Weyland’s Wars

Aug. 1, 2010

A fighter pilot at heart, USAF Gen. Otto P. Weyland instinctively punched his own ticket in exactly the right way to make him a top Air Force commander in two wars. He was as ardent in support of strategic airpower as any of his contemporaries. Yet Weyland also achieved spectacular success through his determination to support Army ground operations.

In his own words, he talked the Army’s language.

Gen. George S. Patton commended Weyland as “the best damn general in the Air Corps” of World War II. He then received similar accolades from most Army flag officers in the Korean War. The term “most” does not mean “all,” however, as he was the target of bitter criticism by a few Army officers who preferred “Marine-style” close air support.

Then-Lt. Gen. George Patton (l) and Weyland in Nancy, France, in 1944.

Weyland’s achievements were all the more remarkable because the wars he fought were so very different in their nature. He commanded successively larger organizations during World War II, applying first-class resources over huge areas, in concert with well-equipped, well-trained Army outfits. The results were unprecedented. Weyland’s command, for the first time in history, provided an “aerial flank”—protecting the swift advance of Patton’s armor in its advance through France.

His experience in the Korean War was notably different, for both the Army and Air Force were totally unprepared for the June 25, 1950 invasion of South Korea by communist North Korea. They had to fight with what they had: outdated and insufficient World War II equipment.

Fortunately, Weyland’s wealth of experience and his credibility with both Army and Air Force leaders enabled the pragmatic airman to adapt quickly in fighting the three distinctly different phases of the Korean War.

In the beginning, overwhelming numbers of well-equipped North Korean troops overran the inadequately armed South Korean Army, seeking to swiftly conquer the entire peninsula. USAF’s woefully inadequate numbers of obsolescent World War II aircraft helped keep ill-equipped and undermanned land forces from being pushed into the sea.

Then came the daring Inchon landing of Sept. 15, 1950, a move that turned the tide of the war. Weyland still lacked adequate resources but employed his forces so well they destroyed the North Korean Army even before Eighth Army began its breakout from the Pusan Perimeter.

Finally, communist Chinese troops poured across the Yalu River and joined the fighting on the side of North Korea, pushing the war into a stalemate. As both sides sought to find palatable armistice terms, Weyland effectively applied his still-marginal resources, implementing a series of successful air interdiction campaigns. For all this, he drew criticism from some.

Weyland’s success in the joint operations derived from his intimate knowledge of land warfare. Because of his effective support of strategic operations—he was a primary “pick and shovel” wielder in the creation of Strategic Air Command—Weyland had the confidence of his superiors when he advocated additional resources for tactical operations.

Weyland was born in Riverside, Calif., in 1902. He went through the classic career sequence of the era. Graduating with a degree in mechanical engineering in 1923, he accepted a reserve commission in the US Army Air Service. He toyed with the idea of working as an engineer for Western Electric but found that he preferred service life and sought a regular commission after entering flying school. He trained first at Brooks Field, Tex., and then at nearby Kelly Field.

Promotion was slow in those days—he was not made a first lieutenant until 1930—but there were compensations. Weyland went to Hawaii’s Luke Field on Ford Island, to command the 4th Observation Squadron.

This might have begun a perfectly ordinary career progression except for Weyland’s determination to learn how the Army operated at every level, and more important, how the Army wanted air operations conducted. It was a unique viewpoint at a time when most Air Corps officers unswervingly supported the concept of strategic bombing, and when a recalcitrant such as Claire L. Chennault might find his career progress blocked.

By the time of Japan’s Dec. 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, Weyland was a lieutenant colonel, commanding the 16th Pursuit Group in Panama and serving as Sixth Air Force chief of staff. Promotions came swiftly now, but he had to serve in staff roles at headquarters before being promoted to brigadier general and given the command of the 84th Fighter Wing.

Weyland (l), then commander of XIX Tactical Air Command, meets with Maj. Gen. Hoyt Vandenberg, commander of Ninth Air Force, in Rennes, France, in 1944.

Best Damn General

It was a good start to what became a brilliant career in World War II, for in March 1944, he was made the commanding general of XIX Tactical Air Command. It was here that his personality, experience, timing, and circumstance coalesced into great success. Weyland spiced his taciturn conversational mode with a subtle levity, which made him an ideal foil for his Army counterpart, then-Lieutenant General Patton.

Patton allowed Weyland to dictate the role of airpower and he did so ruthlessly. One unique consequence is that Weyland personally accepted the surrender of German Maj. Gen. Eric Elster’s 20,000 Nazi troops in exchange for a cessation of air attacks.

Weyland’s ability to get along extended to another colorful commander, his boss at 9th Fighter Command (and commander of the “rival” IX TAC), Maj. Gen. Elwood R. Quesada. Someone had the foresight to pair the more volatile Quesada with the quieter personality of Army Gen. Omar N. Bradley, while similarly placing together the contrasting personalities of Weyland and Patton.

