By Karen Abeyasekere, 100th Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs
February 1, 2017, marks the 25th anniversary of the 100th ARW at RAF Mildenhall and provides an opportunity for Airmen to reflect on the milestone and look back at what the wing has achieved over the years, and how it has made its own mark in history.
As the only active duty wing in the U.S. Air Force which to presently carry World War II markings on its aircraft, the 100th Air Refueling Wing prides itself on both its rich heritage with the 100th Bombardment Group – which started back in June 1942 – and its role today, providing air refueling in support of missions around the world.
On Jan. 31, 1992, the 513th Air Command and Control Wing – responsible for the E-3 Sentry Airborne Early Warning and Control aircraft – deactivated at RAF Mildenhall, and the 100th ARW took over as the host unit the next day. It also became the Headquarters European Tanker Task Force. The first permanently assigned KC-135 Stratotankers arrived May 22, 1992, with the number increased to nine in September of that year. The number of aircraft assigned rose again in June 1995, when U.S. Air Forces in Europe eliminated the ETTF.
“RAF Mildenhall has always been a location where Airmen and their families seek to serve. From the European Tanker Task Force days in the early 1990s, to the high operations tempo mission set of today, most tanker aircrews, maintainers and support personnel have either been assigned here, or passed through TDY – and they want to be here,” said Col. Thomas Torkelson, 100th ARW commander. “I’d wager almost the entirety of the USAF tanker community as well as a large majority of our receiver aircraft wings and Mobility Air Forces are aware of RAF Mildenhall, the Bloody Hundredth, and the Square D that greets them on the side of our control tower, our Wing Headquarters, and on the tail flash of each of our KC-135s.”
The 100th ARW has garnered a range of accomplishments and participated in a multitude of missions in just 25 years. Airmen and aircraft have provided support to Operations Southern Watch and Northern Watch, Iraq; Operation Deliberate Force, Bosnia, and Operation Allied Force, Kosovo. Since 2000, the refueling tankers have gone on to support Operation Enduring Freedom, Afghanistan; Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation New Dawn, Iraq; Operations Odyssey Dawn, Libya, and more recently, Operation Atlantic Resolve, providing NATO defense of Europe, and Operation Inherent Resolve.
RAF Mildenhall’s KC-135 Stratotankers also continue to deploy to forward-operating bases throughout the world.
History all around us
Torkelson previously served at RAF Mildenhall as the 351st Air Refueling Squadron commander from July 2010 to July 2012, and said he was proud to return and lead the 100th ARW. With a passion for history, he feels the 100th Bomb Group has taught every Airman (not just those in the 100th ARW) what sacrifice really means.
Torkelson serves as the 15th commander since the 100th ARW’s inception in 1992, and the 67th wing commander at RAF Mildenhall since 1942.
“Some of us joined the Air Force based on advice from relatives who thought service as an Airman might mean less sacrifice than service in a surface component like the Army, Navy or Marines,” he remarked. “The Bloody Hundredth story reminds us that supreme sacrifice can hit any component of any service at any time. More U.S. Servicemen were lost in 8th Air Force during World War II than in the U.S. Marine Corps throughout the entire Pacific campaign. The average life-span of a bomber crewmember was just 13 missions, in an era when 25 missions meant a ticket home. And to hear of heroes like Lt. Col. Robert “Rosie” Rosenthal, who completed his 25-mission tour, signed up for a second, completed that one and had started his third by war’s end, we all need to recognize that we share a very special legacy with a very special group of American heroes.
“The reminders of the 100th Bomb Group are everywhere – beyond the black-and-white Square D that colors all we see, there is the Bloody Hundredth crest on the 100th ARW flagship KC-135 tail number 58-0100. There’s Rosenthal Auditorium and Jeffrey Conference Room in building 809, the shared 100th Operations Group and 100th Maintenance Group facility. There’s Rovegno Conference Room that serves the 100th MXG, and streets all over the base named after famous B-17s: ‘Our Gal Sal,’ ‘Piccadilly Lily,’ and ‘Squawkin’ Hawk,’ just to name a few,” said Torkelson, describing how the 100th BG legacy is all around RAF Mildenhall. “Every time we see these reminders, or when we order our ‘Square D’ sandwich or ‘Bloody Hundredth Ale’ at the Galaxy Club, we should think of and thank those Bloody Hundredth heroes that came before.”
