On July 11, 1955—50 years ago this month—306 young men entered the gates of Lowry AFB, Colo., to become the inaugural class at a brand-new school created to train officers for the Air Force. Four years later, after moving to the Air Force Academy’s permanent location in Colorado Springs, Colo., 206 of them were commissioned as second lieutenants.
Many of these Air Force groundbreakers would go on to pilot training and be ready to go during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Many later served valiantly in the Vietnam War, and more than a dozen eventually became general officers. These are the stories of some of them.
The class of 1959 began at Lowry because the permanent Air Force Academy facilities had not been constructed. Cadets lived for a time in converted World War II barracks, and commissioned officers from all services were brought in to serve as “upperclassmen.”
Even when the cadets moved to Colorado Springs, things weren’t quite ready. (See “First Class,” June 1999, p. 56.) Construction had just begun on the landmark Cadet Chapel. Some of the academy’s structures were not strong enough to withstand the strong winds that frequently buffeted the campus—leaving damaged doors and broken glass.
The Class of 1959 graduated June 3, 1959. One graduate did not receive a commission because of health problems. One was commissioned an officer in the Marine Corps.
Bradley C. Hosmer, the top graduate in the class, was named a Rhodes Scholar.
The day after the graduation ceremonies, Denver’s Rocky Mountain News reported the event under the headline “207 Air Cadets Are Graduated.” The same issue headlined a number of other events that gave some indication of the world into which the airmen were moving. Among them: “Mice Rocketed Into Space Fail to Orbit” and “West Offers Limit on Berlin Troops.”
For a short time, the new officers pursued their careers without being ordered to combat. The Korean War had ended in a stalemate, and US involvement in Vietnam still was at a relatively low level.
Missile CrisisThen, in late October 1962, President John F. Kennedy learned that the Soviet Union was moving nuclear missiles into Cuba, within striking distance of the United States. Within days, he had ordered a naval and air quarantine of the island, blocking any further shipment of military equipment to Cuba. For the next week, the services braced for the possibility that Soviet ships would try to break the quarantine and possibly touch off World War III.
Recently, the Class of 1959 Web site asked the graduates where they were when they got news of the missile crisis. This watershed event occurred just three years after commissioning, as these future leaders were beginning their careers, and most were in operational assignments.
Several were back at the academy attending a football game. Richard E. Carr had talked his wing commander into flying from their Air Defense Command base at Otis AFB, Mass., to that Saturday’s game at the school. Shortly after halftime, his commander was paged, and they headed for Florida to spend the next few weeks flying off the coast of Cuba.
James M. Reed Jr., on leave at the time, also was at the game. The following Monday, he saw the President announcing the embargo of Cuba and headed back to his KC-135 squadron at Wurtsmith AFB, Mich. He went on alert; the family quarters was sandbagged, and the Capehart basements were outfitted as temporary bomb shelters. Soon afterward, his crew deployed to Torrejon, Spain, to fly night missions refueling B-52s.
Within days, all members of the first class had returned to their bases and were on various levels of alert.
According to the Web site, John M. Davey was in the 31st Fighter Wing, flying F-100s at Homestead AFB, Fla. Both that base and MacDill AFB, Fla., soon filled with fighters ready to strike Cuba. Several times, the pilots were told to taxi to the runway, but would then pull back without launching.
Toward the end of the crisis, Davey was sent to Ft. Bragg, N.C., as a forward air controller, to prepare for a possible airdrop on Cuba.
Robert C. Oaks was flying F-100s at Cannon AFB, N.M. His wife had just come home from the hospital with their second son when he was deployed to MacDill. He sat alert at the Tampa base for about six weeks.
Cold War TensionFighter pilots James M. Rhodes Jr., Henry D. Canterbury, Robert D. Beckel, and Thomas G. Derrickson II all were with the 49th Tactical Fighter Wing at Spangdahlem AB, West Germany, when the crisis erupted. They had already become used to the pressure of the Cold War, but the Cuban situation heightened the tension. As the pressure built, Canterbury said, East German and Soviet aircraft took to buzzing US aircraft flying in the Berlin corridors.
In his letter to the Web site, Jon A. Gallo said he was flying an F-102 in Bangkok, Thailand, when the crisis broke. He was helping train Thai Air Force pilots and recalls being briefed on possible trouble with the Soviets. The F-102s were unarmed, and so there was little his unit could have done. Gallo said he did not learn how serious the crisis was until he heard from his parents in Ohio.
John M. Howell Jr., stationed in Bermuda as a KC-97 navigator, was on leave when the news broke. He was ordered back to duty and flew search patterns over the Atlantic for several days. When his crew spotted a ship, the airmen took pictures with their personal 35 mm cameras—in case there were missiles aboard.
Arthur G. Elser, James T. Carpenter, and James W. Brown III all flew Strategic Air Command tankers and were kept busy during the crisis by refueling the SAC bombers on airborne alert.
Gares Garber Jr. was being reassigned from a navigator slot with the 431st Air Refueling Squadron at Biggs AFB, Tex., to join the first operational Minuteman ICBM wing. He said the 341st Strategic Missile Wing at Malmstrom AFB, Mont., went to alert-ready status much faster than was originally planned because of the crisis.
