"Why reunions?" asked Chief Master Sgt. Marty Klukas, Command Chief of Air Combat Command as part of his remarks to those 421st Fighter Squadron members assembled at a reunion banquet May 8. He then listed the proud legacy of contributions of those who came before.
Within the context of a few quotes, lighter moments and recollections of his own father's experiences as a radio operator/gunner in a B-17 in World War II, Klukas talked briefly including combat stories which touched at the importance of some of the contributions Army Air Corps and Air Force members had given.
He recalled the experiences of his own father in a B-17 in a face-to-face shooting encounter with an Italian Reggiano 3000 coming right at his plane, the "Sweater Girl." He recalled his father waited to shoot the enemy aircraft down, sighting on the pilot with a single 50 caliber gun because all the other gunners were either unavailable or busy. Klukas also brought up a much more recent combat experience, that of a JTAC operator in Afghanistan calling airstrikes in after being seriously wounded and losing a lung. While being treated, he continued calling in strikes to keep the enemy at bay so the special forces team could regroup as aircraft responded with more runs.
In combining those accounts and others, Klukas gave depth in his remarks to the interwoven nature of the Air Force's current joint strike force mission and the legacy of those who came before.
Lt. Col. Tim "Goose" Gosnell, commander of the 421st, and in charge of the reunion answered the same question about why there are reunions this way: "It's easy to look at what we do in purely the context of today's fight ... the fact that we're here doing this now is a credit to those who've done it before. If we lose that perspective, if we lose that history, then we lose the reason we're actually a squadron and pilots doing this for something much more than just flying an F-16."
With a roll call held the Friday before, and more than a dozen legacy Black Widows present, some of the talk just prior to the banquet drifted to 421st combat experiences which also included Vietnam.
Time stood still for Col. (Ret.) Dave Kozak when twin streams of 23 mm tracers passed within inches of each side of his canopy. "I was dead, I thought, during a close air support mission near the DMZ," he said. Kozak was on his second bomb run dropping napalm and Mk-82 Snake-eyes on a low altitude pass when the inexplicable happened.
"I rolled out of a high altitude curvilinear approach to track the target for two to three seconds when I could see a glob of tracers from my target appear just above my nose. They weren't moving. At that slant range I knew it was a max of two seconds to impact," he said.
"I knew I was dead," Kozak repeated. And then time stood still.
"I didn't move a muscle," he said. "It was a quite calm experience.
"The gun was a twin barrel ZSU-23. One stream of tracers was each side of the canopy. If I could have held my arms out, each hand would have been shot off. When the tracers flashed past, time returned to normal. I pickled and pulled off target, and I got him. I had inadvertantly done the only thing possible to not be hit -- nothing," Kozak said.
When asked what his response was to the experience, he said he made three more passes.
"We were doing five passes each to give the American troops time to regroup into a defensive position. I felt lucky to be up in the air at 450 knots or else I would have been in the jungle with them. We would always give those kids whatever they wanted from us," he said. "The air war was bad but there were a relatively small number of pilot casualties compared to the guys in the mud."
Col. (Ret.) Dick Marshall parachuted twice out of his aircraft in Vietnam, landing in patches of jungle and was afterward rescued by helicopter. "By golly, people have asked me, 'Weren't you scared?' Absolutely, not. But right now, I'm scared to think about it, but not then."
Black Widow alumni present during the reunion weekend included pilots and maintainers from the World War II, Vietnam and Cold War eras. Current Air Force leadership in attendance included former alumni Col. Scott Zobrist, 388th Fighter Wing commander, Col. Stephen Langford, 388th Operations Group commander, and Maj. Gen. Burton Field, Senior Military Adviser to the U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan/Pakistan, the Pentagon, Washington, D.C. All were either former members or commanders of the 421st Fighter Squadron.
With some 75 to 80 members present at the banquet and at the roll call, both events were well attended. 421st Fighter Squadron spouses were integral to the reunion success by setting up the weekend events.