The Delaware Air National Guard Celebrates 75 Years of Flying High

A Delaware Air National Guard T-6 Texan two-seat trainer—one of the first aircraft the unit received in 1947—flies over Delaware./Photos courtesy of the Delaware Military Museum

This year, the Delaware Air National Guard is flying high as it takes a look back at its longstanding history in the First State.

When retired Brig. Gen. Kennard R. Wiggins Jr. talks about the evolution of the Delaware Air National Guard, now celebrating its golden anniversary, he lifts his chest with pride.

The 74-year-old Wiggins well recalls his personal journey with DE ANG when he enlisted in 1966 as an engine mechanic working on C-97 Stratofreighter airplanes.

This came quite naturally for Wiggins, a fourth-generation member. The family’s legacy started with his great-grandfather and continued with his grandfather. His father and uncles were charter members, dating back to the 1940s. “I feel like I was born into the Guard because I enlisted when I was 19,” explains Wiggins, now a grandfather himself.

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One memory involves a former chaplain from the unit who retired to the Azores Islands, a place where the unit frequently flew to refuel and rest the crew on their way to Europe. “They would bring him Tastykakes and submarine sandwiches that he missed from home,” Wiggins remembers.

“This chaplain worked with a local orphanage on Terceira Island, where Lajes air base is located, and requested clothes and toys for Christmas on one of our overseas missions. I got together with the local service fraternities and sororities at the University of Delaware to get a truckload of donations to take to the orphanage,” he says.

“We filled up the C-97 cargo plane and I was allowed to fly on the mission and deliver the donations. We had enough not just for the orphanage but for the entire village,” Wiggins continues. “I love airplanes, I love to travel, it was for a good cause, and it took teamwork. This summarized all of the things that I like about my Air Guard career.”

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Life Lessons

The valuable life lessons Wiggins learned center on leadership and self-discipline.

Delaware aircrewmen confer on the flight line before a Delaware Air National Guard C-130A, in the 1970s.

“A lot of people think that the military is about people barking orders and being told what to do, but I feel this is about a bunch of people with a goal trying to get things done,” Wiggins says. “If you want to advance, the Air Force tells you what it expects of you, and all of that takes discipline. I did my duty, fulfilled my commitment and modestly advanced in rank. I was well-behaved and gave no thought whatsoever to giving up.”

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Wiggins, who went on to a career in advertising, says he never felt that his day job was as rewarding as his time in the Air Guard. His tenure included stints at the unit public affairs office and the National Guard Bureau in Washington, D.C., where he worked in recruiting, personnel and planning at the Pentagon and at Andrews Air Force Base.

Preserving History

As the unofficial historian of the Air Guard, Wiggins says he felt compelled to help plan DE ANG’s 75th golden anniversary celebration earlier this fall at the headquarters in New Castle.

Because part of the unit was deployed at the time, the events were planned for about 900 Guardsmen and women, as well as a few hundred retirees, family members and dignitaries. The memorable day was filled with antique airplanes, a historical exhibit, old uniforms and artifacts, and a DE ANG community barbecue.

Although Wiggins has been retired for 15 years, he retains close contact with both current and other former members of the Guard. He’s written seven local military history books and a 32-page commemorative booklet filled with artwork, and also curates materials for the museum for future generations.

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The celebration commemorates May 12, 1971, when DE ANG received the first of the C-130A Hercules aircraft. The Hercules was twice as powerful and far more capable than the previous transport aircraft and had an outstanding reputation as a workhorse airlifter during the Vietnam War.

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The C-130A could climb faster and higher with a bigger payload and could transport anything that could fit into its fuselage, including trucks, buses, armored vehicles, passengers, cargo, helicopters and other aircraft. A few had seen service in the South Vietnamese Air Force; a little beat up, they were nevertheless a huge advance from the other aircraft.

World War II veteran Lt. Col. Wallace A. Cameron, the first commanding officer of the Delaware Air National Guard, circa 1947

Having flown hundreds of transport missions to Europe and Central and South America in those aircraft, Wiggins says the Air Guard’s livery “became known around the world as we fulfilled the tactical airlift mission.”

By the 1980s, the complaint was that “our weary old birds were older than many of the pilots who flew them,” at 20 to 25 years old, so in 1985 the unit received the first of the “H” model C-130s that are still flown. “They were fresh from the Lockheed factory, and I was privileged to go there with our crews and bring our new airplanes home to New Castle,” he says.

The impassioned historian explains that these are the airplanes that they went to war in Desert Shield/Desert Storm, and that the Air Guard flew hurricane, flood and disaster relief missions, as well as overseas humanitarian flights.

“The C-130H’s from Delaware were vital in the Balkans, Afghanistan, Iraq and anywhere else the Air Force needed a reliable airlift team. That training and those skills were also applied right here at home during emergencies.”

An Air of Support

Wiggins says he appreciates support from fellow retirees, including Tom Lauppe and Ed Blackburn, who understand how the Air Guard has transformed the lives of so many military men and women, civilians and families in the last three-quarters of a century.

Former Delaware Assistant Adjutant General for Air Lauppe, who retired in June 2001, says the importance of history and this anniversary stems from the great numbers of people in the local communities who are involved in the Air Guard.

Linda Van Vechten, the first enlisted member of the Delaware Air Guard. She joined the unit in 1973 as an aeromedical evacuation technician

“We are all busy with our jobs and families, and it is quite an undertaking to be available and trained to be called up for military duty, for battle, a hurricane or disaster. It’s not only about the person sworn to duty but their family members and friends.”

For Lauppe, 75, camaraderie is certainly a key to understanding the Air Guard. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant in January 1968, was active in the United States Air Force from 1968 to 1973, joined the Air Guard in 1974 and retired in June 2001.

“There is a strong sense of pride in our mission. There is a lot of pride in knowing that your specific contribution—and that of every member—makes a difference to safely carrying out the mission and to do it again and again,” he says. “My work satisfaction was the highest, and I felt it was the most rewarding work when I was in the Guard.”

Their friend Ed Blackburn, now 86, is a former crew chief and amateur historian who joined the Air Guard in September 1953 as a new graduate of William Penn High School. He was 17.

“To people who are not as familiar with the Guard, they need to understand that it supports the community, even more today than it did when I was in,” Blackburn explains. “Today, there is a Civil Defense Unit, the Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron and evacuation flights—I am sure that they were involved in dispensing COVID-19 vaccines.”

He wholeheartedly supports Wiggins’ devotion to this history. “When I started, there were 400 people. Now, there are more than 1,000 involved in a bunch of different squadrons,” he says. “I think it is very important to keep the history of the unit, the various aircraft and the traditions alive.”

The C-130H Hercules in flight. The Hercules has been a workhorse fixture for decades as a tactical airlift able to land and take off from unimproved fields able to support troops on the ground.

Wiggins sometimes fears DE ANG’s rich history could get lost. He urges Delaware communities, whether they have a military background or not, to maintain support “so we can continue to fly for our country and our state. I hope everyone will stand with us to help ensure a bright future for this important institution,” he says.

“We have a museum and an archive, and I am confident that one day in the future someone will dig through these materials and step forward to continue this legacy. … It is important to me to be able to say that I contributed. Everything will change, but the mission will still be there, and when the Air Force looks at its units, we will need community support for a new airplane and new missions for the next 75 years.”

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