The "Cactus Starfighter Squadron"

It’s been a long way from the first reunion at Luke A.F.B. in 1966 to the respected association of close to 800 former “Starfighter” pilots.

(Oberstleutnant a.D. Horst Wilhelms)

(klick here read the german version)

Over a period of  about two decades every once in a while it was noted in German aviation circles, that again a reunion of German Air Force and Navy F-104 pilots had taken place somewhere in Hannover in the periphery of the International Air Exhibition, ILA. No further details available due to lack of public interest…

It has to be admitted, that these reunions right up till the late seventies had gained the questionable reputation of being nothing else but  “alcoholic pressure-feeding rodeos of young fighter pilots, who had not quite overcome their puberty problems yet”…! With the exception of those immediately involved, these reunions found no noticable attention…

Today, more than four decades after it all started at Luke A.F.B., we, the members of the “Cactus Starfighter Squadron” are proud, happy and excited to be able to state the fact, that we usually welcome between 400 and almost 500 participants, age 50 through 84, at our reunions in Berlin every two years (even years).

What was it like, that long, winding road from Arizona to Berlin, from the first reunion at Luke, through our gatherings in Hannover and finally since 1992 in Berlin, following German reunification, until at last we accomplished to reach the status of  an independent  squadron,  with a  Lieutenant General GAF (ret.) as our commander.I

It was in August 1957, when at Luke A.F.B., Arizona, 15 German Luftwaffe pilots started transition training from World War II ME-109s and/or ME-262s to the F-84 “Thunderstreak” . Among those “student pilots” were names like Maj. Rall and Maj.Obleser (both became Chief of Staff German Air Force in the seventies and eighties), Majors Krupinski and Wegner (later Commanders GAFTAC) and Major “Bubi” Hartmann. All of them were fighter aces in WW II with more than 200 kills each, and “Bubi” Hartmann as the all-time ace of aces with 352 kills.

The 1957 Luke A.F.B. historian wrote: “They all were pretty  good  pilots and seemed to enjoy flying the   F-84 very much.” In fact, they did!

At this point in time it was unforeseeable, that this was  to  be  the  very  beginning  of  a  historic event in military aviation:  A binational fighter pilot training program, which, even by today’s standards, would turn out to be exceptional  by quantity, but especially by quality .A total of over 2700 German Air Force and Navy fighter pilots were trained at Luke A.F.B. between 1958 and 1983.

The largest „chunk“ was the F-104 training program. It started in 1964. On 4 June 1965 the first course completed training and the members of class 64-H celebrated their graduation enthusiastically.One of the proud graduates was the late 1st Lt Jürgen Schumann, who as captain of the Lufthansa Boing-737 “Landshut” was murdered in Mogadischu in the course of the hijacking of  this airliner. During the next 19 years untill March 16, 1983, 1868 German Air Force and Navy pilots went through the 104 training program.

LITTON INDUSTRIES OF CALIFORNIA developed the inertial navigation system (INS)  for the F-104 Starfighter. In response to a German request in early 1964 they sent a man to Luke A.F.B., who had been given a rather vague task. As part of  public relations responsibilities for the Luftwaffe in the Phoenix area, he was to “see what needed and could be done for the small German military community at Luke and to look after the young pilots…”, whatever that meant…!. This man was Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force (retired) Thomas H. Rhone.

From the very first moment on, Tom must have sensed, that the  joint German / American F-84 and  F-104 training programs were the start of  something that would exceed the usual frame of bilateral relations between two friendly air forces. With unconditional dedication he directed his efforts towards achieving best possible integration of  the student pilots, the active members of the 2nd German Airforce Training Squadron (F-104) USA and their families into their new environment, so they would become an active part of the social life of the communities of Phoenix and Glendale. In this context the 2nd GAF squadron took over sponsorship for the Glendale Boys Club for socially underpriviledged kids. The squadron, students, instructors and admin personnel, renovated a former church so that it could become the new home for the boys club.

