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Air Force Dental Service

A history of high-flying dental care

 

“Aspiring to the highest ideals of quality care, Air Force dentistry integrates modern treatment modalities, teaching, and research along with administrative acumen in its goal of providing the finest possible oral health for Air Force personnel world-wide.” – Maj. Gen. Arthur J. Sachsel, Assistant Surgeon General for Dental Services 1982–1987

The National Security Act of 1947 reorganized America’s military under a single Cabinet-level post, the Department of Defense, and formally elevated the Air Force, formerly a part of the Army, as a separate branch equal to that of the Army and Navy. Two years later, on June 8, 1949, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg signed Order No. 35 creating the Air Force Medical Service, commanded by an Air Force surgeon general and consisting of six divisions: the Medical Corps, Dental Corps, Veterinary Corps, Medical Service Corps, Nurse Corps, and Women’s Medical Specialist Corps. Almost a month later, on July 1, the Joint Army and Air Force Adjustment Regulation No. 1-11-62 of May 1949 officially transferred the first cadre of 160 dentists from the Army to the Air Force. Though the above dates mark the official establishment of the Air Force and the Air Force Dental Service, its history reaches back to 1917, with the Army Air Corps in World War I.

At the beginning of World War II, the Army Air Corps had 400 dentists. By war’s end that number had increased to 4,000. They found themselves working in every theater and under every imaginable condition, from steaming tropical jungles to frigid arctic tundra.

During the Great War, as it was originally known, approximately 4,600 officers served in the Dental Corps. Often also deployed as surgical assistants and participating in battles, at war’s end they had treated 1,396,957 dental patients. Eight dentists died from disease, seven officers and seven enlisted dental assistants were killed in combat, and an additional 36 dental personnel were wounded in action. Undoubtedly for the future Air Force Dental Service, the most important dental officer to serve in that conflict was 1st Lt. George R. Kennebeck, who would go on to become the Air Force’s first assistant surgeon general for Dental Services and be acclaimed as the “Father of the Air Force Dental Corps” before his retirement in 1952 with the rank of major general.

Kennebeck, a 1916 graduate from the University of Iowa Dental School, was conscripted into the Army in 1917 and commissioned a first lieutenant. Though stationed in the States during the war, he was ordered to Vladivostok in 1918, where he participated in the ill-fated U.S. military intervention in Siberia to assist the White Russians fight the Bolsheviks who had seized power in 1917. Kennebeck was ordered to Manila in 1920, and after serving a year there, he returned to the United States and slowly rose through the ranks during the interwar years.

Medical generals gathered in August 1949, when the newly minted Air Force Medical Service was but six weeks old. Pictured from left to right are Lt. Gen. Malcolm Grow (surgeon general), Maj. Gen. George R. Kennebeck (first Dental Corps chief 1949-1952), Gen. Harry Armstrong (surgeon general 1949-1954), Brig. Gen. Dan Ogle (surgeon general 1954-1958), Brig. Gen. Albert Schwichtenberg, and Brig. Gen. William Henry Powell (served as deputy surgeon general 1953-1957). Air Force Medical Service photo

Medical generals gathered in August 1949, when the newly minted Air Force Medical Service was but six weeks old. Pictured from left to right are Lt. Gen. Malcolm Grow (surgeon general), Maj. Gen. George R. Kennebeck (first Dental Corps chief 1949-1952), Gen. Harry Armstrong (surgeon general 1949-1954), Brig. Gen. Dan Ogle (surgeon general 1954-1958), Brig. Gen. Albert Schwichtenberg, and Brig. Gen. William Henry Powell (served as deputy surgeon general 1953-1957). Air Force Medical Service photo

Following the outbreak of World War II, in January 1942 Lt. Col. Kennebeck was appointed to the new command of chief of the Dental Service in the Office of the Air Surgeon, Army Air Corps, and promoted to colonel.

As Dental Service chief, he led and oversaw research and treatment of a chronic problem that was beginning to affect pilots and aircrews: aerodontalgia (now barodontalgia) – toothaches that result from atmospheric decompression during high-altitude flying. In an alarming number of situations, the tooth pain was so bad pilots had to abort their missions. Kennebeck and his staff, which included Capt. Kermit F. Knudtzon and later Capt. David F. Mitchell, became pioneers in this field. Working with civilian universities, research institutes, and other governmental agencies, they compiled data, identified the causes of the problem (the majority of cases were the result of pre-existing sinus conditions, untreated dental pathology, or faulty existing dental treatment), and developed treatment.

At the beginning of World War II, the Army Air Corps had 400 dentists. By war’s end that number had increased to 4,000. They found themselves working in every theater and under every imaginable condition, from steaming tropical jungles to frigid arctic tundra.

Capt. Warren Hester’s field experience, described in 50th Commemorative Anniversary of the United States Air Force Dental Service, 1949-1999 by Col. D. Keith Savage, was typical. Deployed to Guadalcanal in the spring of 1942, he worked under extremely primitive conditions using World War I-era instruments, often within range of machine guns and mortars. “We had to improvise everything,” he recalled. “Extractions and setting of fractured jaws had to be done by feel as we had no X-rays. The old-fashioned pump pedal may have been a blessing since we didn’t have electricity. I even did some metal crowns by rigging up a manual sling casting machine inside a large potato can.” After the war, he went into research and developed new dental field equipment. He was among the first dentists who transferred to the Air Force in 1949. He served in the military 33 years, retiring with the rank of colonel.

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DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...