Remembering the Army Air Forces and the newly created U.S. Air Force

  • Published
  • By Retired Chief Master Sgt. Mel Bockelman
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It was a historical event - Sept. 18, 1947, the day the U.S. Air Force became a separate branch of the armed services as authorized by the National Security Act of 1947 passed by Congress. 

Stuart Symington was sworn in as secretary of the Air Force and Gen. Carl Spaatz was sworn in as the chief of staff of the Air Force. Among their early goals was to build a 48-group Air Force. 

I was a sergeant in the Army Air Force assigned to the 82nd Fighter Wing at Grenier Army Air Field, N.H. Our mission was to guard the northeastern part of the United States against attack by Soviet long range bombers. The cold war was in effect and the United States, a democracy and capitalist form of government, was the central enemy of the communist dictatorial ideology.
While Sept. 18, 1947, was probably a joyous occasion in Washington D.C., at Army Air Forces Headquarters, the event was hardly noticed at the Grenier Army Air Field. The loud speaker on top of wing headquarters continued to blurt out the Army bugle calls, Reveille, mail-call, chow-call, Retreat and Taps. 

We expected a lot of changes to take place in the new Air Force, but down at base level the changes were slow to come. The first sergeants, most of whom were old Army first sergeants, held unprecedented authority over the enlisted men. 

Military culture from the old Army Air Forces was very different than now. I recalled as a private 1st class, I didn't approach the first sergeant when he visited our office to see the sergeant in charge. Only if the first sergeant spoke to me first, did I enter into any conversation. Officers and enlisted personnel did not converse except on official business. That's just the way military life was in those days. 

Many of our air corps personnel problems were the result of the military draft still being in effect. While the Army Air Forces did not take draftees, many of society's misfits enlisted in the air corps to escape being drafted into the Army. These problem people presented problems to the sergeants and ultimately to the squadron commanders if their misbehavior became serious. 

Pay day occurred only once a month - on the last day of the month. Enlisted men lined up in rank order in front of the orderly room. Master sergeants first and privates last.
Going on sick call wasn't a desirable experience in the Army Air Corps at that time. The hospital medics, from the days of World War II, thought many soldiers going on sick call did that to get out of work or as the medics called it, "goldbricking." 

I recall one time that I was really sick with a sore throat, I didn't want to go on sick call, but with a severe sore throat, I did. In those days the hospital medic on duty determined whether you were sick enough to see a doctor or if he could treat you. The medic said, "Open your mouth," and he swabbed it with iodine. It was a horrible taste and feeling but it did cure my sore throat. I am sure the medic thought I was "goldbricking." 

All officers and warrant officers belonged to the officers' club and all NCOs from master sergeant down through corporal belonged to the NCO club. Pressures were brought to make sure everyone paid his dues. In those days, the government paid for and furnished utilities for the officers' and NCO clubs, making it much cheaper to operate those institutions. Saturdays and Sundays were a time military and their families visited these clubs for recreation. 

There were three fighter squadrons that were stationed at Grenier Army Air Field, each had 25 P-51 Mustang Fighters and their primary mission was to patrol the northeastern United States. These pilots were mostly veterans from aerial combat in Europe during World War II. Gen. Eisenhower had ordered the Army Air Force to destroy the Nazi German air force before D-Day. A number of the 75 P-51 pilots had earned the title "Ace" by shooting down at least five German planes. 

These young pilots were restless and rambunctious and partied together, always reliving their World War II experiences. Once in a while, a dairy farmer located in rural Maine or New Hampshire would come to the the wing commander complaining that, "Your pilots buzzed my cows, scaring them and they quit giving milk." 

During Operation "Combine" at Eglin Field, Fla., a game warden complained to the detachment commander that "your pilots are using Alligators for target practice."
Another detachment of P-51s were sent to Ladd Air Force Base, Alaska, to "shake up the Russians," but the Eskimos were the most frightened and came running to the base commander with the complaint that, "Your pilots have been shooting at our Polar Bears."
Within three years, the Korean War would be on and these restless pilots would transition to the F-86 Saber Jets - again doing deadly aerial combat - this time with the Communist MIG in the skies above North Korea. 

