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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.
World War II
After World War II began on September 1, 1939, Nazi Germany quickly conquered Poland, Norway, Holland, Belgium and France. As the Germans overran France, logistical skill, determination and luck were used to rescue approximately 338,000 British and French soldiers from the French port of Dunkirk and nearby beaches between May 26 and June 4, 1940. Although most of their equipment and vehicles were left behind, the soldiers would be able to fight again another day.
However, the swift victories of the Nazis caused Congress to appropriate funds to improve and enlarge the armed forces of the United States.
But when war broke out the Air Corps only had 800 first-line combat aircraft and 76 bases. U.S. fighter aircraft were inferior to the British Spitfire and Hurricane and the German Messerschmitt 109 and 110. In late 1940, after visiting Great Britain, newspaper publisher Ralph Ingersoll wrote that the “best American fighter planes already delivered to the British are used by them either as advanced trainers – or for fighting equally obsolete Italian planes in the Middle East. That is all they are good for.”
U.S. Navy, U.S Army and U.S. Army Air Corps leaders were able to expand manpower and order new weapons. In the Air Corps, plans were made for 54 combat groups, which was quickly revised upward – to 84 combat groups to be equipped with 7,800 aircraft and manned by 400,000 troops by June 30, 1942. By the end of World War II, U.S. Army Air Forces strength grew from 26,500 men and 2,200 aircraft in 1939 to 2,253,000 men and women and 63,715 aircraft in 1945.
Expansion and reorganization
The War Department (which had oversight over the U.S. Army, while the Navy Department had oversight over the U.S. Navy) began to establish new bases and air organizations overseas and in the continental United States in 1939.
Concurrently, leaders of the Army Air Corps sought to create an “independent institutional structure for air within the U.S. Army.” There were numerous organizational changes from 1940 through 1942. On June 20, 1941, Gen. George C. Marshall, Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army, established the Army Air Forces (AAF) to control both the Air Corps and the Air Force Combat Command (formerly GHQAF).
During this period of expansion and reorganization, the Air Corps created what would become the numbered air forces. The Hawaiian Air Force was activated on November 1, 1940, the Panama Canal Air Force November 20, 1940, and the Alaskan Air Force on January 15, 1942. (These air forces subsequently became the Seventh, Sixth, and Eleventh Air Forces.) In September 1942, the First, Second, Third and Fourth Air Forces were created.
Early in 1941, the War Department also took action to create a non-combat activities hierarchy. Flying Training Command was established to direct programs for training ground crews and technicians and then was given responsibility for pilot and aircrew training. In mid-1942 the Air Corps Ferrying Command was established to fly aircraft overseas for delivery to the British and other allies. As its functions expanded, Ferrying Command was re-designated the Air Transport Command. To handle supply and maintenance, the Air Corps Maintenance Command was established under the Air Corps Materiel Division, which then focused on procurement and research development.
The War Department was reorganized on March 9, 1942, four months after the United States entered World War II. Three autonomous U.S. Army Commands were created: Army Ground Forces; Services of Supply (changed in 1943 to Army Service Forces); and Army Air Forces. The reorganization did away with the Office of the Chief of the Air Corps and the Air Force Combat Command; all elements of what had been the U.S. Army Air Corps became the Army Air Forces.
Before 1939 the Army Air Corps was a small organization; by the end of World War II the Army Air Forces had become a major military organization made up of many air forces, commands, divisions, wings, groups, and squadrons, plus an assortment of other organizations.
At war’s end the USAAF had created 16 numbered air forces (First through Fifteenth and Twentieth) distributed worldwide to prosecute the war, plus a general air force within the continental United States to support the whole and provide air defense.
The Air Force Historical Studies Office summarized the USAAF strategy during World War II, writing:
“…the first priority in the war [was] to launch a strategic bombing offensive in support of the RAF [Royal Air Force] against Germany. The Eighth Air Force, sent to England in 1942, took on that job. After a slow and often costly effort to bring the necessary strength to bear, joined in 1944 by the Fifteenth Air Force stationed in Italy, strategic bombing finally began to get results, and by the end of the war, the German economy had been dispersed and pounded to rubble.
“Tactical air forces supported the ground forces in the Mediterranean and European theaters, where the enemy found Allied air supremacy a constant frustration. In the war against Japan, General Douglas MacArthur made his advance along New Guinea by leapfrogging his air forces forward and using amphibious forces to open up new bases. The AAF also supported Admiral Chester Nimitz’s aircraft carriers in their island-hopping across the Central Pacific and assisted Allied forces in Burma and China.
“…the Twentieth Air Force [was] equipped with the new long-range B-29 Superfortresses used for bombing Japan’s home islands, first from China and then from the Marianas. Devastated by fire-raids, Japan was so weakened by August 1945 that [General H.H.] Arnold believed neither the atomic bomb nor the planned invasion would be necessary to win the war. The fact that AAF B-29s dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, nevertheless, demonstrated what air power could do in the future.”
USAAF statistical summary
The Air Force Historical Studies Office provided the following information:
“USAAF incurred 12% of the Army’s 936,000 battle casualties in World War II. [A total of] 88,119 airmen died in service. Of the United States military and naval services, only the Army Ground Forces suffered more battle deaths. Its casualties were 5.1% of its strength, compared to 10% for the rest of the Army.
