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Stuart Symington being sworn in

Stuart Symington was sworn in as the first Secretary of the Air Force by Chief Justice Fred Vinson on September 18, 1947, establishing the United States Air Force as truly an independent arm of the U.S. military.

Stuart Symington

W. Stuart Symington, first Secretary of the Air Force, Sept. 18, 1947 to April 24, 1950.

Carl Spaatz

After the World War II, Carl Spaatz became the first chief of staff of the newly independent Air Force.

Air Force logo

One logo of the U.S. Air Force.

The United States Air Force

Soon after the Wright brothers first flew in 1903, the role of flight as part of the American military began to receive attention. Although at first, this role was unclear, technological advances and its performance during World War I demonstrated its potential future. But there was disagreement as to how it would best be organized and used. Many airmen felt that in order for these uses to be developed and used optimally, military aviation had to operate separately from the army and navy. However, the rest of the military establishment worried that establishing another separate military branch would threaten the "unity of command" or the coordination of ground and air forces.


Beginning in 1907, aviation was represented by the Aeronautical Division of the U.S. Army Signal Corps until being reorganized and renamed the Army Air Service in May 1918 and the Army Air Corps in 1926. In June of 1941, another reorganization resulted in the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF). The navy started its own Bureau of Aeronautics in 1921. Air officers felt the separate divisions would be sufficient to allow for the creation and practice of air power theory.


During World War I, aviation technology developed rapidly. But the army’s reluctance to use the new technology began to make airmen think that as long as the army controlled aviation, development would be stunted and a potentially valuable force neglected. Air corps senior officer Billy Mitchell began to campaign for air corps independence. But his campaign offended many and resulted in a court martial in 1925 that effectively ended his career. His followers, including future aviation leaders Henry "Hap" Arnold and Carl Spaatz, saw the lack of public, congressional, and military support that Mitchell received and decided that America was not ready for an independent air force. Under the leadership of its chief of staff Mason Patrick and, later Arnold, the air corps worked quietly to prove its worth until the time to fight for independence arose again.


In 1935, the General Headquarters Air Force (GHQ Air Force) was established at Langley Field in Virginia. This restructuring placed all army combat aviation under a single command for the first time. It was a revolutionary change in the organization of the Army Air Corps, essentially an autonomous air arm in the army, and was the first real step toward creation of a separate and independent U.S. Air Force.


When World War II began, many air officers thought it was time to allow the air force to lead strategic bombing campaigns unfettered by ground leadership. But Hap Arnold knew that the only way to achieve independence would be to establish first a successful record for aviation during the war. He made an agreement with army chief of staff General George C. Marshall that the Army Air Forces would operate autonomously during the war and when it was over, it would be made independent. In March 1942, the War Department released Circular 59, War Department Reorganization, which, among other things, defined the Army Air Forces as an autonomous command within the army. The only problem was that Circular 59 was only a temporary solution as it was due to expire six months after the end of the war. The case for air force independence was strengthened on July 21, 1943, with the publication of War Department Field Manual (FM) 100-20, Command and Employment of Air Power. It stated that air and ground forces were equal and "gaining air superiority is the first requirement for ground success." Some army officials referred to it as "the Army Air Forces ‘Declaration of Independence.’"


But the war ended without further agreement regarding air force independence. Postwar studies lauded aeronautical successes, notably in the bombing arena. The nuclear bombs dropped in the final days of the war offered a new view of the future of warfare. They were a good argument for keeping a fully operational air force prepared to deliver such bombs on a moment’s notice, ending a war before it could begin.


But the Army Air Forces was not able to stay fully operational as it was subjected to the same rapid demobilization as the rest of the armed forces. On V-J Day, the USAAF listed 2,253,000 military personnel. By the end of 1945, the number was down to 888,769 and by May 1947, the USAAF had only 303,600 military personnel remaining. The ranks were decimated as many men with experience and talent went home. There was still plenty of equipment left in stock, but no one to repair or fly it. Ninety percent of the mechanics had gone home in the first six months of peace. The air force was no longer prepared to fight at a moment’


Hap Arnold, ill from the stress of the war, retired on February 15, 1946, having seen his great war machine reduced to nothing, but with the air force still on the road to independence. He had promoted a War Department proposal for a "Department of Armed Forces" that was presented to the U.S. Senate in October 1945. The proposal called for all the military service branches to be unified under one commander. Arnold supported this plan because he wanted aviation to be equal to ground and naval operations and saw this as the best route. In late 1945, President Harry Truman called for legislation on the matter. There was no mistaking his wishes: "Air power has been developed to a point where its responsibilities are equal to those of land and sea power.…Parity for air power can be achieved in one department or in three, but not in two." Although the navy initially opposed a three-department military, fearing its needs would be lost if there were only one department, it joined the fight for a separate army, navy, and air force. The navy would still maintain its own Bureau of Aeronautics.