Every year over more than a decade Tom organized soccer games between the German squadron and the USAF Academy; the proceeds of these games went to youth charity organizations in the Phoenix area. The Christmas Season was always the time for performances by the „German Singing Pilots“ under the direction of  a former F-104 instructor pilot, Lt.Col. (Reserve) Juergen Janzik, who after his retirement from the Luftwaffe had decided to stay and live in Arizona.  Up to 30 performances with german and english christmas carols were held every year in hospitals,  geriatric care centers, on stage in various theatres, in shopping malls and on television.

Of course, these activities enjoyed greatest publicity not only in the Valley of the Sun but also beyond the Arizona state borderline. This became quite obvious, when President Gerald Ford visited Luke A.F.B. in November 1974 and showed particular interest in meeting members of the german military community, especially the student pilots. Again, these reunions had to be attributed to Tom Rhone’s initiative. With truly outstanding support by LITEF, Freiburg/ Germany, a subsidiary company of LITTON INDUSTRIES, Tom organized these gatherings over more than twenty years.Based on a short remark by Arizona Governor Jack Williams, Tom had the idea to call the constantly growing  crowd  of  Luke F-104 graduates  and  the 2nd  GAF Training  Squadron staff at Luke A.F.B. the “Cactus Starfighter Squadron”. The first honorary commander was the legendary General Johannes Steinhoff, former Luftwaffe Chief of Staff .

Without any doubt, the absolute culmination of Tom Rhone’s activities was and will always remain his initiative to produce and publish the album “Those Wonderful Men in the Cactus Starfighter Squadron”. In two volumes we find documented 19 years of mutual cooperation, depicting each and every detail of this historic event called “F-104 Fighter Pilot Training Program at Luke A.F.B., Arizona”. In his album, containing a selection of pictures out of close to 30000 photos he had taken, Tom placed destinct emphasis on showing the men involved in their daily activities, devoted to their one big goal: To become a Starfighter pilot.

However, this project could never have materialized  without  Barney Oldfield, Col. (USAF) ret.. During his active days in the US forces Barney at one time enjoyed the privilege to be one of General Dwight “Ike” Eisenhower’s assistants during World War II. In his capacity as member of the public relations staff with Litton Industries he  provided the financial prerequisites and the support by his company for the production of the two volumes.The proceeds from the sale of this album became the financial basis for an enterprise which by Tom Rhone’s visionary idea was destined to become a lasting memorial for what had taken place at Luke A.F.B. over many years: The “Luftwaffe / US Air Force International Friendship Foundation”.

Today this foundation, meanwhile embedded in the Arizona State University(ASU) Foundation, proudly looks at financial assets of way over $ 300.000. From the interest proceeds annual payments are made, predominantly to youthoriented charity organizations in the Phoenix area. Also an annual student exchange program, established between the German Armed Forces University Hamburg and the Arizona State University, ASU, in Tempe, Az., is being financed by the foundation.

A student, male or female, must be a descendant of an F-104 pilot in order to be eligible.. Several exchanges have taken place already and they all were very successfull; unfortunately there have been no applications by eligible american students yet, the main problem being the language barrier. 

On March 16, 1983, the F-104 training program at Luke A.F.B. ended. In 1987 the very last  F-104G of a Luftwaffe operational wing flew its very last mission in Memmingen/Bavaria, when Fighterbomber Wing 34  began its transition to the “Tornado”.

Was the good old F-104, the “Starfighter”, the prettiest, most elegant and performancewise  the most impressive fighter airplane at its time going to disappear in the archives of military aviation history? Was it going to simply fade away?  No way!!! 

The more time went by since a guys last flight in the “One-Oh-Four”, the more intensively his interest grew  in preserving memories of those exciting years as a “Starfighter” pilot. After  merely 68 pilots showed up for the 1978 reunion, participation increased considerably over the following years. To a considerable extent this could be attributed to the fact, that not just the pilots who had gone through Luke for their F-104 training, but everyone who had flown this wonderful aircraft in the Luftwaffe or the German Navy and also the USAF pilots, who had served as instructors in the training program were cordially welcomed.

In 1982 it was decided that every active or former German or American F-104 pilot should consider himself a member of the “Cactus Starfighter Squadron”. Also the spouses were now invited to the reunions.  In 1984 we had over 200 participants and in 1990 we passed the 350 mark.

