Reflecting on Ellsworth’s past

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Hrair H. Palyan
  • 28th Bomb Wing Public Affairs
It was early 1943. Our country, as well as the rest of the world, was neck deep in turmoil and uncertainty. It was also the time when Chicago native Art Juhlin, like many other young Americans, raised his right hand and entered the U.S. Army Air Corps.

"I had originally joined the Air Force to become a pilot and serve my country during the war," said the retired captain of the 100th Bomb Group, where he served as a lead navigator on a B-17. "I was young and life was an adventure - since I never had a chance to travel before - going to South Carolina for pilot training sounded good."

The day that changed the course of his life came when Juhlin had nearly completed pilot training, and his instructor told him there was a shortage of navigators.

"It was my dream to fly, but my instructor thought I wasn't good enough," Juhlin said. "On my last flight, I remember taking my B-17 for a final spin and performing every maneuver I had learned. My co-pilot turned to me after the flight and said, 'How the hell are they kicking you out of pilot training?'"

Although Juhlin was put into the "washing machine" - the term used to describe pilots who were being recycled into other training programs - and he lost all hope of graduating as a pilot, Juhlin said the corps had different plans for him.

"I felt bad about leaving pilot school, but at the time, I knew the mission was more important than my feelings," said Juhlin. "Two months later they told me they wanted me to go navigation school in Louisiana. Two months after I finished at Louisiana, I was sent to Rapid City Army Air Base to further my training."

When summing up his time at RCAAB, Juhlin described it simply as, "wonderful."

"I had a lot of friends, and it seemed like I never had any trouble making new ones," said the 91-year-old who now lives in Chicago. "The Air Force was good about providing us with tasty food and a warm bed to sleep in no matter what."

He added that regretfully, he never had a chance to explore the Black Hills. Due to wartime restrictions, no one was allowed off of the base and a strict curfew was being enforced.

"When we weren't flying, we were training junior crews or enjoying ourselves," said Juhlin. "Every once in a while we would receive a bottle of whiskey from a family member back at home. But since we didn't have a freezer or icemaker to cool the drink, we would take it with us on a training mission and fly for 30 minutes at high altitude where the temperature outside was 20 degrees below zero. Eventually our drinks would get cold enough to drink when we got back on the ground."

When Juhlin finished his training at RCAAB, he was assigned to the 100th BG operating out of England, flying strategic daylight bombing missions over Europe.

The 100th BG had a reputation for taking on tough missions.

"At the time, many believed that if you were assigned to the 100th, you weren't going to make it home alive," Juhlin said, adding that he feared for his life during nearly all of his 30 combat missions.

"We were navigating with celestial navigation because the Germans were interfering with our radio signals - it seemed like our technology couldn't keep up with theirs," he said. "Every time we flew, they shot down 10 to 13 of our airplanes. A lot of my friends made the ultimate sacrifice serving their county."

Over the next 70 years, RCAAB grew and evolved into what it is today. In 1947, the U.S. Air Force was established and RCAAB was renamed Rapid City Air Force Base. The lead unit at RCAFB was the new 28th Bombardment Wing. RCAFB was later renamed Ellsworth Air Force Base in honor of then-wing commander Brig. Gen. Richard Ellsworth, who died in an RB-36 crash in 1953.

From its early role as a training base for World War II B-17 combat crews, Ellsworth has evolved into a significant player in our Nation's defense. Through 40 years of cold war strategic nuclear deterrent, and now in its conventional role, Ellsworth has provided top cover both for the American people at home and Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines in harm's way. While the landscape and mission have changed, one thing remains constant: the resolve of those defending our nation.

"It's good to look back and see how much we've accomplished these past 70 years," said Juhlin. "I know how important the mission was 70 years ago, and today servicemembers still serve a great purpose."