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Fightin’ Fifty-Fifth transitions from pursuit to recon

OFFUTT AIR FORCE BASE, Nebraska --

After making its mark during World War II, earning two distinguished unit citations and fostering 16 aces, the 55th Fighter Group flew its last mission on April 21, 1945, and was deactivated August 20, 1946.

However, by 1947 The Soviet Union had emerged as a new threat and the United States found itself in the middle of a Cold War. To counter this, the unit was reactivated as the 55th Reconnaissance Group at MacDill Field, Florida.

As part of the newly established Strategic Air Command, the Fightin’ Fifty-Fifth operated a special variation of the B-17 to complete its mission of aerial photography, mapping, charting and photoreconnaissance.

In June 1948, the 55th transferred operations to Topeka Field, Kansas, and became the 55th Strategic Reconnaissance Group. Under the command of Col. Alfred Kalberer, the unit conducted very long-range mapping missions of the Soviet Union’s air defense systems, a previously unknown and uncharted threat until that time. During this time, the group also documented the Operation Sandstone atomic tests in 1948. 

In October 1949, the 55th was once again deactivated. But when another Cold War threat emerged over Korea, the unit was reactivated as the 55th Special Reconnaissance Wing, Medium at Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana, on Nov. 1, 1950. Eventually the group moved to Ramey Air Force Base, Puerto Rico, and was redesignated the 55th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing before returning to Topeka in 1952 at Forbes Air Force Base, Kansas.

As the Cold War continued to heat up, so did the 55th SRW’s missions. On July 29, 1953, an RB-50G assigned to the unit was shot down by two Russian MiG-17s near the Siberian coast. Only one crew member survived while 14 others became the first Cold War hostile fire casualties in Fightin’ Fifty-Fifth history.

In 1954, the unit completed its transition to RB-47s, which were modified B-47s used for reconnaissance missions by SAC.

On July 1, 1960, the RB-47 made national headlines when a 55th SRW crew flying temporarily out of Brize-Norton Royal Air Force Base, England, was shot down by a Soviet MiG fighter north of Murmansk in the Barents Sea. Only two crew members, copilot Capt. Bruce Olmstead and navigator Capt. John McKone, survived and were able to climb into liferafts. After more than six hours at sea, they were picked up by a Soviet fishing vessel.

The U.S. Air Force, unaware that the plane had been shot down (the Soviet Union did not release this information for more than a week) conducted a search for the missing plane and crew from July 2-7, but no trace was found. After their rescue, McKone and Olmstead were sent to Moscow’s infamous Lubyanka Prison and were intensely interrogated for weeks.  After almost seven months as prisoners, they were finally released on January 25, 1961, as a gesture to newly inaugurated President John F. Kennedy. Their story became front page news Time Magazine’s February 2, 1961, edition.

The Fightin’ Fifty-Fifth remained a key unit in the Cold War during the 1960s, and was also heavily involved in the Cuban Missile Crisis.

On January 26, 1965, the 55th SRW, Detachment One, stood up at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska, and 19 months later, on August 16, 1966, the wing headquarters officially moved from Forbes to Offutt where it remains today.