In the early days of air-power, it was possible for one man to make a variety of major contributions to military aviation. It was, for instance, possible to be a space explorer, an aerial warfare theorist, a strategic planner, a combat leader, an evaluator of airpower, and a teacher of doctrine for the future. Maj. Gen. Orvil Anderson was such a man.
Anderson won balloon navigator wings during World War I, and after the war stayed on in the Air Service to become a balloon pilot. He began his career as a record-setter with duty as copilot on the C-2 Army blimp, which made the first transcontinental, lighter-than-air (LTA) flight in 1922. The Army continued its interest in LTA, and Anderson had the opportunity to fly most of the blimps and dirigibles the services tested. His final report, following tests of the TC-13 and TC-14 airships, concluded that, for the Army, the airship ” … seemed to have no military worth.” The conclusion of these tests freed Anderson for participation in one of the Army Air Corps’s most exciting projects—exploration of the stratosphere.
Operations at very high altitude had been under study for some time. Earlier attempts had been made to explore the upper atmosphere with rudimentary equipment, but not until late 1933 did American balloonists set a world altitude record of 61,237 feet. Almost before the record was in the books, the Russians exceeded it by 2,000 feet. To recapture the record, and to explore the upper atmosphere with sophisticated instruments, an agreement was reached between the Army Air Corps and the National Geographic Society in the spring of 1934. The resulting balloon expeditions were among man’s greatest achievements.
Orvil Anderson, then a captain, was assigned as backup crewman to Maj. William E. Kepner and Capt. Albert W. Stevens for the balloon ascent into the stratosphere. (See General Kepner’s “Reminiscenses of an LTA Pilot,” September ’78 issue.) He helped select the launch site, a depression in the ground near Rapid City, S. D., dubbed the Stratobowl, and was in charge of the camp and ground crew. At the last moment, Anderson was added to the crew, and the three climbed into the round gondola of Explorer I at dawn on July 28, 1934.
The ascent was uneventful until the balloon reached 57,000 feet. At that altitude, Anderson and Kepner discovered several large rips in the balloon’s fabric. The tears made it impossible to reach the planned height. Anderson began to valve the helium, stabilizing the balloon at 60,613 feet, and starting a rapid descent. On the way down, most of the balloon’s fabric tore away to leave the gondola dangling from the parachute-like remainder.
As the gondola picked up speed in its fall, Kepner ordered the crew to bail out. All three aeronauts got out as the balloon exploded, plunging the gondola into a cornfield and smashing its precious instruments. Anderson and the others landed safely.
Almost immediately work began on a second balloon and gondola, Explorer II. Anderson was named pilot after Kepner withdrew because of other commitments. After numerous delays, the weather cleared enough for the launch on November 11, 1935. The gondola barely cleared the rim of the Stratobowl, but the rest of the ascent was without incident. Explorer II, with Anderson and Stevens sealed inside, rose to a record-breaking 72,395 feet, where Stevens took man’s first picture of the curvature of the earth. After completing several experiments, Anderson brought the huge balloon smoothly to the ground with a balloon altitude record that stood for twenty-two years. Anderson and Stevens were instant heroes. For the rest of his life, “Andy” was introduced as the pilot of the famous Explorer II, and he never tired of the accolade.
Strategic Airpower Theory and Application
The theory that airpower could bring an industrial nation to its knees was rejected by most of the military in the 1930s. Until technology caught up with theory, they were essentially correct. The B-17 coupled with the Norden bombsight made it feasible, at least in the minds of Air Corps thinkers, to implement the strategic bombardment concepts of Billy Mitchell and Giulio Douhet, which were being taught at the Air Corps Tactical School at Maxwell Field, Ala. Anderson spent a year at the school in 1936-37 and came away from Maxwell a strategic bombardment theorist and devotee.
After the Tactical School, Anderson was assigned briefly to the Air Corps Board, where he wrote the first field manual for air-ground operations on which many World War II tactics were based. His next duty was at the Pentagon in the office of Air War Plans. Here, working with Col. Harold L. George, Lt. Cols. Kenneth Walker and Haywood Hansell, and Majs. Hoyt Vandenberg and Laurence Kuter, Anderson helped refine the theories of strategic bombardment.
As war approached, the group began work on the famous AWPD- 1, and later AWPD-42, war plans that reflected the airpower theories of the 1930s and guided the American war effort in the air. In 1943, Anderson was assigned to the European Theater, where he would assist in proving the validity of those theories.
A joint Anglo-American Combined Operational Planning Committee (COPC) was formed in London to select strategic targets and to coordinate the American and British bombing campaigns. As chairman of the Combined Operational Planning Committee, Anderson had the opportunity to implement some of the planning he had so recently helped to develop.
