The Air Force on the Eve of World War II

Oct. 1, 2007

In the years leading up to World War II, the United States had not yet become the world’s leading superpower. In fact, it was well down on the list of military powers. In 1939, the US Army, with a strength of 174,000, was 19th in the rankings of ground forces. That put it, according to historian Eric Larrabee, “ahead of Bulgaria but just behind Portugal.”

The Army Air Corps was rated somewhat higher—perhaps fourth or fifth in the relative standings of flying forces—but that was partly because there were fewer air forces than armies. In 1939, the Air Corps had a personnel strength of only 26,000. It had about 1,200 bombers and fighters, a significant portion of them obsolete. Open-cockpit airplanes were still flying in operational units.

Eddie Rickenbacker, America’s “Ace of Aces” from World War I, said the United States was 10 years behind Germany in the development of military aviation. The Luftwaffe in 1939 had 4,100 first-line combat aircraft. US pursuit airplanes were no match for the Messerschmitt Bf-109. The Ju-87 Stuka was better than the standard American attack aircraft. For that matter, the British Hurricane and Spitfire were superior to the best American fighters, as was the Japanese A6M Zero.

The only edge the Army Air Corps could claim was the four-engine B-17 bomber, but there were only 23 of them. The previous year, Secretary of War Harry H. Woodring had canceled the planned production of more B-17s for 1939 on the grounds that they cost too much and were not needed.

The US Navy fared considerably better than the other services in the interwar years. The nation depended on the Navy as its first line of defense, and the fleet ranked with the largest and best in the world.

But times were changing in 1939. World War II had begun in Europe, and it was obvious that airpower would be of critical importance to the outcome. The United States was rapidly losing confidence in isolationism, which had dominated its foreign and defense policies for decades. Prospects for the US staying out of the war were diminishing.

Rearmament had begun. Congress authorized up to 6,000 airplanes for the Air Corps but that goal was too ambitious for the emerging US production capacity to fulfill anytime soon. There was a long way to go.

Nevertheless, owing to some fortunate steps taken in the 1930s, the United States and the Army Air Corps were better prepared than they looked. Mistakes by the enemy helped, too.

By the time the US entered the war in 1941, the framework for growth was in place. Within a few years, the Army Air Forces would leap to a peak strength of 2.4 million people and 80,000 airplanes, beyond any doubt the best air force in the world.

Disarmament and Isolationism

The United States had a long heritage of isolation, going back to the earliest days of the republic. President Woodrow Wilson was re-elected in 1916 on the slogan, “He kept us out of war.” The US entered World War I late, and with great reluctance.

After 1919, US policy was to avoid alliances and conflicts abroad and rely on the ocean barriers to keep foreign troubles away. Some possibility of conflict with Japan was recognized, but that threat was presumed to be primarily naval and the US Navy was presumed capable of dealing with it.

Isolationism coincided with a rising belief in pacifism. In 1928, the Kellogg-Briand Pact—named after its drafters, US Secretary of State Frank B. Kellogg and French Foreign Minister Aristide Briand—renounced war as an instrument of national policy. It was ultimately signed by 62 nations, including the United States, Britain, Germany, Japan, and Italy.

In the 1930s, leading politicians of both parties were staunchly isolationist. President Roosevelt was ahead of the country on the need to prepare for war, but he could not take that position publicly or directly. It was years before he could openly cut his ties with isolationism. “I have said this before, but I shall say it again and again,” Roosevelt said in a campaign speech in October 1940. “Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars.”

Military reductions had begun immediately when World War I ended. Nine months after the armistice, the Army had demobilized nearly 3,250,000 troops. The Army Air Service was cut back by more than 95 percent. Its strength in 1920 was 9,596, down from a wartime high of 197,338. Defense budgets suffered further in the general frugality of the Coolidge Administration and then dropped again sharply in the Great Depression.

The isolationist mood of the country was exacerbated by a belief that World War I caused the Depression and that US participation in the war had been instigated by “Merchants of Death,” the munitions manufacturers and others who profited from the carnage.

Between 1934 and 1936, a Senate munitions inquiry questioned more than 200 witnesses but could find no evidence that munitions suppliers caused the war. The chairman of the investigating committee, Sen. Gerald P. Nye (R-N.D.), finally acknowledged that the evidence “does not show that wars have been started solely because of the activities of munitions makers and their agents.” Even so, popular prejudice against the armament industry continued. A series of Neutrality Acts between 1935 and 1939 limited US involvement in foreign wars and prevented shipment of war materials to belligerents.

