The 39th Troop Carrier Squadron has had a grand and glorious history. It is one of the few World War II squadrons of any kind that is still active today. Now renamed the 39th Airlift Squadron and flying C-130 aircraft, it still uses the same squadron insignia and performs many of the same functions that it did during World War II.
The unit was originally formed at Duncan Field in San Antonio, Texas in early 1942 as the 39th Transport Squadron. Shortly thereafter it was designated the 39th Troop Carrier Squadron and was assigned to Bowman Field in Louisville, Kentucky, as a part of the 317th Troop Carrier Group along with the 40th, 41st, and 46th Troop Carrier Squadrons. During the next six months the squadron received its aircraft (mostly older, well used DC-3s requisitioned from the airlines). During the next few months it was manned and trained at Bowman Field as well as at Lawson Field, Georgia and Laurenburg-Maxton Field in North Carolina. At the end of 1942 the 39th was deployed to the Southwest Pacific theater, the ground echelon sailing on the good ship Maui from San Francisco to Brisbane, and the air echelon flying 13 brand-new C-47 aircraft across the Pacific to Australia.
Over the next three years the 39th went north with the U.S. forces as they marched island-by-island across the Pacific to Japan. In New Guinea the squadron was first based at Port Moresby, and then Finchhafen (where its first commander, Major Joe Ford, was lost in a fiery takeoff crash). Missions included sorties to Lae, Salamaua, Nadzab, and the Wau-Bulolo Valley (where the unit supported U.S. and Australian troops in a major battle with the Japanese - and earned the first of its two Presidential Unit Citations). It later moved to Hollandia and Biak as the U.S. forces moved up the New Guinea coast. During those and subsequent years, the 39th flew thousands of combat missions, taking ammunition and supplies into the battle areas and evacuating the wounded to rear area medical facilities.
In late 1944 and early 1945 the 39th made the long jump back to the Philippines with General MacArthur. The first step was to Leyte (where our advanced unit was attacked by Japanese paratroopers). While at Leyte the 39th participated in our own paratroop assault against the highly fortified island of Corregidor in the mouth of Manila Bay. Because of its tiny drop zones, this mission has been called the most difficult assault in airborne history and earned the 39th its second Presidential Unit Citation. Later the squadron moved on to the Lingayen Gulf area of Luzon, and still later to Clark Field, also on Luzon. While in the Philippines the squadron flew many missions to hidden fields behind the Japanese lines to support the Philippine guerrilla forces.
The 39th was at Clark Field when the Japanese surrendered on August 15, 1945. The next day it moved to the island of Okinawa and later to Japan. Plans for a probable invasion of the mainland of Japan had been formulated long before. Had the atomic bombs not been used, forcing the Japanese to surrender, the 39th would undoubtedly have been in the forefront of an invasion force, dropping paratroopers on Japan at low speed and low altitude. Unquestionably the casualties would have been extremely high, and many probably would not have survived. Those 39th veterans are deeply grateful to President Truman for having the courage to make the difficult decision to drop the bombs! As terrible as they were, those bombs ended an equally terrible war and saved untold thousands of American lives, including many in the 39th.
The history of the 39th did not end with the end of World War II. It became a part of the United States Occupation Forces in Japan. Equipped with C-46 aircraft, and later C-54s, the 39th served the occupation forces for several years, flying missions throughout the Far East.
In September 1948, the squadron, now flying four-engine C-54 aircraft, was transferred to Europe and became a part of the US Occupation Forces in Germany. It participated in the Berlin Airlift until mid-1949, taking vital food, coal, and other supplies to the people of Berlin, which had been blockaded by the Soviet Union. Initially out of Wiesbaden and later from Celle Royal Air Force Station in northern Germany, the squadron hauled vital supplies for the blockaded people of Berlin. In one single month, April 1949, the crews of the 39th flew 3,413 hours on 1,541 missions into Berlin, carrying 15,016 tons of supplies. Although the blockade was lifted by the Soviets on May 12, 1949, the squadron continued to fly supplies into Berlin until July 31st. In fact, the squadron continued to fly the Berlin corridor throughout the 1960's.
On September 14, 1949, the 39th was temporarily deactivated then reactivated at Rhine-Main Air Base, Germany on July 14, 1952. On March 23, 1953, the squadron relocated to Neubiberg, Germany. The squadron, flying the C-119 Flying Boxcar was used in support of U. S. and NATO forces around the world.
