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News > Commentary - 65 years of USAFE and RAF Lakenheath: Heritage to horizons
65 years of USAFE and RAF Lakenheath: Heritage to horizons

Posted 1/26/2007   Updated 1/26/2007 Email story   Print story


Commentary by Brig. Gen. Robert P. Steel
48th Fighter Wing commander

1/26/2007 - ROYAL AIR FORCE LAKENHEATH, England -- As we reflect back on the past 65 years of United States Air Forces in Europe's heritage, there is much to be proud of at RAF Lakenheath. Airmen over the years have contributed to global stability and the freedom of millions.

I'd like to take a moment to reflect back not only on USAFE triumphs, but those the Liberty Wing brought to the fight over the years.

USAFE originated as the 8th Air Force in 1942, flying heavy bombardment missions over the European continent during World War II and airlifting more than 2.3 million tons of food, fuel and medical supplies with the aid of the US Navy and the British Royal Air Force for the Berlin Airlift.

At the cornerstone of the proud tradition and heritage of USAFE is the 48th Fighter Wing. As world conflict changed over the years, so too did the Liberty Wing--constantly adapting and evolving to meet current and emerging threats.

The first use of Lakenheath Warren as an airfield was in World War I when the area was made into a bombing and ground-attack range for aircraft flying from elsewhere in the area.

In 1940, the Air Ministry selected Lakenheath as an alternate airfield for RAF Mildenhall, and it was first used as a decoy airfield. Prior to actual construction, false lights, runways and aircraft diverted Luftwaffe attacks from nearby RAF Mildenhall.

In response to the threat by the Soviet Union, by the 1948 Berlin Blockade, President Truman decided to realign USAFE into a permanent, combat-capable force. In July 1948, B-29 Superfortresses of the Strategic Air Command's 2nd Bombardment Group were deployed to RAF Lakenheath for a 90-day temporary deployment.

In November 1948, operational control of RAF Lakenheath was transferred from the Royal Air Force to USAFE. The first USAFE host unit at RAF Lakenheath was the 7504th Base Completion Squadron. The squadron was elevated to an air base group in January 1950 and later to an air base wing in September that same year.

By 1950, RAF Lakenheath was one of three main operating bases for SAC in the UK. Others were RAF Marham and RAF Sculthorpe. A succession of bombardment squadrons and wings, 33 in all, rotated through RAF Lakenheath, with the B-29s giving way to the B-50 Superfortresses and then B-47 Stratojets by 1954.

The 48th Tactical Fighter Wing left Chaumont Air Base, France on January 15, 1960, and landed its North American F-100D/Fs at RAF Lakenheath that afternoon. When the first F-100D touched down on RAF Lakenheath's runway, the landing symbolized a return for the Statue of Liberty Wing. Almost 16 years had passed since World War II and the 48th Fighter Group's arrival at RAF Ibsley, England, for the D-Day invasion.

By September 1979, the wing had flown the highest number of hours ever recorded in a fiscal year by an F-111 unit. This dedication culminated in the 48th's performance during a joint USAFE Operational Readiness Inspection and NATO Tactical Evaluation in March 1980. As a result, the Secretary of the Air Force selected the 48th TFW for its fourth Air Force Outstanding Unit Award.

Terrorist incidents in the 1980s, such as the bombing of US Marines in Beirut, the Trans World Airline high jacking and the ship Achille Lauro hijack, brought overwhelming public outcry for action. Two aircraft carriers of the US Navy's 6th Fleet and the F-111s of the 48th TFW were selected to conduct the strike.

On April 14, 1986, 24 F-111s departed RAF Lakenheath's runway. In flights of four, aircrews flew south through the Straits of Gibraltar and began their orchestrated attack shortly after midnight on April 15. They targeted the Azziziyah Barracks, the Sidi Balal terrorist training camp and Tripoli Airport. With the sky lit up from Tripoli's city lights, anti-aircraft tracers and surface to air missiles, determined 48th TFW crews unleashed 60 tons of munitions, damaging their targets. In spite of the mission's success, the wing experienced a great loss. As the strike force recovered back at RAF Lakenheath, both air and ground crews were given the somber news that Maj. Fernando Ribas, pilot, and Capt. Paul Lorence, weapon systems officer, were missing.

On September 8, 1986, US Navy Secretary John Lehman personally presented the Navy's Meritorious Unit Commendation to the 48th TFW for its participation in the operation. The 48th TFW is the only Air Force unit to have received this prestigious award.

In October 1991, the 48th TFW implemented the objective wing concept and was redesignated the 48th Fighter Wing. RAF Lakenheath received its first McDonnell Douglas F-15E Strike Eagle in 1992. On December 18, 1992 the last F-111 departed the base.

From Operations Provide Comfort and Deliberate Guard, to Operation Desert Storm and Allied Force, where aircraft of the 493rd Fighter Squadron scored four aerial victories over Serbian Mikoyan MiG-29s, the Airmen of the Liberty Wing have continued to meet today's modern airpower challenges. Just this past September, our F-15E Strike Eagles flew the first combat mission with the BDU-39/Small Diameter Bomb, operationally employing the Air Force's newest munition in its arsenal. The 48th FW continues to progress and excel with each challenge we overcome.

During today's Global War on Terror, the Liberty Wing remains the most respected, expeditionary focused fighter wing in the world. And, as always, we keep our charge, "Anywhere, anytime.....whatever needs done."

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