CMSAF Donald L. Harlow
In the late 1930s, after dropping out of high school to support his mother, Donald Harlow found himself working in a department store for “one of the greatest bosses I ever had.” He learned the value of hard work and the hard reality that no matter how good you are, there are always others who can do the job just a little bit better. As a teenager whose father had died when he was just two years old, he valued the guidance and opportunities to learn.
Harlow was born on 22 September 1920 in Waterville, Maine. Twenty-two years later, in August 1942, he was drafted into the Army Air Forces and reported to basic training in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Following World War II he was discharged but remained in the inactive reserve, knowing that if he ever decided to serve again he wouldn’t have to start all over. In August 1950 that proved a wise decision. He was recalled to the active duty Air Force and began his career in personnel.
Nineteen years later, after serving as a first sergeant and personnel sergeant major, Gen John D. Ryan selected Harlow as the second Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force (CMSAF). On 1 August 1969, he replaced Paul Airey and immediately began to clarify the role and purpose of the position. He focused on many problems brought to him by the young enlisted force serving in a time of war, including racial tensions and assignment concerns. He also championed the Weighted Airman Promotion System, which was fully implemented in 1970. After his two-year tenure, Harlow retired from the Air Force but continued to serve as a lobbyist on Capitol Hill, always focusing his efforts on improving the quality of life of enlisted Airmen. Harlow passed away on 18 June 1997.
The Air Force Historical Research Center interviewed Harlow on 9–10 December 1980, in Washington, DC. During the interview, Harlow discussed his early years in the Army Air Corps, establishing a unit in Morocco, and his experience as a personnel NCO in the 1950s and 1960s. The complete interview can be accessed on the Air University Library 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 and career of Donald L. Harlow.
Your childhood, was it—of course, obviously, it probably was a little more common in those days, I’m guessing, that children would leave school and go to work as opposed to the way—
Yes, that’s right.
Did you feel that you had been slighted here at this point a little bit?
Not necessarily. All the time I was in school I had a paper route, and on weekends I would find jobs working, cleaning up basements for people. I always did something to keep busy and earn a little money. We would have heavy snowstorms, and I would take—in fact, I took three days off from school one time in a heavy snowstorm, and I earned considerable money in those days. I think it was a total of $15. I had to do a lot of shoveling in those days. That meant a lot to me to pick up that extra money to use at home on whatever little thing we needed. So I have never been one to just enjoy things. Well, I have enjoyed working. I am not a workaholic, but I have to keep doing something. I have to have something to do. I can’t just sit around.
Did you feel like an only child growing up in the sense that your brother and most of your sisters were gone?
No, not necessarily, because most of the family—sisters and brothers-in-law—lived around the area. I enjoyed, at Christmastime, as I used to go around and visit on Christmas Eve. I was working in the department store. On the way home, I would visit several of my sisters and brothers-in-law who had young children. I would stay there for Christmas, probably get home at six o’clock in the morning, so I never really felt alone.
You were obviously very young at this late 1930s and early 1940s period. Did the war in Europe and this kind of thing, was it of any interest to you, or even something that attracted your attention in any degree?
The war attracted my attention to this extent. In 1939, as you recall, they had a peacetime draft for the first time in this country. One night at the inn, I remember there was a young lady who was staying at the inn. I guess it was about nine o’clock one night, she came in and was crying. I said, “What’s happened? What’s gone wrong?” She came down to Fort Devens [Massachusetts] to visit her fiancé. At that time, he had just about served his year. Because of the happenings in the world, he was extended, indefinitely. Of course, that was a big shock to her and to him also. That was the first time, I think, that I had any real impact of what was really going on in the world. I knew right then and there that it would be soon, and I would be drafted. I wasn’t about to volunteer.
You got drafted into the Air Corps?
After graduation I went to work for General Electric Company in Fitchburg, Massachusetts. I worked there for only about six months when [Pres. Franklin D.] Roosevelt sent me greetings. So I was drafted out of Massachusetts and went in at Fort Devens in the Army Air Corps—well, it was the Army, really, then in August 1942. However, at that time they were screening everybody to determine whether they would go to the Army or the Army Air Corps—yes, it was the Army Air Corps at that time—and I was selected to go to the Army Air Corps. From there, I went to basic training at Atlantic City, New Jersey, and then I was sent to tech school at Buckley Field, Colorado. From there I was sent to Eagle Pass, Texas, to become an instructor in armament and gunnery for the cadets.
Atlantic City, what installation was at Atlantic City that you had basic training at?
Actually, they took many of the hotels on the strip, on the boardwalk.
Oh, you were in one of those?
They stripped the hotels down to nothing, and that’s where we did our training. They just put GI bunks and a footlocker in the rooms.
But as far as actual combat infantry training, you never went through that because you were in the Air Corps?
Then this Buckley Field. Where was that in Colorado?
That was not too far, probably about 10 miles from Lowry [AFB].
That’s where you took this armament training? What did they train you on, the .50 caliber?
20 millimeter, .50 caliber, various armaments that we had at that time. The 37 millimeter cannon and guns like that. Then of course, when I went to Eagle Pass, I taught those guns in ground school to cadets.
Were you training them in, like they had deuce and a half with simulated gun turrets from airplanes and that kind of thing?
No. It covered the actual field stripping and putting the guns together, adjusting them, also in the synchronization, because in the plane you fired the guns through the propeller so you had to synchronize them with the propeller. When I went to Matagorda Island [Texas], I was doing the same thing in the ground school—only this time they were graduates. They were second lieutenants out of flying school.
During my tour there, I also wrote and prepared tests. They had never had any real lesson plans or tests in those days. Everything was fast and furious because the time element was something else. They were more concerned with mission and training, so I wrote the first test that was ever given at Matagorda Island to the second lieutenants. I took it over to the ops [operations] officer, a lieutenant colonel, and I will never forget him. He looked at the thing, and he said, “Sure glad I don’t have to take this test.” That is when I got interested in academics, because I found there was so much opportunity there. There was so much you could do to help people. Then in the spring of 1945, the hurricane came along, and we got blown off the island. We had to evacuate.
Were they using that for a bomb range, too?
Bombing range, training, yes. At that time, we got transferred to Foster Field, Victoria, Texas. I thought I was pretty smart then; I finagled a couple of three-day passes so they couldn’t catch up with me and put me on KP [kitchen police]. When I came back from the second one, I decided I had better do something. So I went to the sergeant major in personnel and told him I would like to go to work in personnel. They put me in the personnel processing section.
