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Legacy of Valor

By Col. Craig Harding 2nd Mission Support Group

I have a challenge for you. I challenge you to name five Airmen who contributed to our Air Force's legacy of valor. I know you can name at least five different types of military aircraft. I'm fully confident you can name the majority of aircraft currently being flown today. However, I doubt you can name five Airmen who demonstrated valor and tell their stories. The challenge becomes even more difficult if I ask you to name five enlisted Airmen who fit the bill. Why is that? 

Part of the answer is that our Air Force has focused on the shining objects and weapon systems. Our history is rooted in technology and innovation. But, we know that it took Airmen to advance our skills and capabilities, but we focus on the end result, the accomplishments. If that is the case, if we can't tell the stories of Airmen who demonstrated valor, how can we recite the Airmen's Creed and fulfill the statement "I am faithful to a proud heritage, a tradition of honor, and a legacy of valor?" The short answer is we can't.

Why is it important to know our history? I have two reasons for you, but there are more.

First, we are not creating anything new! Our forbearers faced the same challenges we face today and they found solutions. By knowing their stories, we can learn from the past to find solutions for today's problems. And, those problems are not just at the organizational level. 

Secondly, we can increase our resilience by understanding the personal struggles our forbearers faced. I often think about our veterans who stormed the Normandy beaches, flew in Eighth Air Force bombing missions over Germany, or held as prisoners of war during the Vietnam War, and the challenges they all faced when I'm feeling down or challenged. That will put your issues into perspective. But, I didn't mention any names, did I?

Hopefully you are still reading because now I'm going to share some of those stories. Maybe these three quick stories will increase your interest in our proud heritage and you will seek out more.

The Black Swallow of Death
If you have watched the movie Flyboys, then you got a glimpse into the life of Cpl. Eugene Bullard. The movie is about the American flying unit serving with the French Air Service in World War I. Bullard was an American that moved to France and was a prizefighter when WWI started. As an American, he joined the French Foreign Legion and served in the infantry until he was wounded in the Battle of Verdun.

After he recuperated, he accepted an offer to join the French Air Force and became part of the Lafayette Flying Corps. He remained an enlisted member and served as a pilot. After completing training, he flew combat missions from Aug. 27 to Nov. 11, 1917. He distinguished himself in aerial combat, as he had on the ground, and was officially credited with shooting down one German aircraft.

At age 46, Bullard rejoined the French army and helped defend France during the German invasion. He was once again wounded and returned to the United States. For his service, the French honored him in 1959 with the Knight of the Legion of Honor, the French military's highest award. Our Air Force would finally recognize his contributions in 1994, and posthumously appointing him to the rank of 2nd Lt.

20th Bomb Squadron
The 2nd Bomb Wing and the 20th Bomb Squadron in particular have a proud heritage. Sgt. Fred Graveline was an Aerial Gunner and Observer who served in the 20th Aero Squadron during WWI. He flew in the Airco DH-4, a British two-seat biplane. His legacy includes flying the most combat sorties among enlisted and being credited with two kills.

Both kills were earned during a 35-minute battle in which he helped drive off nearly 24 German aircraft. He stated he aged 10 years in those 35 minutes. He was also one of four enlisted members to receive the Distinguished Flying Cross. He earned his medal by volunteering for 15 dangerous missions as a gunner.

Navy is Sunk
Ulysses Nero retired as a colonel but started his military career within the enlisted ranks. He had a very unique career starting out as an artilleryman during WWI. Due to a chance encounter with a downed pilot, he decided to join the Air Service. Again by chance or by design, he was assigned to Aberdeen Proving Grounds where he demonstrated innovation inventing a new bombsight. Throughout his career, he was known as an exceptional maintenance troop. But his biggest contribution to our Air Force heritage is his role supporting Gen. Billy Mitchell in sinking the battleship New Jersey. It was his use of his own bomb sight that allowed him to drop a single 1,100 pound bomb down the battleship's funnel. The ship sunk within four minutes. While Gen. Mitchell received most of the glory, it was men like Master Sgt. Nero, promoted shortly after the event, that made it happen.

It is only right to think back and remember the stories of those that went before us. We just celebrated our Air Force's 67th birthday. To fulfill our creed and pledge to remain faithful to our traditions, our heritage and our legacy, we must know our traditions, heritage and legacy.  If you attended the Air Force Ball, then you heard some of the stories about Airmen that made Barksdale a reality. The three short stories above barely scratch the surface and don't answer my challenge, but it is a start. Other enlisted Airmen you should research include: Cpl. Vernon Burge, Walter Beech, Edward Wenglar, and even Chuck Yeager, a flying sergeant. I challenge you to dive into our history so you fully understand the statement, "faithful to a proud heritage, a tradition of honor, and a legacy of valor." Then, ask yourself, what will be your legacy?