Commemorating the United States Air Force Birthday

By JENIFER LEIGH VAN VLECK on 9/17/2020

The Air Force Memorial soars above Section 69 of Arlington National Cemetery.

Section 69 of Arlington National Cemetery, with the Air Force Memorial in the background.

Since the Wright brothers’ first 12-second flight from the sands of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina on December 17, 1903, the United States has created and sustained an unparalleled legacy in aviation. Although the U.S. military signed a contract to purchase its first airplane in 1908 (the 1909 Wright Military Flyer, on display at the National Air and Space Museum), the United States did not have an independent air force until September 18, 1947. Instead, the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard all utilized air power in the first half of the twentieth century. During World War II, the Army Air Corps, renamed the Army Air Forces in March 1942, played a leading role in the advancement of military aviation, culminating in the development and deployment of the atomic bomb. Many U.S. military leaders, including Army Air Forces General Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, had been advocating an independent air force for years. With the onset of the nuclear age, which confirmed that air power would be decisive in a future war, the need for an independent air service was clear. 

On July 26, 1947, President Harry S. Truman signed the National Security Act of 1947, which created the Department of the Air Force as an independent branch of the U.S. armed services. The act went into effect on September 18, 1947, making September 18 the official birthday of the United States Air Force (USAF). On that day in 1947, W. Stuart Symington took the oath of office as the first secretary of the Air Force. The USAF was thus the youngest U.S. service branch until the establishment of the U.S. Space Force on December 20, 2019.

In honor of the United States Air Force’s 73rd birthday, we are highlighting 20 of the many notable Air Force graves at Arlington National Cemetery. As we remember these individuals who made distinctive contributions to American military and aviation history, we also honor and remember all Air Force personnel who served, or presently serve, to support the USAF mission “to fly, fight and win… in air, space and cyberspace.” 

United States Air Force at ANC 

Photo, above left: The U.S. Air Force Honor Guard supports an Air Force full honors wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, October 17, 2018. 

A flyover known as the missing man formation passes over Sections 67 and 68 of Arlington National Cemetery, August 24, 2018. The flyover was part of a memorial ceremony for Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. John Chapman and was flown by members of the 1st Special Operations Wings.