1992 saw the first reunion in Berlin, following the move of the German International Air Exhibition, ILA, from Hannover to our capital city.

At the Berlin reunion in May  2008 we welcomed  400 former “One-Oh-Four-Jocks”; close to 200  aviators brought female support…!

After decades of  most intensive organizational and logistic support for our reunions by the friendly, generous people from LITEF, it was decided, that the “Cactus Starfighter Squadron” needed independence. After so many years in existance as a merely ideal, imaginary society of F-104 fans, it was time to have a firm and solid organizational structure, which could guarantee selfcontained existence over many years to come.

And so it happened: Since 1997 we do have the “Cactus Starfighter Squadron” in the form of an official organization with close to 800 active members as of January 2007. 

Our Squadron Commander is Luftwaffe Lt.Gen. (ret.) Peter Vogler. He graduated from F-104 training at Luke in 1966 as member of  class 66-D.

His deputies are: German Navy LtCmdr Hans Joachim Schultz, Col. GAF (ret.) Georg von Graevenitz, Col. GAF (ret.) Heinrich Thüringer and Lt.Col. GAF (ret.) Horst Wilhelms.

As an independent organization we have joined the German “Fighter Pilots Association, Community of German Armed Forces Aviators”. The association has about  4000 members, very many of them from countries all over the world, including  Russia and other former Warsaw Pact countries as well as countries from all continents on this earth , except the Antarctic…

Furthermore, in the year 2000 another most important event became a historic marker in the CSS history: Lieutenant General John P. Jumper, Commander Air Combat Command (ACC) USAF and Lieutenant General Peter Vogler, Commander German Air Force Tactical Air Command (GAFTAC) in an impressive ceremony at Luke A.F.B. signed the document by which the partnership between the Cactus Starfighter Squadron and and the 63rd FS was established. The major aim was to commemorate the most impressive partnership between the United States Air Force and the German Air Force and Navy, established in 1958 and carried through 25 years of extremely successful pilot-training at Luke A.F.B., first on Republic F-84 “Thunderchief” (1958 – 1964) and then Lockheed F-104 “Starfighter” (1964 – 1983). At the same time it was to support, maintain and even strengthen in an absolutely unique manner the close relations and friendship between to allied air forces. Among other activities, the “STARFIGHTER TROPHY” is awarded during the graduation ceremony at the 63rd FS to the outstanding student of each graduating F-16-class. Following the flag-retirement of the 63rd FS in May 2009 the traditional partnership  is now being carried on between the CSS and the 310th FS at Luke A.F.B.

In a personal letter on this occasion  General Jumper, Gen. USAF (ret.) expressed his views  to LtGen. GAF (ret.) Peter Vogler, Commander of the Cactus Starfighter Squadron as follows: “…While the flag of the 63rd FS may be lowered we can never forget all that it represents. The generations of friends and families who worked hard and played hard during the years of the Cactus Starfighter Squadron formed the bonds of camaraderie that persist to this day. Many of these squadron members…went on to lead the Luftwaffe and the US Air Force, always aware of the great respect forged in the early days of their careers at Luke A.F.B.. The 310th Fighter Squadron now shares the responsibility of perpetuating these values and making them an honoured part of their own histroy…”

In order to convey the Cactus Starfighter Squadron’s and thereby also the partnership’s aims and goals, here is an excerpt of the CSS-statute:

“Based on the binding experience of mutual service (for our country) …the CSS cultivates the tradition of military aviation, with special emphasis dedicated to the epoch “F-104”, preserving and supporting the ideal of comradeship and mutual respect between its members. 

The CSS seeks friendly contacts (relations) and exchange with comparable organizations.  

The CSS considers itself  preserver of valuable traditions… These worthy traditions shall be conveyed  to future aircrew generations.”
(End of quote)

It is our sincere aim to achieve these worthy goals.

Greetings from Berlin to all “Starfighter” fans and remember to always “Check Six” 

 H o r s t   W i l h e l m s

Lt.Col. GAF (ret.)

Operations Officer

Cactus Starfighter Squadron