“The youngest Sergeant Major in the Air Force”
Keith Gestring was born October 19, 1928 in Webster County, Nebraska. He was the second youngest of nine children: sisters Marie, Nilbred, Mona and Darleen and brothers Harvey, Harlan, Dureen and Robert. Keith’s grandparents, Carl and Anna Gestring, had purchased a Homestead Property of 160 acres to raise their ten children with the government’s requirement of building a farm within ten years. Later, Keith’s parents, Henry and Emma raised their nine children in the same house that his grandparents built. All children and grandchildren attended the same school, Cowles School from kindergarten to high school. The school was built in 1915 and discontinued in 1959.
From the age of 13, helped his father work on the family farm. They harvested corn, wheat, and oats. They sold their harvest to a grain elevator company that shipped it to Kansas City to be distributed. His daily routine was to attend school during the day and then operate the family tractor until midnight. At midnight, he would study for one hour before going to bed. He followed this routine from Monday to Thursday every week. On Friday, he played basketball on the school’s team and on Sunday would play American Legion baseball as a second baseman.
After graduating from high school in May 1946, at the age of 17, he went to Denver, Colorado to visit with his brother Harlan and was recruited to join the Army Air Force. The Army first sent him to Ft. Riley Kansas to be issued a uniform and then on to Lackland Field, San Antonio, Texas for basic training. After basic he was transferred to Lowry Field in Denver for gunnery school. However, gunnery school was the B-17s, B-24s, and B-25s were being decommissioned. The Army then transferred him to Smokey Hill Field, later renamed Schillings Air Force Base, in Kansas, for training in heavy equipment.
In June 1947, he was transferred overseas to South Korea to an Occupation Unit. They did not have heavy equipment in the Unit, so he was assigned to a finance office to do payroll by hand for two months. The Army then sent him to Keio, Japan to school to learn office administration and the Korean and Japanese language. He then returned to Korea and was assigned to the 475th Fighter Group (P-51s) to work in finance.
On September 18, 1947, the newly created U.S. Air Force became a separate branch of the military and no longer a part of the U.S. Army. Most personal and assets of the former U.S. Army Air Forces were transferred to the new U.S. Air Force.
In 1948, the 475th was transferred to Itazuke Air Base in Japan and renamed the 8th FBG (Fighter-Bomber Group). President Truman wanted American troops out of Korea as political tensions were heating up in the United Nations and on the Korean peninsula.
The Korean War started on Sunday, June 25, 1950 at 10:00 am. The Commander of the 8th FBG, Colonel William Sanways, summoned Keith to his office and appointed him Sergeant Major of the Group. Keith was only 20-years old and became the youngest acting Sergeant Major in the Air Force.
The 8th FBG started engaging the Communist forces on June 26th from their bases in Japan until October when they moved to Suwon Air Base, South Korea. Pilot casualties came quickly because the American P-51s they were flying were outgunned by the enemy’s Russian built Mig-15s. The 8th FBG lost 9 pilots at the start of the war and 61 more from June 1950 until December 1951. Keith had the unfortunate job of reporting deaths of the pilots to their family members. To do this job, he would be accompanied by an Air Force Major and a Chaplain. It was especially difficult to visit the wife and two young daughters of his good friend, Captain Fletcher, to report the news of his death. He had the assignment to visit eight other families until the Air Force formed a special team to take over the task.
After the successful Inchon Landing on September 15th, under the, war shifted in favor of the allied forces as the Communist forces were driven to the North.
At that point, the 8th FBG Commander, Colonel Sanways transferred two Squadrons of P-51s (60 planes) from Korea to Tsuiki Air Base in Japan. Soon after, a typhoon hit Japan creating tremendous damage. The 8th FBG moved again to Suwon Air Base in South Korea and Keith remembers the base was “nothing but mud”.
In a four-month period, the 8th FBG had moved from Itazuke Air Base, Japan to Tsuiki Air Base, Japan, then to Suwon Air Base, Korea to Kimpo Air Base, Korea. The mission of the 8th FBG was to bomb troop movements, ammunition depots, and engage in air to air combat. When returning to Itazuke Air Base they received new Jet-powered F-80 Shooting Stars (100 planes) to replace the P-51s.
The 8th Fighter-Bomber Group is made up of three Squadrons (35th, 36th and 80th). It is known for the heroic actions of its members, including Major Charles J. Loring, a pilot in the 80th FBS, who was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions on 22 November 1952 when he flew his badly damaged F-80 aircraft into an enemy artillery emplacement near Sniper Ridge so that entrenched U.S. Infantry men could escape.
Fighting ended in Korea in July 27, 1953. An Armistice was signed and a committee of representatives from neutral countries was established to decide the fate of the thousands of POWs on both sides. American casualties and losses – Killed 36,574 – Wounded 103,284 – MIA 7,926 – POW 4,714.
In 2020, 67 years after the signing of the Korean Armistice, the Trump Administration is pursuing denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and the return of American war dead. Some of the dead are being returned.
After returning from the War in Korea, Keith remained on active duty in the Air Force until his retirement in March 1968. He had many assignments as a Sergeant Major, including his last as Chief of Publications for the Auditor General, United States Air Force, Norton Air Force Base, California. During his time in service, he was assigned to twenty-two Air Force Bases in the United States, Korea and Japan. He remained in the Air Force Reserves until August 1976 for a total of 30 years combined service.
In May 1968, two months after retirement from the Air Force, Keith joined Kaiser Steel Corporation. He worked in their Sales Accounting Department for sixteen years.
Keith and his wife Toshiko were married for 55-years and they had two children, Judy and Wesley and five grandchildren. Toshiko died January 27, 2015