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Duluth National Guardsmen to be honored for service

A select few members of Duluth's148th Fighter Wing were selected for recognition this year.

William Tell 1970
The 179th Fighter Interceptor Squadron sent this team of pilots to the 1970 William Tell air-to-air weapons meet at Florida's Tyndall Air Force Base, where they took top honors in the F-102 Deuce category. From left, the pilots included Lt. Col. Al "Ammo" Amatuzio, Jaj. Ray "Rayces" Sahlstrom, Capt. John "Rev" Bowman and Capt. Ray "Klos" Klosowski.
Contributed / Minnesota Air National Guard
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DULUTH — Four former members of the Minnesota Air National Guard’s 148th Fighter Wing will be recognized Sunday afternoon, when they are inducted into the Flight of Honor for their outstanding service.

“The 148th Fighter Wing enjoys a rich legacy of excellence," Unit Commander Col. Nathan Aysta said. "This year’s inductees to the Flight of Honor represent our founding members, leaders in their fields, public servants and heroes who died while performing military service. It’s a privilege to formally recognize those who have distinguished themselves with notable professional achievement and service or heroism.”

In all, 11 members of the Minnesota Air National Guard Chief will be recognized.

“The Flight of Honor is a celebration of those who demonstrated uncommon achievement or gave their life while serving in the Minnesota Air National Guard," Chief of Staff Brig. Gen. Chris Blomquist said.

The local honorees include Brig. Gen. Raymond Klosowski, Capt. James L. Verville, Chief Master Sgt. James A. Armstrong and Master Sgt. George R. Ion. Most of those inductions will be posthumous, with the exception of Klosowski.

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Ray Klosowski joined the Minnesota Air National Guard’s 179th Fighter Interceptor Squadron, based in Duluth, as a fighter pilot in 1963.

Retired Lt. Col. Audra Flanagan, chief of public affairs for the 148th, referred to Klosowski as “the epitome of an aviator and a leader both.”

Klosowski flew most of the aircraft the Duluth base ever had in its fleet, including the F-89J Scorpion, F-102 Deuce, F-101 Voodoo, RF-4C Phantom, RF-4D Phantom and the F-16 A. He ascended to a number of leadership roles, finishing his 33-year career as commander of the Minnesota Air National Guard.

“He had a lot of experience flying, but I also feel that he loved people, and he loved seeing people succeed,” Flanagan said.

“He also saw things from the 10,000-foot national strategic level. And that was really such a unique combination that he brought to the little 148th Fighter Wing,” she said.

Klosowski, aka “Klos,” flew countless missions during the Cold War at a time when local aircraft were sometimes equipped with Genie missiles carrying nuclear warheads with an explosive force equivalent to 1,500 tons of dynamite. He served as senior ANG commander in the North American Air Defense command. Klosowski also was selected to serve a tour as the ANG liaison officer to the commander for the U.S. Air Forces Europe, where he took part in planning and executing a number of strategic reconnaissance missions.

On March 10, 1990, Klosowski flew the 148th’s first F-16 to Duluth, and he oversaw the wing’s transition to that aircraft, after seven years of previously relying primarily upon the F-4D Phantom.

On the 30th anniversary of Klosowski’s delivery of that first F-16, the fighter wing marked that milestone, and its continued use of the F-16. Col. Chris Blomquist, who commanded the 148th at the time, invited Klosowski to the celebration.

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Flanagan said word quickly spread of his pending visit.

“Earlier in the week, some of our maintenance folks, and this is a testament to his character, said, ‘Hey, let’s put his name on that aircraft.’ So, Col. Blomquist flew the aircraft. They went up, they landed, and we parked in front of our flagpole. We all walked out there. Klos shook his hand and then they showed him, ‘There’s your name on the aircraft.’ Let me tell you, that was a really sweet, emotional moment. He was really touched by being a part of our history and being right into our present that day,” she said.

KlosowskiF-16.JPG
148th Fighter Wing Commander Col. Chris Blomquist and retired Brig. Gen. Ray Klosowski pose for a photo on the March 10, 2020, on the 30th anniversary of the date Klosowski flew the unit's first F-16 to Duluth.
Contributed / 148th Fighter Wing

After retiring from the Guard, Klosowski went on to become Duluth International Airport’s executive director, where he served until 2002.

He also served many years on the board of the Duluth Seaway Port Authority, and helped bring the Bong Veterans Historical Center to Superior.

In 2005, Klosowski served as the 148th’s champion again, when he agreed to serve as a technical expert alongside the Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce’s Military Committee, as the group successfully made its case to preserve the local base, after its closure was recommended as part of a national Base Realignment and Closure analysis.

In 2007, Klosowski was inducted into the Minnesota Aviation Hall of Fame.

6. Capt J Verville.JPG
Capt. James Verville was killed in a crash Dec. 17, 1971, shortly after takeoff, when a malfunction caused him to lose control of the jet he was flying along with Capt. Sherman Gonye, who also perished.
Contributed / Minnesota Air National Guard

Jim Verville joined the 179th Fighter Interceptor Squadron in Duluth in the early- to mid-1960s, where he was part of a group of pilots that was placed on a continuous 24-hour Air Defense Alert, operating four F-89 Scorpion aircraft, including two armed with nuclear Genie missiles.

