CMSAF Paul W. Airey
Paul Wesley Airey was born on 13 December 1923 and was raised in Quincy, Massachusetts, a predominately Navy town just across the Neponset River from Boston. As a boy, Airey always planned to enlist in the US Navy. Following the attacks on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, he dropped out of high school to pursue that goal. However, after a bad experience with a Navy recruiter, he changed course, deciding instead to enlist in the US Army Air Corps on 16 November 1942.
Airey served for more than 27 years in various roles, including aerial gunner, radio operator, first sergeant, and personnel sergeant major. During World War II, his B-24 bomber was hit by flak shortly after bombs away in July 1944. Airey and his crew bailed out over Vienna, Austria, and immediately became prisoners of war (POW). It was Airey’s 28th combat mission.
On 3 April 1967, Gen. John P. McConnell, the chief of staff of the Air Force, selected Airey to be the first Air Force senior enlisted leader—the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force. He immediately tackled tough issues such as assignments and promotion, firmly establishing the value and importance of the new position. Following his tenure, Airey returned to Tyndall AFB, Florida, as the first sergeant of a combat crew training squadron before retiring on 1 August 1970. He passed away on 11 March 2009.
The Air Force Historical Research Center interviewed Airey on 23–24 March 1981 in Panama City, Florida. During the interview, Airey discussed his childhood and military career, including details on his experience as a POW and his tenure as the first Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force. The complete interview can be accessed on the Air University Library’s online research center. Portions of the interview are printed below. The order of some of the questions and answers has been adjusted to depict a chronological reflection on the life of Paul Wesley Airey.
Did you have a pretty normal childhood?
Yes. I believe I had a pretty normal childhood. Some of my earliest recollections were of New Bedford. As you know, in its heyday, New Bedford was the whaling capital of the world and was still a busy seaport when I was a child. I can remember going to the whaling museum, in which I took great interest as one of my grandfathers was a whaler. We moved to Quincy, Massachusetts, while I was still very young, and I grew up there until enlisting in the Army Air Forces.
What company did your father work for, or did he work for different people along the way?
He worked for many companies. He had a bad time during the Depression—like so many thousands and thousands of people. He worked for hotel chains. In his latter years, he wasn’t in the auditing business. I think he just did things like working around a supermarket just to keep busy after he retired.
How did the Depression affect your family?
We about lost everything, as my dad lost his job and our home. Those were pretty rough days. We really didn’t start seeing things looking better until World War II came on the horizon.
Did you like school as you were growing up?
I am afraid in my first several years, I was no scholar and did not apply myself. I played all the sports—baseball, basketball, and football—and of course, we played sports that nowadays are just becoming popular, like hockey and soccer. I played soccer, which at that time was only played in that part of the country. I did not finish high school until well after I came in the service. But I had a normal upbringing in Quincy, Massachusetts.
Did you drop out of high school before you enlisted?
Yes, shortly before.
Was this to enlist?
That was the main reason. After Pearl Harbor, I wanted to come in, and I enlisted 16 November 1942.
Where were you on Pearl Harbor day?
This was Sunday, 7 December, and I had been to a local semipro football game. Sometime just near the end of the game we received some type of word, but I still didn’t realize it until I got home, and of course, by then the radio was filled with the news that the Japanese had struck Pearl Harbor. Most people were saying, “Where is Pearl Harbor?”
Did you know where Pearl Harbor was?
No, not really, if I recall right. The point I am trying to make is, there was a definite sense of purpose. The country was—at least we thought the country was in danger and Hitler had to be stopped. And of course, the Japanese had angered all of us.
Did you know where Pearl Harbor was?
No, not really, if I recall right. The point I am trying to make is, there was a definite sense of purpose. The country was—at least we thought the country was in danger and Hitler had to be stopped. And of course, the Japanese had angered all of us.
Did you have any feeling in that sense, that the Germans were worse or bad, or that the Japanese were worse?
I thought the Japanese were the ones that really set us off. They were the ones, “the day of infamy” so to speak. We overreacted to some degree, but there is no doubt, as military historians have said, if the Japanese had followed up on Pearl Harbor, they could very easily have taken Hawaii, and God knows what next. What I am trying to describe or say is that the country was not only alarmed, but it caused us to accelerate even more the buildup of our armed forces. We needed all the people we could get, and personnel from all walks of life were coming in with the draft or from enlistments.
As you were growing up, was there any one thing that you had planned to do as an adult?
Strange as it might seem, even then I had an inclination toward a military career. In those days the area that I grew up in was predominantly Navy. In Quincy, we had the huge Fore River Shipyard, which produced many capital ships for the Navy, such as the famous carrier Wasp, and even the cruiser the Quincy was built there. Both ships went down fighting the Japanese later in the war. In addition, Boston was a great Navy town. My plans as a young boy were to eventually go into the United States Navy.
