- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 17, 2006

It was an honor to dedicate the Air Force Memorial at Arlington, Virginia, on Oct. 14 — a proud moment for the men and women of the United States Air Force, thousands of devoted professionals who are serving now or have served this great nation. This next year marks the 60th anniversary of an independent Air Force. It is altogether fitting for the Air Force Memorial to be located at Arlington, since Fort Meyer was the site of the first military flight, and also, unfortunately, the location of the first military casualty from an airplane crash — Lt. Thomas Selfridge, buried in Arlington. In the intervening 100 years, we’ve marveled at the courage of generations of airmen. In this time of war, it is appropriate to reflect upon this legacy of self-sacrifice of airmen who, like the towering jet contrails represented in the memorial, climbed into the heavens on wings of valor.

Fourteen French villagers witnessed the wings of valor of an American airman in September 1918. As they recounted: “We watched as an American aviator, while pursued by an escadrille of Germans, burned three German balloons, shot down two German aircraft, and killed 11 Germans on the ground with hand bombs and machine gun bullets. Though seriously wounded he landed his disabled aircraft in a field, and emptied his revolver before being killed by a German patrol.” The aviator was 21-year-old 2nd Lt. Frank Luke, Jr.

Aircrews witnessed wings of valor during air battles in World War II — where the Air Force lost more men over central Europe than the Marines lost throughout the entire war. Uncommon valor was witnessed by the crews of 161 B-24’s over the Ploesti oil refineries — an engagement in which five men were awarded the Medal of Honor for heroism — the most ever for a single engagement. Attacking the facility meant facing more than 230 antiaircraft guns, some 400 enemy fighters and suffering over 30 percent losses. Nearly 500 airmen died in this one raid.

Ground crews and hundreds of British onlookers witnessed wings of valor when 2nd Lt. Walter Truemper and flight engineer Sgt. Archibald Mathies attempted to land a heavily damaged B-17 on Feb. 20, 1944. The B-17 was attacked by a squadron of enemy fighters; the copilot was killed; the pilot was unconscious; the radio operator was wounded and the plane severely damaged. Nevertheless, the remaining crew managed to recover from a dive, fly for hours back to their home station, with frigid air blowing through the open cockpit, fighting off enemy fighters, even downing one. Upon return — after observing the distressed aircraft from another plane — their commanding officer ordered them to abandon the damaged plane and parachute to safety. Truemper replied that the pilot was still alive and they would not desert him. They gained altitude to enable the rest of the crew to bail out. The plane crashed in an open field in a third attempt to land. Sgt. Mathies and Lt. Truemper died, but the wounded pilot lived — only to perish later.

Ground troops in contact witnessed wings of valor during the battle at Sniper Ridge, Korea. Outnumbered, they watched Major Charles Loring take severe hits during a bomb run against entrenched enemy positions. They expected him to nurse his battered jet over friendly territory for a certain bailout. Instead, he continued the attack, in a deliberate, controlled maneuver. Even though he could have flown to safety, he dove directly into the active enemy gun position, destroying it at the cost of his life.

Army and Vietnamese Rangers witnessed the wings of valor of Captain Hilliard Wilbanks on Feb. 24, 1967, as he flew the 105 mph Cessna O-1 Bird Dog over the Central Highlands supporting the Rangers. Wilbanks spotted a large enemy force waiting to ambush. As Wilbanks radioed a warning to the Rangers and called for fighter support, he fired a smoke rocket to mark the center of the Viet Cong position. Hoping to gain time for the Rangers, Wilbanks dove three times through automatic weapons and small-arms fire, each time dropping a phosphorous rocket on the enemy. Out of rockets, Wilbanks picked up an M-16 automatic rifle and began a series of strafing attacks from an altitude of 100 feet, firing through the open side window and reloading between passes. On his third strafing run, Wilbanks slumped over the controls. An Army advisor ran to the plane and pulled the unconscious Wilbanks from the wreckage. Finally, a flight of F-4s roared in to strafe the enemy while a chopper picked up the wounded Wilbanks. He died en route, but he had given the Rangers time to move to safety.

Grieving widow Teresa Cunningham understood the essence of wings of valor when she tearfully read a letter written by her 26-year-old husband, Jason. Senior Airman Jason Cunningham, an Air Force “PJ,” was killed during the battle for Roberts Ridge in Afghanistan in March 2002. He gave his life moving 10 wounded soldiers out of direct enemy fire, even as he was mortally wounded. He wrote — as if anticipating his fate — he said: “I’d die a happy man doing the job I love.” His wife, an AFROTC cadet with 2 infant daughters, vowed to continue his legacy through her own Air Force service.

These stories are just a sample of the legacy of honor, valor and devotion. The memorial commemorates the service and ultimate sacrifice of airmen, extending skyward to reflect boundless spirit and limitless future. This memorial is anchored in the same Arlington soil that has become the final resting place of so many of our fallen comrades. It is a fitting tribute to each of the 54,000 airmen who have proceeded us into the heavens on wings of valor.

Gen. T. Michael Moseley is the Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force.

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