First Guardsman to enlist in Tucson's Air Guard unit returns
By Capt. Gabe Johnson, 162nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs
/ Published May 15, 2009
TUCSON, Ariz. -- The first person to ever enlist in the Arizona Air National Guard's 152nd Tactical Fighter Squadron returned to base May 13 to visit the unit he helped start in 1956.
The founding members of the 152nd, which later grew into today's 162nd Fighter Wing, recruited 29-year-old John A. Smith in May of the unit's inaugural year to be a structural repairman.
"I was a third-class petty officer in the Navy before I came here and had to take a bust to airman second (E-2) to join the Guard," said Smith who saw combat in World War II's Pacific theater in 1944.
"When I first came to Tucson, Valencia was just a dirt road, and the base was just a small hangar and a tent. We had maybe 20 F-86s here in the first few years. If we put more than two in the hangar it would get really crowded."
During his career Smith worked on F-84s, F-86s, F-100s, F-102s, A-7s and he even ordered the first tech orders for the F-16 prior to his retirement in 1984 as a master sergeant.
Smith remembered in the early days of the wing, structural repair included work in the sheet metal shop, the machine shop, welding shop and paint shop.
"It was all together back then," said Smith, "we were even the base fire crew."
He was known around base as "John 'Sheet-Iron' Smith, tin bender extraordinaire, expositor of philosophical opinions on any subject, known to charge car air conditioners for $2.50," according base historical records.
Smith also recalled how the Guard worked with Davis-Monthan Air Force Base and Hughes Aircraft to keep planes in the air.
"If I had something that Davis-Monthan needed I would give it to them," said Smith. "That's how it was, we all borrowed from each other and it was all even."
He marvelled at how much the base had changed over the years during his recent tour.
"I am so grateful for this outfit," said Smith, "and this is still a very special place to be."
Smith, 82, still lives in Tucson and keeps in touch with his friends from the Guard.
"He is our history," said Col. Greg Stroud, wing commander. "He's the fabric of our heritage, and I'm thankful for what he and others did to begin our great tradition of excellence here at the 162nd."