(KNOXVILLE) One overseas mission by Tennessee Air National Guard troops charged them with helping prevent another world war and in the process helped cement the highly regarded reputation of that unit based in East Tennessee.

“November (and) December 1961 were the worst days of my life,” recalled Charlie Brakebill, a retired lieutenant colonel in the Tennessee Air National Guard. The Word War II veteran served as executive officer of the 151st Fighter Interceptor Squadron during its overseas deployment with more than 400 troops and 20 F-104 fighter jets.

“The largest fighter deployment across the ocean since World War II was the Air National Guard deployment to Europe,” said retired Maj. Gen. Fred Womack, sitting next to Mr. Brakebill during an interview at the East Tennessee History Center.

“We knew the Russians had nuclear weapons in the air 24 hours a day,” recalled Mr. Brakebill. Tennessee pilots were tasked with showing American fire power by patrolling the German border and ensuring Russian jets didn’t bully their way across the invisible line in the sky.

“I didn’t want them shooting at us, it was tense,” said retired Tennessee Air National Guard pilot and Lt. Col. Dale Dyslin. But not long after the “Tennessee Boys” started flying their jets, the Russians backed off their aggressive tactics.

And all three veterans say that Cold War deployment helped shaped the reputation of the Tennessee Air National Guard for decades to come. All recalled the habit of the “regular military” looking down on “citizen soldiers”, guard members serving one weekend a month, but noting that changed after their service overseas in in the early sixties.

“We had a maintenance department that the regular Air Force could not compete with. When we got to Germany in ’61 those other fighter units there said, ‘The raggedy ‘A’ militia has come to save us, that’s a three letter word, you can fill it in. We left there 8 or 9 months later a highly respected Air Force unit,” said Mr. Brakebill.