Happy Birthday U.S. Air Force! September 18, 1947
We do the impossible every day. —United States Air Force website, 2012
Through grit, determination, and downright stubbornness, the National Security Act established the United States Air Force in 1947. Technically, this is correct, and we celebrate it every September 18th. However, the Air Force has a long and distinguished history prior to 1947.
The first incarnation of United States military air power came with the establishment of the Aeronautical Division of the Army Signal Corps in 1907, which then reorganized under the Aviation Section of the Army Signal Corps in 1914. World War I helped create many advancements in aviation, but to the dismay of airmen, the Army’s focus remained on the ground. The Aviation Section was again reorganized as the Air Service with the National Defense Act in 1920, but it was still under the command of the United States Army. Senior Officer Billy Mitchell vigorously led the fight for an independent air corps, to the extent that he was court-martialed in 1925 for relaying his complaints to the media.
In 1926 the Air Service was renamed the Army Air Corps. Hap Arnold, Carl Spaatz, and Mason Patrick continued to quietly advocate for a separate autonomous air service through the 1930s and into World War II. Learning from Mitchell’s political missteps (which basically ended Mitchell’s career), they knew that the Air Corps would have to prove its effectiveness and capabilities on a large-scale, consistent basis. World War II provided that opportunity.
Through the leadership and persistence of Hap Arnold, Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall issued Circular 59, War Department Reorganization in 1942, stating that the Air Corps would be autonomous. This circular came with a twilight clause; it would expire six months after the end of the war. Within two years of V-J Day, the Air Corp went from a force of over 2.2 million to less than 304,000, a serious blow to its hopes of independence. However, it had a new and important ally; President Harry Truman.
In 1945, President Truman called for legislation establishing a separate air service. “Air power has been developed to a point where its responsibilities are equal to those of land and sea power…” Recognizing this need, he pushed for the passage of the National Security Act which established the Department of Defense with three branches of the military; air, sea and land. Truman signed this act into law in 1947.
The National Security Act provided no structure for the development of an independent air service. In four years, Secretary of the Air Force Stuart Symington and Chief of Staff Carl Spaatz created the infrastructure necessary to maintain an independent military force, developed promotional systems, and started to integrate the Air Force. In addition, the new United States Air Force would successfully pass its first test “with flying colors.” The Berlin Airlift of 1948 (in response to the Soviet Blockade) proved the necessity of a continuously readiness worthy Air Force. Congress would finally pass Air Force Organization Act in 1951, but much of the work was already done.
The Air Force would continue to prove its worth with the improvements in aviation technology, the extensive development of aeronautical sciences, and the ramifications these advancements held that led to improvements in the civilian sector. It still does today.
“All that I am…I owe to the Air Force.” —Chuck Yeager (first man to break the sound barrier)
Happy Birthday, U.S. Air Force!