I haven’t told this story very often, but I went into a Navy recruiting office, and there was an old chief petty officer sitting there. He gave me a bad time about he couldn’t fool with me that day and made some remarks about, “We only want men, and we don’t want to screw around with you today, and come back later”—just one of these belligerent types that really turn you off, the type that we try to keep away from recruiting offices. So I went down the street and joined the Army Air Forces. I owe that petty officer much for what he did for me by making me change my mind.
Was there any one thing that you wanted to do when you joined the Air Force?
I wanted to be an aerial gunner. I didn’t ask for radio. I had no intention of wanting to be a radio operator, but upon enlistment, I went through basic training in Atlantic City, New Jersey, which was one of coldest winters I ever spent in my life. The entire town of Atlantic City was taken over by the Army Air Forces for basic training. All of the hotels were used by various squadrons. We used to drill at Brigantine Field, which was on the outskirts of town. I don’t know whether that particular plot of ground is still there. From there, upon completion of basic training, I was sent out to Scott AFB [Illinois].
What kind of basic was this? Did you learn to handle weapons or anything?
Yes. It was a speeded-up course, as the Army had a lot of catching up to do. We had the regular close order drill, the customs and courtesies, and all of the various subjects that go into the making of a soldier. As you know Atlantic City is right on the Atlantic Ocean, and at that time we were losing many ships at sea to German submarines. And we had complete blackouts on the coast to prevent our ships from showing up as silhouettes out on the water. Due to this action and also due to the fact that the Germans had landed some spies on the East Coast, we also trained to patrol the famous Atlantic City Boardwalk from a German landing. What bothered me is that they did not give me any ammo for the rifle.
You went out to Scott. While you were there, they decided you were going to be an airborne radio operator?
How did you accept that?
I wasn’t that keen about becoming a radio operator. I wanted to be an aerial gunner. In those days, on both your B-17s and B-24s, which were heavy bombers, you had a crew of 10—four officers and six enlisted. You had the engineers or the aviation mechanics and the armament types and one radio operator. I really had more preference toward being an armorer, but they sent me to radio operators’ school.
Did you have any trouble learning Morse code or anything?
No, the code wasn’t that difficult, just repetitious.
How fast did you have to copy?
Airborne operators in those days could never do more than 10 or 12 words per minute in the air. I think we had to graduate with 18 words a minute. That’s sitting on the ground with ideal conditions, but up in a plane, we never did more than 10 or 12 words a minute. Blinkers gave me trouble. We used an Aldis lamp.3 I forget how many words a minute it was that we had to pass. I think it was four words with the Aldis lamp. That gave me a lot of trouble until I learned the proper eye coordination.
You came down here to Tyndall AFB, Florida then from Scott?
Had there been a base for any length of time when you got here?
Tyndall was started in 1941. Ground was broken on Pearl Harbor day. I came here, and the gunnery schools were in full swing.
You arrived here in June 1943.
They trained you in gunnery. Was this going to be the .50 caliber, located at like the dorsal fin of the B-17 or B-14?
They trained you in the various positions. You had turrets that were mounted on the backs of trucks. You started off training just like at a carnival with a .22, rifle shooting ducks that came by. That taught you to lead, and then you went into shotguns and skeet. From skeet you went into your machine guns on the backs of trucks and in turrets. Then they also had turrets where you shot skeet. Your shotguns were mounted in a turret, and you tracked the skeet with a turret and shot it. Then you stood in a harness in the back of a truck and went down these dirt roads, and skeet would be coming at you from various positions. It was an excellent school.
Had you ever done any shooting before?
Just rifles and shotguns. I really liked the aerial gunnery school.
Was there quite a dropout rate at this point?
They had a certain elimination rate, yes. This could have been for many reasons. They started weeding people out early. There was a certain amount of fear of flying, which we still have today in some people. The pressure chamber eliminated a certain number—altitude chamber. Poor gunnery eliminated others.
What was the relationship between the troops themselves? Did people get along in those days, or did you pair up with people of common interests and common hometowns and that type of thing?
I think everyone found someone, pairs or groups, somewhat to the degree like we have today. Of course, there was a war going on, and I find it very difficult to put in words or describe the atmosphere. We were going at total war for the defense of this nation, and we were taking a hell of a licking at the time I came in in 1942. The Japanese had swept all over the Pacific. Hitler had conquered most of Europe and had invaded Russia and had made sweeping victories. The Japanese had shelled a place out on the West Coast.
Judging from today’s standards [in 1981], it is hard to understand why there wouldn’t be one conflict after another, but you say there was this common purpose.
Common purpose, plus the fact there were a lot more mature people around, grown mature, family men who were drafted or enlisted. We were drafting up to 35. In fact, I think they drafted above 35 if you didn’t have any dependents—and they later reduced it to 35. Of course, discipline was harsh. That was what they call the “old brown shoe days.”
Would the NCOs [noncommissioned officers] take a guy out and illustrate?