The resulting legislation was the National Security Act of 1947. It established the Department of Defense, with three sub-departments for army, navy, and air force. Truman signed the bill while on the presidential airplane, a C-54 named Sacred Cow, and on September 18, 1947, Stuart Symington was sworn in as the first secretary of the air force. Carl A. Spaatz became the first chief of staff. A month later, the new independent service announced its presence with a literal bang, as Captain Charles "Chuck" Yeager became the first person to break the sound barrier.


But the National Security Act did not provide a blueprint for the organization until passage of the Air Force Organization Act of 1951. This gave Symington and Spaatz great flexibility in developing headquarters and field structure. All USAAF military and civilian personnel were transferred to the new department between September 26, 1947, and July 22, 1949. And there was much work for the new leaders to do to ensure that they were as well organized as the other services. A promotion list had to be drawn up for military personnel. Systems had to be put in place to build a strong and loyal officer corps, especially important for non-flying officers. Similar plans had to be made for the enlisted personnel. And services such as medical and police along with commissaries, laundry, and the like, which had previously been shared with the army, had to be organized. Unfortunately, at the same time, demobilization was continuing and budgets were shrinking. In 1948, the air force began to desegregate, saying it would increase combat effectiveness.


And the new air force still had to be prepared to fight. World War II had tested theories and developed new technologies. Now these had to be organized and developed. The potential uses of conventional and nuclear bombing had to be explored. Technologies such as jets, supersonic flight, giant bombers, mid-air refueling, rockets, missiles, the flying wing, and nuclear bombs had to be developed, tested, and understood. And the Soviet Union loomed as a powerful enemy. American military intelligence had failed to report how completely decimated the Soviet Union was from expelling the Nazis, so they were viewed as much more dangerous than they really were. When they blockaded Berlin in 1948, the air force flew its first major action, the Berlin Airlift. The air force was ready and its first mission was a success.


Significant events leading to independence for the U.S. Air Force


August 1, 1907                             U.S. Army establishes Aeronautical Division of the U.S. Army Signal Corps.

July 1911                                      First Army flying school opens at College Park, MD.

May 1918                                     Is renamed Army Air Service

April 6, 1917-November 11, 1918       U.S. participation in World War I

July 1921                                      Bombers sinks a German battleship, among other ships, in demonstration of air power by Billy Mitchell

December 1925                            Billy Mitchell is court-martialed

July 1926                                      Is renamed the Army Air Corps

1935                                             Establishment of the General Headquarters Air Force at Langley Field, Virginia

September 1938                           Hap Arnold is named Chief of the Air Corps

1941                                             Air Corps is renamed Army Air Forces

December 1941                            U.S. enters World War II

March 1942                                  Circular 59, War Department Reorganization, defines the Army Air Forces as an autonomous command.

July 1943                                      War Department Field Manual (FM) 100-20, Command and Employment of Air Power, declares air and ground forces equal and air superiority the first requirement for ground success.

August 1945                                 World War II ends

September 1947                           National Security Act of 1947 creates Department of Defense, including U.S. Air Force

1948                                             Air Force has first action with Berlin Airlift


--Pamela Feltus




Boyne, Walter J. Beyond the Wild Blue: A History of the U.S. Air Force 1947-1997. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997.

Copp, Dewitt S. A Few Great Captains: The Men and Events That Shaped the Development of U.S. Air Power. McLean, Va.: EPM Publications, 1980.

Daso, Dik. Hap Arnold and the Evolution of American Airpower. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000.

Gunston, Bill. History of Military Aviation. London: Hamlyn, 2000.

"The Day Billy Mitchell Dreamed Of" Air Force and Space Digest (September 1967): 62-70.

"The New Air Force Takes Shape- Organizational Pattern" Air Force and Space Digest (September 1967):70-76.


Air Force History Support Office: http://www.airforcehistory.hq.af.mil

US Air Force Museum: 50th Anniversary Exhibit: http://www.wpafb.af.mil/museum/50th/50th.htm


Additional Reading:

Frisbee, John L., ed. Makers of the United States Air Force. Washington, D.C.: Pergamon-Brassey's International Defense Publishers, 1989.

McClendon, R. Earl. Autonomy of the Air Arm. Washington, D.C.: Air Force History and Museums Program, 1996.

Nalty, Bernard C., ed. Winged Shield, Winged Sword: A History of the USAF. Washington, D.C.: Air Force History and Museums Program, 1997.

Wolk, Herman. Toward Independence: The Emergence of the United States Air Force, 1945-1947. Washington, D.C.: Air Force History and Museums Program, 1996.


Benson, Lawrence R. "Golden Legacy, Boundless Future. A Brief History of the United States. Air Force." Air Force History Support Office. http://www.airforcehistory.hq.af.mil/online/goldenlegacy.htm

"The Birth of the U.S. Air Force." http://www.maxwell.af.mil/au/afhra/wwwroot/rso/birth.html

U.S. Air Force Museum: http://www.wpafb.af.mil/museum


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