Col. Henry Viccellio was the commander of the 82nd Fighter Group. He was previously in command of a P-38 fighter squadron in the South Pacific during World War II. Col. Viccellio was assigned the honor to shoot down the plane carrying Japanese Admiral Yamoto, who had master-minded the attack on Pearl Harbor, on an inspection trip near Bougainville in the South Pacific. The Navy had broken the Japanese Naval Code and learned of Admiral Yamoto's itinerary. 

Army customs and traditions continued at Grenier Field while I was stationed there. I was about to be promoted to sergeant when the first sergeant called me in and said he was holding up my promotion until I could demonstrate to him that I could march a formation of Soldiers. 

Since I was barracks chief, I said, "Okay sergeant, look out in front of the orderly room at 7:45 a.m. tomorrow where you will see me march the Soldiers to the central personnel office for processing." It was shortly thereafter when I received my promotion to sergeant in the Army Air Forces. 

Being a barracks chief had its good side and downside. I didn't have to pull any kitchen police duty or squadron CQ, but I was responsible for the orderly conduct of the men when they were off duty. The society misfits were always trouble. 

Kitchen Police - everyone hated that duty. Mess halls, as they were called, had to have man-power to help the cooks, give out the food, sweep and scrub the floors, wash and rinse all silverware and mess plates. K.P. duty was from 5 a.m. - 7 p.m. Those who pulled KP were usually "dog-tired." 

More than 400,000 servicemen lost their lives in World War II. The Army began to return the remains of those who died on active duty when the next of kin made that request. Active duty servicemen had to accompany the remains to their hometown. 

I was one of those selected and I was sent to an Army installation near New York for three days of orientation on Army procedures and rules for accompanying the casket of the deceased to his hometown for burial. We were told to act polite and to act only in an official capacity of the U. S. Army, and not to get personal. Army Chaplains conducted most of the briefings and orientations. We were shown one of the most important functions and that was how to fold and present the flag to the next of kin.
At the New York Port of Embarkation, we were assigned the casket to escort to the deceased's hometown. The Army rule was that the military member must be of at least equal or greater rank than the deceased. 

All movements were made by train in those days. It took four days and four nights for the train, including transfers, to arrive in a little town in western Wyoming, where the deceased came from. 

The sergeant had been a B-17 crew member shot down on a bombing raid over Berlin in 1943. His wife and two little boys and a group of relatives were there to meet the train.
An American Legion honor guard was also present to render honors. 

The casket, covered by an American Flag was unloaded from the train and placed in the hearse. Two days later, the family attended a church service to honor the departed serviceman and bury him in a local cemetery. 

At the gravesite, I had an American Legion member help me fold the flag, which I presented to the deceased Airman's widow. I said the words, "I present this flag to you on behalf of the president of the United States in grateful recognition of your husband's service to his country during World War II in combat in the air war over Germany in which he gave his life for his country." 

I was able to obtain the services of a high school senior who played the trumpet in a nearby high school band to play taps at this deceased sergeant's funeral. While the relatives and friends of the deceased sergeant wanted me to stay for several days - I remembered the Army's policy of not getting personal. I thanked the group for their hospitality and left on the next train to return to New York. 

My job at Grenier Field was to work in an office called "statistical control." This was the forerunner of data processing and eventually the computer career field. Our job was to receive reports, audit them and make sure they were mailed to higher headquarters on time. 

The problem was, many reports were late and one time, the wing commander got a stern letter from the 15th Air Force headquarters stating late reports would no longer be tolerated. 

The wing commander ordered the wing adjutant to set up a method to ensure all reports were mailed out on time. The wing adjutant called me in and ordered me to set up a card file suspense on all reports and to notify the adjutant one day before they were due out. I made my daily trip to the adjutant's office, and he was tough as nails on the office that was about to be late with a report. 

The 82nd Fighter Wing commander issued orders that all military personnel who entered wing headquarters must be dressed in a Class "A" uniform. 