Yes, that was certainly done. I believe, also, we had much more respect or fear of authority. In addition, the thought of being placed in Spartan barracks kept many of us straight. Spartan barracks was a form of punishment that was passed out for many different reasons—failure to obey, late for duty, missing a formation, etc. You were put in a special barracks, and you double-timed to chow. You doubled-timed everyplace. You were restricted to that particular barrack, and your day was monitored. In other words, you did your duties and the rest of the time you spent listening to lectures and double-timing and exercising. It was pretty damn rough.
Did you ever end up in one?
No, I never ended up in one.
Did you get any leave during this period back to Massachusetts?
After graduating from aerial gunnery school, my class was sent by troop train to Salt Lake Army Air Base, Salt Lake City, Utah, for crew assignment and refresher training in radio operating. When this training was completed, we received a l0-day leave. When I returned, the crew that I was assigned to went to Gowen Field, Boise, Idaho, for B-24 transition training. Evidently that’s where Jimmy Stewart, the movie actor, had trained some months ahead of us. Stewart, they say, was the only famous movie actor that actually rose to a command position of leadership in the war. He later on led the entire Eighth Air Force on missions into Germany. After Boise we reported to Fairmont Army Air Base, Nebraska, and helped form and activate the 485th Bomb Group, which after completion of training we were assigned to the Fifteenth Air Force.
What gun position did you cover in the B-24?
The radio operator normally had the left waist. The first engineer had the right waist, the waist guns not being as important as the turret gunners because they were hand-held .50 caliber. The idea was, if it was necessary for the radio operator to be at the radio or the engineer to be someplace, those two positions had less priority, and they were more maneuverable. Getting in and out of a turret, particularly the ball turret, took time
Did you have a pretty good crew?
Yes, outstanding. The pilot stayed in. His name was [Lt Col] James Francis Hogan. He was a captain when I joined the crew, which is a little bit unusual because most of them were lieutenants. He had been around a while and was a pretty experienced pilot. He became Regular Air Force after the war and was killed in a chopper accident years later. I was the only enlisted man to stay in. The bombardier stayed and became a master sergeant and then retired as a major. He was recalled during the Korean War. The tail gunner was a fellow by the name of SSgt Jack Lindsey from Shreveport, Louisiana. The tail gunner on another crew was wounded, and he was assigned to fill in one morning that we weren’t flying, and he was killed on that mission. So we ended up with a replacement for him. They are pretty well scattered now. I haven’t heard from them in years.
What did you actually do as the aircraft radio operator? Were there not voice communications that the pilot had access to between aircraft and the ground, or did you handle all the communications? How did that work?
The pilot really only had voice conversations between him and control towers or between him and other aircraft. This was only for a relatively short radius. Any kind of distant voice the radio operator had to do, and he couldn’t do too well. I remember we had the old trailing wire antenna, had a S-pound lead weight we called the fish.
You reeled that out?
You just let it go out.
How much radio operating would you do on a flight?
Actually, on going overseas, I worked continually trying to keep in contact with stations, getting weather reports, and letting people know where we were at checkpoints. Actually, in combat very little. There were times when my plane was the element leader, and I would have to get a bombs-away report or get landing instructions, but actually, very little.
According to your biography, you were shot down on your 28th mission, is that right?
Did you ever take hits on your aircraft prior to getting shot down?
Oh, yes, on several occasions, we had been hit.
What was the thing that you feared the most, the fighter in the sky or the AAA [antiaircraft artillery] on the ground?
Flak was the most frightening or the most frustrating because you could do nothing about it except watch it come at you. Many tales and jokes have been told about flak being so thick you could walk on it; however, I have seen it so thick that it darkened the sky, almost blotted out the sun. You take a heavily defended target, such as Wiener Neustadt—New Vienna—which was an industrial area with oil refineries and aircraft plants, could really put out a massive amount of flak. The Germans knew your altitude and shot off what was called box flak. In other words, they shot a large amount of flak into an area and let you fly into it. Once a formation hit the initial point, there was no evasive action. You just held formation and flew to the target. Flak took a terrible toll, and many thousands of casualties could be attributed to flak. Thousands of POWs could testify that flak was what got them.
What happened on this mission?
The target was the Floridsdorf oil refineries, which were on the outskirts of Vienna also. The aircraft was hit by flak shortly after bombs away. I can recall the pilot’s feathering one of the engines and then the other. By this time, we were well across the Danube over Hungary. Of course, Hungary was an ally of the Germans. I can remember when the oil pressure in the third one started going down, he said, “Get out. If that third engine goes, this thing is going to go down like a lead sled.” We all bailed out. I can remember making this statement—I have seen planes go down over a target. I have seen B-24s go into a spin. I have stood there at that window praying for chutes to come out, and no chutes would come. Centrifugal force prevented them from bailing out. I told this story, and I don’t think some people believed it. I saw a B-24, not a spin, it was doing a complete flip-flop, flip-flop, just like you take a toy. It was going over and over. You figure the Fifteenth Air Force put up 500 to 800 planes on a maximum effort raid. They would lose 25 or 30 or 40. You say to yourself, “The odds are pretty good.” But you multiply that by the number of missions you have to fly, and the odds start going down.
