Adapted from the Air Force Historical Division’s A History of the United States Air Force, 1907-1957 for the special Golden Anniversary of the US Air Force issue of Air Force Magazine.
The leaders of the Army Air Force came out of World War II convinced that their long-cherished faith in strategic bombardment had been vindicated by the record. Their conviction was borne out by the final judgment of the United States Strategic Bombing Survey: “Allied airpower was decisive in the war in western Europe. … It brought the economy which sustained the enemy’s armed forces to virtual collapse, although the full effects of this collapse had not reached the enemy’s front lines when they were overrun by Allied forces.” And enemy leaders like Albert Speer, the German production chief, and Premier Kantaro Suzuki of Japan testified feelingly to the decisive role that strategic bombardment had played in the defeat of their countries.
No accurate assessment of exactly how much strategic bombardment contributed to the defeat of Germany and Japan is possible. Not even the leaders of the AAF claimed that victory could have been won by strategic bombardment alone within the framework of the war as actually fought. But as a test of the theories of the major prophets of airpower—Mitchell, Andrews, Douhet, and Trenchard—World War II proved to be more than adequate. If it did not prove them right beyond question, it demonstrated that it was only a matter of time before they would be wholly correct.
Arnold and Spaatz, architects of the mighty bomber forces which wrecked Germany and Japan, insisted that American airpower of the future be built around the strategic air arm. It was fitting that Spaatz, the wartime commander of the AAF’s strategic air forces in both Europe and the Pacific, should have the satisfaction of establishing the Strategic Air Command on March 21, 1946. That it came only five weeks after he succeeded Arnold as commanding general of the Army Air Forces betokened his determination to brook no delay.
The selection of Gen. George C. Kenney as the first commander of SAC was also a measure of the command’s top priority. Second only to Spaatz among combat leaders of the AAF, Kenney reacted to his new job with characteristic vigor and competence and devoted the next two and a half years to building SAC into an effective fighting force.
When Kenney opened his headquarters at Bolling Field, Washington, D.C., early in the spring of 1946, his assets were not only meager but pitifully inadequate. It was appropriate that the first two air forces assigned to SAC should be the Fifteenth and the Eighth, but, aside from the names, they bore little resemblance to the great strategic air forces that had dealt Germany such terrible blows during World War II. Between them they could muster only nine bombardment groups and two fighter groups. The bombardment groups were equipped with B-29s and B-17s, and there were even two-engine B-25s in the command’s inventory. The fighter groups had World War II P-47s and P-51s. Among the 600 aircraft assigned to the Strategic Air Command, there were only three jet planes—P-80 Shooting Stars.
The command’s mission was to be prepared to conduct long-range operations in any part of the world at any time, but its ability to do this in 1946 fell so short as to be almost negligible. The B-29s could not attack intercontinental targets from the United States, and the B-17s were already obsolescent. Nor were there adequate bases overseas to be used in an emergency. Even in the United States there were not enough base facilities to accommodate the larger bombers. But this was still not the whole picture. Demobilization had ripped the organizational fabric of most of the units into shreds, and they could not muster enough combat and ground crews to be classed as effective combat groups.
In itself, SAC could hardly be regarded in 1946 as the deterrent to aggression that its creators had intended it should be. But the United States also possessed the atomic bomb, and even though the means of delivering the bomb on the target were limited at best, the lesson of Hiroshima and Nagasaki remained fresh and unmistakable. The bomb was undeniably a strategic weapon, and it was logical that SAC should be the first command to be given the responsibility of using it in time of war. At the time it received the responsibility, on May 1, 1946, SAC had only one unit—the 509th Composite Group at Roswell Field, N.M.—capable of delivering atomic weapons. Fortunately, the 509th, which had dropped the atomic bombs on Japan, happened also to be capable of sustained combat operations—the only such group in SAC at the time. It would serve as the nucleus around which SAC would build an all-atomic striking force.
Although SAC consistently received top priority among the Air Force’s combat commands from the beginning, this was not an overriding priority. Like the rest of the Air Force in the postwar years, SAC lacked planes, bases, equipment, and trained men. Like the others, it had to learn how to do its job in spite of inadequate resources.
