By Col. Michael J. Underkofler
514th Air Mobility Wing commander
8/14/2012 – JOINT BASE MCGUIRE-DIX-LAKEHURST, N.J. — Plastered across the pages of many magazines, blogs and newspapers last week were photos and stories about the untimely death of actress Marilyn Monroe 50 years ago.
Some authors went beyond just simply discussing her beauty or sexual exploits and opined she was actually quite brilliant. Sources said Monroe worked incredibly long hours, almost singlehandedly, to strategically manage her image to keep the public fascinated. These recent stories and photos have exposed the starlet to a new generation of Americans, many of whom will become similarly captivated.
Besides her beauty, Monroe was famous for her quips and sexual innuendos. When asked what three men she’d like to be trapped on a deserted island with, she responded Joe DiMaggio, Albert Einstein and Hoyt Vandenberg – her husband, the scientist and the Air Force general respectively.
Like Monroe, Vandenberg was incredibly good looking and was featured, albeit not often, on the cover of popular magazines. A West Point graduate and pilot, Vandenberg quickly advanced through the ranks, serving in key positions like the 9th Air Force commander, where he helped to plan the Normandy invasion. He also served as the director of Central Intelligence, the forerunner of the CIA.
Well-known in Washington’s social and political circles, Vandenberg was a gentleman and professional. Despite the daunting task, as the deputy commander of the air staff, along with the Army deputy, he helped carve the manpower, equipment and bases to subdivide the United States Air Force from the Army.
It could be characterized as the most amicable divorce ever, the model of cooperation and agreement. He was an easy pick to later become the vice chief and later the Air Force’s second chief of staff in 1948.
Vandenberg had style too.
He took a major role in designing a new uniform for the Air Force. President Harry Truman liked the idea but told Vandenberg he had to win over Congress.
To do so, Vandenberg and a colonel went to Capitol Hill in the suggested garb. Instead of Vandenberg making the pitch before the Senate Armed Forces Committee, the colonel did.
This was calculated as Vandenberg secretly dressed as a sergeant and kept quiet. When the colonel finished speaking he introduced the “sergeant.” Once the congressmen realized the ruse, they roared with approval and gave Vandenberg the go ahead for the new uniform
As chief of staff, Vandenberg labored on weightier issues too, such as doctrine, force strength and basing – every day a laundry list of tasks to be accomplished to make the Air Force a stronger service. This took a heavy toll on him, but he kept pushing forward.
Vandenberg also decided we needed an air-centric way to address Air Force enlisted personnel. No longer would the first five enlisted grades be referred to by the Army ranks of private, private first class, corporal, sergeant and sergeant first class.
On February, 20, 1950, Vandenberg directed that all Air Force enlisted personnel be called airmen with the first five grades shortly thereafter being addressed as basic airman, airman, airman third class, airman second class and airmen first class.
He wrote, “The habitual use of the term ‘airman’ should aid in distinguishing the enlisted personnel of the Air Force from those of the other services and in identifying them more closely with their chosen service in the structure for national defense.
Like most military members, Vandenberg spent much time away from his family. He sought ways to make his time with them precious and memorable. When his son graduated from West Point, the two of them went to Detroit and purchased a new car off the factory floor and drove it back to Washington. His son, who later became a general himself, said he cherished the time his father was able to carve out of his busy schedule to make that trip.
In 1952 President Truman nominated Vandenberg for a second term as chief of staff, but he only served until June 1953. The general with boyish good looks was ill and retired after serving 30 years in the military.
Sadly, he died of prostate cancer the following spring at age 55. The funeral procession from the National Cathedral to Arlington National Cemetery was one of the biggest in Washington with thousands lining the road to honor him.
Just like Marilyn Monroe, we lost a talent too early. Vandenberg’s life and service to the nation are incredibly instructive: hardworking, dedicated, visionary, professional, courteous and a family man are some of the things I think best describe him. Fortunately for us our military has had many great leaders – officers, enlisted and civilian alike – to learn from and to emulate.
The challenge for us is to make sure we tell their stories often so future generations are as captivated by them as they are of former blonde bombshells.