(First Published in The Hook, Summer 1996)
April 1, 1967. Seventy miles north of Crete, the officers and men of VAW Det‑66 gathered on the hangar bay of the America in preparation for the commissioning of VAW‑122. Numbering some one hundred and fifty‑four, they were about to open a new chapter in the history of VAW. Twenty‑nine years later that chapter is coming to a close. In that time, VAW‑122 has seen action every where on the globe ‑‑ from the jungles of Vietnam and the mountains of northern Iraq, to the frozen Arctic wastes. The history of this squadron serves as both touchstone and metaphor for the Cold War and post‑Cold War eras.
The VAW community found itself the largest single community in naval aviation by 1967. Growing out of the Fleet Airborne Electronic Units (FAETU) at the close of World War Two, carrier‑based AEW expanded in size and capability. The venerable TBM‑3W gave way in succession to the ADW series, the WF and finally the E‑2A. At the same time, the FAETU’s had passed on to VAW’s ‑1 and ‑2, VC’s ‑11 and ‑12 and finally, VAW’s ‑11 and ‑12. Dets were embarked around the globe from the parent squadrons. As the technical complexity and capability of the aircraft grew, especially with the advent of the E‑2, the Navy came to recognize that a new organizational scheme would be required to support and fully exploit the expanding tactical ability of carrier AEW. In 1965, the Bureau of Naval Personnel, in concert with BuAer, decided to split VAW‑11 and ‑12 into component squadrons consisting of four E‑2′s per squadron. One squadron on each coast would remain with E‑1B’s until the 27C class carriers were phased out. Additionally, an administrative, or type‑wing, would be created out of the remaining personnel from VAW‑11 and ‑12 as well as a replacement training squadron. On the east coast, this lead to the creation of CAEWW‑12, RVAW‑120 and VAW’s ‑121, ‑122 and ‑123. April 1, 1967 was the start date established for this reorganization.
The First Years: “Hummergators” and Combat Ops
April 1st found CV‑66 underway for a nine month Mediterranean deployment. O‑in‑C of DET 66 was LCDR “Chuck” Berthe who was subsequently relieved by CDR Ted Newark upon commissioning of the squadron. By virtue of the fact that they were underway on their commissioning date, VAW‑122 became the first of the newly created east coast E‑2 squadrons to be deployed. Assigned the callsign, “STEELJAW,” they soon began a pace of operations that would set the tempo for the remaining life of the squadron. Reflecting on the newly found prestige of being a squadron rather than a mere det, Capt.(ret) Newark noted that division in the ready room (shared with the “Road Runners” of VA‑36) suddenly became more equal, with division along its length rather than relegation to the back of the ready room. Another pleasant surprise was that he also found himself the senior CO in the air wing, much to the chagrin of the fighter and attack squadrons. Continuing the trend setting nature of the squadron, the XO was LCDR Jack Bley, an NFO. Looking back with today’s perspective, it is hard to understand that not all that long ago there was a strong institutional bias against NFO’s becoming squadron CO’s. Capt. Newark noted, though, that in spite of the grief he was getting from CNAL and others, a highly capable and technically proficient group of NFO’s were coming to the forefront of Naval Aviation, and the VAW community was showing the way.
The first order of business for any newly created squadron is development of an appropriate squadron patch. Looking to merge the STEELJAW callsign with the capabilities of the new platform, a competition was held to design the new logo. One of the revolutionary aspects of the E‑2A was its incorporation of a digital data link (Link ‑11, part of the Airborne Tactical Data System or ATDS), unlike the less robust video data link of previous platforms. The nickname for this datalink was “Alligator” (that of the video data link was BELL HOP). The resulting union yielded the “Hummer‑gator.” The description submitted to CNO for approval read in part:
“The alligator, shown lunching on an enemy aircraft, symbolizes the ability of VAW‑122 to seek out and destroy, with fighters, enemy raiders on the task force. His affinity for watery environs reflects the squadron’s carrier‑based operations. The way in which the alligator swiftly and savagely protects its nest is indicative of VAW‑122’s usage of state of the art electronics in the E‑2A HAWKEYE to warn the task force and to direct supersonic fighter aircraft.”
