U.S. Army Air Forces in World War II




U.S. Army Air Forces in World War II




On June 20, 1941, Army Chief of Staff Gen . George C. Marshall created the U.S. Army Air Force under Army Regulation 95-5. While that is the official date, the history of the service began  long before 1941.The U.S. Army Signal Corp was first given responsibility for "ballooning, air machines and all kindred subjects," Aug. 1, 1907. It began with one officer, two enlisted men and one civilian. They waited two years for delivery of the first aircraft.

March 1913, brought the establishment of the first air squadron in Texas City, Texas. Commanded by then Maj. Benjamin Foulois, the squadron first saw conflict during the infamous Pancho Villa raid in Mexico logging 540 courier and reconnaissance missions. Shortly after the declaration of war for World War I President Woodrow Wilson signed the Aviation Act of 1917, bolstering spending for military aviation. In April of 1918, American pilots recorded their first kill and six weeks later the U.S. Army Air Service was born.


The USAAS was no longer part of the signal corps, rather an independent organization. While its record was impressive during the "Great War," opposition existed to creating a separate Air Force.

There was considerable friction within the war department regarding ratio of a separate air component until Congress passed the Air Corps Act July 2, 1926, creating the U.S. Army Air Corp.Foulois was chosen to lead the Air Corp in 1931. As recommended by the Baker Board in 1934, Foulois established General Headquarters, Air Force at Langley Field, Va. The new headquarters was in charge of all tactical units while Foulois continued his charge of providing training and logistics.

Army Air Force in World War II

By 1938, Germany had become a nation with sizable military power including a particularly modern Air Force known as the Luftwaffe. Gen. Henry "Hap" Arnold was put in charge of the Army Air Corp and watched over its growth as the Luftwaffe led Germany into the second World War.The Luftwaffe changed opinions about air power forever, demonstrating its force against England in the Battle of Britain. In two years, Hap Arnold's Air Corp grew from 21,000 airmen to 354,000. Consequently, so did the number of bases, units and aircraft.


Arnold worked closely with Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall to build up the USAAF. Under the War Power Act of 1941, Marshall was permitted to create the U.S. Army Air Forces June 20, 1941, with Arnold as Chief. In 1942, Arnold's position was changed to Commanding General and subsequently became a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The USAAF was co-equal with the Army Ground Forces and Services of Supply. In addition, Robert Lovett was appointed as the Assistant Secretary of War for Air. Under the direction of Lovett and Arnold, the shape of what is now the modern day U.S. Air Force began to take place. By 1944, there were 16 numbered Air Forces throughout the world.The first four numbered Air Forces were in the United States protecting the eastern and western borders of the nation. The Philippine Department Air Force, which bore the brunt of the Japanese attacks on the Philippines, became the 5th Air Force headquartered in Australia in December 1941.

Meanwhile, closer to home, the 6th Air Force was born in Panama in February 1942, and charged with defending the Panama Canal and antisubmarine war. It was previously the Panama Canal Air Force and the Caribbean Air Force. The Hawaiian Air Force became the 7th Air Force in February 1942. The 8th Air Force was headquartered in England flying bombing raids with the RAF Bomber Command. It was activated in February 1942.

The 9th Air Force was established in September 1942 and moved to Egypt.India was home to the 10th Air Force which was responsible for operating in China, Burma and India. Formed in Ohio before moving in March of 1942, the 10th became the parent of a small group of American mercenary pilots headed by Brig. Gen. Claire Channault. Channault led the American volunteer group, better known as the "Flying Tigers" on guerilla-style air raids against the Japanese. As part of the China Air Task Force, the Tigers continued to fly missions over the Himalayas known as "the hump" from India to China. In 1942, the CATF was designated the 14th Air Force. Dramatically outnumbered in aircraft, the 14th Air Force disrupted the flow daily of Japanese supplies to China recording a kill ratio of eight-to-one.

The 11th Air Force was formed from the Alaskan Air Force to protect the U.S. and Canada and recover the Aleutian Islands from the Japanese. The 12th Air Force was established in August 1942, and immediately moved to England to participate in the North Africa invasion. The 13th Air Force was established in December 1942, and operated out of several locations in the Pacific such as the Solomon Islands, New Guinea, the Philippines, the Marianas, Midway, the Caroline Islands, Iwo Jima, Japan and the Marshall Islands. The 14th Air Force served primarily in China after being established in March 1943. The 15th Air Force was activated in Tunisia, Nov. 1, 1943, and began combat operations the next day.

Despite the success of air power, however, the USAAF still struggled for equal status with the other services. In January 1942, Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill created a single unified air command for the Mediterranean Theater. Gen. Carl "Tooey" Spaatz commanded the 12th Air Force and for the first time an air commander was able to use his resources where they were most needed. This proved decisive in the battle over North Africa. Spaatz later became the first Air Force Chief of Staff.

With the new Army Air Force structure the importance of air power began to grow. Theater commanders were achieving some success integrating air power into their operation. However, Arnold wanted to demonstrate how important air power is in combat. He formed the 20th Air Force which operated from the Marianas Island. Unlike the other numbered Air Forces, the 20th reported through Arnold directly to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The 20th Air Force, composed of B-29 strategic bombers, was to break the Japanese empire and set the course for a post-war Air Force. The 20th did in fact change the course of modern warfare with the atomic bombing of  Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Aug. 6 and 9, 1945, respectively.In many ways, World War II was the defining moment for the use of air power. Air power changed  the way war is fought. Many lesson were learned--lessons at the expense of thousands of lives and aircraft lost. These lessons were also the foundation of Air Force doctrine and strategy today.

National Security Act, 1947

The success of the Army Air Forces in World War II finally led to President Harry S. Truman signing into law the National Security Act of 1947. The act created the Department of Defense with three "executive departments," the Army, Navy and Air Force. It is appropriate that President Truman signed the documents while flying aboard his presidential airplane operated by the USAAF.

The Army Air Corps began the war with more than 2,000 members and a few hundred planes. Five years later, the Army Air Force had nearly 2.4 million airmen and nearly 80,000 aircraft. To this day, it is the largest air force ever assembled.

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