Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Happy 60th Air Force!

"In general the United States Air Force shall include aviation forces both combat and service not otherwise assigned. It shall be organized, trained, and equipped primarily for prompt and sustained offensive and defensive air operations. The Air Force shall be responsible for the preparation of the air forces necessary for the effective prosecution of war except as otherwise assigned and, in accordance with integrated joint mobilization plans, for the expansion of the peacetime components of the Air Force to meet the needs of war."

-National Security Act of 1947

In honor of the day I'm going to post the text of a speech I'm going to be giving tomorrow in honor of the Air Force's 60th birthday:

We’re gathered here this morning to celebrate the 60th birthday of the United States Air Force, but something you may not know is that there is another anniversary that we celebrate this year. The Air Force can trace its lineage back through the Army Air Forces, the Army Air Corps, the Army Air Service, the Aviation Section of the Signal Corps, and finally the Aeronautical Division of the Signal Corps. The other anniversary we celebrate this year is the 100th anniversary of military aviation in the United States with the establishment of the Aeronautical Division of the Signal Corps. Our current air and space force of almost 700,000 personnel and over 6000 aircraft had rather humble beginnings: one officer, two enlisted men, and no aircraft. There have been several men and women who have gotten us from there to now and added to the rich heritage of the air forces of this nation; I’d like to share a few of their stories with you today.

Frank Luke was a loner from Arizona who racked up one of the most impressive victory streaks in American history: 14 kills in 8 days, including 10 heavily guarded observation balloons. Observation balloons were the AWACS of WWI, a high value target that was defended by layers of anti-aircraft guns and several flights of fighters. Luke made downing them his specialty. Eddie Rickenbacker said of Luke: "He was the most daring aviator and greatest fighter pilot of the entire war. His life is one of the brightest glories of our Air Service. He went on a rampage and shot down fourteen enemy aircraft, including ten balloons, in eight days. No other ace, even the dreaded Richthofen had ever come close to that." His Medal of Honor citation reads:

After having previously destroyed a number of enemy aircraft within 17 days he voluntarily started on a patrol after German observation balloons. Though pursued by 8 German planes which were protecting the enemy balloon line, he unhesitatingly attacked and shot down in flames 3 German balloons, being himself under heavy fire from ground batteries and the hostile planes. Severely wounded, he descended to within 50 meters of the ground, and flying at this low altitude near the town of Murvaux opened fire upon enemy troops, killing 6 and wounding as many more. Forced to make a landing and surrounded on all sides by the enemy, who called upon him to surrender, he drew his automatic pistol and defended himself gallantly until he fell dead from a wound in the chest.

He was found the next day with an empty pistol and 7 dead Germans in front of him.

Although there were several instances of heroism among airmen in WWI, and although airpower demonstrated its potential during the war, the interwar years found the military as a whole and the air service in particular underfunded and undermanned. Something was needed to boost public interest in military aviation and prove its relevance. Such an operation was undertaken. It would foreshadow a major advance in military aviation and the crew involved reads like a who’s who of WWII air force officers. The mission was the flight of the Question Mark in 1929, a record setting endurance flight. Using aerial refueling, the crew of Carl Spaatz, Ira Eaker, Elwood Quesada, Harry Halverson, and Roy Hooe kept their Fokker trimotor airborne for 150 hours, 40 minutes, and 14 seconds. They refueled 43 times, using a rather primitive (by modern standards) system that involved dropping a hose from the refueling plane to the Question Mark, then having Spaatz on the question mark grab the hose through a hatch in the top of the plane and plug the hose in the tank, at which point fuel flow could begin. As you might guess, this set up was not the most fool proof; Spaatz was sprayed with fuel three times, eventually resorting to refueling stark naked to avoid soaking his clothes. The flight resulted in a wave of publicity for the Air Corps.

Obviously, there are countless examples of heroism among airmen during WWII. Crewmen in the strategic bombers that flew day after day against German targets suffered the second highest casualty rate of WWII. However, I’d like to focus on a lesser known theater of war, one where men flew aircraft cast off from Europe in a relative backwater against a fanatical enemy: the Southwest Pacific. One story involves one of the highest decorated flights in history: the flight of Old 666. Old 666 was a B-17 that had gained a reputation as a bad luck bird; it was being used for spare parts when its crew towed it out and began returning it to flight status, making numerous improvements and adding several machine guns to its defensive armament in the process. The decorated mission occurred on 16 June 1943 when the crew of Old 666 volunteered for an unescorted mapping mission alone deep into enemy territory. Near the end of the mission the aircraft was attacked by 17 Japanese fighters, severely wounding both the pilot, Jay Zeamer, and the bombardier, Joseph Sarnoski. Sarnoski fought back, downing two fighters, until he died at his post. The aircraft and crew suffered severe damage, including a loss of the oxygen and hydraulic systems, but continued to fight, downing an additional three fighters. The battle went on for 45 minutes until the fighters finally broke off the engagement. The crew made it safely back to an allied base, suffering one KIA and 6 WIA. Sarnosky and Zeamer were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor while the rest of the crew was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.