In typical, official Washington fashion, the insignia was disapproved owing perhaps to its resemblance to a figure out of the (very un‑p.c.) comic strip “Pogo.” Of course, by the time word reached the squadron, patches and plaques were already made and the squadron was engaged in far more important matters in South East Asia.
* VAW‑121 still provided E‑1B dets until it transitioned to the E‑2C in 1976.
The first operation VAW‑122 took part in was PHIBLEX 10‑67, providing the first Sixth Fleet test of the E‑2A (flown by VAW‑122) against VAW‑121 (DET 60)* E‑1B’s off the SARATOGA. The vastly improved capabilities of the E‑2A were showcased, despite the problems it was having with the computer (which would remain unresolved until the advent of the E‑2B).
The world in 1967 was becoming an increasingly dangerous place for members of the Free World, and the U.S. was finding itself engaged on a wide variety of fronts, directly and indirectly, by the Soviet Union and its proxies. The American commitment in Southeast Asia was growing by the day, tensions were escalating in the Middle East between Israel and its Arab neighbors and on the high seas, the Soviet navy, heretofore regarded as a coastal defense force, was deploying in increasing numbers.
Shortly after commissioning, VAW‑122 was plunged into the first major international crisis since the affair over Cuba six years previous. The first week of June 1967, found the nation of Israel engaged in a stunningly effective war against it’s numerically superior Arab neighbors, specifically Egypt, Jordan and Syria. As these Soviet client states suffered one devastating setback after another, the Soviet Navy poured into the eastern Med., at one point numbering over fifty ships. In the midst of this crisis, the intelligence ship LIBERTY, was suddenly attacked in international waters by elements of the Israeli armed forces. Suffering severe damage and casualties, the LIBERTY called for assistance from the AMERICA battle group. Throughout the night, VAW‑122 flew with VF‑33 and VF‑102, providing protection from further attacks. Since most of LIBERTY’s communication and navigation capabilities were destroyed in the attack, VAW‑122 remained airborne to provide direct communications and aid in the rendezvous with CTF‑60 as well as providing AAW services and maintaining surface surveillance. As she closed to helo range, VAW‑122 controlled the helos evacuating the dead and wounded from LIBERTY.
The remainder of this first deployment was spent refining tactics developed for establishing and maintaining a wide area surface surveillance plan, antimissile boat tactics and working on the air wing tactics that would be employed on the following year’s combat deployment to Vietnam. During this same deployment the STEELJAWS sent an aircraft to Paris to participate in the biannual Paris International Air and Space Show, where it provoked considerable interest among the attendees, especially the Soviet delegation. The squadron returned to Norfolk in September with almost 1500 hours flown on their first deployment and began a very short turnaround with the rest of Attack Carrier Air Wing Six.
A little over one year from its establishment, VAW‑122 was on deployment again with CVAW‑6 and AMERICA. A short work up cycle saw time lost due to a fleet wide grounding of E‑2A’s for possible over‑stressed tail structures (none were found following subsequent inspections) and the arrival of the first Air Control Officers (ACO’s) from the new NATTC Glynco ATDS course and RVAW‑120. Deploying 10 April 1968, the AMERICA BG headed for the Puerto Rican OPAREA for its ORI and from there to S.E. Asia via Rio De Janeiro, around the Cape of Good Hope and the I.O., arriving in Cubi on 22 May. Following a series of briefings in Cubi, the AMERICA arrived on Yankee Station and began combat operations with the launch of VAW‑122 on 31 May.
Owing to limitations in the ability of the E‑2A to detect targets overland, the missions for VAW consisted of PIRAZ Assist, Strike Control, NIGHT HAWK, A‑6 AMTI and RA‑3B IR Support as well as Tanker and Airborne SAR Coordinator. Whereas the first three were more or less “traditional” VAW missions, the last three grew directly out of operational experience in Vietnam for nighttime operations. The NIGHT HAWK mission consisted of Side‑Looking Airborne Radar (SLAR) equipped Army OV‑1B MOHAWK’s, “pouncer” aircraft (usually A‑7′s) and the E‑2A. The Mohawk, paralleling the coast, would mark targets moving at night along enemy LOC’s and call range and bearings to a target from itself. The E‑2 would mark the target on its system and vector the “pouncer” aircraft onto the target. Experienced operators would judge how far down the road traffic had moved and position aircraft to take full advantage of this. A‑6 AMTI (Airborne Moving target Indicator) support was similar except the pouncer, usually an F‑4, was positioned in trail of the AMTI‑equipped A‑6. RA‑3B support missions likewise were similar except that the RA‑3 was employing IR detection and usually was airborne over the panhandle region of North Vietnam. In addition to these missions, Link‑11 and, for the first time on the Line, Link‑4 (an UHF E‑2 to fighter datalink) were fully employed.
