376th Air Expeditionary Wing
During a 03 June 2014 ceremony, the 376th Air Expeditionary Wing formally inactivated as part of the overall closure of the Transit Center at Manas Air Base, Kyrgyzstan, after more than 12 years of operations. The facility had served as the premier transportation and logistics hub in support of operations in Afghanistan, with the 376th AEW tasked with four critical missions: air refueling, onward movement, airlift and humanitarian assistance.
During that time the 376th AEW flew 33,000 air refueling missions, offloading more than 1.8 million pounds of fuel to 136,000 coalition aircraft, while the transit center supported more than 5.3 million coalition personnel either traveling to or departing from Afghanistan. In addition, 98% of all ISAF and coalition forces going into and out of Afghanistan traveled through Manas AB. Manas Air Base's transit center supported 42,000 cargo missions, transporting 1.4 billion pounds of cargo.
The 376th Air Expeditionary Wing supports US operations out of Manas Air Base in Kyrgystan. Prior to 2009, Manas Air Base served as the premier air mobility hub for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and other coalition military forces operating in Afghanistan. The around-the-clock missions included aerial refueling, combat airlift and airdrop, aeromedical evacuation and strategic airlift operations, as well as support for Coalition personnel and cargo transiting in and out of Afghanistan. Domestic political pressures in Kyrgystan, beginning in 2009, and the ousting of Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev in 2010, led to a significant reduction in traffic through the facility, though operations continue.
The 376th Air Expeditionary Wing's roots date from the activation of the 376th Bombardment Group (Heavy) during World War II. The 376th took the name "Liberandos" from the B-24 Liberator bombers it flew during this conflict. The 376th Bombardment Group earned its place in history leading the air raids against Nazi Germany's oil fields in Ploesti, Romania in 1942. Prior to the formal activation of the Group, its air crews and B-24s flew the first American bombing mission over Europe in World War II and first mission against Ploesti, code named the Halverson Project, on 11 June 1942.
The Group's air raid against Ploesti on 1 August 1943, holds the distinction of being the most heavily decorated military action in American history. Five Airmen received the Medal of Honor and another 6 the Distinguished Service Cross. Led by the 376th Bombardment Group commander, Colonel Keith Compton, 178 B-24s and 1,700 Airmen from the Eighth and Ninth Air Forces, which included the Group, took off in the early morning hours of 1 August 1943 to strike Ploesti's oil refineries. Battling through German Luftwaffe fighters, 163 B-24s reached a target surrounded by 230 anti-aircraft artillery pieces and balloons designed to interfere with attacking aircraft. Flying at tree-top level at nearly 500 miles per hour, the low flying B-24s were battered as they battled into and back out of the target area. Although the refineries were left engulfed in smoke and flames, 74 B-24s were lost to enemy fire and of the 89 that made it home, only one sixth of those planes ever flew again. Hundreds of Airmen were killed or captured.
The 376th Bombardment Group continued its service throughout the war, confirming its reputation as one of the finest bomber groups in the American arsenal. From the North African campaign against Rommel's tanks to the campaigns on the European continent, the 376th Bombardment Group earned 3 Distinguished Unit Citations and 15 campaign ribbons. These honors were passed on when the group became a wing in 1951.
The US Air Force activated the 376th Bombardment Wing (Medium) on 1 June 1951. It was first assigned to the 4th Air Division and stationed at Forbes Field, Kansas, before moving to Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana in October 1951. During this period, the wing did not have operational groups assigned to it, but instead had several squadrons to fly the wing's B-29 Superfortress aircraft.
From 1954 through 1965, the wing and its groups operated the B-47 and EB-47, along with the KC-97 tanker aircraft. The wing trained in strategic bombardment and at times conducted electronic countermeasures operations, which occasionally overshadowed the bomber mission. Electronic countermeasures activity became the primary mission in 1953, including training for post-attack command and control in the EB-47 aircraft from December 1962 to February 1965. The wing added aerial refueling to its mission from September 1953 to September 1964 and upgraded from the KC-97 to the KC-135 during that time. The wing was inactivated on 15 March 1965.
The wing was reactivated at Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, and designated as the 376th Strategic Wing on 23 January 1970. The wing's B-52 and KC-135 aircraft immediately began participating in Arc Light bombing missions over South and North Vietnam, which continued until September 1970. In 1970, the wing was re-equipped with RC-135 aircraft and focused on electronic reconnaissance and air refueling in the western Pacific. The 376th Strategic Wing subsequently went on to provide aerial refueling to Coalition aircraft during Operation Desert Storm before being inactivated once again on 1 October 1991.
