Our Towns

Air Base Opened in 1952 to Protect Steel Mills

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VIENNA TOWNSHIP, Ohio – In the early morning of Aug. 11, 1952, a crowd of 50,000 descended on Vienna Township for the opening of the $10 million Youngstown Air Force Base at Youngstown Municipal Airport. As the afternoon arrived, F-86 and F-94 jets crisscrossed the sky, delighting audiences. “We feel safer now that you are here,” Youngstown Mayor Charles Henderson told Gen. Benjamin W. Chidlaw, the air defense commander, “and we appreciate your choice of Youngstown as a home base for the two fine Air Force squadrons.”

What began as a base for jet fighters is today the Youngstown Air Reserve Station. Born during the Cold War, Mahoning Valley’s main military installation has played host to numerous missions and hundreds of aircraft.

The 88th Air Base Squadron, which consisted of 400 officers and enlisted men, began operating the field in the weeks after the formal opening of the base in 1952. Some 25 F-89s from the 166th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron were moved from Lockbourne Air Force Base in Columbus to begin a mission of guarding the skies of the Mahoning Valley from attack by the Soviet Union or its allies.

In 1954, Col. Francis Vetort, commander of the Youngstown Jet Air Base, began a public push to win acceptance for a planned Air Force reserve center at the airport.

Local reservists would be crucial to the effort to secure the steel industry nearby from enemy attack, Vetort said. “The Youngstown area, because of its steel industries, is a vital part of our country. We must be strong in this area, and the air base is strategically well-located to protect this industry,” he told the Youngstown Vindicator.

At the time, only three of the 60 officers at the base held regular Air Force commissions. This gave further impetus to establishing a reserve center, said Robert Weimer, vice president of the Reserve Officers Association.

“In the Youngstown district are hundreds of reserve pilots and ground officers in many classifications who would be able to participate in reserve training if it were locally available,” he said.

The Air Force Reserve announced that it would set up a 28-plane fighter-bomber base at the airport in February 1955. “Civilian and airline activity will be helped and facilities of the air base will be so much safer and better equipped because of the training center here,” Weimer said.

To make best use of the resources, Air Force officials advocated using the existing space and buildings, which led to expanding the airfield at the airport instead of building a new site.

In addition, in August 1955, the 79th Fighter Group, an active duty Air Force unit, began operating F-102 interceptors at the base. Air Defense Command finished work on the reserve complex in 1957 after the 26th Fighter Bomber Squadron moved to the base.

In 1959, the Air Force deactivated the 79th Fighter Group. The sounds of the 1,000-mph F-102s over Vienna were heard no more, but the 757th Troop Carrier Squadron, today an airlift squadron, continued to operate.

The Air Force activated the 910th Troop Carrier Group in 1963. The initial tables of organization and equipment consisted of 16 C-119s, one C-47 and one U-3. In 1967, the 910th was redesignated the 910th Tactical Airlift Group.

Much had changed since the Korean War, but the buildings for members of the service remained primitive, Youngstown Municipal Court Judge Robert Milich recalls.

“When I got off [active] duty in ’71, this was a Korean War-vintage base. It had wooden-frame buildings with asbestos siding,” he says. “If you needed to stay overnight, you’d go down to supply and they’d give you a sheet and a pillow and you’d find a room for no charge.”

Staff Sgt. Jesse Smith served in crash rescue at the base from 1966 to 1972. He recalled the transition from the C-119s to the U-3, used in the Vietnam War.

“Then they came in with the A-37, known as a Dragonfly,” he says. Smith remembered that two pilots at the base, one a captain from Warren, were lost when their A-37 crashed near Buffalo.

“It was sad for the whole base,” he recalls, “but that’s probably the only crash that occurred. I don’t think they’ve lost anyone other than that.”

In 1981, the 910th converted from flying A-37s to C-130B transport planes. It reached combat-ready status in 1982 when the Air Force redesignated it the 910th Group and two years later the 910th Airlift Wing. The Air Force recognized it as the largest C-130 station in the nation that same year.

The Air Force officially changed the name of the Youngstown Air Reserve Base to the Youngstown Air Reserve Station in 1992 after determining that any base without its own runway should be designated a station. Three years later, the station faced the prospect of being closed.

In 1995, the BRAC (Base Realignment and Closure) Commission considered closing six air bases where C-130s were based, including the station in Vienna. U.S. Rep. Jim Traficant and a grass roots movement led the effort to keep it open.

They argued that the station had the only aerial spray unit of its kind in the world, making it too valuable to close. The station survived the 1995 and the 2005 BRAC rounds.

Today, the Youngstown Air Reserve Station is the fourth-largest employer in the Mahoning Valley, according to Master Sgt. Bob Barko, superintendent of 910th Airlift Wing public affairs office. The vast majority of those who work there live within 70 miles of the base, he says.

“It’s a completely new base with very little in common when I was there,” Milich says. “Ours was like a semi-abandoned base. Lots of empty buildings. They probably had 300 people. Now they’ve got 1,600 plus 300 civilians. It’s greatly expanded.”

Pictured: Among the celebrity guests at Youngstown Air Force Base, as it was known when it opened, was Rat Pack member Sammy Davis Jr.

Editor’s Note: This story was published in the MidJune issue of The Business Journal as part of our Air Station Salute. Leading up to the Thunder Over the Valley air show, we’ll be sharing stories from Youngstown Air Reserve Station. To purchase a copy of our Air Station Salute issue, click here.

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.