Col. Sherrie McCandless, the first woman selected to command the 124th Fighter Wing and first female wing commander in Idaho Air National Guard history, assumed command in a ceremony on March 2, at Gowen Field, Boise.
In an attempt to augment U.S. military presence in the region, 12 555th Fighter Squadron F-16 Fighting Falcons and about 200 personnel assigned to the 31st Fighter Wing at Aviano Air Base, Italy, arrived March 14 at the U.S. Air Force Aviation Detachment at Lask Air Base.
The 379th Air Expeditionary Wing hosted a field trip to Al Udeid Air Base on March 10 for American School of Doha students to showcase the variety of careers available to Airmen.
Airmen representing the United States, Japan and Australia recently exercised their abilities to respond to humanitarian assistance and disaster relief missions in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands in support of exercise Cope North on Andersen Air Force Base.
The women of today’s Air Force can look back with pride to Staff Sgt. Esther McGowin Blake.
“We consider her the first lady of the Air Force,” said William Chivalette, the curator of the Enlisted Heritage Hall at Gunter Annex. “She raised her right hand to enlist in the U.S. Air Force on the first minute of the first hour of the first day, July 8, 1948, that women could join the United States Air Force, created nine months before on September 17, 1947.”
Less than a month before, on June 12, 1948, President Harry S. Truman had signed the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act (Public Law 625-80), which authorized women to serve as regular members of the U.S. armed forces.
Born on July 7, 1897, in Escambia, Ala., Blake served as a civilian employee of the Army Air Forces Air Service Command at the Miami Air Depot, Miami, Fla., now a part of the Miami International Airport, after World War II started.
In March 1944, she enlisted in the Women’s Army Corps after the War Department notified her that her oldest son, 1st Lt. Julius Blake, a B-17 Flying Fortress pilot in England, had been shot down over Belgium and was reported missing. He remained “missing in action” for nine months.
Her younger son, 1st Lt. Thomas Blake, who flew a B-25 Mitchell bomber in Italy, later said that his mother joined the Women’s Army Corps hoping to free a Soldier from clerical work to fight, thus speeding the end of the war.
“If I can do this,” Blake said, “my efforts will be worthwhile.”
While Thomas was also shot down after 50 combat missions Blake saw both of her sons return home by the end of the war with only minor wounds and many decorations.
During the war, Blake served at several bases throughout the U.S., including one year in Alaska near the Aleutians and in the Yukon territory. She separated from the Army in November 1945 and returned to her civil service job in Miami. However, heeding a recall for women in the military services, she re-enlisted in the Army in April 1947. The Army assigned her to Fort McPherson near Atlanta, Ga.
The Air Force became a separate military service on Sept. 17, 1947. After the enactment of the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act on June 12, 1948, the Air Force within a month established the Women in the Air Force as a separate organization to oversee the training and administration of WAF. At the time, Congress had limited the number of women in the Air Force to 300 officers and 4,000 enlisted members, assigned primarily to clerical and medical career fields. The Air Force inactivated the WAF in June 1976.
At the first available opportunity to return to her roots, Blake transferred from the Army to the Air Force on July 8, 1948, minutes after the start of the first duty day for the WAF, along with 11 other women at Fort McPherson. She remained on active duty with the Air Force until 1954, when she separated because of a disability and went to work as a civil servant at the Veterans Administration Regional Headquarters in Montgomery, Ala.
Blake died on Oct. 17, 1979, at 82 years of age, at the Veterans Hospital in Tuskegee, Ala., among fellow veterans.
On Oct. 1, 1987, the Air Force named one of the student dormitories at the Air Force Senior NCO Academy at Gunter Annex, Ala., in her honor.
“In singling out and recognizing in such a special way one of your own, you pay respect and tribute not only to Air Force Staff Sgt. Esther McGowin Blake, you honor all of us who knew and loved her and who were privileged to share her life,” her son Thomas said at the dedication ceremony.
“It’s never easy being the first. The trail that Esther Blake blazed made it possible for other women to follow,” said Chief Master Sgt. Timothy Horn, the Air University command chief. “Her success opened the doors to allow future women the opportunity to serve with pride. Our Air Force is emphatically better for her efforts.”
Today, nearly 20 percent of the active-duty members of the Air Force are women. In comparison to the women of Staff Sgt. Blake’s Air Force, women in today’s Air Force serve in 99 percent of the available career fields, including as security forces members and combat pilots.
Newly-appointed Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James wanted to see the Air Force in action, so she spent her first 11 weeks on the job visiting 18 bases in 13 states, she told members of the House Armed Services Committee March 14.
Getting outside the Pentagon allowed her to observe three things, James said: Air Force leaders at all levels are tackling tough issues, Airmen are demonstrating “superb” total-force teamwork, and they’re enthusiastic about their service to the nation despite serving in challenging times.
The Air Force is doing its very best to tackle head-on the challenges posed by the security environment and declining budgets, the secretary said.
“In the fiscal 2015 budget, we do have a strategy-driven budget, but let’s face facts,” James said. “We’re severely, severely limited by the fiscal choices that are contained in the Budget Control Act and the Bipartisan Budget Act.”
The Air Force kept its 2015 budget request at the target amount contained in the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2014, she said, and is still in need of the additional funds allotted to the Air Force in President Barack Obama’s Opportunity, Growth and Security Initiative.
“This is a $26 billion initiative across the Defense Department,” James said. “For us in the Air Force, it’s about $7 billion. And we will, if we are granted these additional funds, spend them principally on readiness and other key investments to get us back closer to where we want and need to be.”
More difficult decisions lie ahead in fiscal 2016, the secretary said, as the service seeks to balance current readiness with future relevance. “I’m pretty sure we’re not going to make everybody happy. There were no elements of low-hanging fruit in this budget,” she said.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel laid out the strategy imperatives for the services in his budget request, James said.
“We need to defend the homeland against all strategic threats,” she said. “We need to build security globally by protecting U.S. influence and deterring aggression. And we need to remain prepared to win decisively against any adversary should deterrence fail.”
Today’s Air Force is critically important to all of those elements, the secretary said.
“But there’s also tomorrow,” she said.