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US Air Force History

US Air Force History

The following article on US Air Force history is an excerpt from Bill Yenne's book Hap Arnold: The General Who Invented the US Air Force.

US Air Force History

In late 1941 and early 1942 the top British and American military leaders met in Washington, DC. Known as the Arcadia Conference, Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt and their aides had a number of conversations that shaped the war effort in 1942-1943.

The British staff and the American JCS formed a new Combined Chiefs of Staff (CCS), which would remain in place throughout the war and would include among its number Lieutenant General Hap Arnold and Air Chief Marshal Portal and the other respective service chiefs, General George Marshall and Admiral Ernest King on the American side, and their opposite numbers, Field Marshal Alan Brooke, who had succeeded Sir John Dill as chief of Imperial General Staff, and Fleet Admiral Dudley Pound. The senior members were Admiral William Leahy, who chaired the American Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Dill, whom Churchill had now appointed as chief of the British mission in Washington. Over the coming months and years, Hap Arnold and Sir John would not only see eye-to-eye strategically, but would become close personal friends.

USAF Strategy During World War Two

Arcadia's biggest strategic decision from a historical perspective can be summarized in the phrase “Germany first, contain Japan.” Roosevelt and Churchill decided on putting the lion's share of their resources into defeating Germany. Indeed, the combined resources of the Anglo-American Allies were barely up to this task.

There was a great deal of talk about how to utilize these resources. The Allies discussed Operation Sledgehammer, an Anglo-American invasion of continental Europe in 1942, but given the weakness of the Allies relative to the strength and defensive advantage then held by the Germans, it was decided that such an operation should be postponed until 1943 (ultimately it was postponed until 1944).

In looking at the map, it was decided that the earliest effective major land action that the U.S. Army could undertake would be a landing in Northwest Africa. Ideally, this operation, code-named Gymnast, would take pressure off the British, who were fighting the German Afrika Korps on the opposite side of North Africa, not to mention provide some measure of relief for the Soviets, who could benefit from any diversion of German resources.

For Hap Arnold, the Arcadia discussions underscored the need to expand the aerial ferry routes across the Atlantic to Britain and to establish an air bridge to Australia, where the last ditch defense against the still-unstoppable Japanese would be made. Flowing through these corridors would be not only American aircraft on lend-lease, but USAAF aircraft destined to fight the Axis powers.

As Gymnast became the primary focus of American offensive ground strategy, talk turned to an offensive air strategy. The Arcadia conferees began discussing a strategic air offensive against Germany's industrial capacity. Even as American aircraft production had been a topic of Anglo-American discussions for at least a year, both parties realized that Germany's state-of-the-art factories were as much a part of their war machine as were the German armed forces. The only way to touch this industrial machine was from the air, and through the use of long-range, four-engine bombers.

Though they would differ in operational nuances, when it came to the theory of strategic air operations, Air Chief Marshal Portal and the commander of RAF Bomber Command, Air Marshal Arthur Travers “Bomber” Harris, were on the same page as the long-time Mitchell disciples running the USAAF, Hap Arnold and Tooey Spaatz.

On January 19, Arnold and his staff formed the VIII Bomber Command, which on February 22 was incorporated into the new Eighth Air Force, the umbrella organization for operational USAAF units in Britain. While the VIII Bomber Command was the centerpiece of the Eighth Air Force, the Air Force also contained a VIII Fighter Command to supply fighters to escort the bombers and a VIII Service Command to maintain the aircraft. In the beginning, the Eighth also contained the VIII Ground Air Support Command (later Air Support Command), which was formed for tactical operations, but its assets were later transferred to the Ninth Air Force.

Also on February 22, a Combined Chiefs of Staff memorandum, entitled Policy for Disposition of US and British Air Forces, promised that the Eighth Air Force would be joining the RAF in the strategic air offensive against Germany “at the earliest dates practicable.” Harris was already conducting long-range bombing operations against Germany, and the British were anxious to have the Yanks on board. Hap Arnold had hoped that this would be as early as April, but with the small number of four-engine bombers then available and the need to share these with the RAF, Arnold and Spaatz had to admit that “the earliest dates practicable” was not going to be soon.

Building Up the USAF

Roosevelt decided that the target for the American aircraft industry should be sixty thousand new aircraft for 1942. It was left to Arnold and Portal to work out how these numbers were to be allocated. Though there is no record of how the chiefs arrived at their figures, the Arnold-Portal agreement of January 14 called for 34,830 to be delivered to the USAAF; 10,382 to the RAF; and 10,220 to the U.S. Navy. In retrospect, the Arnold-Portal agreement was more a framework for an interim goal than a precise prescription of numbers.