During its second line period, VAW‑122 began experimenting with ways to impart some overland tracking capability to the E‑2A against the daytime MiG threat over North Vietnam. Flying a low station (usually about 2,000 to 5,000 feet), the E‑2 was able to reduce the effect of land return and, in turn, gain improved use of AMTI. Efforts in this area yielded tangible results with the AMERICA’s first MiG kill on 10 July. Although another NTDS unit conducted control of the intercept, the E‑2 provided the detection of the MiG’s penetration south of the 19th parallel that set the intercept in motion. Growing from this and other instances, the E‑2′s role in AEW and AAW was reemphasized, to the extent that VAW‑122 was made a permanent member of the Yankee Station CAP management committee.
As the deployment continued, VAW‑122 increased the number of double coverage and night missions flown. The last line period saw almost 65% of missions flown at night. Link‑4 operations expanded as all concerned gained more familiarity and comfort in dealing with it. Besides vectors to the tanker and homeplate, “Dolly,” as it came to be called, saw increased use in intercept operations. Continued improvements in overland detection of MiG’s were realized, as were attempts to expand VAW’s knowledge base by cross decking with other squadrons (such as VAW‑113). The STEELJAWS also learned they were recipients of the CNAL Battle “E” for the previous year, the first of the new VAW’s to be recognized as such. August also found the first change of command with CDR B. K. Hannula relieving CDR Newark while in Hong Kong. The fourth and final line period saw a 100% sortie completion rate, with over 620 combat support hours flown during a 29-day period.
Leaving Subic Bay for the last time in November, the squadron had amassed an impressive record for only its second deployment. Over 2,450 hours had been flown, including 2,024 combat support hours. AMERICA and VAW‑122 began their return voyage home by way of Australia, New Zealand, and Rio de Janeiro for well deserved liberty. Arriving in Norfolk on 16 December, the STEELJAWS became the first VAW squadron to complete an around the world cruise, and the first to complete deployments in both the Mediterranean and Western Pacific. Along with AMERICA and Air Wing SIX, VAW‑122 was awarded the Navy Unit Commendation for this deployment.
As the squadron moved into the third year of operation and a new decade, change became the order of the day. In April, VAW‑122 began its long-term association with the INDEPENDENCE (CVA‑62) and CVAW‑7 with a REFTRA cruise and an ORI later in the year. Another change of command took place in July, with CDR J.E. Hoch taking the helm, and then the STEELJAWS and INDY were bound for the North Atlantic and a major NATO exercise (PEACE KEEPER) off the coast of England. The year closed with the STEELJAWS providing coverage and tanker control for a Marine F‑4 squadron returning from Roosevelt Roads, P.R. and the submission of a new squadron insignia. The bureaucracy in Washington was mollified and approved the adoption of the new insignia that drew on the theme “… three if by air.” Unfortunately the squadron was also hit by the first of the Navy‑wide reductions in force (RIF) wherein four experienced aircrew and 23 maintenance personnel were unexpectedly separated under Project 703.
