General Wilson served his nation for 42 years after enlisting as an aircraft mechanic in the Arkansas National Guard in 1929. After World War II, he helped found the Arkansas Air National Guard (ANG). In 1950, he was mobilized during the Korean War and assigned to the National Guard Bureau (NGB). There, he headed the ANG from July 1953 to August 1963 and then served as the first ANG Chief of the NGB from August 1963 to August 1971. Wilson transformed the ANG from a glorified, government sponsored flying club equipped with obsolete aircraft to a highly valued reserve component of the Air Force. He also converted it from a fighter organization to a force balanced between air mobility and combat flying units. By insisting on realistic training according to active force standards, modern equipment, and integration in the Air Force war plans, training and operations, Wilson revolutionized the way the Air Force managed its reserve components. His initiatives led directly to the Defense Department’s total force policy in the 1970s. Under Wilson’s leadership, the ANG began exchanging fighters for special operations airlifters in 1955 and aeromedical airlifters in 1956. By 1960, he had succeeded in obtaining C-97s slated for the “bone yard”. In 1961, he secured KC-97s, the ANG’s first tankers. In 1970, Wilson obtained the ANG’s first C-130s pioneering its involvement in tactical airlift. During his tenure, the ANG’s force structure went from zero air mobility assets to 104 strategic airlifters, 56 tactical airlifters, and 77 air refuelers when he retired in 1971. That year, the ANG flew 4,854 airlift missions for MAC carrying 18,366 tons of cargo and 98,028 passengers. Expanding a concept he had initiated with air defense in 1953, Wilson assured that ANG volunteers and personnel on annual training status flew “real world” airlift and tanker missions for the active force on a regular basis starting in the early 1960s. Previously, they had only trained until mobilized in a crisis. In October 1961, six ANG C-97 units were mobilized during the Berlin crisis. They flew some 800 airlift missions for MATS to 25 nations and numerous CONUS missions. ANG airlifters also flew as volunteers during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 and the Dominican Republic intervention in 1965. In August 1965, ANG volunteers began flying aeromedical and cargo missions in the CONUS and overseas for MATS. In 1966, ANG volunteers began flying regularly scheduled missions to Vietnam for MAC. They flew over 2,700 missions before the program ended in 1972. In the tanker arena, Wilson established the first major sustained overseas volunteer rotation in peacetime by the reserve components to support the active force. Operation Creek Party, which began in 1967, provided 6 to 8 KC-97Ls in Germany to refuel USAFE fighters. Creek Party lasted for ten years. Guardsmen flew 6,512 sorties, completing 47,207 refueling hookups while off-loading 137,398,620 pounds of fuel without an accident. Wilson’s leadership gave the Air Force a cost effective addition to its air mobility assets. Today, AMC utilizes those assets on a daily basis to support its global requirements.
From Jennies to Jets: Major General Winston P. Wilson And The Air National Guard by Charles J. Gross
Maj. General Winston P. (Wimpy) Wilson did more than any other individual to build the modern Air Guard. Under his leadership in the National Guard Bureau, the Air Guard changed from a collection of glorified government sponsored flying clubs after World War II to a highly valued reserve component of the U. S. Air Force. In the process, Wimpy Wilson proved that effective reserve forces could be built in peacetime, revising the dismal lessons of American history.
Wimpy was born in Arkadelphia, Arkansas, on 11 November 1911. He came from a family of high achievers. Wimpy’s father was a prosperous real estate investor. His sister established a private elementary school that became one of the most “toney” educational institutions in the state. His brother was a successful businessman. Like the rest of his family, Wimpy climbed to the top of his chosen field. He loved airplanes and admired men who flew them. As a youngster, Wilson hung around the 154th Observation Squadron of the Arkansas National Guard. Guard aviation in those days was strictly an auxiliary of the infantry, serving primarily as the “eyes” of that ancient “queen of the battle.” In 1929, 18 year old Private Wilson enlisted as an aircraft mechanic to keep the JN-4 “Jennies” flying. Promotions were slow in the interwar years. Wimpy was only a corporal when he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in July 1940. Lieutenant Wilson won his pilot’s rating by taking a few rides around the unit’s home field with his friend Earl Ricks. Later that year, Wilson and the remainder of the National Guard’s aviation personnel were called into federal service.
