MILWAUKEE - For Ken Sweet, 92, the beginning of the Wisconsin Air National Guard can be traced to lofty dreams in a low time.
"I graduated from high school in June 1940, and there was a Depression like you couldn't imagine," Sweet told a gathering of Soldiers and Airmen at a recent Wisconsin National Guard senior leadership conference at the Lincoln War Memorial on Milwaukee's lakefront. Having heard stories about World War I's trench warfare from his father, Sweet determined to avoid infantry service and, despite wearing eyeglasses most of his life, aimed for an assignment having something to do with Army aviation.
"The recruiter told me I could go to Hawaii or I could go home," Sweet recalled with a laugh. "Where do I sign?"
Sweet was assigned to Wheeler Air Field as a mechanic, in the central part of Oahu. He fondly described the pre-war routine of garrison life, and the antics of pilots not only from Wheeler but from Ford Island - a spit of land facing the Pearl Harbor Navy Yard - who would "buzz" each other's locations as part of their training flights. Marine Corps pilots had developed a practice of flying single-file along a mountain range that pointed in the direction of Honolulu.
Sweet found himself pulling guard duty on Dec. 6, 1941, which entailed two four-hour shifts and two eight-hour breaks in a 24-hour period. Consequently, he was awake the morning of Dec. 7.
"That morning, Japanese planes were flying along that mountain range - they were headed for Pearl," Sweet told a rapt audience. "Airplanes were circling around, going up and down and it looked like they were just off the street - of course, those were torpedo bombers and they were at Pearl. We heard the Navy warming up their guns."
He described seeing a rack swing away from the bottom of one of the airplanes, and two bombs falling out.
"I witnessed the first two bombs striking American soil in World War II," he said.
The Japanese attacks that fateful morning came in two waves, with three groups in each wave. One group in each wave rained bombs on the navy's attack vessels, while the other two groups bombed and strafed aircraft and barracks at Ford Island, Wheeler Field, Hickam Field and Barber's Point, Kaneohe. One of those bombs hit the barracks near the hangar where Sweet had been pulling guard duty; another explosion propelled him through the door of the hangar.
What followed was a mad dash for survival, with Sweet taking cover behind a tree where he watched Japanese aircraft strafed the roads and nearby dwellings.
"That's when I got really scared, and I'll admit this today," he said.
Between waves, Sweet and others ran to the hangar to rescue the airplanes that weren't burning, and also to remove .50-caliber ammunition from the burning building. When the second wave of Japanese aircraft attacked, Sweet took cover underneath an officer's house.
"One of the big mistakes the Japanese made, on the other side of the hill at Pearl were hundreds of thousands of gallons of fuel," Sweet said. "If they would have hit those tanks, that would have disrupted the Navy fuel system for a long, long time."
According to historical documents, a third wave attack on the fuel depot and torpedo storage area could have delayed serious U.S. operations in the Pacific by up to two years. However, the risk of greater battle losses to Japanese aircraft, the question of sufficient fuel to support a third assault as well as the return home, and changing weather led the Japanese to decide against a third attack.
Many of the Army's airplanes at Wheeler were destroyed, but 12 pilots were able to launch P-36 Hawk and P-40 Warhawk aircraft and engage Japanese Zeros.
Sweet remained at Hawaii until 1945, when his unit loaded 85 P-51 Mustangs onto a converted aircraft carrier and shipped out for Iwo Jima. His unit took part in a raid on Tokyo in April of 1945.
Some time after the war, Sweet saw a notice in the newspaper seeking volunteers to form an Air National Guard unit in Milwaukee. In October of 1946 he and 15 other volunteers showed up for the first meeting.
"Of those 16, I'm the only one [still] alive," he said. "That makes me the grandfather of the [Wisconsin] Air Guard.
"Of those 16, we started recruiting - everybody we met we'd twist their arms," Sweet continued. "Most of the young men were right out of World War II, and it was fairly easy."
From January through June 1947 Sweet and his fellow volunteers met every Wednesday night for two hours.
"This was no pay, but it meant getting the Guard going again," he explained.
By June 1947 they had organized enough people to receive federal recognition, and Sweet was hired as a federal technician for the new organization. The first Wisconsin Air National Guard units in Milwaukee included the 128th Fighter Group; the 126th Utility Flight, Weather Station; the 128th Aircraft Control and Warning Squadron; and Detachment A, 228th Service Group.
The early days of the Air National Guard in Wisconsin involved ingenuity, making do and educating the existing support chain in the Wisconsin National Guard. One example, Sweet said, entailed ordering new spark plugs for six P-51 Mustangs in storage.
"It takes 24 per airplane, so we requested 144 spark plugs," Sweet said. "USPFO [the U.S. Purchase and Finance Office at Camp Williams] said that was too many spark plugs, so they cancelled the order and only ordered 44."
Another example was when unit members passed the hat to purchase hydraulic fluid for those six Mustangs. They found an Army surplus vendor selling hydraulic fluid for $15 a barrel, so they bought two. They then sold one for $30 and went back to buy another two barrels.
Eventually the Wisconsin Air National Guard amassed 22 P-51s, and another Air Guard unit - the 176th Fighter Squadron - was organized in Madison. In the summer of 1949 the Madison unit logged 900 hours of flight training during annual training. Not to be outdone, the Milwaukee unit logged 1,200 hours in the following two weeks with 22 airplanes.
"We wore them out, but we were going to beat them," Sweet recalled.
In 1950 the Wisconsin Air National Guard saw its first mobilization, a 21-month tour in support of the Korean Conflict. The 128th Fighter Group pilots were shipped to Korea, but Sweet and other enlisted members were kept at Truax Field - at that time an active duty Air Force base - under the jurisdiction of the Air Defense Command.
Sweet made the leap from master sergeant to warrant officer, which changed some interpersonal dynamics in the 128th.
"The biggest problem I had when I became a warrant officer was the enlisted folks I had associated with had some problems respecting the rank," he explained. "We got that sorted out real quick."
At age 36 and facing separation from the military, Sweet took another aptitude test to become a captain, and continued his career. He would retire as a colonel in the Wisconsin Air National Guard - the deputy commander for maintenance with the 128th - and in September 1986 was inducted into the Wisconsin Air National Guard Hall of Honor.