Following the 11 September 2001 attacks, the unit was reactivated and designated as the 376th Air Expeditionary Wing. It stood up operations at Manas International Airport (also known as Manas Air Base and for a period as Ganci Air Base in honor of Peter Ganci, the New York City Fire Department chief who had died during the attack on the World Trade Center) in Kyrgystan on 21 December 2001. There the Wing immediately began operating in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.
The Air Force's 376th Air Expeditionary Wing was tasked with operating the facilities at Manas, which also housed troops from South Korea, the Netherlands, Denmark, Australia, Norway and Spain. Personnel from the 376th Air Expeditionary Wing Services Squadron lodging section were providing a home away from home for their customers at the deployed site in Kyrgyzstan. They provided comfortable lodging for more than 1,300 coalition people supporting Operation Enduring Freedom near Manas International Airport in Kyrgyzstan.
Beginning on 16 December 2001, the 376th Air Expeditionary Wing worked to improve and expand facilities at Bishkek's airport, Manas, to support the influx of US and coalition forces. The Wing built 2 munitions storage areas to sustain fighter operations, an aircraft- and diesel-fuel storage area, and a 40,000 square meter (420,000 square feet) aircraft maintenance area. Four months after US Air Force and coalition forces constructed an air base in the middle of Kyrgyzstan, the first American fighter aircraft to be assigned arrived. In APril 2002, 6 Marine F/A-18D Hornet fighter aircraft and their crews arrived to attack and destroy targets remaining in Afghanistan and support ground forces as part of Operation Enduring Freedom. Before the arrival of the F/A-18s, US Air Force and coalition forces had to turn more than 200 acres of bare land into a compound of nearly 220 tents and an airfield able to accommodate air operations. Once the base was established, the 376th Air Expeditionary Wing and US Marines faced the challenge of getting US military aircraft and more than 160 Marines into a former Soviet Union country.
Manas also became a home to coalition detachments. The 376th Air Expeditionary Wing coordinated with these elements. A detachment of 6 French Air Force Mirage 2000D fighters returned to France on 4 October 2002 after participating with French carrier-based aircraft in support of the US-led Operation Enduring Freedom. French fighters conducted more than 10 percent of initial sorties over Afghanistan. The 6 Mirage 2000Ds had been stationed at Ganci Air Base, Manas, Kyrgyzstan, along with 2 C-135FR tanker aircraft.
On 1 October 2002, a tri-national detachment of 18 Danish, Dutch, and Norwegian F-16AM fighters and one Dutch KDC-10 tanker, had taken the place of the French Mirages and tankers. The Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF) led the 440-strong unit known as the European Participating Air Forces (EPAF) detachment. It was tasked to provide day and night air support to US and coalition forces inside Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom. Furthermore, it could be called on to provide air support to forces assigned to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in and around Kabul. The unit was integrated within the 376th Air Expeditionary Wing of the US Air Force. The EPAF's F-16 presence over Afghanistan was initially for 6 months, to end on 1 April 2003.
As of 2008, 1,000 personnel from Spain, France, and the United States were assigned to the 376th Air Expeditionary Wing, along with 650 US and host-nation contractor personnel that provided daily support to various base missions. Aircraft assigned included US KC-135s, French C-135FRs, and Spanish C-130s. Between 2001 and 2008, coalition personnel and aircraft from at least 10 countries had operated out of Manas Air Base to support operations in Afghanistan, including Australia, Denmark, France, Italy, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway and South Korea.
In February 2009, the Kyrgyz government announced its intention to terminate the US lease at Manas and require US forces to vacate the facility. In June 2009, a last minute deal was brokered to allow US forces to remain at the facility. In April 2010, Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev was ousted from power by popular demonstrations. The US military continued to operate from Manas and the interim government that replaced the regiment of former President Bakiyev stated their intention to continue to allow the US to use the facility. In October 2011, president-elect Almazbek Atambayev said that he had informed the US of his intention not to renew the US lease of Manas Air Base after it expired in mid-2014, though he would honor the existing agreement. The political pressures and upheaval meant that the US began to reduce its operation at Manas and explore other locations in the region to conduct operations from.
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