Pilots return to relive memories

Lt. Gen. Fredrich Obleser, German air force chief of staff, and Gen. Wilbur Creech, Tactical Air Command commander, attended a March 16, 1983, ceremony marking the end of the German air force F-104 training program at Luke. (Courtesy photo)

Lt. Gen. Fredrich Obleser, German air force chief of staff, and Gen. Wilbur Creech, Tactical Air Command commander, attended a March 16, 1983, ceremony marking the end of the German air force F-104 training program at Luke. (Courtesy photo)

LUKE AIR FORCE BASE, Ariz. -- German air force fighter pilots who trained at Luke more than 24 years ago will be returning for a reunion Monday through Wednesday. 

After World War II, Germany was left without an air force. In 1955 with Germany's entrance into NATO, the country was faced with the problem of rebuilding one. 

On Aug.15, 1957, the first class, 57-T, of 15 German pilots began training at Luke to reestablish the German air force. In the class were some of Germany's World War II fighter aces, one of whom was Erich Hartmann,  the world's leading ace with 352 aerial victories. 

Upon starting the training and rebuilding the German air force, or Luftwaffe, Lt. Gen. Günther Rall said, "Eleven years have passed for us since the last time we flew a military aircraft -- 11 years of imposed abstinence at the controls of an aircraft."
 
After 11 years of not flying, the German pilots had the difficult task of playing catch up on the new systems and controls of the F-84, the aircraft they trained in at Luke.
 
The Luftwaffe trained here from 1957 to 1983 and graduated more than 2,200 pilots. In 1964, the German air force switched to the F-104 Starfighter, which ushered in a new era for the German program -- the jet age. 

The training program was first organized under the 4510th Combat Crew Training Wing. In 1964, the 4540th Combat Crew Training Group was organized and given the program. Over the next few years, the program was switched and changed between units. In 1967 Arizona Governor Jack Williams created the Cactus Squadron with executive order 67-1. 

Governor Williams said in the order that the Cactus Squadron will be composed of young men from Germany who, following pilot training in Arizona, were made honorary citizens of the state. 

While here, the Luftwaffe shared their cultural background with the people of Arizona. The German pilots in return became part of Luke and Arizona. The Luftwaffe continued to train here until March 1983 when the unit was inactivated, and training of German pilots returned to Germany. 

Upon leaving Luke, the 2nd German Training Squadron commander said, "On the eve of our departure, we extend our special thanks to these people. We also wish to thank the whole Luke community for its hospitality over the years. You can be sure that part of our hearts also will stay here and that Luke Air Force Base will be remembered fondly by everyone who has gone through here. In bidding farewell, let me express the hope that we will see each other again -- here or in Germany -- by saying auf wiedersehen (goodbye)." 

Luke is truly honored to have our German friends returning for the reunion Lt. Col. Jeffrey Lovelace, 63rd Fighter Squadron commander, host for the German reunion "Our association with you is a bridge to the storied past of Luke Air Force Base, and times of unprecedented reconciliation between two great nations who share an incredible bond. You will always be our dear friends. The men and women of the 56th FW would like to say Willkommen zurück (welcome back)."