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Look past 1947 for Air Force roots

SAN ANTONIO, Texas (AFNS) -- The Air Force officially turns 67 this month, but my uncle Gino thinks it's older.

He's 90, and the lone surviving brother of my father. Both of them served in World War II, as did two of their siblings. My father was in the Navy, as was his eldest brother, Europeo (his real name, I swear). Gino and my late uncle Dario were both aircraft mechanics in the Army Air Forces.

Out of all of the times I talked to them about their GI years, though, neither one ever said he'd been in the Army. They were "in the Air Force."

Maybe it's a genetic thing I share with them, but I agree that Air Force history predates Sept. 18, 1947, and think we should do a better job of recognizing that. The problem is, of course, what to use as a starting date for such remembrances? Since we formed from the Army, my gut feeling is that we should lay claim to its heritage dating back to 1775.

That's just me, though. How about we look back to the founding of the Union Army Balloon Corps during the Civil War? It was a military force in the air, after all. Still not likely to gain much support? OK, let's fast forward a few decades.

What about 1907? That's when the Army Signal Corps established its Aeronautical Division responsible for "air machines." Perhaps 1908, when Orville Wright made a series of flights for federal officials near Washington, D.C. These demonstrations confirmed that the latest airplane built by Wright and his brother, Wilbur, met strict government specifications, and the resulting $25,000 contract included training of the first two military pilots. Still not convinced? Then let's aim for the March 5, 1913, founding of the 1st Reconnaissance Squadron, which still exists today at Beale Air Force Base, California.

Some curmudgeons will say military flight prior to World War I is just too far back to include in any kind of U.S. Air Force history. Well then, let's begin at the Great War, which allows us to acknowledge the flying exploits of men such as Maj. Carl Spaatz and Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker. Spaatz, a West Point graduate, gets extra credit for being the first Air Force chief of staff three decades later and for his remains being interred at the Air Force Academy.

If that is still Army history, though, surely we can trace our roots to the pioneering air campaigners of the 1920s and 1930s like Billy Mitchell and Hap Arnold, whose early, deliberate steps eventually led to a separate flying service. Mitchell died in 1936, well before that realization, but Congress awarded him a special Medal of Honor a decade later for "outstanding pioneer service and foresight in the field of American military aviation." Arnold, who served on the Joint Chiefs of Staff in World War II as head of the Army Air Forces, was retired from the military when the Air Force branched off from the Army. He was made a five-star "general of the Air Force" in 1949 even though he technically never served a day in that service.

Somewhere in here is the right starting point for recognizing Air Force history. Maybe I'm a bit too sensitive to criticism about the Air Force being the youngest of the military branches. Disparagement of its youthfulness was first directed at me before I even put on its uniform for the first time. I enlisted as a high school senior and continued to work at a pizza shop as I waited to leave for boot camp. An old Marine who was a regular customer was delighted to hear that I was joining "the service" - until I told him which one.

"The Air Force!" he spat. "Those Johnny-come-latelies? Where were they when..." and he proceeded to recite a list of proud leatherneck campaigns back to the First Barbary War. It was clear he expected an answer from 17-year-old me. I cleared my throat and asked him how it would have been possible to have an Air Force before man invented flight. A disgusted look crossed his face. He grabbed his pizza and stormed off into the night.

I've been in the Air Force for 30 years and the longer I'm around, the more I think like my uncles. The Air Force may have officially separated from the Army Sept. 18, 1947, but it existed - in spirit, innovation and tradition - well before that. Once it started, there's been no stopping it.


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