Sheppard's First Commander was Aviation Pioneer

  • Published
  • By George Strader
  • 82nd Training Wing History Office
Col. Edward "Red" Black, Sheppard's first commander, was a tough, but fair man.
His demeanor was one that garnered praise from higher-ranking officers, but also one that unknown to him, hindered his ability for promotion.
A reputed tough but fair commander who loved good cigars, Colonel Black started his military career in 1917 at Leon Springs, Texas, after enlisting in the U.S. Army. Upon receiving his commission, he was transferred to the Army Signal Corps. 

His next assignment took him overseas, where he trained with the Royal Air Force and served under famed British Air Marshal Sir Huge Trenchard. Marshal Trenchard, along with Billy Mitchell, championed the idea of using air power for strategic purposes. 

In World War I, Colonel Black participated in the bombing of the German cities of Malmein and Cologne. Subsequently, he took part in a series of test flights off Cape Hatteras, when bombers from the Army Air Service demonstrated the vulnerability of the Navy by sinking two old U.S. battleships, the Virginia and the New Jersey. 

That same year, he participated in the International Air Races in St. Louis. Earlier, during the 1920s, Sheppard's first commander had been an instructor and inspector in the Maryland National guard where, he helped perfect the techniques of the night cross-country flying. 

From 1930 to 1933, he saw service in the Philippines. This was followed by an assignment with the Civilian Corps at the Muskee Dam project in Vermont. He was also involved in the Army Air Corps' short-lived attempt to transport United States mail by air during the 1930s. 

Though Colonel Black approached the task of building Sheppard Field with a high degree of professionalism and determination, he was not happy with the assignment. He complained to Gen. Henry "Hap" Arnold, chief of the Army Air Force, that he was a fighter pilot and not a base commander. 

General Arnold reportedly told him that he had been selected because he was the only man capable of coordinating the Sheppard Field construction. 

The lack of a flying assignment was not the only disappointment of Colonel Black. When World War II was over, General Arnold visited him at his retirement home in Florida, where he was recuperating from a heart attack. Colonel Black asked the general why he had not made him a brigadier general, especially since he had had a very distinguished career--he was a protégé of Billy Mitchell. 

Gen Arnold replied that he had never received a recommendation. Why was this so? Gen. Rush Lincoln, commander of Air Training Command, had recommended the colonel three times for promotion to brigadier general. 

Colonel Black's son, Edward Black Jr., a retired Air Force Officer, provided and the following explanation: 

"Earlier in his career while at March Field (later Air Force Base), Calif., he broke the nose of Maj. Carl A. "Tooey" Spaatz behind the Officer's Club in a fight. Major Spaatz went on to become the commander of the 8th Air Force in Europe during World War II, where he had a storied career." 

"Before going to Europe, Major Spaatz was deputy to General Arnold and was in a position to keep any recommendation concerning Colonel Black from him. Because of this circumstance, Colonel Black never became a general officer."