You didn’t see every day as a new day then? You didn’t believe that statistic then?
No, I didn’t believe that. What I had said to myself was, “This could very well happen to me. I just hope and pray that if we do get hit, we will have the opportunity to get out.” That’s what bothered me more than anything. I have seen them go down and just stood there looking at them. You know, “Get out! Get out!” And no one did. That’s a sickening and demoralizing sight to see them go down, down, down. I have seen airplanes just completely explode. I have seen guys bailout and come barreling right through a whole formation of airplanes. So when that pilot said, “Go,” there was no hesitation on my part. Right out the camera hatch I went.
Did all of your crew get out?
Yes, all got out. One broken leg, the copilot’s, on landing. No direct wounds from flak or fighters. We all bailed out at a fairly high altitude. One of the reasons we went down is because we went over the target at only 18,000 feet, as that’s all the altitude the lead ship could get, and we all went over at this height. The pilot was the last to leave the ship, and we were scattered over a few mile radius. I remember getting the psycho card from my flight suit leg pocket and tearing it up in small pieces and scattering it to the wind. This card, of course, was the code the operator uses to encode and decode messages. I had no sensation of falling as we had bailed out so high. I also remember reaching in my pocket and finding my smokes and then lit a cigarette.
As you were coming down?
Yes. When that ground starts coming up, it starts coming up fast. I could see these woods off in the distance, and that’s where I planned to go. As I got down closer, I could see them coming from all over. I never got out of the chute. I never got out of my harness. I landed, and they were waiting, all the farmers, and I got the hell beat out of me. They were irate, angry. We were rounded up and taken to a local town jail for the night.
Had you been told what to expect if you were shot down?
Yes. Of course, we had escape kits with currency in it and a little compass and maps, etc. They didn’t pull any punches. They told us in certain areas you could expect pretty rough treatment if picked up by certain people.
Did this kind of leave you in shock, all of a sudden here you were in the hands of the enemy?
Yes. The Germans had a favorite expression, “For you the war is over.” I heard that several times from them. I think the biggest thing, it suddenly dawned on me—here you are in the airplane with all that noise and excitement going on, the adrenaline flowing, the pilot finally gives the word to bail out, and you bail out and that rush of air. Then that chute opens, and all of a sudden the plane you bailed out of is gone, and what other planes were in the air are gone, and there is that complete utter silence. It’s an eerie feeling. There you are alone.
When you got to the POW camp, what happened then?
The first thing that struck home was the fact that I knew so many people who were already POWs. I ran into men whom I had gone through training with and several from my own outfit. We were at that stage in the war suffering some very high losses. To a degree it was comforting to be around old friends even if we had to meet under those circumstances.
How big of a camp were you in?
Stalag Luft IV, which was up at Gross Tychow [Poland] near the Baltic, must have had 10,000 Allies—maybe 8,000—or somewhere in there. They had four lagers, which must have had 2,000 or 3,000 a piece or in that vicinity.
Did the Germans give you much of a briefing on what you would do?
Yes. When you say a briefing, they gave you a long list of dos and don’ts, such as, “Escape is impossible and foolish and could result in death. Intercourse with a German girl could result in being shot.” They also went into a long talk on such subjects as sabotage, for which the penalty could also be death. Sabotage could be interpreted as breaking a windowpane, cutting a tent rope, etc. They also said how well we would be treated and some additional propaganda.
Was there a strong attempt to keep military discipline in the camp?
Yes. We had some pretty tight rules. Our orders were to have a total, complete hands-off policy. The decision was made, “You do not fraternize with them. If they ask you questions, you give them a military answer. When they try to get close to you—and they had guards that were specifically designed for that purpose, ‘ferrets’—don’t barter with them, don’t offer them a cigarette from your Red Cross, don’t give them any, and keep away from them.” This was the policy we had. I later got to a camp that was mostly British. They had the Germans completely under their thumb, totally corrupted them. They were afraid if they said anything, they would get shot.
What was your average day like? Did it change as the war got worse for the Germans?
The average day was up early in the morning and do the daily chores, such as cleanup details. Many spent much of their time reading and walking around the camp. Much time was spent in the discussion of food, as for the most part you were hungry. The twice-a-day roll call by the Germans could take a considerable amount of time until they could account for everybody. All in all it was not too bad; it was just trying to stay in shape. The day we received Red Cross parcels was a big event for us. We were supposed to get one parcel per man each week. However, it often had to be split four or more ways. If it had not been for these parcels, we would have lost many from starvation. As the war progressed, things got worse. Keeping in mind and trying to be fair about it, the Germans were in pretty bad shape at the latter stages of the war as far as food and supplies. If the German soldier wasn’t doing that well, the POW was going to do a little worse, that’s all there was to it. You asked about morale. I don’t think there was a doubt in anyone’s mind that we were going to win the war, and it was a matter of just surviving until that time. Unlike other wars, unlike the Korean War, unlike the Vietnam War where people were prisoners six, seven years and didn’t have any idea what was happening. The big thing was, there was no doubt in my mind, there was no doubt in anyone else’s or any POW that I knew of, that we weren’t going to win in a matter of months or a year. That was all there was to it. I think that is the big difference.