Next I’d like to turn to another forgotten conflict, Korea. While much has been made of the exploits of pilots in MiG Alley and sustaining a 10-1 kill ratio, air to mud missions were the real difference makers in the Korean War. They sustained the outnumbered troops holding the Pusan Perimeter at the beginning of the war, and through countless interdiction and close air support missions they prevented the beleaguered troops withdrawing from the Chinese advance from turning into a complete rout. It’s an air to ground mission I’d like to focus on today. From his Medal of Honor citation: Maj. Loring distinguished himself by conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty. While leading a flight of 4 F-80 type aircraft on a close support mission, Maj. Loring was briefed by a controller to dive-bomb enemy gun positions which were harassing friendly ground troops. After verifying the location of the target, Maj. Loring rolled into his dive bomb run. Throughout the run, extremely accurate ground fire was directed on his aircraft. Disregarding the accuracy and intensity of the ground fire, Maj. Loring aggressively continued to press the attack until his aircraft was hit. At approximately 4,000 feet, he deliberately altered his course and aimed his diving aircraft at active gun emplacements concentrated on a ridge northwest of the briefed target, turned his aircraft 45 degrees to the left, pulled up in a deliberate, controlled maneuver, and elected to sacrifice his life by diving his aircraft directly into the midst of the enemy emplacements. His selfless and heroic action completely destroyed the enemy gun emplacement and eliminated a dangerous threat to United Nations ground forces. Maj. Loring's noble spirit, superlative courage, and conspicuous self-sacrifice in inflicting maximum damage on the enemy exemplified valor of the highest degree and his actions were in keeping with the finest traditions of the U.S. Air Force.

That’s the very definition of service before self.

Another example of service before self comes from the Vietnam conflict. On 24 February 1967, Captain Hilliard A. Wilbanks was piloting a Forward Air Control O-1E Bird Dog over the central highlands of Vietnam providing cover for a South Vietnamese Ranger Battalion. He spotted a large enemy force massing for an attack. He radioed a warning to the Rangers and began marking the enemy with white phosphorous rockets while calling for close air support. The enemy immediately unleashed a barrage of weaponry at both the Rangers and Wilbanks’s slow unarmored aircraft. Wilbanks realized that the fighters would not arrive soon enough to save the Rangers from annihilation. His phosphorous rockets exhausted, he had one other weapon. He began making low and slow passes over the enemy positions at a height of 100 feet, firing his M-16 out the side door as he went. This distracted and momentarily slowed the enemy troops. On his third pass, he was severely wounded and his plane was shot down. He was dragged unconscious from the plane as a flight of F-4s arrived overhead and began strafing the enemy. He died while being flown to a hospital. He was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his sacrifice.

Although the Air Force has several instances of heroism and bravery in the years following Vietnam, I’d like to close by focusing on three Airmen who gave their all in our most recent conflicts: SrA Jason Cunningham, TSgt John Chapman, and Maj Troy Gilbert.

SrA Cunningham and TSgt Chapman both gave their lives in the battle on Takur Ghar, later known as Roberts Ridge, on 3-4 March 2002. TSgt Chapman was attached to the SEAL team who came under heavy fire, losing a man out the back of their chopper. While attempting to rescue him, the chopper crashed. TSgt Chapman guided in numerous airstrikes, giving cover to the stranded men. Advancing on the ground, the team again came under heavy fire. TSgt Chapman continued the advance, taking one enemy fighting position. While advancing on a second position TSgt Chapman came under fire from three enemy positions, eventually succumbing to multiple wounds. His aggressive actions enabled the team to break contact and, in the words of the team leader, saved the lives of the entire team.

SrA Cunningham was attached to the ranger QRF which responded later that day to the same site. His helicopter came under fire and crash landed. Airman Cunningham remained in the burning fuselage to treat the wounded and exposed himself to intense enemy fire numerous times to recover, treat, and move casualties. Even when mortally wounded, Amn Cunningham continued his life saving treatment of critical American casualties. His care was credited with saving 10 lives that day.

Maj Troy Gilbert was an F-16 pilot tasked with giving close air support to an embattled U.S. patrol on 27 November 2006. While making several low passes, Major Gilbert ignored altitude warnings in order to be able to prosecute the enemy to maximum effect while avoiding friendly or civilian casualties. On his last pass, Major Gilbert flew too low and crashed. He gave his life to save friendlies and protect civilians.

While there is much more to Air Force history, I wanted to give you a taste today of some of those who have added to the rich history and tradition of our service. Each one of them provides a role model for all of us as we prepare to enter active duty. I’d like to thank all of you for your attention, and if anyone has any questions I’d be more than happy to answer them now or later today.

Here's to another 60.