Maj. Gen. Stephen Wilson, head of the Eighth Air Force at Barksdale Air Force Base, provided a windshield-tour-style barrage of information about his command, its history, its people, weapons and a big year ahead in a fireside-style talk to the Cyber Innovation Center membership Wednesday.
The lunch talk took place at the Silver Star Smokehouse in Bossier City, where the CIC members, local officials and the cyber curious meet once a month for the latest chatter from the field.
Wednesday saw a packed house that included Bossier City Mayor Lo Walker, former Eighth Air Force commander retired Lt. Gen. Bob Elder and a bevy of the noted local officials, military folks and representatives of local and area aerospace and cyber industries.
Wilson opened with important history.
Seventy years ago that day, April 18, 1942, Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle led 16 B-25 bombers, including a number of men trained at Barksdale, on a daring raid to attack Tokyo. Such an attack never had been mounted before because of the island nation’s isolation and distance from modern foes.
“They knew it was a one-way trip, that they weren’t coming back,” he said.
Indeed, in that era before long-range refueling and support, the bombers did crash in Japan, or in Russia and China, and many fliers were killed or captured. Although actual damage was minimal, it shocked the Japanese into drawing needed forces back to Empire waters and giving the U.S. public a badly needed morale boost.
“It was a big deal,” Wilson said. “We could strike back.”
Fast-forward to the current wars, he said. He singled out a senior airman, Bryenna Brooks, 23, the Global Strike Command Airman of the Year.
A slight youth from Wisconsin “and a Packers fan, she might weigh 110 pounds soaking wet,” he said she’s an emergency medical technician with 2nd Bomb Wing who volunteered for a deployment to Afghanistan. There, part of a convoy, she was wounded by shrapnel after a rocket-propelled grenade fired by an insurgent passed through her armored vehicle.
“Thank goodness it didn’t explode,” he said, noting that fragments from its passage still badly hurt her legs, hip, back and neck.
“But she was an EMT, so she provided first aid care for the people in her vehicle and didn’t even notice the extent of her own wounds,” he said.
She was so badly hurt that she had to be medically evacuated.
He said she’s humble, and “if she was here today, she’d say, ‘Sir, can you stop talking about that? I was just doing my job.'”
That attitude, he said, is the bridge between people like her and the raiders under Doolittle, who was the fourth commander of the young Eighth Air Force.
Brooks is no less dedicated, no less courageous, a remarkable young airman focused on the mission, he said.
He brought air and space superiority to everyone’s mind by noting the importance of a date.
“April 15, 1953,” he said. “Nobody remembers that date, but it was the last time U.S. ground forces were attacked from the air by an enemy. All the years since then, they have not been attacked because we, the U.S. Air Force, own the air.”
And he described a sortie by a Barksdale bomber, happening even as the lunch went on, that would take 38 hours and not end for another 14 hours.
The bomber would fly halfway around the world, take part in an exercise and return to base without stopping, thanks to multiple midair refuelings, a task at which base crews excel.
“That is global power, the ability to go anywhere around the globe and deliver a weapon,” he said.
As for the airplanes, Wilson recounted multiple bombings of ball-bearing factories at Schweinfurt, Germany, in World War II that involved thousands of airplanes and personnel dropping multiple thousands of tons of bombs, with thousands of crew members and hundreds of bombers lost in return for damage that often missed the target but rained on the surrounding countryside.
Today, he said, all that could be done by two B-52s with 10 total crew members, “and we wouldn’t miss (the target.) Today, two to three feet would be a miss. That’s what global power is, that’s what Eighth Air Force is all about.”
This year marks major milestones, he said. It’s been 70 years since Eighth Air Force was born in the crucible of World War II and 60 years since the first B-52 flew. Those milestones will be observed in a number of events this year, soonest with the annual Barksdale Air Force Base Defenders of Liberty Open House and Air Show on Saturday and Sunday. The Air Force Thunderbirds are headliners both days.
“Sixty years ago when it started out, no one dreamed (the B-52) would be doing the things it does today,” Wilson said, noting the service still estimates the venerable bombers will patrol the skies until about the year 2040. “Anybody here still driving a car built in 1952?”