Most Americans did not know that a historic turf battle between the armed services was going on within the Pentagon in the months immediately following World War II. The lessons of the war had proved that a coordinated effort by all three services–unity of command–was absolutely essential in order to win any future wars. No longer could army, navy and air units fight independently.
But there was considerable disagreement over the role of military aviation in the postwar era. Air power advocates believed that unity of command had to extend into the postwar defense structure or the Army Air Forces would revert to its prewar status of subservience to the Army, with a consequent loss of effectiveness.
The Army and the Army Air Forces agreed that establishing a Department of Defense headed by a secretary of defense, with three separate but equal services under its control, was the way the military establishment should be organized, as Brig. Gen. William “Billy” Mitchell had preached so vehemently after World War I (see story, P. 38). The Navy’s official position was expressed by Admiral Richmond K. Turner in congressional testimony: “In spite of any possible degree of goodwill on the part of the Army and Air Force, I think the superior political position of those services will be used to the disadvantage of the Navy unless the Navy has at all times free and direct access to the President and the Congress.”
After months of interservice and congressional wrangling, a compromise was worked out. Congress would unify the services by legislation spelling out the powers of the secretary of defense, confirming the three services as separate but equal and describing their specific missions. The resulting legislation was passed on July 25, 1947, achieving a goal that President Harry S. Truman had worked toward since taking office. Shortly after noon on July 26, a courier arrived at Washington National Airport and hurried to The Sacred Cow, the presidential aircraft. The president had delayed the takeoff for more than an hour awaiting several congressional signatures on the legislative paperwork. He was anxious to travel to the bedside of his dying mother but waited patiently while the courier came aboard and spread out three documents for his signature. The first was a bill called the National Security Act of 1947, which established the Department of Defense and set up the National Security Council and a separate Air Force. The second was Executive Order No. 9877, defining the roles and missions of the armed forces. The third was the nomination of James V. Forrestal as the first secretary of defense. It was a historic day for air power advocates.
The birthdate of the U.S. Air Force is considered to be September 18, 1947–the day W. Stuart Symington, who had been assistant secretary of war for air since January 1946, was sworn in as its first secretary. His appointment marked the realization of a dream that Billy Mitchell had fought for since World War I but did not live to see come to fruition (he died in 1936). General Carl A. Spaatz became the Air Force’s first chief of staff on September 26, 1947. Since then, the Air Force has undergone many organizational changes dictated by world events. Today, with the Cold War apparently over but with peacekeeping still part of its mission, the Air Force is undergoing a downsizing that must not be allowed to go so far as to diminish its capabilities to defend the nation.On Friday, June 6, 1997, the aviation world lost one of its premier historians with the tragic death of Jeffrey L. Ethell. Ethell was flying a borrowed Lockheed P-38 Lightning fighter during a gathering of World War II P-38 pilots at the Tillamook Naval Air Station Museum in Oregon. Ethell was approaching the Tillamook airport to land when his plane stalled, then crashed and burned. At this writing, the crash is under investigation.
A qualified pilot as well as the author of 64 books and more than 1,000 articles on aviation history, including several for Aviation History, and the star of a recent PBS program, Top Gun Over Moscow, Ethell was always ready to share information or photographs from his extensive archive or just compare notes with a fellow aviation buff. Ethell’s death at age 49 leaves a considerable void to fill in the realm of aviation history.
Happy landings, Jeff. We know you’ve gone west to better things, but we’re going to miss you.
By C.V. Glines