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Secret Squirrels celebrate 29 years

Airmen pose outside a B-52 back in 1991.

Aircrew from Sortie 1 of Operation Secret Surprise pose for a photo at Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana in this undated photo. More than 57 Airmen and seven B-52 Stratofortress took part in the historic mission, better known as Secret Squirrel. (courtesy photo)

Photo of Airmen posing on runway.

Aircrew from Sortie 3 of Operation Secret Surprise pose for a photo after returning to Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana, Jan. 17, 1991. This year marks the 29th Anniversary of the historic mission, more commonly referred to by its informal name, Secret Squirrel. (courtesy photo)

Photo of Col. Kirkpatrick with arm around William Weller

U.S. Air Force Col. Steven Kirkpatrick, 307th Bomb Wing commander, greets William Weller Jan. 18, 2020 at Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana. Kirkpatrick and Weller took part in Operation Secret Squirrel, the mission that fired the first shots of the fGulf War in 1991. Kirkpatrick, the last Secret Squirrel serving in uniform, hosted a B-52 Stratofortress static display for the 29th Anniversary of the mission. (U.S. Air Force photo by Ted Daigle)

Silhouette of people standing outside a B-52

Members of Operation Secret Surprise, the mission that opened up the first Gulf War, gather outside a B-52 Stratofortress, Jan. 21, 2020 at Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana. They had gathered to celebrate the 29th anniversary of the historic mission that started the first Gulf War in which seven B-52’s took off from Barksdale AFB to strike communication and power centers in Iraq. The non-stop flight returned to Barksdale AFB more than 36 hours after taking off. (U.S. Air Force photo by Ted Daigle)

Members of Operation Senior Surprise posing outside a B-52

Members of Operation Secret Surprise gather for the 29th anniversary of the mission, Jan. 18, 2021 at Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana. Informally dubbed Secret Squirrel, the operation involved seven B-52 Stratofortress’ flying from Barksdale AFB to cripple Iraqi military communication and power centers at the beginning of the Gulf War in 1991. (U.S. Air Force photo by Ted Daigle)

Warren Ward looking through window of B-52

Warren Ward smiles from inside the cockpit of a B-52 Stratofortress Jan. 18, 2019 at Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana. Ward, a former B-52 Stratofortress, was on hand to celebrate the 29th anniversary of Operation Senior Surprise, known informally as Secret Squirrel by those who took part in the mission. (U.S. Air Force photo by Ted Daigle)

Secret Squirrel drink glasses lined up.  One has red rag stuffed in it.

Glasses etched with names of Airmen who participated in Operation Secret Squirrel line a case inside the Global Air Power Museum, Jan. 18, 2021 at Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana. Members of the historic flight, along with friends and family, gathered to commemorate the 29th anniversary of the mission that fired the opening shots of the first Gulf War in 1991. A red handkerchief stuffed in a glass signifies a member who has passed away. (U.S. Air Force photo by Ted Daigle)

Gathering of people at anniversary.

William Ward addresses those gathered to remember Operation Secret Surprise, Jan. 18, 2021 at Barksdale Air Force Base. The crowd celebrated the 29th anniversary of the historic mission, better known as Secret Squirrel. The operation opened up the Gulf War in 1991 and involved seven B-52 Stratofortress’ launched from Barksdale Air Force Base. Ward has been helping to organize the annual event since the group first gathered for its 25th anniversary in 2016. (U.S. Air Force photo by Ted Daigle)

BARKSDALE AIR FORCE BASE, La. --

The alert pad at Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana, buzzed with activity in the early morning hours of Jan. 16, 1991, as seven B-52 Stratofortress from the 2nd Bomb Wing roared to life. A few moments later they climbed into the gray sky, flying to Iraq to launch the opening bombardment for Operation Desert Storm. 

Many of the 57 crew members who flew that historic mission were here to celebrate its 29th anniversary last Saturday. The mission’s official name was Operation Senior Surprise, but the participants nicknamed it Operation Secret Squirrel because of the mission’s confidential nature. 

The group, unofficially dubbed the Secret Squirrels, has met every year since 2016 to commemorate the event. 

Aaron Hattabaugh, one of the crew members, read a proclamation by U.S. Representative Adam Kinziger, recognizing the historical significance of the mission.

In remarks made from the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives and entered into the U.S. Congressional Record, Kinziger praised the efforts of the Airmen.

“Madam Speaker, those who served on this mission displayed true endurance and dedication to country in their actions,” he said.

Operation Senior Surprise was the B-52’s first participation in a major campaign since the Vietnam War. The objective was to pave the way for successive air strikes by destroying the Iraqi military’s ability to communicate and generate power.

The mission employed the AGM-86C Conventional Air Launched Cruise Missile. It was the first time the CALCM had been fired in combat, having been developed as a top-secret weapons system only a few years before.  

More than 14 hours after leaving Barksdale, the Secret Squirrels unleashed their precision-guided payload on targets in Iraq, destroying over 90 percent of their communication targets and effectively blinding the Iraqi military from seeing U.S. fighters following them.

The Secret Squirrels had reduced the fourth-largest military in the world to a stumbling giant, unable to defend itself. 

U.S. Air Force Gen. Timothy Ray, Commander, Air Force Global Strike Command and Commander, Air Forces Strategic - Air, U.S. Strategic Command, spoke about the lasting impact the mission had on military aviation.

“What you guys did was foundational and the enemy has been thinking about it ever since, because it was so effective,” he said. “You wrote the book on long range aviation and strike capability in the B-52.”

The trip back home was as harrowing as the ride in. Two of the B-52’s suffered from engine problems and bad weather forced them to miss a carefully planned in-air refueling, nearly forcing them to land on runways in Europe not designed for the heavy jets.

Each problem was overcome and the Secret Squirrels touched back down at Barksdale after being airborne for more than 36 hours, the longest B-52 mission at the time.

Warren Ward, the event organizer and a member of the crew that night, remembered well the difference between the flight to Iraq and the return flight.

“The whole way over I was scared to death, which was good because we were operating on about three hours of sleep,” he said. “On the way back, the adrenaline wore off and we still had 20 hours left to go.”

The entire mission was cloaked in secrecy before the first jet ever left the ground. It remained that way for a year after the operation. No one associated with the mission could speak about it outside a classified environment for a year afterward.

U.S. Air Force Col. Steven Kirkpatrick, 307th Bomb Wing commander and the last Secret Squirrel member still serving in uniform, offered the customary toast to close the ceremony.

“We were proud to serve, proud to execute the mission and cherish the friendship of all 57 Secret Squirrel members,” he said.