Rolling into the new decade, VAW‑122 began much as it had finished the previous ‑‑ on deployment. Leaving Norfolk in July, INDY and CVW‑7 were bound for the Mediterranean. Following inchop to SIXTH Fleet and participation in PHIBLEX and NATIONAL WEEK exercises and an in‑port period in Athens, INDY was underway in September north of Crete when another crisis in the Mid‑East, this time in Jordan, required contingency stationing 70 NM south of Cyprus. During the next month, VAW‑122 would provide AEW and surface surveillance of Soviet ships shadowing the task force. At times, when INDY was the sole CVA on station, the STEELJAWS were required to provide continuous coverage, the longest period of which was 70 hours. With the conclusion of ops, VAW‑122, as a component of the Air Wing SEVEN/INDY team, was awarded the Meritorious Unit Commendation. The remainder of the deployment was routine with the squadron returning in January to Norfolk. Another Med deployment followed in late 1971, returning to Norfolk in March 1972. Preparations began in March for another Med deployment, slated to begin that June. Indicating that indeed, this would be a year of change, INDY became LANTFLT’s first officially designated CV with the change from CVA’s and CVS’s to CV’s. With the incorporation of two more squadrons, HS‑5 and VS‑28, CVW‑7 significantly increased INDY’s deck loading. As a result, several aircraft and crews were temporarily shore‑based over the course of the deployment, except for VAW‑122, which was viewed as integral to all CV ops.
The routine of another Med deployment was shattered with Egypt’s sudden strike across the Suez Canal and Sinai peninsula as the 1973 Yom Kippur war began. A general recall was started at 2330 on 6 Oct and by 1000 the following morning, INDY and the STEELJAWS were on station south of Crete for contingency operations. By the end of the month, the FDR and JFK had joined INDY conducting three carrier ops. The significantly increased flight hours resulted in exhausted OPTAR funds, but flight ops continued anyway. During this same period, the Soviets deployed the largest number of ships ever into the East Med. In part a response to this development, INDY operated under total EMCON for four days after its departure from Athens in early November, with VAW‑122 directing and coordinating all operations, day and night, including marginal weather. The value of the E‑2 in permitting this operation was demonstrated in that shortly after EMCON ops ceased, Indy gained a Soviet shadow. Returning from this deployment in January 1974, VAW‑122 had another short turnaround, change of command during which CDR C. G. Norrington became the first NFO as STEELJAW ONE, and was into workups again by March in preparation for a July deployment. Somewhat less eventful than the previous year’s deployment, this one nonetheless saw an extensive SAR effort for a TWA crash in the East Med and contingency ops for possible evacuation of U.S. personnel from Cyprus as the situation worsened between Greece and Turkey. The rest of the deployment was completed without incident and apparently much flight time, as Indy significantly reduced SOA in an attempt to economize fuel and OPTAR.
When the STEELJAWS returned from this deployment, change was again to be the order of the day. Following the change of command in January, VAW‑122 began transferring their E‑2B’s to the West Coast in anticipation of receiving the newer E‑2C’s. On 22 April 1975, the last E‑2B assigned to an East Coast fleet squadron departed for NAS North Island. As much as an improvement that the E‑2A/B had been over the E‑1B, by the early 1970′s it was becoming increasing evident that major improvements were required for the weapon system and overall reliability. The E‑2B was essentially the older E‑2A airframe with improved weapons system components ‑‑ and it was showing its age. Airframe corrosion, problems with the metal props, as well as requirements driving the E‑2 to provide a greater overland capability were taking their toll on the E‑2B’s. The E‑2C would meet these needs with improved overland detection ability, an ESM suite and major component changes that would significantly affect overall aircraft and system reliability and availability. The first E‑2C for VAW‑122 arrived on 8 June 1975 with the final one arriving the following February. During this time, VAW‑122 was detached from CVW‑7 and assigned to CAEWW‑12, adopting the GE tailcode for the first time, while undergoing transition training in the E‑2C. As the transition to the E‑2C continued in 1976, VAW‑122 participated in a number of exercises and other taskings out of Norfolk and NAS Miramar. Included in this were ALQ‑108 verification, an extensive West Coast Procedural Exercise and a det in support of E‑3A AWACS ATDS test and evaluation. The year closed with the STEELJAWS developing an increasingly westward orientation as they joined CVW‑11 in preparation for a 1977 WESTPAC deployment onboard the KITTY HAWK. Part of this preparation included becoming the first E‑2C squadron to participate in the RED FLAG exercise at Nellis AFB.
The improved capabilities and reliability of the E‑2C continued to be demonstrated through the deployment, culminating with VAW‑122 receiving the highest grade in CVW‑11 on the ORE by AIRPAC graders, despite the limitation of being the only east coast squadron in the airwing and consequent abbreviated training schedule. On 25 October 1977, the World Famous STEELJAWS returned to WESTPAC ops for the first time since their Vietnam deployment almost ten years previous. It was also during this period that the now familiar shark logo was adopted as the official squadron insignia, reflecting the STEELJAW callsign.
