17th Special Operations Squadron History
Published March 16, 2010
17th SOS History
The 17th Special Operations Squadron traces its heritage back to World War II when the unit was activated as the 17th Observation Squadron (Light) on March 2, 1942. The squadron performed antisubmarine patrols off the west coast of the United States from May through September 1942. The squadron was re-designated the 17th Reconnaissance Squadron (Bombardment) on April 2, 1943. Personnel from the unit trained in North American B-25 Mitchells at Laurel Army Airfield, Miss., in preparation for combat in the Pacific.
Members of the 17th began combat operations from New Guinea in January 1944. Flying armed reconnaissance was the squadron’s primary mission. The 17th wreaked havoc with Japanese shipping throughout the Bismarck and Solomon Seas, destroying countless enemy ships. During the Battle of Cape Waios, ten Mitchells from the 17th RS(B) intercepted a Japanese task force intended on retaking the island of Biak. The squadron commander, Maj. William G. Tennille, lead two sections of B-25s in a low level attack scoring direct hits on four destroyers loaded with Japanese troops. The squadron paid a heavy price during the battle. The 17th lost three crews to include the squadron commander to Japanese anti-aircraft fire. Their actions were noted by Gen. Douglas MacArthur when he said, “The job was magnificently done,” and by Gen. Ennis Clement Whitehead who said, “This squadron has this date performed one of the finest military feats of the war.” Maj. William Tennille and Lt. Howard Wood were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross posthumously for their actions.
Countless times, 17th RS(B) crews were called upon to bomb and strafe enemy positions prior to allied assaults and to lay down smoke screens for advancing troops. The crews performed long range reconnaissance missions while destroying targets of opportunity. Their photo reconnaissance missions enabled ground commanders to establish plans for future assaults.
The 17th moved to the Philippine Islands in November 1944. The squadron flew reconnaissance missions over Luzon, providing allied forces with vital information on Japanese positions, troop movements and supply routes. Crews from the 17th bombed enemy airfields in Formosa and China.
Late July 1945, the squadron moved to the Ryukyu Islands, operating from Ie Shima Island, 20 miles from the main island of Okinawa. B-25 Mitchells from the 17th flew reconnaissance missions over mainland Japan. Toward the end of the war the 17th was utilized to assess allied bombing raids, locate prisoner of war camps and photograph enemy troop positions. The squadron was inactivated on April 27, 1946 at Yokota Air Base, Japan.
The Air Force activated the 17th SOS at Nha Trang, South Vietnam June 1, 1969. Operating Fairchild AC-119G Shadow gunships, the squadron was split into three flights which operated from various bases throughout South Vietnam. Shadow crews from the 17th played a vital role in providing airbase defense, close air support for troops in contact with enemy forces and armed reconnaissance. Within the first six months of combat operations the squadron had executed 8,000 combat hours. The biggest achievment however was that while Shadows were overhead no friendly outposts were overrun.
In May 1970, AC-119G Shadow gunships from the 17th SOS began flying missions into Cambodia. The operational highlight for the squadron came when the 17th was credited with lifting the siege of the town of Kompong Thom. Crews flew 32 missions over a three-day period in order to repel the enemy from the town. Over half a million rounds of 7.62mm ammunition were expended during the operation.
President Richard M. Nixon’s policy of “Vietnamization” slowly changed the role of the 17th SOS to an advisory capacity. The squadron set about training South Vietnamese Air Force pilots on AC-119G operations. On 24 September 1971, all flying assets of the squadron were turned over to the South Vietnamese. Four days later the Air Force inactivated the 17th SOS at Phan Rang Airbase, South Vietnam.
On April 6, 1989, the Air Force activated the 353rd Special Operations Wing at Clark Air Base, Philippines, bringing all Pacific Air Force special operations units together under one organization. The wing’s activation initiated the reactivation the 17th SOS at Kadena Air Base, Japan, Aug. 1, 1989. The squadron flew HC-130P/N, later re-designated MC-130P/N, to provide covert aerial refueling for special operations helicopters. Its other missions included infiltrating, exfiltrating and resupplying special operations forces.
During the 1990s, the 17th SOS participated in operations around the world. The 17th deployed crews to the Middle East in 1994 for Operation PROVIDE COMFORT. The squadron provided personnel to augment forces already established in Incirlik Air Base, Turkey. Six months later, the squadron would deploy to Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, for Operation SOUTHERN WATCH. The 17th SOS deployed a Combat Shadow crew to San Vinto, Italy in support of Operation JOINT GUARD/ENDEAVOR December 1996. The event marked the first time a crew from the 17th had logged combat time since the Vietnam War.
The 17th SOS currently operates MC-130J Commando II aircraft.