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The Story of the Air Force Song

by Colonel Murray Green, USAF, Retired

On July 15, 1939, the U.S. Army Air Corps acquired performance rights to a stirring song that, just two days before, existed only inside the head of Robert Crawford, its composer. Before the first world war, the U.S. Army air arm had changed its name at least four times and was having trouble with its identity. For years, its leadership had sought a service song that would express some of the hell-bent-for-leather traditions and aspirations of aerial flight.

The other services were content in this department. What red-blooded Marine could doubt that he was among the select “few good men” when he marched off to the snappy cadence of From the Halls of Montezuma? What Navy salt, landlubber or shipborne, was immune to the strains of Anchors Aweigh, especially when rendered in a contrapuntally balanced version by Fred Waring and his Pennsylvanians? The Army’s caissons had been rolling along for years, though its sentiment was not exactly congruent with the self-image the Air Corps hoped to project.

In 1937, war clouds gathered over Europe, as Tin Pan Alley might phrase it. Brigadier General H.H. “Hap” Arnold, U.S. Army Air Corps, persuaded his boss, Major General Oscar Westover, chief of Air Corps, that airmen needed a musical expression of their separate identity. How about a song competition with a prize for the winner? A good idea, but the Air Corps then lacked any control of its own budget strings. Bernard MacFadden, magazine publisher for the masses, came to the rescue. Liberty Magazine would offer a $1,000 prize to the winning composer. Not a lot of money, even for those depression days.

General H.H. “Hap” Arnold
Major General Oscar Westover

Arnold’s modest concept included a volunteer music committee chaired by Mildred Yount, wife of Brig. Gen. Barton K. Yount, Air Corps training commander. Other members included Hans Kindler, National Symphony Orchestra conductor; Rudolph Gans and Walter Nash, all distinguished musicians in their own right.

The song-writing contest attracted no fewer than 650 entries, including offerings by young Meredith Willson, whose mature compositions were still some time in the future. With appropriate lyrics, his 76 Trombones might have made a run on the winner’s circle.

The judges were given two years, until July 1939, to select four or five finalists from which a winner might be chosen. As the weeks and months passed, the word got around Washington that none of the entries to date had set the committee on its collective musical ear.

General Arnold, meanwhile, was appointed chief of Air Corps in September 1938, after General Westover’s plane spun in. General Arnold, a man in hurry, actually solicited direct inquiries from contestants, though his competence in this field might be questioned. Back in June 1903, he actually had been voted class monotone upon his graduation from Lower Merion High School in Ardmore, Pennsylvania. A would-be song writer who mailed him a phonograph recording of something called Air Corps of Uncle Sam has preserved the general’s critique: “Pretty good, as music goes, but it doesn’t sound too hot for a bunch of men to sing-too damned hard.”

Entries Lack Promise

Leaving no tune unturned, Arnold contacted Irving Berlin, whose brilliant musical evocations had inspired the U.S. Army, indeed, all of America, during World War I. Berlin promised Arnold two songs. A blue-ribbon committee visited Berlin in New York to help him absorb some Air Corps lore. They even flew him about in a B-18 bomber.

But musical genius does not necessarily respond to external stimuli. On this occasion, the otherwise prolific composer did not produce a winner. No wonder, one Washington cynic remarked. The B-18 was a clunker foisted on the Air Corps by War Department budget cutters as a less expensive alternative to the B-17 Flying Fortress.

As it turned out, Irving Berlin’s efforts were ultimately put to good use. His music found its way into Moss Hart’s Winged Victory, a show produced on Broadway in November 1943, using military performers. It ran for six months before sellout audiences, and in 1944, was made into a movie.

As the July 1939 deadline approached, the music committee’s deliberations had produced no clear winner. Then, literally out of the “blue yonder,” Robert Crawford-“The Flying Baritone,” his friends called him-buttonholed Mildred Yount, urgently seeking an interview. The date was July 13. Crawford offered to sing for her a song he had composed, but just carried around in his head. Mrs. Yount was reluctant. The competition rules called for a manuscript to be submitted with each entry. But, as Crawford was enthusiastic and persuasive, she listened and was electrified by what she heard. Mildred Yount sat Crawford down and made him record the words and music on a blank score sheet. To be fair to the other contestants, she slipped Crawford’s rough manuscript, The Army Air Corps Song, into the middle of the pile the committee would review two days later at their final meeting.

Crawford was born in Alaska in 1899 to fortune-seeking parents attracted by news of the Klondike gold strike. Young Crawford, just seven, showed musical talent at a tender age and would entertain the rugged prospectors in a local cafe in Fairbanks. In appreciation, the miners would drop nuggets into the child’s fur cap.

For years, the Crawfords scratched out a living, moving about to follow the news of other gold strikes in the Yukon. There was not much of a life or an opportunity to educate their son. At 14, he was packed off to the “lower forty-eight” to live with relatives. In time, his guardians steered him to Case Institute, in Cleveland, where he might learn technical skills to help him make his way in the world. Crawford stayed a semester and two years later ended up at Princeton University, of all places, where he was accepted despite lacking academic credentials.

In four years, Crawford won a reputation singing in the glee club and performing in the famed Triangle Club’s musical productions. He graduated with a bachelor of science degree, but his heart was in music and in flying, which he had learned to do while at Princeton. He won a graduate fellowship at the Juilliard School of Music in New York and developed a respectable singing career. He would fly his own plane to concert engagements, thus the Flying Baritone label later pinned on him by Time Magazine.

Crawford learned of the Liberty-sponsored Air Corps song competition from a Princeton classmate on the magazine staff, hence his late entry and impromptu audition with Mrs. Yount.

