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US Army Air Force

History of the Army Air Corps

The Wright Brothers first powered flight in 1903 changed everything.

On August 1, 1907 an Aeronautical Division was established in the Chief Signal Officer section of the US Army to study the flying machine and its military application. Late that year the Army wanted an airplane, and in 1909 the Wright Brothers delivered the first military airplane. Many initial thoughts involved using planes for observation and spotting.

World War I, brought the advent of the “Aero Squadron” and the air divisions were referred to as the Army Air Service and fighter planes were the standard aircraft used.

However, following the war, there were some that had more progressive ideas; planes could be used to bomb the enemy on the ground. In 1921, elements of the 2nd Bombardment Group were detached to Brigadier General Billy Mitchell for testing and participation in the effectiveness of aerial bombardment on warships. They succeeded by sinking a former German warship, creating one of the most memorable pictures of the day. The 2nd Bombardment group was one of the first groups dedicated to aerial bombardment. They were the first group to receive B-17s in 1937, and they set many long distance and speed records including a goodwill tour to Argentina in 1938.

Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor 7 December 1941, the US was officially in World War II. Many men would volunteer for service. Many wanted to fly. It would take approximately 9 months of intensive training before heading overseas to combat. The country was divided up into 4 sections for stateside training and command made up of the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th Army Air Forces.

Things started happening quickly in 1942 as the country mobilized. On 18 April 1942 sixteen B-25’s led by Jimmy Doolittle take off from the deck of an aircraft carrier, the Hornet, and fly a mission over 600 miles of water at low altitude to strike the Japanese mainland. Long range B-17 Fortresses fly missions in advance and during of the Battle of Midway the first days of June 1942. And the 11th Airforce bombers make their first attack on Kiska, the main Japanese air base in the Aleutians. Now part of Alaska.

Ground and flight crews of the 97th and 301st Bombardment Groups head to England. These 2 groups will begin what becomes the 8th Air Force. The flight crews take the northern route to via Bangor Maine, Iceland, Scotland and then to Chelveston, England. The ground crews in operation Bolero, take a sea route to England. In the Pacific, Bataan and Corregidor fall and the AF units, undersupplied and undermanned, fight a delaying and fall back action, in what can truly be termed a retreat. Many of these units reorganize in Australia.

To give you some examples of how the Pacific war was so down the priority list.. all you have to do is take a look at the aircraft that they received throughout. P-39, P-40. The B-17’s were of the D and E Models. Then they received F model planes. In fact, not a single G model B-17 ever made it to the Pacific Theatre.

As it did evolve, B-24s became preferable because of their longer range. B-25s were utilized for their gun firepower and other smaller sized bombers were also used. However, all materiel took time to get there and groups were made to improvise or do without. Only when the B-29s arrived in the Pacific did air power in the pacific compare with Europe. But the men in the Pacific adapted and in the fall of 1942 aircraft started sowing mines in strategic areas including the inland seas around Japan and other south west pacific areas.

The US also was ready to launch their first All American daylight raid on fortress Europe. The 97th and 301st Bomb groups 28 planes target the Marshalling Yards at Rouen France on September 5th. They fly missions on the 6th and 7th as well with no more than 30 planes per raid. B-24s of the 9th Air Force based in Egypt are flying missions in support of the British Army.

Soon, other bomb groups are flying with the 8th Air Force and in November, the 97th and 301st along with the 14th Fighter Group are tasked to move to North Africa to comprise the core of the new 12th Air Force.

The beginning of 1943 marks a busy year. The nation is recovering from the Attack on Pearl Harbor, factories are being converted to war products, production is increasing and more men are going through training. In fact, between July of 1940 and August 1945 over 253,000 aircraft were produced.

Broken down, production numbers were:

47000 a/c in 1942
85000 in 1943
96000 in 1944

Of these:
12000 were B-17
18000 B-24
15000 P-47
13000 P-40
14000 P-51
3760 B-29

Over 55000 aircraft, nearly 25% of the total produced, were for training planes such as the PT-13, AT-6 and many others.

In January the 8th Air Force flys the first daylight raid to Germany. April 18, P-38s shoot down the architect of the Pearl Harbor attack, Japanese Admiral Yamamoto over Bougainville. In May, 5th Air Forces planes sink 12 ships in the Battle of the Bismark Sea and in May the Germans surrender in North Africa.

