The First Five Years of the First 50

Sept. 1, 1997

The situation sounded like something dreamed up by a novelist, not reality. A service finally gains its independence. Then, almost immediately, it confronts an urgent requirement to handle multiple foreign crises, carry out racial desegregation of the force, mount a massive airlift in Europe, fend off dangerous roles and missions challenges, survive major budget battles, take its bomber and fighter forces into the jet age, and then fight a prolonged war in Asia.

All this and more happened to the Air Force. It would be difficult to imagine a more unsettling and precarious situation for USAF than that which existed during its first five years.

Emerging from the triumph of World War II and born as a separate armed service on Sept. 18, 1947, the Air Force had to build new organizational structures, develop and deploy atomic forces, create an independent culture, and fend off die-hard enemies. That the fledgling service was able to accomplish these tasks and also deploy first-rate fighting forces to the Korean peninsula is nothing short of astonishing.

Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg, following the establishment of the Air Force, noted, “We are now the masters of our own destiny,” but the reality was that the Air Force was a long way from being on equal footing with the Army and Navy. Even the formal transfer of functions from the Army to the Air Force would not be complete until late 1949. Maj. Gen. Hugh J. Knerr, the secretary-general of the Air Board, remarked: “As with any vigorous organization freed from onerous restraint, there is danger of its feeling its oats and lashing out at all obstacles at the very beginning. Such action would be a great mistake, for we simply do not have the muscle on our bones to carry through with such desires.”

Stuart Symington, the first Secretary of the Air Force, maintained a clear vision during the early years. The passage of the National Security Act of 1947, and with it the birth of the Air Force, presented an opportunity. To Symington this amounted to a “green light” for further action, rather than an excuse for “resting on our laurels.” September 1947 marked “a first chapter, not a book.” USAF needed to build a record of accomplishment. It looked as if, during a period of austerity, building a strong Air Force would be difficult.

Front and Center

Symington wanted the Air Force to step out in front on a range of important issues. Coming from a wartime business background at Emerson Electric, he wanted first to plant the service on an absolutely sound fiscal basis according to the tenets of American business. The Air Force had to demonstrate to the taxpayer that it could efficiently run its business.

Symington’s job would be made more difficult by the Truman Administration’s postwar budgets and ominous events overseas. The Soviet Union posed an ever-increasing threat. The Czechoslovakian coup in February 1948 brought the Communists to power in that country. Alarmed, President Truman publicly branded Moscow as the major threat to world peace, yet the Administration continued to adhere to its austerity program, seriously affecting the military budget. Truman himself admonished Vandenberg, then the new Air Force Chief of Staff, warning, “There are still some of you who are thinking more of representing interests and objectives of your individual service than of interpreting the broad national program and its requirements to your subordinates and to the Congress.”

Gen. Carl A. Spaatz, first Air Force Chief of Staff, and Symington sought 70 air groups–approved by the Joint Chiefs of Staff–as the “bedrock minimum” in force structure. However, the Administration’s 1949 budget estimate made it doubtful that the Air Force could mount even 55 operational groups. Symington vehemently protested to the Administration: “We are more shocked at this decision of the Bureau of the Budget than at anything that has happened since we came into government.”

The USAF leadership, desperately attempting to attain 70 groups, especially in light of increasing international tensions, fought to gain more than a one-third share of the defense budget. The service did not succeed. Secretary of Defense James V. Forrestal continued to advocate splitting the defense budget into three roughly equal parts. By early 1948, the Air Force had managed to man and equip 47 groups, not all of which were operationally ready. It would not be possible even to reach the interim, 55-group level.

Administration officials, including influential Truman adviser Clark Clifford, believed war in Europe might be imminent, and under the circumstances Symington thought that Forrestal had not given the Air Force’s requirements a fair hearing. “Spaatz and myself never had a chance to present our position to you or even your staff,” Symington complained to the DoD chief, “and this is especially unfortunate in that nobody who ever served a day in the Air Force was a member of your permanent top staff.”

The Big Chill

In the spring and summer of 1948, each of the two sides displayed a distinct lack of confidence in the other. A chilly, even contentious, relationship developed between top Air Force leaders and the Forrestal side.

