A 1928 graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, Travis saw action as commander of the Eighth Air Force‘s 41st Combat Bombardment Wing, based at RAF Molesworth in England. He personally led 35 combat missions over Nazi-occupied Europe, including a costly raid on a fighter plant in Oschersleben, Germany, on 11 January 1944, for which the wing received a Distinguished Unit Citation. His decorations included the Distinguished Service Cross, the Silver Star with two oak leaf clusters, the Distinguished Flying Cross with three oak leaf clusters, and the Purple Heart.
Son of a prominent military family (his father was an Army general*), Travis was born in Georgian 1904. He assumed his first command at Hickam Field, Honolulu in June 1939 as commander of the 72M Bombardment Squadron. He received his brigadier general’s star in September 1944 after assuming command of the 41st Combat Wing in Europe.
*for the state of Georgia
Brigadier General Robert F. Travis
He was then reassigned to Hickam, this time as Commanding General, Pacific Air Command. His brilliant wartime bombing record and rapid rise in rank made him an obvious choice to supervise the Strategic Air Command’s development of Fairfield-Suisun AFB in 1949. Attaining command of both SAC wings at the base granted him an additional distinction during his tenure there.
Brigadier General Travis’ popularity and the effect of his death in such a terrible accident led local civilian leaders and base officials alike to propose renaming the base in his honor. Their proposal was favorably received in Washington and on October 20, 1950, Fairfield-Suisun AFB became Travis AFB. California Governor Earl Warren presided over the formal dedication ceremonies, which many dignitaries and members of the Travis family attended, on April 20, 1951.
Robert Falligant Travis was born in Savannah, Georgia, on 26 December 1904, the son of Robert Jessie Travis, a lawyer who reached the rank of major general in the Georgia National Guard, and his wife Rena née Falligant. He had a younger brother, William Livingston, and two sisters, Rena and Cecilia.
Travis entered the University of Georgia in Athens in 1924, but received an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, which he entered on 1 July 1924. He graduated on 9 June 1928 and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Field Artillery, ranking 115th out of 261 in class of 1928. His brother, William, graduated 53d in the class of 1933, and would eventually reach the rank of colonel in the United States Air Force.
Travis commenced flight training on 1 September 1928 at the Air Corps Primary Flying School at Brooks Field, Texas. On completion of the course he attended the Air Corps Advanced Flying School at Kelly Field, Texas. On 15 November 1929, he was posted to the 1st Observation Squadron at Mitchel Field, New York, as an engineering officer. He was transferred to the Air Corps on 21 November 1929. From 19 July 1932 to 7 August 1933 he was a student at the Air Corps Engineering School at Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio. He then joined the 59th Service Squadron at Langley Field, Virginia, as its supply engineering and operations officer.
From February to May 1934, during the Air Mail scandal, Travis served as the engineering inspector for the Eastern Zone of the Army Air Corps Mail Operation (AACMO) based at Floyd Bennett Field, Brooklyn, and Mitchel Field, Long Island, in New York. Upon completion of this assignment, he returned to Langley Field, where he became the engineering and armament officer of the 49th Bombardment Squadron, 2d Bombardment Group, in December 1934. In March 1935, he was made a flight commander in the 49th Bombardment Squadron. By October 1937, he transferred to the headquarters staff of the 2nd Bombardment Group as the group intelligence and armament officer. He was promoted to first lieutenant on 1 June 1934, and was temporary captain from 20 April 1935 to 16 June 1936. He was promoted to captain again on 9 June 1938.
World War II
In March 1939, Travis went to the 72d Bombardment Squadron at Hickam Field, Hawaii, to serve as operations officer and a flight commander. In July 1939, he became its commanding officer. He then became materiel officer of the 5th Bombardment Group in September 1940, and was promoted to major on 31 January 1941. In May 1941, he returned to the United States, where he was assigned to the 29th Bombardment Group at MacDill Field, Florida, as the commanding officer of the 43d Bombardment Squadron. He was subsequently elevated to Executive Officer and then commander of the 29th Bombardment Group, with the rank of lieutenant colonel from 5 January 1942, and colonel from 1 March 1942. He moved with the 29th Bombardment Group in June 1942, when it was relocated to Gowen Field in Boise, Idaho. In September 1942, he became the commanding officer of the 15th Bombardment Training Wing at Gowen Field. He moved with it to Sioux City Army Air Base in Iowa, in February 1943. He was promoted to brigadier general on 4 May 1943. In July, he became the Commanding General of the I Bomber Command at El Paso Army Airfield in Texas.
Travis was next assigned to the European Theater of Operations, and assumed command of the 41st Combat Bombardment Wing of the Eighth Air Force based at RAF Molesworth in England on 16 September 1943. Travis flew 35 missions over enemy-occupied territory, including a mission to destroy the Focke-Wulf AGO Flugzeugwerke fighter plant in Oschersleben, Germany, on 11 January 1944, for which the wing received a Distinguished Unit Citation. The Eighth Air Force lost 60 bombers that day, 34 of them in the attack on Oschersleben. For his services as commander of 41st Combat Bombardment Wing, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the Silver Star with two oak leaf clusters, the Distinguished Flying Cross with three oak leaf clusters, Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters, the Army Commendation Medal and the Purple Heart.
