Maj. Gen. John R. “Johnny” Alison, USAF (Ret.), called an “All-American Airman” and recognized as the “Father of Air Force Special Operations,” passed away on June 6, 2011, on the 69th anniversary of D-Day, at his home in Washington, D.C. He was 98 years old.
Alison fought in World War II and the Korean War and had a distinguished military career that lasted almost thirty years. After graduating from the University of Florida in Gainesville, Fla., with a degree in engineering, he entered the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1936, earned his wings and was commissioned the following year. As assistant military attaché in England prior to America’s entry in the war, Alison taught British pilots how to fly American P-40 fighters. Alison then went to the Soviet Union and for ten months provided the same service to Russian pilots, not only for the P-40 but also the A-20 and B-25 medium bombers. In June 1942 he reported to the China-Burma-India theater where, flying for the 75th Fighter Squadron, part of the air group originally known as the Flying Tigers, Alison became an ace with seven confirmed kills, one of them being the first-ever night kill in the theater. But Alison would make his mark in military aviation and special operations history as co-commander of the 1st Air Commando Group.
In May 1942 Lt. Col. Alison and his close friend Lt. Col. Philip Cochran were called into the office of Army Air Force Commander Lt. Gen. Henry “Hap” Arnold in the recently completed Pentagon to discuss who would command a new air group to be deployed to Burma called Project 9. Both officers recommended the other. Arnold, in an administrative move that was, if not unique, then certainly rare in the military, officially made them co-commanders of the unit, telling them, “To hell with the paperwork; go out and fight.”
Fight they did – and then some! As commanders of what came to be the 1st Air Commando Group, Alison and Cochran not only fought, they developed a whole new way to wage war. Though informally they agreed that as far as the outside world was concerned, Cochran would be the commanding officer and Alison the executive, the fact was that the unusual command arrangement worked. The two had such a deep trust and confidence in each other that decisions made by one were backed by the other.
In their ambitious brave new world of aviation warfare, instead of merely supporting ground troops with supplies after they had marched over land to their objectives, they developed a fully integrated air doctrine in which ground troops were flown to landing sites deep behind enemy lines and were supported in every way possible by air: with attack aircraft, supply transport, and, in an unprecedented move, aerial evacuation of wounded using helicopters.
Alison, together with Cochran, led the aerial operations for Operation Thursday, the British “Chindit” infiltration behind Japanese lines in Burma led by British general Orde Wingate. Shortly afterward, Cochran rotated to Europe. Alison continued to lead the 1st Air Commando Group, perfecting the new doctrine. In March 1944, his men flew more than 200 miles behind enemy lines, transporting, re-supplying, and providing fire support for more than 9,000 Allied troops.
After the war, Alison entered government service, becoming the youngest-ever secretary of commerce for aeronautics. Alison returned to active duty and served in the now independent Air Force during the Korean War. He later entered the Air Force Reserve, rising to the rank of major general before retiring.
Alison’s decorations include the Distinguished Service Cross, the Distinguished Service Medal, Silver Star, and others. Among his honors are the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Air Force Association and membership in the USAF Special Operations Hall of Fame. Alison was also a Past Grand Paramount Carabaos of the Military Order of the Carabao, whose membership includes Generals Charles G. Boyd, Ira Eaker, Carl “Tooey” Spaatz, and Douglas MacArthur, and Admirals Arleigh Burke and William Halsey, amongst others.
In December 2009, the Honorable Ike Skelton of Missouri, in a speech for the Congressional Record recognizing Alison’s many achievements said, “Maj. Gen. John R. Alison has spent his life fighting for our country as a pilot and a public servant. Never wavering in his commitment to freedom and the ideals of our country, he sets a high standard for all Americans.”