Building partnerships, US, U.K.
Although occupied by the U.S. Air Force for many years, RAF Mildenhall is owned by the Ministry of Defence, and such, has a British presence in the form of an RAF Station Commander, and MOD civilian workforce.
Squadron Ldr. Richard Fryer has been RAF Mildenhall’s RAF Station Commander for almost 10 years. He describes his goal as maintaining the U.K.-U.S. “special relationship” so that both U.K. and U.S. leaders understand the appropriate agreements, limits and permissions.
“It’s important that the U.S. Air Force can project air power from RAF Mildenhall in the knowledge that their mission has U.K. support at an appropriate level,” said Fryer. “Partnership is an important aspect of the MOD support provided on base. The MOD, through its civilian workforce, provides direct, important and tangible support to the U.S. mission here, without which many tasks would otherwise need to be undertaken by U.S. Service members. Utilizing MOD personnel obviously frees U.S. military members to perform other tasks.
“More widely, U.S. Air Force aircraft operate in U.K. airspace and share many of the operational freedoms afforded to the Royal Air Force, Royal Navy and British Army; freedoms not commonly shared with other military airspace users,” he remarked, explaining how it’s vital for the base to maintain a close community with the local community and local government.
“In these respects, I lead as official liaison with local government and sit as a co-opted member on two local councils,” Fryer said, adding he works alongside the 100th ARW community relations advisor, also an MOD civil servant, who leads on community engagement.
The 100th ARW has a much-storied history and has worked with other nations around the world throughout that time.
In the early 1990s, the Open Skies Agreement with the Russians was ongoing, with part of it still ongoing today, according to Dr. Robert Mackey, 100th ARW Historian. Open Skies Agreements are bilateral agreements that the U.S. government negotiates with other countries to provide rights for airlines to offer international passenger and cargo services.
“The U-2 Dragon Lady and SR-71 Blackbird still operated out of RAF Mildenhall and we would perform reconnaissance of Russian missile bombers from about 1992 to 1996,” explained Mackey, adding that a Russian contingent came over every year for several years in a row. “In the 1990s, a lot of money was poured into the base when the 100th ARW took over, and there was a lot of rebuilding. At that time, 3rd Air Force was still here, and they were the senior organization in the U.K. for the U.S. Air Force.”
The historian said 3rd Air Force departed in 2006, when the 100th ARW leadership moved into what is now the wing headquarters building and became the senior organization. Although USAFE-U.K. soon stood up, at that time the 100th ARW ran RAF Alconbury and five other U.K. bases the 501st Combat Support Wing is now responsible for.
Bloody Hundredth legacy
“It’s the heritage and legacy of the Bloody Hundredth that binds us all in the 100th Air Refueling Wing, past, present, and future. We all get it, and most of those who know who we are get it too,” said Torkelson. “I never thought I’d command a wing in the greatest air force in the history of mankind. To have the opportunity to lead Airmen and care for their families in this capacity is supremely special – a precious responsibility. But to have the added blessing of commanding the Bloody Hundredth – to return to a wing that inspired me to give my all as a squadron commander – that’s a fairy tale come true.
“I already know that the Bloody Hundredth and its Square D have changed me forever – I know that my relationship with the veterans of the 100th Bomb Group Foundation will continue far beyond my tour at RAF Mildenhall, and I know that if RAF Mildenhall should close sometime down the line, I will be there. I hope everyone who serves in the 100th ARW recognizes and appreciates the special bond we share with the Heroes of the Hundredth. It is our honor – but really, our sacred responsibility – to extend their legacy. Once a part of the Bloody Hundredth, always a part of the Bloody Hundredth,” remarked Torkelson proudly.
Photo caption: U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Steven Rappuhn, 351st Air Refueling Squadron boom operator removes a pitot cover Jan. 31, 2017, on RAF Mildenhall, England. Pitot covers are used to ground and protect the pitot tubes – used as speedometers on aircraft – when the aircraft is not flying. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Christine Halan)