Letter writing of first Air Guard director provides communication lessons
By Air Force Master Sgt. Mike R. Smith , I.G. Brown Training and Education Center
/ Published May 11, 2021
MCGHEE TYSON AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Tenn. -- I recently took some time to read through hundreds of telegrams and letters placed in an extensive scrapbook collection by the Air National Guard's first Director, now on file with the I.G. Brown Training and Education Center on McGhee Tyson Air National Guard Base in East Tennessee.
TEC is named after U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. I.G. Brown. He led the Air National Guard for nearly a dozen years - first as the National Guard Bureau's Assistant Chief for Air in 1962.
We do not write and mail letters in the military much today. So I appreciated how these physical messages told a story in a way apart from virtual communications. I also believe that General Brown hand-picked these letters, speeches, and photographs from the more mundane communications of a senior military official. He must have wanted us to read them.
The earliest keepsake is a Western Union Telegram from Washington, dated Sept. 28, 1962; as a newly appointed Assistant Chief for Air in the Pentagon, the message notified Colonel Brown of his promotion to Brigadier General. He was 47.
A clipped newspaper article from I.G.'s hometown of Little Rock points out that General Brown was once the Garland County Sheriff from 1947-1950. The promotion was big news for Little Rock, and several of the general's acquaintances mailed him the same clipping.
One man in Arkansas writes on car dealership stationery, telling I.G. that "he finally made it" and requests that he come home soon to go fishing. (He also notes that the car he inquired about is best to purchase when the 1963 models come out.)
I.G.'s time as Sheriff was two decades before he founded the military schoolhouse that bears his name. He entered the Army Air Corps in 1942. The young officer served in several assignments during the war, including the chief pilot for the 1st Foreign Transport Group. He stayed part-time in the Reserves just after the war and then joined what would soon become the Arkansas Air National Guard.
Brown was appointed chief of staff in Arkansas some years later until he got recalled into active service for the Korean War. He traveled up to the Pentagon in 1951 to serve as an executive officer and special assistant.
General Brown was conscious of his letter collection, his words, and how others interpreted him as a senior officer.
"The problem is that words which to me clearly denote my intended meaning may carry all sorts of different connotations," writes General Brown in a 1966 speech that he gave to NGB officers. "So the meaning of words, both the written kind and spoken kind, can get garbled …"
Consider that the general saved the speech, folding it along with his scrapbooked letters. Printed in a big typeset, it's a bit yellowed, but physically holding it is like feeling how Brown flipped through it.
His speech stresses inclusion in the officers’ written and verbal communications through proper departments and echelons. He states: "… the advantage of coordination in this manner is obvious. We want everyone brought into the picture, and we want the benefit of everyone's thinking."
General Brown emphasizes the need to communicate in NGB correspondence, "we should be exchanging important communications a great deal more than we are …" he wrote.
Letters highlight many of the keynote speeches that I.G. gave for events and groups across the nation, and letters offer thanks in response to that support. For General Brown, his writing is much more than today's split-second social media. It was his way of promoting the Air National Guard, the professionalism and capability of the people who serve in it, and his way of convincing others to consider that or reconsider that.
The collection is filled with notes from key leaders of his time. In one 1972 letter, the sixth Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force, Gen. John P. McConnell, sends thanks to General Brown for transport assistance from the Air National Guard.
In another letter, the first Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Paul W. Airey thanks General Brown for inviting and allowing him to attend TEC's first NCO Academy graduation in July 1968. "I was highly impressed by the dedication and motivation of the NCOs that I came in contact with," wrote Chief Airey. "I am proud and pleased to see that the Air National Guard is keeping pace with the Air Force. Needless to say, you are a vital part of our Aerospace Defense Force."
That graduation ties back to an invitation to speak at an NCO academy graduation at Hamilton Air Force Base, California, in 1966. It impelled Brown that the National Guard should have an NCO academy. His letters after its establishment invite senior military, industry leaders, and elected officials to TEC's graduation ceremonies.
Astonishingly, a telephone company plant foreman wrote the general to thank him for their employee's NCO academy training, as a "definite factor" in their promotion to plant supervisor.
There is politeness and formality throughout many of these correspondences. Letters to and from servicemembers' families deployed in Southeast Asia. Letters from members of Congress and governors. The American Legion, the Kiwanis Club, the Civil Air Patrol, the Air Force Association, the Boy Scouts, and national guard associations.
"I want to acknowledge with deep personal appreciation your corporation and assistance in returning the men of the 116th Engineer Battalion of the Idaho National Guard following their tour of duty in Vietnam," writes U.S. Rep. Orval Hansen to General Brown in 1969. He outlines efforts in rejoining the unit with their families in Idaho.
General Brown retired in 1974, and no other leader served in the position longer. Of course, he received many letters of congratulations addressed to a man who took much time in mailing heartfelt letters of support.
The general died three months after TEC took on his last name and initials in 1978. He was 63.
His obituary is absent from the collection, which is not surprising when considering he served as his own curator. Also missing is the disclosure of two words answering the often-asked question that Brown never wrote for us: what does the I.G. stand for? Still, his correspondence defined him.
(U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Mike R. Smith is the public affairs manager for the I.G. Brown Training and Education Center in East Tennessee.)