Donald L. Harlow – Chief Master Sergeant of the United States Air Force

donald l harlowThe second chief master sergeant of the Air Force, Donald L. Harlow, died at Arlington (Va.) Hospital June 18, 1997. He was 76.

Harlow served as the Air Force's senior enlisted person from Aug. 1, 1969, until his retirement Sept. 30, 1971. He was the only enlisted person to receive the Order of the Sword.

Born in Waterville, Maine, Harlow enlisted in the Army Air Corps in August 1942 and first served as an armament and gunnery instructor at Eagle Pass, Texas. He cross-trained into personnel in 1945 and left active duty in February 1946. He was recalled to Air Force active duty in 1950 during the Korean War and remained on active duty until his retirement.

Harlow served mostly as a personnel troop but also delved into club management during his assignments, which included stints in Morocco; Stead Air Force Base, Nev.; Southern Methodist University in Dallas; Pease AFB, N.H., and Paris.

The Air Force has lost one of its great leaders — a pioneer in Air Force history who made significant contributions to our service and our country,” said CMSAF Eric W. Benken. “Don Harlow was a sergeant major in the Air Force vice chief of staff's office when the first chief master sergeant of the Air Force was selected. He began supporting this office from day one and never stopped.

When he left active duty in 1971, he continued supporting the Air Force in every way,” Benken said. “The chief was a regular visitor at our professional military education school graduations and awards banquets around the country, helping Air Force people understand our past and providing guidance to help with future challenges.

I will always remember Don as an outstanding chief, a great American, and a dear friend.

Harlow once told a reporter he was surprised when he was selected serve as the chief master sergeant of the Air Force.

There were 20 other people in the running, but there were four chiefs that I specifically remember. I said to myself, ‘They are the best for the job as far as I'm concerned.' But, I went through the interview and returned to work, never dreaming I would be selected,” he said.

Once in office, Harlow said he learned some tough lessons.

You go out to all the bases and meet with all the chiefs and you think they're going to jump up and do what you want because you're the CMSAF,” he said. “Well, it doesn't happen that way.”

“Those people don't necessarily admire you. Some are envious. You can see it in their eyes when they look at you across the table. They think they should be CMSAF because they're just as good as you. And some of them are right. They are just as good as you.

“So you have to show them why they should help you,” he said. “You have to sell yourself each time.”

He also quickly found the commanders didn't trust him or his position that was still new to the Air Force.

“They thought I was going to spy on them, tattle and get them in trouble. (First CMSAF Paul) Airey had a tough job, being the first, because many general officers would tell him, ‘I want you to know I voted against this position. We don't need guys like you running around the Air Force creating problems.'”

During the Vietnam War, Harlow guided his attention where he thought itwas most needed — to the young troops and their problems. There were assignment concerns and promotion problems, and he listened to them all, took good notes and reported his findings to the chief of staff.

He was known for his blunt honesty. When a young airmen told the chief he was getting out because he wanted to let his hair grow long, Harlow said he told the troop, “‘I wish you well.' I think he wanted me to give him a sales pitch, but it was a stupid reason to leave the Air Force.”

When Harlow retired in 1971, he was well armed with knowledge of the AirForce system, and he waged war where he thought it would make the most difference — on Capitol Hill. As the senior lobbyist for the Air Force Sergeants Association, he took his messages to the House of Representatives and Senate and was well known, as he had been in the Air Force, for getting results.

“I learned while I was in the position of CMSAF that a lot of things could not be resolved administratively within the Air Force or the Department of Defense,” he said at that time. “They had to go to Congress. I saw problems that needed to be corrected and could only be through legislation.”

Tenacity is among the skills he attributed to his success — both in the military and on Capitol Hill.

Harlow was most proud of the fact that he served as CMSAF and as a lobbyist at a time when someone had to fight for enlisted equality. As a lobbyist, his cause was to sell Congress on the idea that pay and benefits of enlisted men and women must be improved.

“I wanted to change the way that too many powerful people in Washington thought about enlisted men and women. Enlisted people were viewed as second-class citizens by some.”

Harlow and others got congressional leaders to listen, and the quality of life for enlisted members began to improve. His contributions were key to several victories, including establishment of the Survivor Benefit Plan and saving the federal subsidy for commissaries.

He also relied on his sense of humor when things got tough. It is humor, Harlow said, that helped him stay young.

He is survived by his wife, Dorothy, and two daughters, Pamela Harlow of Hermosa Beach, Calif., and Penny Murphy of Corvallis, Ore.

Funeral arrangements at Arlington National Cemetery, Va., are pending.

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