MARINE CORPS AIR STATION IWAKUNI, Japan -- “The United States Marine Corps, with its fiercely proud tradition of excellence in combat, its hallowed rituals and its unbending code of honor, is part of the fabric of American myth,” said Thomas E. Ricks, author of “Making the Corps.”
U.S. Marines celebrated the 75th anniversary of Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron (VMGR) 152, also known as the “Sumos,” at Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan, March 9, 2017.
Throughout the past seven and a half decades, VMGR-152 made its mark in Marine Corps history, accrediting their success to countless missions the squadron has flown during both combat support and humanitarian aid.
Born in the war-torn Western Pacific on March 11, 1942, VMGR-152, formerly known as Marine Utility Squadron (VMJ) 253, developed during the adversities of war and accomplished a wide variety of assigned missions. VMJ-253 became the parent squadron for the joint air transport organization dubbed South Pacific Combat Air Transport Command (SCAT) and supported operations on Guadalcanal and surrounding islands by November of 1942, logging thousands of flight hours.
After becoming the first combat support squadron to land at Henderson Field on Guadalcanal, VMJ-253 continued to re-supply fuel, ammunition, food and medical supplies in support to their besieged comrades after a Japanese counter attack forced the United States Navy to withdraw.
Until the end of 1942, the Marines of VMJ-253 and other SCAT units, in their R4Ds, solved the logistical problems of Marines and soldiers on Guadalcanal.
Throughout 1943, VMJ-253 supported operations on Bougainville, New Georgia, Vella Lavella and numerous islands throughout the Solomon chain. In October of 1943, VMJ-253 moved to Guam and supported actions on Tinian, Saipan and Peleliu. As the island-hopping campaign moved into the Central Pacific in 1944, VMJ-253 did as well. The squadron officially became redesignated Marine Transport Squadron (VMR) 253 upon detaching from SCAT.
Then assigned to the Transport Air Group, VMR-253 continued the heavy schedule of lifts from Tarawa, sortied to Kwajalein, Roi-Namur and Eniwetok. VMR-253 remained in Guam until the close of the war.
In May 1946, VMR-253 relocated to MCAS Miramar, California, before moving to MCAS El Toro, California, under Marine Aircraft Group 25 where the aging fleet of R4Ds was replaced with R5Ds. VMR-253 continued its primary mission of moving men and supplies wherever the Marine Corps desired and after a four-year stand down, the squadron reactivated in 1951 with six R5C aircraft, five officers and 18 enlisted Marines.
From January 1952 through June 1953, the squadron logged over 11,000 flight hours, carried 30,170 passengers and moved 5,213,383 pounds of cargo during the Korean War.
In 1954, the squadron repositioned to Itami Air Force Base, Japan and then to MCAS Iwakuni where VMR-253 conducted the bulk of the Marine air transport in the Pacific for nearly a decade. Then on February 1, 1962, the Lockheed KC-130F Hercules joined Marine aviation in the Pacific. Now with the ability to refuel fighter and attack aircraft, the squadron was redesignated VMGR-152 and the squadrons primary mission became aerial refueling.
Beginning in 1965, with increasing U.S. involvement in Vietnam, detachments from VMGR-152 were deployed with Marine Amphibious Forces to support F-4 Phantoms and A-4 Skyhawks used by Marine tactical squadrons. VMGR-152 then relocated to Okinawa, Japan, to better support the detachments in Vietnam. By October of 1965, the squadron was flying 900 missions a month and continued this high tempo of operations well into 1967.
From 1967 to 1975, the bulk of VMGR-152’s missions directly supported action in Southeast Asia. Concurrently, the squadron was instituting itself as a mainstay in the Western Pacific. VMGR-152 conducted countless trans-Pacific missions, which involved the refueling of entire squadrons of fighter and attack aircraft as they traversed the Pacific on deployment. VMGR-152 also partook in a myriad of exercises and the movement of tons of cargo and thousands of troops, securing their tenure in the Western Pacific.
After being relieved of its trans-Pacific mission in 1980, VMGR-152 explored a more tactical employment of the KC-130 in intra-theater refueling and transport operations, and the squadron employed a more effective use of the aircraft and its personnel in a tactical environment. In 1987, VMGR-152 became the first permanent change of station aircraft squadron on MCAS Futenma.
In January 1995, VMGR-152 joined Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force in support of Operation United Shield, the final withdrawal of all United Nations Operations in Somalia.
In November and December 2004, the Sumos participated in Joint Task Force 535, the Humanitarian Aid and Disaster Relief mission in the Republic of the Philippines after tropical storms and typhoons struck the island of Luzon. After an earthquake off the coast of Indonesia and subsequent widespread tsunami in the Indian Ocean region on December 26, 2004, VMGR-152 deployed aircraft and personnel to Thailand, Sri Lanka and Indonesia in support of Operation Unified Assistance.
