It cuts to the Corps: The contributions of the Air Force enlisted corps

  • Published
  • By Mr. Rick Shea
  • 49th Fighter Wing historian
This is the first in a series of Enlisted Heritage articles.

The contributions of the enlisted corps have significantly added to the outstanding accomplishments of not only the United States Air Force, but that of the Army's early Signal Corps, Army Air Corps and Army Air Force. Yet, the contributions are, often times, buried in the annals of history, overlooked or, worse yet, forgotten.

Without their contributions, many of the fabled Air Force units would not have enjoyed the success' of their past. For instance, most everyone has heard of the highly decorated Tuskegee Airmen of World War II, yet few remember the enlisted members who kept their aircraft flying. Selection criteria for entrance into the Tuskegee Airmen program were high and the qualifications of the applicants were even higher. Most of the enlisted aircraft mechanics were chosen from black colleges and several held engineering degrees.

Prior to even World War I, we saw the introduction of the Enlisted Pilot Program within the U.S. Army's Signal Corps. A program that offered enlisted the opportunity to learn, train and serve as pilots was established in 1912. Among the more notable enlisted pilots; Cpl. Vernon Burge, the first enlisted pilot, who earned his wings in 1912; Pvt. Frederick C. Libby, who shot down 24 enemy aircraft in WWI, more than Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker; Walter Beech, who gained notoriety through his co-founding of the Beech Aircraft Company; Ira Biffle and Bill Winston, who, while not household names, were both enlisted pilots and together taught Charles Lindbergh to fly; and lastly, Chuck Yeager. Yes, General Yeager began his Air Force career as an enlisted pilot. The Enlisted Pilot Program enjoyed an illustrious 30-year run, in which 17 enlisted members became fighter aces and 11 went on to become general officers.

The introduction of the "Flight Officer Act" of late 1942 brought an end to the enlisted pilot program and the opportunity to fly. The Air Force's last enlisted pilot, Master Sgt. George Holmes, retired in May of 1957.

Of interest to some, may be a few of the more known, former Air Force enlisted members. They include, but are not limited to, such entertainers as Mike Connors of Mannix fame, Charlton Heston, a former B-25 radio operator/gunner, and a former Air Force mechanic, Morgan Freeman. Two former enlisted security police members, Chuck Norris and the late country singer Johnny Cash add their names to the list of contributors. The enlisted corps has seen its share of comedians as well, among them Sinbad, George Carlin and the late Flip Wilson.

No journey into Air Force enlisted history dare look into the past without mentioning such enlisted heroes as Medal of Honor recipients Airmen 1st Class John Levitow and William Pitsenbarger. The heroic acts of Airmen Levitow and Pitsenbarger exemplified the motto "service before self."

Another enlisted member of note is that of Cpl. Frank S. Scott, the first enlisted member killed in an aviation crash. Scott AFB, Ill., is the only Air Force base named in honor of an enlisted member.

The quiet professionalism exhibited by the enlisted corps spills over to 49th Fighter Wing as well. The wing emblem we all wear to this day, with the exception of one minor adjustment, was designed by Sgt. Frank Stetson in 1942 and was "officially" approved for Air Force use in 1951. Prior to 1951, the emblem or "patch" was designed for use as a point of commonality, something all wing members would share.

Sgt. Frederick Bente, 9th Fighter Squadron crew chief, became the wing's first enlisted combat casualty, when on March 11, 1943, a bomb burst struck his P-38 Lightning, causing the aircraft to explode into flames. Injured in the same attack was Sgt. Obert Franklin, who suffered shrapnel injuries resulting in the amputation of one arm.

Thousands have served and continue to serve the rich heritage of the enlisted corps without the recognition of those mentioned above. And, it is through your 'service to country,' combined with a commitment to duty, so that 'others may live,' that will maintain the pride and honor of serving as a proud member of the Fighting 49ers and United States Air Force enlisted corps.