When Lt. Gen. Curtis E. LeMay succeeded Kenney as commander of SAC in October 1948, the command stood on the threshold of a rejuvenation of strength and spirit to which LeMay himself would contribute a great deal. One of the most experienced and successful bomber commanders of World War II, LeMay had displayed unusual originality and daring as a strategist and tactician during the air assaults on Germany and Japan. In the longest tenure of major command in the history of the Air Force—1948 to 1957—LeMay became uniquely identified with SAC. Both a leader and a driver of men, he impressed on the command his own singlemindedness of purpose and iron resolution. His insistence on the highest standards of readiness and performance eventually gave the command the élan and the pride of service that have always distinguished the great military forces of history.
In November 1948, a month after taking over SAC, LeMay moved his headquarters from Andrews AFB, near Washington, D.C., to Offutt AFB, at Omaha, Neb. This was a more central location from which to control the command that grew into a global air force during the next half-dozen years.
Buildup of Strength
From the beginning, SAC urgently needed to be modernized and expanded, but the Air Force did not have the resources to do this until 1950. Few of the sixteen bombardment and five fighter groups on hand by the end of 1947 were fully manned or operational, even though the number of planes had almost doubled during the year and personnel strength had gone up to 50,000. The B-29s had become the backbone of the bomber strength, and the command inventory included 120 F-80 jet fighters, but these were not really the stuff of which strategic airpower could be built. The F-80s could not qualify as escort fighters because they lacked range, and before the end of 1948 they were all transferred to the Continental Air Command. The first of the F-84 Thunderjets, a fighter with higher performance than the F-80, became available to SAC during 1948. At the end of the year, SAC had only two fighter wings, one equipped with F-51s and the other with F-84s. By this time the wing had replaced the group as the basic self-contained combat unit, and the Air Force measured its strength in wings rather than groups.
During 1948 the first improved postwar bombers—the B-50 and the B-36—arrived in the combat wings. The B-50 had greater speed and combat radius than the B-29 but was essentially an advanced model of the Superfortress. The B-36, on the other hand, was the largest bomber in the world with a range approaching that of the intercontinental bomber about which air leaders had been dreaming for a generation. Later versions were greatly improved by the addition of four jet engines to the six reciprocating engines that normally powered the B-36. The increased power gave the plane greater speed and altitude and unquestionably prolonged its effective life.
The addition of B-36s to its bomber fleet permitted SAC to form three heavy bombardment wings by the end of 1949. The B-29s, the very heavy bombers of World War II days, had been downgraded to medium bombers after the war, and the B-50s also fell in this category. The guides to classification included combat radius of action as well as size although, to be sure, the combat radius usually increased with the size of the plane. The eleven medium bombardment wings were all equipped with B-29s and B-50s. SAC also had two fighter wings and three strategic reconnaissance wings.
By 1950, SAC had grouped its strength under the Second, Eighth, and Fifteenth Air Forces. All had specialized missions: the Eighth operated medium and heavy bombers; the Fifteenth, medium bombers only; and the Second, reestablished in November 1949, reconnaissance planes only. Geographically, there were no clear lines between the air forces, so that the Fifteenth, from its headquarters in California, controlled MacDill AFB in Florida, while the Second, from its headquarters in Louisiana, controlled Travis AFB in California. A reorganization early in 1950 divided the country into geographical regions, with the Second responsible for the eastern United States, the Eighth for the central, and the Fifteenth for the western. In addition, all three air forces contained both bombardment and reconnaissance units, giving them balance flexibility they had not had before.
Rearmament after June 1950 permitted SAC to reequip its bombardment units with jet aircraft much more quickly than would otherwise have been possible. The first B-47 Stratojets arrived late in 1951 and were used to form new bombardment wings. The six-engine medium jet bombers had about the same radius as the B-29, but its performance in every other regard far exceeded that of SAC’s other bombers. In 1953, B-29s and B-50s began going out of use as B-47s replaced them. By the end of 1954 all B-29s had gone, and by mid-1955 all B-50s were retired from bombardment units. In 1955 the huge B-52 Stratofortress all-jet heavy bomber arrived in SAC to begin replacing the B-36s, which had served their purpose well. Reconnaissance versions of the two all-jet bombers also gradually replaced the RB-50s and RB-36s, which had carried the burden of the reconnaissance mission.
