When Congress authorized the Air Force Cross on July 9, 1960 with the passage of Public Law 86-593, it did not establish a new decoration. Instead, it gave the Air Force the go-ahead for the design and issuance of its own version of the Army Distinguished Service Cross, which had been created in July 1918, somewhat similar to the events that led to the creation of the Navy Cross (for Navy and Marine Corps personnel) and the Coast Guard Cross.

Awarded for acts of extraordinary heroism which fall shy of the standard required for the Medal of Honor, the AFC is generally associated with combat acts, but a careful reading of the requirements makes it clear that non-combat acts of valor or heroism may qualify provided they take place in a theater of combat. (There are only two instances of Air Force Cross recipients being honored for non-combat heroism, however). The wording also allows for civilians and foreign nationals to earn the award; the Secretary of Defense must approve the AFC for foreign officers (NATO rank O-7 or higher), while the Secretary of the Air Force must personally sign off on awarding the decoration to civilians.

The original design for the AFC, sketched by Air Force civilian employee Eleanor Cox in 1958, at first bore too strong of a resemblance to the Army Distinguished Service Cross upon which served as the medal’s legislative mandate. After undergoing revisions, the final design approved by the Commission of Fine Art was sculpted by Thomas Hudson Jones of the Army’s Heraldic Branch, known today as The Institute of Heraldry. Hudson was also responsible for the design of medals such as the Airman’s Medal, Korean Service Medal, National Defense Service Medal, and the Army of Occupation of Germany Service Medal.

Production of the officially authorized medal began in September, 1962; the first AFC was presented in December of that year by President John F. Kennedy to the widow of Major Rudolf Anderson, a U-2 pilot who died after his plane was shot down on October 27, 1962 in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The legislation authorizing the Air Force Cross specified that the award was to be given for heroic acts performed after July 6, 1960. But there are two instances where World War II—pilots receiving the award in lieu of the Army Distinguished Service Cross because their nominations had been lost as the result of a bureaucratic snafu. By the time Air Force found and processed the nominations—once in 1968, then again in 1983—the decision was made that the AFC was the more appropriate award. Lieutenant William J. Sloan, a P-38 pilot, received the decoration for actions he performed on July 5, 1943, while Lieutenant Urban Drew was awarded the AFC for his actions as a pilot on October 7, 1944.

The first living recipient of the Air Force Cross, Lieutenant Colonel Robin Risner, actually was honored with the award twice for his actions both in aerial combat over Vietnam and his resistance as a prisoner of war. Risner is one of just four people to have been honored with more than one Air Force Cross; Colonel James K. Halser, who was given the award three times, was also shot down over Vietnam and served time as a prisoner of war.

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