On September 18th, 1947, President Truman signed the National Security Act, granting the former Army Air Force independence from the U.S. Army and effectively creating the modern United States Air Force. It's a milestone that is recognized and celebrated by Airmen and Air Force veterans across the country and abroad each year. But the history of American air force begins well before President Truman’s official act.
World War I
In 1917, upon the United States’ entry into World War I, the first major U.S. aviation combat force was created when the Air Service was formed as part of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF). These aviation units provided tactical support for the U.S. Army in Europe. Captain Eddie Rickenbacker and Second Lieutenant Frank Luke were among the select pilots who established themselves as aces of the AEF Air Service. At the conclusion of the First World War, though, the Air Service was dissolved and largely demobilized.
In 1935, as a result of recommendations from two civilian review boards, the next advancement toward independence for the Air Force occurred when all flying units, which had been distributed to various ground commands, were grouped together as an aerial task force under one air commander as the General Headquarters Air Force. The Air Corps, headed by the Chief of the Air Corps, continued as before but now held responsibility only for supply, airfields and training, in effect splitting the Air Force into two parts.
Despite the ongoing debate among military leaders about the proper role of aviation in the military, President Roosevelt had become a firm believer in air power, and both public opinion and Congress were behind him. When mobilization began in the spring of 1940, Roosevelt was as energetic as anyone in expanding the role of the Air Corps, calling for 50,000 planes a year, and sending the best new models to Britain for its war against the Luftwaffe.
World War II
The Air Force came of age in World War II, with President Roosevelt calling for a vastly enlarged air force capable of conducting long-range strategic bombing. It became further independent of the Army in 1941 when the Army Air Corps became part of the newly formed U.S. Army Air Forces. In 1942, the Army Air Forces gained equal voice with the Army and Navy on the Joint Chiefs of Staff and complete autonomy from the Army Ground Force and Services of Supply, serving as a separate service in all but name. For the remainder of the war, American air power played a critical role in the Allies’ ultimate triumph in both the European and Pacific theaters of operation.
The birth of the USAF
At the conclusion of World War II, General Dwight D. Eisenhower became Army Chief of Staff. One of his first actions was to appoint a board of officers to prepare a definitive plan for the reorganization of the Army and Air Force that could be enacted without legislation and would provide for the separation of the Air Force from the Army. On Jan. 29, 1946, General Eisenhower and General Carl Spaatz, who was serving as the Commanding General of the Army Air Forces, agreed on an Air Force organization composed of Strategic Air Command, Air Defense Command, Tactical Air Command, Air Transport Command, Air Technical Service Command, Air Transport Command, Air Technical Service Command Air Command Training, the Air University and the Air Force Center.
In September of the following year, President Truman made it official by establishing the United States Air Force as an independent branch of the U.S. military, equal to the Army and Navy. Despite 30 years of contributions to national defense before this official act, it continues to be recognized as the birthday of the United States Air Force.
Innovation, courage and commitment
At First Command, we are proud to count thousands of Air Force families among our clients and many more in the extended First Command family. It’s because of their contributions and contributions by others like them that the U.S. Air Force became – and remains – the largest, most powerful air force in the world. We look forward to joining them this September 18th in recognizing the 72nd birthday of the modern American Air Force – while also remembering the 30 years of innovation, courage and commitment that led to that day.