Unanimous Winner

His entry was an instant and unanimous selection, a verdict good enough for Arnold, who set in motion plans to give the song exposure and invited Crawford to perform at the Cleveland air races during the coming Labor Day weekend. Crawford kicked off each day’s activities with a rendition on the public address system. He also performed on a national radio hookup.

At the final inaugural ball on Saturday night, September 2, Crawford received his $1,000 check from MacFadden, and brought 700 diners to their feet, cheering, when he concluded his rendition with a fortissimo flourish, -“and nothing can stop the Army Air Corps!”

For the assembled group, these lyrics had taken on fresh meaning. Twenty-four hours before, World War II exploded when Hitler sent his Panzer divisions crashing across the Polish border led by squadrons of Ju 87 Stuka bombers. If Hitler’s bid to conquer Western Europe and, ultimately, to dominate the world, were to be stopped, the U.S. Army Air Corps would play a key role in that effort.

Crawford’s song, like most new and unfamiliar music, did not catch fire with everybody. General and Mrs. Yount dined with Col. Charles Lindbergh, U.S. Army Air Corps, a few weeks after the Cleveland air show. Their friendship dated back to May 1927, when the “Lone Eagle” landed at Le Bourget Field in Paris. Then-Major Yount, U.S. Army Air attache to France, had raced onto the runway to be among the first to welcome the bone-tired pilot. The Younts screened him as best they could from the tidal wave of adulation that followed, and Lindbergh was grateful.

After their dinner on September 28, 1939, Mildred Yount, knowing of Colonel Lindbergh’s interest in aviation, played a record of Crawford’s song, told him of the circumstances of its success and waited for his response. It was no more than polite. Lindbergh expressed his true feelings in a diary entry published years later: “I think it is mediocre at best,” he wrote. “Neither the music nor the words appealed to me.” No doubt, Lindbergh’s impression was colored by his impression of MacFadden, publisher of loud magazines, shunned by the Lindbergh family after their tragedy. “Great music and great poetry are not likely to come from such a source,” he noted.

Arnold was an admirer of Lindbergh’s unsurpassed skills in aviation. He would risk his own career a couple of years later in an unsuccessful attempt to persuade President Franklin D. Roosevelt to restore Lindbergh to active duty. But Arnold decidedly did not share Lindbergh’s musical judgment. At his direction, the Chief of Air Corps’ petty cash drawer was drained to fund military band and ensemble arrangements to be distributed for performances around the country. Evidently, there was not enough money to underwrite copyrighting and publishing, so Crawford arranged with Carl Fischer Inc., a New York music publisher, to handle the song, with a performance release in perpetuity executed in favor of the U.S. government. Thus, the Air Force today, unlike the Army, Navy and Marine Corps, does not own its “official” service song.

Meanwhile, from 1939-41, Yount ordered command performances at every Air Corps training facility he supervised. Aviation cadets found the lyrics inserted inside their service caps. Each day, as pilot, navigator or bombardier candidates marched off to mess hall or classroom, they uncovered, holding the words before them, singing and keeping step to Crawford’s compelling cadence. Post exchanges (PXs) at air stations were directed to include the song in juke box inventories. PX managers were instructed: “If somebody wants to play something else, all right. But every single minute that the juke box is not playing a paid song, the Air Corps song goes on it.”

Song Takes Off

With that kind of impetus, any music with a modicum of merit was likely to take off and retain its popularity which this one did. Post-World War II, as the service gained legislative coequality with the Army and Navy, Crawford modified the lyric: -“and nothing can stop the U.S. Air Force.”

Looking back, it is to wonder about the controversy. Mildred Yount predicted the song would last, and during the past half century, it has entered the standard repertory alongside the other service anthems.

Though Crawford had died three years earlier, on September 1, 1964, the 25th anniversary of his song presentation, a plaque was dedicated at Ohio’s Cleveland-Hopkins Airport to honor the memory of the man whose composition was credited with recruiting thousands of men into the Army Air Corps.

Early on, Arnold hoped that singing or playing the song would “lend energy to tired minds and bodies.” That it succeeded is a reflection of his tenure. No detail that might affect the morale or professionalism of his wartime command of 2.4 million officers and men, the largest air organization ever assembled, was too small or insignificant to escape his personal attention.

The Air Force Song by Robert Crawford

Off we go into the wild blue yonder,
Climbing high into the sun;
Here they come zoomingto meet our thunder,
At ’em boys, give ‘er the gun(give ‘er the gun now!)
Down we dive spoutingour flames from under
Off with one helluva roar!
*We live in fame or go down in flame, hey!
Nothing’ll stop the U.S. Air Force!

Minds of men fashioned a crate of thunder,
Sent it high into the blue;
Hands of men blasted the world asunder;
How they lived God only knew!
Souls of men dreaming of skies to conquer
Gave us wings, ever to soar!
With scouts before and bombers galore, hey!
Nothing’ll stop the U.S. Air Force!

Here’s a toast to the host of those who love the vastness of the sky,
To a friend we will send a message of his brother, men who fly
We drink to those who gave their all of old;
Then down we roar, to score the rainbow’s pot of gold
A toast to the host of men we boast, the U.S. Air Force!

Off we go into the wild blue yonder,
Keep the wings level and true.
If you’d live to be a gray-haired wonder
Keep the nose out of the blue!
Flying men guarding the nation’s border,
We’ll be there, followed by more!
In echelon we carry on, hey!
Nothing’ll stop the U.S. Air Force!

Copyright © 1939,1941,1951 by Carl Fischer, Inc., New York. Copyrights renewed. All rights reserved.

*There are three authorized variations of this line of text. The first two rhyme with “Army Air Corps” and the third rhymes with “U.S. Air Force.”
1. “Off with one helluva roar!” (original)
2. “Off with one terrible roar!”3. “Off on one heck of a course!”


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