September 1987 marks the fortieth anniversary of the establishment of the United States Air Force (USAF). Gen. Henry H. (Hap) Arnold, builder and commander of the Army Air Forces (AAF) in World War II, and Gen. Carl A. (Tooey) Spaatz, Commander of US Strategic Air Forces in World War II and the first Chief of Staff of USAF, are generally acknowledged as the founding fathers of USAF.
There are, however, many other outstanding Air Force leaders who played important roles, directly or indirectly, in the creation of the Air Force. One of these men, Gen. George Churchill Kenney, born in August 1889, deserves special attention, because he was one of the rare airmen equally gifted in the fields of engineering, materiel and aircraft production, air organization, strategy, tactics, and operations. He has been generally acknowledged as perhaps the most innovative American air commander of World War II.
A consideration of General Kenney’s role, style, and contributions is also appropriate because it is approximately forty-five years since Maj. Gen. George Kenney arrived in the Southwest Pacific theater during the second world war to take command of the Allied Air Forces and the AAF’s Fifth Air Force under theater commander Gen. Douglas MacArthur. As it turned out, General Kenney’s arrival was destined to play an important part in the eventual creation of USAF because his dynamic demonstration of the effectiveness and flexibility of air-power convinced many Americans—politicians, military, and the public—that it was time to form an independent air force.
George Kenney possessed an extraordinary background gained in the relatively small US Army Air Corps between the wars. He flew seventy-five missions in World War!, including special missions for Brig. Gen. Billy Mitchell. He downed two German planes, was promoted to captain, and decided to make Army aviation a career. He stayed a captain for seventeen years, except for one year as a first lieutenant. Prior to the war, Kenney worked as an engineer and attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He graduated from the Air Service Engineering School at McCook Field, Ohio, after the war and subsequently specialized in production engineering.
In the late 1920s, while serving as an instructor at the Air Corps Tactical School, he met Maj. Frank M. Andrews, who was impressed with Kenney’s grasp of technical problems. At this school, the Air Corps laboratory for development of doctrine, strategy, and tactics, Kenney refined his concept of “attack aviation” and revised the basic attack textbook. He became an advocate of low-altitude attack operations.
After serving as a planner under Air Corps Chief Maj. Gen. Benjamin D. Foulois, he was made Chief of Operations and Training, General Headquarters Air Force, by Brig. Gen. Frank M. Andrews. Lieutenant Colonel Kenney wrote tables of organization and plotted maneuvers throughout the country for GHQ Air Force, the Air Corps combat arm.
Kenney’s experience in the Air Corps during the 1920s and 1930s gained him a reputation as an able, imaginative, and independent-minded airman. In 1938, when Maj. Gen. Henry H. Arnold became Chief of the Air Corps upon the death of Oscar Westover, Arnold sent Kenney to the Materiel Division at Wright Field as Chief of Production Engineering. There were problems to be resolved at Wright Field, and Arnold thought Kenney possessed the know-how to do the job. General Arnold was correct; Kenney became something of a troubleshooter for him. “Every time he got something going wrong,” Kenney once recalled, “he would say, ‘Send George Kenney out there; he is a lucky son of a bitch. He will straighten it out.’ I never was supposed to have any brains; I was just lucky.” The fact was that General Arnold had great confidence in Kenney’s ability. Subsequent events would prove the Chief of the Air Corps’s judgment to be correct.
On December 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. Arnold ordered Kenney, with the temporary rank of major general, to San Francisco to command Fourth Air Force. General Kenney’s responsibilities included the air defense of California, Oregon, and Washington and the training of units for assignment overseas.
His tenure as commander of Fourth Air Force was short-lived. In July 1942, General Arnold ordered Kenney to Washington. Kenney knew something big was about to be sprung on him. On July 12, he met with Arnold and Gen. George C. Marshall, Army Chief of Staff. They told him that he was to replace Lt. Gen. George H. Brett, MacArthur’s air commander.
To Center Stage
Kenney’s appointment as commander of the Allied Air Forces in the Southwest Pacific theater was due not only to his demonstrated competence but also to the play of personalities and events. Arnold and Marshall had first proposed to MacArthur that Maj. Gen. James H. Doolittle replace Brett. General MacArthur demurred however, because he mistrusted Doolittle’s alleged flamboyance. Upon Arnold’s suggestion, Marshall then recommended Frank Andrews. The former commander of the GHQ Air Force (then heading the Caribbean Defense Command) refused, observing that he was not about to work for a man whom he thought had kept the Air Corps down in the 1930s and who failed to appreciate the capabilities of the air arm.
Although obviously pleased with being placed in command of combat air forces, Kenney’s discussions in Washington were not entirely agreeable. In his own mind, he recognized the Japanese pattern of success: gaining air superiority, use of amphibious forces supported by air elements, and use of captured airfields to keep the advance moving. He knew that “the Allies had lost freedom of air action early in the game and without airpower could not even hold their defense positions, let alone undertake offensive action.”
