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Bombers make history: ‘Secret Squirrel’ members recount mission, presented air medals

Bombers make history: ‘Secret Squirrel’ members recount mission, presented air medals

Members of Operation Secret Surprise pose for a photo during their 28th anniversary reunion at the National Mighty Eighth Museum in Savannah, Ga., Jan. 19, 2019. This mission was the longest distance flown for a combat mission at the time, totaling 35 hours, 14,000-mile round-trip from Barksdale AFB, La. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Luke Hill)

Bombers make history: ‘Secret Squirrel’ members recount mission, presented air medals

Members of Operation Secret Squirrel fellowship together during the 28th Anniversary Reunion of Operation Secret Squirrel at the National Mighty Eighth Museum in Savannah, Ga., Jan. 19, 2019. The mission plan and weapon systems of Secret Squirrel were classified at the highest level during the time of the mission, which was one of the first air strikes in Desert Storm. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Luke Hill)

Bombers make history: ‘Secret Squirrel’ members recount mission, presented air medals

Members of Secret Squirrel tour the National Museum of the Mighty Eighth in Savannah, Ga., during the 28th Anniversary Reunion of Operation Secret Squirrel Jan. 19, 2019. The 35-hour mission was the first combat use of the conventional air launched cruise missile. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Luke Hill)

Bombers make history: ‘Secret Squirrel’ members recount mission, presented air medals

U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. James Dawkins, Jr., 8th Air Force and Joint-Global Strike Operations Center commander, speaks during the 28th Anniversary Reunion of Operation Secret Surprise at the National Mighty Eighth Museum in Savannah, Ga., Jan. 19, 2019. At the start of Desert Shield, August 1990, a select group of aircrew and maintainers from the 596th Bomb Squadron were briefed about the conventional air launch cruise missiles. Those members would go on to support Operation Secret Surprise, launching the first combat sorties for the liberation of Kuwait in Support of Operation Desert Storm. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Luke Hill)

Bombers make history: ‘Secret Squirrel’ members recount mission, presented air medals

U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen James Dawkins, Jr., 8th Air Force and Joint-Global Strike Operations Center commander, presents retired Lt. Gen. E.G. "Buck" Shuler, a former 8th Air Force commander, an Eighth Air Force 75th anniversary coin and patch during the 28th Anniversary Reunion of Operation Secret Surprise at the National Mighty Eighth Museum in Savannah, Ga., Jan. 19, 2019. During World War II, under the leadership of such generals as Ira Eaker and Jimmy Doolittle, the 8th Air Force formed the greatest air armada in history. For this reason, 8th Air Force is commonly known as "The Mighty Eighth." (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Luke Hill)

Bombers make history: ‘Secret Squirrel’ members recount mission, presented air medals

U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. James Dawkins, Jr., 8th Air Force and Joint-Global Strike Operations Center commander, presents the Air Medal to ten recipients during the 28th Annual Reunion of Operations Secret Squirrel at the National Mighty Eighth Museum in Savannah, Ga., Jan. 19, 2019. The Air Medal is awarded to any person who, while serving in any capacity in or with the armed forces of the United States, shall have distinguished himself by meritorious achievement while participating in aerial flight. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Luke Hill)

Bombers make history: ‘Secret Squirrel’ members recount mission, presented air medals

Retired Lt. Gen. E.G. "Buck" Shuler, a former 8th Air Force commander, takes in the sights at the National Museum of the Mighty Eighth during the 28th Anniversary Reunion of Operation Secret Squirrel Jan. 19, 2019. The U.S. Army Air Corps activated Eighth Air Force at Savannah, Ga., Jan. 28, 1942 with three major subordinate units: the VIII Bomber Command, the VIII Fighter Command, and the VIII Ground Air Services Command. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Luke Hill)

SAVANNAH, Ga. --

It was dark and rainy when crews from the 596th Bomb Squadron awoke to the sounds of an alert siren at 3 a.m. on Jan. 16, 1991.

 

Fifty-seven aviators aboard seven B-52 Stratofortress aircraft, carrying 244 tons of munitions took off toward their mission in the Middle East. At that time the destination, along with the weapons and very existence of this mission, was classified at the highest level. Only a select few general officers and staff were given details of the missions to be flown by those seven B-52s. The President had approved the mission and the commander of Strategic Air Command, Gen. John Chain, had personally selected those officers and staff who were to be involved in the planning and execution phase of this mission.

 

Little did the team know that they would play a major role in the opening strikes of Desert Storm in an operation called Secret Surprise, which eventually became known by its nickname, Operation Secret Squirrel (given by the participating crews from the 596th Bombardment Squadron).

 

“The lead up before the operation was interesting because we were all thinking it wasn’t going to happen,” said Aaron Hattabaugh, retired captain and B-52 navigator. “When we were called into the briefing room it all got real. At that point, our training kicked in. We were all focused on our job, and we made it happen.”

 

The mission itself came with its own challenges and required the very best of all the “Squirrels’.

 

“It was a challenging mission,” said Hattabaugh. “The winds were high and it was raining and the B-52 had never flown that far before. We all knew it was going to be a challenge, but the words of Gen. Shuler really motivated us. He said that this mission had the same significance as the Doolittle Raid and that really lit a fire in all of us. As a result, we completed this mission, eliminated all targets and were able to bring everyone home safely.”

 

Twenty-eight years later, flight crews, support personnel, mission planners and commanders got together for a “Squirrel Reunion” on Jan. 19 at the National Museum of the Mighty Eighth in Savannah, Ga. For the squirrels it was an important opportunity to reunite with fellow Airmen who share this special bond.

 

“It’s an indescribably good feeling to see everyone again,” said Hattabaugh. “Because of the bond we share, this will be an event in life that I will look forward to every year.”

 

“It’s like meeting all your old friends back on the playground after a summer break,” said Warren Ward, retired colonel and copilot during the operation. “We are all adults, but it feels like we are all a bunch of kids hanging out again.”

 

As the Squirrels gathered, some of them reflected on what they did and why it’s important to remember history and heritage of the Mighty Eighth.

 

“I never thought I would be a part of something so significant,” said Ward. “We stand on the shoulders of people who have done truly amazing things in the Air Force, and we aren’t even worthy to untie their shoelaces, but for a small moment in time, we got to be a part of that heritage and it’s very humbling.”

 

Family, friends and veterans enjoyed an evening and social with special guest speakers Maj. Gen. James Dawkins, Jr., 8th Air Force and Joint-Global Strike Operations Center commander, and retired Lt. Gen. E.G. "Buck" Shuler, a former 8th Air Force commander, who actually launched the mission. 

 

“You’ve been a part of aerospace history,” said Shuler. “We gave you a tough damn mission and you all did remarkable. This is your history, and one of these days I promise you your story will be told right here in this museum.”

 

In addition to praise, ten Secret Squirrel Airmen were presented Air Medals. Due to extenuating circumstances, they did not receive the medal earlier like other members of the mission.

 

“Make no mistake, you all earned this award,” said Dawkins. “It is a great privilege for me to be able to present this award today. Secret Squirrel laid the foundation as an historic sortie that demonstrated the efficiency, lethality and capabilities of long range bombers. Your legacy has inspired future Airmen and paved the way for generations to come. To the men of Secret Squirrel, thank you for what you do and thank you for what you’ve done.”