Nathan Twining’s remarkable 44-year stint with the Army and Air Force wouldn’t have happened if not for his own test anxiety. Twining, whose middle name honors the famous U.S. Navy Admiral David Glasgow Farragut, had originally wanted to become a naval officer. He failed the entrance examination for the Naval Academy at Annapolis, however, and had to attend the Army’s West Point instead.
- In February 1942, Twining became Assistant Executive for the Chief of the Air Corps and in May was appointed director of war organization and movement for the chief of the Army Air Forces.
- He was named commanding general of the 13th Air Force in January 1943. He was appointed commander, in the Solomon Islands on July 25th of that year and placed in control of all Army, Navy, Marine and Allied Air Forces in the South Pacific, one of the first joint air commands in U.S. history.
- He assumed command of the 15th Air Force in Italy in November 1943 and two months later also became commander of the Mediterranean Allied Strategic Air Forces.
- On August 2nd, 1945 he became commander of the 20th Air Force in the Pacific Theater; his command directed the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. In August 1957, Twining was promoted to chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the first airman to hold the position.
A career Air Force officer who climbed his way through the ranks from private to four-star general, Nathan Farragut Twining, as his middle name indicated, was originally interested in the Navy. His family placed high hopes on him to become a career naval officer, in keeping with his family’s tradition of service in the Navy.
Nathan Farragut Twining was born in Monroe, Wisconsin on October 11th, 1897. A handsome young man, he grew up in a predominately Navy family. He attended the public schools in Monroe and then later in Portland, Oregon. His younger brother, Merrill Barber Twining, did follow tradition and graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1923. He later rose to the rank of lieutenant general in the Marine Corps and served as Commandant of the Marine Corps School at Quantico, Virginia until his retirement in 1959.
Nathan Twining chose a different approach to his military career. He began his active service in June 1916, when he joined the Oregon National Guard as an enlisted man serving with Company H of the Third Oregon Infantry. His first real active duty call came that year when he served as a corporal on Mexican border duty with the Third Oregon Infantry until September 1916.
In March 1917, the Army again recalled Twining to active duty as a sergeant with the Third Oregon Infantry, and he was promoted to First Sergeant the following month. In May 1917, he received an appointment through the Oregon National Guard and entered the United States Military Academy at West Point. He graduated in November 1918, and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Infantry. However, he remained at the Academy, assigned as an officer cadet until June 1919.
With the end of World War I, Twining went to Europe in July 1919, where he joined the American Forces in Germany as a military ground observer. In this capacity he toured the battlefields in Germany, Belgium, France and Italy.
Twining returned to the United States and entered the Infantry School at Fort Benning, Georgia in September 1919. He received a promotion to first lieutenant on January 1st, 1920, and in June of that year graduated from the Infantry School and received orders to the 29th Infantry Regiment at Fort Benning.
In February 1922, Twining became an aide to Brigadier General B.A. Poore and served with him at Camp Travis, Texas; Fort Logan, Colorado; and Fort Sam Houston, Texas. Twining reverted to the rank of second lieutenant on December 15th, 1922. Twining began his aviation career in August 1923, when he entered the Primary Flying School at Brooks Field, Texas. He was promoted to first lieutenant again on November 20th, 1923. He earned his wings and graduated from the Advanced Flying School at Kelly Field, Texas in September 1924. He then returned to Brooks Field as a primary flying instructor.
On November 16th, 1926, Twining officially transferred from the Infantry to the Army Air Corps. In September 1927, he was assigned to March Field, California, where he served as a flying instructor. General Curtiss E. LeMay told one story about Twining’s days as an instructor. LeMay’s classmate at March Field, Cadet Ivan L. Farman, was assigned to Twining. “Nate” put Farman through a check flight involving a series of acrobatics, after which they came in for a landing. In those days the procedure used between the instructor and his student, if the airplane made too much noise for them to converse in the air, was a series of standard type hand signals. If the instructor, for example, jerked his thumb back over his shoulder, it meant that the student was to take over the controls immediately. If the instructor didn’t do this, the student wasn’t to touch the controls under pain of probable expulsion from the Air Corps.