Meanwhile, Symington’s desire for USAF to step out in front of the other services was realized in mid-1948 when the Air Force decided to end racial segregation in its units. In early 1948, Lt. Gen. Idwal H. Edwards, USAF deputy chief of staff, personnel, began an inquiry into the impact of segregation upon force effectiveness. Edwards’ view that segregation in the Air Force was not an efficient use of manpower found an important advocate in Secretary Symington. A pragmatist at heart and in action, Symington had come to the view that it was time to integrate, and he announced his decision well before July 26, 1948, the day that Truman promulgated Executive Order 9981 directing the military to integrate.

Elsewhere, the independent Air Force and the Navy almost immediately began to clash over roles and missions. Forrestal convened conferences that not only failed to resolve issues but actually caused the controversy to escalate. The battle raged over who would have responsibility for carrying out the strategic nuclear mission. The Joint Chiefs of Staff had assigned this mission to Strategic Air Command. The Navy, however, insisted on sharing with SAC the all-important strategic mission, promoting the building of large aircraft carriers.

The issue eventually blew up publicly in 1949 with the “Revolt of the Admirals,” with the Navy calling into question the effectiveness of the B-36 bomber and also anonymously charging that Symington himself was guilty of procurement fraud and malfeasance. Symington and the Air Force were totally cleared by Congress, and the Navy lost the battle in public. Its leadership emerged from the fray looking like a bunch of chastised complainers.

While the Air Force fought bitter budget battles and attempted to build up and establish itself on an equal basis with the Army and Navy, tension in Europe evolved into a direct–and potentially hot–confrontation in June 1948. The Soviet Union, seeking to expand its influence in Europe at the expense of the United States, cut off all road, rail, and barge traffic into the American, British, and French zones of Berlin, leaving the city isolated. Army Gen. Lucius D. Clay, US military governor in Germany, had communicated to Washington in early March that war could come “with dramatic suddenness.” Now he ordered a resupply operation that became world- famous as the Berlin Airlift.

Lt. Gen. Curtis E. LeMay, commander of US Air Forces in Europe, organized the initial airlift using C-47 transports. It transported 80 tons of milk, medicine, and flour from Wiesbaden AB near Frankfurt to Tempelhof in Berlin. C-54s soon joined the operation, and by late July the Air Force had organized Airlift Task Force (Provisional). Maj. Gen. William H. Tunner, who gained fame as commander of the US air forces “flying the Hump” over the Himalayas in World War II, took command of a redesignated 1st Airlift Task Force. The Americans termed it Operation Vittles; the British called it Operation Plainfare. The overwhelming amount of tonnage was lifted by USAF airplanes.

Heavy Commitment

By the end of September, C-47s had been replaced by rugged C-54s, which could carry three times the amount of cargo that could be hauled in a C-47. At the height of the airlift, the Air Force had committed to action well more than 300 of its total of 400 C-54s. By early 1949, the Berlin Airlift had become highly efficient because of the professionalism of the air- and ground crews and the traffic controllers. The use of ground-controlled approach meant that aircraft could be brought in at three-minute intervals. During marginal and instrument conditions, all landing aircraft used GCA equipment. An incoming airplane made one approach; if it failed, the pilot returned home. The stacking of aircraft over Berlin was eliminated.

Tonnage airlifted into Berlin climbed steadily until the daily minimum requirement leveled off at 5,620 tons in October 1948. Coal shipments accounted for two-thirds of all the tonnage and food nearly all the rest. Of other items flown to Berlin the most publicized was candy dropped to German children near Tempelhof, in Operation Little Vittles, started in July 1948 by Air Force Lt. Gail S. Halvorsen. The airlift reached a spectacular peak in mid-April 1949 when almost 1,400 airplanes dropped 13,000 tons in a day. Less than one month later, Moscow announced the end of the blockade.