The squadron moved to Evreux-Fauville, France in June of 1956. There it was re-equipped with the C-130A Hercules aircraft. On one interesting mission in 1959, a 39th C-130 crew located the wreckage of the "Lady Be Good", a B-24 that had crash-landed in the Sahara desert over 16 years earlier during World War II and had never been found. During the 60s the 39th participated in numerous airlift operations, including support for the Project Mercury space program and disaster relief in Iran and Yugoslavia. Turkey Trot flights to Italy, Greece, Turkey and Libya supporting fighter squadrons on deployment and NATO operations was part of the routine. Other operations included airlift in support of Indian Military forces in the Himalayas who were fighting the Chinese, airlift of Norwegian NATO forces to Cypress during the civil war there and numerous airborne operations, including the Congo airlift.
In 1964 the squadron relocated to Lockbourne AFB, Ohio, and became part of TAC (Tactical Air Command). It still maintained a presence in Europe by TDY rotations first to Evreux and later to Mildenhall, England, and performed the same missions there as before. In addition, TDY rotations to Panama exposed the crews to being "Jungle Skippers" once again. Nighttime flights into Central American dirt strips as well as airlift into remote Amazonian fields and Andean cities became part of the routine. Stateside, the squadron participated in ongoing airborne training with the 101st and 82nd Airborne divisions and testing new airdrop techniques. One of the more interesting jobs was testing rubber runways for use in the tropical environment. Squadron members were chosen to man the consolidated air logistics support unit at San Isidro, Dominican Republic during the Dominican Intervention while others flew airlift in support.
In 1972 the squadron was reassigned to Pope Air Force Base in North Carolina and supported operations of the Tactical Air Command from Pope for some 20 years, including missions supporting the war in Vietnam. Missions during those years included dropping paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne Division on the island of Grenada in 1983. Then again in 1989 the squadron dropped airborne troops and flew re-supply missions during the invasion of Panama. In August 1990 the 39th was sent to Saudi Arabia in support of the Persian Gulf War, airlifting personnel, equipment, supplies, and ammunition throughout the Southwest Pacific theater during that conflict.
In 1992 the 39th was again deactivated, but less than a year later, under a special Air Force program to honor highly decorated units, it was reactivated, renamed the 39th Airlift Squadron and assigned to the 7th Operations Group at Dyess Air Force Base in Abilene, Texas where it operates today. It is equipped with late model C-130 Hercules aircraft, and still uses the same covered wagon insignia used throughout the 39th's history.
After returning from several months' deployment to Saudi Arabia during the 1st Gulf War, it was deployed to Germany in late 1996 in support of the forces in Bosnia. The 317th Airlift Group, formerly the 317th Troop Carrier Group and the 317th Troop Carrier Wing was recently reactivated and today is the parent organization of the 39th Airlift Squadron at Dyess AFB, Texas.
The 39th continues to support ongoing military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq today.
The 39th is indeed a highly decorated unit. During World War II it was awarded two Presidential Unit Citations for airborne actions in New Guinea and the Philippines. It also earned the American Theater Campaign ribbon, and nine Asiatic-Pacific Campaign ribbons denoting the nine campaigns in which it participated. These include the Papua campaign, New Guinea, the Northern Solomons, the Bismark Archipelago, the Western Pacific, Leyte, Luzon, the Southern Philippines, and the Air Offensive against Japan. It also has been awarded the Occupation ribbons for both Japan and Germany, ten Air Force Outstanding Unit Awards, the Medal for Human Action for the Berlin Airlift, the Armed Forces Expeditionary Service Streamer for Panama, The Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross with Palm, and the Philippine Presidential Unit Citation.
MEMORIAL PLAQUE - USAF MUSEUM
The insignia of the 39th, a covered wagon resting on a cloud formation, has been used throughout its history, and you can see it on a memorial plaque dedicated in August 1996 at the United States Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. This emblem was designed by members of the original squadron. We remember a story told by Jim (Bud) Tuley, the squadron's third commanding officer. Bud said that the original design submitted for approval as a squadron insignia was a winged coffin. Apparently the powers that be in higher headquarters were not amused, and the squadron was directed to submit a new design. According to Bud, they just added wheels and a cover and made it a flying covered wagon - or a flying, wheeled coffin - take your choice. Bud Tuley designed our memorial in Dayton. Unfortunately we lost him to cancer just six weeks before the memorial was dedicated. Bud would have loved to be there. He said he wanted no one to grieve for him, but just wanted us to have a party. So we say, "Bud, this is just the start of our party! We'll continue at all of our annual reunions!" The beautiful memorial was placed in the lovely memorial park at the USAF Museum to honor all who have served the 39th in any of its various incarnations: the 39th Transport Squadron, the 39th Troop Carrier Squadron, the 39th Tactical Airlift Squadron, and today the 39th Airlift Squadron. It is meant for all who served, wherever and whenever. At the dedication we honored those who have passed on to that special place reserved for those who served their country.
We invite everyone, the public as well as 39th veterans, to visit the USAF Museum at Wright Patterson AF Base in Dayton, and while there to visit the 39th memorial plaque in the beautiful memorial park.