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FreightWaves Classics: 75th anniversary of U.S. Air Force founding (Part 2)

Between the wars (1919-1939)

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The 75th anniversary of the founding of the United States Air Force (USAF) occurred on September 18, 2022. The “birthday” of this branch of the United States armed forces was and is being celebrated by millions across the nation and the world. FreightWaves also celebrates this anniversary and salutes the men and women who currently serve and those who have served our nation as members of the United States Air Force.

The 75th anniversary logo of the United States Air Force.
(Image: af.mil)
The 75th anniversary logo of the United States Air Force.
(Image: af.mil)

To read Part 1 of this article, follow this link.

Demobilization

World War I had been called “the war to end all wars,” and the U.S. government took that seriously. Following the armistice, the Air Service was quickly demobilized. In mid-November 1918, the Air Service had “185 aero squadrons; 44 aero construction; 114 aero supply, 11 aero replacement, and 150 spruce production squadrons; 86 balloon companies; six balloon group headquarters; 15 construction companies; 55 photographic sections; and a few miscellaneous units.” Just one year later (November 22, 1919), “all had been demobilized except one aero construction, one aero replacement, and 22 aero squadrons, 32 balloon companies, 15 photographic sections, and a few miscellaneous units.” Between Armistice Day and June 30, 1920, officer strength plunged “from 19,189 to 1,168, and enlisted strength dropped from 178,149 to 8,428.”

The 372nd Infantry Regiment on parade in Columbus, Ohio, after returning from Europe in 1919. (Photo: worldwar1centennial.org)
The 372nd Infantry Regiment on parade in Columbus, Ohio, after returning from Europe in 1919. (Photo: worldwar1centennial.org)

Congress passed the Army Reorganization Act of 1920, which made the Air Service a combatant arm of the Army and set the Chief of the Air Service’s rank at major general. The Air Services’ tactical air units were placed under the nine Army corps area commanders; they were employed primarily in support of ground forces. The Chief of the Air Service retained command of training schools, depots, and other activities that were exempt from Army corps control.

The Curtiss B-2 Condor was a 1920s United States bomber aircraft. It was a descendant of the Martin NBS-1. (Photo: aviation-history.com)
The Curtiss B-2 Condor was a 1920s U.S. bomber aircraft. It was a descendant of the Martin NBS-1.
(Photo: aviation-history.com)
Pilots in training at Wilbur Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio. (Photo: Hocking County Historical and Genealogical Society and Museum)
Pilots in training at Wilbur Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio. (Photo: Hocking County Historical and Genealogical Society and Museum)

The 1920s 

“During most of the 1920s, the total offensive strength of the Air Service” based in the continental United States was one pursuit, one attack and one bombardment group. The Panama Canal Zone and the Philippines each had one pursuit and one bombardment squadron; there were two squadrons of each type stationed in the Territory of Hawaii. 

The focus of the Air Service was observation and pursuit aviation, while major aeronautical development efforts were concentrated in the Engineering Division that was based at McCook Field in Dayton, Ohio.

Jimmy Doolittle with his DH-4B-1-S during a refueling stop at Kelly Field, San Antonio, Texas, on September 4, 1922. (Photograph: H.L. Summerville/National Air and Space Museum Archives, Smithsonian Institution)
Jimmy Doolittle with his DH-4B-1-S during a refueling stop at Kelly Field, San Antonio, Texas, on September 4, 1922.
(Photograph: H.L. Summerville/National Air and Space Museum Archives, Smithsonian Institution)

The Air Service formalized its training during the 1920s, with flying training in Texas and technical schools for officers and enlisted men at Chanute Field, Illinois. The Air Service Tactical School trained officers to command higher units and taught the uses of military aviation. The school was located originally at Langley Field, Virginia; it was moved to Maxwell Field, Alabama in 1931. The Air Service’s engineering school was co-located with the Engineering Division at McCook Field.

The Dayton Wright TW-3. The airplane had some modern design tenets, like welded steel tube fuselage, along with other more standard construction elements of the early 1920s. (Photo: Gerald Balzer collection/generalaviationnews.com)
The Dayton Wright TW-3. The airplane had some modern design tenets, like welded steel tube fuselage, along with other more standard construction elements of the early 1920s. (Photo: Gerald Balzer collection/generalaviationnews.com)

Air Corps Act of 1926

The name of the Air Service was changed to the Air Corps as part of this legislation, but little else was altered. At the time of the name change, the Air Corps was composed of 919 officers and 8,725 enlisted men; its “modern aeronautical equipment” consisted of 60 pursuit planes and 169 observation planes and its total serviceable aircraft of all types numbered fewer than 1,000. 

Despite its very limited funding, the Air Corps continued its technological advancement and to purchase limited numbers of improved aircraft. There was a concerted focus on setting new world records (primarily in altitude, speed, endurance and distance). These efforts helped to focus the nation’s interest on the potential of military aviation and earned a level of international prestige for the United States.

Less spectacular, but still critically important in the Air Corps’ development, were other projects, “such as blind flying, aerial photography and airborne communications,” according to the National Museum of the United States Air Force. In addition, the Air Corps “flew forest-fire patrol and border patrol, crop dusted farm fields, bombed ice jams in swollen rivers, flew relief supplies into disaster areas, dropped feed to snowbound livestock and even experimented with the dispersal of ground fog.”