Frederick B. Wynn was a tanker pilot for the 429th Air Refueling Squadron at Langley AFB, Va. He was on home alert the weekend the crisis broke. Returning to base on Monday, he learned that six tankers had already been sent to Florida.
George W. Burch was stationed at Travis AFB, Calif., with an air transport unit that was supposed to support SAC by moving supplies to a secret desert airport where B-52s could refuel and resupply when returning from missions. When the unit went on red alert, however, nobody knew where the secret base was.
After several weeks of global tension, Moscow agreed to remove its missiles, ending the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Future LeadersBefore long, however, Vietnam grew into a major conflict, and the Class of ’59 was in the thick of it. Many of the 1959 graduates went to Southeast Asia, fought and survived the Vietnam War, and went on to serve long careers.
Lt. Gen. Robert D. Beckel flew with the Thunderbirds before going to Vietnam. Much later, he returned to the academy as commandant of cadets and finished his career as commander of 15th Air Force—where he oversaw SAC’s refueling force and several bomb units.
Several of Beckel’s classmates also returned to their old school.
Lt. Gen. Charles A. May Jr. came back to the Air Force Academy as an academic instructor, left to fly A-37s in Southeast Asia, and became an advisor to the Vietnamese Air Force. He returned to the academy again as an associate professor of political science. He then joined SAC, completed B-52 training, and held several command assignments before ending his career at the Pentagon as assistant vice chief of staff of the Air Force.
Gen. Hansford T. Johnson flew as a forward air controller for the South Vietnamese Army and the US Marine Corps, then returned to the academy as an instructor and assistant professor of aeronautics. He later became the director of the Joint Staff, chief of US Transportation Command, and the first commander of Air Mobility Command.
Lt. Gen. Bradley C. Hosmer went to Southeast Asia as an air liaison officer and forward air controller with the Army’s 1st Cavalry Division. Later, he served as Air Force inspector general and returned to the academy as its first graduate to become superintendent.
Maj. Gen. Harold W. Todd completed B-52 combat crew training and was twice deployed to the Western Pacific, where he flew missions in Southeast Asia. Later, he commanded the 25th Air Division at McChord AFB, Wash., was chief of staff of the 4th Allied Tactical Air Force in Germany, and was commandant of the Air War College.
Maj. Gen. Larry D. Fortner flew F-100s in Vietnam. He joined SAC, where he commanded two bomb wings and an air division. His final assignment was as executive director of the Joint Strategic Defense Planning Staff at Peterson AFB, Colo.
Brig. Gen. James M. Rhodes Jr. became an F-105 instructor pilot and deployed to Thailand, where he flew Vietnam War combat missions. After a tour as a test pilot at Edwards AFB, Calif., he returned to Southeast Asia as a flight commander. He retired as commander of Tactical Air Command’s Southeast Air Defense Sector.
By and large, the members of the Class of 1959 prospered. A total of 135 put in full Air Force careers, serving until they retired. Fifteen members became general officers. Three retired as full generals—Johnson, Oakes, and Michael P.C. Carns, who retired as Air Force vice chief of staff. Not bad for group that set out a half-century ago with little other than a desire to be pioneers for their service.
“West Point of the Air”
For some veteran airmen, the whole concept of the Air Force Academy was off. They didn’t like that it was in Colorado, they didn’t like its modern-design buildings, and they didn’t like that a school created to prepare future Air Force officers would not even have an airfield worthy of the name.
What many old-timers wanted was for the new academy to be located at Randolph AFB, Tex., a base already known as the “West Point of the Air.” (See “South Texas Roots,” April 1997, p. 46.)
That had been the dream as early as the 1920s, when Congress remade the Air Service as the Army Air Corps and created a general officer position to run its training establishment. Brig. Gen. Frank P. Lahm took the job and promptly began lobbying for a separate base to train the growing number of men who were volunteering to become pilots.
Lahm set up a site selection committee and picked a tract near San Antonio. The city raised money to buy the land and turned it over to the US government in 1928. Later, the field would be named for Capt. William M. Randolph, who had died in a training crash. Ironically, the captain had served on the committee assigned to pick a name for the field.
Much of the credit for the design of the base is given to 1st Lt. Harold L. Clark, dispatch officer at Kelly Field, Tex. Lahm was impressed with Clark’s ideas for an “Air City” and brought Clark onto his staff to help build what was to become the Army Corps of Engineers’ biggest construction project since the Panama Canal.
The job included erecting more than 500 Spanish-style buildings clustered around the administration building that would become known as the “Taj Mahal.” Construction took more than five years to complete, but on June 20, 1930—midway through the project—the field was dedicated with a 233-aircraft fly-over.
The nickname “The West Point of the Air” captured the imagination of a whole generation of air-minded young men. When the hunt for an Air Force Academy site began, some of the officers who had trained at Randolph lobbied for it to host a real West Point of the air.
Those who made the final decision, however, had something quite different in mind. In 1954, Air Force Secretary Harold E. Talbott picked the Colorado Springs location for the academy, leaving Randolph and all other competing sites without the new Air Force’s plum educational facility.
A Russian Su-27 Flanker intercepted a USAF RC-135U flying in international airspace over the Baltic Sea on June 19, 2017.
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