The Korean War and related events sped up the acquisition of rights to overseas bases and the extension of direct SAC control to overseas areas vital to its operations. In the United Kingdom, where SAC bombardment units had been present most of the time since 1948, SAC was represented by the 7th Air Division from March 1951, in Morocco by the 5th Air Division from June 1951, and on Guam by the 3d Air Division from June 1954. The growing importance of the overseas bases led to the establishment in July 1956 of SAC’s first overseas air force—the Sixteenth—in Spain. The 5th Air Division came under the control of the Sixteenth Air Force in 1957. Also in 1957, after the dissolution of the Northeast Air Command, SAC’s Eighth Air Force took over direct control of a number of bases in Newfoundland, Labrador, and Greenland, including Thule. SAC’s acquisition of direct control over its major overseas bases gave it a completely global character befitting its mission.
Fortunately, SAC’s over-all growth between 1950 and 1957 was well balanced, including more modern aircraft and additional bases as well as more men and units. Personnel strength increased from about 70,000 to almost 200,000 (larger than the whole US Army in 1939) and aircraft from approximately 1,000 to more than 3,000. The number of combat wings grew from nineteen to fifty-one, but the loss of all six fighter wings during 1957 reduced the total to forty-five wings. The growth in air refueling squadrons was correspondingly large. Men and units were not the full measure of the growth, for the aircraft strength of the heavy bombardment wings increased by fifth percent. Although the number of bases in the United States and overseas more than doubled, additional bases were still needed. The true combat effectiveness of SAC in 1957 in relation to 1950 was far greater than the inventory of aircraft and units would show.
At the beginning of 1955, SAC undertook a number of measures to increase this effectiveness and decreased vulnerability to attack. The strategic value of the northeastern United States as a base of operations against overseas targets was stressed increasingly in SAC’s plans. Bombers taking off from New England instead of New Mexico, for instance, could reach their targets more quickly and with fewer refuelings or stops, since they would be closer to begin with. In June 1955, SAC moved the Eighth Air Force headquarters from Carswell AFB, Tex., to Westover AFB, Mass. The Eighth took over responsibility for bases, units, and personnel in the northeastern part of the United States and moved additional bombardment wings into that area.
In conjunction with this change, and for additional reasons, SAC planned to disperse its combat strength over a larger number of bases in the United States. There could be little doubt that SAC would be a priority target, probably even the No. 1 target, in the event of air attack on the United States. SAC’s bases, a number of which housed two whole bombardment wings, would be especially tempting targets. At the minimum, SAC needed one base for each bombardment wing and additional bases to which it could disperse its aircraft. Keeping too many bombers on a few bases became too risky to be ignored, and in 1957 a start was made toward dispersal.
There was another important gain to be derived from more bases. A large base housing ninety bombers could not get its planes into the air as quickly as two bases housing forty-five planes each. And squadron airfields with only fifteen planes could cut the takeoff time to a bare minimum. In short, the speed with which SAC could get its bombers into the air might well mean the difference between success and failure. More bases would certainly improve the chances of success.
The Long Reach
The most important factor in strategic bombardment has always been combat radius—the maximum distance a plane can fly to the target with a bomb load. This is unusually less than forty percent of combat range because provision must be made for time over the target and return to base. The chief problem of the “bomber boys” in the 1920s and 1930s had been to develop a plane with a long reach. Both the B-17 and B-24 of World War II had a practical combat radius of some 600 to 800 miles, while the B-29 eventually got up to 1,600 miles during the war. These planes could not have carried out sustained strategic bombardment campaigns without bases in England and the Marianas.
The need for an intercontinental bomber had been recognized even before World War II, and the development of the B-36 had begun in 1941. But until 1949 the Air Force had to rely almost entirely on the obsolescent B-29, which obviously could not reach targets in Europe or Asia from the United States. How would SAC carry out its mission if its planes could not fly to the targets and back? Even the B-36s, when they arrived, would not be able to reach all of the targets from bases in the United States. And since B-29s and B-50s would be in use for a number of years after 1948, something would have to be done to enable them to carry out their mission.