He transitioned to the F-101 Voodoo, and on the evening Dec. 17, 1971, Capt. Verville and his crewmate Capt. Sherman Goyea responded to an alert scramble takeoff and were killed in a crash just moments after leaving the runway.

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All three of Verville’s sons followed him into military service. The eldest, Scott, was 7 at the time of his father’s death, and went on to join the 148th, where he flew F-16s and retired as a lieutenant colonel after more than 21 years.

“We all just wanted to follow in Dad’s footsteps,” he said. “I just wanted to make him proud, like he was still here.”

Years later, Scott Verville was allowed to review the accident report of his father’s fatal flight and said it showed the crash occurred 17 seconds after launching in subzero weather. He said the aircraft suffered a “hard light” in its afterburner, where fuel briefly pooled, creating intense heat that caused an aluminum access cover to melt and damaged the jet’s main hydraulic lines, disabling controls.

The jet was carrying a single missile on its left wing and pulled to that side, rotating the aircraft, which crashed into the ground upside down.

The accident prompted a review of the aircraft and the aluminum access panel was replaced with a steel shield that would not be susceptible to melting.

“That was during the Vietnam War, and they were flying those aircraft in Vietnam. They say that change probably saved 17 lives,” Verville said.

Both Capts. Verville and Gonyea were classmates who grew up in Proctor, where a static F-101 aircraft was installed in their honor.

Jeff Verville was 6 years old when his 31-year-old father died, and went on to attend the U.S. Air Force Academy, then served 10 years active duty, flying F-15s, plus another 12 years flying for the Air National Guard before his retirement as a lieutenant colonel.

Kurt Verville, Jim’s youngest son, was just 17 weeks old when his father died. He now serves as a chief master sergeant for the 148th where he is the aircraft maintenance squadron superintendent, overseeing a crew of 209 people.

“The Guard was always part of our lives growing up. It never went away. You always felt like you were part of something bigger,” Kurt Verville said.

CMSgt Jim Armstrong2.jpg
Chief Master Sgt. Jim Armstrong
Contributed / 148th Fighter Wing

Jim Armstrong joined the U.S. Air Force in 1952 and remained on active duty as an aircraft mechanic until 1960, serving during the Korean War, before shifting to the 148th, where he earned the rank of chief master sergeant. During his tenure in Duluth, Armstrong served as a jet engine mechanic, propulsion supervisor, field maintenance squadron branch chief and supervisor of production control.

Working with the National Guard Bureau, Armstrong modified the 148th’s RF-4 aircraft to reduce the smoke trail they produced.

Klosowski jokingly compared the F-4 to a coal-fired airplane, because of the black smoke it produced.

He said the aircraft’s smoke trail was visible from quite a distance. “So, the enemy would see you before you saw him. And the airplanes we would be fighting were the MiG-21 and the MiG-17, which are very small maneuverable aircraft with smokeless engines.”

Klosowksi said Armstrong collaborated with U.S.Navy mechanics servicing the same aircraft “and they came up with a simple, inexpensive modification to the J79 engine that could have been implemented 20 years ago.”

Armstrong also displayed a talent for fostering camaraderie, Klosowski said.

“He was instrumental in generating the sense of family that’s so much a part of the Duluth Guard,” he said, noting a number of annual events Anderson organized, including Oktoberfest and smelt fry celebrations.

Armstrong retired in 1989, after 38 years of service. But he remained active in the community.

“He would set up fishing trips for the vets up in Silver Bay and Duluth, and he would also go to homes where the elderly were living with his harmonica and his accordion. He kind of had a circuit, and he did that for many years,” Klosowski said.

MSgt George Ion.jpg
Master Sgt. George Ion
Contributed / 148th Fighter Wing

Master Sgt. George Ion served in the Pacific Theater as a member of the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II and joined the Minnesota Air National Guard in 1948 as one of the original 50 charter members of the 179th Fighter Squadron, based in Duluth. During his 27 years with the 148th, Ion worked as an aircraft mechanic, flight chief and instructor.

It is said that when the Fighter Wing received its first F-51D Mustangs, Maj. Gen. Wayne Gatlin said he wanted only Ion to work on his plane.

Ion was one of only three people to survive the May 31, 1954, crash of a Minnesota Air National Guard C-47 Skytrain that was returning to Duluth from a training event. The accident claimed 11 lives and left Ion injured.

“He lost a chunk out of his leg. He walked with a stick for quite a while at home, and the recovery period was quite extensive, but he went right back,” recalled Bill Ion, George’s son who is himself a retired chief master sergeant for the 148th.

After cheating death in the plane crash, Ion was killed in the line of duty more than two decades later on July 16, 1975, when a high-pressure bottle exploded while he was working in the intake of an F-101B at the 148th.

His three sons, Bill, Mike and Daniel, all served the 148th. Bill’s sons, Doug and David, continued that legacy of service to the unit. And Doug’s son, Dylan, recently joined the 148th, as well, extending the family’s unbroken chain of service into the future.

Retired Master Sgt. and firefighter Mike Ion, said his father was “very influential” in his decision to join the 148th. “He was a good man, a good soldier. And he made me kind of want to follow in his footsteps.”

“After us kids were born, everything was the Guard. It was a real tight-knit community,” Bill Ion said. “That generation established the positive attitude and work ethic of the unit that carries on today.”

Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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