68 years of change and tradition

  • Published
  • By Kenneth Dodd
  • 81st Training Wing Historian

Editor’s note: Information for this article was collected from base historical records and “Decorations, Medals, Ribbons, Badges and Insignia of the United States Air Force, World War II to Present” by retired Air Force Lt. Col. Anthony Aldebol.



On July 26, 1947, President Harry Truman signed into law the National Security Act of 1947, a law that reorganized America’s military and intelligence organizations. Major provisions of the Act took effect on Sept. 18, 1947.


Of primary significance to members of the Army Air Forces, were the separation of the AAF from the United States Army and the establishment of a new autonomous military organization – the United States Air Force – a co-equal to the U.S. Army and Navy.


If you were present on Keesler Field on the day the Air Force came into being, there wasn’t a very noticeable transition from being in the Army to that of being a member of the new Air Force. According to the base’s history, “it was expected that a gradual transition would take place covering a period of possibly two years” and within that time period the transfer of “all functions, personnel, property, funds, records, etc. would be accomplished.”


The most immediate change to occur on Keesler was the removal of all references to the “Army.” The parent organization on base, the 3704th Army Air Forces Base Unit, became the 3704th Air Force Base Unit on Oct. 1, 1947 with publication of Air Training Command’s General Orders Number 42. Over time, all signs on base would be changed to read USAF in place of AAF. All personnel that were transferred from the Army to the Air Force were identified via Army Transfer Order 1 of Bulletin 1 on Nov. 12, 1947 and would be identified by the designation USAF.


It would take several months before Keesler Field would become an Air Force Base. With the publication of USAF General Order 2 on Jan. 13, 1948, Keesler Field, Mississippi, was redesignated Keesler Air Force Base, Biloxi, Mississippi. General Order 2 also changed the designation of all major fields (installations) in the Continental United States (transferred to the Air Force from the Army) to “Air Force” bases.


During the last quarter of 1947, the terms “airman” and “airmen” could be heard on base as a reference to Air Force enlisted personnel. The terms were instituted and designed to promote “Air Force ‘espirit’” and place emphasis on Air Force autonomy. The terms “enlisted man” and “enlisted men” continued to be used on base in formal correspondence such as orders, personnel memorandum and reports. It wasn’t until 1950 that nomenclature of enlisted personnel was officially changed from “Soldiers” to “Airmen”.


The Air Force also had a major change to our uniforms in 1950. The “shade 84 blue” uniform, which was approved in 1949, became widely available to service members.

The enlisted rank structure carried over the Army’s nomenclature for personnel in grades E-1 to E-7 as well. As such, it would not have been unusual to see base enlisted personnel wearing a combination of Army and Air Force uniforms and rank insignia.


The new ‘blue’ Air Force uniform would not become firmly established until the end of the Korean War. Enlisted ranks did not carrier the term “Airman” until 1952, when titles changed from Army descriptions to new Air Force terminology. The term “Airmen” now clearly distinguished the title between the first four enlisted ranks (airman basic, airman third class, airman second class, and airman first class) and those of the three NCO ranks (staff, technical, and master sergeant). The chevron style rank insignia used today was initially established in 1948.In 1958, the Military Pay Act of 1958 created the top two enlisted grades, E-8 and E-9.


Unlike the unfolding flux in the enlisted rank structure and grades, the officer rank structure and insignia have remained essentially unchanged since World War II. As a result, the United States Air Force has always been able to trace its roots through its officer rank insignia, which will always provide a clear link to its past.


During the past 68 years, the Air Force has seen many changes in its policies, personnel and force structure. The Air Force was the first military service to be fully integrated in the late 1940s. It opened pilot training to women in 1976; navigator training in 1977; and fighter pilot training in 1993.


Besides its initial transition to a blue uniform in 1949, the Air Force has had many service and utility uniforms since 1947. I wore three different utility uniforms between my enlistment in 1980 and my retirement in 2007. And uniforms for women have also seen many variations. How many members can remember that for a period of time women wore pinstripes? There was even a time when men could wear khaki shorts with a bush jacket, knee socks, and a pith helmet.


Since its inception, the Air Force has been engaged in all of the country’s military campaigns. Its first test, the Berlin Airlift, came in mid-1948 when the Soviet Union blockaded West Berlin from East Berlin, Germany. From June 26, 1948 to Sept. 30 1949, the Air Force delivered more than 2 million tons of supplies to West Berlin. It achieved its first air victories in 1950, during the Korean War. As a joint warfighter and coalition partner today, the Air Force continues to deliver decisive air power against it adversaries when directed by the President of the United States.


The extraordinary transition that began 68 years ago continues today as change, evolution, and innovation drives the Air Force to continue its legacy of being the world’s greatest Air Force.


The journey continues….