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196th ‘Shooting Star’ Shines in New Norton AFB Showcase

The 196th Attack Squadron boasts a storied history, but Chapter One was missing in action: How it was stood up as the 196th Fighter Squadron from 1946 to 1950 at San Bernardino Army Air Field—later Norton Air Force Base—only to produce legendary flyers, officers, and leaders above and beyond the California Air National Guard.

A three-year project to recollect the nearly forgotten years of the squadron and curate a permanent display for the Norton Air Force Base Museum was spearheaded by two of the squadron’s original members, 96-year-old Glenn A. “Woody” Woodfin and 89-year-old Ernest Garcia, Ph.D., as well as Lt. Col. (Ret.) Norman K. Edwards, who served from 1959-1979 during the unit’s years of flying out of Ontario Air National Guard Base.

Museum president Robert Edwards accepted the exhibition as part of the permanent collection and honored past members in a ceremony, June 21. Speakers included Brig. Gen. (Ret.) Blake LaMar, the unit’s last commander at Ontario, who followed it to March Air Reserve Base as the first commander of the 163d Tactical Fighter Group; Brig. Gen. (Ret.) Randall Ball, past commander of the (then) 163d Reconnaissance Wing; and Col. Sean Navin, commander of the 163d Attack Wing, March Air Reserve Base, the current home of the 196th Attack Squadron.

            Navin had six current 196th Airmen in tow to witness the installation and attest to the ongoing mission of the squadron, all sporting the unit’s “Shooting Star” patch on their flight suits, a tribute to the unit’s distinction as the first Air National Guard squadron to fly F-80C Shooting Star jets. Years in advance, the patch design showing the shooting star in space above Earth anticipated one of the unit’s most famous alumni, Vance D. Brand, who made the 196th the last stop of his career as a fighter pilot before becoming a NASA astronaut, commanding three space shuttle missions, among many other aeronautic and aerospace feats.

“When Lt. Col. Edwards and Gen. Ball came into the office and asked about presenting the display to the museum, and they started showing the memorabilia of the 196th, I realized an important part of the history was missing,” Navin recalls. “It was an easy decision.”

            Navin praised the current 196th Attack Squadron as “an integral part of the Wing” tasked with flying the MQ-9 Reaper alongside the Wing’s 160th Attack Squadron. “Half of what the Reaper does, in theatres all over the world, is under the 196th—again, keeping our nation safe.”

For his part, Ball started his 40-year career as an enlisted Airman with the 196th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron in 1972, when its pilots flew the F-102 Delta Dagger: “No tech school. Did On-the-Job Training. Launched the alert fighters with the red phone,” he recalls. “I was totally captivated by the mission. I wanted to fly the F-102 so badly that I stayed in school and kept working on it.”

By 1997, Ball had risen to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and fulfilled his dream of commanding the squadron, then in the KC-135 Stratotanker era. “To be a squadron commander was always the pinnacle of a flyer’s career,” Ball says, “because you were now the leader of the flyers, the steely eyed warriors in the airplanes. That’s what everyone aspired to.”

Even having punched out as the Assistant Adjutant General of the California Air National Guard, Ball insists that his stint as the 196th commander is the highlight of his career. “Some of my heroes were 196th Squadron commanders,” Ball told listeners at the event. “I found it hard to believe that I even had that opportunity. It was rewarding.” He characterized the museum display as “long overdue to recognize the DNA of the unit.”

Lt. Col. Edwards said the project’s completion and installation lifted “a big load” off his mind, as the history of the squadron’s early years had been fading with the passing of its original Airmen. “There was a book about the unit from 1950, The First Hitch; in 1973, there was a second book, but the further away from the books, the less the history,” says Edwards, who flew F-86D/L Sabres, T-33 Shooting Star T-Birds, in which he instructed 196th pilots, as well as F-102s, U-3 Blue Canoes, C-47 Skytrains. 

“I don’t know why there were no records on the base,” Edwards relates with the prototypical fighter pilot’s drawl. “It was a mystery to me. Twenty-five planes, all the pilots that had to be associated with them—it mystifies me why this little piece of history was missed at Norton. I’m passionate about it.”

“This fills the void quite nicely,” said Bob Edwards. “This is a museum where people bring us their memorabilia. We tell everyone that those of us who have spent our lives in the service have it under the bed, or it’s in the closet, or in the rafters, and you can’t take it with you on your next assignment, so what are you going to do with it?”

Ernest Garcia, a Sergeant in the 196th’s original class, remembered the unit fondly, as well as military duties now the stuff of old movies.  “All heck broke loose in the service when everything was outsourced,” Garcia says. “You really built up your love of the game in KP [kitchen patrol] and pulling guard duty out in the boonies.”