubt about that, but we thought of it as the Cadillac of the Air Force, despite the problems.”

 Anywhere, any time

In what was considered the first real test of the C-5’s capabilities, the wing was chosen to take part in Operation Nickel Grass, an effort to fly supplies to Israel during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Dover crews flew 71 missions, delivering Patton tanks, helicopters, howitzers, tractors and radar systems, totaling more than 44.6 million pounds of cargo.

The wing continued to serve in many emergency operations, flying 140s Americans out of Iran in 1978, supporting the rescue of Americans from Grenada in 1983 and taking part in Operation Just Cause, the invasion of Panama, in 1989.

It also supported many humanitarian missions, including earthquake relief efforts in Turkey and Taiwan, flooding in Mozambique and cleanup of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska.

 Kross: ‘Blessed and honored’

Then a colonel, retired Gen. Walter Kross arrived at Dover in the spring of 1984 to serve as vice commander to the late Col. William H. Sistrunk. He found the wing was performing at “an all time high and was in great shape.”

Kross credits the wing’s leadership, from colonels on down, as reasons for the 436th’s success.

“The 436th was still enjoying the talent infusion of the initial C-5 cadre in all departments,” Kross said, earning recognition as best in the Military Airlift Command in several operational areas.

During Kross’ command, the wing experienced a number of milestones, including the delivery of the first C-5B, an upgraded model of the original Galaxy airlifter. It also supported efforts to recover the remains of 248 soldiers killed in a December 1985 crash in Newfoundland as they were returning home for Christmas.

The wing has a history of superb performance, Kross said.

“The wing’s operational tempo is always quite high due to its worldwide mission, but it retains the ability to kick into surge gear and sustain that higher ops tempo because of its inner strengths, making it designed to surge,” he said. The wing also has a “secret weapon:” the USAF Reserve 512th Airlift Wing, with which it operates hand in glove, Kross said.

“I was blessed and honored to serve shoulder to shoulder with the men and women of the 436th,” he said.

 Welser: ‘A very strong wing’

Arriving at Dover as a colonel in August 1992, retired Lt. Gen William Welser III assumed command of a very busy base, but one whose facilities were showing their age.

“Operationally, it was a very strong wing, but facility-wise, it was below par,” he said. Seeing no master plan to help renovate and upgrade base buildings, Welser and his command staff set up a blueprint for rehabilitating facilities. That effort resulted in extra funding that helped modernize many working areas on the base, including a new passenger terminal at the base.

Welser also was the impetus for what became the Air Mobility Command Museum, which now has more than 30 vintage aircraft in its collection and is considered a top tourist attraction in Delaware.

The 436th continues to meet the demanding pace of its worldwide mission, Welser said.

“Ever since the 1990s, we’ve been at war some place around the world,” he said. “There has been contingency after contingency in support of humanitarian or combat efforts. That hasn’t changed, and it’s pretty standard for the Air Mobility Command. It’s what AMC does every day.”

Cox: Morale ‘exceptional’

Lt. Gen. Samuel D. Cox now commands the 18th Air Force, of which the 436th is part. As a colonel, he served two years as commander of the 436th, beginning in May 2005.

The wing was heavily engaged in operations in Iraq and Afghanistan during his entire tenure, part of which found Cox deployed to Southwest Asia along with other members of the wing.

“What I remember most is the fact that although the tempo was high, morale in the wing was exceptional,” Cox said. “Our airmen took great pride in being connected to and understanding they were part of something much bigger than themselves. It had a huge impact on how we did everything.”

Before his formal assignment as the 436th’s commander, Cox had served as part of an operational readiness inspection (ORI) bringing together units from Dover and Charleston AFB, S.C.

“Through the process, I witnessed the fantastic team I would soon have the opportunity to lead,” he said. “My impression arriving to take command was significantly shaped by what I witnessed in the lead up to the ORI and the great performance during the ORI.”

Cox also led the wing in preparing for the arrival of the C-17 Globemaster III, which greatly extended the Air Force’s ability to operate in hostile environments such as the Middle East, and in supporting the return of the remains of fallen military personnel to the United States.

Despite the many tasks placed on it, the 436th continues to excel, Cox said.

“I know that as 18th Air Force commander, I can count on the team at Dover to meet and exceed all requirements,” he said.

Grismer: meeting the challenges

Today, the 436th operates under the command of Col. Michael W. Grismer Jr., who assumed command in August 2014. Despite pressure because of continuing deployments and Air Force-wide personnel cutbacks, the 436th continues to shine, he said.

“In certain areas, we are doing less with less,” Grismer said, adding his subordinate commanders have been told to make tough calls in many areas, calls that Grismer said he will back.

One of those is dealing with cutbacks in the availability of people needed to fix and repair the wing’s aircraft. Budgetary issues have affected how the wing must accomplish its mission, he added.

“Our maintenance group has the greatest challenges with personnel reductions,” he said. “However, these innovative teammates, with the help of our top-shelf Air Force Reserve Command mission partners in the 512th AW, lead the Air Force in both C-5M and C-17 worldwide and en-route maintenance departure reliability.”

Dover’s airmen, both active duty and reserve, are second-to-none in performing their mission, no matter where in the world it may take them, Grismer said. To back that up, the base provides continual support to its military and civilian staff as well as the families of its airmen, he said.

The wing continues to support the Charles C. Carson Center for Mortuary Affairs, providing dignified services when the remains of fallen military personnel are returned to the United States.

“This is a no-fail mission and Team Dover professionals take great pride to honor our fallen heroes,” Grismer said.

Today, the 436th looks to the future while continuing to live up to high standards set in the past, Grismer said.

Speaking to community members and business leaders during a November briefing, Grismer highlighted a newly renovated dining facility at the base, a plan to build a new aircraft maintenance hangar, modernize some base dormitories and ongoing work to replace the base’s runways, part of which date to the 1940s.

Work on the $100 million runway project should be done by the end of 2016, Grismer said.

This article was supplemented with historical data from the book “Images of Aviation: Dover Air Force Base,” by Brig. Gen. Kennard R. Wiggins Jr.