JOINT BASE LANGLEY-EUSTIS, Va. --
After the Sword Athena 2020 outbrief, Gen. Mike Holmes, commander of Air Combat Command, presented the gift 'Descending Night,' to ACC at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia, August 14.
'Descending Night' is one of two bronze sculptures the general chose to represent Air Combat Command’s responsibility to “defend the nation and get better at it every day.” The first sculpture is called ‘Rising Sun’ and has been passed around the Air Force for nearly 100 years.
Both ‘Rising Sun’ and ‘Descending Night’ are sculptures that are scaled down replicas crafted by a German-born American sculptor named Adolph Alexander Weinman in 1915 to celebrate the completion of the Panama Canal in 1914.
Holmes wanted to use the SA20 outbrief for his presentation to highlight diversity and inclusion, as SA20 was a three-day virtual leadership symposium designed to discuss female-centric and family issues that impact readiness across the command.
“It’s a physical link that highlights our past and contributes to building esprit de corps,” said Mike Dugre, ACC historian. “We’re always looking at ‘what did we do back then?,’ ‘why did we do it?,’ ‘what were the circumstances around what was happening back then?’ and ‘how is that relevant to what we’re doing today?’
We’re trying to find that historical context and perspective to help our leaders of today learn from the decisions of the past so they can make better decisions now.”
Holmes explained that in the 1920s, Brig. Gen. William ‘Billy’ Mitchell bought ‘Rising Sun’ and he used it as the prize for the winner of an annual Air race the Army Air Service hosted. However, when the Army Air Corps transitioned to the U.S. Air Force in 1947, 'Rising Sun' was used for different purposes.
“It ended up being a prize at William Tell for both air-to-air and air-to-ground gunnery meets,” Holmes said.
The William Tell competition is a biennial competition named after a legendary folk hero of Switzerland who was also an expert marksman with the crossbow. As legend has it, more than 700 years ago in 1307 A.D., Tell was forced by the Hapsburg Duke of Austria to shoot an apple placed on his son’s head from a distance of 120 paces, or he would have to not only watch his son die, but he would also be put to death for disobeying an order.
Tell cemented his legendary status by not only shooting the apple, but also told the duke, “If my first arrow had killed my son, I would have shot the second at you, and I would not have missed.”
Nearly six and a half centuries later, in honor of Tell, the U.S. Air Force created the worldwide William Tell Weapons Meet in 1954 at what was then known as Las Vegas Air Force Base, Nevada (presently known as Nellis Air Force Base). The William Tell competition is also the venue famously known for creating the term “top gun,” to identify the best Fighter-Interceptor at William Tell.
The 'Rising Sun' sculpture that presently sits in the ACC command building was awarded to the winner of that competition every other year, starting in 1954.
In 1996, the 4th Fighter Wing, Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, North Carolina, was the last unit of the century to win the 'Rising Sun' sculpture. Coincidentally, 1996 was also the last year of the William Tell competition before the Air Force cancelled all of its major flying competitions until 1998. After the cancellation, the William Tell competition took an eight-year nose dive. Rising Sun was forgotten about during an eight-year break in the William Tell flying competitions
“A wing commander down there (at the 4th Fighter Wing, then Col.) Randy Bigum found it in a closet where it had been left,” Holmes said.
Eventually the sculpture was reclaimed by former U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff, Gen. (retired) John P. Jumper, while he was serving as the commander of ACC between February 2000 and September 2001.
“Jumper saw it and said ‘That’s mine. I’m going to take that back to Air Combat Command,’” Holmes said. “And where we have the ‘heraldic dinner,’ which is at Corona once a year, the Air Force’s warfighting commands get together and everybody brings an artifact. This is the artifact that Air Combat Command brought.”
The heraldic dinner is presently known as the U.S. Air Force’s Heritage Dinner, which was previously known as the Corona Heraldic Dinner. This inaugural dinner was initiated by former Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. Curtis E. LeMay and originated in the 1960s as a meeting of all Air Force major commanders to share artifacts from their command of heraldic significance. Each heraldic device presented during the dinner signifies the past, present and future missions of a specific command.
“It has a history and it’s meaningful to us, but it’s very male,” Holmes said, with a smile, gently resting his hand on the “Rising Sun” sculpture. “He’s also clothed because he’s very anatomically correct and proudly male.”
Holmes and the SA20 team members then burst into a flurry of laughter.
Holmes then explained that the sculpture is part of ACC’s heritage and it is very important to him. Holmes then brought out Weinman’s sister sculpture, 'Descending Night.'
“There’s more to diversity to the difference between men and women,” Holmes said. “There’s more to diversity than the difference between day and night.”
The general also explained how one can argue that there are more genders than just men and women.
“I’m not trying to say that we’re capturing the full spectrum, but we are broadening the spectrum here,” Holmes said. “'Descending Night' is my gift to Air Combat Command because I want to make sure that we capture the broader spectrum of what Air Combat Command brings and the capabilities we bring to Air Combat Command.”
Both sculptures are displayed in the visitor’s lounge of the ACC command building.
“'Descending Night' is a woman,” Holmes said. “She’s in a more thoughtful pose than her more arrogant male partner here. She is also anatomically correct and I want to thank my exec’s spouse for putting the garments together.
As Air Combat Command goes forward and as you do your work, I want all of us to know that we are men and women. We are day and night. Thanks for all of your incredible work and I look forward to following it and cheering you on as you go forward.”