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The Times October 06, 2004

Barksdale bomber crews soak up Pacific sun

Flying huge airplanes over unforgiving ocean reaches is difficult.

By John Andrew Prime

For some folks, being stranded on a South Pacific island might be a dream.

For about 300 of Shreveport-Bossier City's neighbors from Barksdale Air Force Base, it's their job, through the end of the Christmas-New Year holidays.

"We've been here one month today," Col. Roderick Gillis, commander of the Barksdale group, said recently during a quick phone call that at 16 hours' time difference is about as long-distance as you can get from northwest Louisiana. "Guam is a tropical island, very pretty, with blue ocean everywhere. But it's very humid, even by Louisiana standards. The air is very heavy out here."

Like a lot of bomber people over the last two decades, until deployments after the war on terror started, Gillis had only brief encounters with this U.S. territory, in 1991 and 1992 during the Persian Gulf War.

Before that, the greatest numbers of U.S. military personnel were in 1972 and 1973 at the close of the Vietnam War, when hundreds of B-52 bombers packed the ramps at Andersen Air Force Base. It was the major staging area for nonstop attacks that finally brought the North Vietnamese back to the negotiating table for talks that ultimately led to the release of U.S. prisoners of war, the withdrawal of major U.S. military forces and the establishment of an uneasy status quo that lasted until 1975, when the North Vietnamese blitzkrieged into South Vietnam.

Now fewer than a dozen B-52H bombers roost at Andersen, now served by around 280 members of the 2nd Bomb Wing's 20th Bomb Squadron, 20th Aircraft Maintenance Unit and 2nd Munitions Squadron on a 120-day rotation. Come January, airplanes and crews from Barksdale's Air Force Reserve bomber unit, the 917th Wing's 93rd Bomb Squadron, will take the baton and run.

"Locating B-52 bombers at Andersen Air Force Base offers the (Pacific Command) commander a short-notice global strike capability and strategic engagement capacity that otherwise would not exist in the region," said 2nd Lt. Jim Ivie, 2nd Bomb Wing spokesman. And, he added, "Andersen is ideal as a main operating base for sustaining and projecting air power in support of America's defense strategy -- it is strategically located, has an impressive fuel and munitions storage capability, exceptional airmen and civilian employees, and strong community support."

With the complex flyover permissions, refueling requirements and political considerations planners have to consider in the modern world, having Andersen available provides a flexibility to not only planners but also to the crews and planes that may have to jump into action at a moment's notice.

"Approximately nine months ago the U.S. Pacific Command went to the Air Force and the Joint Staff and said we needed the presence of bombers out here," said Gillis, who at Barksdale is commander of the 2nd Operations Group; at Andersen, he heads what's called the 36th Expeditionary Operations Group. "We needed to 'show the flag,' and that's just what we're doing."

That has meant doing a lot of regional air shows and flybys, as well as a lot of training the crews don't normally get stateside.

"We hit the ground running," said Gillis, who was commissioned into the service in 1980 from ROTC at Troy State University in Alabama, and who was earlier stationed at Barksdale in the late 1990s. "We started flying two days into here, and haven't stopped much."

The remote location has its advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side, crews get to fly shorter missions with more actual weapon-firing and tactical moments, and they are using live weapons, "one of the great advantages to being out here," he said. On the debit side, the humid, Pacific location means weather can change quickly, and for a crew flying a sortie over the ocean, unlike in the continental United States where there are many military bases and even civilian runways where a B-52 can land in an emergency, out in the Western Pacific there's nowhere to go but back to Guam.

"There's no other place to go," he said. "Here, we do weather recalls much more than we ever do at Barksdale."

There isn't a lot of free time, but when they can knock back, Barksdale folks are enjoying the local sights, he said.

"Quite a few people are going out and getting SCUBA certified," Gillis said. "There's great diving, beautiful beaches and colorful reefs. The people are snorkeling and looking at the coral."

More on Guam

CIA World Factbook entry on Guam: www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook/geos/gq.html.

GlobalSecurity.org on Andersen Air Force Base: www.global security.org/military/facility/andersen.htm.

B-52 rotations through Guam: www.global security.org/military/library/news/2004/09/mil-040917-afpn01.htm.

Stars and Stripes on this latest Guam rotation: http://www.estripes.com/article.asp?section=104&article=23527&archive=true.


Copyright 2004, The Times (Shreveport, LA)