With this in mind, Kenney suggested to Arnold and Marshall that he had “to get rid of a lot of the Air Corps deadwood, as no one could get anything done with the collection of generals that had been given Brett to work with.” Kenney also noted that “a lot of colonels would have to come home, and I wanted carte blanche to handle the situation.” He asked Arnold “to wash his own linen and get them all out before I go across.” Arnold refused. Kenney observed that Arnold and Marshall “were a bit peeved” with him, but they agreed that anything that MacArthur would let him do was all right with them.
Although in a sense Kenney had been one of General Arnold’s best-kept secrets, and this was certainly true with regard to the public, he was now about to move to center stage. He was well aware of the allied grand strategy of tackling “Europe first” and of the fact that the Southwest Pacific “looked like a mess.” The Europe-first strategy posited that General MacArthur’s forces were to operate defensively to stop the Japanese and to hold Australia until the Allies clearly gained the upper hand on the European continent. According to Kenney, this strategy was “McNarney’s [Maj. Gen. Joseph T. McNarney] thesis, which Arnold and Marshall have adopted. No one is really interested in the Pacific, particularly the Southwest Pacific Area.”
The “mess” that he referred to included more than 500 lanes in the theater with only a handful in commission. Morale was low, and personality clashes abounded between Americans and Australians and within the American command. Generals Brett and MacArthur had failed to get along and to communicate, and open antagonism existed between Brett and Maj. Gen. Richard K. Sutherland, MacArthur’s Chief of Staff. Kenney wanted P-38 aircraft and 3,000 parachute fragmentation bombs that remained in war reserve. He needed men, planes, equipment, materiel, and an effective command organization. To say the least, his work was cut out for him.
“The Sutherland Problem”
Both Kenney and General Arnold were aware of “the Sutherland problem.” Prior to Kenney’s meeting in Washington with Arnold and Marshall, Brig. Gen. Laurence S. Kuter, Deputy Chief, Air Staff, AAF Headquarters, informed Arnold that Sutherland was “the cause of most of the Air Force problem.” Kuter suggested to Arnold that Kenney should replace Brett. The latter, competent and self-effacing, had been unable to move past Sutherland to communicate effectively with General MacArthur. Replying to Kuter’s recommendation, Arnold observed: “My God, if MacArthur can’t get along with Brett, how do you think he can get along with Kenney?” Perhaps he couldn’t, Kuter emphasized, “but at least it won’t take so long to find out, and Kenney’s personality may be just what we need.”
In July 1942, flying to the Pacific, Kenney turned over his problems in his own mind. In a sense, the key to his logistical, organizational, and operational problems rested on his ability to form a sound relationship with theater commander Douglas MacArthur. General Brett left Kenney this assessment of MacArthur: “He has not a full appreciation of air operations, nor is there any officer on his staff sufficiently conversant with air operations to have the ability for proper planning. The Air Commander must therefore be exceptionally careful in checking orders received and must be capable of planning all his operations in detail. . . . I do not believe that MacArthur has a single thought for anybody who is not useful to him, and I believe he detests the Air Corps through his own inability to thoroughly understand it and operate it as he does ground troops.”
On the morning of July 29, 1942, Kenney met with MacArthur. For one hour, MacArthur made clear his frustration with the air forces. They had done nothing. According to Kenney, MacArthur “had no use for anyone in the organization, from Brett down to the grade of colonel.” Kenney finally interrupted his commander to say that he intended to command the air forces and that he knew how to run an operational air force. Kenney emphasized “that as far as the question of loyalty was concerned, if for any reason I found that I could not work with him or be loyal to him, I would tell him so and do everything in my power to get relieved. He grinned and put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘I think we are going to get along all right.”
Brett had suggested to Kenney that “a showdown early in the game with Sutherland might clarify the entire atmosphere.” In effect, Sutherland had been controlling the air forces, issuing air directives to Brett. Kenney determined to put a stop to this practice, and on August 4, 1942, he confronted MacArthur’s Chief of Staff. He informed Sutherland that the most competent airman in the Pacific was George Kenney, and if that was not true, “I would recommend that he find somebody who was more competent and put him in charge. . . . I did not think that this top air leader was named Richard Sutherland.” Kenney emphasized to Sutherland that from now on GHQ would lay down the missions and that he would give the detailed air orders to his subordinate air units. When Sutherland protested, General Kenney suggested that they go in to see MacArthur, whereupon Sutherland backed down. From this point on, Maj. Gen. George Kenney ran the Allied Air Forces in the Southwest Pacific.
