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Legacy of sacrifice, valor continues

RAF MILDENHALL, England -- In the English town of Lavenham, just a 40 minute drive from RAF Mildenhall, there is an old hotel called The Swan. Originally built in the late 14th century, The Swan holds a place in the hearts of the local residents as an enduring link to England's past. The Swan also holds a special place in the memories of many American Airmen as a refuge during some of the darkest days of World War II. 

Being assigned to one of the last remaining 8th Air Force squadrons stationed in the United Kingdom, I have the opportunity to visit The Swan from time to time. 

The inn remains much as it appeared in 1944, with memories and images carefully preserved from that now distant age. To those familiar with The Swan, the centerpiece of this historic landmark is the Old Bar where, still plainly visible on the wall, are the handwritten names of Airmen from the 487th Bombardment Group. 

The 487th was activated in September 1943 and deployed to Station 137 near the town of Lavenham in April of 1944. From May 1944 until April 1945, the 487th flew and fought with the Allied Air Forces helping win the air war over Europe. Generating over 6,000 sorties during 185 combat missions, the Group delivered over 16,000 tons of ordnance on enemy formations and military targets across the continent of Europe. Flying the B-24H/J Liberator and, later, the B-17G Flying Fortress, more than 230 Airmen of the 487th selflessly gave their lives to defeat a determined foe that at the time seemed invincible. 

Among the most famous of these Airmen was Brigadier General Fredrick Castle. On Christmas Eve of 1944, General Castle piloted the lead aircraft of the 487th, the Group assigned to lead the 8th Air Force in the largest air operation of the war. On that day, the Mighty Eighth assembled a force of more than 2,000 heavy bombers escorted by over 850 fighters to relieve pressure on encircled American forces during the Wehrmacht's Ardennes Offensive. 

After suffering repeated attacks by German fighters, General Castle's aircraft was critically disabled. After giving the order to bail out, General Castle gallantly remained at the controls, allowing his fellow crewmembers time to egress then piloted his stricken aircraft away from friendly forces until it exploded. For his actions, he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. 

Today, General Castles' portrait hangs in a place of honor at The Swan, enshrined along with the memories of the Airmen of the 487th. Gazing at his portrait and the names on the wall in this remote English inn, it is impossible not to be moved by the service, sacrifice and valor shown by these Airmen. The bombs no longer fall in Europe, but this quiet country inn still offers a powerful reminder of why we fight. 

Consider the parallels between that period of history and the present: Today, as before, our country is locked in a violent struggle against a determined enemy. Today, Americans risk their lives defending our nation and our allies against an enemy that threatens our existence. Today, thousands of our fellow Americans are deployed to distant lands, far away from the comforts of home. Today, countless American families endure the same heartache of separation, the sacrifice of difficult service and the pain of loss. And, as in days past, American Airmen around the globe fly and fight as our nation's sword and shield: guardians of hope in an uncertain time. 

These historical parallels must resonate with every Airman. Within every Air Force organization, leaders at all levels have an obligation to remind and teach our warriors of their place in history. As the challenges of operations tempo deepen and the conditions of the current conflict evolve, the importance of remembering this legacy grows. As General George Marshall once noted, "It is not enough to fight. It is the spirit which we bring to the fight that decides the issue. It is morale that wins the victory." 

So whether you serve on the battlefield, patrol the skies over Afghanistan or Iraq, maintain our nation's arsenal of air, space and cyber weapons or support those who do, we all share a sacred obligation to honor the sacrifices of those who have gone before us. As warriors, we can pay no greater honor to these Airmen than to continue our mission until victory is won. 

And when this job is done, perhaps Airmen who answer their nation's call years from now will look to the legacy of service, sacrifice and valor left by the Airmen of today and remind themselves why they fight.