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The United States Air Force (USAF) turns 71 years-old today. On September 18, 1947, Chief Justice Fred Vinson swore in Stuart Symington as the first secretary of the air force, officially founding a new branch of the U.S. military. Gen. Carl A. Spaatz became the USAF’s first chief of staff eight days later on September 26, 1947.
The origins of the USAF lie in a decision made just four years after the Wright Brothers conducted the world’s first airplane flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. In 1907, the U.S. Army Signal Corps created an Aeronautical Division and put it in “charge of all matters pertaining to military ballooning, air machines and all kindred subjects.” As aviation technology improved, the army’s air force grew bigger. An independent military arm became virtually inevitable after the Army Air Forces became an autonomous U.S. Army Command in 1942 and then grew substantially throughout the remainder of World War II. On July 26, 1947, President Harry Truman signed the National Security Act of 1947 on board the presidential aircraft, the Sacred Cow, and set the creation of the USAF in motion.
I asked Col. John Klein, an air force officer spending a year as a visiting military fellow in CFR’s David Rockefeller Studies Program, to recommend some reading for people hoping to learn more about the air force. Here’s what he picked:
Brigadier General William “Billy” Mitchell, Winged Defense: The Development and Possibilities of Modern Air Power--Economic and Military (1925). General Mitchell had the foresight to see the importance of airpower and the need for a separate air force after his experiences in World War I. Mitchell’s book wasn’t popular at the time with the leadership of the Army and Navy, but his points caught on. Fun fact: Mitchell is the only person to have an American aircraft model named after him—the B-25 “Mitchell,” which was widely used by the U.S. and allied air forces used during World War II and which was in service for forty years..
Lieutenant General William H. Tunner, Over the Hump (1964). Tunner tells the story of airlifts—operations that project America’s power and deliver crucial necessities around the world. He details airlift operations carried out by Douglas C-47 and C-54 aircrafts—which covers the Second World War and early Cold War. C-54s formed the backbone of the Berlin Airlift.
Jeffrey S. Underwood, The Wings of Democracy: The Influence of Air Power on the Roosevelt Administration, 1933-1941 (1991). Underwood examines how leading officers in the Army Air Corps maneuvered to convince Franklin Roosevelt Administration of the importance of air power. The book debunks the idea that the push for a separate air force came only after World War II, showing that the military and political establishments realized the necessity even earlier.
Dik Alan Daso, Hap Arnold and the Evolution of American Airpower (2001). Henry Harley “Hap” Arnold was chief of the Army Air Corps from 1938-1941, then the first commanding general of the U.S. Army Air Forces from 1941 to 1946. He believed in the importance of American air power. He took his convictions to Congress, universities, and his own contemporaries, stressing the need for a more forward looking air power strategy. Daso used primary sources to retell Arnold’s fascinating career and bold vision for the future.
Craig Nelson, The First Heroes: The Extraordinary Story of the Doolittle Raid (2003). Nelson tells the tale of the heroic Doolittle Raid—an aerial bombing of Tokyo that took place 132 days after the Pearl Harbor attack. The raid, carried out by eight men and led by Jimmy Doolittle, was risky, but resulted in a decisive victory. It’s a story we all should know. Fun fact: Lt. Col. Dick Cole is the last surviving member of the Doolittle Raiders. He recently turned 103.
Robert Coram, American Patriot: The Life and Wars of Colonel Bud Day (2008). Bud Day was a well-decorated airman who served during World War II, the Korean War, and Vietnam—where he was a prisoner of war in the Hanoi Hilton (alongside the late John McCain). After returning home, Day became an unrelenting fighter for veterans’ rights. Coram’s biography sheds light on Day’s heroism and the inspiration he continues to be.
Warren Kozak, LeMay: The Life and Wars of General Curtis LeMay (2011). Curtis LeMay is one of the most controversial military figures of the twentieth century. He ordered the firebombing of Tokyo, coordinated the Berlin airlift, and became the youngest four-star U.S. general since Ulysses S. Grant. His advocacy of strategic bombing and nuclear weapons is said to have inspired the General Ripper character in Dr. Strangelove. LeMay was also George Wallace’s running mate in the 1968 presidential election. Kozak’s biography sheds light on a complicated man and his influence on the Air Force.
Col. Kein also recommended some “heritage films,” which he says “speak to the origins and heroics of early Airmen even before we became a separate service.” Here are his six movie picks:
Flyboys (2006). Flyboys is a fictional account of a real story about America’s first fighter pilots. Before the United States joined World War I, several Americans volunteered to fight with the French. They formed the Lafayette Escadrille—a fighter pilot squadron whose daring actions are now legendary. If you are looking for some great aerial dogfight scenes—this movie is for you.
Twelve O’Clock High (1949). Set during World War II, Gregory Peck plays a general who assumes command of the 918th Bomber Group based in England. His men aren’t in the best of shape and aren’t huge fans of their new leader—but that all changes. The film shows the complex relationship between a commander and his pilots as they fly life-threatening missions over Germany.
Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944). This movie is based on the personal accounts of Ted Lawson—one of the Doolittle Raiders. It uses film footage from the actual raid to give it an extra layer of authenticity. Fun fact: The Air Force’s newest bomber, which is still under development, has been designated the B-21 Raider in honor of the Doolittle Raiders.
Memphis Belle (1990). The Memphis Belle was a B-17 bomber named for the girlfriend of Dennis Dearborn, the plane’s captain. The crew is based in England during World War II and has flown twenty-four successful missions. They have one more to complete before they become the first Army Air Corps B-17 crew to complete their tour. This film depicts their twenty-fifth mission and the publicity is attracts.
Command Decision (1949). Command Decision depicts an American general during World War II with a challenging dilemma. The Nazis are churning out military jet planes in factories located deep in the heart of Germany. After gaining the political support to send his planes in to attack the factories, he realizes that the mission’s success depends entirely on a small window of good weather.
Wings (1927). Jack Preston and David Armstrong come from the same town, but different sides of the track. Jack is a mechanic and David comes from an affluent family. And they love the same girl. Both end up as fighter pilots in the U.S. Army Air Service in France during World War I. Eventually, the war brings them closer together, where friendship in wartime overrides their squabbles back home. Wings won the first Academy Award for Best Picture.
If that’s not enough air force material for you, Col. Klein also suggested that you check out the Chief of Staff of the Air Force’s Professional Reading List. You can learn even more about the history of the USAF online through the Air Force Historical Support Division.
A tip of the TWE cap to all the men and women who have worn the uniform of the USAF.
Corey Cooper assisted in the preparation of this post.