At that time, we had the old form 20 and the service record and the medical record and others. We had 12 different records, really, that we handled. I had one desk, and I was handling the form 20. I wanted to find out what they did with all the other records, so I visited around—I had two stripes at that time, was a corporal—and I found out what all the other people did with each one of their records. It so happened that about three or four months later, as the war started to wind down, the staff sergeant in charge of the section was going to be reassigned. The captain, our boss at that time, called me in and said, “I understand you are the only one who knows all of the desks here.” I said, “Yes. I don’t know if I am the only one, but I do know what everybody does.” He said, “Fine. When the staff sergeant leaves, you are in charge.”
In those days—it is interesting when you compare it to today—the captain was a pilot; he was assigned to us as the officer in charge of the processing. He spent most of his time in the training phase and in flying, and he used to come in the office at nine o’clock in the morning and leave at 10, come in to sign papers or answer any questions or anything else, and then he would come back in the afternoon, maybe about 1:30 or 2, and he would stay until about 3. He said, “This is the way you can always get in touch with me. In the meantime, you are in charge.” Well, here I was with two stripes, and I was in charge.
I only recall one time when they had a problem where a colonel from the hospital came in and raised a little hell, and I couldn’t satisfy him, so I had to call the captain. Otherwise, everybody knew I was in charge, and I didn’t overextend myself to that point, but we got the job done.
Was this pretty standard operating procedure for almost anything on the base where they would assign a commissioned officer to an office and, really, he let the NCOs run it then?
For the most part, that was very true during the early days of the Army Air Corps. The officer was a policy decision maker, and the NCO ran the program. As I remember many a time that the officer would say, “What do you think?” And I would say, “According to the Army regulation, we are supposed to do it this way.” He was not that much concerned with the details. He was concerned about making the decision, and he depended on me to provide him with the facts on which he could base that decision.
One thing, you mentioned you went over to get into personnel. Why had you chosen personnel? Why not, let’s say, stay in armament or go into this or go into that?
I saw a lot of misuse of people, and I was always fascinated with how did they ever develop? How did these policies come out? Why do things happen? I was an inquisitive person, like I still am today. That’s the reason I thought personnel would be the most—and I figured from personnel I could get back into training. But that didn’t quite happen.
Anyway, I enjoyed my tour at Foster Field, Victoria, Texas. Then the war came to an end in 1945. Before that, prior to the war ending, we had a WAF [Women in the Air Force] major who was chief of the Personnel Processing and Order Section and other types of programs that is now divided up between the director of administration and personnel.
On the first of the week of Thanksgiving, we had over 500 cadets transferred to Foster Field, Victoria, Texas, and we processed them all in on Monday and Tuesday. It so happened that on Tuesday evening, just before I was getting ready to close up, she called me over, because the captain was on a flying mission, and said they had just gotten orders down from ATC [Air Training Command] Headquarters, at that time, where these cadets were being reassigned to various bases throughout the United States.
In fact, they were not cadets; they were actually lieutenants—graduates. She said, “By next Monday, we are going to have to get going on these orders and cut them and get these people out of here.”
I had always felt this way, and I always knew, throughout my career and even on my job today, you do a little bit more than what your job probably is if you really want to get somewhere, if you really want to do something.
So on Wednesday, I talked to some people in processing, and I found out there were about three of four who were going somewhere for Thanksgiving. So I said, “If the rest of you will come in and work with me, we will process all of these records and get them all booked up and mail them out to these bases,” because we wanted to actually put them in the mail on Friday. “Then on Monday, these lieutenants can come in, and we will just give them their orders, and they can leave.” So we did. We worked Thanksgiving and up until about seven or eight o’clock that night, finished them all up, got them all wrapped and ready to mail.
On Friday morning, we took them to the post office, mailed them out. On Monday, the major called me over to her office. It was in the next building. And she said, “I don’t want you doing anything else today. We are not going to send anybody over there to process in or out. I just want you to get those records closed out and in the mail not later than tomorrow. I said, “I’m sorry, major, they are already gone.” She looked at me and said, “What do you mean?” I gave her the receipt—for all the orders—that they signed at the post office, because we sent them out certified.
As a result of that, a couple of months later, promotion quota came down for that base, and she insisted that if I didn’t make staff sergeant, she wouldn’t cut the orders. So I got promoted.
It was one of these types of things that, hell, we didn’t have anything to do on Thanksgiving. It is just these little extra things that you do that makes the difference between a good job or a mediocre job.
I stayed there at Victoria, Texas, and Foster Field. The war was over. Of course, all these people had enough points for discharge (including me).
Did you make any consideration while you were on active duty in World War II about making the military a career or anything?
No. The only thing, during the outbriefing at Fort Sam Houston [Texas], the sergeant said, “When you get out and get discharged, that does not mean that you are not eligible for recall. If something happens in the next 10 years, you are subject to recall, and if you get recalled, you start all over again.” He was selling us the Reserve program. He said, “If you sign up in the Reserve, at least you can be guaranteed coming back with the rank that you have.” At that time, I thought, “Well, hell, if I’ve got to come back, I don’t want to come back and start all over again.” So I said, “Okay, I’ll sign up.”
I signed up in the Reserve and came back home, back to Massachusetts actually. My wife, Dottie, was living with her folks. Then we went up to Maine, and I got into the GI Bill, not to go to school but to take advantage of what they called the training program under the GI Bill. I went to work for a drug concern. They had about three stores in my hometown. It was primarily to be near my mother. She was ill. After my mother died, I wasn’t too happy up there, because everybody in town remembered me as a little kid that used to do figure skating. The drug business wasn’t that exciting to me. In the meantime, my wife’s folks were thinking of moving to California.
(Did) you (spend), actually, any time in any Reserve units? Were you going to meetings or anything?
No, I was strictly a Reservist. The funny part of it is, not too far from Long Beach, California, I was talking to a gentleman who was in the Reserve, who used to participate in the Reserve program at the Long Beach Airport, and he got recalled about the same time that I did. He was a tech [technical] sergeant.
He got recalled as a captain only because of his participation in the Reserve. I didn’t participate at all so I got recalled as a staff sergeant, but I had built up quite a portfolio at that time with the business machine company, plus the College of Commerce. When I was recalled, I was recalled in armament again.
I went to Travis AFB [California]. When I walked in, of course, they were processing people like mad. The sergeant at the desk said, “You are going to be in armament; you go down to hangar so-and-so and report to so-and-so.” I said, “Before I go, I would like to talk to the personnel officer.” I went in to see him, and I handed him the portfolio, and I told him, “I haven’t seen a gun; I don’t know anything about armament. I would like to have you take a look at my portfolio, and then let’s discuss it.” He looked through the letters, and he got up, and he said, “Wait here.” He walked outside his office, and I heard him say to the sergeant out there, “Get so-and-so and get a desk and a chair and put it right here outside my office.” He turned around to me, and he said, “You are going to be my sergeant major.” So I moved right into the sergeant major of personnel position.