Politicians and the news media called for more reductions, not growth, in the armed forces.

The Army and the Air Corps

The British established the Royal Air Force as a separate service, independent of the Army and the Navy, in 1918. The United States was not ready to go nearly that far, but the Army Reorganization Act of 1920 made the Air Service a combatant arm of the Army. The Air Corps Act of 1926 changed the name but not the status.

Going into the 1930s, the Air Corps was often at loggerheads with the other components of the Army. The disagreement was sometimes about doctrine, sometimes about money. In 1932, the Army was spending about a third of its budget on aviation and had diverted money from the other branches to support the Air Corps. As the Army appropriation shrank during the Depression, the competition for funding intensified.

The Army was past its early prejudice that airpower had little or no military value. For most officials in the War Department and on the General Staff, the issue was what kind of airpower, and for what purpose.

The prevailing opinion was that the Air Corps had no mission except to support Army ground forces. Maj. Gen. Hugh A. Drum, the Army deputy chief of staff and the second-ranking officer in the Army, said in 1934 that there should be “no air operations not contributing to the success of the ground campaign” and that independent air operations “would be largely wasted and might be entirely ineffective.” Drum added that there was no reason for airplanes to fly farther than three days’ march ahead of the infantry.

However, the coastal defense mission, assigned to the Air Corps in 1931, essentially refuted the argument that airpower was always tied to ground units. By an agreement between Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the Army Chief of Staff, and the Chief of Naval Operations, Adm. William V. Pratt, the Air Corps would defend the coast and the Navy would defend at sea. Pratt wanted to concentrate on offensive rather than defensive missions and was happy to hand off the coastal defense responsibility. The agreement did not specify how far from shore the Air Corps would operate. When Pratt retired, the Navy sought to reclaim the mission but the Army was not willing to let it go since infrastructure and budget shares were likely to go with it.

In 1935, the War Department established the GHQ (General Headquarters) Air Force. It took all Air Corps units away from field commanders and put them under a single commander, an airman, reporting to the Army General Staff. In part, this was to head off pressure for Air Corps independence but it was also to enable concentration of forces for the coastal defense mission. The GHQ Air Force was a big step toward Air Force autonomy.

In an exercise in May 1938, three GHQ Air Force B-17s (with news reporters on board) intercepted the Italian ocean liner Rex some 725 miles east of New York, thus demonstrating the long-range capabilities. The Navy was outraged and in deference, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Malin Craig limited Air Corps operations to within 100 miles of the US shoreline.

“As far as I know, … that directive has never been rescinded,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Henry H. “Hap” Arnold said years later. “A literal-minded judge advocate might be able to find that every B-17, B-24, or B-29 that bombed Germany or Japan did so in technical violation of a standing order.”

In 1939, “the standard bomber was the B-18, a two-engine plane greatly inferior to the B-17 in performance,” said Air Force historian Alfred Goldberg. “The A-17 was the standard attack plane and the P-36 the standard fighter. The three standard models comprised 700 of the 800 first-line combat aircraft of the Air Corps. By the time of Pearl Harbor, they were all obsolete.”

Strategic Bombardment

The early airpower advocates—Guilio Douhet, Hugh M. Trenchard, and Billy Mitchell—had proclaimed the importance of strategic bombardment, but in the 1930s, that was not an assigned Air Corps mission. In addition to other constraints, the policy of isolationism held the armed forces to defense of the Western hemisphere.

The Air Corps Tactical School at Maxwell Field, Ala., was a hotbed of Mitchellism and promoted the bomber as a long-range strategic weapon. World War II would eventually prove the Tactical School right, but that came later. The long-range bomber was originally pitched as a means of intercepting the enemy at sea in support of the coastal defense mission, and the Air Corps pushed it hard.

The first bombers were severely limited in range, speed, and payload. The opportunity for a breakthrough came with a bomber competition in 1935. The contender favored by the Air Corps was the four-engine Boeing 299, prototype for the B-17 Flying Fortress. It crashed on takeoff. The reason was aircrew error, but the Douglas B-18 Bolo was declared winner of the competition and was chosen for production. The B-18 had two engines, compared to the B-17’s four, and less speed and payload. Nevertheless, it became the standard bomber for the rest of the decade.

In 1936, Brig. Gen. Stanley D. Embick, one of the Army’s rising stars, opined that it was inadvisable to have a long-range bomber “since this would give rise to the suspicion, both at home and abroad, that our GHQ Air Force was being maintained for aggressive purposes.”