On February 15, 1942, the great British bastion at Singapore, considered impregnable, fell to the Japanese, along with its eighty-thousand-man garrison. Winston Churchill called Singapore's surrender the “worst disaster” in British history. At the same time, the United States was suffering its greatest defeat since the Civil War in the Philippines, where one hundred thousand American troops were surrounded. The tide of bad news, week after week, infected home-front morale like a debilitating sickness.

As Arnold wrote in his memoirs, Roosevelt had taken him aside immediately following Pearl Harbor, and asked-insisted, in fact- that something be done to “find ways and means of carrying home to Japan proper, in the form of a bombing raid, the real meaning of war.”

Arnold had no immediate way to do this, but put the problem to his air staff. The solution came from the U.S. Navy.

“Early in 1942, Admiral King came to see me and asked if I thought it was feasible to use USAAF B-25 twin-engine, medium bombers, with a longer range than Navy bombers launched from the deck of a carrier,” Arnold recalled. (A four-engine bomber was physically too large.) “I assured him I thought it was, provided the carrier deck was large enough to accommodate the number of B-25s that should be sent out on such a mission.”

Next came choosing a leader for the mission: Jimmy Doolittle. “The selection of Doolittle to lead this nearly suicidal mission was a natural one,” Arnold recalled in his memoirs. “He was fearless, technically brilliant, a leader who not only could be counted upon to do a task himself if it were humanly possible, but could impart his spirit to others.”

In the years since Arnold had first spent time with him in the early 1920s, Doolittle had gone on to make a name for himself on the air racing circuit, having won the “big three” air race trophies: the Schneider Cup, the Bendix Trophy, and the Thompson Trophy. In the meantime, he had also earned the Mackay Trophy in 1926 and set a world speed record in the 1932 Shell Speed Dash. The “technically brilliant” aviator had earned a doctorate from MIT, had helped develop the artificial horizon and directional gyroscope, and had pioneered methods for teaching instrument flying. He had returned to active duty in 1940, and, like Arnold, had made a fact-finding trip to Britain.

“From that time on, the Doolittle Tokyo Raid was an approved, and Top Secret, project, very few officers in the Air Force, or in the Navy, knew it was to take place,” Arnold continues. “President Roosevelt was kept constantly advised on the details. Closest cooperation was maintained with the Navy to insure proper carrier take-off technique.”

Doolittle, his crews, and his B-25s sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge aboard the USS Hornet on April 2, 1942. On April 18, all sixteen managed to get off the flight deck and reach the skies above five Japanese cities, including Tokyo. Because it would not be possible to land on the carrier, the crews were briefed to continue westward and land in China. None of the aircraft were able to reach an airfield, but sixty-nine of eighty crewmen-including Doolittle- bailed out, survived, and were repatriated. Hap Arnold was pleased with his airmen. As Jimmy Doolittle later told Robert Arnold personally, “Hap Arnold was a man you did not want to disappoint.” Doolittle hadn't.

The material damage done was slight, but the impact to morale was immense, because the raid demonstrated that the United States, specifically the USAAF, was capable of bombing Japan, albeit with the help of the U.S. Navy.

Meanwhile, Colonel Harry “Hurry-Up” Halverson was leading a contingent of B-24 Liberators around the world in the opposite direction, with the intention of attacking Japan from bases in China.

Crossing the South Atlantic by way of Brazil, the Halverson Project (HALPRO) had reached Khartoum in Sudan, en route to India, by early June. By then, the situation in China had deteriorated to the point that it was no longer feasible to base American long-range bombers there, so HALPRO was diverted to attack the oil refineries at Ploesti, Romania. This was the largest refinery complex in continental Europe, and given that Romania had joined the Axis, Ploesti was a key source of the petrochemicals that oiled and fueled the German war machine.

Launched from a British base at Benghazi in Libya, the HALPRO mission took place on June 12 and came as a complete surprise to the enemy. Wrote Hap Arnold, “The improbability of this two thosand-mile round trip was its best protection, and enemy opposition was not heavy.”

As with the Doolittle mission in April, the actual physical damage was minimal, but it served notice that the USAAF was capable of attacking distant enemy targets. Of course, no one knew better than Hap Arnold that such missions were at the extreme limits of USAAF capability, and that much hard work would need to be done before the USAAF was capable of a sustained strategic air offensive against either Germany or Japan.

Meanwhile, the USAAF was expanding organizationally. Through August, Arnold oversaw the addition of four new numbered air forces. The Ninth Air Force was created as a tactical air support organization in the eastern Mediterranean Theater; the Tenth Air Force was formed as an umbrella organization for USAAF operations in the China-Burma-India Theater; the Eleventh Air Force came into being as a redesignation of the Alaskan Air Force; and the Twelfth Air Force was created in the western Mediterranean Theater primarily to support Operation Torch, the American landings in Northwest Africa that had been decided upon during the Arcadia Conference.

Commanding these new air forces were General Lewis Brereton with the Ninth, General Clayton Bissell at the Tenth, General William Butler with the Eleventh, and-back in the field after receiving his Medal of Honor from President Roosevelt-General Jimmy Doolittle with the Twelfth.