Were you unhappy that you got recalled?
I sort of suspected it, so I wasn’t really unhappy. I thought, well, this is—you know, for two years. It was a two-year recall, and with the Soldiers and Sailors Relief Act, you could always go back to the company, so there was no problem there. I said, “Well, hell, everybody else is being recalled. They are going to war so I might just as well.” But I was determined to get in personnel.
I went up to what was called the 5th and 9th Maintenance Squadron. It was a huge squadron, two squadrons “really, and all maintenance people. I had never seen such a mess in all of my life. It was, of course, during peacetime, and a lot of things happened. They were short of supplies, and people didn’t give a damn. It wasn’t too efficient. Nobody really cared too much, but when the Korean War started and things got moving, it still wasn’t straightened out. The major who was assigned to the group came over one day and was talking to the captain and myself. He said, “You know, you keep submitting this personnel report,”—called the P-l report in those days—“to base headquarters, and we haven’t had a right report in there for the last 8 or 10 months.”
After he left, I talked with the captain, and I went around and found out what was wrong, what was happening. The fact is, the morning report clerks, the personnel accountability, and the assignment report people were not talking to each other. In those days, the morning report was quite a complex thing. They took it away from the old book. You know, the old book, when I first got in the Army, the first sergeant had the book, and he just had to go down with marks, because that was the roll call. In those days, you had 5th and 9th Maintenance Squadron and hundreds of people.
I got together with the troops, and I said, “We are going to get this straightened out. I’m going to come back here every night at six o’clock, and I want at least two people out of this morning report area and two out of assignments and two out of the records section, and we are going to get this thing straightened out. We are going to work until we do.” We did that for two weeks, every night, but at the end of that two weeks, everything jibed. At the end of that month when we submitted the P-l report, that was the first one in nine months that was ever right. The troops, of course, they bitched like they always did, but they were delighted when the major came in, got us all together, and said, “This is great.”
I had learned a lot of this in the business world. In a profit and loss situation, you don’t fool around. You either get with the program, or you don’t have a job.
Then it came about the middle of December, getting ready for Christmas, had the Christmas tree and everything on it, and I got notification that this one captain who worked in group and myself and a master sergeant had been tagged by SAC [Strategic Air Command] Headquarters to help form a new outfit.
Yes, the 5th Air Division.
It was the 5th Air Division. Of course, the worst part of it was we had to leave the day before New Year’s. Again, my wife was unhappy, but we made arrangements for her to go back to Long Beach, California, and found a place for her and the children. So one weekend we got them back down there, with what few belongings we had, and got them set up. I had a sister and brother-in-law in Long Beach, California, so that helped. They did have somebody near. In the meantime, her folks were unhappy in California and went back to Massachusetts.
At Travis, I amassed a pretty good record in personnel. At that time, there was a big political action going on. Every once in a while they would get word from SAC Headquarters that the 5th Maintenance Squadron or the 5th Squadron was going to Korea. Then a little while later the word would come down that they had decided the 9th Maintenance Squadron was going.
Did you reenlist for a certain term, or was it an indefinite reenlistment?
At that time, they had the indefinite, and I did reenlist for an indefinite enlistment.
So I went over[seas], and I was one of the first echelon to help open Morocco. That was fascinating. Our first office was on the French air base. The French NCOs saluted NCOs. I got to know a lot of people over there. I had taken French in school; I liked it.
I had to live in a hotel downtown. I thought, “Well, I had better take advantage of this.” So I met a young fellow who worked for the French railroad. He wanted to learn English, and I wanted to learn more French. I would get off the bus downtown, in front of a cafe, and I would have to walk maybe a block to go to my hotel. He was always at the cafe when we got off the bus, having an apéritif at the sidewalk cafe, so I would get off and meet him every night. We would chat back and forth. He would teach me French, and I would teach him English. It was quite interesting. We did that for about, oh, I guess two or three months.
Was morale pretty good over there?
Oh, yes. The only way we got a club is through the captain that I went over there with who got the troops together. He was great to the enlisted—Capt William S. MacGregor. We didn’t have any lower grade enlisted. We all put in $20 to form the club, so we were all charter members of the club. That is the only way we could get enough to pay the lease and start off. We had slot machines there, and we made good money on them.
How many people did you have right there at the headquarters, would you guess?
Well, at the headquarters, I know from the NCO side we had a maximum of 270. That was maximum for NCOs at which probably 60 percent had their dependents there. The rest of them were single. So we didn’t have too much of a draw, numbers wise, to the club, but that was the only place for them to go. I remember when we moved over to Agdal [a suburb of the Moroccan capital, Rabat], the club would never open until five o’clock. It was policy. They did not want anybody in there drinking.
It so happened that I had three maintenance people who were on night shift in the motor pool and other places, and they were off duty. So by 11 o’clock they came to the club, and I would serve them. It so happened that one day the IG [inspector general] came in. Of course, he talked to me and was going to write me up. I said, “Fine, write me up, but if these troops can’t come in here, they are going to go down to the French bar, and they are going to spend more money, and they are not going to be treated as well.” When it got to [Gen] Archie Old, he said, “Forget it.”
Why don’t we (move ahead to) July 1965, according to your biography here, you became sergeant major, Executive Services Division, Office of the Vice Chief of Staff, Headquarters US Air Force, Washington, DC— a very nice title.
Impressive, isn’t it? I was in EUCOM [European Command] in Paris, and I was the sergeant major of the Air Force element. Gen John P. McConnell was really the vice commander at that time of EUCOM. I had a captain who was my squadron commander, and the captain was not too willing to go over and deal with all of the generals. He was more concerned with pursuing his education because he was getting ready to retire. He was formerly enlisted then commissioned. He wanted to teach in a college or a university, so he was concerned with his educational pursuits, which is fine, because we had a small element over there. I told him I had no problems; I would be glad to deal with the generals.
One of the major projects I had in EUCOM was to provide aides for the generals, especially the Air Force generals. Anyway, it came time for the change of command for General McConnell. General [Jacob E.] Smart was coming in to take over. General McConnell’s aide called me and said, “Don, we have a flag in here with all the battle streamers on it, but it is old, worn out, and terrible. We need one for this change-of-command ceremony.” I had written six months ago and requested the purchase of a new one through the regular supply channels, but we certainly were not going to get it in time for the ceremony. He said, “Do you think you can help me?” I said, “Yes, I think so.”
