The Air Force was born 70 years ago, and these men were there

W. Stuart Symington, first Secretary of the Air Force, and Gen. Carl Spaatz, first Air Force Chief of Staff, at a 1947 press conference announcing the new organizational set-up for the Department of the Air Force,


By WAYNE CRENSHAW | The Macon Telegraph | Published: September 15, 2017

MACON, Ga. (Tribune News Service) — Seventy years ago Monday, the U.S. Air Force was born, and some men still living in Middle Georgia were there to see it happen.

They say it wasn’t all that exciting.

The Air Force was officially created as a separate branch of the military on Sept. 18, 1947. The Telegraph identified at least 18 men across Middle Georgia who were serving in the Army Air Forces when it became the Air Force on that date. In all, there were 318,744 airmen serving at the time, according to the Air Force’s website.

Although the creation date is celebrated annually across the Air Force, those who were there don’t remember it being a big deal.

“There was no change in what we were doing,” said Allan Penrod of Macon, who’s now 97. “One day we were Army Air Corps, and the next day we were the Air Force. The name is the only thing that changed.”

Many of the men referred to it as the Army Air Corps, which is what it was called earlier in World War II. Also, the Army Air Corps remained a unit of the Army Air Forces.

They didn’t remember any celebration or excitement about becoming a separate branch.

“It was kind of a ho-hum day,” said Eugene Rooks, 89, of Macon.

Their uniforms didn’t change until a year or more later. They continued to wear the same brown Army uniforms well after the creation date. Eventually they began to wear the familiar Air Force blue uniforms of today, although some of the men said they left the service before they ever got a blue uniform.

William Camp, 87, of Warner Robins, was serving in Korea as both a B-29 crew chief and a gunner when the Air Force was born. He didn’t even remember his commander telling them they were a separate branch.

“When you are overseas doing bombing runs over North Korea, you don’t have nothing else to think about,” he said. “It didn’t change anything for the working people. We had things to do.”

He didn’t wear a blue Air Force uniform — or see one — until he returned to the States in 1951. He went on to serve 30 years in the Air Force and worked at Robins for 20 years after he retired.

David Opfer, 91, of Macon was a pilot who served in the occupation force in Germany and flew a C-54 during the Berlin Airlift in 1948-49. The airlift was the first major operation of the Air Force as a separate branch. It involved delivering food and supplies to West Berlin after the Soviet Union set up a blockade.

“It was hectic,” Opfer recalled of the airlift as he sat in his wheelchair in front of a C-54 at the Museum of Aviation recently. “You had very short job times.”

When the Air Force was created, Robins Air Force Base was called Robins Army Air Field, said Mike Rowland, curator at the Museum of Aviation. It kept that name for five months before taking the name it holds today.

Rowland said the experiences of World War II led to the creation of the Air Force as a separate branch.

“It showed the Air Force needed its own separate organization to be able to function,” he said. “The folks in the Army wanted it to be like flying artillery for them. There were strategic issues that were bigger than supporting troops on the battlefield.”

Among those, he said, were the need to fly troops and supplies overseas.

To this day, Rowland said there are still some people who believe the Air Force should not be a separate branch. They think its operations should either fall under the Army or be divided up among the other branches.

“I don’t think that’s going to happen,” he said. “I think the Air Force is essential.”

©2017 The Macon Telegraph (Macon, Ga.)
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