Kulis Air Guard Base closure a bittersweet event for pilots, neighbors

Photos Courtesy of Kulis Air National Guard
13330_256.jpg

 
Guardsmen stand in formation in front of the Guard hangar and one of its prized aircraft. Kulis operations and aircraft were to hold a fly-off ceremony Feb. 12, the last flight out of Kulis.
Photos Courtesy of Kulis Air National Guard
   

When Kulis Air National Guard Base celebrates its fly-off ceremony Feb. 12, in which the aircraft now stationed there will be relocated to their new home at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, the storied history of a base over five decades old will be nearly completed.

For some of the men and women who served there, and some Anchorage residents who live nearby, the closure is bittersweet; the rescue capacity will still be housed in Anchorage, but the base itself will be handed over to Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport.

The handover comes as part of the latest round of base closures and realignments enacted by Congress in 2005.

Depending on who you ask, the unit is either losing its home or returning to its point of origin the first base in Anchorage to house the Guard was Elmendorf Air Force Base.

Unofficial historian

Mike Phillips retired late last month as a master sergeant with the 176th Wing’s maintenance squadron. Unofficially, Phillips is also the base historian; he possesses books full of old newspaper articles, historical documents and black-and-white photographs.

Flipping through the pages of the vast three-ring binders, photos of Col. Lars Johnson, the base’s founder and early champion, join pictures of other important figures like Lt. Albert Kulis, whose death in the line of duty in 1954 inspired the Guard to name the base after him.

Phillips fell in love with the history when, in 1985, he was helping his boss put up a display of an F-86 airplane at the base’s front gate.

"We were mounting it on the pedestal, and that kind of got me going about the history of the base," he said. "And so since I was doing that, I was kind of saying, ’Well, that’d be neat to find out more about this aircraft and what was going on back then.’"

Alaska unit is established

Among other early documents chronicling the base’s history are newspaper articles announcing the formation of the earliest Air Guard unit.

Col. Lars Johnson was the Guard’s first adjutant general. He had previously served in the military during World War II, and had lived in Alaska three years prior to going off to war.

In 1949, after having worked as a flight instructor in Bogota, Colombia, he returned to Alaska, intending to try his hand at mining or commercial fishing, according to the website of the 176th Wing.

But the territorial governor of the time, Ernest Gruening, named him the adjutant general of the Alaska National Guard. And so Johnson and an aide set themselves upon the challenge of bringing Alaska, then the only state or territory without an Air Guard unit, a unit of its own.

His effort paid off. After canvassing the state looking for recruits, he found enough men to staff the new unit.

The 8144th Air Base Squadron, the first incarnation of what would become the modern day 176th Wing, was authorized Sept. 15, 1952.

An Anchorage Times article published in 1952 quoted Maj. Gen. Earl T. Ricks, then the chief of the Air Force division of the National Guard Bureau, as having said that the "formation of the Alaska National Guard is a significant development in the defense planning of this strategic northernmost frontier territory of the United States."

In an Anchorage News article published the same day, Ricks said the federal government coughed up $1.5 million for "organizing the unit here, and providing necessary buildings and equipment."

13329_256.jpg

 
The Alaska Air National Guard base was named after Lt. Albert Kulis, who died in 1954 in a somewhat mysterious accident.
Photos Courtesy of Kulis Air National Guard
   

Phillips suspects that the Cold War likely prompted the federal government to make the investment, especially given Alaska’s ability to serve as a defensive buffer between Russia and the Lower 48.

The 11 enlisted men and five officers found themselves holed up in a downtown Anchorage office with no planes at first, but soon they had a T-6G trainer craft, and then five more trainers.

The unit was soon renamed to the 144th Fighter-Bomber Squadron in July 1953, and in 1954 they had 14 F-80 planes, two T-33s, three T-6G trainers, two T-6 observation planes and a C-47A transport.

