Captain Hugh M. Elmendorf

Captain Hugh M. Elmendorf

One of the namesakes of Joint Base Elmendorf/Richardson, Alaska, is Captain Hugh M. Elmendorf, even though he was never assigned to Alaska, nor is there any record of his visiting the state. However, his presence is felt still throughout the Air Force. He pioneered high altitude formation flying tactics during the 1920s and early 1930s. He also wrote several scientific papers on the subject. A superb gunner who mastered deflection shooting, Hugh Elmendorf won the Army Air Corps gunnery competition at Langley Field in 1927 with the highest score then recorded. Additionally, he commanded the 19th Pursuit Squadron from 1922-1924.

Hugh Elmendorf was born on Elm Street in Ithaca, New York, on 3 January 1895. He learned the skills of self-reliance while obtaining an excellent education. His father, William C. Elmendorf, was Mayor of the city. He attended Ithaca public schools and, later, Cornell University, obtaining his Mechanical Engineering Degree in May 1917, less than a month after the United States declared war on Germany. He joined the military almost immediately after graduation in August 1917. He was awarded a regular commission as a second lieutenant of the infantry. He served as an infantry instructor throughout World War I at Camp Greens, North Carolina, and Camp Benning, Georgia. He transferred to the Army Air Service in 1921, receiving his flight training at Carlstrom Field, Arcadia, Florida. He proved to be a natural flyer and received the rating of Pursuit pilot on 7 December 1921. Subsequently, he served at Ellington Field, Texas, Selfridge Field, Michigan, Wheeler Field and Ford Island, Hawaii, Patterson Field, Ohio, and Bolling Field, Washington D.C.

Captain Hugh Elmendorf and First Lieutenant Irvin A. Woodring became entangled in some of the strangest coincidences ever to befall airmen from 1927-1933. On 14 July 1927, the two were involved in a ground collision at Selfridge Field. Woodring was given improper clearance to take off as Elmendorf made his landing in a P-1 pursuit plane. His back broken, Elmendorf remained hospitalized for months at Walter Reed Hospital. Hugh Elmendorf later returned to flying status, probably inappropriately, in time to set world altitude records at Mather Field, California. While assigned there, he and Woodring engaged in a mock dogfight in honor of the people of Sacramento. Wildly maneuvering, Lieutenant Woodring fell from his aircraft when the seat restraints failed. Successfully deploying his chute just in time, Woodring barely escaped with his life. Later, in January 1933, both Woodring and Elmendorf were assigned by the Air Corps Chief of Staff to test fly the Consolidated Y1P-25 prototype and the ground attack variant, the XA-11.

After a series of test maneuvers in the Y1P-25 on 13 January 1933, Hugh Elmendorf slumped forward and became unresponsive. His rear seat observer managed to escape the doomed aircraft only 100 feet above the ground. Investigators assessed that the old spinal injury had caused Elmendorf to lose consciousness or motor control in the high G-forces. One week later, Woodring joined Elmendorf in death as the XA-11 plummeted to the ground. Both accidents were not attributable to design flaws in the new aircraft, which subsequently went into series production as the P-30 and the PB-2.

In the slow promotion period of the 1920s and 1930s, Hugh Elmendorf attained only the rank of Captain. Still, his friends and students went on to lead the largest Air Force ever assembled in World War II, and he doubtless would have become one of the more influential leaders of the U.S. Army Air Forces had he lived. As it was, his friends did not forget his faithful service and selflessness, appealing to Congress that the new airfield near Anchorage, Alaska be named in his honor. Hugh Elmendorf was survived by his wife Irene, and young daughter, Virginia.