To make a long story short, I was instrumental in getting the flag and hand carrying it over to them for the ceremony. In the meantime, after General McConnell got reassigned back to Headquarters USAF as the vice chief, his aide, Col Bill Frasca, was dealing with a Major Russell who headed the Executive Services Division, which is really the administrative support division for the chief of staff of the Air Force, and the vice chief of staff of the Air Force. They had a senior master sergeant there as the NCOIC [noncommissioned officer-in-charge] of the executive services. Bill Frasca said to Major Russell, “You know, that’s a chief’s slot. Why don’t you have a chief in it?” He said, “Well, I’m hoping that one of my sergeants will get promoted.” Bill Frasca said, “Well, I know a chief over in Paris that I think would do a good job for you.”
The major called me on the phone one day and wanted to know if I would be interested in working there. He said, “How about coming back TDY [temporary duty] and taking a look?” I said, “Well, I will tell you what I will do. My requirements here are such that I don’t feel as if I could come back TDY. If you and Colonel Frasca feel that you need me over there and want me, you take what initiative you need to take, and I’ll be there.” So going through personnel, they curtailed my tour nine months, and I was reassigned and became sergeant major of the Executive Services Division, in charge of all the administration, all the staff summary sheets, and everything else that flowed through there.
Did you have any—it was during your time you were up at the executive services up there that the concept or the idea or whatever flowered or bloomed to have this Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force position. Were you in anyway associated with giving that idea a kick or a germ?
No. This came up when [Cong.] L. Mendel Rivers [D-SC] was the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. He was the one who was pushing this, and none of the service chiefs wanted it. However, they were told very emphatically that they were going to have a top NCO whether they wanted one or not.
I got the impression, in reading, that it looks as though he presented the bill or brought the bill up to kick military services. He said, “If you don’t do it on your own, I am going to do it.” Then he never passed the bill, and the service created it on its own.
That’s right. He had an Army warrant officer aide. Mendel Rivers used to travel a lot, and the warrant officer performed a lot of functions as his aide. Mendel Rivers liked the guy. I think it was the warrant officer, himself, who suggested this after they came into the senior and chief or E-8 and E-9 ranks in the military services, because you know they had a pretty strong structure of sergeant majors in the Army. That was really the seed that was planted. Why not have one sergeant major for the whole?
This raises the question now—I’ll quote you again—there was, as I understand it, no such thing, either by Air Force regulation or anything, called a sergeant major.
That was just a fiction.
It was a terminology which was used unofficially. Being the ranking noncommissioned officer, working for the chief and vice chief at the Pentagon, when President [Lyndon B.] Johnson had his reception over in the White House. The presidents usually have them every year. I was the only enlisted man from the Air Force, my wife and I, to go as a representative of the Air Force because of that position I held up there, and it was more or less called the sergeant major of the Air Force at that time. It was an unofficial term.
I have got that invitation framed from the White House with President Johnson’s signature because the word sergeant is misspelled. It is embossed printing and beautiful.
Now, this was while you were in the Executive Services?
Yes, Executive Services Division.
They held you as the senior NCO of the Air Force?
At that time and in that particular case.
That’s interesting. I mean this thing was really growing all the time then.
When I was up there, a bill was passed. It gave the opportunity for the service chiefs to select their own individuals and establish their own criteria. It didn’t stipulate the period of time the individual would serve, nothing.
However, while I was there, they appointed a board of three to come up with criteria for the position, and the exec for the chief of staff happened to be down in our area one day reproducing some things and asked about my being eligible. I was not eligible at that time.
I was asking him about the criteria they were establishing, and he mentioned the fact that it was 18 years, because at that time you could make chief at 16 years of service, which I did. So they established 18 years of service, and I said to the exec at that time, “That’s a mistake.” He was a very arrogant individual in many ways, and I think he resented any enlisted man saying an officer was making a mistake. He looked at me very stern, and he said, “What do you mean, sergeant?” I said, “Colonel, let’s say that you select an individual or the chief selects an individual, and he goes out in the field and somehow he screws up and causes embarrassment to the chief and the secretary. How are you going to get rid of him without further embarrassment? Are you going to direct his retirement? Maybe you would have to put him in the hospital and tell people he is sick, and then people find out he is not sick. To my way of thinking, you can’t select anybody with less than 20 years of service, because if he screws up, he can retire on his own at the suggestion of the chief.”
Well, as the result of that statement, even though he didn’t like it, the next time the committee met he asked me to sit in on the committee. At that time, they were considering a four-year tour. I told them, “Being in an advisory capacity and not a member of the decision-making process, I don’t suggest four years. I suggest a two-year term. Number one, I foresee the travel to be extensive; number two, if it is a four-year term, in 12 years you can only have three. There are lots of noncommissioned officers out there who are chiefs that are damn good. With a two-year term, in 12 years you can have six. I think it is more reasonable to give more people an opportunity to be in that advisory capacity rather than trying to make this a position of some authority or decision making.” So they agreed.
They also established the criteria of 22 years of service. So I felt I was instrumental. Then later on, when it came to selecting the insignia for the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force, they brought in the blouses and the different insignia, and I modeled them before the chief and his staff. One of the insignia was the current E-9 stripes with another strip above it, which looked very, very—I don’t know, it was too much. The one with the wreath was very dignified and very beautiful, and that’s the one I suggested, and they all bought it.
Were you in on the process, then, of let’s get each command to recommend one or two people? Like SAC, for example, got to recommend three as opposed to each of the other commands could recommend only one or two or something like that.
The committee itself said, “In order to be fair about this, we should give the commanders the opportunity to make a selection and recommendation.” The larger commands, like SAC, could recommend two; the smaller commands could recommend one. They would hold a screening board at Randolph. Of course, I agreed with that because I said, “This is going to be an honor. Even if an individual was just selected by his command, it is a great honor.”
Did you say the board met at Randolph?
Yes, the board was responsible for identifying the top three of all those being interviewed, and the records then were forwarded to the chief’s office at the Pentagon. In the meantime, they had a more extensive background investigation. Then between the execs of the chief and the vice chief and others, they reviewed the records. Then they called those three into the Pentagon to be personally interviewed by the chief. As a result of that interview, the one individual was selected.
Obviously, anything that is done there is always going to be, for whatever reason, somebody who says we shouldn’t do that. Was there anybody in the Pentagon, officer or enlisted, at any level that said, “Hell, we don’t need this slot. This is just a bunch of crap. What are we doing here?” Did that kind of attitude exist any place?