Following the WESTPAC deployment, VAW‑122 returned to Norfolk where it rejoined the INDY, this time with CVW‑6. It also began transition to the Advanced Radar Processing System (ARPS) version of the E‑2C, providing significant improvement to overland capabilities.
Cold War, Hot Spots: STEELJAWS on the move
1980 opened on an all too familiar STEELJAW theme ‑‑ a budding crisis in the Mid‑East and an upcoming deployment at the end of the year. As workups progressed with CVW‑6 on the INDY, it was increasingly apparent that the Indian Ocean and ops off Iran would be in the STEELJAWS’ future. Departing Norfolk in November, turnover was completed with the IKE/CVW‑7 off the Cape of Good Hope in early December. After arriving on GONZO station in the North Arabian Sea, ops commenced in company with the RANGER CVBG. Thankfully, this deployment would provide the opportunity for double the port visit (1) that IKE had enjoyed on its 9-month deployment. Port visits to Freemantle, Australia and Port Louis, Mauritius provided opportunities not normally enjoyed by an East Coast VAW squadron. Additionally, a weapons week near Diego Garcia, numerous PASEX’s with PACFLT CVBG’s, HARPOONEX’s and other exercises (STEEL BEACH) served to relieve the tedium that was GONZO station. The STEELJAWS had another opportunity to make history as they transited the Suez Canal enroute to Norfolk on their homeward leg, the first CVBG since the 1967 war to do so.
The remainder of 1981 was spent in post deployment standdown and meeting the growing number of taskings the VAW community was receiving outside of CVOPS. Workups began again in February 1982 for another Med deployment that would begin in June and run through December. Deploying as a dual CVBG (with FORRESTAL), INDY/CVW‑6 left in early June. The geopolitical landscape of the Middle East was in flux (again) with Lebanon imploding. Following the Israeli invasion earlier that spring, an U.S. brokered agreement provided for the evacuation of the PLO from Beirut and the landing of an U.S. Marine Expeditionary Force. The STEELJAWS were tasked with providing continuous AEW and SSSC coverage for these operations. In addition to long standing military threats, the possibilities of air‑ and seaborne terrorist attacks against U.S. forces afloat and ashore were becoming distinct possibilities, especially given the very close proximity of the CVBG to the coast. Besides support to the MEF, the STEELJAWS were also tasked with flight following/safety of flight for the diplomatic shuttle flights that included Presidential Envoys Philip Habib and Ambassador Morrio Draper as well as SECDEF Weinberger and several Congressional representatives. Although over one‑half of the deployment was spent on BAGEL Station, there were opportunities for other operations and exercises as well. Among these were DISPLAY DETERMINATION (dramatically shortened by renewed hostilities in Lebanon) and operations in the Libyan FIR. The latter prompted numerous Libyan reactions, usually in the form of up to three pairs of fighters, but these would immediately RTB upon intercept by CVW‑6 F‑14′s under STEELJAW control. 1982 proved to be a very successful one for VAW‑122, with their achievements noted in the awarding of the CNO AEW Excellence Award, CNAL Battle “E” and CNO Safety “S” for a year during which over 3,000 hours were flown. The XO, CDR Bud Kraft, also took honors as the CVW‑6 “Top Hook” for the deployment.
Plans for another “routine” Med deployment in late 1983 were quickly shelved as the INDY CVBG got underway on 18 October from Norfolk. A coup was underway on the small Caribbean island of Grenada, led by a Marxist group with strong ties to Cuba. American citizens had to be evacuated and the stability and order of other governments in the region were threatened. The U.S. provided a joint task force to restore order, evacuate the Americans and neutralize the Cuban presence. Engaged in combat support operations again, the STEELJAWS flew around the clock for the next three days, providing coordination and communications for airborne support of forces ashore. Upon the completion of OPERATION URGENT FURY, the INDY BG left for the Med and more anticipated time on BAGEL Station. Shortly after arriving on station in December, INDY/CVW‑6 were engaged in combat operations again in company with JFK/CVW‑3 as retaliatory strikes were taken against SAM sites and gun emplacements that had taken US aircraft under fire. Under difficult circumstances, the STEELJAWS performed flawlessly, reprising their roles of strike control, PIRAZ and SAR coordinator from Vietnam. BAGEL Station ops were left behind for TEAMWORK ’84, a joint NATO exercise in the North Atlantic in February and March and the STEELJAWS returned home in April, looking again at a very short turnaround period prior to another deployment. The last deployment of the STEELJAWS onboard the INDY commenced 16 October with a split Med/IO deployment on tap. This however, would be a relatively short one (4 months) as INDY was due for SLEP upon return. During the course of the deployment, the STEELJAWS had a number of opportunities to work in the overland environment in joint exercises with the Egyptians (SEA WIND) and Omaniis (BEACON FLASH).
