Origins of the US Struggle for Air Supremacy
The story of America’s struggle to achieve air supremacy in the lead-up to World War Two closely overlaps with the career of Henry “Hap” Arnold, the first General of the Air Force.
Hap Arnold was one of the world’s first military piltos, learning to fly from the Wright Brothers. He supervised the expansion of the Air Sevice of the United States Army, which was the military aviation service of the United States from 1918 to 1926. Following the end of World War One, he spent three weeks flying over the now-quiet Western Front before he returned to Washington and the unhappy chore of dismantling the Air Service he had worked so hard to build. The number of Air Service personnel peaked at around two hundred thousand during the war. That number dropped to 25,603 by June 1919. A year later it was down to 9,050. In the process of demobilizing the wartime air force, Arnold had, in his own words, “worked myself out of a job.”
Air Supremacy Between the World Wars
In January 1919, less than two months after the Armistice, Arnold was back at Rockwell Field in San Diego, discharging officers and mustering out airmen. His own wartime promotion was rescinded. Brevet Colonel Arnold became a captain on June 30, 1920, although he was promoted to major the next day. Still, amid the shrinking Army Air Service, some men stood out—including two young pilots on Arnold’s staff, Captain Carl “Tooey” Spaatz and Lieutenant Ira Eaker, both of whom later played a major role in shaping the Air Force that fought World War II—and there was still good, and even dramatic, work to be done, including the flight of five Curtiss JN-4s from Rockwell across the country to Florida and back. “It was quite a feat,” Arnold reminisced, “for the Jenny was far from a cross-country airplane.”
Arnold’s tenure at Rockwell was short. In June, he was reassigned as air commander of the IX Corps area, headquartered at the Presidio in San Francisco, and covering, essentially, the western half of the United States. Arnold and his family spent three years in San Francisco.
The Air Service was still keen on publicity. Arnold was authorized to make demonstration flights for the motion pictures, and military airmen were encouraged to take part in well-publicized cross-country flights. As Arnold later noted, “regardless of where they were, all air officers did what they could to keep the air arm before the public.” In 1921, Arnold got involved in a flight stunt after the press in San Francisco debated whether a carrier pigeon was faster over a long distance than an airplane.
“I accepted the challenge for the airplane and the Signal Corps accepted the challenge for the pigeon,” Arnold recalled. “Soon I was carrying a coop of pigeons with me to Portland, Oregon, from whence the race was to start to San Francisco. These pigeons were all known by name, rank, and serial number, and some of them had distinguished combat records…. The excitement was terrific. Betting was taking place just as at a race track. There were even ‘bookies’ there offering odds on which would win.” Oregon’s governor, Ben Olcott, decided to get involved, flying as Arnold’s passenger.
Things began badly for the airman and the politician when the engine would not start. By the time they finally got it purring, the pigeons had a 45-minute lead.
“As pigeon after pigeon neared its home coop, Governor Olcott and I munched sandwiches and refueled at Medford, practically ready to concede the race,” Arnold recalled in his memoirs. “But apparently pigeons, as well as pilots, make private plans in flying their cross-country missions, for none of the feathered war heroes reached their home base until 48 hours later. The Governor and I had completed our flight in about seven and a half hours. Our Air Force was small in those days, but the pilots were good. I think it might well be said that any one of our boys, picked at random, could have made nonstop flights across oceans or continents had the planes been available.”
This was demonstrated perhaps most dramatically when a pair of Air Service aircraft conducted a flight around the world. These two (of four that started) Douglas World Cruisers (modified observation planes) completed the historic feat in just over five months in 1924. There were other feats too. In 1927 came the momentous solo flight of Charles Lindbergh, an officer in the Air Service Reserve, across the Atlantic. Among regular Army air officers making their mark in the 1920s was James Harold “Jimmy” Doolittle, the first to fly across country using navigational instruments (in 1922).
“Billy [Mitchell] and I used to talk over the developments in flying and the men who were responsible for them,” Arnold recalled. “We both agreed there was one outstanding young man who would make a name for himself and be present in a big way when airpower really came into being. His name was Doolittle.” Though Doolittle was, indeed, making a name for himself in the early 1920s, Arnold was right: his presence “in a big way” was yet to come.
In the 1920s and early 1930s, however, there were matters other than daring airmanship and record-setting flights that were demanding the attention of Hap Arnold and the Air Service men of his generation.