On the day in question, when Twining and Farman had completed the check session and the noisy plane began its landing approach, Farman dutifully watched for the thumb signal from Twining that meant he should take over the controls, complete the approach and land. Seeing no such signal, he waited nervously as the plane began losing altitude at an alarming rate with its tail abnormally high in the air. As the ground rushed to meet them, still instructor Twining did nothing, but Cadet Farman broke into a sweat. Finally, unable to control the fear rising within him, Farman grabbed the controls and hauled back hard on the stick. He certainly didn’t intend to be a sitting dodo in a preventable crackup. Fortunately, the plane’s wheels touched the ground like a feather. After Farman taxied the plane to the line and cut the engine, Twining got out slowly, turned and looked inquiringly at his student and asked in a voice filled with disbelief, “Do you always make a landing like that?” With a quivering voice Cadet Farman replied, “No, sir. But I’m sorry, sir. You didn’t tell me to take over the controls and we were getting down there on the deck and I got scared and I just grabbed for the controls.” Twining stared at his student in disbelief. In fact, his eyes were bulging when he said in a low steely voice, “For God’s sake, don’t tell anyone about this, ever! I utterly forgot to signal you to take over the controls”. Perhaps this incident is why Twining went to Hawaii in February 1929, to join the 18th Pursuit Group at Schofield Barracks, where he served successively as adjutant, personnel officer, headquarters detachment commander and then commanding officer of the 26th Attack Group.
In March 1932, Twining returned to the United States for duty with the Third Attack Group at Fort Crockett, Texas, where he served as a squadron commander. In August 1932, he joined the 90th Attack Squadron and a month later the 60th Service Squadron, all at Fort Crockett.
In February 1934, Twining became the engineering officer for the U.S. Army Air Mail Service’s Central Zone of operations in Chicago, Illinois. In June 1934, Twining returned to Fort Crockett, Texas where he became adjutant to the Third Attack Group. While there, he coached the post’s football team for two years. Twining went to Barksdale Field, Alabama in March 1935, as Assistant Operations Officer of the Third Wing and was temporarily promoted to captain on April 20th, 1935.
In August 1935, Twining entered the Army Air Corps Tactical School at Maxwell Field, Alabama. When he completed the course the following year, he entered the Command and General Staff School at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas and graduated in June 1937. He became the Air Corps’ Technical Supervisor at the San Antonio Air Depot at Duncan Field, Texas in July 1937, and while stationed there was temporarily promoted to major in October 7th, 1938.
In August 1940, Twining was assigned to the office of the Chief of the Air Corps in Washington, D.C., where he served as Assistant Chief of the Technical Inspection Division. Three months later he became Chief of the Technical Inspection Section in the Office of the Chief of the Air Corps. These were somewhat mundane jobs, but heavy in detail. They were also important duty for a man with Twining’s destiny and earned him promotion to lieutenant colonel on July 22nd, 1941.
Following the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Twining joined the Operations Division at Army Air Corps Headquarters in December 1941, and was promoted to colonel and named Assistant Executive in the office of the Chief of the Air Corps in February 1942. In May of that year, he became Director of War Organization and Movement in the office of the Chief of the Army Air Forces.
On June 17th, 1942, Twining received his promotion to Brigadier General and went to the South Pacific as Chief of Staff to Major General M.F. Harmon, Commanding General of U.S. Army Forces in that area, in July 1942. Within six months after Pearl Harbor, the organization of American airpower in the Pacific began to take shape in a gigantic ring around the periphery of Japanese conquest. Men, aircraft, and units poured out of U.S. training bases and onto airstrips newly scraped from the soils of the Southwest Pacific islands.
Twining became Commanding General of the new Thirteenth Air Force and first set up his headquarters on Espritu Santo in the New Hebrides. However, he soon moved his headquarters to New Caledonia and began operating in the Solomon Islands and the Bismarck Archipelago. Called the “Jungle Air Force,” for the tropical jungle was to be its home for the entire war, the small, but hard-hitting Thirteenth became the strong right army of Kenney’s Fifth Air Force.
Not long after he took command of the Thirteenth Air Force, Twining’s B-17 was forced down in the Coral Sea off the New Hebrides on February 26th, 1943. He and his combat flight party of eight officers and seven noncommissioned officers took to life rafts and spent five days and six nights adrift. Their diet during this time consisted of chocolate candy, half a sardine per person each second and fifth day, and the partially digested hors d’oeuvre of an albatross. They were finally rescued on February 1st, 1943, by a Navy PBY patrol plane.