Yes, there are always those people, and there were some general officers as well as colonels and others, “We are not in favor of this position.” I think they were more afraid of what was going to result from somebody filling that position, fear of the unknown, rather than turning it around to a positive attitude of assisting the individual.
I was very fortunate. I will tell you very frankly. I was perhaps more fortunate than anyone that’s been in that position because I served in the Pentagon for four years before I was in the position. I knew the Pentagon. I knew the people; they knew me, and I had a feel for both the political as well as the military operation from that point, from the head shed on down, so I had an advantage over others, those who came from the field who never had that opportunity.
Were you at any time told that here you were, in effect, holding the office before the office actually existed, in a certain sense—did they ever say to you, “Don, we aren’t going to give you a shot at it this time. You go out in the field, then the next time around we will”— was there any of that kind of stuff going on?
No. None whatsoever. In fact, as I said, I was not eligible for the first time because I didn’t have the 22 years. I had a little over 20 at that time, so I was not eligible...the first time. When the second selection came up, they decided to extend [CMSAF Paul W.] Paul Airey, the first one, to coincide with the chief, who was moving in there in August, which was fine.
I was recommended by my boss, and I had to go over for an interview to Headquarters Command, at that time, and there were three of us there, and I was selected from Headquarters Command to go to Randolph. I was thoroughly pleased and delighted with it, but I’ll never forget the first sergeant down there. The old time first sergeant, Chief Dailey, at the barbecue the night before the interview, called me over and said, “Don, do you really want the position?” I said, “That’s amazing. Why do you ask?” He said, “Well, nobody really knows you. We know you work up at the Pentagon, but you know, you are not well known out in the field. Although you’ve got an impressive record, we just want to know what your feelings are.” I told him at that time, “Joe,” his name was Joe Dailey, “I’m very, very fortunate, and I’m thankful for being selected to come this far, but I work for the chief and vice chief. I don’t think I even have a chance of being selected because that would be something against me right from the beginning. They would say”—the people in the field, especially other chiefs—“Why did we go through this whole process when the guy has been working for the chief for four years? Why didn’t they just say it, you know?” (laughter) So I said, “No. I am grateful for coming this far. You look around; we have some damn good chiefs here.” And there were. There were some tremendous individuals. The competition is fierce.
Anyway, when I went back to the Pentagon, Colonel Elliott called me over and asked me how it went. I said, “Fine, but I would like to say just one thing. That is it. I am going back to work.” He said, “What do you mean?” I said, “Hey, no way I want to get the job. Not that I even expected to be recommended, but having worked here for the chief and the vice chief for four years, you know, I already have a strike against me when I go out in the field.” He said, “So you really don’t want it if you were selected?” I said, “That’s right.” He said, “Okay.”
I would like to put it in history, because it is a fact. I was not one of the first three that was nominated from Randolph. One of the three individuals that was nominated, through investigation of his background, had in his records that he had a college degree, and it was found that he had gotten somebody in personnel to make that entry in his record.
He did not, in fact, have a college degree. When the chief found out about that, he said, “Send all the records back and let’s start all over again.” So he sent them back to the board, and the board reviewed all of the records again. When they came back, I was one of the three.
Did this individual who had falsified his records, had he done that in response to being selected, or had he done this years before?
I don’t know, and I did not inquire. However, I did not know that my record had returned for consideration. I found this all out afterwards. [Neither] Colonel Elliott, nor anyone else, said anything to me, which I understood. I went back to work, happy as a lark, and knew that was it.
Then one day Colonel Elliott called me, or called my boss, and said, “Have Don come over.” So my boss said, “Colonel Elliott wants to see you.” Oftentimes he would call me for different things, and he wouldn’t bother my boss. I went over and he said, “Come with me a minute.” He opened the door into the vice chief’s office—General [John D.] Ryan was the vice chief, and there was a whole group of people in there.
General Ryan got up from his chair and stuck out his hand, and he said, “Congratulations. You are our new Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force.” It so shocked me that I went up and shook his hand and said, “Thank you very much.” I turned around, and I walked out of there.
Colonel Elliott grabbed me by the arm as I was going out the door, and he said, “Wait a minute. We have to have some pictures taken.” It just didn’t sink in what the hell he said.
Oh, that’s a great story.
I will never forget it.
The next question is...you were down there in the executive services when the first Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force was created. Was there any conflict between what you were doing and this office of the chief?
None whatsoever, because Paul Airey probably had the most difficult job. He had to establish the image of the position and the office itself, and he had to travel extensively, which he did. His primary emphasis was more or less with the senior noncommissioned officers at that time because it was all new, and they didn’t know too much about the position or anything else. So Paul did a great job in establishing the office, establish the image, establish the purpose. It was good.
My following Paul and having been at the Air Force, then I could concentrate on the issues, the policies, the programs, and could get to the younger people, which was necessary at that time.
When you were at the Executive Services Division, what was your observation as to how policy for enlisted men was created? I mean, as to, oh, the proficiency tests and promotions. Where did you see these things being generated in the Air Force that affected enlisted men?
Well, they were generated in the Air Staff. The DCS [deputy chief of staff]/personnel]—as far as I was concerned and through my observation—was the only one that I recall that was really effective and really pushed for the enlisted corps while I was assigned to that job, General [Horace M.] Wade.
He was the one that said the limitations on our promotional opportunities, especially at the higher grades, were ridiculous. At that time, I think through the grade of master sergeant it was some 10 percent of the total force. Of course, E-8 and E-9 was limited—2 percent for E-8 and 1 percent for E-9 by law. That was when the grades were established, but the lower grades were very low, and he was instrumental in getting approval from Congress to increase the grade of master sergeant to 13 percent, promotional opportunity.
He was also responsible for keeping the promotional flow going through the implementation of the up-or-out program. Even though today the up-or-out program has to be looked at very carefully because of our lack of resources and our lack of new manpower resources within our civilian communities, but at that time promotions were becoming stagnated. It happens during peacetime when people stay in, and the people at the top don’t get out; then it just filters back down so the promotional opportunities become less and less.
So it was General Wade who developed a study group to come up with this up-or-out program. In other words, if a staff sergeant could not get promoted to tech sergeant at the 20-year point, then he had to go. It was not a good program to the extent that there were an awful lot of staff sergeants whom I saw out there in the field who would have stayed in the rest of their lives. They would have died in the military. They were good in their job; they didn’t have the potential for promotion. They would never go beyond the grade of staff sergeant, and they would never do anything of any value outside of their particular specialty, but they were great. They loved the Air Force, and it was a shame that we had to arbitrarily move them out.