Innovators and Operators
Kenney’s style of command was first “to clear it with the Old Man.” He told MacArthur what was wrong with the air forces and what needed to be done to correct the situation. The primary objective was “to take out the Jap air strength until we owned the air over New Guinea. . . . There was no use talking about playing across the street until we got the Nips off of our front lawn.” Japanese shipping and airdromes would be attacked at every opportunity. The big Japanese base at Rabaul had to be “neutralized.”
First however, the aircraft of Fifth Air Force (formally established August 7, 1942) had to be put back into commission. Most of Kenney’s more than 500 planes were not ready to fly operational missions. He also required a large infusion of replacement crews, 150-gallon droppable fuel tanks, and racks for the parachute fragmentation bombs that he had ordered. He directed Maj. Paul I. (Pappy) Gunn, a canny innovator, to design and install fragmentation bombs on A-20 light bombers. Gunn had designed a package of four .50-caliber machine guns (500 rounds per gun) for the nose of the A-20 and ultimately he would do the same for the B-25 medium bomber.
General Kenney wanted innovators and what he termed “operators.” He named Brig. Gen. Ennis Whitehead as his deputy commander. Brig. Gen. Kenneth Walker was made the Fifth’s bomber commander, and Col. Paul B. Wurtsmith—whom Kenney called “a thief” and “a reformed bad boy”—took over Fifth Air Force Fighter Command. Kenney sent the “deadwood” home—several generals and about forty colonels and lieutenant colonels.
As commander of Fifth Air Force and the Allied Air Forces, with headquarters in Brisbane, 1,000 miles from the New Guinea combat front, Kenney needed to resolve the command problem. The solution was to make Whitehead, a tough, aggressive leader, commander of the Advanced Echelon of Fifth Air Force at Port Moresby. Kenney henceforth sent operational directives from Brisbane to Whitehead, who would execute them from Port Moresby.
In General Kenney’s mind, almost equal in importance to gaining air superiority over the Japanese was the necessity of a clear demonstration of the ability of Fifth Air Force to airlift troops into the battle zone and to resupply them. MacArthur’s strategy of pushing the enemy back westward along New Guinea’s north coast depended on the success of aerial resupply. Kenney needed to convince MacArthur that the airlift and supply plan would work.
In September 1942, although MacArthur’s staff opposed it, the “Old Man” approved Kenney’s plan. The strip around Wanigela Mission was cleared by natives during the first week in October, and C-47 transports landed a battalion of Australian troops and engineers. There was no enemy opposition on the ground or in the air. This operation, a key to the Buna campaign, General Kenney emphasized, “turned the corner in the New Guinea war.” It was only the first of a number of important airlift operations, and MacArthur quickly became an enthusiastic advocate. In September 1943, in the largest airlift operation of its kind to that point in the war, some 1,700 paratroops were dropped, resulting in the capture of Nadzab in New Guinea’s Markham River valley.
Passing the Gravy
While demonstrating the contribution that air operations could make to MacArthur’s “island-hopping” strategy, Kenney also took great care to make certain that his men had everything they required for top morale—including promotions. Not long after arriving in the theater, he noted, “We haven’t been getting any special favors so far that I have found, but so long as we are the only ones doing any fighting in the American forces, I am going to see that if there is any gravy being passed around, we get first crack at it.” Kenney observed that the noncombat outfits seemed to have plenty of rank. He immediately moved “to stop all promotions in the Service Command and other noncombat outfits until the combat squadrons get commanded by majors and flights by captains who have proven leadership in combat.”
The pilots came first. When they griped about unsatisfactory engine overhauls, Kenney told the Service Command that he had “more faith in the pilots’ judgment than in Air Service Command alibis and to remember that the kids in New Guinea are the customers—and they are always right.” Prior to Kenney’s arrival, requests from the New Guinea front for parts and equipment had been turned down if requisition forms had not been properly filled out. He informed Service Command Headquarters that requisitions were to be filled “whether oral or written or made out properly or improperly. . . . We could not sink Jap ships or shoot down Jap planes with papers and filing cabinets. . . . I was more interested in getting the planes flying than having a beautiful set of files that we were not even going to take home when the war was over.”
General Kenney wanted all activity pointed toward defeating the enemy. He made certain his “kids” had what they required—from refrigeration to mosquito netting. No detail escaped him on his frequent visits to operational units. Planes simply had to be kept in commission. He brooked no alibis and ordered the number of aircraft in commission to be reported to him each day by group and by squadron. “By in commission,” he emphasized, “I mean ready to take off for combat operations.” He worked the troops hard, but demanded no more of them than he did of himself. Maj. Victor Bertrandias, a former Douglas Aircraft executive, reporting to work in the supply field, informed Kenney, “Gen. Joe McNarney told me to report to George Kenney. He will give you a job and work hell out of you or chase you home on the next plane.”