Federalized National Guard aviation units lost their distinctive state character and cohesion. Many of their experienced personnel were scattered throughout the Army Air Corps as individuals. During World War II, Wimpy served in a variety of assignments in the United States and the Pacific. He left active duty as a lieutenant colonel in July 1946. His wartime experiences was crucial; it convinced him that National Guard air units should never again be carved up as individual mobilization fillers if the Guard wanted to retain its unique identity as a state military organization.
Wimpy immediately rejoined his old prewar unit, the 154th Fighter Squadron of the new Arkansas Air National Guard, when he separated from the Army Air Forces (AAF) in 1946. The Air Guard was a product of wartime planning and politics for the post World War II military system. Against its better judgment, the AAF’s leadership had agreed to create a dual-component reserve system consisting of the state-controlled Air Guard and a strictly federal Air Force Reserve. In return AAF officers captured the support of Army Chief of Staff Gen. George C. Marshall and the politically powerful National Guard Association for their long-cherished goal of a separate United States Air Force.
Wimpy’s unit struggled to establish itself as a viable military organization during the immediate postwar years. Like other Air Guard flying outfits, it was blessed with an abundance of P-51 fighters, supplies, and veteran combat pilots. But those aircraft were rapidly becoming obsolescent. More significantly, the Air Guard lacked definite missions and meaningful training programs. The 154th Squadron was given something called a “penetration fighter” mission. But neither Wimpy nor anyone else in the unit knew what that meant. Consequently, they devised their own training program.
During this period, Wimpy instituted a significant change in training for the 154th. Borrowing an idea from the Texas National Guard, he changed the unit’s drill schedule from four Wednesday nights each month to two Wednesday nights and two full Sundays. This innovation was later applied to the entire Air Guard when Wimpy went to the National Guard Bureau. There he consolidated all the Air Guard’s regular unit training assemblies on one weekend each month. These changes vastly improved the efficiency of its training program and were widely adopted in the reserve programs of the U.S. armed forces.
The late 1940s were frustrating years for the entire Air Guard. Struggling to cope with rapid demobilization, meager budgets, and separation from the Army, the active-duty establishment sadly neglected its reserve programs. In reality, the Air Guard was little more than a collection of ragtag state air forces. During this period, Wimpy realized that the Air Guard would be short-lived unless it obtained real missions and the same tough training standards as the active force. He was convinced that the Air Guard had to demonstrate that it could help the Air Force meet its mission responsibilities at a fraction of the cost of maintaining active-duty units. It had to be prepared for combat the moment it was called into federal service. In the atomic era, the Air Guard could no longer enjoy the luxury of a long post-mobilization training period to bring it up to wartime standards. Wilson shared these reformist ideas with his old friend Earl T. Ricks, then a brigadier general and head of the Arkansas Air National Guard. When General Ricks was summoned to Washington as chief of the Air Division, National Guard Bureau, after the outbreak of the Korean War, Wilson accompanied him. Wimpy advised Ricks on all policy decisions and actually molded the Air Guard from behind the scenes. He remained in the Bureau for the next 21 years, although he had originally expected to be there only 21 months.
Korea dramatized the terrible conditions of America’s military reserve programs, including the Air Guard. Some 80 percent of all Air Guardsmen saw active duty during that “police action.” Wimpy watched with frustration while major air commands sliced up the Air Guard pie, distributing mobilized units throughout the Air Force with little regard for their aircraft types and previous training. Those units needed extensive retraining as well as additional equipment, supplies, and people. Many were given new aircraft, which further lengthened their post-mobilization training. Although Guard aviation units remained intact during the Korean War, many key Air Guardsmen were reassigned throughout the Air Force, weakening the cohesion and effectiveness of their original units. The active-duty establishment was clearly unimpressed with the poor initial mobilization performance of these “Sunday Soldiers.”
Reserve mobilizations during the Korean War caused an enormous political controversy. Beyond the immediate military problem of poorly prepared reserve units, many Americans saw the mobilization as unfair. Combat veterans of World War II who were not drawing drill pay were recalled to active duty while young men of draft age and members of some active reserve units stayed home. Congress was furious. DoD and the armed services were forced to revamp their reserve programs.