How did you feel that the Office of the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force, once it was created, was it a long time before it actually got to the point where it was being effective?
Well, I’ll express it in this manner. Each individual who has held that office has had the opportunity of increasing the effectiveness and the overall participation of the individual in the position to become more and more involved in the various aspects of the Air Force people programs. As I say, Paul Airey had a very difficult decision to make at the time he was in because it was during the Vietnam War in which we had a critical shortage of noncommissioned officers, and it was a point of making a decision in calling an E-3 a buck sergeant. That had a major impact on the force, and in some quarters, Paul was accused of doing something that was inappropriate, and another case it was great, but at that time, Paul was the first one, and he had members of the Air Staff briefing him and why it was necessary. I don’t think he had any real alternative except to support it.
Since then there have been changes. They didn’t like the term “airman second class.” So there have been a lot of changes as a result of this.
No, I think the Air Staff at that time got inputs from all over, but I don’t think the Air Staff, in a general sense—I say some of them did, but in a general sense—I didn’t think they really had a deep understanding of what the real needs of the enlisted people were.
Now, if you recall, we went through a period of time where the noncommissioned officers lost a lot of their authority.
While we are on the subject then, did you ever get involved in any study or what your personal view was while you were Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force about the idea of warrant officers?
That has been a sore subject ever since E-8 and E-9 positions were developed. One of the things that both Paul Airey and myself did, and even [CMSAF] Dick Kisling during our tenure in that position was to push for more authority by the senior noncommissioned officer.
See, when they created these two grades, all they did was promote you. They really didn’t give you any more authority. You couldn’t sign any official documents; you couldn’t make any major decisions. There were lots of things you just couldn’t do. You just had two more grades to go.
Based on what you were saying previously, you don’t think the warrant officer position was really, excuse the expression, “warranted” then?
The warrant officer in the Air Force really lost the overall concept of what the warrant officer was in the old Army. In fact, even in the Army today, the warrant officer is not what they used to be. The warrant officer used to be a highly qualified specialist who knew the directives, knew the programs, and everything else, and he was more or less utilized as an advisor and a key individual in various policies, programs, and everything else. That has since changed completely.
I will never forget when I was at ROTC [Reserve Officers Training Corps] duty at Southern Methodist University that the Air University put out a flyer as to what a warrant officer was. It said he was neither an officer nor an enlisted man.
That was their definition. (laughter)
He was unique in the fact that he was given a warrant for this position. We had one there, and I said, “Hey, you are neither fish nor fowl. What the hell are you?” (laughter)
We used to joke about it, but this became a very difficult thing. What do you do with a warrant officer in our structure? Now that the E-8 and E-9 positions were created in 1958, where does the warrant officer fit in? Do we have another supervisory level in here?
So it was the decision of the Air Force at that time to look at it very carefully and say, “Do we really need that position?” I suspect a lot of those positions were converted to the officer positions, although the E-8s and E-9s were, supposedly, to replace the warrant. Of course, the Army uses the warrant, primarily, today in flying.
How did the lower grades of enlisted people look on you and your office? Did they see you as part of the establishment, or did you really feel that you had some kind of rapport going with the individuals?
Well, my first, probably, six months on the job was difficult in the fact that I had to try to evaluate myself in that position and how effective I was with young people, because I spent more time with young people. I had a crewcut haircut, you know. So to a lot of them that maybe put up sort of a little front—this is a lifer. However, I made it a point to spend time talking and answering questions to groups of young people or talking to them individually. Many of them found out that I also had enough integrity where—I remember talking to an airman first class, three-striper, and I asked him how he was getting along. “Fine, but I’m getting out as soon as I can.” I said, “Why?” He said, “I want to let my hair grow.” I said, “You mean to say you would give up any opportunity you might have for advancement or more experience just to let your hair grow?” He said, “That’s right.” I said, “Then I wish you luck, because I suggest you do get out.” These people around me looked at me, but I was sincere. If that was his only hang-up, we didn’t need him. An attitude like that can hurt a lot of people.
This hair thing. I guess I’m just of the older generation already. Going through the publications back there in the Air Force Times, this hair thing just—
It was a big thing. We had a commander over in Hawaii that got chastised, and he finally—they didn’t take any further action except to raise hell with him, but you know, a lot of aircraft came in there with Army, Navy, and all kinds of troops on R&R [rest and recuperation], and he used to go out to these contract aircrafts. He didn’t care if it was Army, Navy, or who it was, if their hair wasn’t right, he would pull them off the damn plane. That only happened a couple of days when the word got out, and they called him up and said, “Hey, you cut that out before you have the whole Department of Defense on our ass.” But he was one of the old school.
What was the answer you would give why hair could not be long?
Well, in the first place, my basic philosophy was that we are charged with the responsibility of protecting the security of our nation. Secondly, for the most part, the American people have little confidence in the hippies and the people who now in this nation are defying the basic principles of democracy on which our nation was built. Third, if we are going to serve our nation, we have to portray an image that others will respect, and going around in a clean, nice uniform with long hair, that detracts from the true professional image of what we should be, it is just not right. Just because others do it, doesn’t mean we have to.
According to an interview you made in the Airman Magazine, it says, “The two most frequent gripes the enlisted men have are assignments and promotions.” This was in 1969. After you served there and got out, did that still remain predominant?
It still is—well, promotions, of course, will always be.
It’s always a case that, “This guy is a drunk; he spends all his time at the club. He gets promoted, and I am working hard and doing my job, and I didn’t get promoted.” The other thing is the fact that they still think, to some degree, that the WAPS system is not the fairest system, but it is the best system we have ever come up with. The number of congressionals dropped dramatically once we went into that program.
Where did that WAPS develop?
That was developed in the Air Staff, and it was held in abeyance for some time until the Congress got real upset because of the number of congressionals that was coming in. John Ford, the professional staff member on the House Armed Services Committee, talked with the people in the Air Staff and said, “We are going to have to hold some hearings on that.” At that time is when they told the Congress that they had developed the WAPS system, and the Congress said, “You had better do something quick,” and they did.
It started out in Alaska first, is that correct?
Yes. They tried it out in one command first; then by direction of Congress, they decided to put it in, after some refinements. It has worked out extremely well.
Why was there a reluctance on the Air Force to originally implement it?
It is like any new program. People don’t like change. They like what they know and they understand even though it is not the best. Something new adds to the problem.
Well, did you find yourself having to not only sell the office of the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force to the Air Staff as much as you had to sell it to the people you were supposed to be representing? Were you kind of in a lone situation there?
