Special Operations News

Farewell, Founding Air Commando

ARLINGTON, VA Airmen gathered here Oct. 3 to render a final salute to retired Maj. Gen. John Alison as he was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery.

“We have lost a great American, a dear friend, and a committed and loving family man,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz said during a eulogy at the Old Post Chapel at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall. “And our nation has lost one of her most spectacular aviators.”

Schwartz said Alison’s humility was a constant theme throughout his life.

“‘Call me Johnny,’ he used to say,” Schwartz said. “This was so emblematic of his trademark humility that, except for the many testimonials from those who knew him, like this one today, we might even forget that this was a man of audacious undertakings and extraordinary achievements.”

Following the chapel service, Secretary of the Air Force Michael Donley presented the American flag to Alison’s wife Kathleen “Penni” at the graveside service.

Alison was born in Florida in 1912. He grew up in Gainesville, Fla., and graduated from the University of Florida in 1935 with an engineering degree. He enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps as a flying cadet in 1936 and was commissioned at Kelly Air Field, Texas, upon completion of his training in 1937.

A combat ace during World War II with seven confirmed enemy kills and numerous unconfirmed kills, Alison served as an assistant military attaché to the British Royal Air Force where he helped transition pilots to the P-40 Warhawk prior to the United States’ entry into the war.

He traveled to Moscow in October 1941 to serve as an assistant military attaché supporting the U.S.-Soviet P-40 lend-lease program and to train Russian pilots on P-40, A-20 Havoc and B-25 Mitchell aircraft. In June 1942, the China-Burma-India theater became Alison’s home as he joined the Flying Tigers’ 75th Fighter Squadron. His exploits included a take-off from his airfield while it was under attack, after which he quickly eliminated one enemy aircraft.

In 1943, Alison was selected by Gen. Henry “Hap” Arnold, head of the Army Air Forces, as deputy commander of the 1st Air Commando Group in the theater.

The American air commandos, along with British “Chindit” commandos, successfully performed Operation Thursday, the dramatic aerial invasion of Burma in 1944. Alison led a glider assault in that operation as the senior air officer present for the landings.

“His daring invasion deep into enemy-held Burma in 1944 was the quintessential example of where such leaders lead: from the front,” Schwartz said.

Despite never having flown a loaded glider before, he piloted a lead glider, packed with mules and special operations forces, to a very harrowing landing in the dense jungle, Schwartz added.

Alison left the service as a colonel in 1946. Later, he joined the Air Force Reserve and commanded the 452nd Tactical Reconnaissance Wing, rising to the rank of major general.

His awards include the Distinguished Service Cross, the Distinguished Service Medal, the Silver Star, the Legion of Merit, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal, the Purple Heart and the British Distinguished Service Order.

His dedication to the Air Force and special operations forces earned him several accolades. In 1994, he was inducted to the Air Commando Hall of Fame, and he was selected to speak for the Air Command and Staff College’s “Gathering of Eagles” in 1985, 2004 and 2009.

Also in 2005, he was enshrined in the National Aviation Hall of Fame and most recently was the first inductee into the U.S. Special Operations Command’s Commando Hall of Honor in October 2010.

“John exemplified how effective leaders properly lead — with intensity to be sure, but also with empathy and compassion,” Schwartz said. “Our nation and Air Force, which he so deeply loved and so faithfully served, will continue to benefit from his example and to move ever forward in his loving memory.”

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