Their kinship was forged during the ‘Forgotten War’
TUSCUMBIA, Ala. (AP) — For the better part of four years during much of the Korean War, there was a band of American Air Force patriots more than 5,000 miles away in England who were working hard to strengthen NATO forces.
The men of the 79th Fighter Bomber Squadron made history with their meticulous work on the Republic F-84G Thunderjet.
Today, factions of that squadron still reunite. The Ray Gautreaux 79th Fighter Bomber Squadron Reunion Group met this month in Tuscumbia to catch up, share stories and rekindle those bonds that each holds so dear.
The group gathered at Coldwater Inn for the 26th annual reunion.
With members from all over the country, including Louisiana, Alabama, Montana and Texas, they toured the Shoals, visiting music venues, attending First Friday in downtown Florence, and checking out various tourist destinations.
All members of the group, established in 1992, must have served in the 79th Fighter Bomber Squadron in Woodbridge, England, between 1952 and 1956.
The group meets yearly in a different location around the country. This year was the first time it has been hosted in the Shoals.
Squadron member and a reunion organizer Bob Johnson of Barton said at the age of 83, he’s the “baby” of the group. He remembers the days of reunions with 200 members. Today, because of death, age and infirmities, that number has dwindled to just more than a dozen.
“That’s what makes this year so special to me, because there are so few of us now,” Johnson said. “These people were my family. They’re still my family. We were together for that four-year period. I love them, every one.”
For Johnson, reminiscing about those years in England (1952-1956) never gets old.
“I married an English girl and it lasted 62 years until she died two years ago,” he said. “More than half the guys were married to English girls. It was another thing a lot of us had in common.”
Johnson’s job in the Air Force during that time was in aircraft maintenance.
His friend, Kerney Rutland of Cherokee, was with the air police. Their squadron escorted the bombers.
Johnson had been in Germany with occupation forces when he transferred to England in 1952 and joined the 79th. It was a source of pride for Johnson and his comrades then as it is today.
Rutland died in 2015. His wife, Susan, and daughter, Sarah Christmas, continue to participate in the reunions and helped organize this year’s gathering.
Kerney Rutland, his widow said, never regretted the three years he spent in England during the Cold War.
With a burning desire to become a pilot, he was denied the opportunity for training in the U.S. because he was black, Susan Rutland said.
“He was trained in England and came back to this country as a licensed, very accomplished pilot,” she said.
Norm Tumlinson and his wife, Jessie, made the trip from Athens, Texas.
“It’s great to get together with these guys and renew old friendships, even if we do tell the same stories,” he said laughing. “It means everything to me to be here with them.”
Lenny Erickson, who traveled from Montana with his son, Craig, tries never to miss a reunion.
Sometimes it means a rearrangement of his sons’ schedules to accompany him to the reunions.
“He always makes these reunions because these are his comrades, his family,” Craig Erickson said. “They’re a major part of his life, and mine. As long as health allows, we won’t be anywhere else on reunion weekend.”
Information from: TimesDaily, http://www.timesdaily.com/