The First 50 Years

  • Published
  • By Colonel John Martinez Jr., USAF (Ret.)_

Extracts from TJAG Oral Histories

This collection is a selection of lessons from various TJAGs across the decades.

The history of the last 25 years is built upon the events and heritage of the first 50. The Air Force Judge Advocate General's Corps recorded oral histories of the past Judge Advocate Generals that include their reflections on their tenure and broader themes. We have selected one TJAG oral history from each decade of the first 50 years and extracted some enduring lessons. The quotations are from our collections of tapes and transcripts of these oral histories with the respective Judge Advocate General in each section below. The oral history collection is housed with the Strategic Plans and Programs Directorate at the Pentagon, Arlington, Virginia.



Quick Links to the Decade Sections



The late 1940s and the 1950s


1947 The Air Force became a separate military service in September 1947.

1948 The Air Force Military Justice Act created the position of The Judge Advocate General (TJAG).

1949 The Office of The Judge Advocate General became The Judge Advocate General’s Department (TJAGD).

1950 The predecessor of The Air Force Judge Advocate General’s School (AFJAGS) was organized at Maxwell Air Force Base (AFB), Alabama.


Major General Reginald C. Harmon (1948-1960) – The First TJAG

General Harmon’s role as TJAG was to build a new organization with new people. It is difficult today to envision the challenges he faced. Many of his decisions were dedicated to making sure that the relatively small team he started with was viewed as striving to be fully integrated with the new Air Force; he rejected any potential indicators of separateness.

He also recognized the need to maintain the standards of the legal profession.

“… you have to be very careful that the ethics, the moral policies of the office are beyond reproach. You appear to be pretty tough at first to the people who might prefer a more lenient policy, but it’s easier to make it more lenient later than it is to make it tighter later. You have to be sure that you’re setting the tone that will last through the years to come.”

This doesn’t mean he wanted a solemn office environment. When asked about how his staff managed the pressures of a new organization and a heavy workload, he said: “Morale was extremely high, extremely high. We had a tremendous workload. … We were all enthusiastic to be in a new outfit, and we had a lot of fun solving the very difficult problems that we had to solve. And, morale is terribly important. I've always believed that any place you work must be a happy place to work.”


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The 1960s


1966 Legal Information Technology (LITE) transferred to the TJAGD. LITE became FLITE (adding “Federal”) in 1974.

1967 CSAF approved the Judge Advocate Badge.

1969 The first Judge Advocate Staff Officer Course (JASOC) class graduated from the newly revived AFJAGS.


Major General Robert W. Manss (1964-1969) – The Third TJAG

A practicing lawyer, General Manss enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1942. He served as an enlisted lawyer at Keesler Field and, after being commissioned, was an intelligence officer. After World War II, he began his service as a judge advocate. He was a particularly strong advocate for education and data automation.

When he entered office, there was no separate Air Force JAG School and there was no process for judge advocate attendance at Air Force developmental education. By the time he left, both were in in place. His philosophy was simple and applied to both legal and developmental education: 

I had always been a firm believer in education, particularly of the people who are going to represent clients. … if you’re going to represent a client you ought to know something about his business.

The LITE program (Legal Information Through Electronics) was the forerunner of today’s Legal Information Services operations; this is how he viewed it: “The LITE program … looked very promising and looked like it would give us a very good method of storing legal information and precedent where we could recover it in a hurry without too much trouble. Of course, the thing that always happens is trying to get money for it.” He was successful in building support in Congress and in getting other government agencies to participate.


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The 1970s


1970 CMSgt Steve Swigonski was assigned as the first Special Assistant to TJAG for Legal Airman Affairs.

1972 The Legal Services Specialist Course opened at Keesler AFB, Mississippi.


Major General Harold R. Vague (1973-1977) – The Fifth TJAG

General Vague had a distinctive background when he became TJAG. He had flown 25 combat missions over Europe as a B-17 navigator. He later tried cases as a trial and defense counsel at a time before counsel had to be members of a bar; he had been assigned to legal duties with less than year of law school. In his senior leader positions, he dealt with legal issues arising from the Vietnam era and social movements that still echo today.