In this highly charged political atmosphere, senior Air Force leaders were receptive to Wilson’s reformist ideas. Abundant wartime resources also encouraged improvement of reserve programs. The Air Guard was given definite wartime missions that it could train for in peacetime according to the same rigorous standards as its Air Force counterparts. For the first time, The Air Guard was included in war plans. Air Guard officers, serving extended tours of active duty, were widely integrated into Air Force policy making and planning. The Air Guard also was promised modern jet aircraft, higher personnel authorizations, and more full-time technicians to run non-mobilized units.
During the Korean War, Wilson and Ricks began laying the groundwork for rebuilding the Air Guard once its units were demobilized. Nine permanent field training sites that Air Guard units could use for gunnery and bombing practice were established. Runways at civil airports and other installations used by Guard units were extended to accommodate jets.
Most significantly, Wimpy and other Air Guard leaders developed the idea of using non-mobilized Air Guard fighter units to augment the Air Defense Command’s (ADC’s) runway alert forces. This was designed to improve their training while contributing materially to the air defense of the United States, Initially, the Air Staff and ADC rejected the idea as impractical. However, Wilson and Ricks, together with Gen. Leon Johnson, commander of the Continental Air Command (CONAC), eventually convince ADC to try it. The program was launched on an experimental basis in 1953 with two Air Guard fighter squadrons. It was a resounding success. By the late 1950s, most of the Air Guard fighter units were participating in it, and it paved the way for the total force policy by proving that properly trained and equipped reserve units could effectively support the operational missions of the active-duty establishment in peacetime.
Wimpy Wilson became acting chief of the Air Force Division, National Guard Bureau, in July 1953 after Earl Ricks became ill with cancer. As he lay dying at Walter Reed Army Hospital, Ricks asked Gen. Nathan F. Twining, then Air Force Vice Chief of Staff, to make Wimpy his successor. General Twining agreed if the President approved. As there were no objections from the White House, Twining called Wimpy into his office and told him “I’ll give you a star if you will stay on.” Wimpy who was expecting to return to Arkansas, replied “… that’s the only way I could get to be a general officer in three weeks … ,” and agreed to stay in Washington D.C. In January, 1954, he was made Chief of the Bureau’s Air Force Division and promoted to brigadier general.
Wimpy’s straightforward and down-to-earth approach had won him much respect in Congress, the states, and the active-duty Air Force. He was a strong advocate of the Air Guard who saw his main job as selling the new concepts of training, organization, and peacetime utilization which he and Ricks had developed. This was an unending process, especially as the active duty establishment was continually circulating new leaders into key positions throughout the Air Force.
Wimpy had lots of friends on Capitol Hill. His ability to deal effectively with Congress was probably the most significant element of his success in building the Air Guard into an excellent reserve program. Without Congress, the Air Guard would have succumbed to periodic attempts to eliminate it or merge it with the Air Force Reserve. Furthermore, the Air Guard would not have received the resources that it needed to evolve into a viable program. Wilson believed that usually he had been able to obtain what the Air Guard needed from Congress because he had shown the legislators that it was a solid program which the nation needed.
Wimpy Wilson was extraordinarily successful as a salesman and manager. Under his leadership, the Air Guard began gradually to evolve toward a combat ready reserve by the late 1950s. It diversified its missions and continually modernized its aircraft inventory. Years of persistent effort by Wilson finally paid off in 1960 when the Secretary of the Air Force approved the gaining command concept of reserve forces management. This crucial reform was adopted despite the long-term opposition of major air commands. It meant the Air Force commanders, who would be assigned Air Guard and Air Force Reserve units in wartime or other contingencies, would be held responsible for their peacetime training. Previously, CONAC had exercised that function. Wimpy had been convinced since the early 1950s that the arrangement was ineffective. He had pushed to supplant it with the concept adopted in 1960.