Promoted to major general on February 5th, 1943, Twining moved his Thirteenth up to Guadalcanal to work with the Marines. After the U.S. capture of Guadalcanal, the military turned its attention toward other Japanese strongholds in the Solomons. In a move to place Twining’s forces under the overall command of Admiral Nimitz’s Pacific Ocean Air Forces, Admiral Halsey signed an order in July 1943 that made Twining Commander of Aircraft in the Solomon Islands and put him in tactical control of all the hard-fighting Army, Navy, Marine and Allied Air Forces in the South Pacific. This was one of the first Joint Air Commands in United States history.
Twining’s Thirteenth Air Force now joined Marine and Navy air units in the campaign for the capture and occupation of key bases in the Solomons, including New Georgia, the Treasury Island off Bougainville, and the Empress Augusta Bay region of Bougainville itself. The winning of these bases sealed off the bypassed Japanese remaining in the Solomons, as the drive toward the Japanese home islands began to gain momentum. When the Northwest African Air Force and the Mediterranean Air Forces merged in November 1943, Twining came from the South Pacific to take over the Fifteenth Air Force in Italy and engineered the heavy bombing raids on the Axis-held Balkans and the Romanian oil refineries at Ploesti.
In January 1944, in addition to his other duties, Twining became Commanding General of the Mediterranean Allied Strategic Air Forces. In this job, he had a leading role in the eventual air victory in Europe during World War II.
After V-E Day, Twining received a promotion to lieutenant general on June 5th, 1945. He returned to the Pacific Theater as Commander of the Twentieth Air Force on August 2nd, 1945, and directed the final air strikes against Japan. His command dropped the first atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, bringing to a quick conclusion the war against Japan.
After V-J Day, Twining returned to the United States in October 1945, and was stationed briefly at the Continental Air Force Headquarters at Bolling Field, Washington, D.C. In December 1945, he became Commanding General of the Air Materiel Command at Wright Field, Ohio. After two years in this command, he became Commanding General of the Alaskan Department on October 1st, 1947. Three weeks later he was named Commander-in-Chief of the Alaskan Command with his headquarters at Fort Richardson, Alaska. He became a permanent major general on February 19th, 1948.
Twining returned to Washington in July 1950, to become Deputy Chief of Staff for Personnel at Air Force Headquarters. On October 10th, 1950, he was appointed Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force and made a full general. Twining directed the essential moves to convert much of the Air Force from propeller to jet-powered aircraft.
General Twining’s 30 years of service placed him in good stead beginning on June 30th, 1953, when he was named Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force, succeeding General Hoyt Vandenberg. For the next four years Twining faced a period of normalcy and budget cutting. Even so, his tenure was a critical period in the history of the Air Force. President Eisenhower appointed Twining to sit on the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics and he served on that panel until 1957.
From a low point in combat and troop carrier wings at the outbreak of war in Korea, the strength of the Air Force climbed steadily. By the time Twining became Chief of Staff it reached 106 Wings. The buildup had been due to the demands of the war and the possibility of its escalation. When the Joint Chiefs of Staff took a long look at the existing and planned strengths of the services, Twining played an important role in gaining Defense Department approval for a new Air Force program, adopted in the fall of 1953, which called for expansion to 137 Wings.
Although he was a firm believer in a continuing high level of research and development, Twining was particularly aware of the human factors of air operations. He believed that the ability of the Air Force to perform its mission depended greatly on whether or not it could retain experienced technicians and sought better methods of training for the high skill levels the modern Air Force needed. “We speak continually of the importance of scientific and technological breakthroughs”, he said. “I know of no single breakthrough that I would trade for the assurance that the USAF would get and be able to keep the skilled men it needs in the years ahead”.
General Twining insisted that war machines were only an extension of man’s powers. Readiness could be reached only when the men who manned the aircraft and other Air Force weapons were adequately trained. Under Twining’s leadership, the Air Force conducted considerable research and development activity. On September 1st, 1953, the Air Force advanced aerial refueling when a KB-47 tanker refueled a B-47 in the first jet-to-jet fuel transfer. On October 10th, 1953 the G-26 ramjet-powered prototype NAVAHO missile made its initial flight.
Later that same month, the F-102 supersonic fighter flew for the first time. On December 12th, 1953, Major Charles E. Yeager flew the Bell X-IA research plane to a speed of 1,612 miles per hour, a step toward the Mach II goal for aircraft that the Air Force would make operational only a few years later. Twining believed that the Soviet Union, which had long surpassed the United States in quantity and production of aircraft, also had jumped ahead in the speed with which it developed new aircraft models.
