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117th Air Refueling Wing Remembers Fallen Airmen

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Ken Johnson
  • 117th Air Refueling Wing
A historic event honoring the heritage of the Alabama Air National Guard Bay of Pigs involvement began here in early March.

Artists from the University of Alabama-Birmingham spent 72 hours at the Sumpter Smith Air National Guard Base painting nose art on a KC-135R Stratotanker commemorating the wing's participation in the 1961 Bay of Pigs operation.

The Bay of Pigs operation was a Central Intelligence Agency mission intended to use Cuban exiles to invade the island of Cuba and start a revolution against Fidel Castro. Conducted in secrecy, it was carried out in part by Airmen from the 117th Reconnaissance Wing, which later became the 117th Air Refueling Wing. Four were killed in action. Due to the secret nature of the mission, no one in the Alabama Air National Guard was allowed to discuss the mission or what had happened to the Airmen for over two decades. It was another twenty years before the CIA publically acknowledged the failed invasion and the loss of the Alabama Airmen.

The 117th Air Refueling Wing holds an annual ceremony at the anniversary of the Bay of Pigs operation to remember their heroic predecessors. Tech. Sgt. Aaron Sharit, a crew chief with the 117th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, designed the graphic to be used as nose art on one of the KC-135 aircraft to honor Riley Shamburger, Wade Gray, Pete Ray, and Leo Baker, who lost their lives in the operation.

"I designed the Bay of Pigs nose art for the heritage of this base and our wing. I wanted to do something that we haven't done before. Putting nose art back on these jets signals that we haven't forgotten these guys," said Sharit.

Sharit presented his idea to the 117th Maintenance Group Commander Col. Robert "Scott" Grant who immediately took the idea to the 117th Air Refueling Wing Commander Col. Cliff James.

"I thought it was a great idea to honor those from the 117th who served during the Bay of Pigs," said James. "Now that more details have been released about the participation from our wing, it was time to honor those who served and sacrificed in the operation."

Nose art is traditionally hand painted on military planes. Master Sgt. Harry Mullins, from 117th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, contacted the art department at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, who agreed to participate in the project. "The art department has graciously stepped forward and taken a couple of days out of their time to come over here and help us do this project," said Grant.

In keeping with military tradition, both Sharit and Senior Airman Brent Denis, crew chiefs responsible for the general maintenance and management of the aircraft, were able to add a few brush strokes of their own. For crew chiefs, this upholds a longstanding tradition of making a personal connection with the aircraft they keep in the air day after day.

The project took a total of three days and numerous local artists to complete. A dedication ceremony is planned for the fifty-third anniversary of the Bay of Pigs mission that took the lives of Shamburger, Gray, Ray and Baker.