Harmony thus assured, Quesada’s IX TAC worked with Bradley’s First Army, while Weyland’s XIX TAC supported Patton’s Third Army in six major campaigns.

This was the sort of leadership that led Patton to his famous “best damn general” assessment and to another, far more meaningful tribute: After the war in Europe was won, Patton personally told Weyland that he would be pleased to have him as an Army corps commander. This was perhaps the greatest compliment Patton could give.

Yet, like many of his contemporaries, Weyland languished in staff jobs when demobilization decimated the strength of American armed forces.

The newborn USAF was hampered by tiny budgets, the drastic need for re-equipment with modern jet aircraft, and the threat of a nuclear-armed and increasingly belligerent Soviet Union.

Just after the North Korean invasion of South Korea, Weyland was given command of TAC, but quickly relinquished it to proceed to Japan. There he was vice commander for operations, Far East Air Forces, under Lt. Gen. George E. Stratemeyer.

Stratemeyer reported to Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur, commander in chief, Far East.

Upon his arrival at his headquarters on July 20, Weyland realized he was not going to immediately reprise his successes in Europe. Instead of a well-equipped Air Force supporting a well-equipped Army, he found both services short of men and equipment. Further, the easy rapport with Patton was not going to be repeated, despite the fact that Eighth Army and Fifth Air Force had set up a joint operations center.

Weyland discovered that the air war was being directed by MacArthur’s staff, led by Maj. Gen. Edward M. Almond—a man who would try in vain to thwart him.

Almond had attended Air Corps Tactical School in 1938 and considered himself well-versed in air doctrine. He objected violently when, only three days after his arrival, Weyland wrote a memo stating his objections to the way things were being handled. There followed a face-to-face confrontation in which the quiet but stern Weyland reminded Almond that he outranked him, was more knowledgeable about air operations, and would carry out his instructions to run the air war.

It was the start of a long and bitter battle that Weyland won, but which Almond never conceded. Weyland first had to win the fight in Korea, where his ragtag airpower stiffened the defenses of Pusan sufficiently for United Nations forces to hold on around Pusan.

Initially equipped with only the Douglas B-26, Boeing B-29, and a handful of fighters, he did the improbable: defending Pusan by concentrating on close air support with the forces in hand. His force was ultimately supplemented by Lockheed F-80s and North American P-51s, and Col. Jack Broughton recalls seeing ground troops standing up in their foxholes and cheering when Lockheed F-80s whistled across the orange and green cloth panel that marked the bomb line. He also recalls the Chinese soldiers standing up in their foxholes to fire rifles at the jet aircraft.

Ironically, the very success of this effort established a heightened set of Army expectations for close air support that would haunt Weyland throughout the war. He saw immediately that the Army was fighting without the resources on which it traditionally relied, especially huge concentrations of artillery and virtually unlimited ammunition. Weyland committed FEAF to substitute for the artillery and it did so brilliantly.

As soon as possible, Weyland reached out to decimate incoming columns of North Korean troops and supplies, believing that after establishing air supremacy, the first role of airpower was to conduct an interdiction campaign to cut enemy lines of communication and supply. In doing so, Weyland demonstrated his innate flexibility. He called upon Far East Air Forces Bomber Command to execute tactical air strikes, something he generally deplored. The B-29 strikes were later seen to be very effective.

It was not until the coordinated landings at Inchon and the breakout from the Pusan Perimeter that Army leaders saw the real effects of the interdiction campaign. The North Korean Army had been scattered to the winds, and the roads beyond the Naktong River were littered with dead enemy soldiers, shattered tanks, and derelict trucks.

Weyland was promoted to general in 1952, while serving as commander of Far East Air Forces. He made close air support a top priority during his time in Korea.

Commander, Far East Air Forces

Then the accolades began to flow in. “I am willing to state that no commander ever had better air support than has been furnished the Eighth Army by the 5th Air Force,” said Lt. Gen. Walton H. Walker, Eighth Army commander. “I will gladly lay my cards right on the table and state that if it had not been for the air support that we received from the 5th Air Force, we would not have been able to stay in Korea.”

One person who was not convinced was Almond, who had a less than major role in the Inchon landings. He continued to negatively contrast Air Force close air support to that provided by the Marines.

The victories stemming from the Inchon landing and the Pusan breakout seemed about to bring the war to a close with the complete occupation of North Korea. A side effect of the intoxicating allied advance was an expectation of close air support the Army never wished to relinquish. When FEAF and Bomber Command turned to more far-reaching targets, many Army commanders resisted.

The surprise massive Chinese intervention that began in November and did not grind to a halt until late January 1951 totally reversed the strategic situation. United Nations forces were thrust back far down the peninsula. Once again, it was airpower that enabled UN forces to end their retreat and create a solid front line.

The new commander of Eighth Army, Lt. Gen. Matthew B. Ridgway, successfully re-established the morale and offensive capability of his army, but soon realized, as the Chinese did, that a complete military victory was no longer possible. Both sides then settled down to attrition warfare. The armistice was more than two years away.

By June 1951, Weyland was commander, Far East Air Forces.