Following their return to Norfolk, the STEELJAWS embarked aboard the FORRESTAL for the first time in July, beginning workups for the 1986 deployment. As part of the upcoming deployment, VAW‑122, along with VAW‑126 on the east coast, was picked to examine the possibility of using experienced E‑2C NFO’s as an NFO copilot. The impetus for this grew out of the previous two-year’s ops with as many as 40 days of continuous, around the clock operations by VAW squadrons while on BAGEL Station. Crew rest and fatigue factors began to play increasingly important roles as the E‑2 squadrons carried out these operations, and temporary fixes in the form of using ship’s company and embarked staff did not provide the optimal solution. VAW‑120 was tasked to develop a NATOPS syllabus and each squadron selected up to four-second tour NFO’s to qualify. Operations were to be solely for day/VMC off the ship. Although the concept was utilized on the following deployment, concerns about pilot currency, task loading on the dual‑role, senior NFO’s and improved PTR providing more pilots removed the necessity for this program. The decade closed with a “short” (five and one‑half month) Med deployment that saw ops in the Libyan FIR as well as numerous bi‑ and multi‑national exercises. Returning in April 1990 from yet another holiday season deployed (“if it’s Christmas we must be deployed”) the STEELJAWS participated in a number of CVW‑6 MISSELEX’s and STRIKEX’s in the Norfolk area as well as Space Shuttle SAR contingency ops. Another mission for VAW was undertaken in 1982 when E‑2C’s began flying in support of the Treasury Department’s (Customs) attempt to stem the flow of narcotics entering the southern U.S. via an airbridge originating in South America. The first deployments were out of south Florida and gradually expanded outward from there. In August of 1990, the STEELJAWS would be one of the first E‑2 squadrons to deploy to Howard AFB, Panama in an attempt to get closer to the source of the narcotics, and effect the interdiction there. For the next two months VAW‑122 along with VAW‑112 (and later VAW‑114) flew around the clock off the Pacific coast of Central and South America. Although the living conditions were austere (metal tool sheds, AKA “Marine Corps Expeditionary Shelters”) and the weather on the wild side, success was immediate and constant as the STEELJAWS tracked and intercepted suspect aircraft departing from and inbound to South America with Howard‑based F‑16′s.
The end of the decade also saw moves on the international scene that shook the very foundations of the post‑war geopolitical structure. Many of these changes would directly impact the STEELJAWS as they moved into the 1990′s.
Another war in the Middle East was under way, again. This time though it was Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. As U.S. forces ramped up for deployment to the region, CVW‑6 and FID began an abbreviated workup schedule in anticipation of joining the other CVBG’s that were deployed to the Gulf. What evolved became a series of set and canceled deployment dates, finally settling on 29 May ‑ 20 December 91. It was also learned that this would be the final deployment for CVW‑6 and CV‑59. The Cold War was won and the price of the anticipated “Peace Dividend” was a reduced standing force. FORRESTAL was to become the new training carrier and the squadrons of CVW‑6 were slated for decommissioning in 1992 following this deployment.
The final carrier deployment of the STEELJAWS was notable for a number of factors. It saw extensive operations over northern Iraq in support of Operation PROVIDE COMFORT as well as participation in DISPLAY DETERMINATION (DD‑91) and other exercises. Unfortunately it also saw the loss of STEELJAW 601 (BuNo 161343) east of Cyprus due to an uncontrollable engine fire immediately after the catapult shot. Marking a first though for the community was the fact that all five crewmembers (LCDR John Yurchak, LT Vincent Bowhers, LTJG John Lemon, LTJG Terry Morris and LTJG Bob Forwalder) successfully bailed out of the aircraft.