The Berlin Airlift was a spectacular triumph for the West, and it demonstrated the potency of round-the-clock air transport. It also constituted a warning to American leaders; the danger of war with the USSR was real. During the crisis, Truman even had authorized an open show of force–the movement of some of SAC’s conventionally equipped B-29 bombers to England and West Germany. Moscow was expected to draw the appropriate conclusion. The USAF Chief of Staff, Vandenberg, was under great pressure to deploy all of the Air Force’s C-54s to Germany, but he resisted. In the event of general war with the Soviet Union, the Air Force would need to have these aircraft to support SAC’s deployment overseas under JCS war plans.

On a Shoestring

The threat of war hanging over Europe during the Berlin Airlift energized the Air Force. Shortcomings–some severe–became evident in what Vandenberg subsequently termed “the shoestring Air Force.” In October 1948, Symington and Vandenberg, concerned that SAC was not war-ready, named no-nonsense LeMay to take immediate charge. In December, the Air Force leadership called a major commanders’ conference at Maxwell Field, Ala., to set its priorities. The Air Force authorized SAC to rapidly build up its intercontinental nuclear capability. At the same time, USAF and the Administration stepped up their efforts to make certain that bases in Europe would be ready to support SAC’s atomic units.

In March 1949, one month before the western allies signed the North Atlantic Treaty founding a defensive alliance, Winston Churchill, in Boston, remarked, “It is certain that Europe would have been communized like Czechoslovakia … some time ago but for the atomic bomb in the hands of the United States.”

The US was alarmed by the Soviet threat, concerned about inadequacies in its own military forces, and stung by the USSR’s detonation in August 1949 of an atomic device. Truman ordered rearmament planning and directed the State and Defense departments to conduct a long-range planning study. The result, written for the most part by a young National Security Council expert named Paul Nitze, was called NSC-68. It was the principal blueprint for a proposed rearmament program. Moreover, in January 1950, Truman authorized development of the hydrogen bomb. However, Truman did not propose major new funding for NSC-68. That would come later.

The next challenge did not come in Europe but in the Far East. On the Korean peninsula, the Cold War suddenly turned hot. Early on June 25, 1950, Communist North Korean troops attacked South Korea across an improvised boundary separating the nations. The Truman Administration had little choice but to intervene and did so under the banner of the United Nations. At the same time, the Administration, as well as the Air Force, remained gravely concerned about the ever-present Soviet threat in Europe. These pressures finally blew the lid off Truman’s “austerity” program. Within a year, Congress had tripled the defense budget, finally providing the wherewithal to carry out Nitze’s plans.

The Air Force would have to play “catch-up.” Washington called upon USAF during this war to win and hold air superiority, strike strategic North Korean targets, mount air interdiction attacks, support ground forces, and keep in high readiness (and even build up) its atomic striking force, not to mention carrying out numerous critical airlift missions.

On June 27, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, head of US Far East Command, directed Far East Air Forces, then commanded by Lt. Gen. George E. Stratemeyer, to attack the North Korean ground forces, which it did with F-80s and B-26s. Vandenberg, meanwhile, sent two groups of B-29s–the 22d and 92d–to the Far East to join the war effort. In early July, Stratemeyer organized FEAF Bomber Command (Provisional), to be led by Maj. Gen. Emmett O’Donnell Jr. Stratemeyer directed O’Donnell to strike deep interdiction targets and North Korean industries.

On the Attack

USAF quickly achieved air superiority over the North Koreans, destroying more than 100 enemy airplanes, leaving the North Koreans with almost no air force at all. FEAF Bomber Command destroyed bridges and railways, and 5th Air Force, headed by Maj. Gen. Earle Partridge, employed its fighters on interdiction missions. Early in the war, however, the majority of FEAF’s sorties were dedicated to close battlefield support of American and allied troops, which had reversed the course of the war on the ground. The Air Force played a major role in stopping the enemy offensive, and, by mid-September, Stratemeyer was able to report that the B-29s had taken a heavy toll on North Korean industrial targets. By the end of September, UN forces had driven the enemy out of South Korea and were pushing Communist forces northward.

