Eaker, Ira Clarence (1896–1987)

By: Art Leatherwood

Type: Biography

Published: August 1, 1995

Ira Clarence Eaker, aviation pioneer and United States Air Force general, was born on April 13, 1896, at Field Creek, Texas, the eldest of five boys born to Young Yancy and Dona Lee (Graham) Eaker. In 1906 the family moved to Concho County, where they spent three years in the rural community of Hills before moving to a farm a mile outside of Eden. They moved to southeastern Oklahoma in 1912 and returned to Eden ten years later. Ira attended public school at Hills, in Eden, and in Kenefic, Oklahoma. He graduated from Southeastern State Teachers College (now Southeastern Oklahoma State University) at Durant, Oklahoma, and entered the United States Army in 1917.

Eaker was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Infantry Section, Officers Reserve Corps, on August 15, 1917, and assigned to the Sixty-fourth Infantry at Fort Bliss, Texas. He received a similar commission in the regular army on October 26, 1917. His aviation experience began in March 1918, when he was directed to attend ground school at the University of Texas in Austin and flight training at Kelly Field at San Antonio. He received his pilot rating and a promotion to first lieutenant on July 17, 1918. After training, he was sent to Rockwell Field, California, where he met Col. H. H. "Hap" Arnold and Maj. Carl A. "Tooey" Spaatz, two men with whom he had a close military relationship for the rest of his life. In July 1919 he was appointed commander of the Second Aero Squadron and sent to the Philippines for a two-year tour. In 1920 he was reassigned as commander of the Third Aero Squadron and promoted to captain. Upon return to the United States in 1921 he was assigned to Mitchel Field, New York; while there, he attended Columbia Law School. He subsequently spent three years to the staff of Maj. Gen. Mason M. Patrick, chief of air service, in Washington, D.C.

Captain Eaker was one of ten pilots chosen to make the Pan American Goodwill Flight in 1926. During the flight both members of one crew died in a crash. Eaker and his copilot were the only team to complete the entire 23,000-mile itinerary, which included stops in twenty-three countries. The flight left San Antonio on December 21 and ended at Bolling Field, Washington, D.C., where President Calvin Coolidge presented the pilots with the Distinguished Flying Cross, a new award authorized by Congress just a few months earlier. In 1929 Eaker, with Tooey Spaatz and Elwood R. Quesada (both of whom were later generals), flew a Fokker tri-motor named the Question Mark for 150 hours, 40 minutes, and 15 seconds, shuttling between Los Angeles and San Diego, refueling with a hose lowered from a Douglas C-1. They set an endurance record that endured for many years. In 1930 Eaker flew the first transcontinental flight that depended solely on aerial refueling. Eaker was promoted to major in 1935. Beginning on June 2, 1936, he flew blind under a hood from Mitchel Field, New York, to March Field, Riverside, California. Maj. William E. Kepner (who also became a general) flew alongside in this experiment in instrument flight as a safety observer. He stated that Eaker "was under the hood and flying blind" the entire time except for eight take-offs and landings.

During the middle to late 1930s Eaker attended the Air Corps Tactical School at Maxwell Field, Alabama, and the Army Command and General Staff School at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. He also served on the Air Staff in Washington. He was promoted to full colonel in December 1941 and to brigadier general in January 1942, when he was assigned to England to form and command the Eighth Bomber Command. He was instrumental in the development and application of daylight precision bombing in the European Theater. This tactic was a major factor in the defeat of the Germans. In December 1942 Eaker became commander of the Eighth Air Force in England. On September 13, 1943, he received promotion to lieutenant general, and on October 15, 1943, he assumed overall command of both American air forces in the United Kingdom, the Eighth and the Ninth. He took over as commander of the joint Mediterranean Allied Air Forces on January 15, 1944. With 321,429 officers and men and 12,598 aircraft, MAAF was the world's largest air force. On March 22, 1945, Eaker was transferred back to Washington to become deputy chief of the army air force under Gen. H. H. Arnold. In that position, representing the air force, he transmitted the command from President Harry Truman to General Spaatz, who was then commanding the Pacific Air Forces, to drop the atomic bomb on Japan. Eaker announced his plans to retire from the army in mid-June 1947, saying that he felt he could do more to provide security for the United States out of uniform.

After retirement he was associated with Hughes Aircraft from 1947 to 1957. In 1957 he became a corporate director of Douglas Aircraft Company, a post he held until 1961, when he returned to Hughes as a consultant, with the freedom to pursue a long-desired goal of being a journalist. He had already coauthored three books with H. H. Arnold: This Flying Game (1936), Winged Warfare (1941), and Army Fliers (1942). In 1964 he began a newspaper column in the San Angelo Standard Times that continued for eighteen years and was syndicated by Copley News Services in 700 newspapers. In 1974 he transferred to the Los Angeles Times Syndicate. He wrote from the point of view of a military man on security matters. Between 1957 and 1981, 329 of his articles appeared in military periodicals. In 1972 he became the founding president of the United States Strategic Institute.

Among his more than fifty decorations were the Congressional Gold Medal, the Distinguished Flying Cross with Oak Leaf Cluster, the Distinguished Service Medal with Oak Leaf Cluster, the Order of the Partisan Star (First Class), the Silver Star, and the Wright Trophy; he was also made a Knight of the British Empire. He was promoted from lieutenant general to general by an act of Congress in 1985.

Eaker married Leah Chase about 1930; the couple had no children, and the marriage ended in divorce the year it began. On November 23, 1931, he married Ruth Huff Apperson. General Eaker died on August 6, 1987, at Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland, and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors. He was survived by his wife.

Fort Worth Star-Telegram, August 6, 1987. James Parton, "Air Force Spoken Here": General Ira Eaker and the Command of the Air (Bethesda, Maryland: Adler and Adler, 1986). Vertical Files, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin.

Time Periods:

  • World War II

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Art Leatherwood, “Eaker, Ira Clarence,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed October 25, 2021, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/eaker-ira-clarence.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

August 1, 1995