The United States Air Force (USAF) turns 72 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. Curtis R. Bass, 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 looking to learn more about the air force. Here’s what he suggests:
General James P. McCarthy (Ed.)The Air Force (2002). “This is an incredible book. With fascinating photographs and art, the book traces the history of the Air Force from the beginning of flight through 2002, focusing on key personnel who have contributed significantly to all aspects of the Air Force’s development.”
Stephen Budiansky Air Power: The Men, Machines, and Ideas that Revolutionized War, From Kitty Hawk to Gulf War II (2005). “This book tells the plain truth about the United States Air Force, its pursuit of flight, and accomplishing the mission through aviation. Aircraft flying high above are the heroes in this book about how the Air Force flies, fights, and wins wars.”
Laura Hillenbrand Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption (2010). Unbroken tells the true story of Lt. Louis Zamperini, a troubled teen who channeled his energy into running and raced in the Berlin Olympics. Zamperini joined the Army Air Corps in 1941. Two years later, his bomber crashed into the Pacific Ocean. He survived the crash, but his strength and will were tested as a prisoner of war.
Daniel Ford Flying Tigers: Claire Chennault and His American Volunteers, 1941-1942 (2016). Flying Tigers recounts the story of the American pilots recruited to fight against the Japanese and to defend a besieged China. The American Tigers were paid $600 a month, along with a $500 bounty for every Japanese plane they took down.
Col. Bass also recommended three films to watch:
Tuskeegee Airmen (1995). Tuskeegee Airmen depicts the story of the first African American pilots in the Army Air Corps. Col. Bass chose this film because for him, it is “one of the best movies about military flying…. It is well worth checking out to learn more about how our Air Force came to be over time.”
Memphis Belle (1990). The Memphis Belle was a B-17 bomber based in England during World War II. The film follows the crew as they prepare for their twenty-fifth mission: if they succeed, they will be the first B-17 crew to complete their tour of duty. Col. Bass explains that Memphis Belle “is about the human side of flying operations and the members of the aircrew of the Memphis Belle.” He also notes that while the film was “different from the real world events,” it is still “a great movie about the early Army Air Corps in the years just before transitioning to the USAF.”
The Right Stuff (1983). “The first half of the movie is centered around Air Force legend Chuck Yeager, breaking the sound barrier, and what it takes to be a test pilot in the USAF. The second half of movie transitions to the Mercury space program, where three of the first seven astronauts in the United States were Air Force flyers. The movie highlights how ground-breaking the USAF was in the early days. It still is today as well, the United States Air Force has been the leader in air and in space ever since.”
If you want more information about the Air Force, 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.
Anna Shortridge assisted in the preparation of this post.