In 1938, Embick—then a major general and deputy chief of staff —stated the General Staff’s position: “Our national policy contemplates preparation for defense, not aggression. Defense of sea areas, other than within the coastal zone, is a function of the Navy. The military superiority of … a B-17 over the two or three smaller planes that could be procured with the same funds remains to be established.”

Maj. Gen. Frank M. Andrews, commander of the GHQ Air Force, and Maj. Gen. Hap Arnold, who became Chief of the Air Corps in 1938, were committed to the concept of strategic bombardment and to the B-17. In 1938, the Air Corps had only 13 B-17s, the number bought on the original order. The plan to produce more in 1939 was canceled by Secretary of War Woodring on the advice of senior Army officers.

Maj. Gen. George C. Marshall replaced Embick as deputy chief of staff in 1938 and succeeded Malin Craig as Chief of Staff in 1939. Marshall, unlike his predecessors, supported the B-17. At the time of the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941, the Army Air Forces had 198 B-17s with more coming off the line every month.

What finally put the Air Force on a fast track, though, was the interest and support of President Roosevelt.

FDR, Rearmament, and Airpower

The President moved carefully toward rearmament because isolationists held the positions of power in Congress and elsewhere in Washington. His task was complicated by the fact that Woodring, formerly governor of Kansas and Secretary of War from 1936 to 1940, was a hard-core isolationist. Roosevelt did not fire him because he could deliver votes.

Roosevelt tested the political waters with his famous “Quarantine” speech of Oct. 5, 1937. He warned of growing aggression and threats abroad, but did not mention Germany or Japan by name. He did not propose any specific action and used the word “quarantine” only in an analogy, comparing the situation to containment of a medical epidemic. Encountering opposition from Congress, the news media, the public, and some of his colleagues, Roosevelt backed off temporarily.

The following January, he requested an increase of 20 percent for the building program of the Navy—his favorite service ever since his tour as assistant secretary of the Navy in the Wilson Administration—and launched the airpower buildup at a remarkable meeting in November 1938.

Reacting to reports of the growing Axis threat and expansion of the German Air Force, Roosevelt told the Air Corps to develop a program for 10,000 airplanes. According to historian Larrabee, Roosevelt said that “he didn’t want to hear about ground forces, that a new barracks at some post in Wyoming would not scare Hitler one goddamned bit.”

Arnold, who was there, regarded it as the “Magna Carta” for the Air Force, but Army leaders, who were also there, took a different view. The Army was extremely short of everything from semi-automatic rifles to howitzers and tanks and they opposed so much emphasis on airpower. Roosevelt was not dissuaded. In an address to Congress in January 1939, he said that “increased range, increased speed, increased capacity of airplanes abroad have changed our requirements for defensive aviation.”

The National Defense Act adopted in April 1939 approved a strength of 5,500 airplanes for the Air Corps with a top limit of 6,000 airplanes. In May 1940, Roosevelt called for an air force of 50,000 airplanes—36,500 airplanes for Air Corps, 13,500 for the Navy—and production of 50,000 airplanes a year. That level of production was not possible, but as was often the case, Roosevelt was not using numbers literally. He was expressing a direction and a level of effort rather than stating a production order.

These preparations for war between 1939 and 1941 were without precedent. Previously, the approach had always been “first declare, then prepare.” This war, however, was different from earlier foreign conflicts, which had been against relatively weak adversaries, such as Mexico and Spain.

US complacency was shaken by the blitzkrieg in Poland in 1939 and by the fall of France in 1940. Up to then, the American public had been confident that France and England would win. Isolationism faded as the British fell back from Dunkirk and fought off the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain.

Lend-Lease Allocation Problem

A 1939 amendment to the Neutrality Acts allowed “cash and carry” arms sales to selected nations, provided that they paid cash and transported the weapons in their own ships. Roosevelt was reported to have said “the Maginot Line [is] our first line of defense.”

By March 1940, the British and French had ordered 8,200 airplanes from American manufacturers. In December 1940, Roosevelt declared, “We must be the great arsenal of democracy.”

The Lend-Lease program, adopted in March 1941, was a major departure from isolationism. It authorized the sale, lease, or lending of weapons and war materiel when doing so was in the interests of the United States. Between 1941 and 1945, huge quantities of airplanes and much else would be provided to Britain, China, and Russia under the banner of Lend-Lease.

