The GHQ Air Force

Sept. 1, 1983

American military aviation traveled a long road from its first use in combat during World War I to establishment of the US Air Force in 1947. About midway in the journey stood a major milestone—creation of the GHW Air Force on March 1, 1935. Its roots, and the controversy that surrounded its creation, go back to the closing months of the First World War.

When the guns of August sounded in 1914, none of the European combatants had airplanes that were designed for military use. Their aircraft were unarmed, had a top speed of about sixty-five miles an hour, ad at first were used only for observing enemy troop movements. Four years later, both the Allies and the Central Powers had thousands of armed pursuit, bomber, attack, and observation aircraft. The speed of pursuits had increased to 130 miles an hour, and multiengine bombers with a wingspan of 100 feet of more had been developed by the British, French, Italians, Germans, and Russians.

Army generals on both sides soon learned that control of the air had become a vital element of warfare. However, their view of airpower was primarily defensive, limited to the battlefield and its immediate rear areas. They considered aviation and auxiliary of the ground forces, to be controlled at division, corps, or field army level.

On the other hand, many airmen concluded that the mobility and flexibility of the airplane could be exploited fully only if airpower were centrally controlled by an airman who was responsible to the commander of all ground forces. The effectiveness of that idea was demonstrated in both the St. Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne offensives of September and October 1918. In the formers, Brig. Gen. “Billy” Mitchell was in at least nominal command of 1,500 Allied aircraft. Part of the force was used in direct support of ground troops, while the remainder—a General Headquarters reserve—bombed and strafed concentrations of reserves, supplies, and transportation to the rear of the battle area.

Mitchell and some other American airmen, while not denying the tactical usefulness of aviation in its battlefield role, shared with British Maj. Gen. Hugh Trenchard and Italian Col. Giulio Douhet a belief that the most important function of aviation was offense, rather than defense. They thought that bombing enemy airfields, transportation nets, and war-supporting industry could destroy the ability and will of the enemy to continue fighting. In May 1918, the British established an Independent Air Force under Trenchard to test the offensive use of long-range “strategic” bombing, but the IAF never had enough bombers to carry out a sustained campaign. He effectiveness of strategic bombardment was to remain a subject of spirited argument until the later part of World War II.

The Stage Is Set

Differing views on the organization and use of airpower held by ground and air officers set the stage for two decades of postwar controversy in the United States. The air Service remained part of the Army, controlled by the War Department General Staff, which continued to regard its air arm as an auxiliary of the ground forces. The aviators themselves did not agree on the best way of achieving their objectives of centralized control under an airman and recognition of an independent strategic bombardment mission in addition to direct support of the ground forces.

The more radical airmen, led by Billy Mitchell and Benjamin D. Foulois, who had learned to fly with the Wright brothers and who was to become Chief of the Air Corps in 1931, fought for a separate air force, coequal to the Army and Navy. Patrician Mitchell and high-school dropout Foulois (who had earned a battlefield commission in the Philippines in 1901) agreed on little else.

The more conservative airmen favored a position of semi-autonomy within the Army. One of the early champions of that approach was Maj. Gen Mason Patrick, a West Point classmate of Gen. John J. Pershing and Pershing’s Chief of the Air Service, AEF, during the war. Patrick became an enthusiastic supporter of airpower, served as Chief of the Air Service (after July 2, 1926, the Air Corps) from 1921 to 1927, and earned pilot’s wings while in his sixties.

General Patrick agreed that all combat aircraft should be centrally controlled by an Air Service officer. He recommended that Army aviation be divided into two mission categories: “support,” or observation, that would be assigned directly to ground units; and “air force,” or pursuit, attack, and bombardment that would operate directly under Army General Headquarters in support of ground forces, or on independent strategic missions. In 1923, a board of General Staff officers headed by Maj. Gen. William Lassiter endorsed Patrick’s recommendations, including establishment of a General Headquarters (GHQ) air force. Secretary of War John W. Weeks approved the Board’s report, but no action was taken to implement it.

The idea of a dual-mission air force did not die with the Lassiter Board report. Between the early 1920s and 1934, fifteen boards and committees studied the question of how best to organize and control Army aviation. Most of them favored creating a GHQ air force, but only in time of war. In fact, the General Staff enshrined that principle Army Regulation 95-10 of March 1928, but there were no more than occasional faint stirrings in the direction.

The Back Door to Autonomy

In the 1920s, the climate in this country was not conductive to establishing a new military service that believed its most important function to be offensive in nature. The United States was moving rapidly toward isolationism, the world was at peace with no enemy on the horizon, and the purpose of our small military and naval forces was seen as strictly defensive. Military men were forbidden to plan for, or even to discuss, offensive operations. Beyond that, American bombing planes of the 1920s and early ‘30s were such short range and limited bomb-carrying capacity that a decisive bombing campaign against targets far behind enemy lines appeared to be technically infeasible.

