James M. McCoy, who was the sixth Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force, and who was the first former enlisted member to be president and chairman of the Air Force Association, died July 13, three weeks shy of his 92nd birthday. He was a recipient of AFA’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
McCoy was born in Iowa and entered the Air Force in 1951. He served first as a radar operator with Aerospace Defense Command in Alaska, but a glut of radar operators after the Korean War motivated him to seek a new career in training.
He returned to be a drill instructor at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, from 1956 to 1957 and became a technical sergeant in just five years. While at Clark Air Base, the Phillipines, where he was in charge of base noncommissioned officer training, he set up and operated a command post during the 1958 Taiwan Strait Crisis, coordinating inbound and outbound USAF aircraft. He then spent a year as assistant to the commandant of cadets at the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps program at the University of Notre Dame, Ind.
In 1960, McCoy was commandant of Strategic Air Command’s NCO preparatory school at Bunker Hill Air Force Base, Ind., and in 1962 was an instructor at the 2nd Air Force NCO Academy at Barksdale Air Force Base, La., becoming its sergeant major by 1966. In that year, he also received his bachelor of science degree in business administration from Ambrose College in Davenport, Iowa. He was an honor graduate of the 2nd Air Force NCO Academy.
McCoy was head of Headquarters, 2nd Air Force’s training branch then transferred to Headquarters, SAC, where he was in charge of NCO professional military education, setting up SAC’s own NCO Academy and NCO Leadership Program.
In 1970, McCoy was in charge of NCO operations training at the 41st Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Wing at Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii, where he supervised training programs for H-3, H-4, H-53, and HC-130 rescue aircrew throughout the Pacific and Southeast Asia; and as senior enlisted adviser to the wing commander.
He move up to Headquarters, Pacific Air Forces, as chief of military training and deputy chief of staff for personnel in 1973, refreshing courseware. He graduated with the first class of the U.S. Air Force senior NCO academy at Gunter Air Force Station, Ala., that same year.
In an interview, McCoy said, “I had gone from a wing, to a numbered air force, to a major command. I was going back to a wing.” He would have been eligible for retirement within a year, and he considered putting in his papers, but he decided to stay in, saying, “You look at every opportunity that comes along, and you don’t turn it down based just on what it looks like. I looked at it as another opportunity to further my professionalism.”
McCoy was named one of the 12 Outstanding Airmen of 1974 during his assignment with PACAF.
In 1976, McCoy returned to SAC as its senior enlisted adviser and during this assignment also chaired two worldwide senior enlisted conferences for AFA, which identified challenges to enlisted life and recommended improvements.
McCoy was named Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force in 1979, advising Chief of Staff Gen. Lew Allen Jr. and Air Force Secretary Hans M. Mark on enlisted issues. In a 2015 interview, McCoy said that during his time as CMSAF, the service was still reeling from the post-Vietnam-era malaise and the so-called “Hollow Force.” Both recruiting and retention were struggling. Helped in part by what he described as a resurgence of national patriotism in 1980, as well as a re-emphasis on discipline and grooming standards, both retention and recruiting improved significantly. He retired from USAF in 1981 after 30 years of service.
In retirement, McCoy settled in the Omaha, Neb., area where he was active with community, business, and civic organizations. But he focused on the Air Force Association, ultimately serving two terms as National President (1992-1994) and two terms as Chairman of the Board (1994-1996). He was the first enlisted Airman to hold both jobs. He was also the first enlisted person to chair the Air Force Retiree Council.
In 2007, the Airman’s Leadership School at Offutt Air Force Base, Neb., was named for McCoy. In 2016, he was inducted into the Strategic Air Command Hall of Fame.
In 2021, AFA awarded McCoy its Lifetime Achievement Award in the school at Offutt that now bears his name. Upon receiving the award, McCoy said, “It means a lot to me because of what AFA has done” over its history. He added that “a lot of people think it’s an officer’s association. It’s not. I’m living proof of that.” Gerald Murray, the 14th Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force and the second enlisted Airman to to be the Chair of AFA, presented McCoy the award.
Murray, who rose through the ranks to follow McCoy as the 14th Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force and is the only other former enlisted leader to become AFA’s Chairman, praised McCoy as a role model.
“Chief McCoy joined the Air Force at 18 and our association not long after,” Murray said. “Many are life members, but he led a life of membership—leading and giving his all at every level and in every way. He was an inspiration, and his mark is long-lasting.”
Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr said McCoy “left a legacy that highlights the instrumental role senior enlisted leaders have in our mission, both as executors and advisors.”
“Improving education, equality, and quality of life were hallmarks of his time in service that helped shape the force we have today,” Brown continued, “and his dedication to Airmen and families continued in his post-retirement work with the Air Force Association and other civic organizations. I am grateful for his contributions to our service and am saddened to learn of his passing.”
Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force JoAnne S. Bass said McCoy “was an icon of our great Air Force; a leader among leaders; a patriot of unparalleled honor and dignity.”
“When we talk about standing on the shoulders of giants, we are talking about Airmen like CMSAF McCoy. His passion for giving back to Airmen was exceeded only by his humility. He will be missed by all. Please, keep his family in your thoughts and prayers.”
McCoy received numerous medals and citations, including the Legion of Merit and the Meritorious Service Award.