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The 377th Air Base Wing: 55 years of service

  • Published
  • By Christopher McCune
  • 377th Air Base Wing Historian

This article is the second of a two-part series celebrating the anniversaries of the activation of Kirtland Air Force Base and the 377th Air Base Wing this week.

This week marks the 55th birthday of the 377th Air Base Wing. While residents and workers at Kirtland Air Force Base are aware of the 377 ABW’s current role in providing support to the installation, its tenant units and mission partners, and the nuclear enterprise, the wing itself has a very distinguished history dating back to the days of the Vietnam War, with a record of combat gallantry unusual for a relatively younger organization that has largely been devoted to non-combat responsibilities through its operational life.

The 377 ABW first activated as the 377th Combat Support Group at Tan Son Nhut Air Base, South Vietnam, on April 8, 1966, under the command of Col. George Budway. Its overall mission was to provide the base with installation and flying operations support for the U.S. Air Force-occupied areas, base defense, and air liaison consultation with members of the South Vietnamese Air Force. It was briefly responsible for these same mission requirements at Binh Thuy Air Base, South Vietnam, from May 12 to July 1, 1970. In 1972, it operated the Southeast Asia Central Pilots Instructor School and a Combat Crew Training School. The group was elevated to Air Base Wing status that same year on Jan. 17. Its flying operations support at Tan Son Nhut included direct air strikes, psychological warfare, air liaison and forward air control, airlift and airdrop, and airborne radio-direction finding missions. Toward the end of its active service in Vietnam, it provided turnaround service for F-4s and A-7s from other units. Most of its assets were transferred to the South Vietnamese Air Force before inactivating on March 28, 1973.

The 377 CSG is most noted for its combat-tested Security Forces of the 377th Air Police Squadron, later the Security Police Squadron. While attacks by Viet Cong forces were always a threat, Tan Son Nhut suffered two notable incursions during its tenure that the Defenders were forced to repel. One took place on Dec. 4, 1966, when the base perimeter was breached by approximately 180 Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army soldiers attacking the flightline. The infiltration was ultimately repelled thanks to the efforts of several Military Working Dog and Defender teams. This included Airman Second Class George M. Bevich, who perished in the early hours of the attack and became the first Air Force military dog handler to die in combat in Vietnam; Bevich was posthumously awarded the Silver Star.

A little over two years later, on Jan. 31, the 377th Security Police teams suffered through the most notable event of the war, when Tan Son Nhut came under direct attack by a combined force of over 1,500 Viet Cong and NVA troops as part of the Tet Offensive. Five Airmen in Bunker 051, the closest defense point to where the enemy breached the west perimeter, immediately engaged and notified defense forces of the attack. Although the bunker was overtaken by the enemy in the initial thrust, the stubborn defense of the area by the Security Policemen, despite intense mortar and small arms fire combined with several direct rocket hits, allowed the other security alert and quick reaction forces on base to set up blocking forces and ultimately repel the attack. Four of the five Airman in Bunker 051 lost their lives, including Sgt. Louis H. Fischer, who continued fighting through mortal wounds and relayed enemy positions after running out of ammunition. The fifth, Sgt. Alonzo J. Coggins, miraculously survived when the enemy chose to release him from the bunker after they had taken it over. All five of the Defenders in Bunker 051 received the Silver Star for their actions.

Following its service in Vietnam, the 377 ABW remained inactive for a little over 12 years, when it was re-activated as the 377th Combat Support Wing at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, in order to support the base’s new tactical combat fleet of F-16 Fighting Falcons. The 377 CSW assumed host installation responsibilities for the entire Kaiserslautern Military Community, taking over for the 86th Tactical Fighter Wing. In addition to the personnel at Ramstein, the 377 CSW also supported numerous geographically separated units throughout Europe. The 377 CSW operated in this capacity through the end of the Cold War, inactivating once again on May 1, 1991.

The 377th emerged once again thanks to the large Base Realignment and Closure actions that took place throughout the Air Force during the early 1990s. Kirtland AFB was included in this process, initially combining the former 1606th Air Base Wing and 1550th Combat Crew Training Wing into a “Super Wing” called the 542d Crew Training Wing. The 542 CTW handled both host installation duties for Kirtland AFB, as well as qualification training for special operations aircrews and pararescue jumpers. This construct quickly proved unwieldy, so on Jan. 1, 1993, the installation support functions were split off from the 542 CTW and the 377 ABW activated to assume those responsibilities. This included security and administration of the new Kirtland Underground Munitions Maintenance Storage Complex, which became operational in July 1992. The 542 CTW was redesignated as the 58th Special Operations Wing on April 1, 1994.

Since 1993, the 377 ABW has continued its distinguished record of service, compiling four Air Force Outstanding Unit Awards in that time. During this period, it has continually adapted to a fluid geopolitical landscape – from the base realignment and closures of the post-Cold War years, through the Global War on Terror of the 2000s-2010s. Today, the 377 ABW works to adapt its operations within an uncertain global landscape where threats within the military “gray zones” of space, informational, and cyberwarfare, and the growing specter of further nuclear proliferation, have begun to emerge as primary national defense concerns. Locally, it has focused on issues such as environmental stewardship and infrastructure needs for a growing base and its tenants, along with the challenges of executing the mission under the cloud of a viral pandemic. Through innovation and engagement of the energies and dedication of its Airmen, the 377 ABW will continue to serve as a beacon for dynamic military operations in the 21st century.