EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. --
Even “once-in-a-lifetime” doesn’t quite capture the recent experiences of five Airmen and civilians from the 53rd Wing during their whirlwind trip to England.
Members of the 36th Electronic Warfare Squadron helped write history during the Royal Air Force 100 Group Association Reunion in Norwich, England from May 12-14.
This was the 20th anniversary of the reunion, but this first time the 36th Bombardment Squadron and RAF 100 Group veterans stood side-by-side since World War II. The 36th EWS contingent was also at their side representing the 36th BS lineage and the current mission of the Gremlins.
“These guys invented electronic warfare, and they did it side-by-side with the Royal Air Force,” said Lt. Col. Thomas Moore, 36th EWS commander.
Within hours of touching down in London, the small 36th EWS group began visiting crash sites where the 36th BS flew in WWII.
The itinerary was jam-packed with memorials, meals, wreath-laying ceremonies and continuous opportunities to talk with veterans.
“The attendees of the reunion, the veterans, and even people on the street we met, they were so appreciative we were there,” said Capt. Paul Bennett, 36th EWS test management flight commander. “The fact that the current day squadron members valued the mission and sacrifice and history of the veterans was significant to them… that was my biggest takeaway.”
When the RAF 100 Group Association reunions began, the number of WWII veterans was more than 300, and now it has dwindled to only a handful. This year, two of that small handful came from the 36th BS. Maj. Rafael “Raf” Ramos and 1st Lt. John “Des” Howarth attended to represent that squadron.
The wit, passion, and stories that Ramos and Howarth shared with 2nd Lt. Andrew Henderson, 36th EWS electronic warfare engineer, left him inspired. Henderson only entered active duty less than a year ago.
“It was fantastic,” he said. “Meeting with veterans and the passion they had. They would go back and do it again if given the chance. Major Ramos went back to Korea and Vietnam. That kind of passion and drive was inspirational and motivational.”
Early electronic warfare contributed to many WWII allied victories, arguably offering major turning points in the war. While at the reunion, Flt. Lt. Stan Forsyth, a RAF 100 Group veteran, was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his use of RADAR to help destroy the infamous, German battleship Tirpitz on Nov. 12, 1944, identifying its hiding place in the Norwegian Fjords.
“Due to the electronic warfare support sorties flown by the 36th BS and RAF 100 Group, attrition (i.e., losses) for bombers went down 40 percent,” said Moore. “If we would go to our bosses now and say what we’re doing is going to reduce attrition by 40 percent, they would be asking for me more and more.”
Preserving the history and stories of RAF 100 Group, as well as their partners like the 36th BS, remains a passionate mission for Janine Harrington, RAF 100 Group Association secretary and published author.
“We shared such an epic time, with veterans and present-day 36th EWS, we feel they are all now part of our worldwide family. Kindred spirits,” said Harrington. “It was particularly wonderful to know they too have the passion for preserving memories and the history and stories of what these people did, which defined the way history came out.”
Harrington expressed that people from both groups continue to her writings and photographs of the work they did in the war. Often times, even their families are unaware of their wartime experiences or what kind of work they were involved in.
Electronic warfare was the forefront of innovation during the war, and the 36th BS veterans were the forefathers. They were testing brand-new, unknown methods. All the while, the EW mission was so classified, these men were doing this without acknowledgement or honors for 30 to 40 years.
"They feel as if they are 'the forgotten heroes,’” said Janine Harrington, RAF 100 Group Association secretary and published author. “I hear this phrase so often as so many continue to take their secrets to the grave. It makes me even more passionate about creating a wider awareness to the vital role they played in WWII, and to give them the honor they deserve."
The classification of many electronic warfare missions rings true for the 36th EWS today, and Bennett can relate to the incredible level of humility that comes with the job.
“It’s hard to convey what we do, but it’s still important to try and convey it without the details,” he said. “Electronic warfare is misunderstood, but we can mess with the bad guys and help win the war.”
Today the 36th EWS lives by their squadron motto: deny, deceive, defeat.
“That’s what we do,” said Bennett. “Deny that they can see us or track us, deceive them and trick them, and then ultimately defeat them in the air.”
Today’s Gremlins poise the warfighter for the next operation and war with the goal to accomplish the same thing as their 36th BS veterans: reduce attrition and keep aircrew alive, according to Moore.
He added that “you could write a whole book” on this one trip alone, because of the rich and numerous experiences of their contingent, but also the stories the Airmen shared with the incredible veterans of the 36th.