The 123d was formerly a tactical reconnaissance unit, known as the 123d Tactical Reconnaissance Wing. It flew RF-101 Voodoo and later RF-4 Phantom II aircraft before being redesignated as an airlift unit and converting to the C-130 in 1988.
The Kentucky Air National Guard’s 123rd Fighter Group and 165th Fighter Squadron were created on May 24, 1946 as part of a nationwide redesignation of World War II Army Air Corps units. Under War Department orders, the insignia, World War II battle credits and honors of the 359th Fighter Group and 368th Fighter Squadron were transferred to the Kentucky National Guard with federal recognition coming on February 16, 1947. The “123rd” designation actually dates to the 123rd Cavalry Regiment, which can trace its lineage back to the 2nd Cavalry Regiment, which fought in the Civil War.
The Kentucky Air National Guard was assigned 25 P-51 Mustangs in May 1947. The unit’s aircrews rapidly attained a high level of combat readiness, and just two years later, the wing earned its first Spaatz Trophy — an award given each year to the premier Air Guard flying unit.
On October 10, 1950, during the Korean War, President Harry S. Truman placed the 123rd Fighter Group on active duty and moved the unit from Standiford Field to Godman Field at Fort Knox, Kentucky. The unit’s P-51 Mustangs were ferried to the Far East, and several of the unit’s pilots volunteered for combat duty over Korea. Five of these pilots were lost in action, including Capt. John W. Shewmaker, for whom the Kentucky Air Guard base was once named.
In November 1951, the wing was ordered to replace the Strategic Air Command’s 12th Fighter Escort Wing at Manston R.A.F., England. The 123rd was equipped with F-84 “Thunderjets.” Aircrews participated in joint NATO deployments through June 1952. Deactivation and a return to peacetime status came in July 1952.
From 1956 through 1957, the unit flew the F-86 “Sabre Jet,” but the following year, the unit’s mission was changed from air defense to reconnaissance with a conversion to the RB-57 “Canberra” aircraft. In 1965, the unit switched airplanes again, receiving the RF-101 “Voodoo” supersonic reconnaissance aircraft. Just prior to the arrival of the new airframes, the 165th was awarded its second Spaatz Trophy for superior combat readiness and flight training.
On January 26, 1968, the Pueblo Crisis precipitated the 123rd’s recall to federal service. Now officially known as the 123rd Tactical Reconnaissance Wing, the unit flew just under 20,000 tactical flying hours and delivered nearly 320,000 reconnaissance prints to requesting agencies. Assigned personnel served on active duty for 16 months, returning to state service on June 8, 1969. The wing earned its first Air Force Outstanding Unit Award for its exceptional performance during this period.
During 1976, a no-notice conversion announced by the National Guard Bureau brought the two-seat RF-4C “Phantom II” to the KyANG. The unit attained combat-ready status within seven months — a record time. The Phantom years were marked with many overseas deployments, participation in international photo reconnaissance competitions and a remarkable flight safety record. In 1981, the unit placed first in the Air National Guard Photo Finish Competition and earned an unprecedented third Spaatz Trophy.
In May 1983 the unit reached another historic milestone when it earned the highest possible rating from Tactical Air Command during its Operational Readiness Inspection. This was the first time that a TAC unit had received an outstanding rating. On January 1, 1989 the unit was awarded its seventh Air Force Outstanding Unit Award — a record for any Air National Guard unit.
On January 8, 1989 the 123rd was officially redesignated the 123rd Tactical Airlift Wing and began conversion to the C-130B “Hercules” transport aircraft. By the end of the year, the unit had been involved in many worldwide airlift missions, including participation in exercise Volant Oak in Panama. The unit also participated in an airlift competition, Sentry Rodeo. The wing’s first humanitarian airlift came in the aftermath of Hurricane Hugo.
Although the 165th Tactical Airlift Squadron — the wing’s flying component — was not federally mobilized for Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, unit volunteers stepped forward to support the war effort. From August 1990 to March 1991, the 165th flew 1,240 airlift sorties worldwide in direct support of the Gulf War, the most for any Air National Guard unit. An additional 88 wing members were activated in support of Desert Shield/Storm.
The 123rd received the 2000th C-130 straight off the assembly line in May 1992 as it began conversion to the C-130H model aircraft. Eight months later, the 123rd deployed to Mombasa, Kenya, to fly relief missions into Somalia for Operations Restore Hope and Provide Relief. Citizen-soldiers from the 123rd flew 150 sorties and transported 720 tons of relief supplies and 1,444 passengers into some of the hardest-hit areas in Somalia. When the world’s attention shifted to eastern Europe in February 1993, the 123rd responded again, deploying in support of Operation Provide Promise. The unit’s all-volunteer force flew 1,082 airdrop and airland sorties and delivered 2,215 tons of food and supplies into war-torn Bosnia-Herzegovina. The wing deployed 451 personnel into Rhein-Main Air Base, Germany, over several rotations to support Provide Promise until May 1994.
In July 1994, the 123rd answered another call for help and deployed within 72 hours of notification to fly relief missions into Rwanda and Zaire for Operation Support Hope. Operating out of Mombasa, Kenya, unit personnel flew 147 sorties over 300 hours, transporting 652.5 tons of relief supplies to the beleaguered Rwandan refugees. Personnel from the unit’s 205th Combat Communications Squadron also deployed to Haiti that year as part of Operation Uphold Democracy, providing satellite communications links for the theater commander.