How long was it before your folks found out that you were still alive?
The first time they officially knew—actually the first time the Americans knew what camp I was at—is when my folks received a letter from me. They asked my folks to send it to them, and they determined somehow that it was Stalag Luft IV.
Did the Germans try to harass you or anything when you were settled originally in the POW barracks?
No, not really. There were a few incidents. For the most part guards were older people. Some of them were unfit for active service. A few of them had been badly wounded and were not fit to go back to the front lines. The bad times came when we marched out of the camp on 6 February, as the Germans did not want us to fall into Russian hands. Ninety days later we were still marching, with a short layover at Stalag 357. It was cold, miserable, no food or medicine. The Germans herded us around. People got sick; some died. We, of course, were being constantly harassed by the Germans. Much has been written about this march. All in all, it was not very pleasant.
How was your health while you were a POW, including “the march?”
In the march I got dysentery, and I lost a tremendous amount of weight. In fact, I was probably below 100 pounds when I was liberated. I was real sick.
Did a lot of people die on that march?
Yes. Several died from disease, the cold, and from exhaustion. However, there were other deaths due to error and mistakes. For instance, POWs were marched in columns of threes. This was to let all the forces, both enemy and friendly, know what their status was. It was at the tail end of the war, and we were marching when two RAF Typhoons came out of the sky, made a sweep over a column, and let loose with some gunfire, killing five or six British troops. The bitter irony of it was that these men had been POWs for several years and had come so far and been through so much to come to this end. By the time we marched past, they were getting volunteers for the burial detail.
How many guards did they have; did they have a lot of guards on you?
Yes, a hell of a lot of guards and dogs.
They were just literally kind of marching you around for want of something better to do?
Let’s see, we marched west and across the Elbe River once. We came back across the Elbe again. Let’s see, from 6 February—and they liberated us 2 May. That report says 80-some days. I think the interim period we were at Stalag 357.
Yes, and then we marched again until we were liberated by the British Second Army on 2 May 1945.
Then it says you took a 3-month recuperation leave?
Yes…I was back in the states in June. We spent several days in France prior to embarking.
Had you intended to stay in the military at this point?
Yes. Even as a prisoner of war, I was giving it much consideration about staying. I liked it. There was something about it I wanted. I came back from that recuperation leave and reenlisted.
Did you want to stay in the radio operator business?
Yes. I liked flying, but the day of the flying operator was rapidly becoming a thing of the past. Right after World War II, they started coming out with equipment where the pilot could do more just by pushing a button. They sent me back to school through courses, and I became at that time a 30170, which was a radio/navigational equipment, nonflying. Of course, by this time I had made master sergeant. That’s a story, too, I guess, that’s of historical significance.
In 1946 they came out with a policy that former prisoners of war who met certain criteria could be promoted one stripe. I fell under that criteria, and lo and behold, orders came out to promote me to master sergeant. Fifteen months later, it was determined that the promoting authority was erroneous. In other words, the authority to promote was not at that level. It should have been at Air Force level. The end result is we were reduced without prejudice, and I owed 15 months’ difference in pay. Things are different nowadays. You can go have it taken out of your pay in installments, but in those days they took it out in large chunks, everything you had coming except your wife’s allotment. I was reduced without prejudice but was promoted on the first cycle of master sergeants that came out. I still owed the difference in pay.
You got married 2 February 1946. Had you known your wife for some time then?
Yes. We had gone to school together. After the recuperation leave, I went back and we married in February.4 I was in the training system for five years, and then the Korean War broke out, and I was sent to Okinawa.
According to your biography here, you were in radio repair at that point.
And you developed this corrosion control assembly line. What was that all about?
I arrived at Okinawa, and I noticed a tremendous, terrible deterioration due to moisture, fungi on electronic equipment, equipment that was not prepared at the factory for tropical use. You have a salt problem in Okinawa. It’s nothing I invented; the process was there. It tells you how to do it, and I just ordered the equipment and set up a program and got the job done. I am not going to take any credit for that. But the end result, someone thought it was great. I didn’t invent a damn thing. The process was there. All you had to do was read it. I dug it out and set it up. They claimed millions of dollars of electronic equipment was prevented from deteriorating due to salt and corrosion.
Were you able to bring your wife along in those days?
I was there a year, and then Shirley and the two kids got there for a year. Then they sent me back to Scott again in the training system.
Were you an instructor now?
