American Air Force Officer
The architect of the American air arm that helped make the Allied victory in World War II possible, Henry H. “Hap” Arnold devoted his military career to the advancement of air power. His legacies also include the independence of the U.S. Air Force (USAF) and the technological supremacy that American military aviation has enjoyed since the mid-20th century.
Arnold was born in Gladwyne, Pennsylvania, on June 25, 1886. After graduating from West Point in 1907, he was commissioned in the infantry. He transferred into the aeronautical division of the Signal Corps three years later, becoming a flying instructor. During World War I, Arnold served in an administrative post, never experiencing combat.
Arnold enthusiastically embraced the air power theories of Gen. William Mitchell, the Army’s outspoken advocate of strategic bombing and an independent air force. When Mitchell was court-martialed for insubordination in 1925, Arnold testified in his defense. Mitchell was convicted and Arnold considered resigning his commission, but decided he could best carry on Mitchell’s work by remaining in the Army. He organized a number of practical air power demonstrations in the next decade, including an airdrop of supplies to snowbound villages and a flight of a formation of bombers from California to Alaska.
Arnold earned his first star in 1935 when he became assistant chief of the Army Air Corps. Three years later he was promoted to commander when his superior was killed in a flying accident. One of his first tasks was to manage the expansion of the air corps, authorized by Congress in response to rising war tensions in Europe. Britain and France were also purchasing American aircraft, and Arnold had to work closely with manufacturers, who were unused to such large orders, to ensure that all their customers’ orders were filled on time. Under his guidance, the air corps—redesignated the Army Air Forces (AAF) in 1942—became the largest and most powerful air arm in history and a significant factor in the Allied victories over Germany and Japan. Arnold also established the Civil Air Patrol, the AAF’s civilian auxiliary, and the Woman’s Army Service Pilots (WASPs), a cadre of female fliers whose domestic aircraft delivery flights freed male pilots for combat duty.
While on a fact-finding tour of Britain in early 1941, Arnold witnessed the test flight of a jet airplane. The United States had no comparable program; American aeronautical engineers had traditionally focused on improving existing technologies rather than developing new ones. Arnold quickly arranged for American manufacturers to design and produce jet engines and aircraft. The first American jet, a fighter, began flying in 1942, but was not used in combat during World War II.
Determined that the United States would not fall behind in aeronautical technology in the future, Arnold commissioned Dr. Theodore von Kármán in 1944 to survey the current state of aeronautics and to identify the technologies the air force should develop after the war. The resulting report, Toward New Horizons (12 vols.), guided air force research and development programs for the next five decades. Among the topics it examined were jet power, supersonic flight, aircraft manufacturing processes and materials, radar, fuels, rockets and missiles, communications, aviation medicine, and space travel.
In 1944 and 1945 Arnold prepared a series of reports for the secretary of war describing AAF activities during World War II and outlining his plans for the postwar AAF. The last of these, focusing on the future of American military aviation, was published almost verbatim in the February 1946 National Geographic as “Air Power for Peace.” Arnold wrote throughout his career, presenting the case for air power and an independent air arm to the public through numerous articles and books such as Winged Warfare, This Flying Game (both written with fellow officer Ira Eaker), Airmen and Aircraft, and the Bill Bruce series for children. Global Mission, his autobiography, was published in 1949.
When the development of the advanced B-29 bomber was delayed by technical problems, Arnold ordered the airplane into production despite its defects. He also decided to employ the B-29 in the Pacific exclusively. In an attempt to prevent local theater commanders from interfering with the strategic bombing campaign against Japan, Arnold directed B-29 operations from Washington (although he delegated command to generals Curtis E. LeMay and Carl Spaatz). Once the atomic bomb became available, Arnold informed his fellow chiefs of staff that he believed that conventional bombing alone could defeat Japan. Having no other objections, however, he worked closely with the president, secretary of war, and joint chiefs to determine how best to use the new weapon.
Arnold was promoted to general of the Army (five stars) on December 21, 1944. He retired in 1946 and was succeeded by Carl Spaatz. Health problems prevented him from taking an active role in the postwar debates about air force independence; however, few then or since could argue that he had not done enough for the cause during his service career. The AAF became the USAF in 1947. Two years later, Arnold’s rank was redesignated “General of the Air Force.” He is the only five-star general the USAF has ever had.
Arnold suffered a fatal heart attack on January 13, 1950. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.
“Hap” Arnold, whose career began in the biplane era and lasted into the jet age, understood that technology was the foundation of air power. He built the AAF into the largest and most advanced air arm of World War II and provided for its technological superiority for decades after. By his direct control of the B-29 force, he demonstrated the practicality of an independent air force.
Aerial Bombardment; LeMay, Curtis Emerson; Manhattan Project; Military Academy, United States; Mitchell, William; Spaatz, Carl; Women in the Military; World War II
In August 2010, the U.S. Air Force had a total force strength of 693,285. This included 336,317 in active duty (265,297 enlisted, 66,447 officers, 4
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