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.”