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Heritage Series: Andrews Gained Early Leadership Experience at Selfridge

  • Published
  • By TSgt. Dan Heaton
  • 127th Wing Public Affairs
(Part of an ongoing series of historic profiles on key Airmen in the early history of Selfridge Air National Guard Base.)

When the president needs to catch a flight, he heads to Andrews. Just to be clear, that's the air base near Washington, D.C. named for the late Lt. Gen. Frank M. Andrews, not the street at Selfridge Air National Guard Base, where Andrews was once a commander.

One short article can hardly hope to contain all of the relevant details about the life and military service of Andrews, who rose to become a key leadership figure in World War II. One of Andrews' first major command experiences came in 1933-34, when he served as the commanding officer of the storied 1st Pursuit Group at what was then called Selfridge Field. One can only assume that this early command experience helped to build the foundation that prepared Andrews for the far greater responsibilities that lie ahead.

Andrews was a vocal advocate in the years leading up to the war for the development of a strategic bombing capability within the Air Service*. Some suggest that his tenacity in that regard was a bit too much for the political leaders of the late 1930s to bear, prompting him to be passed over for the position of Chief of the Air Corps in 1938. At the time, Andrews was serving as the commander of General Headquarters (GHQ) Air Force, during a confusing time in which there were essentially two top generals each in charge of different parts of the Air Service. Even with the unusual structure of the time, Andrews' vision and leadership at GHQ Air Force cemented his position as "a founding father of the independent Air Force," as his official Air Force biography describes him. At GHQ Air Force, Andrews laid the ground work for the creation of separate commands for bombers, fighters and airlift functions, which would serve the Air Force for decades.

As World War II loomed, Andrews was sent to the Panama Canal zone to coordinate air defenses of that critical asset, later taking on responsibility for the Caribbean Defense Command, where he was in charge of all air security approaching the southern portion of the U.S. mainland. Later, he was sent to North Africa and moved out of an "air" command, taking command of all U.S. forces then in the Middle East. In January 1943, he was named the commander of all U.S. forces in the European Theater of Operations. It was in that position that Andrews was on a trip to review allied operations in Iceland when his B-24 Liberator crashed, killing 13 of the 14 men on board, including several senior Army chaplains. At the time, Andrews was the senior ranking military officer to die in the line of duty during the war, a dubious honor that was later claimed by Lt. Gen. Leslie J. McNair, for whom a fort in the Washington, D.C. area is now named.

Writing in his post-war memoirs, Air Force 5-star Gen. Henry "Hap" Arnold stated that had Andrews not been killed in that crash, Arnold believed it likely would have been Andrews - not Gen. (and future president) Dwight D. Eisenhower - who would have commanded the D-Day invasion of Europe and ensuing push towards Germany. Gen. George C. Marshall, then Army chief of staff, wrote in his memoirs that Andrews was the only general whom Marshall had the opportunity to specifically groom for the position of Supreme Allied Commander, the post later held by Eisenhower. Marshall's memoirs stops short, however, of saying if Andrews would have been given that command over Eisenhower.

Andrews, who graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in 1906, did not see duty in Europe during World War I, assigned instead to a staff job in Washington, D.C. during that war.

After service in various staff positions, he was sent to Michigan to take command of the 1st Pursuit Group, which was then stationed at Selfridge. Andrews, who started off as a cavalry officer and hadn't earned his wings until the age of 34, served at Selfridge as commander of the 1st from July 4, 1933, to Oct. 4, 1934. For several months in 1934, the 1st delivered the mail in the Midwest region of the U.S., part of a disastrous attempt to have the Army take over air mail delivery duties. The 1st flew the P-6 Hawk and the P-12 during Andrews' tenure at Selfridge.

After leaving Selfridge, Andrews' next major command opportunity came along in March 1935, when he was named to head the newly-created GHQ Air Force.

Andrews is buried in Arlington National Cemetery, on the opposite side of the Washington, D.C. area from Joint Base Andrews, the base formerly known as Andrews Air Force Base, which was named in honor of the late general. The base is best known today as the home station for Air Force One, the U.S. Air Force-operated aircraft that is used to transport the president of the United States.

A street at Selfridge, which runs along the southern portion of the base, is named "Gen. Andrews Street." It is one of only two streets on the base - the majority of which are named for aviation pioneers - to include the rank of an individual in the street name. (The other is Gen. Benjamin O. Davis Jr. Street, named for a member of the World War II-era Tuskegee Airmen who helped end racial segregation in the Air Force.)

Andrews was one of more than 145 Air Service officers who served at Selfridge Field during the early part of their career and later became general officers. Together, they helped the base earn the moniker "Home of the Generals."

* The name of the branch of service that eventually became today's U.S. Air Force went through various name changes during Andrew's time in uniform. For simplicity, this story refers to them all as the "Air Service."