Meanwhile, Arnold re-designated the USAAF Air Ferrying Command as the Air Transport Command because units and operations of the command were “extended to all parts of the world” and not just doing ferry work.

To command this new organization, Arnold picked General Hal George, late of the AWPD, and as George's deputy, he “drafted” C.

R. Smith, the president of American Airlines and commissioned him as a USAAF colonel. Indeed, the pilots and aircraft of all the nation's airlines would be a vital element in the development of the Air Transport Command and its global route structure.

“They made a wonderful pair,” Arnold wrote in his memoirs. “No matter what mission I gave them, I could count on its being carried out 100 percent. The two officers complemented each other in ability, experience, and judgment-they made a perfect team. The growth of the Air Transport Command paralleled closely the expansion of the whole Air Force. It started out with two officers and one clerk in a small room and within two years totaled over 85,000 officers and men, and had lines extending to practically every corner of the world.” Having won his battle over production allotments and now finally seeing his Flying Fortresses in action, Hap Arnold should have been able to breathe more easily about the European Theater. However, two further internal battles now loomed, both of which threatened to limit the effectiveness, at least in the near term, of his plans for a strategic offensive against the Third Reich.

The first of these again put him at odds with Portal, with Bomber Harris, and with the rest of the RAF establishment. The crux of the matter was the beginning of a long-running doctrinal dispute over tactics. The USAAF located targets visually and bombed them with as much precision as possible. For this purpose, the USAAF had developed and deployed the Norden bombsight aboard its Flying Fortresses and Liberators. Developed in the United States by a Netherlands-born engineer named Carl Lukas Norden, the bomb-sight was the most sophisticated aiming device in history not to use electronics. Having worked for the Sperry Gyroscope Company before World War I, Norden was a recognized pioneer in the field of gyroscopically stabilized naval gun platforms when he went out on his own to build his bombsight.


The Eighth Air Force bombers were equipped with the Norden M-Series, which was capable of targeting within a fifty-foot radius from an altitude of more than twenty thousand feet, a level of precision eight times that afforded by the British Mk.XIV bombsight. The USAAF was confident that the Norden validated the doctrine of daylight precision attacks.

The British, however, were skeptical of both the bombsight and the doctrine, insisting that the Eighth Air Force abandon precision strikes in favor of area attacks, such as the RAF was doing. Unlike precision attacks, which were only possible in the daytime, area or “carpet” bombing could be done at night, when it was harder for enemy antiaircraft gunners or interceptor pilots to track and shoot down the bombers. The British advocacy of this doctrine verged on insistence. The Americans countered that carpet bombing was wasteful and imprecise and it led to widespread civilian casualties. Having seen what the Luftwaffe Blitz of 1940 had done to London, Bomber Command's Harris was outspoken in his disregard for the drawbacks of area bombing. As he famously told Portal, “The Nazis entered this war under the rather childish delusion that they were going to bomb everyone else, and nobody was going to bomb them. At Rotterdam, London, Warsaw, and half a hundred other places, they put their rather naive theory into operation. They sowed the wind, and now they are going to reap the whirlwind.”

As James Lea Cate wrote in the official history of the USAAF, the Americans stuck to their doctrine, believing that “paralysis of selected key spots would be as effective as, and far cheaper than, total obliteration.” Although the USAAF and RAF agreed to disagree, and fly by day and night, respectively, the RAF continued to urge the USAAF to join them in nighttime area bombing.

The second challenge confronting Arnold and Spaatz involved Operation Torch, now set for November. The Combined Chiefs of Staff decided to focus the majority of Allied resources to the support of Torch and to divert bombers to the Mediterranean Theater and away from the build-up in Britain.

Tooey Spaatz went to General Eisenhower, who was given the supreme command of Allied forces for Operation Torch, and argued that the Eighth Air Force should continue to amass forces for strategic operations against Germany. Eisenhower agreed to Spaatz's demands, but only with the caveat that any resources deemed necessary for Torch would have to be diverted. As a result, the Eighth lost entire bombardment groups. It also lost Tooey Spaatz. When Eisenhower moved to the Mediterranean to assume the supreme command of Allied forces for Operation Torch, Spaatz, as the chief airman on his staff, went with him. Ira Eaker now moved up from VIII Bomber Command to head the entire Eighth Air Force. To command the VIII Bomber Command, Arnold picked Major General Frederick Lewis Anderson Jr., who had been the deputy director of bombardment at USAAF Headquarters before coming to England in 1941 as Arnold's personal representative “on bombardment matters” in the European Theater.

This article on US Air Force history is from the book Hap Arnold: The General Who Invented the US Air Force © 2013 by Bill Yenne. Please use this data for any reference citations. To order this book, please visit its online sales page at Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

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