The obvious solution was to get overseas bases. But there were few or none available where SAC wanted them. Alaska and the Far East, to which SAC had sent bombardment squadrons for brief training periods even before 1948, were too far from the chief target areas. Germany and most of the European continent were too vulnerable. The increased sense of urgency imparted by the Berlin Airlift in 1948 helped bring about Anglo-American agreement for the construction of SAC bases in England. To provide for more flexible deployment of the bombers, the United States built additional bases in Morocco and Spain after 1950 by agreement with the governments concerned. In the polar regions, the great base at Thule added another string to SAC’s bow.
Bombardment units were not permanently stationed at the overseas bases. Housekeeping units maintained the bases, providing services to the bombers that came from time to time for training and orientation in the particular areas. These bases were the stepping stones between the home bases in the United States and the target areas.
But overseas bases were vulnerable to attack, and many of them might well be destroyed before they could be used. To provide an alternative the Air Force turned to a technique developed by the Air Corps a quarter of a century before—aerial refueling. In 1948, as part of a program to make all its bombers capable of in-flight refueling, SAC organized the first two air refueling squadrons and began flying practice refueling missions. The Lucky Lady II, a B-50A, dramatized the possibilities of this method when it made the first nonstop round-the-world flight between February 26 and March 2, 1949. The flight covered 23,452 miles in ninety-four hours and one minute, and the plane was refueled in the air four times by B-29 tankers from the Azores, Saudi Arabia, the Philippines, and Hawaii. This flight helped greatly to develop advanced refueling procedures and to improve equipment.
Initially, SAC used the British trail-line or gravity-flow system. In 1950, Boeing developed the flying boom, a telescoping aluminum tube that could be used up, down, or to either side. The boom system sped up refueling and therefore provided a much greater degree of operational flexibility.
In the years after 1948, SAC greatly increased the number of its air refueling squadrons, first using modified B-29s as tankers and later adding KC-97s. Later models of the KC-97 were also used as personnel and cargo transports. The B-47 and the B-52 created a refueling problem because of the great difference in speed and altitude between the jet bombers and the tankers. SAC asked for jet tankers that could keep up with the latest bombers, and in 1957 began receiving KC-135s—tanker version of the Boeing Model 707 jet transport. The KC-135 refueled planes at speeds of 500 miles an hour and at altitudes above 35,000 feet.
In 1955, SAC had thirty-six air refueling squadrons assigned as integral parts of bombardment wings. In a departure from this practice, SAC organized two air refueling wings in 1955 and gave them geographical areas of responsibility, free of assignment to specific bombardment wings.
With aerial refueling, SAC’s bomber fleet could reach targets anywhere in the world. The smaller B-47s, of course, needed more “drinks,” as the bomber crews put it, than did the B-52. The F-84 jet fighters also greatly extended their combat radius by aerial refueling. In August 1955, for instance, twelve F-84Fs flew nonstop from England to Texas in ten hours and forty-eight minutes. The leader of the flight breakfasted at Sturgate, near London, and lunched with his family in Austin, Tex., the same day.
Refueling attained precision status in the 1950s. Individual planes and mass formations alike were refueled on schedule, often in mid-ocean. The combat radius of the B-47s grew steadily, thanks to modifications, improved operating techniques, and air refueling. By 1956 the B-47 could fly three times its normal radius with two or more refuelings en route. Refueling became a normal part of almost every long-range flight. Early in 1956, SAC planes were averaging almost 3,000 aerial refuelings per week.
In 1957, SAC still depended on overseas bases and aerial refueling to give its bombers the long reach they needed to carry out their mission. And until the bomber with a combat radius of 6,000 or 7,000 miles or the intercontinental ballistic missile came along, SAC would remain dependent on these auxiliaries.
The Fighter Mission
World War Ii experience over Germany firmly implanted in the minds of Air Force tacticians the importance of fighter escort for strategic bombers faced with strong fighter opposition. For more than a decade after the war, SAC insisted on its own fighter units.