Yes, for a short time—I started to be an instructor, and I was pulled up to the training headquarters. By this time, I was asked how I would like to be a first sergeant, would I volunteer for a while anyway? I did, and 12 years later, I was still a first sergeant.
These were all electronic outfits. You ended up in the civil engineering squadron down here but—
At Scott when I was a first sergeant, it was student squadrons, large student squadrons. At Keesler it was student squadrons. I then went to Japan as the first sergeant of a radar site up in the mountains. Then I came back, and I was first sergeant of a CAMRON [Consolidated Aircraft Maintenance Squadron] squadron at Grand Forks, North Dakota, and then the 18th Fighter Interceptor Squadron at Grand Forks, then a civil engineering squadron. Then I was selected as the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force.
Did you like this type of work better?
Yes. Of all the jobs I have had in my career, I think first sergeant was probably the best. I liked it. I liked the discipline part of it. I liked being able to counsel and lead. I liked the first sergeant duty.
In those days did the Air Force send you through a lot of PME [professional military education] on how to be a first sergeant?
We had no PME in those days. You became a first sergeant after years of experience in other career fields. You picked up the ball from there. We didn’t have professional military education as we know it today or first sergeant academies. However, we did have MAJCOM [major command] academies.
In the time period of the early 1950s, middle 1950s, were there ever any thoughts of getting out at this point?
No. I never had any idea of getting out. I was happy. I enjoyed it. I think particularly as a first sergeant, unlike—electronics or working on the flight line can get kind of repetitious. As the first sergeant you never knew what was going to happen day or night.
Obviously, you were in the military when the E-8 and E-9 positions were created.
Did you see that as a positive thing inasmuch as there was a need for this?
Of course, then you hear the old argument that, rather than create more enlisted grades, we should have more warrant officers. How do you feel about that?
I think one of the wisest and best things the Air Force did was to do away with the warrant officer program. Our senior NCOs have taken the place of the warrants. To me the warrant officer was an extra rank in the chain that was not needed. In other words, you can be a chief master sergeant with many years’ service and be in charge of a section or shop or whatever, and the moment a warrant officer appears on the scene, you no longer are in charge of that section. In other words, the warrant officer dilutes from the prestige and authority of our senior NCOs.
The other argument would be, rather than commissioning them, give your E-8s and E-9s a more authoritative position in the rank structure.
Of all the armed forces today, I think the chief master sergeants in the United States Air Force have broken into more positions of authority than any other of the armed forces. We have chief master sergeants who are doing all types of commissioned officer work, or what was once commissioned officer work, far more so than the other services. A chief master sergeant in the United States Air Force has a lot of authority, and what they don’t realize, more so than any of the other armed forces. I am talking about being able to sign for money, thousands and thousands of dollars, or being able to operate a shop, being able to close a contract that deals with maybe millions of dollars, being a finance officer, being a motor pool officer, being all types of officers that require a commissioned officer in the other armed forces.
We will jump up to 1966, the Air Force started talking about this position of Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force. Did you ever get involved in pushing for such a concept or anything along those lines?
In 1966 the Air Force Times was giving a little coverage to the position.
There was a senator pushing legislation forcing the Air Force and the DOD [Department of Defense] to create this position.
L. Mendel Rivers [D-SC] was the congressman who worked with it.
If the Air Force didn’t create the position, he was going to force it by legislation. I have a note here, “A bill sponsored by Mendel Rivers would create Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force. It would be 4-year terms, appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate. Enlisted advisor on EM [enlisted men] morale, training, promotion, and related matters.” Now that bill was not passed, but it would appear that he simply presented this legislation in the Senate to force the Air Force to do it.
The position did become a statutory position after I was appointed due to Rivers. As soon as I heard about it, I thought, “What a great honor that would be.” I don’t want to sound like I am being falsely modest or anything, but I never figured that I had the slightest chance. “Whoever gets that job,” I thought, “is really going to have to go through a lot. What a great honor it would be.” But I didn’t think I had any chance of being selected.
Who urged you to apply for the job, or why did you apply? How did this come about, Chief?
Nobody urged me. As soon as I heard about it I thought, “What a tremendous honor it would be for anyone to get that position or be appointed to it.” This was back in 1966, and of course there wasn’t much said about it. The Air Force Times came out with something every so often. A blurb, “Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force position is being considered and so forth.”
Oh, this wasn’t coming down through—
There was very little coming down through military channels on it, and finally they came out with the criteria, and the criteria was, basically, any chief master sergeant who had a minimum of 22 years of service, two years’ time-in-grade, never been court-martialed could become the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force. The job description, basically, hasn’t changed one iota—“Would aid and advise the Secretary of the Air Force and the Chief of Staff of the Air Force on all matters pertaining to enlisted personnel.” Then the process—there were 2,200 chief master sergeants eligible for the job at the first selection.
There were four nominated for the top Airman job, and then by February, it was down—Dwight Harrington, William Lawson, Lee Rodgers, and Paul Airey—to Conrad Stevens, Paul Airey, and Jefferson Marsh. Had you ever gotten into the—with your contemporaries even before you became Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force—was there any kind of—
Speculation about the job?
