TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- There is something special about being part of a team, especially a team that works so well together through the ups and downs; a team you can count on for anything; a team you never forget.
The “SH Okies” team is made up of several hundred, mostly retired, Citizen Airmen that are all former members of the 507th and collectively, they have accumulated more than 1,000 years of experience.
The “Okies” met here at Tinker Air Force Base in the 507th Air Refueling Wing Hangar 1030, September 23-24 for the biennial Okie Reunion.
Some of them flew the F-105 Thud when the wing was called the 507th Tactical Fighter Group. Others maintained the F-4 Phantom and F-16 during the 507th Fighter Group days. Some supported the KC-135 Stratotanker when the unit converted to an Air Refueling Wing, but one thread ties them all together: They are all Okies and they are proud of it.
Many would call this group of men and women heroes. Sure, they were flying combat air patrols before many current active duty members were in diapers. In fact, most are in a generation that fought in Vietnam. But mostly, they are a group of devoted friends, sharing a common bond, who like to have fun and share stories with the new and the old Airmen in the 507th.
Meeting these men and women was an honor, but walking into the hangar, was a little intimidating at first. The beer was flowing and the hangar buzzed with frequent laughter. Vets sported their Okies garb: T-shirts and ball caps, distinctive yellow, red and black arrowhead insignias, and green flight suits with old 465th TFG patches affixed to them. If you felt out of place, you could buy Okie pins that were meticulously stored in old pill bottles.
After the icebreaker, it did not take long for the stories to start. They all have great war stories to share. Some stories might only be 20 percent true, but they are great stories nonetheless. All kidding aside, at least half were trueish.
Stories they shared are also known as “Okieisms”. Like stories of the locally famed Monkey Island and seeing the Grand Canyon upside down in a F-4, and even some rules of flight. Rules like, “Flying isn’t dangerous. Crashing is what’s dangerous,” and “The only time you have too much fuel is when you’re on fire,” and “Always try to keep the number of landings you make equal to the number of take offs you’ve made.”
John Russell organized the reunion and served as a fighter pilot in the 507th from 1977-1994 flying the F-105, F-4 and F-16’s. He is a bluntly honest man that said he hopes to continue the Okie reunion. He encouraged the younger generations of Okies to carry on the traditions.
“It’s amazing we are all still alive, and we still are enthusiastic about coming back and seeing the guys we flew with,” Russell said. “In a unit like ours you get very close, and that’s what makes it fun to come back.”
For many of these Veterans, being an Okie is a significant part of their life and when you sit down and talk to these men and women you will find that they are just like many of the younger generations of those that serve in the Air Force Reserve. Some are retired fighter pilots and some are maintenance professionals but they all have a common bond. They wanted to serve their country, to be part of a team, have a happy family, and have a little fun.
Jeff Van Dorp served in the Aerial Repair and Isochronal Inspection shop in the wing from 1981-2008. Van Dorp said he loved being part of the unit, and he said he has attended every reunion since he retired.
“It's always been fun, swapping a few stories,” Van Dorp said. “You had some real characters out here, that’s what makes a unit a unit.”
When asked why he comes to these reunions, his answer was one that was echoed by other vets at the event. “To see old friends, renew friendships and pay tribute to the ones we lost,” Van Dorp said.
Neil Miller said he first saw the reserve campus in 1961 but he served in the wing from 1968-1972. He said the place has changed a lot in that time but he added that current Okies are doing a great job taking care of the house.
“I’ve been out here for at least four reunions… I enjoyed talking with people on active duty the most,” Miller said, “They really impress me.”
Many old photographs, videos, news clippings and books of Okie memorabilia where on display. Some Okies brought their own and shared photos from the past. The stories were great and the memories vivid but one thing these ‘SH Okies’ will agree with, they are indeed one sh*t h@t team.