Thoughts on the Air Force's 66th Anniversary

  • Published
  • By Gary W. Boyd
  • Air Edcuation and Training Command Historian
While the Air Force officially recognizes its anniversary on Sept. 18, today's Airmen should recognize that such dates are simply small waypoints often crafted for convenience. Some anniversaries have great significance, but most represent only a small fragment of a larger truth; tangible mileposts on the long journey of continuous transformation. We lose something of ourselves if we allow the study of our heritage to slip into just marking dates or firsts without historical introspection. Sept. 18, 1947, begs us to look beyond the formal celebrations to examine its full meaning and consider our own legacy and our own contribution to national security as an Air Force and as individual Airmen.

It is sometimes said that Airmen lack the pride and historical knowledge of our sister services. On a superficial level, this is often true. A joint service commander once told me that almost any member of the Marines could tell you the exact order of battle and weather characteristic of the Battle of Belleau Woods or the Siege of Hue. Why can't Airmen exhibit the same interest, knowledge and pride in their heritage as a Marine? Answering the question actually required my asking other questions: why do these anecdotes never contain nuggets of history drawn from Marine aviation--are they as ignorant of that heritage as we Airmen are of their own? Would not such ignorance betray a misconception of the importance of aerospace heritage in general?

Experience would say the answer to the latter questions is yes. The heritage of the Air Force is thus distilled into people, not battles. Pride in aerospace heritage is a largely biographical endeavor. Airmen are more likely to talk about other Airmen such as John Levitow or Jimmy Doolittle without extrapolating their geographic coordinates on a given day or given battle--and even less inclined to discuss the strategic target sets that defined the fragmentary orders of the consolidated air operations plan! With that reality in mind, we must reinforce that aerospace warfare is four-dimensional warfare. While an Airman can understand and relate the accomplishments of aerial battles over Berlin, MiG Alley or Hanoi , one can never sufficiently impart its complex totality. Each aircraft involved in a thousand-plane bombing mission is in a unique battle involving space, time, distance, constantly changing attack angles, navigational and bombing references, mechanical and physical human limitations, sun angles, and myriad other factors, which characterize a microscopic but important part of the whole.

The complexity of air warfare makes it impossible for all but experts to analogize about a single day's campaign moment to moment--and actions impacting a single mission can be dependent on complex plans coordinating forces, target sets and logistics over a global scale. Records of a single World War II bombing mission contain documents and reports that often number in the thousands--exclusive of photos and other media used to document air activities.

As we confront the predictable crises and drawdowns of the future, and transform our operations to match the mission, Air Force history is an immense comfort. Knowledge of our shared heritage builds resiliency. It is comforting to see oneself as a part of the long blue line in the continuum of our shared sacrifices and accomplishments. The Air Force has, as an institution, often been timid to take deserved credit for the outcomes of campaigns, which allowed an overwater invasion at Normandy or the mass capitulation of an enemy during Operation DESERT STORM. Due to continuous attacks on its industrial heartland and infrastructure, Germany had to pull countless Luftwaffe, Air Force, units from the Eastern front with the Soviet Union to defend itself from the round-the-clock air campaign being waged from its Western and Southern fronts. Further, Germany had to man anti-aircraft artillery by robbing its combat infantry potential of more than 10 divisions. In the Pacific, the Air Force made it possible to win the war without a final invasion of the Japanese mainland.

Thus, we mark 66 years of service that the Air Force has proven, through its professionalism, audacity and effectiveness, that it required a separate path, co-equal with other services. The newly established Air Force proved to be long-awaited recognition of what legendary Airmen like Billy Mitchell and Hap Arnold had contended for decades, namely the advent of aerospace weaponry had changed the face of war forever and required a dedicated professional cadre and unique doctrine and skills . As our Air Force Chief of Staff Mark Welsh III aptly described in the Air Force vision document "Global Vigilance, Global Reach, Global Power," the essential roles and missions of the Air Force remain from the National Security Act of 1947. So we mark Sept. 18, 1947, as a navigational reference only; it was later than it should have been, but in time to ensure the survival of our great nation through a dedicated commitment to continuously improving aerospace capabilities.