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 Texas : Features : World War II :
WWII

IRA EAKER

From Covered Wagon to Jet-Age Air Power, Four Stars

by Bill Bradfield

During dark days of World War II when the bitter war was far from won, it was a Texas tenant farmer's son who took command of the U.S. Eighth Air Force in England, playing a key role in making the Normandy invasion possible.

Lt. Gen. Ira Eaker, a native of Llano County, was credited with building the Eighth Air Force from scratch to launch daylight bombing raids against German factories, eventually crippling Nazi war production. In 1944 he took over command of Mediterranean Allied Air Forces with more than 12,000 aircraft, and he was transferred in early 1945 to Washington as deputy Air Force chief under his longtime friend, Gen. H. H. "Hap" Arnold.

As "pioneer aviator and Air Power leader," General Eaker was awarded in 1953 the Congressional Gold Medal received by only five other airmen -- Orville and Wilbur Wright, Charles Lindbergh, Chuck Yeager and Billy Mitchell. The British soil from which Eaker's aircraft flew missions was a long way from Field Creek, the six-family community where Yancy and Dona Lee Eaker lived and where Ira, first of their five sons, was born. In 1906, when Ira was nine, the Eakers moved to Eden, Concho County, in a covered wagon. It took five days to travel the distance of about 100 miles. Three years later, when drought conditions parched Texas farms, the Eaker family moved to southeastern Oklahoma. They returned to Texas in 1922.

Ira graduated from Southeastern Oklahoma State University at Durant, and enlisted as an army private when the United States entered World War I. Transferred to the Signal Corps' aviation section, he trained as a pilot at Kelly Field in San Antonio. The war ended before he faced combat, but as a commissioned officer his career in military aviation was under way.

During the 1920s, Eaker made headlines with two innovative flights, one demonstrating a pilot's reliance on aircraft instruments over a long distance and the other demonstrating in-air refueling.

In 1927, piloting a P-12 fighter equipped with a baby-buggy canopy covering the cockpit, he made the first "blind" flight coast-to-coast while a companion plane flew nearby to verify that Eaker remained "hooded" for the full distance except on takeoffs and landings. Two years later, he was the chief pilot of the Question Mark, a Fokker tri-motor, which set a flight endurance mark that went unbeaten for many years. Rigged for refueling by a hose dropped from a Douglas C-1, the Question Mark logged 11,000 miles shuttling between San Diego and Los Angeles in its record 150 hours, 40 minutes and 15 seconds -- about six and one-quarter days -- of continuous flight.

When General Eaker retired from active duty after World War II, he remained in the aviation industry with senior executive posts at Hughes Aircraft and Douglas Aircraft. From 1964 to 1982, he wrote a weekly column for the San Angelo Standard-Times that was syndicated to seven hundred newspapers throughout the nation. In 1972, he was the founding president of the United States Strategic Institute. An act of Congress promoted him to four-star rank in 1985.

General Eaker died at Andrews Air Force Base in 1987 and was buried at Arlington Cemetery with full military honors.

February 2001
Published with permission of author
About the Author: Bill Bradfield is the author of Muleshoe & More and a frequent contributor to Texas Highways.

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