Speculation for need for such a position?
Yes. I ran into a lot of people who said it was going to be a phony position. There were people who thought that. There were people who said it was something to placate the enlisted force. There were people who said they wouldn’t have it because it wasn’t going to do what they advertised it as. I couldn’t believe this. I had enough faith in the system that I liked to think—and did think—it was going to be set up in all good faith to do something for the enlisted force, to make it an avenue of communication, to try and make it a better Air Force, which I, to this day, believe the job has accomplished.
You went up there, and General John P. McConnell interviewed you for the job?
Yes, and the vice chief was General [Bruce K.] Holloway.
What were they interested in?
That’s getting to be a long time ago. It seemed to be in the general line of subjects. What would be expected of you, and do you think you could handle it, etc.? There was talk going around that General McConnell did not favor the position. I don’t know really how strong he was for or against it. I do know this, after a few months in office, I could not have asked for a better supporter. He was great to me and was always easy to talk to and always put me in a position whereas I felt comfortable in his presence.
What were your feelings when you were selected at the first Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force?
I am not trying to sound humble, but when I look back at the time, there were 2,200 eligible to be Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force, and I can honestly say of the 2,200 I never will be convinced that I was the most qualified or the best. I ended up with the job so you go out and do the best you can.
What was the first thing now that you had to do? Physically, there was no such office even existing before. Did they have to set up an office for you someplace and give you help? Who did all that kind of mechanical work for you?
When I got there, I was in a temporary office while mine was being finished. I reported to the chief of staff at my installation ceremony, and it was General McConnell of course. He said, “Okay, you have got the job. You have got the ball, run with it. I caution you to be careful of”—you know, being Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force is 90 percent commonsense and 10 percent knowledge. You have to try and get along with the Air Staff. That’s whom you are going to be working with. You have to try to get along with certain people in order to best represent the force. There are people who will make a patsy out of you, both officer and enlisted. There are people who will use you. There are people, I am sorry to say, who have axes to grind. Or they will ask you for a favor, and you will look into it and find they don’t have a good reason, and because you tell them that, they don’t want to hear that, then you are no good.
When you first took over the job there, you say you set up the office. We have talked to Secretaries of the Air Force, and there is no statutory regulation or Air Force regulation or anything that sets up the relationship between the Chief of Staff of the Air Force and the Secretary of the Air Force. It has to be personal rapport that they build. You either get along, or you are going to find yourself odd man out. Were you able to build a rapport with McConnell?
The Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force can only be as effective as the Chief of Staff wants him to be. That’s 100 percent right. If he ever loses his support, then he is losing ground for the enlisted force. For the first several weeks, I don’t know if General McConnell was just observing, waiting to hear reports from the field, but after 90 days or so, we had a much closer rapport. I got the distinct feeling it was a sweating-out period or an observation period, trial period.
The Vietnam War started heating up in 1966 before you became Chief Master Sergeant. How did you feel about people running off to Canada and getting in the Air Force and then deserting? What were your personal feelings?
I have extremely strong feelings on it. We were in Vietnam; we were invited; we had a right to be there. We weren’t invaders. These people who fled certainly have my complete contempt. I know the war was unpopular. I hope we never get into one like it again or like the Korean War. If we ever go to war without the intentions of going to win it, then I think we have made a serious, serious mistake. Who was it that said, “Those who fail to learn by history are doomed to repeat its mistakes?” However, we were in it, and our country was in it. All we could do was back it.
Was there anything you saw happening in the Air Force to the enlisted structure—now this is before you went up to Washington—was anything at your level indicating a new type of enlisted man, a malcontented enlisted man, or anything like that coming along?
No, absolutely not. I did not notice anything in that way at all. In fact, the four times I got to Vietnam or Southeast Asia, twice with the Chief of Staff and twice on my own, I found the morale topnotch. This was the 1967/68/69 period. They would work hard and go all out. I found morale was just fabulous in all ranks.
One reason I ask about morale and everything, in January 1966, there was a note that first-term reenlistment rate was the lowest in 12 years. I was wondering at your level whether you saw any reason for this at all, or if this was skewed based on one particular command that might have had a low reenlistment rate?
No, I don’t think the Vietnam War had too much to do with that. We were trying to get 25 percent of the enlisted force to reenlist. In order to do that, we allowed some to reenlist that weren’t too good. A few years prior to Vietnam, retention was a big subject. I don’t really think the Vietnam War at that time had anything to do with it. I think the economy was good. The pay was only mediocre. You have to remember...the Air Force has some far-flung areas that weren’t popular. We had remote radar sites all over the world. Certainly, our northern tier bases weren’t the most popular. Promotions are something I want to talk about.
Promotions are based against skills. The skill levels were frozen, then correct?
