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HERITAGE SERIES: 3 Chiefs Served at Selfridge

  • Published
  • By TSgt. Dan Heaton
  • 127th Wing Public Affairs

(Part of an ongoing series of articles on the history of Selfridge Air National Guard Base.)

Three men who would later serve as the chief of staff of the U.S. Air Force served for part of their careers at Selfridge Air National Guard Base, including one who used his time at Selfridge to write what would become one of the founding doctrines of the U.S. Air Force.

Gen. Carl A. Spaatz, the Air Force's first chief of staff; Gen. Curtis E. LeMay, the fifth chief; and Gen. George S. Brown, the eighth chief; all served at Selfridge at various points of their careers. While Spaatz was assigned to Selfridge, he wrote an air power doctrine study simply titled "Air Force" in which he spelled out a comprehensive plan for the use of air power as a military tool.

Spaatz and Brown each held what might be considered their first major command during their time at Selfridge. LeMay was a rookie pilot flying pursuit aircraft - the forerunner of today's fighters - long before he rose to prominence as a leader of America's bomber force.

Carl A. Spaatz
Spaatz became the first Air Force chief of staff in September 1947 when the Air Force was created as a separate military service. He held the position until his retirement in 1948. Previously, he had been the commanding general of the U.S. Army Air Forces.

A veteran of combat service in World War I, Spaatz became the commander of the1st Pursuit Group while that unit was stationed at Kelly Field in Texas in 1922. In that same year, he led the group during its relocation from Kelly to Selfridge and then remained at Selfridge in command of the 1st through 1924.

During his time at Selfridge, Spaatz wrote "Air Force." (He was an officer in the Air Service at the time.) In his study, Spaatz stressed the value of pursuit, bombardment and attack aviation working together to achieve military aims. He opined that in the closing days of World War I, when these three separate types of air power were used in a concerted effort they were highly successful in bringing about the defeat of the enemy. He argued, therefore, that the military would be best served by an "air force role apart from support of the armies on the ground."

An interesting side note to Spaatz' service at Selfridge: the general changed his name in the time between leaving Selfridge and becoming the chief of staff. While serving at Selfridge, Spaatz spelled his last name with only one "a." He officially changed his name in 1937, so that people who be more likely to correctly pronounce his name as "spahtz" rather than the incorrect "spats."

Curtis E. LeMay
Assigned to Selfridge as his first assignment after initial pilot training, LeMay was a member of the 27th Pursuit Squadron of the 1st Pursuit Group, the same group commanded by Spaatz, who had since moved on to another assignment.

Best known for his later command of the Strategic Air Command for 10 years during the 1950s, LeMay served as the chief of staff of the Air Force in 1961-65. Few recall that the general who created the Air Force's modern bomber force began his career flying pursuit aircraft. It was in such an aircraft that LeMay is perhaps best remembered for his posting to Selfridge. He was once fined $50 for flying his Curtiss Hawk in one door of an aircraft hangar and out the other at Selfridge. An account of that incident is retold here.

George S. Brown
Brown, who would become a wing commander for the first time at Selfridge, served as Air Force chief of staff in 1973-74 and then as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, 1974-78. In June 1951, he was appointed commander of the 56th Fighter Interceptor Wing at Selfridge - a move that no doubt prompted a few puzzled looks as Brown was a bomber pilot who had never flown a fighter aircraft prior to that assignment.

Brown earned his wings in 1942 and served as a B-24 Liberator pilot in Europe during World War II. Upon his assignment to the 56th at Selfridge, Brown quickly was checked out in the T-33 Shooting Star, the F-86 Sabre and the F-94 Starfire. And it was indeed quick - Brown remained at Selfridge for about seven months before being sent to Korea in 1952 to serve on the staff of Fifth Air Force there during the second half of the Korean War. In the late 1960s, Brown served as a general officer in Vietnam during that conflict.

Like his tenure at Selfridge, Brown's time as Air Force chief of staff lasted only a few months, before he was named chairman of the Joint Chiefs, a position he held under both President Ford and President Carter.

Numerous other chiefs of staff and commanding generals have visited Selfridge over the years, but the posting of Spaatz, LeMay and Brown to the Michigan base helped to earn it the nickname "The Home of Generals," a name which is noted on an official State of Michigan Historical Marker located on the base.

One of the oldest military air fields in continuous service, the military first took possession of Selfridge Air National Guard Base on July 1, 1917. The first flight took place on July 8 and formal flight operations began on July 16, 1917. Today the 127th Wing of the Michigan Air National Guard is the host unit at the base, which also houses units of the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, Border Patrol and Customs and Border Protection.