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Hubert R. Harmon: Airman, Officer, Father of the Air Force Academy

Hubert R. Harmon: Airman, Officer, Father of the Air Force Academy by Phillip S. Meilinger. Fulcrum Publishing, 2009, 392 pp.

The structures in the cadet area of the US Air Force Academy (USAFA) are named for Airmen who seem to personify the function of those edifices. Buildings affecting cadet life, such as the dormitories, dining hall, and social center, carry the names of air war heroes (e.g., Lance Sijan), airpower combatant commanders (e.g., Hoyt Vandenberg and Hap Arnold), and airpower visionaries (e.g., Billy Mitchell). The academic buildings are named for prominent Air Force educators (e.g., Muir Fairchild and Robert McDermott). It seems appropriate, then, that the administration building carry the designation Harmon Hall as a testament to Lt Gen Hubert R. Harmon’s organizational talents, which proved critical to the establishment of this academy. As his biography points out, a career that included an unremarkable combat and command record but a sterling background in staff work and diplomatic assignments prepared him well to be the “Father of the Air Force Academy.”

Just as Harmon was the right choice for the job as USAFA’s first superintendent, so is Phillip Meilinger the correct historian to pen Harmon’s biography. In light of his experience as a cadet, an instructor pilot, and a member of the history department faculty for two tours at the academy, Meilinger brings a unique and personal perspective to Harmon’s life. Renowned as one of the most prolific writers on subjects concerning airpower, Meilinger has also written a biography of Gen Hoyt Vandenberg, who served as Air Force chief of staff during the long and arduous legislative process to establish the USAFA. The author’s extensive research includes not only official documents but also personal papers, diaries, and interviews provided by the Harmon family. These insights into the general’s life allow the reader to have a fuller sense of the man previously known primarily from his professional reputation. Furthermore, Meilinger provides an excellent historical context to the formative events that shaped Harmon, as well as thorough but concise explanations of airpower theory for readers unfamiliar with the evolution of Air Force doctrine.

Meilinger portrays the general’s career as one of missed opportunities for professional advancement through combat commands. Stateside duties and illness prevented Harmon from experiencing combat in World War I, and his assignments in the strategically important but largely nonhostile Caribbean theater during World War II kept him away from most of the fighting. By the time he finally got an assignment as commander of Thirteenth Air Force in the Pacific, the fighting had largely moved westward. Consequently, his five-month tour failed to challenge his combat command skills sufficiently. In all of his assignments, however, Harmon displayed an aptitude for organizational ability. This trait, which made him an exceptional staff officer, would ultimately better serve him in his future efforts to establish the academy and in his later stint as superintendent. Marrying into high society refined his social skills, which Harmon would find useful in his diplomatic assignments in London and at the United Nations, as well as his relations with Congress and high government officials. His tours on the Air Staff in Washington were instrumental in his learning to navigate the bureaucratic labyrinth of government and the intricacies of the legislative process, which would prove critical in obtaining congressional authorization for the USAFA.

In his attempt to burnish Harmon’s credentials in establishing and leading the Air Force Academy, however, Meilinger stretches the point somewhat when dealing with the superintendent’s academic prowess. Although he recognizes that Harmon was not an educator, the author maintains that the general’s experience not only as a West Point cadet and tactical officer but also as a student at several military schools and a commander of training schools helped prepare him to form the USAFA’s academic program. Granted, Harmon had some general ideas on instituting an air-centric curriculum that included more emphasis on the humanities and social sciences than he experienced at the US Military Academy, but his emphasis on a core curriculum bereft of academic majors reveals his strong ties to the West Point model. Moreover, Harmon’s lack of experience in higher education policy and curriculum development meant he could offer little academic expertise as his incompetent first dean of faculty struggled to establish the initial academic program and prepare the academy for accreditation. After the dean’s dismissal, Harmon assumed the position himself even though he had precious little experience for the job. Fortunately, Col Robert McDermott, the vice-dean, was more than up to the task of gaining accreditation and would make the USAFA’s academic program a model for the other service academies. Meilinger does hold Harmon accountable for faculty and admission problems experienced during the academy’s first two tumultuous years at its provisional location at Lowry Field in Denver—difficulties that the author attributes to the superintendent’s temporary status, failing health, and easygoing leadership style. Finally, Meilinger emphasizes the warm relationship Harmon had with his cadets; however, save a moving reminiscence in the foreword by 1959 graduate and former superintendent Lt Gen Bradley Hosmer, now retired, no other testimonials by former cadets appear in the book.

The final chapters are as much a history of the congressional authorization process and early years of the academy as they are a biography, for Harmon’s role was inextricably linked to every aspect of the USAFA’s development. It is indeed unfortunate that Harmon passed away prior to seeing completion of the construction of his academy at its permanent location near Colorado Springs, for it has become a monument to the general’s life.

Although Airmen rightly revere their air warrior leaders who have advanced air and space power and have met the challenge as combatant commanders and managers of violence, Hubert Harmon stands as a reminder that the Air Force also owes much of its success to the unsung administrators, organizers, and builders who often toil away in mundane offices behind nondescript desks in relative obscurity. This biography is as much a tribute to these Airmen as it is to the Father of the Air Force Academy.

Dr. John F. Farrell

Dr. John F. Farrell

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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