He was proud of how the new Air Force handled President Truman's integration order: “… we took people for people, … and the Air Force just accepted them much easier than many had expected.”

His advice to judge advocates may have been novel to some at the time:

“Something that we have been preaching to JAGs for years is don't limit yourself to legal advice. You know, you've got judgment, you've got experience, so doggone it, jump in.” 

He pointed out what one of his commanders told him during one of their first meetings:
"I don't want you limiting yourself to legal advice. He said, 'I want your best judgement.'"


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The 1980s


1984 President Ronald Reagan signed Executive Order No. 12473 creating the “Manual for Courts⁠-⁠Martial”.

1988 Legal specialists were re⁠-⁠designated as paralegals.


Major General Robert W. Norris (1985-1988) – The Eighth TJAG

General Norris was at the forefront of a wide range of innovations and improvements including the beginning stages of a building new main Air Force Judge Advocate General's School (AFJAGS) facility, the creation of both contracts and environmental law division-level offices in the Office of The Judge Advocate General (AF/JA), the enhanced utilization of paralegals and ARC members, and the integration of computers into legal offices.

He spoke about the importance of TJAG and DJAG Article 6 visits to field legal offices. He vividly remembered a visit from General Harmon at his first legal office. He was impressed with what he heard and “… felt closer to the JAG Department after that.” He said that Article 6 visits solidified relationships and added to camaraderie and a sense of family. Accordingly, he always sought to travel with the senior enlisted advisor and an ARC representative from AF/JA.

In the same vein, at a worldwide JAG Corps conference General Norris spoke of the value of legal services provided to the Air Force and added: 

“I'm proud of the Department, I'm proud of what we do, but most of all I'm proud of our people. They are the very best and because of that we need to pay attention to them. We should never lose sight of the need to take care of our people and provide for their welfare. And that includes ourselves as well.”

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The 1990s


1993 - 2000 Operations NORTHERN WATCH and SOUTHERN WATCH, broadened TJAGD responsibilities, including significant deployments for ARC legal professionals.

1993 AFJAGS moved to the new Dickinson Law Center at Maxwell AFB, Alabama, and incorporated all TJAGD courses there.

1994 CSAF approved the Paralegal Badge.

Major General David C. Morehouse (1991-1993) – The Tenth TJAG

General Morehouse was the first Direct Appointee (DAP) to become TJAG. He too pressed for the expansion of paralegal, reservist, and guard contributions and involvement and saw through the completion of the new AFJAGS building. His tenure as DJAG and TJAG was marked by combatting efforts to sharply reduce JAG Corps manpower and to restrict the ability to provide independent legal advice. He steadfastly contended far and wide that legal expertise is vital to every area of Air Force operations and likewise the ability to provide independent legal advice is essential to mission accomplishment. Those principles are now commonly understood across the Air Force. His reflection is a fitting way to close this collection:

“I had a wonderful thirty-three years. I had a not so wonderful last five but a very challenging last five, and I wouldn’t change it. … I believe we succeeded. And we succeeded because we were really strongly staffed with people who helped make it happen. And that’s what’s key to this Department … getting the right people in the right jobs and keeping them motivated. … The people who come up in this Department have to remember the lessons of the past. We were taught some major lessons. … and those lessons should not be forgotten.”

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About the Author

Colonel John Martinez Jr., USAF (Ret.)

Colonel John Martinez Jr., USAF (Ret.), USAF

(B.A., Rutgers College, New Brunswick, New Jersey; J.D., New York University Law School, New York, New York) serves in the Strategic Plans and Programs Directorate, Office of The Judge Advocate General, Washington, D.C.
Edited by: Major Allison K.W. Johnson (Editor-in-Chief), Major Victoria H. Clarke, Major Andrew H. Woodbury and Senior Master Sergeant Ashton Deloney
Layout by: Thomasa Huffstutler