In July, a record, 322 8th AF Bombers fly to Hanover. The next week, known as Blitz Week, 324 B-17s fly to Norway, and other targets. This week the 8th AF loses about 100 aircraft and 900 men. More than 1/3 of their force.

August 1. The famous raid by 177 B-24s on the oil fields at Ploesti, Rumania. Flying at extremely low altitude, pictures show planes a few hundred feet in the air over 50 planes are lost in this well-known raid. However, this would not be the first or the last time the allies had a mission to Ploesti, They would lose an additional 200 planes and 2000 men on missions to this target over the remainder of the war during missions in the summer of 1944.

17 August. 376 Fortresses bomb the ball bearing plant at Schweinfurt and an aircraft plant at Regensburg. 60 planes were shot down. 14 October, a 2nd Schweinfurt raid with 291 planes. 60 are lost and 138 of returning aircraft have been damaged.

The Heavy Bombardment groups of the 12th AF become the newly formed 15th AF and the US Sets up shop on the Foggia Plain in Italy following the Sicily and Rome campaigns of the spring and summer.

19-26 February 1944. Known as “Big Week” a series of sustained raids on German aircraft industry by both the 8th and 15th AF. The U.S. loses over 225 planes. It must be noted the while the U.S. Flew daylight raids, the British flew night missions giving term to “round the clock” bombing of targets. This policy had been going on for over a year.

The allies are in control of the air and are out producing the Germans; at the same time destroying their factories, raw materiel plants and railroads hampering their ability to make and transport troops and supplies.

In June, B-29 Super Fortress of the 10th Air Force fly their first mission from a base in China. The islands of Guam, Saipan and Tinian are secured and become forward bases for air operations against the Japanese Mainland.

Long range escort fighters make their first appearance, none is more deadly as the modified P-51 Mustang which is able to escort bombers all the way to Berlin and back. Early in the war the range of fighter escort was significantly shorter leaving the bombers vulnerable in the target areas. Many other excellent fighters were produced during WW2 including the P-47, but they did not have the range of later Mustangs.

In 1945 the war in Europe is winding down. The Germans made their last gasp effort with the Battle of the Bulge in December of '44. The German air force is essentially non-existent except for the appearance of the Messerschmeidt (Me-262). The first Jet aircraft. Fortunately and primarily because of industrial shortages the 262 was not able to be produced in any significant number for they would have provided a very formidable force against the allied bombing campaign.

Following the victory in Europe, the Army Air Forces fly the Berlin Airlift bringing supplies and food to the people of Berlin.

In the Pacific, B-29s of the 20th Air Force have been flying their firebombing campaign of the Japanese mainland. For 72 consecutive days, the 7th AF bombs Iwo Jima before the landings there. Iwo will become an emergency landing field for B-29s returning from Japan because it is located midway between the bases and Japan.

Since Mid-1943, Paul Tibbetts has been in the U.S .forming a special bomb group in preparation for his mission August 6th of 1945 with the atomic bomb. 9 August the second atomic bomb is dropped. 14 August, a record 804 B-29s bomb targets in Japan and they finally surrender.

The war was finally over and many of the wartime units are dissolved.

In 1947 the Air Force became its own independent branch of service.

Following WWII, many men made the service a career, others were recalled for Korea. Even though the Air force adopted Blue as their uniform colors, many of the WWII veterans still wore their russet brown boots and shoes, prompting them to be nicknamed “brown shoes”.

Lineage and heraldry continue, to wit, the 2nd Bomb Wing which was formed after WWII, and still retains the insignia of the 2nd BG is the B-52 wing based at Barksdale AFB.

While a subordinate section under the Army the Army Air Service and then the Army Air Corps had many distinctive personalities. A daring visionary who viewed the potential of the flying machine and the developing aerial battlefield Billy Mitchell. The first aviation hero of World War I, Eddie Rickenbacher. The father of the Air Forces, General Hap Arnold. World War II would create a number of household names and heroes. Jimmy Doolittle, Ira Eaker, Claire Chennault, Carl Spaatz, Paul Tibbets, Jimmy Stewart, Gabby Gabreski, Richard Bong, Hub Zemke and Don Gentile.


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