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454th Bombardment Wing veterans reunite during Columbus AFB airshow

The 454th Bombardment Wing reunion group gather around a B-52 Stratofortress static display April 21, 2018, on Columbus Air Force Base, Mississippi, during the 2018 Wings Over Columbus Open House and Air and Space Show. The group had veterans who worked on, with, or around the B-52 in different capacities for the 454th BW, and told each other stories of their experiences almost 50 years ago. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Keith Holcomb)

The 454th Bombardment Wing reunion group gather around a B-52 Stratofortress static display April 21, 2018, on Columbus Air Force Base, Mississippi, during the 2018 Wings Over Columbus Open House and Air and Space Show. The group had veterans who worked on, with, or around the B-52 in different capacities for the 454th BW, and told each other stories of their experiences almost 50 years ago. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Keith Holcomb)

The 454th Bombardment Wing reunion group and 14th Flying Training Wing pilots, who previously have flown the B-52 Stratofortress, stand next to a B-52 static display April 21, 2018, on Columbus Air Force Base, Mississippi, during the 2018 Wings Over Columbus Open House and Air and Space Show. The 454th conducted air refueling operations and trained in bombardment operations, so a B-52 taking flight was a normal sight for many of the veterans during their time at Columbus AFB Vietnam War. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Keith Holcomb)

The 454th Bombardment Wing reunion group stand next to a B-52 Stratofortress static display April 21, 2018, on Columbus Air Force Base, Mississippi, during the 2018 Wings Over Columbus Open House and Air and Space Show. The 454th conducted air refueling operations and trained in bombardment operations, so a B-52 taking flight was a normal sight for many of the veterans during their time at Columbus AFB Vietnam War. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Keith Holcomb)

The 454th Bombardment Wing reunion group gather around a B-52 Stratofortress static display during a missing man formation in honor of Maj. Stephen Del Bagno, U.S. Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron Slot Pilot Thunderbird 4, April 21, 2018, on Columbus Air Force Base, Mississippi, at the 2018 Wings Over Columbus Open House and Air and Space Show. (U.S Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Keith Holcomb)

The 454th Bombardment Wing reunion group gather around a B-52 Stratofortress static display during a missing man formation in honor of Maj. Stephen Del Bagno, U.S. Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron Slot Pilot Thunderbird 4, April 21, 2018, on Columbus Air Force Base, Mississippi, at the 2018 Wings Over Columbus Open House and Air and Space Show. (U.S Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Keith Holcomb)

COLUMBUS AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. -- Members from the now inactive 454th Bombardment Wing met together at Columbus Air Force Base, Mississippi, April 21, 2018, during the 2018 Wings Over Columbus Open House and Air and Space Show.

Columbus AFB transferred to a Strategic Air Command base in 1955, hosting 15 KC-135 Stratotanker and 15 B-52 Stratofortress aircraft. The 454th became inactive in May 1969 and returned to its pilot training mission under the Air Training Command.

The 454th conducted air refueling operations and trained in bombardment operations, so a B-52 taking flight was a normal sight for many of the veterans during their time at Columbus AFB.

“I volunteered to help [the 454th BW veterans reunite] because I’m a B-52 pilot myself and this had been a bomb wing before, so there’s a lot of heritage there that interests me,” said Capt. Thomas Hyde, 50th Flying Training Squadron instructor pilot and reunion project officer. “When you fly an airframe that’s as historic as a B-52 and look back at the things it has done and you get the chance to meet and honor the people who had been there creating that history, it’s a great experience.”

Hyde had four days planned for the veterans to eat dinner and meet with individuals they had worked with at the 454th BW in addition to base personnel.

“More than half the group I’d never met until we got there,” said Larry Mateka, former Airman with the 454th BW. “After we were there half the first day, it seemed like we had known each other our whole lives. That’s just what happens when you’re in the service together, especially from the ‘Vietnam Era’. Coming home was not fun and when we returned home, we’d be ostracized. So the only friends we really had were our comrades in arms. For those reasons, we bonded almost instantly.”

During their time in the service, they were looked down upon and Hyde mentioned how eye-opening their homecoming stories were.

“They talked a lot about what it was like and how it was being young Airmen in the ‘Vietnam Era’,” Hyde said. “This was a good opportunity to honor them the way they should have been honored in the first place.”

Through their stories, there were years of experiences the men shared with each other to catch up. They created their own paths after the military, but these paths were driven by their experiences from the time they served in the 454th BW.

“It was humbling to see where people had taken their lives, to hear how they either retired with the military and decided to drive a truck for another 20 years,” Hyde recalled, “or others who were motivated because they weren’t making a ton of money in the military so after four years they used that drive to create a business from the ground up. It was neat to see how they all talked about those experiences positively and how the Air Force had impacted them in all these different ways.”

Not only did the veterans spend time talking about the time they had spent away from each other, but they recalled stories from the bombardment wing, things they said stuck with them for the past 50 years.

“They had amazing stories for instance; some of them and their maintenance crew had set an engine change-time record for the B-52 at the time,” Hyde said. “It’s things like that they really spoke about with enthusiasm and nostalgia.”

Mateka and almost everyone in the group had spent time overseas and spoke about how memories flooded back from seeing the static B-52 display and hearing the B-52 flyover one more time.

“There’s nothing like the sorties that went off in Guam,” Mateka said. “You’d see the B-52’s carry, something like over a 100 bombs that we’d loaded, to watch that thing take off can only be described as raw power. Seeing them come back we’d just have them come down turn around and reload bombs on it again. … To this day a B-52 flying over has a distinct sound to it, that distinct whistle of those engines no other plane has. It almost immediately brought us back to where we were 50 years ago.”

The group met with much smaller numbers here four years ago at Wings Over Columbus 2014 Open House and Airshow and decided to gather more people from their units, but through advertising their reunion, they found many individuals from other units and squadrons wanted to meet for the 2018 airshow.

Saturday night after the airshow, reunion group treated Hyde and his family to dinner, thanking him and the 14th FTW for the hospitality and opportunity to come back to the place they had once called home.

“As a group, we all appreciate the welcome we got from the military side of our reunion. The way we were made comfortable and feel welcomed back,” Mateka said. “The tour on Friday was very good, not too many people get to see the maintenance shed or sit in the flight simulators. It was unique and very much appreciated. We can’t thank the base personnel enough.”