Only military prisoners who were under armed guard and needed to see the wing legal officer were permitted to wear their blue dungarees when they were brought into wing headquarters. That practice was also strictly enforced at strategic air command headquarters. 

I began to look through the technical school books to see if there were any tech schools I could go to as I didn't want to shuffle paper forever. 

I signed up for a school called a "programmer." I took a qualification test that included letters and numbers grouping, which I had to look for similarities. 

After passing the test, I was sent to Lory Field, in Denver. We were among the first classes to learn computer programming in the Air Force. 

We had computer company instructors because no one in the Air Force had the experience to instruct us. It was hard and tough - requiring intense concentration. We learned to program in machine language using the hexadecimal numbering system. 

When I returned to Grenier Field, I was told to continue my old job because sooner or later, I was to be re-assigned to an Army Air Force installation where they had computers. 

It wasn't long, and a teletype came in from SAC headquarters directing my re-assignment to Offutt AFB, Neb. 

When I arrived there, it seemed like I was in another Air Force. Everyone seemed so professional - none of this hard boiled Army life style. 

The first sergeant of SAC headquarters squadron seemed to be a nice person, interested in the welfare of his men. To him, the mission of SAC headquarters came first, not the squadron requirements. 

I asked him how it was that the enlisted men of SAC headquarters seemed so professional, never causing trouble. The first sergeant replied, "There was a policy in effect that all personnel were screened to make sure no trouble makers were assigned." 

There was to be a new dimension in my job I hadn't ever thought of. I was in a headquarters that controlled the strategic bombing policy and war plans of the United States. For the first time in my Air Force career, I saw generals - many of them, and the first time I saw women in the Air Force. 

In those days, they were all assigned to the Women's Air Force Squadron. They had their own WAF female commander and first sergeant, and they resided in a barracks that was off limits to males. 

The "Waif's" only worked in the medical fields in the base hospital and in the data processing center of SAC headquarters. If a WAF became pregnant, that female had to be discharged from the service. 

Two years after the Air Force became a separate service, I was converted from an Army military occupation specialty to an Air Force specialty code. 

It was about that time when we were issued the new Air Force uniform. Most of my friends and I didn't like the new Air Force uniform; we felt it made us look like Greyhound bus drivers. 

We loved our Army Eisenhower battle jackets that contained the Army Air Force lapel with a propeller and our shoulder patch that contained the SAC emblem over the patch. 

We started to receive a clothing allowance, but that made us responsible for caring for our clothes. Prior to that time, replacement clothing was issued free to soldiers. 

It soon became evident to me that my job assignment became a real serious part of the strategic war planning. We worked on computer programs that kept track of the thousands of SAC warplanes, bombers and reconnaissance planes. 

It was a place to learn geography, worldwide and names of places that I had never heard of. After receiving a top-secret clearance, I and several other new programmers were assigned to a new phase of the war planning program. 

Basically it involved, for example, "X" number of special weapons, "X" number of bombers and "X" number of targets in Communist countries, each given a different priority as a target. 

Using computers, we wrote programs projecting the most accurate way to send bombers to more effectively destroy enemy targets, assuming losses of some of our bombers. 

As we ran our programs through the huge computer with the given parameters, there were air battle staff officers who urgently watched for the computer results. They would then meet with the generals over large tables and look at the results. At times, the generals would even come into the computer center and look at the computers. Sometimes they would come over and say a few words to us. 

Gen. Curtis LeMay, SAC commander in chief, came into our room on one occasion. It seemed to me like it would be a doomsday experience since we were sure the Soviets had similar plans to destroy the United State. We urgently hoped this situation would never happen - I often stayed up late at night wondering what would become of this world. 

When the Korean War started, many of us computer programmers worked every day four months without a day off. We worked on new programs related to SAC's B-29s bombing of Korea. 

This completes remembrances of my experiences and thoughts of service in the Army Air Force and the newly created U.S. Air Force. 

I conclude my presentation with this thought - Gen. Douglas MacArthur said in the halls of Congress on his retirement, "Old Soldiers never die, they just fade away." 

Today, I say to you, "Old Airmen never die, they just fly away."