Tragedy strikes

While still flying out of Elmendorf Air Force Base, the unit would soon experience the event that prompted the naming of the base they would soon occupy next to Anchorage International Airport.

Frank Novesel, then a pilot with the Guard, remembers well the night Kulis’s airplane went down. It was Nov. 16, 1954, and Kulis, Novesel and one other airman were flying F-80s back to Elmendorf.

"We were in a three-ship formation," Novesel said in a telephone interview. Novesel was flying in the rear of the formation.

The third airman asked Kulis to take the lead because he was having trouble with his radio, Novesel said.

"As we proceeded, it was a very, very bad night. It was a snowstorm. We shouldn’t have been there, but we were," Novesel said. "After being aloft probably 35, 40 minutes, at the most, Kulis started turning to the right ... the wings were basically 90 degrees to horizontal."

The harsh weather obscured Kulis’s plane as he descended, Novesel said, save for the lights on the wings. Soon, the plane exploded.

According to a media report published after Kulis’s widow, Ruth, died in 2001, Kulis’s remains and plane were found west of Point MacKenzie, nearly a mile offshore of the Susitna Flats near Cook Inlet, two weeks after the crash.

Kulis’s body and most of the wreckage sank into the mud. Though theories abound as to why he crashed, the mystery persists to this day.

Novesel didn’t know Kulis well, he said.

Novesel, who has worked variously in the jewelry business and in real estate, among other pursuits, is now 85. He doesn’t feel sad about the move, he said, and in a way, it feels almost like a homecoming.

"We’re going back to where we all started," he said. "I always liked it in Elmendorf, I really did."

Earthquake recovery

Another important moment in the unit’s history occurred in 1964, when the Good Friday earthquake shook Southcentral Alaska, causing 15 deaths from the earthquake alone and 113 deaths from the ensuing tsunami.

Now 79 years old, Harold Wolverton, then a captain in the Guard, remembers participating in the base’s award-winning efforts to help Anchorage and other Southcentral communities recover from the destruction.

Wolverton flew into Anchorage the day after the earthquake hit, he said, as he had been at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. The base ended up housing about 97 people who had been displaced by the quake, setting up about 100 cots in its facilities.

The unit flew missions back and forth between various affected communities to bring supplies in and evacuate people out, Wolverton said.

"Kodiak, Seward and Valdez, we supported (them) as they needed us for a week to two weeks," he said.

Wolverton remembers seeing fishing boats in Kodiak that had washed up into town from the harbor. In Seward, several 100- to 200-ton locomotives were washed up off of their tracks, he said.

Over the course of the recovery, the Guard flew 131,000 pounds of cargo and 201 passengers. Their efforts won them the Air Force’s Outstanding Unit Award.

Wolverton retired from the Guard in 1972, and plans to attend the flyaway ceremony.

"Matter of fact, if I get out there early enough, they might let me get on one of the airplanes," he said. "It’s gonna be a nice sendoff, I think."

A void in the neighborhood

Rich Owens, owner and "chief ice cream taster" of the Tastee Freez ice cream parlor near the base since 1994, attended a recent meeting in Anchorage where officials with the airport and an engineering firm presented a tentative plan as to how the land will be used once it is formally handed over later this year.

After the meeting at a nearby school, Owens spoke in an interview about what the neighborhood will be missing when the handover occurs. From both the business and sentimental standpoints, he’s sad to see them go.

"The base is about 15 percent of our business," he said. "So from that standpoint, it’s going to be a big hit."

Recovering from that hit will be tough, Owens said, though he’s glad the rescue capacity of the base will still be in Anchorage.

But the loss of a longtime neighbor, one that has assisted the neighborhood in beautification projects and other efforts, will hurt, he said.

"They have been such a partner to this community," he said. "The evacuation site for this school is Kulis."

"I think, after the base moves, a lot of people are going to find out how much they miss it," he said.

Updated: 
02/10/2011 - 8:00pm