In his new position, Weyland once again demonstrated his understanding of the requirement of joint operations. The Army was still short of artillery, and close air support was still required as a substitute. Further, the Chinese had become masters of the art of resupply at night, making air interdiction less profitable. Frugal Chinese forces consumed a minimum amount of supplies, reducing the effectiveness of attacks on the roads and railways used to provide them. An effort by Weyland in 1951, Operation Strangle, attempted to sever seven enemy supply routes, but was never entirely successful. The Chinese compensated for diminished rail traffic by vastly increasing nighttime road traffic, sometimes sending convoys south with headlights blazing. They provided easy targets for the two hard-working B-26 wings, the 3rd and 452nd.

The problem, as with the succeeding Operation Saturate, was twofold. First, the Chinese, with their masses of labor, could effectively repair most damage to railways quickly, even as they brought in additional anti-aircraft units to protect them. Second, 5th Air Force was increasingly short of aircraft. In Operation Saturate, 253 fighter-bombers were lost, and only 131 replacement aircraft were provided.

The most important effect of Weyland’s air interdiction was to ensure that the massive Chinese Army never reached a point that it could undertake a decisive offensive. When the nature of the war rendered air interdiction less profitable, Weyland’s staff offered more productive options. Col. Richard L. Randolph led a staff team which suggested an “air pressure” strategy that Weyland backed, against an expanded group of targets.

Although Ridgway’s successor, Lt. Gen. James A. Van Fleet, initially espoused what Weyland called the “Army party line” with regard to control of CAS, he soon became one of Weyland’s greatest supporters.

“The war that does the most damage to the enemy [in Korea] is from the air. It is an almost one-service war that goes on, air war, doing the damage to the enemy deep in his own territory,” Van Fleet told Congress in 1953. “If the Army had been adequately supplied with ammunition, … it would consume more of the enemy, the enemy supplies, create problems for him, which, in turn, would help our air service.”

Van Fleet’s comments were a virtual echo of Weyland’s previously expressed opinion that “tactical airpower will contribute more to the success of the ground forces and to the overall mission of a theater commander through a well-planned interdiction campaign than by [any] other mission short of the attainment of air supremacy.”

Weyland knew that the foot soldiers loved to see his aircraft in action, and that they had no way of measuring the effects of air interdiction. He also knew that the Army remained critically short of artillery ammunition. As a result, despite Weyland’s desire to increase the interdiction campaign, he made close air support FEAF’s first priority during the frigid winter of 1952.

Weyland congratulates A2C Walter Schwarz, a crew chief for the 18th Fighter-Bomber Wing, on a job well done in Korea in 1952.

Tactical Airpower Advocate

Yet, when successively pressured by Almond, Ridgway, and Army Gen. Mark W. Clark to cede control of tactical air operations, Weyland successfully defended his turf, preparing the way for the later introduction of his own views on the value of air interdiction. More formal recognition came with Weyland’s promotion to general in July 1952.

FEAF had also maintained air superiority despite the inherent advantage possessed by the enemy, which had superior numbers and flew from “off-limits” air bases close to the MiG Alley battleground. In the spring of 1953, when the communists attempted to use 10 North Korean airfields for MiG operations, Weyland responded with vigor, sending the B-29s in to knock them out.

The air pressure strategy led to strategic attacks against the North Korean electric grid and against such vital but controversial targets as the Toksan dam, which provided irrigation water for the vital North Korean rice crop. That May 13 attack not only took out the dam but damaged five railway bridges, a huge section of the main highway, and five square miles of rice crops. This hurt the North Koreans in two areas: communications and providing food for the Army.

The fact that the air war he was conducting suffered from so many economic and political restrictions made Weyland a realist. He was adamant that there should be no consideration of United Nations forces crossing the Yalu River and expanding the war unless they had access to nuclear weapons.

In spite of the difficulties, the shifting campaign, and the shortage of equipment, however, Weyland had successfully balanced the Army’s desperate calls for close air support with the enduring need to use airpower for strategic purposes.

Weyland remained in command of FEAF until March 1954. That May, he returned to the United States as commander of Tactical Air Command. There he continued to assert the need for tactical operations and to convince others that limited wars were an important future consideration. One of his innovations was the creation of the composite air strike force, a predecessor of the modern air expeditionary force.

Weyland’s efforts to build up TAC were hampered by budget cuts and the inevitable but expensive requirement for TAC to acquire a nuclear capability. He insisted that TAC retain its proficiency with conventional weapons and sought flexibility because future enemies would be extremely flexible in their use of conventional weapons. Weyland retired from the Air Force in 1959, but continued, until his death in 1979, advocating for the use of tactical airpower as a deterrent and a war-winning force.

Walter J. Boyne, former director of the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., is a retired Air Force colonel and author. He has written more than 600 articles about aviation topics and 40 books, the most recent of which is Hypersonic Thunder. His most recent article for Air Force Magazine, “When the U-2 Fell to Earth,” appeared in the April issue.