Martin MB-2 in flight with a pursuit aircraft practicing an attack. (Photo: U.S. Air Force)
Martin MB-2 in flight with a pursuit aircraft practicing an attack. (Photo: U.S. Air Force)

The Army established the Air Corps Training Center in San Antonio, Texas in August 1926. This was followed on October 15 by the establishment of the Materiel Division, in Dayton, Ohio. The following year that division moved to nearby Wright Field, which became the primary base for air logistics. Randolph Field, known as the “West Point of the Air,” was dedicated in Texas on June 20, 1930. It became the headquarters of the Air Corps Training Center and the site of its primary flying school in 1931. By June 30, 1932, the Air Corps consisted of 1,305 officers and 13,400 enlisted men. It had 1,709 aircraft split among four attack, 12 bombardment, 16 pursuit, and 13 observation squadrons. The Corps also had two airship and two balloon squadrons.

B-6A of 1st Bomb Squadron in 1935. The United States still had many biplanes in the Air Corps, while other nations were moving much more rapidly to design new aircraft for war. (Photo: National Museum of the United States Air Force)
B-6A of 1st Bomb Squadron in 1935. The United States still had many biplanes in the Air Corps, while other nations were moving much more rapidly to design new aircraft for war. (Photo: National Museum of the United States Air Force)

On March 1, 1935, the General Headquarters Air Force (GHQAF) became operational and assumed command and control over Air Corps tactical units. The majority of the Air Corps’ tactical units became part of this initial air force. The three GHQAF wings were located at March Field, California; Barksdale Field, Louisiana; and Langley Field, Virginia. Organizationally, the GHQAF Commander directed tactical training and operations; the Chief of the Air Corps controlled procurement, supply, training schools and doctrine development. However, on March 1, 1939, the Chief of the Air Corps assumed control over the GHQAF, centralizing command of the entire air arm.

War clouds

During the 1920s and 1930s, U.S. aircraft manufacturers had led the world in the development of passenger airplanes. In particular, the Boeing 247 and the Douglas DC-2 and DC-3 were purchased by U.S. airlines as well as airlines around the world. However, Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan focused their aircraft development efforts on war planes.  

A Junkers Ju-87 begins to roll in on a target. The "little bomber" was considered outdated before World War II even began, but it  served the Luftwaffe for five and a half years of nonstop combat. (Photo: Sueddeutsche Zeitung/airforcetimes.com)
A Junkers Ju-87 begins to roll in on a target. The “little bomber” was considered outdated before World War II even began, but it served the Luftwaffe for five and a half years of nonstop combat. (Photo: Sueddeutsche Zeitung/airforcetimes.com)

During the summer and fall of 1938, the Luftwaffe (air force) was used to showcase German military power during the partition of Czechoslovakia. In September 1938, 500 Luftwaffe aircraft supported the German ground forces that occupied Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland. 

President Franklin D. Roosevelt privately worried about a European war and the possibility of the United States being drawn into it. He also believed in the growing importance of airpower, and according to his advisor, Harry Hopkins, also believed “that airpower would win it.”

In October 1938, the Air Corps developed plans to expand to 7,000 aircraft. But President  Roosevelt asked the War Department to prepare plans for an Air Corps with 10,000 airplanes (including 7,500 combat aircraft). He formally requested this program in a special message sent to Congress on January 12, 1939. On April 3, Congress authorized $300 million for an Air Corps “not to exceed 6,000 serviceable airplanes.”

A Japanese "Zero" in flight. (Photo: worldofwarplanes.com)
A Japanese “Zero” in flight. (Photo: worldofwarplanes.com)

Imperial Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931 and China in 1937. It had a clear advantage in aircraft and mechanized weapons in both instances.  

Nazi Germany tested its aircraft during the Spanish Civil War, assisting the forces of the Nationalists under Francisco Franco. After these “tune-ups,” World War II officially began on September 1, 1939, when Germany invaded Poland using a tactic that became known as blitzkrieg – lightning war. 

Between the wars, the United States had done little to maintain or modernize its army, navy or air force. Many believed that the nation was protected by the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, while others wanted nothing to do with European affairs. When war did come, crash programs to make up for lost time were instituted.

A Martin B-12A of 31st Bomb Squadron at Hamilton Field, California. (Photo: Public Domain)
A Martin B-12A of 31st Bomb Squadron at Hamilton Field, California. (Photo: Public Domain)

FreightWaves Classics thanks the Air Force Historical Research Agency, the Council on Foreign Relations, military.com, veteran.com, the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), worldwar1centennial.org, and of course the United States Air Force for information and photos that contributed to this article.

Part 3 of this article will appear tomorrow and will cover 1940-1947. 

The FREIGHTWAVES TOP 500 For-Hire Carriers list includes Old Dominion Freight Line (No. 9).

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Scott Mall

Scott Mall serves as Managing Editor of FreightWaves Classics. He writes articles for the website, edits the SONAR Daily Watch series, marketing material for FreightWaves and a variety of FreightWaves special projects. Mall’s career spans 45 years in public relations, marketing and communications for Fortune 500 corporations, international non-profits, public relations agencies and government agencies.