You might say Jack Van Loan joined the Air Force because of his mom.
Growing up in Oregon during World War II, Van Loan watched as his mother, Lillian, brought some interesting guests to town. He remembers first lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Henry “Hap” Arnold, the general who commanded the Army Air Forces.
They came to see the B-17 mechanics Lillian Van Loan trained at the vocational school she managed in Eugene, S.C.
This week, when the Air Force turns 50, the Columbia businessman will pause to reflect on his calling.
On May 20, 1967, Van Loan’s F-4C fighter was shot down over North Vietnam as the United States mounted its aerial assault against communist forces. Until his release in March 1973, Van Loan was tortured and moved between seven Hanoi prisons.
His family did not hear from him for more than two years, and he endured around-the-clock torture that no training manual could ever describe.
Today, his love for the Air Force and the people he served is unwavering.
“I never believed the American people would forsake me, and I never felt I’d be left behind,” said the 65-year-old Van Loan, who runs a water-treatment company and stays in touch with many of his old Air Force friends.
The story of the modern Air Force is filled with many such triumphs and tragedies, from the giddy success of the Berlin Airlift in 1948-49 to the painful lessons of Vietnam.
In South Carolina, the Air Force, and its predecessor, the Army Air Forces, have a long and storied past. During World War II, South Carolina helped shape the future and the fabric of the modern Air Force.
The “Doolittle Raiders,” a band of B-25 pilots who launched a daring attack on Tokyo in 1942, first trained in Columbia for the top-secret mission. The group was later credited with helping turn the tide of war, forcing the Japanese Navy into a defensive posture after its stunning early successes.
The state launched other heroes, too. Later in the war, many of the famed “Tuskegee Airmen,” a group of black fighter pilots who fought racist stereotypes, trained at a base in Walterboro, S.C.
South Carolina maintains strong ties to the military’s youngest service. Though it lost Myrtle Beach Air Force Base to Pentagon downsizing in 1993, South Carolina is home to large bases in Charleston and Sumter, as well as nearly 20,000 Air Force retirees.
Charleston Air Force Base’s cargo planes, including the Air Force’s new C-17, fly military and humanitarian missions around the world. And from Sumter’s Shaw Air Force Base, commanders run the ongoing aerial patrol of Iraq, keeping Saddam Hussein’s military in check.
Though it is by far the youngest of the military branches, the Air Force has seldom sat idle. Jeff Feinstein, a 28-year Air Force vet who retired at Shaw last year, believes his service was instrumental in winning the Cold War.
“The part of our military that the Russians feared the most was our air power,” said Feinstein, who left the service as its last combat “ace” after shooting down five enemy planes in Vietnam.
It is hard to divorce military airplanes from modern life.
From the factories that helped the United States win World War II sprang the most advanced commercial aviation industry in the world.
And much of the 50-year Cold War that defined American life was fought in the skies over Europe and the Pacific, where airmen deterred Soviet attacks with bombers carrying nuclear arms.
Steve Halpin, a 74-year-old Air Force retiree in Surfside Beach, S.C., wrote some of that history. A B-25 bomber pilot in World War II, Halpin later flew C-54 cargo planes in the Berlin Airlift and piloted B-52s carrying atomic weapons.
It was in Germany in 1948 that he first learned how the Air Force could change world events. After the Soviet Union blockaded the Westerncontrolled zones of Berlin in 1948, President Harry Truman ordered a military airlift of supplies to help the people survive.
For one year, the United States and European allies flew cargo planes into Berlin at the rate of one every two minutes. Halpin made nearly 100 flights, carrying 20,000 pounds of coal each time.
In the 1950s, Halpin spent eight years flying nuclear bombs on alert to help deter the Soviets from launching their own attack on the United States.
Today, Halpin works to help Air Force veterans in Horry County, S.C., get medical treatment.
Rosalie Chambers understands those pressures and the tragedy of real wars. Her father, who flew P-51s, F-86s and F-104 fighters for the Air Force, was killed in Vietnam.
She nonetheless followed him into the service and, before leaving five years ago, was among the pioneering women working in nuclear missile silos. Chambers toiled six stories underground in gigantic concrete bunkers, where she was the first woman in her squadron to command a cluster of Minuteman III missile crews.
Chambers remembers the Air Force as a good place to work, and also as a place that gave women a chance at meaningful jobs.
When Chambers applied to work with nuclear weapons, she remembers telling a psychologist who screened her for the job that she “didn’t know anything about missiles.”
His response, she recalls, put her work in perspective.
“He said: ‘It’s really boring. You just sit there and guard the world.”’
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: WILD BLUE YONDER A short history of military aviation and the Air Force: 1909: The Army purchases its first plane from the Wright brothers. 1926: Congress establishes the U.S. Army Air Corps. 1941: Congress establishes the Army Air Forces. 1945: An American B-29 drops the first atomic bomb. 1947: The Air Force becomes a separate service, severing ties with the Army. 1962: An Air Force U-2 photographs Soviet missiles being sent to Cuba. 1991: The United States uses stealth and massive air power to defeat the Iraqis.