I think it was important for the people out in the field to understand the limitations of the job. I told them I was an advisor. “The things I find here I can take back and relate to the Air Staff some of the problems we encounter. I am not in the decision process; however, there are many policies and programs and papers that come through in which they ask my opinion, and as a result of these visits, I perhaps am in a better position to analyze them and give a better opinion.”
That’s why I worked with the Air Staff in that sense. As I say, with each individual who has filled the job, the importance and the involvement in the programs and everything else has increased steadily. Chief [James M.] McCoy is deeply involved in these programs.
In fact, to be honest with you, there was no such thing as an enlisted man ever going over and testifying before the Congress, absolutely unheard of. You don’t do that, even the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force. Paul Airey was over there with the Speaker of the House and was introduced, but that was it. It was a new job; it was a new terminology.
After I got into this job and had been over on the Hill and testified several times on several issues of importance to the Air Force, they got to realizing that maybe enlisted men were not completely stupid, and the last two Chief Master Sergeants of the Air Force have been over there in testimony. Of course, the Air Force prepares the testimony and tells them what to say, where the difference is that I prepare my testimony. I don’t have to go through the establishment.
I feel I have done the job in such a way that I respect the Air Force; I respect the Congress, and they have shown respect to me. So now, it seems the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force or the senior NCO does have the qualifications and can make a reputable appearance before that distinct body.
In 1970 they were talking about the all-volunteer force already, and of course, doing away with the draft. Did you, as the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force, get into the pros and cons of that in any way, shape, or form?
Oh, yes. In the first place, we have never been a service to have to draft anybody, so it really had no meaning to us in that sense. We felt that by going to the all-volunteer service when they were talking about increased pay and benefits, it would enhance all of the services, including the Air Force, so why oppose something that could better it?
But you have to also admit, though, that without the draft there was less than 100 percent incentive to join another branch of the service other than the Army. That obviously had to enter in, too.
No, not necessarily. You know, there are some people who are gung ho. They love the Army. That’s their life. They love that discipline.
Yes, but I mean to say, the fact that there was a draft certainly was an impetus for people to join the Air Force.
Yes, join the Air Force and also the Reserve. The concern was that we were not going to have those people volunteering for the Reserve, not for the Air Force.
Oh, you never felt the Air Force was suffering?
I don’t think the Air Force suffered. I felt there would be a very definite impact on those participating in the Reserve. A lot of people joined the Reserve because they were in school, college, or had a job so they wouldn’t have to be drafted, but they would still be fulfilling their commitment.
You say the Air Force didn’t benefit that much from the draft?
No, because we still had a lot of people that volunteered for the Air Force because we are a technical service. It was also that period of time in the early 1970s when even getting out of college, go to find a job, they would say, “What’s your experience?” And he didn’t have any. We picked up a lot of people in the Air Force that came in just to get the experience. So my personal concern was not that great.
Did you, then, after they started getting your field trip reports, would they call you down just to talk with you at all?
One time I happened to be going down the hallway and Secretary [of the Air Force, Robert C.] Seamans saw me, and he said, “Chief, how about coming in?” When I say “chief,” there is another thing that I think is very important to put in this history.
When the E-9s were called chief master sergeant, I felt we had to do something because they didn’t really have the importance of the job, it wasn’t significant. It was pay, promotion, and everything else, so I put in a recommendation that all E-9s be called “chief,” and that when E-9s answer the phone, they say, “chief so-and-so.” If it was a matter of being assigned to a joint command where you have Navy chiefs, you just say, “chief master sergeant so-and-so.”
I sent that up to General Ryan. Of course, he gave it to the staff, and finally he came back about a month later and said, “This may be done unofficially, but the regulation will not be changed.” The next trip was over in the Pacific.
Col “Don” Stanfield was the commander over at Ubon [AB, Thailand], hell of a guy with the troops; everybody loved him. [We were] sitting at the club, and I was telling him about this.
I got back from that trip, and as soon as I walked into the office, Mary “Mickey” Mortis said, “Hey, Chief, you are in trouble again.” I said, “Oh, Mary, what the hell is wrong now?” Colonel Stanfield had directed the next day, and they sent me copies of the daily bulletin, in which he said, “All E-9s will be addressed as ‘chief,’ and all E-9s that answer the phone will answer the phone as ‘chief so-and-so.’” And of course, somebody sent it to the chief of staff’s office, and it came down to our office.
Well, I expected a call—never got one, but that is what started it, and it picked up, and now the [regulation] is changed, and an E-9 is a chief. I have got to attribute this not just to my suggestion. I have got to attribute it more to the people who were selected and filled the job as senior enlisted advisors, because they enhanced that opportunity to get the title “chief.”
My impression is that the Air Force kind of stumbled into this senior enlisted advisor for the commands and so forth. It seems like one command did it and maybe another didn’t, and somebody said, “Well, let’s have one.”
Okay. Let me give you the background on that. At the time the first Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force was selected, there was a CMSgt Conrad Stephens who was assigned to MAC [Military Airlift Command]. He was one of the top three when Paul Airey was selected. In fact, he was recommended three times for the position, and he made it as one of the top three the first three times.
Never made it.
He never made it for reasons I would rather not say. After he was one of the top three the first time, General [Jack J.] Catton was commander of MAC, and General Catton sent a letter in stating he wanted to establish the position within MAC and have Conrad Stephens be called the chief master sergeant of MAC. That went to the Air Staff, and comments were that they felt it was wrong to be called the chief master sergeant of a command because the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force was such a new title that it could be easily misconstrued or perceived as being rather confusing.
At the time, I talked to General Ryan and others about having a senior or a chief at the command level. General [Robert J.] Dixon was very much opposed to it, because his concern was that we were going to set up a chain of command like the Army sergeant majors. The Army sergeant majors—I don’t know if they still have it—but they used to have the authority to hire and fire enlisted people, which to me was always wrong.
Anyway, General Dixon shot that down. So the suggestion was processed through. General Ryan said, “Well, I can’t dictate to major commander that they will have one. If they want one, that’s their decision.” At first, several of them didn’t want one, but as others got them and as these proved to be successful, and the four stars went to the Corona conferences where there was open discussion with nothing in writing, several of the generals persuaded the other commands that they should have one. “This is a benefit to you.” So that is how it really got started.
In 1970 and fiscal year 1971, too, what I was able to dig out was the retention rate for first-termers was the best it had been in over six or seven years. Do you recall that and why that was?