Under these circumstances, airmen had to base their claim to an independent mission on coastal defense of the United States and its possessions. Some of the more farsighted saw this as no more than a way station en route to a long-range, offensive strategic bomber force that would deter war, or win if deterrence failed. It was to demonstrate the effectiveness of Army bombers in a defensive role that Billy Mitchell’s 1st Provisional Brigade sank the “unsinkable” ex-German battleship Ostfriesland off the Virginia coast in July 1921.

The Navy regarded that event as an infringement on its time-honored mission, and perhaps as the start of a move to consolidate all military and naval aviation under Army command. It was not until 1933 that Maj. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Army Chief of Staff and a strong supporter of airpower, negotiated an agreement with chief of Naval Operations Rear Adm. William Pratt giving the Army’s air arm responsibility for the air element of coastal defense. That agreement was loosely worded and honored by the Navy more in the breach than in the observance. Nevertheless, the MacArthur-Pratt agreement was a step toward creation of the GHQ Air Force.

With the coastal defense mission, Chief of the Air Corps Maj. Gen. Benny Foulois now had firmer ground for pursuit of his primary goal—a separate air force—or his fall-back position—establishment of a GHQ air force in peacetime. General MacArthur was in the process of reorganizing the Army to improve its combat readiness and accelerate emergency mobilization. It was obvious that the Air Corps and the Navy should not have to reorganize during a crisis or base their plans on mobilization, but had to be ready immediately to repulse an attack on US territory. Benny Foulois now could argue with simple logic that the Air Corps should be so organized and controlled that it could train, as it would fight.

Realistic Air Corps training, hence combat readiness, was impossible under existing conditions. Combat planes were parceled out to the Army’s nine corps area commanders with no regard for proper deployment. While the Chief of the Air Corps was responsible for training air units, he had no authority to see that corps area commanders complied with his directives. Each of them trained his assigned air units as he saw fit, which generally meant direct support of ground troops. This flew in the face of the Air Corps’s belief in centrally controlled offensive operations.

Gathering Momentum

In the early 1930s, another development took place that, at least in the eyes of many airmen, added doctrinal support to their arguments for greater independence. Faculty members at the Air Corps Tactical School, Maxwell Field, Ala., developed a comprehensive doctrine of strategic air warfare, based on analysis of an enemy’s economic and social structure. They believed that by destroying relatively few key targets—electric power systems, oil refineries, transportation choke-points, aircraft engine factories, magnesium and aluminum plants—an opponent could be defeated, or at least fatally weakened, by airpower alone. Senior ground officers didn’t accept the decisiveness of strategic bombing, but a few of them, including MacArthur, agreed that it would materially aid the ground forces in winning a war.

At about the same tie, Air Corps engineers at Wright Field’s Air Materiel Division concluded that a long-range four-engine bomber was technically and economically feasible. A design competition of 1931 already had produced the Martin B-10, the first modern bomber, and the B-17 would make its initial flight in 1935. Norden and Sperry bombsights promised the bombing accuracy that was necessary to destroy the small targets envisioned by Tactical School strategists.

Convergence of these developments – the Air Corps’s coastal defense mission, growing acceptance of the potential of offensive strategic bombardment, and technical advances in aircraft – helped persuade the Drum Board, headed by Army Deputy Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Hugh Drum, to endorse establishing a GHQ air force in peacetime. The Board’s recommendations were approved by Chief of Staff MacArthur in October 1933, but foot-dragging continued. Many General Staff officers suspected that setting up a GHQ air force would only encourage the Air Corps to concentrate on strategic bombardment at the expense of supporting the ground forces.

Then, in February 1934, the GHQ air force issue was pushed into the background when President Roosevelt canceled airmail contracts with the airlines and directed the Air Corps to carry the mail. The Air Corps’s dismal early performance improved during the period to June 1, when new contracts with the airlines became effective. Nevertheless, it seemed clear that the Army’s air arm was neither trained nor equipped for all-weather operations in peace or in war.

Secretary of War George Dern appointed still another board, this one chaired by former Secretary of War Newton Baker, to examine Air Corps deficiencies. The Baker Board recommended immediate establishment of a GHQ air force as a corrective measure and to counter a renewed drive for a completely separate air force that was gaining some support on Capitol Hill. The War Department and the General Staff accepted the Board’s recommendations, and, on March1, 1935, the GHQ Air Force opened it headquarters at Langley Field, Va., under command of Brig. Gen. Frank Andrews.

A Crucial Compromise

The new air force was a compromise between those airmen who wanted complete independence and the War Department General Staff, which sought to retain overall control of what it regarded as an essential auxiliary of the ground forces. Lest the Air Corps become too powerful, authority was divided between its Chief and the commander of the GHQ Air Force. General Andrews was given command of all Air Corps combat units in the United States except those observation units that were assigned to ground commanders. He was responsible for training his forces, reporting to the Army Chief of Staff (not to the Chief of the Air Corps) in peacetime, and to the theater commander in time of war. The Chief of the Air Corps was responsible only for supply, procurement, and developing doctrine. As long as this division of responsibility and authority lasted, it generated internal friction in the Air Corps.