Travis returned to the United States in October 1944 and was named Commanding General of the 17th Bombardment Training Wing at Grand Island Army Airfield in Nebraska. The wing later moved to Sioux City Army Air Base in Iowa. In August 1945, he was assigned to command the Sioux Falls Army Air Field in South Dakota.
Main article: 1950 Fairfield-Suisun Boeing B-29 crash
Travis was deputy commander of the Fourteenth Air Force at Orlando Air Force Base in Florida from May to September 1946, when he entered the National War College. He graduated in June 1947, and in September he became the deputy commander of the Seventh Air Force at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii. He assumed command of the 7th Air Division (formally the Seventh Air Force) there in May 1948. In September 1948, he was appointed Commanding General of the Pacific Air Command at Hickam. On 17 June 1949, he became the Commanding General of the 9th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing at Fairfield-Suisun Air Force Base, California. He assumed command of the 5th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing on 8 November 1949, commanding both wings at the base.
In July 1950, soon after the outbreak of the Korean War, the Joint Chiefs of Staff decided to send ten nuclear-capable B-29 Superfortress bombers to Guam as a deterrent to a Chinese attack on Taiwan, and possible future use in Korea. They were loaded with Mark 4 nuclear bombs, but without the fissile cores. Travis was one of twenty passengers and crewmen on board B-29 Superfortress 44-87651 when it commenced take off from Fairfield-Suisun at 2200 on 5 August 1950. The plane was piloted by Captain Eugene Q. Steffes, with First Lieutenant Carter W. Johnson as his co-pilot and Technical Sergeant Donald W. Moore as his flight engineer.
As the plane reached a speed of 125 miles per hour (201 km/h) about three quarters of the way down the 8,000-foot (2,400 m) runway with the propellers rotating at 2,800 rpm, the number two propeller suddenly went up to 3,500 rpm. Steffes ordered the propeller feathered. The aircraft lifted off at an airspeed of 155 miles per hour (249 km/h), but the landing gear failed to retract. Then the number three propeller suddenly went to 3,500 rpm. Moore reduced its speed to 2,800 rpm by reducing the manifold pressure. The drag caused by the landing gear reduced the plane’s speed to 145 miles per hour (233 km/h). The crew attempted an emergency landing. The plane turned around but lost lift, and crashed at 120 miles per hour (190 km/h).
The plane broke up on landing, and burst into flames. All ten people in the rear compartment died in the crash, but eight of the ten in the nose section, which broke off, escaped. Travis was pulled alive from the wreckage but died on his way to hospital. The high explosives in the bomb detonated during the fire 20 minutes after the crash, spreading wreckage and burning fuel over a wide area. An additional seven people who were not part of the crew died on the ground in the explosion.
The 19 bodies were taken to the McCune Garden Chapel in Vacaville. Travis was buried at Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors on 16 August 1950. He was survived by his wife, Jane Frances Travis, who was interred with him after she died on 22 November 1987, and his four children: Jayne, Robert, John and Roger. Fairfield-Suisun Air Force Base was officially renamed Travis Air Force Base in his honor on 20 October 1950. A formal renaming ceremony was held on 20 April 1951, presided over by the Governor of California, Earl Warren, which was attended by Travis’ family.
Awards and decorations
|Distinguished Service Cross|||
|Silver Star with two oak leaf clusters|||
|Distinguished Flying Cross with three oak leaf clusters|||
|Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters|||
|Army Commendation Medal|||
|Distinguished Unit Citation|||
|American Defense Service Medal with bronze service star|||
|American Campaign Medal with bronze service star|||
|European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with four service stars|||
|World War II Victory Medal|||
|National Defense Service Medal|||
|Air Force Longevity Service Award with four oak leaf clusters|||
|Legion of Honor, grade of Chevalier (France)|||
|Croix de Guerre with palm (France)|||
|Distinguished Flying Cross (United Kingdom)|||
|Groix de Guerre with palm (Belgium)|||
Dates of rank
|Second Lieutenant||Field Artillery||9 June 1928|||
|Second Lieutenant||Air Corps||8 September 1929|||
|First Lieutenant||Air Corps||1 June 1934|||
|Captain (temporary)||Air Corps||20 April 1935|||
|First Lieutenant||Air Corps||17 June 1936|||
|Captain||Air Corps||9 June 1938|||
|Major||Army of the United States||31 January 1941|||
|Major (temporary)||Air Corps||1 February 1941|||
|Lieutenant Colonel (temporary)||Army of the United States||5 January 1942|||
|Lieutenant Colonel||Army of the United States||1 February 1942|||
|Colonel||Army of the United States||1 March 1942|||
|Brigadier General||Army of the United States||4 May 1943|||
|Major||Air Corps||9 June 1945|||
|Colonel||United States Air Force||2 April 1948|||