Remember that episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the one where everyone bursts into song? Bear with me, because I’m in a musical mood today.
You know the Air Force song, right? Off we go, into the wild blue yonder? Sure you do. But did you know the Air Force also has an official hymn? Sometimes called “Lord Guard and Guide the Men Who Fly,” its official title is “The Air Force Hymn.”
You may have heard it … some television stations used it as background music during their nightly sign-offs. That, at least, is how I remember hearing it. Until recently, though, I’d never heard it sung all the way through.
It really is a beautiful piece, and I love the lyrics:
Lord, guard and guide the men who fly
Through the great spaces of the sky;
Be with them traversing the air
In darkening storms or sunshine fair.
Thou who dost keep with tender might
The balanced birds in all their flight,
Thou of the tempered winds be near,
That, having thee, they know no fear.
Control their minds with instinct fit
What time, adventuring, they quit
The firm security of land;
Grant steadfast eye and skilful hand.
Aloft in solitudes of space,
Uphold them with Thy saving grace.
O God, protect the men who fly
Thru lonely ways beneath the sky.
The hymn dates back to the early days of the U.S. Army Air Corps: Mary C.D. Hamilton wrote the lyrics in 1915. The music’s even older, composed by Henry Baker in 1854. Originally, of course, it was the Army Air Corps Hymn, then the Army Air Force Hymn; when the USAF became a separate service in 1947 it became the Air Force Hymn.
The song we all know … off we go, into the wild blue yonder … was adopted by the Army in 1938. As with the hymn, its name has changed to reflect its parent service, and is now officially known as “The U.S. Air Force Song.”
The USAF updated the lyrics in 2020 to make the song gender-inclusive. The recording above is the older version, with its references to men and boys. These are the modified lyrics:
Off we go into the wild blue yonder,
Climbing high into the sun;
Here they come zooming to meet our thunder,
At ‘em now, Give ’em the gun!
Down we dive, spouting our flame from under,
Off with one helluva roar!
We live in fame or go down in flame. Hey!
Nothing’ll stop the U.S. Air Force!
Brilliant minds fashioned a crate of thunder,
Sent it high into the blue;
Valiant hands blasted the world asunder;
How they lived God only knew!
Boundless souls dreaming of skies to conquer
Gave us wings, ever to soar!
With scouts before and bombers galore. Hey!
Nothing’ll stop the U.S. Air Force!
Here’s a toast to the host
Of those who love the vastness of the sky,
To a friend we send a message of the brave who serve on high.
We drink to those who gave their all of old
Then down we roar to score the rainbow’s pot of gold.
A toast to the host of those we boast, the U.S. Air Force!
Off we go into the wild sky yonder,
Keep the wings level and true;
If you’d live to be a grey-haired wonder
Keep the nose out of the blue!
Fly to fight, guarding the nation’s border,
We’ll be there, followed by more!
In echelon we carry on.
Oh, nothing’ll stop the U.S. Air Force!
I was never a big fan of the Air Force Song. It always seemed brash and jingoistic to me. Looking up background information on it, I learned Charles Lindbergh didn’t think much of it either.
My opinion’s beginning to soften, now that I know the third verse, “Toast to the Host,” the song within the song, sung to a different melody and sometimes performed alone. I guess I’d never heard all four verses performed before; like the rising tide, the third verse lifts the entire piece.
Here’s some additional background information, from a Hill Air Force Base fact sheet:
In 1938, Liberty magazine sponsored a contest for a spirited, enduring musical composition to become the official Army Air Corps song. Of 757 scores submitted, the one composed by Robert MacArthur Crawford (1899-1961) was selected by a committee of Air Force wives. The song (informally known as “The Air Force Song” but now formally titled “The U.S. Air Force”) was officially introduced at the Cleveland Air Races on September 2, 1939. Fittingly, Crawford sang in its first public performance.
A bridge section, “Toast to the Host,” is part of the original Air Force Song. Many times this is sung as a separate piece. This is the verse which commemorates those who have fallen in the name of our service and our great country. This is the reason for the difference in melody and the reverent, reflective mood.
Crawford didn’t write “Hey!” in the lyrics. He actually wrote “SHOUT!” without specifying the word to be shouted.
Update (3/8/21): Here’s one I bet you’ve never heard. Obviously, it never caught on, not even with Mitch Miller behind it. But hey, there’s some great 1950s Air Force video to watch while you listen:
© 2021, Paul Woodford. All rights reserved.