USAF 75th anniversary: The Cold War begins

In practice, the Army Air Forces became virtually independent of the Army during World War II, but its leaders wanted formal independence.

In November 1945, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower became Army Chief of Staff, while Gen. Carl Spaatz began to assume the duties of Commanding General, Army Air Forces, in anticipation of Arnold’s announced retirement.

One of Eisenhower’s first actions was to appoint a board of officers, headed by Lt. Gen. William H. Simpson, to prepare a definitive plan for the reorganization of the Army and the Air Force that could be affected without enabling legislation and would provide for the separation of the Air Force from the Army.

On Jan. 29, 1946, Eisenhower and Spaatz agreed on an Air Force organization composed of the Strategic Air Command, the Air Defense Command, the Tactical Air Command, the Air Transport Command and the supporting Air Technical Service Command, Air Training Command, the Air University, and the Air Force Center.

Over the continuing objections of the Navy, the United States Department of the Air Force was created by the National Security Act of 1947. That act became effective Sept. 18, 1947, when the first secretary of the Air Force, Stuart Symington, took office. In 1948, the service chiefs agreed on usage of air assets under the Key West Agreement.

The newly formed U.S. Air Force quickly began establishing its own identity.

Army Air Fields were renamed Air Force Bases and personnel were soon being issued new uniforms with new rank insignia. Once the new Air Force was free of Army domination, its first job was to discard the old and inadequate ground army organizational structure. This was the “Base Plan” where the combat group commander reported to the base commander, who was often “regular army,” with no flying experience.

Spaatz established a new policy: “No tactical commander should be subordinate to the station commander.”

This resulted in a search for a better arrangement.

The commander of the 15th Air Force, Maj. Gen. Charles Born, proposed the Provisional Wing Plan, which basically reversed the situation and put the wing commander over the base commander. The U.S. Air Force basic organizational unit became the base-wing.

Under this plan, the base support functions — supply, base operations, transportation, security, and medical — were assigned to squadrons, usually commanded by a major or lieutenant colonel. All of these squadrons were assigned to a combat support group, commanded by a base commander, usually a colonel.

Combat fighter or bomber squadrons were assigned to the combat group, a holdover from the U.S. Army Air Force group. All of these groups, both combat and combat support, were in turn assigned to the wing, commanded by a wing commander.

This way the wing commander commanded both the combat operational elements on the base as well as the non-operational elements. The wing commander was an experienced air combat leader, usually a colonel or brigadier general.

All of the hierarchical organizations carried the same numerical designation. In this manner, for example, the 28th became the designation for the Wing and all the subordinate groups and squadrons beneath it. As a result, the base and the wing became one and the same unit.

On June 6, 1952, the legacy combat groups were inactivated and the operational Combat Squadrons were assigned directly to the Wing. The World War II history, lineage and honors of the combat group were bestowed on the Wing upon its inactivation.

The USAAF wing then was redesignated as an Air Division, which was commanded by a brigadier general or higher, who usually, but not always, commanded two or more wings on a single base. Numbered Air Forces commanded both air divisions or wings directly, and the numbered air force was under the major command — Strategic Air Command, Tactical Air Command, etc.

After World War II, relations between the United States and the Soviet Union began to deteriorate, and the period in history known as the Cold War began.

West Berliners watch as a U.S. cargo plane delivers desperately needed supplies during the Berlin Airlift. (File photo)

The United States entered an arms race with the Soviet Union and competition aimed at increasing each nation’s influence throughout the world. In response, the United States expanded its military presence throughout the world.

The U.S. Air Force opened air bases throughout Europe, and later in Japan and South Korea. The United States also built air bases on the British overseas territories of British Indian Ocean Territory and Ascension Island in the South Atlantic.

The first test for the U.S. Air Force during the Cold War came in 1948, when Communist authorities in East Germany cut off road and air transportation to West Berlin.

The Air Force, along with the Royal Air Force and Commonwealth air forces, supplied the city during the Berlin airlift under Operation Vittles, using C-54 Skymasters. The efforts of these air forces saved the city from starvation and forced the Soviets to back down in their blockade.

Conflict over post-war military administration, especially with regard to the roles and missions to be assigned to the Air Force and the U.S. Navy, led to an episode called the “Revolt of the Admirals” in the late 1940s, in which high-ranking Navy officers argued the case for carrier-based aircraft rather than strategic bombers.

In 1947, the Air Force began Project Sign, a study of unidentified flying objects which would be twice revived (first as Project Grudge and finally as Project Blue Book) and which would last until 1969. In the past two years, separate investigations have been conduced by the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Air Force, DOD and NASA, with the most recent being the Airborne Object Identification and Management Synchronization Group who’s formation was announced in November 2021.

In 1948 the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act gave women permanent status in the Regular and Reserve forces of the Air Force. And on July 8, 1948, Esther McGowin Blake became the first woman in the Air Force, enlisting the first minute of the first hour of the first day regular Air Force duty was authorized for women.


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