On 21 December 1991, the STEELJAWS flew off FORRESTAL for the last time from an operational deployment. Planing was underway for the decommissioning, slated for early 1992, to the extent that some personnel were already receiving orders elsewhere. However, with the growth in OPTEMPO experienced by the VAW community, especially in the past five years, and the decommissioning of other VAW squadrons (VAW’s ‑111 and ‑127), a decision was made by CNO to keep VAW‑122 active. CNO stated that VAW‑122 would assume a new role as a special mission squadron, becoming the VAW community’s primary participant in Joint Task Force FOUR’s counter‑drug operations. The STEELJAWS were to remain “operationally capable,” though. This meant that the squadron had to be ready to rejoin an airwing within 6 months of notification, thus requiring that they maintain the same training levels as the other VAW’s, including CQ (somewhat more problematic without an assigned airwing and carrier). Marking their tasking in this area, VAW‑122 started the month of May with OCEAN VENTURE 92 and completed it with a deployment to Panama. During this deployment, VAW‑122 was credited with 6 major drug smuggling arrests and identification of 22 air and surface targets of interest.
September brought two more aircraft, for a total of 6 onboard, UHF SATCOM and another JTF‑4 deployment to Cuba as well as Orange Air services off VACAPES. CQ on the THEODORE ROOSEVELT and a third CD deployment (8 arrests and 28 air and surface TOI’s) brought the year to a close with over 2,000 hours and 530 missions flown. The following year brought two more CD deployments, a deployment onboard the CONSTELLATION as it returned to the west coast following SLEP and yet another transition as the STEELJAWS became the first fleet E‑2 squadron to begin integrating women. By 1994 the squadron was in full swing, providing support to JTF‑4 (which later became Director, Joint Inter‑Agency Task Force EAST ‑‑ JIATFE). The STEELJAWS were deployed for over 190 days that year, including a five-month deployment to GTMO and Roosey Roads with the squadron split between the two sites. Unfortunately rumors of decommissioning were beginning to crop up again and finally in November it was made official. Despite the STEELJAWS’ success, the decision was made in Washington that a new Reserve squadron, VAW‑77, would be stood up and assume the counter‑drug portion of VAW‑122′s mission. Decom was to take place by March 1996.
Two more deployments were in order for 1995 along with CQ’s (the last taking place on the Enterprise) and an enormous amount of fleet support and other taskings. On October 9th, the STEELJAWS left Norfolk on their last deployment. This would be the most challenging CD deployment to date as it was in support of SOUTHCOM operations. For two of the almost three months the squadron was deployed, it was split with a three plane det operating from Curacao and flying deep into the South American interior. Success was again swift and complete as the STEELJAWS scored significant results, including two aircraft and drug processing labs destroyed, two vessels seized, eight arrests and over three and one‑half metric tons of cocaine seized. Returning to Norfolk at the end of the year, VAW‑122 began turning the reins over to VAW‑77, transferring planes and people in preparation for disestablishment.
The final tally for the three and one‑half year CD effort put forward by the Steeljaws is impressive. VAW‑122 flew 1247 sorties, in excess of 5765 CD hours, tracking over 86,000 air contacts (562 of which were suspect air tracks). Additionally, the squadron was directly credited with over 14 metric tons of cocaine and 2 tons of marijuana interdicted and seized. Just as important a statistic though, is the fact that in singularly accounting for over one‑third of the VAW CD days deployed for this period, VAW‑122 provided substantial relief for the remaining VAW squadrons, time that was able to be spent on airwing training and at home.
For twenty‑nine years VAW‑122 conducted operations in every theater around the world, defining and exploring new mission areas for AEW. The squadron’s hallmark is found in its first and last years of existence ‑‑ namely that just as when it was commissioned, VAW‑122 was deployed and engaged in a redefinition of AEW, and more specifically, E‑2 capabilities. That the squadron accomplished this year after year under a demanding OPTEMPO and PERSTEMPO environment, and did it successfully is testimony to the dedication, ingenuity and professionalism displayed by all who called themselves STEELJAWS.
We’ll be back . . .