One month later on July 28, the Austrian-Hungary Empire declared war on Serbia and by mid-August the great powers of Europe would be embroiled in war.
Within a short time war would encompass the globe and nations as diverse as Great Britain, Japan, Andorra and the United States would take part. This war would last four years and take the lives of over 16 million people with an additional 20 million wounded.
Like all wars, World War I was a catalyst for all sorts of technological advancements; the development of the tank, widespread use of submarines and chemical weapons. But arguably the largest advancement was in aviation.
In the early days of the war, aircraft were used primarily for reconnaissance and artillery sighting. That didn’t stop pilots from finding a way to engage in combat with other aircraft; in October 1914 the first air-to-air ‘kill’ was scored when a Russian reconnaissance aircraft rammed an Austrian aircraft killing the crews of both aircraft. By 1915, the first aircraft built specifically for air combat took to the sky to wage war, and in 1917, small rudimentary bombers took to the sky to conduct tactical and strategic bombing missions.
The point of the preceding two paragraphs was not to give a history lesson, rather to remind every Airman in the United States Air Force of our history.
The U.S. Air Force was founded by the aviators who learned their tradecraft in World War I, like Capt. Frederick Libby who became the first American ace. America’s first aviation hero was Maj. Eddie Rickenbacker who, with 26 kills, was the most successful American ace in the war and a Medal of Honor recipient.
World War I also saw the coming of Maj. Gen. Billy Mitchell, who is regarded as the founder of our Air Force. Mitchell planned the first coordinated air-ground offensives in the Battle of Saint Mihiel. He quickly rose through the ranks to become the commander of all American Air Forces in France.
Mitchell would use his influence and notoriety to advocate for a separate Air Force, develop ideas for strategic bombing, and prove that aircraft could sink a dreadnaught. These Airmen may have been the first heroes of our Air Force but they were supported by countless, nameless individuals who performed maintenance and other supporting tasks. In many cases, these Airmen volunteered to fight under the flag of another nation because the United States was not officially involved in the war.
Pretty soon the Air Force will be celebrating its 67th birthday. While it’s important to celebrate this date, it is even more important to remember that our heritage as Airmen goes far beyond Sept. 18, 1947.
Our heritage does not lie in Friday shirts, organizational baseball caps or flight suit patches, and our traditions go beyond the combat dining-in and Air Force Ball.
Our heritage and traditions as Airmen go back 100 years to the first aviators of World War I. These aviators inspired the development of today’s Air Force and these aviators trained the first Airmen of our Air Force.
As Airmen, it is our duty to remember them, their contributions, and their dream to build a separate Air Force on equal footing with the Army and the Navy. The next time you hear an Airman lament the Air Force doesn’t share the Army’s long and storied history or the Marine Corps’ impeccable uniform, remind them the roots of the Air Force go back more than 100 years and there is a century’s worth of Airmen who bravely fought and served to defend our nation.