One way or another, all great men hold to a deep belief in something. Greatness does not come to those who tailor their views according to the pressures of the moment. Ira Eaker believed in air-power from the day he soloed, and he never wavered in that belief.
Ira Eaker, who died August 6, will be best remembered as wartime commander of Eighth Air Force, and rightly so, but there was a great deal more than that to this remarkable man.
It all began for him in 1919, the year he received his pilot’s rating in the US Army. World War I had provided the first scenario for military aviation. Duels in the sky were the glamour stories of that bloody war, and names like Rickenbacker, Immelmann, Luke, and the Red Baron himself, von Richthofen, were the well-known stars of the day. The curtain had gone down on wartime heroics when young Ira Eaker came onto the scene.
The next two decades were to be decidedly less glamorous for the Army Air Corps he had joined. The air duels over France had caught the public eye, but they had also been peripheral to the result of that war of attrition. Ground soldiers had paid little attention to the air sideshow of World War I, and they were not inclined to spend much of their meager postwar budgets on marginal functions like the Air Corps. Airplanes were seen to have some usefulness in observation and courier duty, but the concept of airpower was neither understood nor accepted by the men who ran the Army.
Most of the 200,000 pilots and technicians the United States had trained for World War I drifted off into civilian life to become the nucleus of commercial aviation. Some, like Hap Arnold, Tooey Spaatz, and Ira Eaker, stayed on to fight the battle for airpower. It does not bear thinking what might have happened had they not.
When Billy Mitchell taunted the Army General Staff into preferring charges against him, Ira Eaker was an executive officer to the Assistant Secretary of War. Maj. Gen. Mason Patrick, Chief of Air Corps, assigned Eaker the task of providing Mitchell with whatever documents he might require for his defense. We had Eaker’s word for it that Patrick and Mitchell were not enemies, as has been widely reported, but rather two men on good terms who simply differed as to the best way to advance the cause. And while Eaker never said so in so many words, one gets the impression he admired Patrick’s tactic of working within the establishment rather more than Billy Mitchell’s tactic of challenging it.
In any case, the quiet intellectual approach was the one that suited Eaker’s personal style, not that he didn’t do some pretty spectacular things in the air. He was a pilot on the Pan American flight in 1926-27, a 22,065-mile goodwill tour of Central and South America. He was chief pilot of the Question Mark when it set a world endurance record of 150 hours, forty minutes, and fourteen seconds in 1929, demonstrating how airpower—and in-flight refueling—would someday shrink the world. In 1930, he made the first transcontinental flight using in-flight refueling, and in 1936, was the first to fly coast-to-coast on instruments alone. Eaker was an intellectual, but he was also a superb pilot.
Meanwhile, he studied law at Columbia University and, later, journalism at the University of Southern California, solid preparation for the days to come when logic and an ability to express that logic would be crucial to the future of airpower.
It was in December 1942 that he became commander of the Eighth Air Force in England, the legendary organization that put American the-ones on airpower to the test. The first results were inconclusive, for Eaker’s forces were too limited to risk against the important targets deep inland. The real test was to come in 1943, when the Eighth Air Force at last reached a respectable size. It was arguably the most critical year in the history of what is now the United States Air Force, a year when the whole concept of strategic airpower almost went by the boards.
As losses mounted and the cost of maintaining the Eighth began to be challenged both in Washington and in London, the decision as to the Eighth’s future rested on the ability of Ira Eaker to make his case. When he went to the Casablanca Conference to present arguments for a continuation of strategic daylight bombing, there was good reason to think he would lose. Churchill was dubious, as was the RAF, Roosevelt was not committed, and the US Navy wanted resources diverted from the Eighth to its own enterprises in the Pacific. This was the time for calm and reasoned logic, not impassioned rhetoric.
Ira Eaker came back from Casablanca with a mandate to continue doing what he believed in and with the promise of the forces he required. It was an astonishing performance, one that only a gifted man could have carried off. A less convinced advocate or a less intelligent one would surely have lost the day and, with it, the American Air Force’s principal role in the war against Hitler.
As the Eighth grew, it began to reach targets in the heart of the Third Reich, even, on occasion, recovering on Soviet bases. Ira Eaker went on the first of these shuttle missions, just as on August 17, 1942, he had flown on the first heavy-bomber raid on occupied Europe by the fledgling Eighth, and while, as always, he shunned publicity about anything he did, the Russians had to be impressed by that square-jawed American general.
It is hard to realize that Ira Eaker retired from the Air Force in 1947, for he never really retired at all. He went on to other careers as an aerospace executive and a syndicated columnist, but he remained, heart and soul, an Air Force officer. The talent for logical and marvelously clear exposition that had won out at Casablanca was used for thirty years longer in countless newspaper columns, magazine pieces, and lectures, all, one way or another, in furtherance of his unwavering belief in airpower and its indispensable role in this country’s security.
In 1979, Congress presented Eaker a special gold medal in appreciation of his lifetime of achievements. And in April 1985, President Reagan, with the concurrence of the Senate, promoted him to the grade of four-star rank on the retired list.
It was hard to believe Ira Eaker had retired, and it is even harder to believe he is gone. Like his dear friend Tooey Spaatz, whose last years were eased by daily visits from Ira, Eaker of the Eighth is a figure of history.