WASHINGTON "The United States Air Force is hereby established ..."
At the moment President Harry S. Truman signed the National Security Act of 1947 into law that Sept. 18, the Air Force emerged as the nation's newest military service. Half a century later, airmen can point to 50 years of a golden legacy forged in combat and peacekeeping settings around the world.
The Air Force already had a foundation built in the Army Air Corps by aviation pioneers such as
Brig. Gen. Billy Mitchell and Gen. Henry H. "Hap" Arnold. Exploits of the 8th Air Force over
Germany are still recounted as "stuff of legends." And it was an Army Air Corps crew that flew the
Enola Gay above Hiroshima and dropped the bomb that helped draw World War II to a close.
But the end of a "hot" war soon led the fledgling Air Force into the Cold War, a battle that airmen would wage for much of the service's first 45 years.
Less than a year after the Air Force was established, the service had the first of many tests: operating the Berlin Airlift in answer to the Soviet Union's blockade of Berlin. The Air Force met the challenge extremely well as the major transporter of food and supplies to the German people -- forcing the Soviets to lift the blockade.
Ever since that time, the men and women of the Air Force have answered the call to support national security policies -- whether in times of war, peacekeeping contingencies or humanitarian assistance -- more often than not, operating worldwide in hostile or otherwise dangerous areas.
The Cold War first turned hot on the Korean Peninsula. Soon after the North invaded the South in June 1950, the Air Force achieved air superiority. By the time the conflict ended three
years later, U.S. pilots had compiled a 17-1 kill ratio as they commanded the skies and interdicted enemy supply lines.
U.S. airmen also achieved uncommon valor in Southeast Asia, hastening the end of the Vietnam War with tactical and strategic bombing amid the heaviest defended territory on Earth, climaxed by the Linebacker II missions in December 1972 that hastened the end of the conflict. And to this day, the Air Force has not lost sight of more than 2,000 airmen listed as missing in action, searching for any survivors and repatriating remains to their families in the United States.
Almost two decades later, Desert Storm set the standard for timely and precise employment of massive yet efficient airpower. The ultimate ground war lasted for only 100 hours, but the campaign started weeks before when stealthy F-117A Nighthawks led the strike in the middle of the night, sending shock waves that shook the foundation of old-school aerial warfare doctrine. For more than a month, massive and precision air strikes some flown directly from the United States -- attacked and destroyed enemy strongholds. As a result, the ground war that followed was swift and effective.
Lessons taught and learned in the Persian Gulf have evolved into today's core competencies for the Air Force: air and space superiority, global attack, rapid global mobility, precision engagement, information superiority and agile combat support.
As Desert Storm vividly showed, in the last half century the world has shrunk as the speed, range and flexibility of air and space power has grown. What was once a force to be reckoned with in a theater can strike around the world. These long-range attack forces have increased their conventional abilities and can provide versatile, responsive combat power able to intervene decisively when necessary.
"We have had five decades of remarkable accomplishment in air power," said Secretary of the Air Force Sheila E. Widnall. "From Berlin to Korea to Vietnam to Desert Storm and throughout the Cold War we stayed ever-vigilant, maintaining a ready status in missile silos, remote radar sites and alert facilities. Although the Air Force is smaller today, we're busier than ever, bringing food and assistance or combat forces wherever and whenever they are needed.
"Our first 25 years saw the Berlin Airlift, Korea's 'MiG Alley,' the Cuban Missile Crisis, Vietnam's 'Thud Ridge,' Rolling Thunder, Hanoi Hilton, Linebacker II and bringing our POWs home. The past decade or so has witnessed other demonstrations of air power such as [Operations] Urgent Fury, Eldorado Canyon, Just Cause, Desert Storm, Provide Comfort and Restore Hope, just to name a few."
The secretary added that "the Air Force has ensured its capabilities are the best in the world. Taking advantage of technological developments over the years, today's Air Force has truly become an air and space force second to none. We should never forget, however, the men and women who made it happen. People are the key ingredient that has made the Air Force what it is today."
Those people include more than 378,000 almost 75,000 officers and 304,000 enlisted personnel -- on active duty. Of that total, almost 11,000 officers and 68,000 enlisted personnel serve overseas. Women represent 17 percent of the force, an increased from 33,000 (5.4 percent) in 1975 to almost 65,000 today. And placing a premium on education, 56 percent of the officers have advanced or professional degrees, while 99.99 percent of the enlisted force has at least a high-school education. In fact, about 20 percent of the enlisted force has earned associate, bachelor or master's degrees.
Widnall recognized the essential role of Air Force people when she addressed the Air Force Association National Convention Sept. 16 in Washington. Noting the Air Force's role change from a highly predictable Cold War era to increased activity in equally unpredictable smaller scale contingencies, she said service senior leaders' commitment to people and quality of life issues has remained paramount and unchanged.
"Taking care of our people is not an easy job, but it has been my most important job," she said. "We have a historic covenant with the men and women who proudly wear the Air Force blue. At the end of the day, all else pales to insignificant if our Air Force doesn't keep people in our 'sight picture.'"
EDITOR'S NOTE: There has been a celebration throughout the year.
Today the Air Force will celebrate its 50th anniversary with day-long activities at the Pentagon. The postal service will unveil an Air Force 50th Anniversary commemorative stamp during opening ceremonies at the Pentagon courtyard. Later in the day, Air Force Secretary Dr. Sheila Widnall and Gen. Ralph E. Eberhart, Vice Chief of Staff, will lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington Cemetery.
In addition, President Clinton and Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen will attend a birthday cake cutting in the Pentagon courtyard with cakes also cut by the Air Force's Twelve Outstanding Airmen.
Book signings and Air Force exhibits can be seen throughout the event while the Air Force Band will end the day with a concert performance.
For more information about these golden anniversary activities call Doug Thar at 703-693-9096.
Photos will be available on the Air Force Link at www.af.mil.