One reason for this was that the Soviet schools graduated more than 50,000 engineers in 1954, while American universities graduated only 20,000, fewer than half the number that the nation’s industrial establishment and government needed. Twining warned: “Years ago it was said that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. Let us hope it can never be said that the Battle for the Free World was lost in the classrooms of American high schools and colleges.”
In 1955, General Twining and the United States Air Force, and William M. Allen and the Boeing Company received the coveted Robert J. Collier Trophy for the development and operational use of the B-52 bomber. But this was only the beginning of a major change in weapon systems for the future Air Force. In February 1955, Twining revealed that work on an ATLAS Intercontinental Ballistic Missile was in the early development stage for the Air Force. Convair was the prime contractor responsible for the overall missile, North American-Rocketdyne would supply the rocket engines and the ARMA Division of Bosch Corporation would build the guidance system. In March 1955, he reported-that ICBMs were receiving priority in the Air Force’s program because of known Soviet progress. The NAVAHO, the SNARK and the ATLAS missile programs, in particular, were being accelerated.
At the invitation of the Russian government and the direction of the President of the United States, General Twining and a group of Air Force officers visited the Soviet Union in June 1956. During this fact-finding visit, Twining took a very close look at Russian aviation facilities and aircraft. He met with high ranking members of the Presidium during his visit to Moscow for the Soviet Air Show and attended a garden party given in his honor. Among the dignitaries attending the party were Nikita S. Khrushchev, then First Secretary of the Central Committee, Nikolai S. Bulganin, the Russian Premier and Georgy Konstantonovich Zhukov, the Soviet Minister of Defense. Twining returned from that trip convinced that Soviet aeronautical progress not only justified American emphasis on research and development, but warranted an even greater efforts than the ones then taking place.
But General Twining also knew of the importance of adequate facilities, especially air bases around the world. In March 1956, he said, “If war should ever strike this nation again, our airfields could very well be one of our most priceless assets. In an atomic war, the more airfields we have the better our chances of successful retaliation against an aggressor. More airfields mean more dispersal, more dispersal means more of our retaliatory force could survive an atomic onslaught. More airfields mean more division of an enemy’s effort. More airfields would make his job tougher and our job easier.”
In September 1956, Twining revealed that lack of qualified personnel was the chief reason why so many of the Air Force Wings were not yet at peak combat readiness. He declared that the 137 Wing force could not possibly be effective if manned by technicians of doubtful skill and limited experience. He emphasized that during the past five years the requirement for trained technicians had increased twice as fast as the need for other types of people.
On March 26th, 1957, President Eisenhower nominated General Twining to succeed Admiral Radford as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The nomination was approved and from July 1st to August 15th, 1957, he served as Special Assistant to Secretary of Defense Charles E. Wilson. General Twining was sworn in as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on August 15th, 1957, by President Eisenhower in the Cabinet Room of the White House. Thus, he became the first Air Force officer to serve in that capacity and he served for slightly more than three years before retiring from the service on September 30th, 1960.
General Twining married the former Maude McKeever of Oahu, Hawaii. They have three children, Captain Richard G. Twining, Nathan A. Twining and Mrs Haywood S. Hansell III, nee Olivia B. Twining. During his long and distinguished career, General Twining earned many decorations. Among these are: the Army Distinguished Service Medal with Oak Leaf Cluster; the Navy Distinguished Service Medal; the Legion of Merit with Oak Leaf Cluster; the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Bronze Star Medal, the Air Medal with Oak Leaf Cluster, the Commendation Ribbon; the Mexican Border Campaign Medal; the American Defense Medal; the American Campaign Medal, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with five battle stars, the European- African-Middle-East Medal with six battle stars; the National Defense Service Medal, the Victory Medal of World War I , and of World War II; the Occupation Medal of World War I, and of World War II, the Longevity Service Ribbon with one silver cluster and three bronze clusters, the Honorary Knight Commander of the Military Division of the British Empire, the Polish Gold Cross of Merit with Swords, the Greek Grand Cross of the Order of Phoenix with Swords, the Military Order of Italy, the French Legion of Honor in the Grade of Commander, the French Croix de Guerre with Palm; the Yugoslavian Order of the Partisan Star First Class, the Peruvian Aviation Cross First Class, the Egyptian Medal of Merit, the White Elephant from Thailand, the Korean Order of Nukutart Merit Taeguk with Gold Star, and the Greece Grand Cross of the Order of George I. General Twining held the ratings of Command Pilot and Aircraft Observer.
General Nathan Twining died on March 29th, 1982.
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