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The sight of twin jets buzzing low in northwest Louisiana skies soon will be a thing of the past as one of the most historic units in the Air Force readies to furl its flag and stand down once again, the victim of budget cuts.
The 47th Fighter Squadron, which as the 47th Pursuit Squadron was the only U.S. Army Air Forces unit to draw blood in the skies over Pearl Harbor in the Japanese attack in December 1941, will send its airplanes and most of its pilots and personnel to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base near Tucson, Ariz., possibly as soon as late August and no later than the end of September.
The unit, which joined the local 917th Wing when it changed from C-124 transports and a troop-carrier mission in 1971, has flown A-37 Dragonflies and A-10 Thunderbolt IIs, popularly called the Warthog, in training and combat roles over the years, with successful war deployments in the last two decades.
"I've got six people I'm getting jobs for," said Lt. Col. Jim Travis, the squadron's commander, feeling some frustration over finding productive spaces for new pilots inbound from training, who had been looking forward to service in what he said was until recently, "a growth industry ... hiring like bandits."
Then came the decision to close down the unit and move its airplanes and people elsewhere under a new designation.
"That train has left the station," he said.
The demise comes as the result of cutbacks announced before the current sequestration and budget disputes that have embroiled Washington in recent months.
The state's lawmakers, including both senators and the district's congressman, Republican Rep. Dr. John Fleming, vowed to fight to keep the squadron and the A-10 mission intact, but to no avail.
"If sequestration were fixed tomorrow, it's a battle that I think we could decently fight and win," Fleming said from Washington this week.
But with the bigger defense battles looming, the local mission had no chance, and if the airplanes go away, the chances of getting them back here are "virtually zero," Fleming said.
Beyond the A-10s, Fleming said he sees little impact of sequestration on the base in terms of personnel and airplanes, and he said he believes that was targeted even before the current budget battles.
Col. John Breazeale, commander of the 917th Fighter Group that controls the 47th Fighter Squadron and is scheduled to shut down, said the shutdowns will affect roughly 580 people, some of whom already have left, and 24 aircraft, which will go to Arizona.
Some personnel will remain here, filling open slots available at the Air Force Reserve's 307th Bomb Wing, but most will go to Arizona, he said.
"The reason this unit is closing is the Air Force and the Department of Defense had to take a look at national strategy," he said. "National strategy drives what our force requirement is." And that, he said, reflects a "shift to more Asia-Pacific focus. ... We had to make tough choices on what our force structure was going to look like."
Senior Master Sgt. Mike Thornton, originally from West Virginia, has been with the unit all his Reserve career and plans to move with the unit, and his wife, to Arizona.
"I plan to stay with the A-10s," said the father of three grown children, who soon will become a grandfather. "It is a hardship, but we've been very fortunate. My kids have grown up here in the Benton school district, have been here all their lives. It's all they've ever known."
The mood with the personnel, he said, has been "surprisingly reasonably upbeat. We are a family here. Most of us have grown up here."
Some traces of the units will remain. The engine shop will remain for about another year because of difficulties in moving some of its equipment, and aircraft sheds will remain to be used, along with some hangars, by Green Flag exercise participants who use Barksdale, 307th Bomb Wing spokeswoman Jessica D'Aurizio said.
It was 11 months ago that Louisiana's Bobby Jindal and 48 other state and territorial governors voiced concerns over proposed cuts to Air National Guard and Reserve units in the U.S. military's fiscal 2013 budget request.
In Louisiana, the cuts targeted the Navy Reserve's Carrier Airborne Early Warning Squadron 77 in South Louisiana and the A-10s at Barksdale.
The 47th's predecessor, the 47th Pursuit Squadron, was able to get fighters in the air at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked, and a number of its pilots managed to down Japanese planes. One pilot, Lt. John Dains, became the nation's first friendly fire casualty of the war.
Travis said there's some thought that perhaps the 47th might be reactivated some day, perhaps at Davis-Monthan, since it had a heritage no other unit in the service has. It got pilots in the air over Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, and while it lost one pilot, it drew enemy blood in retribution.
"There's no other squadron that took first blood Day 1, and I think that has a substantial effect on the decision," he said. "I don't really know. The 47th has a very proud heritage."
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