MacArthur then ordered an amphibious landing at Inchon, on Korea’s west coast, which cut off enemy forces and paved the way for UN troops to move into the North. However, in late October and November 1950, Chinese forces intervened and a new phase of the war began. US 8th Army was driven back, then recovered, and the war settled into a stalemate which would last until 1953. During the war, 5th Air Force employed the F-86 Sabre, which more than offset the enemy’s Soviet-produced MiG-15. The F-86 proved to be an outstanding fighter, but its great success in the war clearly resulted from the skill of USAF’s pilots, many of them World War II veterans. Led by aces Capt. Joseph McConnell Jr., Col. Francis Gabreski, Col. John Meyer, and Maj. James Jabara, F-86 pilots destroyed 792 MiGs and 18 other enemy airplanes. Of 218 Sabres lost in the war, 76 were downed by MiGs, 19 by ground fire, 15 to unknown enemy action, 13 to operational causes, and the rest to accidents.

By mid-1952, it was clear that the war held many lessons for the Air Force.

In 1948, the Air Force had combined Air Defense Command and Tactical Air Command under an entity called Continental Air Command. Under pressure of the war in December 1950, they were again separated and resumed their previous existences as major commands. This step, said one air historian, “swept the cobwebs” from the tactical and air defense functions, permitting the two major commands once again to report to the Chief of Staff of the Air Force.

The conventional war in Korea, fought for limited objectives, had by 1952 become increasingly unpopular. It spawned a “never again” school in the United States and ultimately accelerated, on the part of the Eisenhower Administration and the Air Force, a drive for an even stronger nuclear force, aimed at deterring the Soviet Union from fomenting such wars in the first place.

With the Cold War having turned hot, the Air Force made every effort to build a truly intercontinental force. USAF’s push to acquire overseas bases continued, along with plans to bring the B-47 medium bomber and the B-52 heavy bomber into the operational force. At the same time, and of great importance, SAC developed its air refueling capability as a vital range extender. The B-47 test program began in June 1950 but throughout 1951 encountered difficulties and delays. It would not be until late 1952 that SAC could claim to own an operational B-47 unit.

Appointment in Bar Harbor

In July 1952, with the Korean War at a stalemate and USAF nearing the five-year mark, the leadership of the Air Force flew to Bar Harbor, Maine, where the then­Secretary of the Air Force, Thomas K. Finletter, maintained a summer home. They set out to refine the Air Concept, an airpower strategy developed by the Air Staff in the war years. Finletter, Roswell Gilpatric, Gen. Nathan Twining, and Gen. Laurence Kuter (Vandenberg was convalescing from cancer surgery) noted that the war had busted the Administration’s austerity budget, enabling the Air Force to build up to 95 wings and to prepare to then push toward 143 wings. Military appropriations increased rapidly, going beyond specific Korean War requirements to take into account the growing direct threat from the Soviet Union. The principal result of this meeting, called the Bar Harbor Memorandum, recommended that the United States rely on a standing intercontinental-range USAF nuclear deterrent force ready immediately to retaliate against any aggressor. The Air Force in 1952 stood positioned to fulfill this national mission, with LeMay’s SAC to lead it. In April 1952, the first YB-52 test flight occurred. The 143-wing program called for at least one heavy bombardment wing to be equipped with B-52s.

The Air Force, as it embarked on the creation of a long-range nuclear deterrent in 1952, stood poised and ready to accept the role as the principal military arm of American foreign and defense policy. Behind it lay five years of budget battles, bitter interservice squabbles, international crises requiring herculean efforts, and two years of war. Through this dangerous, contentious, and turbulent period, the Air Force learned a great deal about itself and where it was headed.

The accomplishments of the first five years of USAF stand as a tribute to its leadership and its fighting forces. Even prior to the end of the Korean War, the Air Force was on the verge of the kind of maturity that in the decade to come would distinguish it as the major military arm of US foreign policy. It faced many complex challenges and suffered some setbacks, but all the while it pressed ahead.

Herman S. Wolk is the senior historian in the Air Force History Support Office. He is the author of The Struggle for Air Force Independence, 1943-1947 (1997) and a coauthor of Winged Shield, Winged Sword: A History of the United States Air Force (1997). His most recent article for Air Force Magazine, “The founding of the Force,” appeared in the September 1996 issue.