Well, I think the basic thing was that there was sort of a winding down of requirements at that time in the military, and there wasn’t that many opportunities in civilian life. I think it was the general idea that they wanted to hang onto what they had until they could find something better, plus the fact that we had a pretty good retention program instituted in the Air Force at that time to keep our quality people in. That’s the only thing I can attribute it to.
We talked a little bit about it, but in July 1971 the Air Force started the up-and-out system. Were you in favor of that?
At that time, yes. That was the only program that we could develop and implement at that time that would continue the flow of promotional opportunity.
How did the enlisted force take the up-and-out?
Well, the senior master sergeant that had 28 years in and had to leave, he wasn’t too happy. He would like to stay till 30 and the opportunity to make chief. I remember briefing some people over in England, and a senior master sergeant got up and talked to me. He said, “I have put in for retirement. I am going to retire when I get back to the States because there is no chance of my making chief and 28 years is coming up, and I am going to have to get out anyway.” I explained to him the purpose of it. He said, “Well, I don’t like it.” I said, “You think you are not going to have the opportunity to make chief. You will be eligible, but you have made the decision to retire. If you didn’t decide to retire, and wanted to take your chances to make chief, fine, but you made that decision, so don’t turn around and blame the Air Force just because you know that program exists.”
Have you changed your opinion of the up-and-out system since that time then?
Only to the extent that we should, which they are doing now, look carefully at the various grades and give them the opportunity to stay on if they are in a critical field that is needed. But you see, if you don’t have something that moves people on up, you have promotion stagnation, and when you have promotion stagnation, it usually develops in the staff, tech, and master area. Then you are not going to keep good, qualified, young people, and you have to have a certain percentage of the first-termers and the second-termers in relation to your career force in order to have an effective military.
What did you feel about the Senior NCO Academy?
Yes. I thought it was the greatest thing we ever did.
Is there any duplication there between that? I have read that it is kind of redundant. Each command has its NCO academy and then the Senior NCO Academy.
No. I think you will find the Senior NCO Academy provides the broader scope of staff work, a broader understanding of the same things the officers are trained for. As we talked before, there were the limitations within the enlisted corps as opposed to the officer corps. I think this—in fact, I know it broadens the individual and helps them move into that area. I think it is excellent.
Any educational system has to be looked at, at least on a yearly basis to fit the education to the circumstances and the environment that plays a part in it. Everything has to be relative. You can’t be teaching something for five years when changes cause you to look at it and say, “Hey, this doesn’t apply today,” or if it does apply, this is not the method in which you apply it. So there is a constant review and study not only of the Senior NCO Academy but all the NCO academies.
Let’s see, the Senior NCO Academy, it seems to me, started in about 1972. In fact, the building I was in down there at Maxwell AFB, Alabama, one end of it was the original cadre for it, headed by a Colonel Robert K. McCutchen, as I recall.
Yes, Colonel McCutchen. Actually, the first class graduated in January 1972.
Did you help form it in any way?
Oh, yes, I was very much involved in the formulation of that. In fact, I talked with the people in education because I didn’t like the term Senior NCO Academy. I thought it should have a little bit more of a higher educational title, like Noncommissioned Officer University or University for Senior Noncommissioned Officers, something like that; however, the reason that was not pushed—even though many people in the Air Force and Department of Education wanted to have a little higher class title given—there was a problem with the Congress, trying to get funding for it. The only way, actually, that funding was approved, the Air Force had to take some of the members of Congress who had questions about it and fly them to Gunter [AFB, Alabama] and actually give them a tour and explain to them why they were pushing for this.
They felt, and I agreed, that we couldn’t push it too much if we got the money and could get it going; that was important. Now, eventually down the road, I hope the term will be changed. I hope the title will be more fitting to the classification of the training that is given, but I’m delighted to see that we have it.
Were you involved in selecting your replacement in any way, shape, or form as Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force?
I was as advisor to the board during the selection process.
And the board was?
It was composed of a general officer and, I believe, five colonels with a broad representation, command wise, so they didn’t have any feeling that there was any prejudice in the selection process. I was merely sitting there as an advisor. I determined that I would not ask questions of the selectees even though I could. The president of the board said I could if I wished. I said I did not wish to because I did not want to give anyone of the selectees the impression that I was trying in any way to trip them up or cause them not to be considered as fully as any other. Oftentimes, unknowingly, you can ask a question that could, in their answer, be a little bit detrimental to their opportunity, so I didn’t.
The only thing I was asked after all met with the board, they asked me if I would like to make recommendations, and I said, “From knowing just about every one of the selectees and my observation and my dealings with them, I would be glad to put on a piece of paper, for the president’s view only, the three people I think would be most qualified to do the job,” and that was my only participation.
What was your greatest disappointment as Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force?
I think the greatest disappointment was that so many of the initiatives that the Air Force took and wanted to take were somewhat stymied because of the system. I was very pleased and proud of some of the initiatives that the Air Force was considering and discussing, but the system is such that it has to go through the secretary for approval; then it had to go to OSD [Office of the Secretary of Defense]. OSD sends it out to the other services to get their comments, and if they object, then it dies. It doesn’t go anywhere.
I also was disappointed in the fact that there was too much of the consideration that “we have to treat all of the services the same.” We have a different mission; we have a different management system; we have to have because of our mission requirements, and you can’t treat everything the same. This is one of the things that I have been very instrumental in talking with people on the Hill, especially the staff members. They were talking about the Guard and the Reserve technician program. The Army doesn’t want the technician program. They want active duty, and yet the technicians in our Air Force and our Air Force Reserve are providing stability and the continuity, which gives us a tremendous degree of readiness, because the weekenders can’t keep that up.
We mentioned the other day one of the questions I usually ask in interviews—if someone has a definition of leadership, or what you have found that seems to work quite well during your career in the Air Force, or what you found—is there such a thing as leadership? Can you train leaders?
Leadership has many variables. True leadership is the ability of an individual to recognize what motivates people and how to get the best out of people. Leadership does not necessarily mean knowing how and doing something yourself and expecting others to follow. Leadership is not something that is subjective in nature. It has to be objective. You can’t compare yourself with others; you can’t compare anything with anything else. You have to know the situation, and you have to be able to analyze the situation, understand it to the point that you can take advantage of it and not let that situation be an obstacle in your leadership ability.
It’s like discipline. The degree of discipline is a judgment factor. Leadership is the same way. You can take a class of students in any school, and you will find that perhaps you will get to a few of them in your teaching methods. But the real art of teaching is being able to recognize the problem with the others that you are not getting to, and to be able to adjust your teaching methods or system or whatever is necessary in order to bring them into the same environment with this other group.
It is a hell of a challenge. Man is the most complex mechanism in the world.