When we were in the Service

Refueling over SEA

I’ve noticed in recent years, I often refer to the time that I was in the Air Force as when “we were in the Air Force.”

This is not surprising as being an officer, 50 years ago,  meant that your wife was for all practical purposes in the service as well.  To be promoted 50 years ago, one had to be married and have an active spouse who participated in the various activities that officers’ wives were expected to do.   That meant being a member of the wives club and being active in community services on the base such as helping with the child care and chapel. This really was the old military when a wife was expected to devote herself to her husband’s career, it was  a partnership and while many today will not understand this, it was the accepted norm for military service almost from the founding of the nation.

That is not to say this was a good thing.  Many women wore their husband’s rank:  they were Mrs. Colonel Smith and one did not forget this fact.  Nor did they let you.  They had devoted so much of their life to the military, they expected to be treated well.  They sacrificed a great deal in their lives to achieve the status of Mrs. Colonel.

To be blunt, the pay of most  junior officers was very low, and the housing provided was only the most basic, cinder block quarters.  Many of these women had to put up with their husbands being gone for long times, when they were left alone to deal with children, homes,  and any problems.   During our “career”  we moved seven times in 21 years.  That meant picking up, moving children in schools, and setting up a new household.  This was something that most civilian wives never had to deal with.

Lastly, if a military wife was married to an aircrew member there was always the chance that when her husband went to work — he would not return.  I have written about our time in Alaska when a captain assigned to my unit flew a training mission, had fuel problems, and had to dead stick the F4 in.   He survived the landing, but in the process, the ejection seat blew and he was fired up through the canopy of the aircraft and died from a concussion.   This was a peacetime mission, not combat.   How many civilian women saw their husbands off at the station  in the morning at the “Kiss and Ride”  and didn’t pick them up that evening.  When one flew, one was never certain what the day would bring. And if the person died, a wife was expected to not show emotion, but soldier on.

So there were in effect an unwritten set of expectations  that were entered into by the military and the men and their wives.   If Mrs. Colonel Smith wore her husband’s rank; she felt that she had earned it.   And  the military in turn provided a group of like minded friends who understood the situation as no outsider could.   In the old military that still existed until the 1980s, it truly was a case of “we” being in the service…





About jenorv

John E. Norvell is a retired Air Force Lt Colonel, decorated air combat veteran of the Vietnam War, and former Assistant Professor of American and Military History at the U.S. Air Force Academy. He has written freelance for the Washington Post, the Middle Tennessee Journal of Genealogy and History, and for several newspapers around the country.
This entry was posted in American History, Bolling AFB, F-4 Phantom II, F4 emergency, Military history, Norvell Family History, US Army, US Army Air Corps, US Navy, Veterans and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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