First academy graduation was 55 years ago


On June 3, 1959, the Air Force Academy celebrated its first graduation class.

Of the 306 cadets who were appointed to the academy in 1955, 207 were commissioned four years later during a ceremony at Arnold Hall.

The speaker was James H. Douglas, secretary of the Air Force. He also presented the diplomas.

The academy side of that first class ring shows a traditional American eagle and shield, and the prop and wings symbol that is a major part of the academy.

The class side shows a falcon and the four-pointed star.

The graduation ceremony was moved indoors to Arnold Hall due to weather, but the theater could not accommodate all the guests. Many people who were forced to sit outside the theater were not happy campers.

The Class of `59, of course, spent its first three years in temporary quarters at Lowry Air Force Base in Aurora before moving 1,145 cadets into the academy’s permanent home in August 1958. Only a handful of buildings were completed at the time - a dormitory, the dining hall, an academic building, the main office building and Arnold Hall.

The chapel and football stadium were a few years away from being built.

Intercollegiate sports at the academy were a pretty big deal by 1959. Air Force played in the Cotton Bowl on New Year’s Day 1959.

The academy list of alumni and faculty is very impressive. According to the academy’s media relations department, the list includes more than 400 noted scholars from a variety of academic fields, including: 35 Rhodes Scholars, nine Marshall Scholars, 13 Harry S. Truman Scholars, 115 John F. Kennedy School of Government Scholars, and 31 Gearhart Scholars.

The list includes additional notable graduates; 403 general officers, 164 graduates who were killed in combat, 36 repatriated prisoners of war, one Medal of Honor recipient, and two combat aces.

A whopping 39 academy graduates have become astronauts, second among institutions of higher learning only to the Naval Academy’s 52.

The academy was established April 1, 1954. It was the culmination of an idea that had been years in the making.

After September 1947, when the Air Force was established as a separate service, this idea finally had the legitimacy of the new service behind it.

After Congress passed the bill establishing the Air Force Academy, the secretary of the Air Force appointed a commission to recommend a location. After traveling 21,000 miles and considering hundreds of sites all over the country, the commission recommended Colorado Springs as its first choice. Thousands of acres were purchased. The state of Colorado contributed $1 million to the purchase of the land.

Today, the cadet wing is 4,000 strong. There will be over 1,000 graduates at this year’s ceremony. More than 40,000 cadets have graduated since 1959.

You can watch a YouTube video of that first graduation class by going to

Up we go into the wild blue yonder - and beyond.


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