'Forgotten 1000' won't soon forget the man they proudly called their 'boss'.
By TSgt. Louis A. Arana-Barradas
401st TFW Public Affairs
March 28, 1991
It almost seemed anticlimactic that the commander of a powerful jet fighter unit, accustomed to supersonic flight, should return home in a slow cargo transport.
Maybe it wasn't.
Because when Col. Jerry L. Nelson landed on the tiny Persian Gulf nation of Qatar, it was to lead men into war. When he left March 19, the fighting was over.
After dodging anti-aircraft fire and surface-to-air missiles on thr 10 combat bombing sorties he flew over Iraq and Kuwait, the slow ride home was probably appreciated.
As the transport climbed and headed for Torrejon AB, Spain, and a reunion with the family he left more than seven months before, the men and women he lead during the Gulf War felt a tug at their hearts.
But they would not soon forget the man with the Jimmy Stewart-like appearance, speech and demeanor. The tall and slender Idahoan had earned their respect.
He was a wartime leader out of the finest American mold -- loved by all who proudly called him "boss".
The Montpelier native commanded the 401st Tactical Fighter Wing (Provisional), which by the war's end had helped gain the world's respect. Appropiately enough, like its commander, the wing which was dubbed the "Forgotten 1,000," got the job done without the fanfare units in Saudi Arabia received.
Wing pilots, the Lucky Devils of the 614th Tactical Fighter Squadron, flew 1,303 combat bombing sorties over Iraq and Kuwait. In their sleek F-16C Fighting Falcons they dropped more than 3.7 million pounds of "dumb" bombs on the enemy -- more than most of the world's air forces could have done.
The impressive figures resulted from a total team effort, the meshing of pilots, maintainers and support workers from more than 30 Air Force bases around the world into a single fighting unit. The reason for that success: A commander who gave his troops support and a free rein to get the job done.
The chief enlisted advisor for the wing's aircraft maintenance unit, CMSgt. James S. Wall, worked closely with the commander. The chief is from High Point, N.C., and is assigned to Torrejon. He said, "Colonel Nelson is fair and flexible, but consistant. He gave us direction, but let us do our jobs. Because of his confidence in us, we proved what we could do."
That's a sentiment shared by the pilots who flew into combat with him. Capt. Preston B. "Gummi Bear" Thompson is a Lucky Devil pilot and assistant flight commander from Hampton, Va. He flew 39 combat sorties in the war. He said that the colonel was the best commander he had ever worked for. "He leads by example. He's calm. He's cool. He has a very strong, but quiet personality."
He said that the commander was the "glue" that held the unit together during tough times. "No matter how tense things got, how wild, you could always count on Colonel Nelson to hold everybody together -- to keep everything calm and going in the right direction."
A dedicated crew chief with the aircraft maintenance unit, SSgt. James C. Smith, also comes from Torrejon. He said that the colonel was an inspiration to all the maintenance workers. "He really took care of us," the Fort Walton Beach native said. He brought us all through the war with flying colors. We all pulled together because of him."
A1C John Merriman is an F-16 radar and tactical control systems specialist from Lawton, Okla., with less than two years of Air Force experience. Until his arrival at Qatar (pronounced gutter) he said that he didn't really know what the Air Force was really like. He said that the war, and his commander, changed that. "Colonel Nelson gave us the space to do what we had to do. But, at the same time, he let us know what we needed to do."
The airman remembers the night he had to dive into a sandbag bunker during a Scud missile alarm. Colonel Nelson was in the same bunker. "He made sure we had our chemical gear on properly. He cared about us ...and was always there when we needed him."
Mission support specialist Sgt. Keith A. Fenske is from Torrejon's 2186th Communications Squadron. He maintains the system pilots use to help plan missions. Like a roadmap, it'a a cartridge of information plugged into the aircraft which reminds pilots of key mission points, like turn and target locations. The Coloma, Wisc., native said Colonel Nelson was "a real people-person." "He'd always come and ask me how I was doing and if the systems were working or if I was having problems," he said.
"Colonel Nelson was concerned about his people," TSgt. Timothy L. Murry said. From the 56th Services Squadron at MacDill AFB, Fla., the noncomissioned officer in charge of the Tent City recreation center helped keep morale high. He said the colonel told him to take problems he couldn't handle to him. "But I didn't have problems because he let me do my job my way," the Clermont,nFla., native said. "It made my job a lot easier."
To TSgt. Rosanne L. Keys, the commander was a "level-headed" man. The wing vehicle control officer from the 323rd Transportation Squadron, Mather AFB, Calif., she said, "He was quiet and good natured." Now that he is gone, the Troy, Mich., native said the base seemed noticably quieter.