In 1944, Anderson was assigned as Eighth Air Force Deputy Commanding General for Operations. He continued to wear his COPC hat, creating the unusual situation of planning and coordinating missions and then directing their execution. During this period, he selected the targets, planned, and directed the missions for Operation Big Week of February 1944. These concentrated bombing strikes were the beginning of the 1,000-plane raids over Germany. They marked the turning point of the air war over Europe and proved valid much of the Tactical School’s daylight strategic bombardment doctrine. To be sure that the massive bombing of Europe had been as effective as claimed, however, the end results had to be assessed. Anderson was at the heart of that action, too.
The Strategic Bombing Surveys
To analyze the European bombing, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed a blue-ribbon committee, the United States Strategic Bombing Survey (USSBS), most of whose members were civilians unfamiliar with military operations. To assist them, a military advisory group headed by Anderson was assembled. Headquartered in London, General Anderson and his staff advised the committee on the technical details of strategic bombing operations.
The USSBS committee sent small information-gathering teams throughout the European Theater. One team, searching Flensburg, Germany, discovered Albert Speer, Hitler’s Reichsminister of Armament and Production. A call to. London brought the USSBS committee for a four-day interrogation. It was a priceless opportunity since Speer, more than any other German, had the data necessary to assess accurately the capability of air-power to disrupt the economy of a nation at war.
At the end of the sessions, Speer presented Anderson with a note of surrender along with his personal pistol. (Speer’s book, Inside the Third Reich, identifies the recipient as Maj. Gen. S. E. Anderson, who was not present at the interrogation. The note and pistol are in the Air Force Museum, a gift of Mrs. O. A. Anderson.)
The USSBS committee concluded that ” . . . Allied air power was decisive in the war in western Europe.” The immediate question, however, was the value of the Survey’s findings to the target planners fighting the Japanese war. Anderson flew to Washington for conferences with the planners and helped establish target priorities for the Japanese homeland.
The surrender of Japan brought a reconstituted USSBS team to Tokyo. Again, Anderson was appointed chief of the military advisory group, no doubt relishing what seemed to be an open-and-shut case on the defeat of a nation by airpower. The only question was whose aerial forces had contributed most to the victory. On that point, controversy arose with the US Navy.
The “Anderson-Navy War,” as it has been called, boiled down to a dispute between Anderson and his Navy counterpart, Rear Adm. Ralph Ofstie, a dedicated carrier airman. Each was determined that the other’s service should not claim the major share of credit for the defeat of Japan and thereby gain the larger share of future defense budgets. In the end, both Anderson and Ofstie published their own reports, both somewhat biased. Overall, however, the USSBS reports on Japan supported airpower theories even more strongly than did the European.
Founder of the Air War College
In 1946, General Anderson was named Commandant of the newly created Air War College at Maxwell Field. His work with doctrine, plans, operations, and assessment, and his inspirational leadership, equipped him superbly to head an institution dedicated to developing Air Force leaders. From its beginning, the College functioned well, providing a forum for experienced officers to exchange ideas and time to reflect on the most effective ways to employ airpower.
Anderson was in constant demand as a public speaker. He seldom used notes and, as his students learned, was difficult to stop once started. His consistent themes were that airpower was the weapon of the future, that the US must remain strong, and that the best defense was a powerful offense. On occasion, he would pursue the latter idea into its ultimate, a preventive “slap” at the enemy. He would always caution that such a “slap” should occur only after all diplomatic means had failed and war was inevitable. This was not an uncommon concept in the late 1940s, but was easily misunderstood, especially once the Korean War erupted in 1950.
During a lull in Air War College activities in the early months of the Korean conflict, Anderson took some time out for surgery. He was resting in his quarters, but agreed to talk to a local newspaper reporter about a pending Drew Pearson article critical of the College. Anderson insisted that the interview be off the record and presumably had the reporter’s agreement. The General apparently reviewed his ideas on the use of airpower and allegedly said that, if given the order, he could wipe out Russia’s atomic capability in a week. The reporter seized upon that statement and printed the interview.
The Pentagon’s reaction to the headlines, whether correctly quoted or not, was swift. At a time when President Harry Truman had silenced Gen. Douglas MacArthur and his own Secretary of the Navy, Francis Matthews, for much the same kind of statements, it was to be expected that official Washington’s patience was thin. Anderson was ordered transferred, but declined the move and retired as a major general in December 1950—a regrettable end to a distinguished career. He died in 1965 at the age of seventy.
Flyer, explorer, planner, leader, analyst, scholar, writer, and teacher, Orvil Anderson was in every sense an airpower pioneer. His influence upon the thinking of future Air Force leaders was incalculable. Anderson Hall, the home of the Air War College, stands as a monument to his achievements.
Lt. Col. John H. Scrivner, Jr., wrote his doctoral dissertation on Maj. Gen. Orvil A. Anderson. He was a member of the Air Force Academy history faculty from 1963 to 1968 and served subsequently as Associate Editor of Air University Review and as Chief of History, Hq. Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV). Since his retirement in 1975, Colonel Scrivner has been Division Director, Social Sciences and Education at Pikes Peak Community College, Colorado Springs, Colo.