‘59 graduate recalls Lowry AFB experience

  • Published
  • By Don Branum
  • Air Force Academy Public Affairs
The first Air Force Academy graduate to attain general officer rank spoke about his experiences at Lowry Air Force Base, which was the home of the Academy before the campus was finished in 1958, to some of 2nd Lt. Francis Lowry's descendants here Aug. 3.

"I walked through the gates of Lowry AFB on July 11, 1955, marched in by a bunch of NCOs," recalled retired Maj. Gen. Harold Todd during a history presentation. "An officer came up to me, and he didn't like a thing about me. There were all sorts of things he was personally going to fix."

Todd said he didn't realize at the time that the dressing down was part of "the welcome-home game." But for him, it didn't matter.

"If I didn't make it here, there wasn't a safety net," Todd said. "I'd be back in the ghetto."
He and 206 other young men did make it, however, thanks to what he called a transformation.

"It came from the people who had chosen to train us," he said. "These guys, as far as I'm concerned, are superstars. With the perspective of age and experience, I realized everything we had accomplished was because of them. We made them, the air training officers, honorary members of the Class of '59."

Todd was one of a few officers at the time who flew both fighters and bombers. He started in B-47 Stratojets but later flew B-52 Stratofortresses during the Vietnam War.
"We were flying from Guam most of the time, so it was a 13-hour round trip," he said. "That's a really long time."

Much shorter was his record as a Strategic Air Command standardization and evaluation officer, he said.

"I came in at 8 a.m., and I was fired by the wing commander at 1 p.m.," Todd said. "He wanted me to do something that wouldn't have been right. One of the things I learned here is that ethics isn't situational: It either is or it isn't right."

But Todd landed on his feet and went on to work for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: Gen. David C. Jones, whom Todd called "a great mentor and friend." Afterward, he served as the air defense commander at McChord AFB, Wash., which he called his most meaningful experience.

"The air defense business was not widely regarded," Todd said. "Air Defense Headquarters was known as an 'elephant burial grounds.' You can imagine the morale, enthusiasm and initiative a squad like that would have: The Air Force has said, 'You have no value,' just not in those words. They said we had no wartime mission."

That made no sense to Todd, who said he felt the Air Force shouldn't be in charge of something that had no wartime mission. So he set about to define one.

"European air forces are dispersed. They have their command and control set up so that if their main headquarters gets knocked out, their backup takes over," he said. "I went to my people, and I said, 'I want to charge you guys to prove the Air Force wrong. Figure out how we can operate in a dispersed environment, even in a nuclear environment.'

"These guys really weren't the bottom of the barrel. They came up with the most innovative ideas. They presented me with the capability to control forces for a limited time under any circumstances," Todd said. "That was the finest thing we'd ever done. These guys didn't just feel better about themselves -- they had earned the right to feel better about themselves. This bunch of 'losers' had done this for their country after being told they had nothing more to offer."

Todd's final assignment was at Maxwell AFB, Ala., where he was commandant of the Air War College and vice commander of Air University.

"Our students included officers from India and Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Israel, Turkey and Greece," he said, listing countries with a history of conflict. "But they were always professional. The things that divided their countries' attention didn't really get to them."

Christine Willson organized her family's visit. When she asked the Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce Visitor Center officials about a historic tour of the Academy, they recommended she talk to Jack Anthony, an Astronautics Department instructor and history aficionado. Anthony arranged to use the Visitor Center's meeting room, presented a brief 1950s-era video of Academy life and arranged for Todd to attend.

"We thought it would be a neat idea for people to come out here," Willson said. "We've learned more about the Lowry side of the family. It's important to my grandmother and father that we establish that connection."

Willson's family is related to Lowry through her grandmother, Davena Mackay Carson, who is Lowry's second cousin. Lowry, an aerial observer during World War I, was killed by German antiaircraft fire Sept. 26, 1918. Lowry Field opened in 1938, became Lowry AFB on June 24, 1948, and was closed Sept. 30, 1994.

Todd told the younger members of the family in attendance to define their own success.
"For some of you, a military career would really be a good thing. It's much more participatory now: There's more of a willingness to look at opposing views, which is something I learned here," he said. "For some, it's not going to be a good career. The opportunities for you are broader than they were for me, but so are the challenges. Take your school seriously -- decisions you make now are going to affect you the rest of your life. Life is a series of building blocks ... it begins with education."