To confuse command relationships further, Army corps area commanders kept control of air installations in their areas and were responsible for housekeeping, administration, and courts-martial. The air Corps did not get a separate budget, as it had hoped, so the General Staff could continue to decide what kinds of aircraft would be bought, and how many.

The GHQ Air Force was organized in three wings: the 1st, commanded by Brig. Gen Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, with headquarters at March Field, Calif.; the 2d, under Brig. Gen. H Conger Pratt, headquartered at Langley Field; and the 3d, headed by Col. Gerald Brant at Barksdale Field, La. General Andrews found himself with fewer than half the 980 combat aircraft recommended by the Drum Board, and only twenty percent of them could be considered modern. He had about 600 pilots, compared to the Drum Board’s recommendation of 1,245. But Andrews did have a competent, though small, staff that included a number of men who would emerge as major figures in World War II: George Kenney, Hugh Knerr, Joseph McNarney, Elwood “Pete” Quesada, Walter H. “Tony” Frank, ad Walter Weaver.

General Andrews and his staff continued to lead the Air Corps’s fight for B-17s, sometimes to the embarrassment of the Army Chief of Staff and Maj. Gen. Oscar Westover, Chief of the air Corps. In 1937, thirteen B-17s were delivered to the 2d Bombardment Group at Langley Field. Andrews’s goal was 244 of the four-engine bombers, but, in May 1938, while the Fiscal Year 1940 budget was being prepared, the Air Corps was directed to request no more than the forty B-17s already on order. A still defensive minded General Staff preferred the much cheaper B-18, a converted airliner of short range and limited bomb load that was regarded as adequate for coastal defense. Also, the country was in the midst of a depression, and ground forces, too, were short of equipment. Andrews’s persistence on the B-17 issue probably cost him appointment as Chief of the Air Corps when General Westover was killed in a crash in September 1938.

Toward Independence

Despite its shortcomings, the GHQ Air Force did gain for the Air Corps some of its cherished goals: centralized command of air combat units by an experienced airman; the ability to train realistically, free from the whims of corps area commanders; and at least tacit recognition of an independent air mission that demanded long-range bombers. The GHQ staff was willing and able to push for technical developments needed in strategic air warfare and to devise tactics and technical developments needed in strategic air warfare and devise tactics and techniques to implement doctrine that had been developed at the Tactical School.

Some of the fears of ground officers were realized, however. Tactical aviation lagged, and that had to be corrected in North Africa during the early months of US participation in World War II.

The GHQ Air Force compromise temporarily stilled the advocates of a separate air force while the air Corps gave the new organization an honest trial. It soon became apparent to airmen that the potential of airpower could not be realized under General Staff control, however. As the war clouds gathered over Europe and Asia, there began a gradual move toward tacit, if not legal, independence. In 1939, General Andrews completed his tour as GHQ Air Force commander and was replaced by Maj. Gen Detos Emmons. (Andrews’s unremitting fight for strategic airpower earned him a reduction to the rank of colonel and temporary banishment to Fort Sam Houston, Tex., as District Air Officer.) GHQ Air Force was redesignated as the Air Combat Command, reporting to Maj. Gen. Hap Arnold who had become Chief of the air Corps in 1938, rather than to the Army chief of Staff.

In July 1939, George C. Marshall, an airpower convert, became Acting chief of Staff of the Army and, two months later, its Chief. He immediately started bringing airmen, Frank Andrews being the first, into key positions on the General Staff. In November 1940, Marshall made General Arnold Deputy Chief of Staff for Air in addition to his position as Chief of the Air Corps, and authorized him to direct both the authorized him to direct bother the Air Corps and its Air Combat Command. With Marshall’s support, the Air Corps became the Army Air Forces on June 20, 1941—a largely autonomous air arm within the War Department. Nine months later, the AAF was reorganized, the Air Combat Command dissolved, and the last vestiges of divided authority disappeared. The AAF now was co-equal with the Army Ground Forces and the Army Services Forces.

The Air Corps’s GHQ Air Force had broken the pattern of a fragmented, randomly trained organization, cast in the mold of a ground force auxiliary. It gave the Army’s airmen time to organize and train for the concentrated, offensive use of airpower, particularly strategic airpower, that was to be decisive in World War II. The command’s many demonstrations of the wartime potential of long-range aviation helped rally public and governmental support for an expansion of military aviation. In these ways, the GHQ Air Force was a major link in the evolution of air warfare and an important step in preparing the United States for the global conflict that lay just over the horizon.

About the Author

John L. Frisbee was on the staff of Air Force Magazine from December 1969 until his retirement in June 1980. During a distinguished Air Force career, he served as fighter and bomber pilot, planner on the air Staff and at major commands, and as a teacher and leader of young men at West Point and the US Air Force Academy. He was speechwriter, sounding board, and mentor for a series of senior uniformed and civilian Air Force leaders while special assistant to the Secretary of the Air Force. He holds bachelor’s degrees in economics and Latin American studies, a master’s in international relations, and is a graduate of the Armed Forces Staff College and Canadian National Defense College. He is now a regular contributor to Air Force Magazine’s “Valor” series.