60 Years Old Today, Air Force Is Nation's "Sword and Shield" Gates Says

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The nation has stood in awe of the U.S. Air Force’s “bravery and endurance,” dating from the Berlin Airlift during the Cold War’s outset, through two wars in Asia and to today’s global conflict, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said today.

During a ceremony in the Pentagon courtyard, Gates, a former airman, spoke to hundreds who gathered to celebrate the U.S. Air Force’s 60-year anniversary. Currently, the Air Force boasts a 700,000-strong force with roughly 25,000 members deployed in 120 locations around the world.

“It is the men and women of the Air Force who have for so many years made this institution what it is: the sword and shield of the nation, its sentry and its avenger,” Gates said, addressing past and present airmen in the audience.

The secretary said the modern Air Force evolved from man’s inherent desire to fly.

“Ever since the dawn of civilization, the idea of flight has held an unshakeable grip on the human imagination,” he said. “The myths of ancient Greece, the musings of great philosophers, the charcoal sketches of Leonardo da Vinci -- all illustrated a dream that one day mankind would travel in the skies and maybe even among the stars.”

Through history, flight by man alternately has been heralded by romantics as a vision of the future or panned by cynics as the wild musings of overactive minds, the secretary said. When human flight was first realized by Orville and Wilbur Wright on Dec. 17, 1903 -- albeit in primitive, yet seminal, form -- the seeds of today’s U.S. Air Force were planted, Gates said.

“That first tentative and halting foray into the sky by a heavier-than-air flying machine -- a mere 10 feet above the sands of Kitty Hawk, 120 feet across the dunes -- marked more than just the dawn of the Age of Flight,” he said. “It also marked the beginning of the incredible journey that brings us here today in celebration of the 60th anniversary of the United States Air Force.”

The secretary noted that Army Brig. Gen. William “Billy” Mitchell -- often regarded as the father of the U.S. Air Force -- gained notoriety in the early 20th century for asserting the controversial proposal that aircraft be adopted by the U.S. military. “He did so with great fervor and little tact. Senior officers took to calling him the “Kookaburra,” an Australian bird more commonly known as the “laughing jackass,” Gates told the audience members, who broke into laughter.

Mitchell’s protege Gen. Henry “Hap” Arnold realized his mentor’s vision years later, becoming the first and only five-star general of the Air Force in 1949. “People would often say Billy Mitchell was years ahead of his time, but many would forget how it was also true,” Arnold was quoted as saying after Mitchell’s death.

“Since then and throughout the 60-year history of the Air Force,” Gates said, “the American people have stood in awe as airmen continued to push the limits of bravery and endurance, as they crashed through the sound barrier many times over, and extended the range, scope and nature of air missions beyond what anyone could have imagined.”

The secretary thanked special guests in the audience. They included aviators who flew in Vietnam and Korea; representatives of the Tuskegee Airmen, a corps of African-American pilots who broke the color barrier before the Air Force broke the sound barrier; and female cadets who symbolized the service’s gender parity. “Many had to defy personal fears. Others had to defy societal prejudice. All demonstrated unflagging devotion. They are examples for us all,” the secretary said.

Gates expressed optimism for the Air Force’s future and praised cadets for their service to the United States.

“As we look back on everything that has made this birthday possible, let us also look forward to many more birthdays as the Air Force continues its dominance of air, space and cyberspace,” he said. “You represent the best our military, and our nation has to offer, a long and distinguished heritage of courage and endless horizons of innovation.”

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