In September 1994, the wing’s sustained record of achievement was recognized by award of the 1993 Curtis N. “Rusty” Metcalf Trophy, presented annually to the best Air National Guard airlift or air refueling unit. The wing also earned the ANG Distinguished Flying Unit Plaque and Air Force Flight Safety Plaque. In November 1994, the unit was granted its eighth Air Force Outstanding Unit award.
The wing returned to Bosnia in 1996 to provide airlift for U.S. and NATO troops who were protecting the fragile peace. More than 170 Kentuckians volunteered for the mission, which delivered 913 tons of cargo and transported 2,296 passengers. The wing also achieved the highest readiness rate of any unit in the theater.
That commitment to service continued in 1997, when the unit participated in several overseas deployments while offering a helping hand at home. More than 100 Kentucky Air Guard troops provided security forces, medical aid, communications links and civil engineering crews after record flooding ravaged several Kentucky communities.
The unit also made its presence felt overseas, offering civil engineering skills in Spain and airlift services in Saudi Arabia to support Operation Southern Watch, which enforces the no-fly zone in Southern Iraq. Other wing members deployed to Egypt as part of a multinational training exercise that integrated 7,000 troops from every branch of the U.S. military and six foreign countries.
The Kentucky Air Guard also hosted and orchestrated one of the nation’s largest celebrations of the Air Force’s 50th anniversary during Thunder Over Louisville, which drew nearly 1 million spectators in 1997.
In February 1998, the 123rd Airlift Wing received its ninth Air Force Outstanding Unit Award, and it remains tied with the 116th Bomb Wing in Georgia as the most decorated unit in the Air National Guard. The following month, the unit accepted its sixth Distinguished Flying Unit Plaque, recognizing the 123rd Airlift Wing as one of the top five Air Guard flying units in the nation for 1997, and a mere three months later, the wing was presented with the 15th Air Force Reserve Forces Trophy as the top reserve unit in the numbered air force.
1998 continued the 123rd Airlift Wing’s tradition of global deployments with missions to Panama as part of Operation Coronet Oak and Ecuador for Nuevos Horizontes ’98. The latter operation, whose name means “New Horizons” in Spanish, was a Southern Command joint training exercise that gave Kentucky Army and Air Guard engineers the opportunity to fine-tune military skills while constructing clinics, schools and latrines in rural areas of the South American nation. Nearly 1,300 of the Commonwealth's citizen-soldiers participated in the effort, which also provided impoverished Ecuadorians with basic dental and medical care.
The following year, the wing returned to Bosnia once more to provide theater airlift for the continuing peacekeeping mission, now called Operation Joint Forge. More than 350 Kentucky aircrew, maintainers and support personnel deployed for the operation, along with about 200 members of the Ohio Air Guard’s 179th Airlift Wing.
The two units' C-130s flew nearly 500 sorties during the deployment, delivering 3,500 passengers and more than 1,000 tons of cargo to sites across Europe and inside Bosnia, including Sarajevo and Tuzla. The units also were tasked with helping stockpile equipment for what became Operation Allied Force, the NATO air campaign against Serbian forces in the former Republic of Yugoslavia. Working around the clock with the 37th Airlift Squadron at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, the Kentucky and Ohio crews flew more than 70 tons of fighter support equipment from U.S. bases in England and Germany to bases in Italy.
The wing’s eagerness to volunteer for such demanding missions — and to complete them with unparalleled success — was rewarded yet again in March 1999 when the 123rd received an unprecedented second-consecutive 15th Air Force Reserve Forces Trophy.
Shortly thereafter, the unit began planning for a 90-day deployment to Muscat, Oman, to again support U.S. troops enforcing the no-fly zone in Southern Iraq. More than 160 KyANG personnel were joined by members of the Ohio Air Guard’s 179th Airlift Wing to support Operation Northern Watch. Together, the two units flew 345 sorties during their three-month tasking, delivering 895 tons of cargo and 1,122 passengers to destinations in Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The mission, which was part of the Air Force’s first-ever Aerospace Expeditionary Force, concluded in December 1999.
By April 2000 the 123rd Airlift Wing had received its 10th Air Force Outstanding Unit Award, and global deployments continued to mark the wing’s activities.
More than 580 Kentucky Air Guard members deployed overseas from Dec. 2000 to March 2001 as part of Air Expeditionary Forces based in Germany and Southwest Asia. Other unit members were sent to South America to participate in drug interdiction efforts. The largest contingent of Kentucky forces—nearly 470 aircrew, maintenance and support personnel—operated from Ramstein Air Base, Germany, in support of Operation Joint Forge, the multinational peacekeeping mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina. While there, unit members transported approximately 2,500 passengers and 410 tons of cargo to locations like Sarajevo and Tuzla, Bosnia; and Taszar, Hungary.
Other KyANG members deployed to Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey in support of operations Joint Forge, Southern Watch and Northern Watch. The latter two missions are responsible for enforcing no-fly zones imposed upon Iraq following the Gulf War.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, unit members were tasked to participate in the war against terrorism and in homeland defense. Currently, more than 500 KyANG troops have been called to active duty for at least a year while scores of additional troops are serving on short-term duty as needed to support Operations Noble Eagle and Enduring Freedom.
In the first half of 2002, the wing received three major honors recognizing its superior performance in 2001. The awards were the 15th Air Force Solano Trophy, given each year to the top reserve unit in the 15th Air Force; the Metcalf Trophy, given annually to the best tanker or airlift unit in the Air National Guard; and the Air Force Outstanding Unit Award—the wing’s 11th such honor.