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Remembering the original "Gunfighter"

Maj. Frederick C. “Boots” Blesse in his F-86 during the Korean War. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Maj. Frederick C. “Boots” Blesse in his F-86 during the Korean War. (U.S. Air Force photo)

McDonnell Douglas F-4C-23-MC (S/N 64-762) in flight dropping Cluster Bomb Unit dispenser over the A Shau Valley, South Vietnam, on June 23, 1967. (U.S. Air Force photo)

McDonnell Douglas F-4C-23-MC (S/N 64-762) in flight dropping Cluster Bomb Unit dispenser over the A Shau Valley, South Vietnam, on June 23, 1967. (U.S. Air Force photo)

McDonnell Douglas F-4C in flight firing a salvo of 2.75 FFA rockets in the mountains of North Vietnam in April 1966. (U.S. Air Force photo)

McDonnell Douglas F-4C in flight firing a salvo of 2.75 FFA rockets in the mountains of North Vietnam in April 1966. (U.S. Air Force photo)

McDonnell Douglas F-4C-19-MC (S/N 63-7541) of the New York Air National Guard. Note that the victory star was scored on Nov. 5, 1966, by Maj. R.E. Tuck (pilot) and 1Lt. J.J. Rabeni Jr. (WSO) flying for the 480th Tactical Fighter Squadron, 366th Tactical Fighter Wing using an AIM-7 Sparrow against a MiG-21. (U.S. Air Force photo)

McDonnell Douglas F-4C-19-MC (S/N 63-7541) of the New York Air National Guard. Note that the victory star was scored on Nov. 5, 1966, by Maj. R.E. Tuck (pilot) and 1Lt. J.J. Rabeni Jr. (WSO) flying for the 480th Tactical Fighter Squadron, 366th Tactical Fighter Wing using an AIM-7 Sparrow against a MiG-21. (U.S. Air Force photo)

MOUNTAIN HOME AIR FORCE BASE, Idaho -- Across the Air Force, Mountain Home Air Force Base is known as the "home of the Gunfighter." Airmen here refer to each other as Gunfighters and many of the buildings carry the moniker as well. But, where did the name come from? Gunslinging cowboys from the Wild West have little to do with precision, dual-role fighter jets, right?

The name Gunfighter can be traced back to a single man, retired Maj. Gen. Frederick "Boots" Blesse, who was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va., at 8:45 a.m. today. His story is one of adaptability, innovation and excellence, a tradition carried by the 366th Fighter Wing to this day.

Blesse earned nearly 40 decorations during his career, but those medals were just the result of who he was. He was an innovator, a flying ace, a Gunfighter and above all, an Airman.

His part in the Gunfighter heritage started in Da Nang Air Base, Republic of Vietnam, in April 1967. As director of operations for the 366th Tactical Fighter Wing, he flew more than 150 combat missions during the Vietnam War flying F-4C Phantom II fighter jets.

Like most aspects of the Vietnam War, his mission was not easy. Early-on during his time there, Blesse ran into a problem.

His unit was assigned the task of performing combat air patrols over North Vietnam, which often put them in direct contact with enemy MiG fighters. At the time, F-4s were only equipped with missiles and bombs. Knowing this, MiG pilots flew low to the ground, using ground objects to confuse the missile guidance systems. This made the AIM-7 Sparrow missiles, which were considered the pinnacle of air-to-air combat, miss nearly every single time.

It was obvious to Blesse the weapons package on the F-4 was not doing the job it needed to. MiGs flew by unscathed while his own Airmen were put in harm's way. The answer needed to be as radical as the problem.

He sat down with representatives from McDonnell Douglas, the F-4's creators, and the maintenance crews in the 366th Armament and Electronics Maintenance Squadron and 366th Field Maintenance Squadron. What happened next would change the culture of the 366th TFW permanently. They moved the ALQ-71 barrage jamming pods, required to protect the aircraft and crew from a variety of threats, to the side to make room for an SUU-16 Gunpod containing a 20-millimeter Gatling gun.

The new addition to the F-4's armament not only proved effective, but turned the tide of aerial battles in the North. By the middle of June, Blesse's unit had taken down 12 enemy aircraft. By the end of the summer, the enemy MiGs had all but disappeared. Word spread of the 366th TFW and its victories, and its Airmen became known as the Gunfighters.

Today's Airmen face problems like Blesse did on a regular basis, asked to do more with less, and to always epitomize integrity, service and excellence. The Gunfighter legacy adds one more concept to the mix, innovation. The name Gunfighter doesn't mean reckless, wanton destruction. It means finding a solution for even the most difficult situation.

This weekend, raise a glass to the original Gunfighter, and live each day honoring not only the Airman heritage, but the Gunfighter legacy the 366th Fighter Wing is known for. As we know, fortune favors the bold.