The classic concept of fighter escort called for relays of fighters to escort the bomber formations to and from the targets. But the development of air defense systems and the growing superiority of the jet interceptor over the bomber in combat made it clear after 1950 that the day of the bomber formation was drawing to a close. Furthermore, the jet fighter lacked the tactical combat radius to be a truly effective escort, given the conditions under which SAC bombers would have to operate. Finally, the number of fighters and advanced bases required for effective escort would be prohibitive.
SAC applied to the fighter the same principle of radius extension that it had applied to the bombers. The F-84 Thunderjet, its chief fighter of the 1950s, became adept at aerial refueling, and beginning in 1952, whole fighter wings moved overseas with the aid of two or three “drinks” over the Atlantic or the Pacific. Although this remarkable development helped to make the fighters almost as mobile as the bombers, it did not make fighter escort much more practicable.
In an effort to provide the bombers, especially the slower B-29s, B-50s, and B-36s, with some protections, the Air Force experimented with other possibilities. Wingtip coupling of bombers and fighters, which permitted the latter to get a free ride part of the way, and the F-84 fighter riding into battle cradled in the bomb bay of the B-36 were promising developments that were eventually overtaken by events.
The major event was the replacement of the older bombers by the much swifter jets. The new planes changed SAC’s tactics for penetrating enemy territory. In place of flying in large and vulnerable formations, the fast B-47s and B-52s would fly singly or in small formations under cover of darkness or bad weather, relying on speed, deception, and evasive tactics to get them to the target and back. This spelled the end of the escort fighters.
But SAC found other uses for them. In 1952 it directed that in the future the fighters would be equipped to use atomic weapons and employed as part of the strategic striking force. Their new mission included counterair operations against airfields and aircraft, attacks against strategic targets, diversionary strikes, and other operations supplementing the efforts of the big bombers. Like the bombers, fighter units rotated to England, Morocco, and other areas. For a while, the fighters had the task of helping defend SAC bases overseas, but they were looked on primarily as atomic fighter-bombers.
Even before 1957 it became apparent that the fighters had no truly legitimate mission in SAC. They were essentially fighter-bombers, and while they could use atomic weapons, so could the planes of the Tactical Air Command, where the Air Force’s fighter-bombers were properly assigned. Furthermore, in the event of war, the fighter-bombers of TAC would supplement the strategic air offensive wherever possible. It was only logical, therefore, that most of SAC’s fighter units should be transferred to TAC to strengthen the USAF fighter-bomber force. In 1957 the remaining SAC fighter wings were inactivated and their personnel used by SAC for other purposes.
SAC’s Cold War
SAC’s role as the deterrent force and, therefore, as the nation’s first line of defense, imparted a sense of urgency throughout the command. As the ability of the Russians to launch a nuclear attack against the United States increased after 1949, SAC’s importance as the shield of the Free World took on added meaning. Its ability to strike swift and overpowering blows against an aggressor became the paramount concern of its officers and men. They knew that there would be no time to get ready once the fighting had started.
SAC’s mission required that in peacetime it behave as if it were at war. Obviously, there were limits to how far if could go in this direction, for it did not actually fly to wartime targets or drop real bombs. But SAC’s training certainly became as demanding and realistic as was ever devised for a modern military force in peacetime, and its global scope was truly breathtaking.
SAC demanded a remarkable degree of mobility and flexibility from its bombardment and fighter units. Men and machines had to be prepared to take off at any time for flights to overseas bases or for simulated bombing missions. Whole bombardment squadrons and even wings had to be ready to pick up and move 5,000 or more miles away for a stay of days or months. And they had to take with them essential unit equipment and maintenance personnel. This meant a constant state of readiness throughout every unit of the command.
