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75 years of American Airmen: Past, present, future

Coin and patch design created for Eighth Air Force's 75th anniversary. (U.S. Air Force graphic/Airman 1st Class J.T. Armstrong)

Coin and patch design created for Eighth Air Force's 75th anniversary. (U.S. Air Force graphic/Airman 1st Class J.T. Armstrong)

BARKSDALE AIR FORCE BASE, La. -- On Feb. 1, 1942, the history of today’s 8th Air Force began to write its story. With milestones such as the Doolittle Raid and Operation Linebacker II, it’s no surprise that the 8th Air Force made a lasting legacy and is known today as the “Mighty Eighth.”

Lining the corridors of the historic 8th Air Force headquarters building at Barksdale Air Force Base are photographs, paintings and mementos that illustrate to all Airmen who walk the halls the triumphant history and feats the Eighth has made over the past 75 years.

Today’s Mighty Eighth actually activated under the designation of VIII Bomber Command (BC) at Langley Field, Virginia, as part of an expansion of the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II. The VIII BC was a subordinate unit to the former 8th Air Force, today known as U.S. Air Forces in Europe that relocated to Savannah, Georgia, within days after settling in Virginia. Soon after, the VIII BC deployed to the European theater of operations where it found a permanent war-time home at the former Wycombe Abbey School for Girls in High Wycombe, England, under its first commander, Ira C. Eaker.

“Some monikers from WWII have stood the test of time and are still in use today across the command,” said Lane Callaway, 8th Air Force historian.

For example, the wartime codename for the VIII BC headquarters was “pinetree,” and now is the name of the command conference room in the Eighth’s headquarters building, where meetings address issues impacting worldwide operations and items of national interest.

However, with great feats also come trial and tragedy. From May 1942 to July 1945, the Eighth was responsible for America’s daylight and strategic bombing campaign against Nazi-occupied Europe. With this responsibility, the Eighth suffered large losses. Out of 115,332 troops, more than 47,000 were taken out of the fight, including more than 26,000 killed in action. With this, the Eighth's brave men, from general officer to enlisted, earned 17 Medals of Honor, 220 Distinguished Service Crosses and 442,000 Air Medals.

On Feb. 28, 1944, the VIII BC was given the official designation of 8th Air Force. By mid-1944, the Eighth received its nickname, the Mighty Eighth, in recognition of its strength and ability to send more than 2,000 four-engine bombers and 1,000 fighters in a single mission against enemy targets in Europe. The unit was composed of more than 200,000 people.

Finally in January 1975, Eighth Air Force moved to Barksdale, its ninth location and has since called the Bossier City and Shreveport area home. Barksdale also serves as the unit’s longest standing home station in its history.

While the Mighty Eighth was born into battle in the 1940s, its influence and impact can be seen spanning the post WWII and modern day eras.

The Mighty Eighth has participated in a string of contingency operations in support of bomber assurance and deterrence missions using the world’s most advanced and equipped bombers. Some examples being:

1. 1991: Gulf War involving the 2nd Bomb Wing
2. 1996: OPERATION DESERT STRIKE against Iraq
3. 1998: Operation DESERT FOX against Iraq
4. 1999: Operation ALLIED FORCE against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia -- bombers flew 325 sorties to drop over 7 million pounds of ordnance on enemy targets.

Even in today’s operations, Eighth Air Force’s bomber presence is felt globally.

The Mighty Eighth continues to maintain a continuous bomber presence in the Pacific where B-1s not only deter aggression, but assure our allies that the U.S. is committed to international security. In the Central Command region, B-52s carry out a bombing campaign against ISIS, ISIL forces. And the B-2 operates globally as well, most recently seen striking terrorist training camps in Libya.

“There is no doubt that Mighty Eighth forces are as relevant today as they were in the early years,” said Callaway.

Today, the 8th Air Force celebrates its 75th anniversary; 75 years of progression, strength, national assurance and pride. The Mighty Eighth commands the U.S. Air Force’s entire fleet of long-range, stealth and heavy-bombers, in addition to the recently added E4-B National Airborne Operations Center fleet.

To commemorate the occasion, bomber Airmen from across the country have gathered at Barksdale AFB for a special retreat and flyover. Additional scheduled events include a building dedication, memorial run, WWII veteran dog tag presentation and a gala hosted by a local support organization to commemorate the American Airmen of the Mighty Eighth.

Within the next decade, the Eighth will boast their newest capability -- the B-21 Raider -- a long-range strike bomber, named after the surprise attack against Japan during WWII in 1942 -- the Doolittle Raid. This bomber will play in allowing the Air Force to operate in tomorrow’s high end threat environment, and in providing the Air Force the flexibility and capability to launch from the continental U.S. and deliver air strikes on any location in the world. The Air Force plans to field the initial capability of the bomber in the mid-2020s.

“I am extremely proud to be part of a unit engrained with such a rich heritage,” said Maj. Gen. Thomas Bussiere, 8th Air Force commander. “From early on, Eighth Air Force has played a major role in our nation’s security, and we will carry that legacy into the future.”