U. S. Air Force Platinum Anniversary

The United States Air Force at 75: A Thumbnail History

Kathy Wilson, Member, Board of Directors, The Friends of the Air Force Academy Library

September 18 marks the 75th anniversary of the Air Force as an independent branch of the U.S. armed forces. However, aviation in the military has been around since 1907 with the establishment of the Aeronautical Division of the Signal Corps, in “charge of all matters pertaining to military ballooning, air machines, and all kindred subjects.” From this point, the air arm evolved into the Aviation Section of the Signal Corps to the U.S. Army Air Service during World War I, U.S. Army Air Corps in the interwar period, the U.S. Army Air Forces in World War II, and finally the U.S. Air Force shortly after the war’s conclusion. It was not until the war ended that aviation enthusiasts and air power proponents were able to break away from the traditional ground force centric army leadership. Finally on July 26, 1947, President Truman signed the National Security Act, among other things, authorizing the establishment of the Air Force as an independent service. It’s birthday, however, is September 18, the day the first Secretary of the Air Force (W. Stuart Symington) was sworn in.

Men like Brigadier General Billy Mitchell, and Major General Benjamin Foulois fought for independence beginning with the First World War, where they saw first-hand the capabilities the airplane could provide in future conflicts, whether at home or abroad. The torch of independence was passed on to the next group – those who planned and fought in World War II. These men included Generals Hap Arnold, Jimmy Doolittle, Curtis LeMay, Carl “Tooey” Spaatz, and Ira Eaker; Lieutenant General Frank Andrews; Major Generals Robert Olds and Hugh Knerr; and Lieutenant Colonel Horace Hickam.

Battles against both the Army and Navy over control and mission evolved from ground support and coastal defense to independent aerial operations and strategic bombing. The mission further evolved as technology and equipment improved. While the wording may be different today, the five core missions are the same as when the GHQ Air Force was first established in 1935, while recognizing and incorporating advances in technology – (1) air and space superiority; (2) intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance; (3) rapid global mobility; (4) global strike; and (5) command and control. Missions are no longer confined to air, but now include space and cyberspace.

Over the years, the Air Force has participated in numerous combat, good will, and humanitarian missions, as well as proof of concept “flights.” Some of the more notable operations in Air Force history include: the Doolittle Raid, Berlin Airlift, Cuban Missile Crisis, and operations in every conflict/war. The formation of Strategic Air Command recognized the value of long-range bombing and missiles in a new atmosphere from the 1950s through the 1990s just as stealth technology, space, and cyberspace have entered the realm of air power in the past three decades.

As early as 1917, Lieutenant Colonel Hanlon wrote in a letter to the Air Service Chief of Training: “As the Military and Naval Academies are the backbone of the Army and Navy, so must the Aeronautical Academy be the backbone of the Air Service.” With the creation of an independent USAF, an academy was a priority. Thus, came the establishment of the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs in 1954. As an institution dedicated to producing officers for the Air and Space Forces, the Academy also includes a marvelous repository for heritage, the Clark Special Collections and Gimbel Room.

The Clark Special Collections at the USAFA McDermott Library is a repository of oral histories, manuscript collections, photos, and other information on these pioneers. From the transcripts of the well-known court-martial of Billy Mitchell and the movie, 30 Seconds Over Tokyo, depicting the raid led by Jimmy Doolittle, to the little-known films of Curtis LeMay’s racing life during his time in Strategic Air Command, the library holds a wealth of first-hand information on the trailblazers of the service we hold so dear.

In addition to the men who fought for independence, the Special Collections houses a wealth of primary source material of those who built and shaped the Air Force. Men like Major General John F. Curry, who served with Gen. John J. Pershing in the Mexican Punitive Expedition and was the first Commander of the Civil Air Patrol; And Lieutenant General Albert P. Clark, POW at Stalag Luft III (where he managed accumulation and hiding of supplies used in the famous Great Escape), sixth Superintendent of the Air Force Academy, and as one of the founders of The Friends of the Air Force Academy Library initiated the library’s outstanding POW collection.

More information on these men and their efforts in building or shaping the Air Force is available in the Clark Special Collections in the McDermott Library.

Billy Mitchell


Jimmy Doolittle


Hap Arnold


Carl "Tooey" Spaatz


President Eisenhower signs legislation authorizing the establishment and
construction of the USAF Academy


Stalag Luft III