Such a state of readiness did not exist when SAC carried out its first temporary overseas deployment in November 1946. In order to get the necessary spares to support six B-29s in Germany for thirty days, the 43d Bombardment Group had to cannibalize other B-29s. Communication failures across the Atlantic and inadequate weather information further complicated the flight, but the B-29s finally arrived at Frankfort, Germany, on November 17, four days after leaving Davis-Monthan AFB, Ariz. After twelve days of training activities, the planes returned to the United States. This mission helped convince SAC that its units should be deployed periodically to overseas bases for intensified training under simulated wartime conditions.
Regular overseas rotations began in 1947. Between May and October, a number of SAC bombardment squadrons spent a month each at Yokota Air Base, Japan, practicing their reconnaissance and bombardment skills in the Far East. SAC placed heavy emphasis on the polar regions, and its units flew to Alaska from where they carried out important mapping and survey flights. Other units also flew training and good-will flights to Great Britain, France, Holland, Belgium, Germany, and Italy, and a few individual plans reached Saudi Arabia.
Within the United States, SAC’s units “attacked” such targets as New York, Chicago, and Kansas City. In the largest such mission during 1947, the command sent all the B-29s it could put into the air—101—against New York City on May 16.
During 1948, as bases became available in England, the emphasis on overseas training shifted to Europe. Two B-29 groups each spent three months or more at bases in England, and one spent more than a month at Fürstenfeldbruck in Germany. After more bases were secured, SAC began a program for regular rotation of bombardment units to Europe. Three other B-29 groups rotated to the Far East during the year, and many individual flights were made to other parts of the world.
From 1948 on, the tempo of rotation and training flights increased steadily. Fifteen bombardment groups flew to European bases during 1949. The effectiveness of this intensive training was demonstrated in 1950 during the Korean War. Alerted on July 1, the B-29s of the 22d and 92d Bombardment groups left the United States on July 5 and arrived two days later in Okinawa and Japan, respectively. They flew their first mission against the North Korean oil refinery at Wonsan on July 13. In all, SAC had four bombardment groups, a bombardment squadron, and a reconnaissance squadron operating over Korea in 1950.
In spite of the Korean War; SAC continued to rotate its bombardment and fighter units to other parts of the world. The first mass jet fighter flights were made to England and Germany before the end of 1950. As new bases were completed in England and Morocco, they became the chief overseas training areas for SAC’s units. Units continued to fly to Alaska, Guam, Greenland, and other areas also, but usually in lesser strength than to Europe.
SAC planes made more than 3,400 overseas flights during the first six months of 1954. The 92d Bombardment Wing, first complete B-36 wing to be deployed overseas, flew 5,000 miles from Fairchild AFB, Spokane, Wash., to Andersen AFB, Guam, in October and spent ninety days on the island. By June 1955, SAC’s jet bombers and fighters were flying approximately 50,000 hours per month, and the rate was rising steadily.
The deployments of 1955 were a far cry from the squadron and group deployments of 1948. In keeping with a commitment to NATO, SAC had to maintain bombardment wings at European bases at all times. As a result, whole wings, and sometimes two at a time, were deployed overseas for thirty- to ninety-day training periods after 1950. C-124 strategic support squadrons, assigned to SAC, airlifted the men and heavy equipment needed to maintain the units at the overseas bases.
As General LeMay put it, “Moving an entire combat wing is comparable to picking up one of our major domestic airlines, moving it across an ocean, and putting it back in operation all within a matter of hours. This is now accomplished as a routine training deployment.” It was routine to the extent that each SAC unit normally moved to a base outside the United States for a three-month period of training and maneuvers annually. In addition, SAC planes flew to the far corners of the world on normal training missions. Obviously, such a scheme of deployment and training could operate only wit a strong and mobile logistical system.
Planes flew test bombing missions constantly, regardless of weather and time of day or night. From altitudes of eight miles and higher, the bombers attacked American cities again and again under conditions as nearly approaching the real thing as could be managed. Their targets were specific buildings or corners of buildings, not whole cities, for even with the atomic and hydrogen bombs there was still a need for precision bombing. The bomb runs were carefully charted and scored by radar bomb-scoring detachments in order to determine the degree of accuracy.