Again in 2006, the Marines of VMGR-152 provided relief in the Philippines and Indonesia. Due to the Sumos flexibility and readiness, American forces played a significant role in aiding the international community and saving countless lives.
On June 4, 2007, VMGR-152 received their first KC-130J Super Hercules and on June 19, 2007, the squadron conducted their first operational flight of the newly acquired aircraft.
Once again called upon to provide humanitarian aid in June 2008, the Sumos flew approximately 4,802 hours and delivered 2,808,954 pound of cargo in the wake of a tropical storm in Burma.
In May 2009, VMGR-152 sent two KC-130Js as a detachment with VMGR-352 in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, the Sumos first combat deployment since 1975.
Throughout 2010 and 2011, the squadron assisted in relief efforts after typhoon Megi hit the Republic of the Philippines and in Operation Tomodachi when an 8.9 magnitude earthquake caused a tsunami that hit mainland Japan.
“From my experiences, we are usually the first ones carrying water, food and humanitarian aid anywhere in the region in response to earthquakes, typhoons and other disasters,” said U.S. Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. Michael Atkins, squadron gunnery sergeant with VMGR-152. “I was here in 2011 for Operation Tomodachi . . . within two days, MCAS Futenma was empty. Every aircraft was flow up to MCAS Iwakuni to support the relief efforts.”
Continuing to meet high operational demands and supporting joint operations with the Army, Navy and Air Force, VMGR-152 continues to set the standard for operational readiness and support in the Western Pacific.
The Sumos final deployment of three crews, two aircraft and 40 maintenance Marines returned from Afghanistan in July 2012. The return marked the end of eight consecutive wartime deployments to Operation Enduring Freedom and a restoration of a 15 plane fleet now available for future operational commitments tasked to the Sumos throughout the Pacific Command. Since mid-2012, VMGR-152 has been involved in various exercises throughout their area of responsibility including Hawaii, Alaska, Australia, Thailand, Nepal, Cambodia and Mongolia.
Surpassing all challenges with unwavering dedication and commitment, resulting in a year of unmatched success and accomplishments, the Sumos participated in every major III Marine Expeditionary Force exercise in the Pacific Command Area of Responsibility and provided support to combat operations in Afghanistan while surpassing 292 thousand mishap-free flight hours.
On July 15, 2014, VMGR-152 transferred to MCAS Iwakuni as part of the nation’s rebalance in the Pacific theater. Transporting all its gear, maintenance equipment, crew members and maintainers over 600 miles in less than a month, the squadron maintained full support to all III MEF operations.
“2014 marked a historic year for the Sumos . . . VMGR-152 prepared for and executed the first relocation of an active aviation squadron from one (Outside Continental United States) location to another in over 50 years, shifting its colors from MCAS Futenma to MCAS Iwakuni,” said U.S. Marine Corps 1st Lt. Matthew Odgers, adjutant with VMGR-152. “Despite the high tempo and major logistical challenges, the Sumo families settled into their new home at MCAS Iwakuni on schedule with no mishaps.”
Once again in April 2015, the Sumos responded with humanitarian aid after a 7.8 earthquake devastated Nepal and was able to bring Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 265 from Okinawa to Kathmandu, Nepal. The squadron was also afforded the privilege to commend past fallen heroes.
“Later in 2015, the Sumos had the opportunity to honor 36 fallen Marines of World War II, to include Medal of Honor recipient Alexander Bonnyman, from the island of Tarawa, with a repatriation flight,” said Odgers. “The Marines were returned to U.S. soil at U.S. Air Force Base Hickam, Honolulu, Hawaii.”
The mission of VMGR-152 is to support the MAGTF commander by providing aerial refueling and assault support, day or night under all weather conditions during expeditionary, joint, or combined operations.
“I’ve spent six and a half years in my career with the Sumos,” said U.S. Marine Corps Master Sgt. James S. Fullarton II, quality assurance representative with VMGR-152. “The dynamics of this unit outweigh all the other units due to the fact that we are isolated from our norm . . . the United States. Being in Japan, we get to dive into the Japanese culture and learn more about our allies. It also allows us, as Marines, to build more camaraderie . . . to become a stronger and more adhesive unit.”
For over 70 years, VMGR-152 has maintained a tradition of excellence, innovation and leadership in both the aviation community and the United States Marine Corps. Having served in every major conflict the U.S. has faced since their establishment, the Sumos stand ready at the “Tip of the Spear” to face any challenge and live up to their reputation as the “Workhorse of the Pacific."