Chaplain (Capt.) Richard F. Munsell is the installation staff chaplain. He is from the 20th Combat Support Group at RAF Upper Heyford, England, and a Seattle native. Father Munsell said the commander supported all chapel programs. "He led us by example. Not only did he support our programs, but he also led our Mormon services. I couldn't ask for anything better," he said.
"As a man and as a leader, he's a dynamic personality who always leads with his people in mind," Capt. Steven F. Alltop said. A Lucky Devil pilot and wing safety officer from Wyoming, Ill., he said, "When he makes a decision, he always takes into account the people factor."
Captain Alltop, who flew 35 combat missions, said Colonel Nelson made the wing's austere living conditions tolerable. "He's gone out on a limb to ensure his people were taken care of. Without him it would be absolute hell here."
The wing chief of intelligence, Capt. Anthony C. Thomas, also from Torrejon. He said the commander, "Allowed me to do my job effectively, ensuring the right bomb was put on the right target at the right time."
"He is a warrior leader," Captain Thomas, a Montgomery, Ala., native said. "He was made for the part. In everything that we did, his personality and his abilities as an officer -- as a leader -- gave us the opportunity to excel."
SSgt. Randy L. Bonds agrees. He's the dining hall manager from the 832nd Services Squadron, Luke AFB, Ariz. Many a joke was made about the food his staff served the troops.. However Colonel Nelson said that if Saddam Hussien's troops were as well fed as the wing's, we'd still be fighting a war.
"I've never met a man who was so easy to work for," the Scott City, Mo., native said. "He didn't make any unnecessary demands on us. He wanted good meals and a clean facility. As long as he got that, he was happy."
The Lucky Devils scheduler, Capt. Kevin A. Booth, flew 38 combat missions. He remembers that thr toughest sorties came during the first three days of the air war. "Colonel Nelson proved he doesn't lead by talking. He flew the toughest mission with us."
The captain, a Penn Valley, Calif., native, said the commander is an "officer's officer." "Integrity is never a question. He's an honorable man you can trust and look up to," he said. "We all felt lucky that he was our commander."
Only two enlisted men flew into combat with the squadron. SSgt. Mark A. Cornell was one of them. A combat cameraman, five times he flew over Iraq and Kuwait to document the wing at war. "The confidence he had in his people, from airmen on up, makes him one of the few people you'd be proud to serve for."
"He has the ability to give respect and earn it. That sets him apart." the Holland N.Y., native said. "I'll never forget that man. I've come to respect him like I would my father."
By far, the staunchest support for the wing in Qatar comes from American Ambassador Mark Hambley. He saw the wing's move from Spain, the first-ever deployment of a foreign armed force into the country, as a successfully met challenge. An Idahoan from Boise, said news of the wing's arrival in Qatar came as a surprise to the Americans living there. "But closely on the heels of surprise was great pleasure -- great pleasure that we'd be able to help host a group of Americans in a country which is not very well known in the United States."
The ambassador said there was immediate cooperation between the Americans and theit Qatari hosts. "When I met Colonel Nelson and found out he was from Idaho, I knew that was one good step in the right direction."
"He came into an area where something like this had never been done before. There were no facilities to house a military unit of this size. Literally, the entire operation sprang from the desert sand," he said. "Colonel Nelson created one of the finest operations in the entire theater. He inspired; he led."
Lt. Col. Bruce A. Wright, the Lucky Devils squadron commander, flew 36 combat missions. He credits the wing commander's quiet diplomacy for the good relations the wing had with the host Qataris. From Castleford, Idaho, he's understandably biased.
"The same brand of friendship and integrity that makes good neighbors on farms and ranches in states like Idaho also works in this part of the world."
"I hope, and believe, the good level of friendship and trust that the people in the Middle East have for the United States will lead to a safer world," he said.
Of his boss he said, "We love him and respect him for what he did in a damn war where we all came back alive."
Sgt. Robert C. Potter is a dedicated crew chief with the wing's aircraft maintenance unit. From Torrejon, he's a native of Norwalk, Conn. Several times during the war, he launched the wing commander's jet. "He's so down-to-earth and easy to work with that we sometimes forget he's a colonel," he said.
The sergeant remembers the wing's black mood on the third day of the war, when two of its pilots were shot down over Iraq. We were really down," he said. "But the colonel focused on the mission we had to do. He told us to keep our heads up and press on."
"Were going to miss him," Sergeant Potter said. "We'd follow him anywhere, anytime."
It would be hard to find anyone on base to disagree.