While the isolationist Woodring was still in the saddle at the War Department, Roosevelt put his friend and Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morgenthau Jr., in charge of foreign aircraft sales. Morgenthau did not understand the Air Corps need for airplanes and was not interested in hearing about it. He routinely diverted production needed by the Air Corps to the allies. Arnold protested, but Roosevelt backed Morgenthau and threatened to have Arnold reassigned to Guam if he defied the Administration’s program.

In August 1941, Britain requested what amounted to all of the airplanes that US plants could produce. “The British as usual asked for everything they wanted regardless of whether we have or will ever have an air force,” Arnold said. “They never blinked an eye when they asked for 100 percent of our production.” In October 1940, the British had requested an additional 12,000 airplanes, bringing their order for US military aircraft to 26,000.

The new Secretary of War, Henry L. Stimson, carried more influence with Roosevelt than Woodring had, and the combination of Stimson, Marshall, and Arnold eventually obtained a reasonable balance in the allocation of aircraft production.

On the Eve of World War II

By the summer of 1941, with the clock ticking down toward Pearl Harbor, Army Air Forces strength was 152,125. The AAF had 6,777 aircraft, of which 120 were heavy bombers, 903 were light and medium bombers, and 1,018 were fighters. Fewer than half of these were combat aircraft, and even that total was inflated with substantial numbers of obsolete bombers and fighters. However, a number of offsetting factors made the situation better than it looked.

The enemy advantage was brittle. The Germans planned for a short war in Europe. They were not prepared for an enduring struggle with a determined adversary, particularly one that could bring the war to the German homeland.

German planners neglected strategic bombardment. They emphasized fighters and insisted on a dive-bombing capability for all bombers, which reduced both range and payload. The Luftwaffe’s quality advantage dwindled as new American aircraft came on line. With the exception of the Messerschmitt Me-262 jet fighter, which appeared late in the war, the Germans relied primarily on improved models of the aircraft with which they had begun.

For the Japanese, Pearl Harbor turned out to be a one-shot trick. They soon lost their carriers, failed to develop forward airfields, and could not sustain their air forces over the long run or replenish their losses in aircraft and aircrews. The fighter lead established with the Zero was soon lost as well.

The fundamentals were in place. The Army Air Corps made tremendous technological progress in the 1930s. It began the decade with delivery of the Keystone B-3A bomber, a biplane with a cruising speed of 98 mph and a top speed of 114 mph. The P-26 “Peashooter” pursuit aircraft, which entered service in 1933, had an open cockpit and fixed landing gear. The Peashooters were considered hot at the time. A few were still on duty in Hawaii in 1941 when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. By the end of the decade, these bombers and fighters had been superseded by a newer generation of aircraft with advanced capabilities.

In December 1941, virtually all of the major types of airplanes with which the Air Force would fight World War II were in production or soon would be. The AAF had 198 B-17s, with 93 more coming off the line that month. The B-24 was in initial production. The B-29 was in development and would fly within the year. The P-40 was replacing the P-36 as the standard fighter. The P-38, P-39, and P-47 fighters were in limited production, and the P-51 Mustang had made its first flight.

President Roosevelt had given approval in October 1941 for the development of the atomic bomb, and the Manhattan Project to build the bomb began the day before the Pearl Harbor attack.

The Air Force had direction and staying power. As historian Richard J. Overy has observed, “Support from the President in 1939 and 1940 rescued American air strategy from the War Department’s view of airpower.”

The impression was long since gone that the Air Corps was just another branch of the Army, like the infantry or the artillery. Hap Arnold was a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, alongside the Army Chief of Staff and the Chief of Naval Operations. The Air Force’s most important role in the war would be long-range strategic bombardment.

Thanks to the early lead in rearmament that began in 1939, aircraft production was beginning to roll. The Germans and Japanese could not match the US industrial base as its output rose.

Circumstances allowed some time. Germany and Japan had their hands full consolidating their early gains from regional aggression in Europe and Asia. The United States and the AAF made good use of that time to move ahead.

Aircraft production was only part of the task. Aircrews had to be trained, bases built, infrastructure and logistics established. All of this the bourgeoning Air Force managed, just as it had overcome the obstacles of the 1930s.

When the strength of the AAF peaked a few years later at 243 combat groups, there was no longer any question where it stood among the air forces of the world.

John T. Correll was editor in chief of Air Force Magazine for 18 years and is now a contributing editor. His most recent article, “The Air Force Century,” appeared in the September issue.