As far as they, and the public, were concerned, the central figure within the Air Service was Brigadier General Billy Mitchell. Although the colorful Mitchell would never be given the top job at the Air Service, he was its second in command from 1920 to 1925.
At the end of 1918, immediately after the war, Secretary of War Newton Baker had gone with a safe, traditional nomination, picking Major General Charles Thomas Menoher to command the Air Service. A member of the West Point class of 1886, he was not an airman, but an artillery officer who had risen through the ranks to command the 42nd “Rainbow” Division during World War I. The Air Service was the comfortable desk job that he had earned. In this position, he was greatly overshadowed by the colorful and outspoken Mitchell, who was not just an airman but also, among his fellow pilots, an airman’s airman, and whose eloquence on the importance of aviation inspired junior Air Service officers.
“The world stands on the threshold of the ‘aeronautical era,’” Mitchell wrote in his 1925 book, Winged Victory. During this epoch the destinies of all people will be controlled through the air. Airpower has come to stay. But what, it may be asked, is airpower? Airpower is the ability to do something in or through the air, and, as the air covers the whole world, aircraft are able to go anywhere on the planet. They are not dependent on the water as a means of sustentation, nor on the land, to keep them up. Mountains, deserts, oceans, rivers, and forests, offer no obstacles. In a trice, aircraft have set aside all ideas of frontiers. The whole country now becomes the frontier and, in case of war, one place is just as exposed to attack as another place.
But just as Mitchell could be eloquent, his blunt advocacy of airpower made him enemies in the U.S. Army high command. Menoher felt that Mitchell’s outspokenness bordered on insubordination. It also irritated the Navy, especially when, in 1921, Mitchell told Congress that his bombers could sink any ship afloat. The Air Service, he asserted, could defend America more economically than could the Navy with its battleships.
“Mitchell’s fight with the Navy over the battleships was not just a simple fight between the Army, the Navy, and the little Air Service,” Hap Arnold observed. “It was really a battle of ideas, involving air-minded people and non-air-minded people in both services. But Mitchell’s constant use of the press to put his ideas across oversimplified the question.. . . Our Chief, General Menoher, was not only unable and wholly unwilling to cope with Mitchell’s ideas, but he could not handle Billy Mitchell.”
Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels took Mitchell’s claims as a slap in the face, like a challenge to a duel. Rather than pistols at ten paces, the Navy agreed to battleships versus aerial bombs. The Navy had captured German warships they were going to scuttle anyway, so why not let Mitchell’s bombers try their luck on them? The Navy’s Atlantic Fleet commander wrote the rules of engagement. The Navy would regulate the weight of the bombs and the number of planes, and it reserved the right to call off the engagement at any time.
The demonstrations, which took place over the space of several weeks in June and July on Chesapeake Bay, vindicated Mitchell’s assertions. The Air Service attacked and sunk a German destroyer, the light cruiser Frankfurt, and the heavily armored battleship Ostfriesland.
“Everybody throughout the [Air Service] celebrated,” Hap Arnold recalled. “At Langley Field they put planes in the air to meet the returning bombers; and every man, woman, and child was down at the line to meet the men as they got out of their planes.”
A New Focus on Air Supremacy in the 1920s
In October 1922, Hap Arnold was transferred to Rockwell Field, where the training facility had become a large regional air depot. After two years in San Diego, Arnold returned to Washington for a six-month session at the Army Industrial College, which trained would-be senior officers in how to understand, and cooperate with, civilian industrial production to secure wartime materiel. The school, which had General Dwight Eisenhower on the faculty for four years in the 1930s, grew in stature and eventually evolved into today’s Industrial College of the Armed Forces. Arnold had plenty of practical experience on the subject, but he found this academic training extremely useful in better understanding that experience, which would greatly benefit him, and the country, in the war to come.
While it appears General Mason Patrick had a hand in Arnold’s return to Washington—grooming Arnold as a talented and forward-thinking, but more tactful, version of Mitchell—it was on this tour of duty that Arnold got to know Mitchell especially well. Their families socialized, and while Arnold liked Mitchell, he frequently had to talk him down from tirades about how the Air Service was being mistreated or misused or ignored.
“Billy, take it easy,” he recalled saying to Mitchell repeatedly. “We need you. Don’t throw everything away just to beat out some guy who doesn’t understand! Airpower is coming! Calm down, Billy. Get a balance wheel in your office! Let him look over some of the things you write before you put them out! Stop saying all these things about the independent air arm that are driving these old Army and Navy people crazy!”