“Total aircraft losses for the AAF from December 1941 to August 1945 were 65,164. The AAF credited its own forces with destroying a total of 40,259 aircraft of opposing nations.
“Total sorties flown by the AAF during World War II were 2,352,800, with 1,693,565 flown in Europe-related areas and 669,235 flown in the Pacific and Far East.
Nazi Germany was defeated on May 7, 1945; Japan surrendered unconditionally on August 15, 1945 and signed the surrender documents on September 2, 1945.
As it had when World War I ended, the U.S. armed forces immediately began a massive demobilization. In the Army Air Forces, “officers and enlisted were discharged, installations were closed, and aircraft were stored or sold.”
In the months between August 1945 and April 1946, AAF manpower fell from 2.25 million to 485,000. By 1947, the total AAF manpower was 304,000. The Air Transport Command (whose mission was to support the global military establishment) was reduced to three divisions from nine; by December 31, 1946, its headcount was reduced by 80%. The number of AAF aircraft inventory decreased from 79,000 to less than 30,000; with many of those in storage. Permanent AAF installations were reduced from 783 to 177 (just 21 more than before the war).
Less than a year after war’s end (July 1946), only two of the 52 AAF active-duty units were combat-ready. Significant opposition to a large peacetime military establishment (and its cost) resulted in a cut to 48 groups.
In February 1946, General H.H. “Hap” Arnold, commanding general of the AAF, was forced to retire due to ill health. He was unable to fulfill his goal of achieving an independent Air Force equal with the Army and Navy. However, he left two important legacies based on his experiences in World War II. These shaped the post-war USAAF and the independent United States Air Force. The first legacy was a requirement that the service branch’s command staff must include officers of varying expertise (and not just pilots). The second was that the United States would never again have the time to mobilize and train reserve components as had occurred in 1940. Reservists and National Guardsmen must be immediately ready for service in case of national emergency.
Reorganizing the U.S. military
On April 11, 1945 (prior to the end of the war), a 10-month study was concluded. Eighty “key military and naval personnel” had been interviewed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff Special Committee for the Reorganization of National Defense.
Among the recommendations was that the U.S. armed forces be organized into a single cabinet department, and that “three coordinate combat branches – Army, Navy and Air” comprise the operational services. The committee noted that the “statutory creation of a United States Air Force would merely recognize a situation that had evolved during World War II with the Army Air Forces, acknowledging that naval/marine aviation and some aspects of army aviation would remain in place.” In addition, the committee also reported that this recommendation had been approved by “Generals of the Army Douglas MacArthur and Dwight D. Eisenhower, Fleet Admirals Chester W. Nimitz and William F. Halsey and numerous other leading military and naval personnel.”
Nonetheless, the Navy Department opposed a single department of defense and opposed the creation of a separate Air Force during Congressional hearings in October 1945. On December 19, 1945 President Harry S. Truman declared his strong support of an air force, “reminding Congress that prior to the war independent Army and Navy Departments had often failed to work collectively or in coordination to the best interest of the nation. He asserted that wartime expedients that had overcome these defects proved to be the difference between victory and defeat.”
An independent Air Force
Following Gen. Arnold’s retirement in February 1946, General Carl A. Spaatz was nominated to become commander of the Army Air Forces. He reorganized the AAF into major commands that would not require a second restructuring once the Air Force became independent. Additionally, he restructured the reserve components, including the creation of the Air National Guard in April 1946.
With President Truman’s endorsement and recommendation, the U.S. Congress enacted the National Security Act of 1947 on July 26, 1947. That legislation created the United States Department of Defense, established the United States Air Force as a separate branch of military service and established the Central Intelligence Agency, or CIA.
The act also abolished both the Army Air Forces and the Air Corps, effective September 18, 1947. The transfer of personnel and assets from the AAF to the USAF was done via Transfer Order 1, Office of the Secretary of Defense, September 26, 1947.
William Stuart Symington III served as the first Secretary of the Air Force from 1947 to 1950 and was later elected a U.S. Senator from Missouri, serving from 1953 to 1976. Gen. Spaatz was appointed by President Truman as the first chief of staff of the new United States Air Force until April 30, 1948. He oversaw both the demobilization of the largest air force in military history and its rebirth as an independent service branch.
“The Army Air Forces in World War II” is the official history of the AAF. It summarized its significance as the final step to independence for the Air Force: “By the close of the war [the AAF] had emerged as virtually a third independent service.”
As aviation technology improved, the USAAF grew bigger. An independent military arm became almost inevitable after the AAF became an autonomous U.S. Army Command in 1942.
Prior to its inception, the U.S. Air Force had multiple predecessors. They were the: Aeronautical Division, Signal Corps (August 1907-July 1914); Aviation Section, Signal Corps (July 1914-May 1918); Division of Military Aeronautics (May 1918-May 1918); Air Service, U.S. Army (May 1918-July 1926); U.S. Army Air Corps (July 1926-June 1941); and U.S. Army Air Forces (June 1941-September 1947).
Today, the Air Force has over 300,000 active duty troops, with approximately 20,000 pilots.
Happy birthday, U.S. Air Force, and many more!
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.