Wimpy’s talents were especially valuable in modernizing and diversifying the Air Guard’s aircraft inventory. He closely watched Air Force plans to release aircraft from its active duty units. When legitimate missions could be found for such aircraft, he attempted to get them for the Air Guard. Sometimes, however, this process had to overcome the skepticism of the active duty establishment about the Air Guard’s ability to adapt to more demanding aircraft and missions. For example, in the early 1960s, Wimpy formally requested that the Air Guard be given C-97 transports that the Air Force had planned to place in storage in the “bone yard” at Davis-Monthan AFB, AZ. The Air Staff rejected the proposal. But Congressman Mendel Rivers, who was conducting an airlift study on Capitol Hill heard about it and directed the Air Force to keep the planes in its inventory. This gave Wimpy another chance. On the grounds that the Air Guard could never fly a multiple-engine aircraft that required more than one crew member, the Air Staff rebuffed him. However, the proposal got all the way to the Secretary of the Air Force, James H. Douglas, Jr. Wimpy convinced Douglas that Guardsmen could maintain and fly the aircraft. Subsequently, the Air Guard got the C-97s, its first multi-engine transports, inaugurating its long and successful experience with such aircraft. Today, Air Guard KC-135 Stratotankers support a host of strategic and tactical refueling requirements. Its C-130 Hercules aircraft perform a broad range of global transport missions.
Wimpy’s career progression was another measure of his success. He had been promoted to major general and named Deputy Chief of the National Guard Bureau in May 1955. In August 1963, President Kennedy appointed him to a four-year tour as Chief of the Army-oriented National Guard Bureau after being nominated by all but one of the state governors for that post. The President told Wimpy that “… you are the only guy I ever saw that had as many Democrats as Republicans in your support.” He was reappointed to another four-year term in 1967. Wilson was the first and only Air Guard officer to hold that key post on a permanent basis. Those appointments were a tribute to his political skill in advancing the interests of the entire National Guard with Congress and the active military establishment. When he retired on 30 August 1971, Wimpy was honored with an extraordinarily elaborate ceremony for a two-star general ending his active military career in the Pentagon. Some 2,000 invited guests flocked to Andrews AFB near Washington, D.C. to honor him. The VIPs were headed by Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird. Dozens of flag officers from all the services, members of Congress, and state officials were also present. Due to rain, the ceremonies were moved into a hangar. Afterwards, the Air Guard conducted a fly-over. Because anti-Vietnam sentiment was quite strong in the United States at the time, the military was closely monitored and DoD policy discouraged elaborate ceremonies. Under those circumstances, Wimpy’s big retirement bash, which had been ordered by Gen. John D. Ryan, Air Force Chief of Staff, was especially significant. Wimpy was a real “player” and the nations capital knew it.
Wimpy had argued throughout his long career in the Guard Bureau that Air Guard units could be as “combat ready and professional as the Regulars” if given proper equipment, held to the same rigorous standards as active duty units and integrated into the missions of the Air Force on a regular basis. He fought against ingrained skepticism of the active force to prove this. The performance of Air Guard fighter squadrons mobilized and sent to South Vietnam in 1968 had vindicated Wilson’s views. Those squadrons had been ready for immediate deployment when called to active duty following the “Pueblo” and Tet crises. Once in combat, they had retained their Air Guard identity and had performed superbly. Air Force commanders acknowledged that they had consistently equaled or surpassed their active force counterparts in the war zone.
Like Gen. Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, Wimpy Wilson never was a combat commander. Instead, he made his mark as a skilled manager, political infighter, and publicist. There are several crucial reasons for his success. Luck and historical circumstances were on his side. Although it needed a strong reserve program after World War II, the Air Force was either unwilling or unable to build one. The Korean War exposed that institutional neglect. Wimpy and other Air Guard leaders moved to fill the vacuum. He did so with solid ideas and effective programs that showed real vision. Where others dismissed Guardsmen as either bumbling “weekend warriors” or persecuted “citizen soldiers,” Wilson saw talented semi-pros who could retain the sharp edge of their military skills if properly trained and equipped. He was greatly respected in the Pentagon and upon Capitol Hill because of his expertise, political skills, honesty, and outgoing personality. However, Wilson would not hesitate to take on top military and civilian officials when problems did arise. He took an active role in defense policymaking whenever an issue was important to the Guard. Wimpy’s extremely long tenure in the National Guard Bureau was another key factor contributing to his success. Unlike other top officials in the American defense establishment, he actually had time to implement real reforms. Finally, Wimpy’s energy and leadership style were crucial. A former subordinate characterized him as a “… one-man-gang who really did his homework. He never really delegated authority and chains-of-commands were meaningless. He’s a quick thinker and a guy of action.”
Wimpy’s long career in National Guard aviation spanned the transition from Jennies to jets. He led the transformation of the Air Guard from a glorified flying club to a prized reserve component of the total force. In the process, he had done more than any other man to show how reserve organizations could become effective and vital elements of America’s armed forces.