National Air and Space Museum
New uniforms for a new service: Army olive drab gave way to Air Force blue in 1949. Officers and enlisted personnel were given the same uniform, and the old Army unit badges and service stripes were done away with. The change was gradual - olive drab continued to be worn until July 1952. Here, Pfc. Virginia Woodward, still in olive drab, inspects Cpl. Claude Ridings' new uniform. (USAF K 5179)
The U.S. Air Force was created as a separate service on September 18, 1947. These were difficult times for the fledgling force as it dealt with a multitude of challenges: the separation from the U.S. Army, inter-service rivalries over congressional funding, and a crisis over recruitment and the retention of trained personnel. At the same time, the old propeller-driven equipment of World War II was being phased out as the Air Force moved into the jet and rocket age. And as the Cold War deepened, the Air Force accepted critical new responsibilities all over the world.
These images are drawn from the U.S. Air Force Photographic Collection on loan to the National Air and Space Museum Archives. They detail some of the events, the equipment, and the people who served in those formative early years.
In the late 1940s, the question of an independent Air Force was part of a larger debate on national defense, the Cold War, and America's role in the post-war world.
Pamphlet published by the National Air Council, circa 1947.
Convair B-36 bombers fly over the Capitol for Harry S Truman's inauguration, January 20, 1949. The chiefs of the Air Force knew that "force projection" over Capitol Hill had its uses in the struggle for funding. (USAF 5346 AC)
Crewmen load a special cargo of milk in a Douglas C-47 during the Berlin Airlift. One pilot, Lt. Gail S. Halvorsen, initiated "Operation Little Vittles" by equipping chocolate bars with tiny parachutes made from handkerchiefs and throwing them from his cockpit as he came in for landings. The children of Berlin dubbed Halvorsen "der Schokoladenflieger" - the Chocolate Pilot. Halversen still receives letters and Christmas cards from grateful Berliners.(USAF 71695 AC)
On June 23, 1948, the Soviet Union blockaded Berlin, at that time occupied by the United States, Great Britain and France, in addition to the Soviets. All road, rail, and barge traffic was shut down. Gen. Lucius D. Clay, the American Military Governor of Germany, resolved to keep the city supplied by air. Operation Vittles - the Berlin Airlift - was a massive combined effort of all the U.S. armed services and the Western powers, and was the first great test of the independent Air Force.
On October 14, 1947, less than a month after the birth of the Air Force, Capt. Charles E. Yeager broke the sound barrier in the Bell X-1. The X-1 hangs in the Milestones of Flight Gallery in the National Air and Space Museum. (USAF A 34504)
Aviation cadet Claude Platte looks out confidently from the cockpit of his F-51 Mustang. The old "P" for "Pursuit" gave way to "F" for "Fighter" in 1948. (USAF 34450 AC)
A Washington, D.C. boy contemplates a photograph of one of the Bikini Atoll atomic tests at an Air Force Day display, September 1948. (USAF 35162 AC)
Sgt. Francis Dowdy and Paratrooper Joe, members of the 10th Rescue Unit, Ladd Air Force Base, Alaska, rehearse a jump from a C-47. Sled dogs were used in Arctic rescue units, and, judging by Joe's expression, not all were volunteers. (USAF A 45422 AC)
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