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80th Anniversary Highlights Importance of Oral History, Air Force Heritage

Members of the 7th Airlift Squadron honor its 80th Anniversary during a recent celebration.

Members of the 7th Airlift Squadron honor its 80th Anniversary during a recent celebration.

JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. --

As I scanned the colorful crowd of current Swords, alumni, and loved ones during the recent celebration of the 7th Airlift Squadron’s 80th Anniversary, I found myself reflecting not just on the importance of history — but the importance of oral history. Our guest speaker for the evening was retired U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Timothy Zadalis, who served as the operations officer and then the commander of the 7th Airlift Squadron during its transition from the C-141 to the C-17 in 1999 - 2001. Indeed, he held fitting qualifications for the evening’s theme: “Then and Now.”

During his remarks, he entertained the audience with lore unknown to many in the squadron. These stories included information not found in any history books or on a Wikipedia page. Through his words and an image of the flight orders, we learned that the 7th Airlift Squadron’s first mission in the C-17 was into combat in the Balkans on a Charleston tail. We learned that the 7th Airlift Squadron operated the first C-17 to fly a repatriation mission into Vietnam — and he provided us with a Vietnamese hat signed by the crew. Moreover, we gleaned the backstory of the framed C-47 lithograph that currently hangs near the entrance to our auditorium that is signed by several members of the Hump Pilot’s Association from the famous China-Burma-India airlift during WWII. He also inspired us with accounts and photos of the “7th Airlift Wing” and the spirit mission temporary altering the signage on the wing headquarters that deemed it so. 

In my personal conversations with the general, I learned that he purchased our squadron sword two decades prior — the one that continues to join us at all squadron functions ranging from Airman Leadership School graduations to morale events. Moreover, I learned that he minted the precious metal squadron coin that I carry with me every day in the left shoulder pocket of my flight suit and has been passed down from every commander since him. These stories comprise merely the tip of the iceberg, as every alumnus in attendance had some piece of squadron lineage or ritual to pass down to the current group of serving Swords who were in attendance.

An anniversary celebration is essentially a reunion setting the conditions for the exchange of stories, pride in a common craft, and shared identity. While it takes tireless hours of planning and fundraising, the payoff is the preservation of history through the oral tradition — a tradition as old as language itself and for which the benefits to our Air Force heritage are immeasurable.