Kenney’s vision, knowledge of operational detail, mastery of organization, and extraordinary leadership paved the way for the air forces’ tremendous contribution to MacArthur’s strategy and operations. From Dobodura to Hollandia, Sansapor and northwest to the Halmaheras and the Philippines, Fifth Air Force (subsequently joined by Seventh and Thirteenth Air Forces to form the Far East Air Forces) and the Allied Air Forces demonstrated the flexibility and effectiveness of airpower.
Dealing With Arnold
Kenney knew how to deal with General Arnold. It was a tricky situation, because MacArthur and Arnold never got along especially well. As mentioned, the “Europe-first” strategy complicated the picture. In 1942, the Southwest Pacific theater was considered by the Joint Chiefs to be primarily a defensive operation. Kenney’s secret in prying aircraft and equipment from Arnold was not only to badger the AAF commander but sometimes subtly to suggest a way out of a particular problem and then to make certain that the solution would be General Arnold’s.
During the war, however, Kenney never relinquished the pressure on Arnold to keep the aircraft and supply pipeline flowing to the Southwest Pacific. Although Kenney was not receiving all that he wanted, the constant successes of Fifth Air Force convinced General Arnold that Kenney would always put the planes and equipment to especially good use. As early as the spring of 1943, Arnold assured Kenney that “you are no longer the forgotten man.”
Kenney was not above putting the pressure on Arnold in another way. Several times during the war, when in Washington to brief the Joint Chiefs, he stopped at the White House to bring President Franklin D. Roosevelt up to date on combat operations. Kenney always found the President extraordinarily knowledgeable down to the smallest detail about operations in the Southwest Pacific. Roosevelt admired Kenney’s style of command, applauded his success, and was sympathetic to his needs. The point was not lost on General Arnold. Kenney gained Arnold’s respect and admiration (no mean feat) to the point where the AAF commander asked him, prior to Operation Overlord, to forward his ideas on what should be done in Europe in planning air operations so that a successful invasion of the continent could be assured.
Kenney’s judgment, usually unerring about operational matters, failed him over the question of the use in the Southwest Pacific of the B-29 long-range bomber. He wanted the B-29s and planned to employ them from Australia to smash the Japanese-controlled oil refineries at Balikpapan, Borneo, and Palembang, Sumatra, thus cutting off the enemy’s petroleum supply. Kenney wrote Arnold in October 1943, “If you want the B-29 used efficiently and effectively where it will do the most good in the shortest time, the Southwest Pacific Area is the place, and the Fifth Air Force can do the job…. Japan may easily collapse back to her original empire by that time , due to her oil shortage alone.”
General Arnold however, had determined early that the B-29s should only be employed directly against the Japanese home islands, and in March 1944, Kenney learned from Maj. Gen. Laurence S. Kuter, visiting the Southwest Pacific theater, that he would not be receiving the big bombers. With Operation Matterhorn in 1944, the B-29s that had been based in India and staged through China moved to the Marianas in October, where in March 1945 Maj. Gen. Curtis E. LeMay’s XXI Bomber Command began to strike crushing blows against the home islands. Kenney thought that the B-29 attacks from the Marianas would have little or no impact on the enemy—only “nuisance raids,” he reasoned. On this issue, he was spectacularly wrong.
Effective Style of Command
Kenney’s success was due in large measure to firmly held ideas and convictions refined during a long career in the Air Corps. One of these convictions was his faith in low-altitude operations. These gave “more surprise, less trouble from fighters, and more bomb hits.
Nothing like low-altitude work to pep a gang up if the losses are not too high and the results good.” He knew how and when to get along. He worked well with those he called “big men”—MacArthur and Arnold.
He also had no trouble getting along with the Navy when the combat situation demanded it. Coordination and control between the services could be worked out. “We have never,” he emphasized, “had any troubles on that score in this theater that could not be and have not been solved in a conference or two.”
When the war ended, General Arnold wired Kenney, “It may truthfully be said that no air commander ever did so much with so little.” Gen. Douglas MacArthur put it this way: “Of all the commanders of our major Air Forces engaged in World War II, none surpassed General Kenney in those three great essentials of successful combat leadership: aggressive vision, mastery over air strategy and tactics, and the ability to exact the maximum in fighting qualities from both men and equipment.”
Kenney wanted “operators” like Whitehead and Wurtsmith, but Kenney himself was the toughest of all the operators. In this age of managers and specialists, his performance in World War II and his style of command are not without their lessons for today’s commanders.
All George Kenney knew how to do was win.
Herman S. Wolk is Chief, General Histories Branch, and Chairman, Publications Committee, Office of Air Force History. He is the author of Planning and Organizing the Postwar Air Force, 1943-1947 (Office of Air Force History, 1984), and contributing author to Evolution of the American Military Establishment Since World War II (George C. Marshall Research Foundation, 1978). Mr. Wolk has written many articles for this magazine over the past twenty-five years.