SAC participated in most of the major atomic tests, beginning with Operation Crossroads in July 1946. During Crossroads, SAC provided bombers, photographic planes, and air logistic support for the task force off Bikini Atoll in the Pacific. This and subsequent tests permitted SAC to obtain accurate technical information that was vital to its effective use of atomic weapons. From time to time the command revised its plans, techniques, and operational procedures as a result of these tests.
SAC’s potency as a deterrent force depended on its ability to deliver nuclear bombs on targets. From 1947 on, the command concentrated on adding as rapidly as possible to the number of planes and units that could drop the bombs. This involved aircraft modifications, provision of special equipment, and intensive training of combat crews and technicians. When the Korean War began, this program was still under way, and most of the earlier bombardment wings sent to the Far East had only a limited ability to drop atomic bombs. In the years that followed, almost all of the bombardment and fighter wings acquired the capacity to use atomic weapons. The development of the thermonuclear bomb in 1952 required further adjustments of aircraft and training programs. In 1957, SAC had the ability to use both atomic and thermonuclear weapons on a mass scale.
The importance of accurate navigation and bombing led SAC to start an annual bombing competition among its units in 1948. Picked crews had to make flights of thousands of miles and bomb visually and by radar from high altitudes. The success of the bombing competition resulted in the inauguration of the annual reconnaissance and navigation competition in 1952. According to LeMay, his crews could find their targets with certainty, coming within fifteen miles of any place on earth by celestial navigation alone. Radar navigation could take them precisely to their targets.
Still another competitive program yielded high dividends. This was the classification of bombardment crews into three categories of ability: “select,” “lead,” and “combat-ready.” SAC based the ratings on a highly sophisticated system of records of achievement by all crews. Awarding “spot” promotions to select crews, begun in 1951, stimulated competition. If a select crew could not maintain the high standards of its rating, all members lost their promotions. Most of SAC’s crews in 1957 were composed of mature professionals with an enormous amount of flying experience behind them. Under constant urging for higher performance, the crews worked harder and measured up increasingly well.
The Human Factor
Reaching and keeping the high standards of performance required by LeMay was not without its human cost. But an intensive flying safety program that emphasized accident prevention lessened the physical toll. The rate of accidents per 100,000 flying hours declined steadily from fifty-four in 1949 to forty-one in 1950 and to an all-time low of nine in 1956. SAC made this fine record in spite of the continual addition of new types of planes, for which the accident rate was normally higher. The increasing proficiency of the aircrews themselves contributed greatly to the achievement.
There was another human toll exacted by the mental and emotional stress of life in SAC. To the attitude of mixed exasperation and pride with which many officers and airmen viewed themselves, their activities, and their command, they gave the name “SAC-happy.” The exasperation grew out of the tensions of living under a state of constant alert and flying frequent long-range flights. Flying at all hours of the day or night and frequent absences from home ranging up to three months further compounded this abnormal situation. Normal home life proved difficult to maintain, and both the flyers and their families suffered. Under these circumstances, the equivalent of combat fatigue in peacetime became a not uncommon phenomenon in SAC.
Other conditions, not confined to SAC alone, also affected the morale of the command. Poor housing was often the law straw that led officers to resign and airmen not to reenlist. Sometimes air and ground crews had to go as far as twenty miles from the base to find decent living quarters. Aside from the inconvenience, this created a serious operational problem, for it meant that SAC’s planes might well be delayed in taking to the air in the event of an alert. Other conditions affecting morale included inadequate pay and allowances and inadequate medical care for dependents.
Part of SAC’s hold on its men derived from the realization that the command was making a conscientious effort to remedy poor conditions. The men felt that LeMay and his staff cared about the well-being of all SAC people. And indeed SAC greatly improved living conditions on the bases, set up dependents’ assistance programs, provided outlets for individual interests in the form of flying clubs and hobby shops, and worked faithfully to secure better housing and pay.
But over and above all material inducements there existed a sense of dedication and mission among many of SAC’s people—ranging from the highest to the lowest—that kept them chained to their duties in spite of physical and mental hardships. Some cracked under the strain; some left before they cracked; others found the financial rewards of civilian life too tempting to resist. Those who stayed formed the hard core of professionals without which SAC could not endure. And for many of them the inspiration was that without SAC the nation might not endure.