Various career skills were frozen. When I went on the job as Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force, the two biggest problems I had—number one was promotions, and the second was assignments. Let’s talk about promotions. We had frozen career fields. We had embittered people. This is one of the reasons Rivers got involved. We had enlisted personnel who were so embittered, and Rivers was the chairman of the House Armed Forces Committee. He was receiving 15,000 to 20,000 letters a year from embittered enlisted personnel on promotions. The result is he formed a subcommittee to investigate the enlisted promotions in the armed forces.
The end result is the Air Force was severely criticized on their promotion system. At this time, they brought some pretty smart people together, some full colonels, some chief master sergeants. I had a certain basic input. I don’t want to put my input out of proportion to what it was worth. But the end result was they came out with a weighted Airman promotion system [WAPS], which today is still in effect and is by far the fairest, best, most equitable promotion system of any of the armed forces for the enlisted men. It was a year or two ago, and I was over in the House, and there is a man by the name of John Ford. He is a counselor to the House Armed Forces Committee. I said, “Mr. Ford, you remember how L. Mendel Rivers was getting 15,000 to 20,000 letters a year on enlisted promotions?” He said, “I sure do, Paul.” I said, “How many are you getting now from Air Force enlisted people?” He said, “We don’t get half dozen or so a year.” Now this is success that the Airman can see. In other words, the biggest problem I faced was the promotion problem. The Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force job remains the same. Problems change. This is one problem none of them have had to face.
In 1967 now there was talk of the Senior NCO Academy, which eventually came into being down at Maxwell.
Was there a genuine need for it, and who pushed it?
Yes. [Lt Gen John W. Carpenter III] was commander of Air University [AU] when I first went on the job. I can remember talking to General Carpenter about a senior academy, which would be at Air Force level, but it was his belief Air University would be the ideal place. I had no strong feelings for or against where it was; I just wanted one. I didn’t think we would get one. I was very, very surprised that General [John D.] Ryan, when things were getting lean, when we started hurting for the dollar, approved the senior academy.
That came into being in 1971. What did you see the Senior NCO Academy was supposed to do? What was its purpose in your mind?
I looked upon it as the top level of professional military education for a noncommissioned officer. I looked upon it more as an inducement, something to really strive for. I even thought we would see the day you would have to graduate before they could be considered for chief, but it hasn’t developed into that, and possibly, it shouldn’t. But it would be the tops in professional military education, and one who went through it should graduate with much pride.
When you went to a base, would there be a notice posted in the DB [Daily Bulletin] that CMSAF Paul Airey was going to be there and anybody that wanted to see him could see him at such-and-such a time?
Yes. It happened in that way, but usually they had set up meetings at the base theater or clubs. I always requested a full itinerary that would keep me busy and one that I would be able to meet the maximum amount of troops. At most bases I would be the guest speaker at a dining-out or dining-in. In addition, I normally wanted to receive the command briefing. In that way I knew what was going on at the activity I was visiting.
Did you ever feel you were getting the dog and pony show?
Oh, yes, but you know, you have to be pretty stupid not to know when that’s going on. They would take you to this particular barrack. You would say, “Well, let’s go see this one.” “Well, this is the one”—Well, just for the hell of it, we will see both.”
In retrospect has the senior enlisted advisor position and the chief master sergeant and the sergeant major all added up to a better enlisted corps in the Air Force?
By having these positions, I think it has led to the betterment of the NCO corps. The fact that we have NCOs in a position where they work directly for the commander and represent the enlisted people in that organization has increased the prestige of our NCOs. Of course, we have several people who bad-mouthed the job. Some are jealous of it. We must, however, pick the best possible chief for these jobs. He must be someone the young Airmen look up to and respect and one who projects the proper image. In addition, he must be the type that the young Airmen will approach with their problems.
When you left the office of Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force, you didn’t retire did you?
No, I stayed on for 1 year to the day.
And you came back down here to Tyndall?
What job did you take down here?
I was in a combat crew training squadron.
Can you realistically come from that job to another enlisted job in the Air Force?
I see some very few select positions or assignments that a former Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force might hold, but they are few and far between. To return to the mainstream of the Air Force would be a mistake. It was a mistake for me. I was actually looking for—pending a special assignment that never really came about. In addition, I wanted to do the 30 years. Then, also, I wanted to probably finish up my career with a tour in Vietnam. But to make a long story short, I really feel that the Air Force wants you out. There is really not that much place for two Chief Master Sergeants of the Air Force at any one time. And rightfully so. Everyone who followed me retired from the job.
What did you find as an NCO throughout your career and, obviously, as Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force that makes morale good versus a lowering of morale? Did you ever see any number of things that could contribute to good morale?
I think there are a lot of things. Number one, leadership is the key to everything. If you don’t have leadership, you are not going to have morale. Also, mission, job fulfillment, but number one, go right back to that key word, leadership. You can have mediocre facilities, you can have a remote area to be stationed at, you can have all types of things that aren’t that good, miserable climate and everything else, but if you have leadership, you can get good morale.