by Bill Phelan
Special to the 131st
12/27/2011 - ST.LOUIS, Mo -- For many young people the Cold War is something they learned about in history class, but Tony Ribaudo lived it as a member of the 131st Tactical Fighter Squadron, a St. Louis-based unit of the Missouri Air National Guard's 131st Fighter-Bomber Wing, now known as the 131st Bomb Wing.
Ribaudo, 74, of Creve Coeur, recently joined about 75 former squadron members at a St. Louis restaurant for a reunion to mark the 50th anniversary of the unit's mobilization in response to the Berlin Crisis of 1961.
In July of 1961, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev brought the Soviet Union and the United States to the brink of war after he demanded that all western armed forces leave West Berlin. It was also at this time that the East Germans began building the Berlin Wall, separating Communist East Berlin from Democratic West Berlin. Tensions between the two nations rose to the point where American and Soviet tanks faced each other at Berlin's famed Brandenburg Gate.
In response, President John F. Kennedy ordered the mobilization of nearly 150,000 National Guardsmen from across the country and sent them to Europe. The mobilization included more than 21,000 members of the Air National Guard. The 131st got its marching orders on Oct. 1, 1961 and remained on active duty until August 1962.
At the time, Ribaudo was 24 and served as a jet engine mechanic for the 131st's squadron of F-84Fs, headquartered at Lambert-St. Louis Airport.
"The entire unit was sent to France for 10 months as a show of force," Ribaudo recalled. "But I don't think any of us fully understood the implications of the crisis at the time. All we wanted to do was have a good time. We were young, footloose and fancy free."
Eventually tensions between the Soviet Union and the U.S. eased and troops on both sides were withdrawn, but the Berlin Wall remained as a symbol of the Cold War for another 28 years.
Given the historical significance of the crisis, Ribaudo felt a reunion was in order.
"I couldn't believe no one was going to have a 50th reunion so I decided we had to do it," he explained. "So I and two other people began contacting all the members of the unit we could remember and asked them to do the same. We had people come from Chicago, Kansas City and some from out-state Missouri. It was a great to relive the experience and rekindle some old friendships."
Today, Ribaudo admits the Berlin Crisis is "out of sight and out of mind."
"Until this 50-year milestone came up even I hadn't given it much thought, but for a lot of people this crisis was a real hardship," Ribaudo said. "I recall Airmen struggling to make mortgage payments and car payments while deployed, so for them it was a real strain on their families. A lot of sacrifices were made."
Ribaudo left the Air National Guard in 1965 as a first lieutenant and began a career in manufacturing. He and his wife, Ellen, are the proud parents of four grown children.
The 131st Bomb Wing, Missouri Air National Guard, is based primarily at Whiteman Air Force Base, MO, with support elements located at Lambert Air National Guard Base-Saint Louis.