“When senior officers won’t see facts, something unorthodox, perhaps an explosion, is necessary,” Arnold recalled Mitchell saying in reply. “I’m doing it for the good of the Air Force, for the future Air Force, for the good of you fellows. I can afford to do it. You can’t.” But Arnold did express what was on the airmen’s minds, though with more tact and in writing. U.S. Air Force historian General John Huston notes that Arnold’s final essay at the Army Industrial College was entitled “What’s the Matter with the Air Service,” raising questions about professional standards and about a general staff of non-aviators making decisions regarding aviation.
When Arnold graduated from the school in March 1925, Mason Patrick brought him into the Air Service headquarters, where he would serve for a year as chief of the information section. It was during that same month that Billy Mitchell was denied reappointment as Mason Patrick’s number-two man. President Calvin Coolidge, who had just been inaugurated, was in favor of deep budget cuts in the Army and strongly disliked Mitchell and his advocacy for an expanded air arm. Mitchell was promptly reassigned to Kelly Field near San Antonio, Texas, where his voice would be less audible to the national media.
In September 1925, after the loss of life from the crash of the Navy dirigible Shenandoah, Mitchell called the management of national defense by the War and Navy Departments “incompetent” and “treasonable.” He even used the term “criminal negligence.” That was the last straw. Mitchell was summoned to the nation’s capital to face a court-martial on charges of “conduct prejudicial to good order and military discipline.”
The witnesses called for the defense included Captain Eddie Rickenbacker, who had been America’s ace of aces during World War I, as well as Tooey Spaatz, Arnold, and many other airmen who would become senior general officers in World War II.
When the media denounced the court-martial as an unfair attack on a popular hero, President Coolidge appointed a commission to investigate Mitchell’s charges against the U.S. Army’s treatment of the Air Service and to study American aviation in general. To head the commission, he picked an old Amherst College classmate, now a successful financier, Dwight Morrow. Coincidentally, Morrow was the future father-in-law of the soon-to-be-famous aviator Charles Lindbergh.
During the court-martial, Morrow’s panel of military and civilian aviation experts confirmed much of what Mitchell had asserted, and recommended that the Air Service be given a position comparable to the Quartermaster Corps and Signal Corps. Hap Arnold testified before the commission, and so did Mitchell, although Arnold was later critical of his mentor for reading ad nauseam from his recent book, Winged Victory, rather than actually testifying. This alienated friends and foes alike. At one point Senator Hiram Bingham, himself an aviator, assured Mitchell that the commissioners had read his book, but Mitchell became argumentative.
“Billy himself was in strong form at the trial, often putting the prosecution and even the Court on the defense,” Arnold wrote in his memoirs. “He could be as affable with a foe or a judge as with a friend, but he was a hard man to make peace with. He was a fighter, the public was on his side, he was righter than hell and he knew it, and whoever wasn’t with him a hundred per cent was against him.” Mitchell’s tongue won him no new friends among those it lashed, though some of what he said proved prophetic—warning, as Hap Arnold later recalled, that Japan would attack Pearl Harbor from the air on “some fine Sunday morning.” Despite having the Morrow Commission and popular opinion in his favor, Mitchell was convicted, suspended from duty, and put in a position where essentially his only choice was resignation. The thirteen-man panel convicting him voted by secret ballot, but General Douglas MacArthur openly insisted that he had voted to acquit. As he wrote in his memoirs, “A senior officer should not be silenced for being at variance with his superiors in rank and with accepted doctrine.”
Putting Mitchell’s conviction aside, the Army did adopt many of the Morrow Commission recommendations, and on July 2, 1926, the Air Service was upgraded in status to become the U.S. Army Air Corps. Mason Patrick continued as its chief until December 1927, when General James Fechet, who had been an Army pilot since 1920, succeeded him.
Mitchell’s ideas were not popular, but he would prove to be prescient. After his 1924 inspection tour of Hawaii and Asia, he wrote a report (published in 1925 as the book Winged Defense) in which he predicted future war with Japan, including the attack on Pearl Harbor. Mitchell also went on to influence air power advocates in coming decades such as Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt, who support of long-range bombing.
All of these ideas culminated in the 1940s with Hap Arnold’s creation of the US Air Force.
This article on air supremacy 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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