Enlisted milestones observed as Air Force turns 62

  • Published
  • By Chief Master Sgt. Clifton G. Cole
  • 28th Bomb Wing command chief
Happy Birthday Air Force! 

Our service is now 62 years old as of just a few days ago. For 62 years, Airmen have defended America's skies, brought the fight to enemies abroad and have secured our Nation's freedom with honor, sacrifice and valor. 

I want to take this opportunity to shed some light on the many changes our Air Force has made in what is, from a historian's point of view, a relatively short amount of time. After all, we're the youngest branch of service by far. 

These milestones do not just pertain to the Air Force. Instead, I want to share with you some points in history that impacted our entire Nation. What you may find interesting is that these milestones were largely spearheaded by the efforts of our enlisted corps.
In 1898, our Nation lost its first pilot in a war. Guess what? It was an enlisted person - his name was Sergeant Ivy Baldwin. 

In 1910, seven enlisted men, including Sgt Vernon L. Burge were transferred to Fort Sam Houston for the first official aircraft program. 

April 6, 1917, America entered World War I. The Aviation Section had 65 officers and 1,087 enlisted men divided into seven squadrons. 

In May 1919, an enlisted non-commissioned officer, Master Sgt. Bottriell, invented the free fall parachute. In fact, it's the forerunner of the same design we use today. 

Our modern bombers can circle the globe, if needed. But, there has to be a foundation for greatness. That foundation came in 1923 when two sergeants completed the first cross-country bomber flight. 

In 1948, the newly formed Air Force anticipated President Truman's order to racially integrate the armed forces. Our Air Force was the first of the armed services to do so. That same year, Congress passes the Women's Armed Service Integration Act, establishing women in the Air Force. 

In the summer of 1948, The Berlin Airlift began as a response to a ground blockade imposed by the Soviet Union on Berlin.

Because of Airpower and our Airmen, the blockade was lifted in 1949. The Soviet Union ended the Berlin blockade; however, the airlift continued until September to build up stock piles.

From June 12, 1948 to May 12, 1949, U. S. Air Forces in Europe primarily used C-54 cargo aircraft (C-47s also flew from June until Sept. 30, 1948) to airlift some 1,783,000 tons of food, clothing, fuel, medical supplies and coal. This effort was not just done by pilots. Loadmasters, crew chiefs, maintenance specialists and air traffic controllers were all part of this effort.

In January 1949, we started to shed our Army identity and adopted a blue uniform.

In the ensuing years, many of our enlisted corps was once again, making their mark on the Air Force and our Nation. Here are just a few. 

On April 11, 1966, Airman 1st Class William H. Pitsenbarger, a pararescueman, hoisted nine soldiers to safety aboard a HH-43 Huskie and then remained behind to treat the wounded amid heavy mortar and sniper fire. In the ensuing battle near Cam My, South Vietnam, he was mortally wounded. He became the first Airman to receive the Air Force Cross posthumously. The Air Force later upgraded the award to the Medal of Honor.

The Air Force Cross was awarded to the first living enlisted man in 1967. Airman 1st Class Duane D. Hackney, Air Rescue and Recovery Service, heroically rescued a pilot downed in North Vietnam's jungles.

The Air Force Cross was awarded to the first living enlisted man in 1967. Airman 1st Class Duane D. Hackney, Air Rescue and Recovery Service, heroically rescued a pilot downed in North Vietnam's jungles. 

In December 1967, MSgt. H. B. Whitmore, wearing a passive pressure suit developed by the School of Aviation Medicine, set a new high altitude record during tests in a chamber simulating 112,000 feet in altitude. 

On February 24, 1969, an enemy mortar shell struck an AC-47 gunship on which Airman 1st Class John L. Levitow served. Although seriously wounded, he wrapped an ignited flare with his bare hands and threw it out of the cargo door. He became the first enlisted Airman to receive the Medal of Honor in Vietnam and the lowest ranking Airman to receive our Nation's highest military award. 

Tech. Sgt. Tim Wilkinson was a recipient of the Air Force Cross for his heroic actions in Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1993. His mission was supporting Task Force Ranger during a 15-hour firefight, the longest sustained firefight by U.S. forces since the Vietnam War. He became the first enlisted person to earn the Air Force Cross since 1975. 

As our branch of service celebrates its 62nd birthday, keep in mind the legacy of valor Airmen before you have established for us to build on. The contributions of the enlisted corps in particular speak for themselves. Be proud of these milestones mentioned here and, most importantly, make your own enlisted milestone for future generations to look upon.