The Army Air Forces at War

Sept. 1, 1995

Before bringing down the final curtain on the fiftieth anniversary of World War II, let us pause one more time to reflect on this mighty conflict, which is without parallel in history. The scope of it was unprecedented. The fighting spread to engulf Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Pacific islands. Eventually, it drew in the United States and every other nation of significant power anywhere in the world.

Nobody knows the exact carnage, but a credible estimate is that twenty-two million people–military and civilian–died and that another thirty-four million were maimed or wounded. We do know that US military forces sustained 1.07 million casualties and that 292,000 Americans were killed.

There were no extenuating circumstances to explain away the aggression of the Rome-Tokyo-Berlin Axis. The war was a cause that unified Americans like nothing before or since. More than sixteen million of them served in uniform. Citizens at home endured rationing, bought bonds, planted victory gardens, and saved scrap metal for defense production. The fighting forces were constantly reminded that their nation was behind them. In 1945, the United States allotted an incredible 89.5 percent of the federal budget for defense.

When the war was over, political and social change had swept the globe. Centers of power had shifted and the breakup of old colonial empires had begun. The United States, inclined toward isolationism before the war, was in a position of world leadership. A revolution had also taken place in the nature of war.

World War II effectively began and ended with airpower. In September 1939, Germany rained blitzkrieg, lightning war, on Poland. In 1940, German air attacks in the Battle of Britain came perilously close to opening the door for invasion forces to cross the English channel. On December 7, 1941, Japan struck the United States at Pearl Harbor. Four years later, long-range American B-29 bombers would bring the war to an end, striking the Japanese homeland from island bases in the Pacific, but that time was not yet.

When the war began, Germany had more than 4,000 combat aircraft. The British had about 2,000. The United States had only 800. In China, American airmen of the famous Flying Tigers used hit-and-run tactics because their P-40 Warhawks could not maneuver with the sleek Japanese fighters. And while the B-17 bomber was outstanding, we did not have that many of them yet. Given the importance of airpower in the war, it is a good thing we were able to catch up. The Air Force Historian says that, on average, every day for the length of the war, American workers produced 191 airplanes, sixty-four tanks, 1,761 trucks, and 20,892 tons of shipping.

“During World War II,” Secretary of the Air Force Sheila E. Widnall says, “the US Army Air Forces outpaced all other nations in the numbers of aircraft, engines, technology, and size. For instance, in 1941, our squadrons were still flying the P-26, an open-cockpit monoplane. Yet, by 1945, we were flying our first jet, the P-80 Shooting Star.”

Walter J. Boyne, author of several excellent books on airpower in World War II, observes that the Axis nations had air superiority in the beginning but lost it through a series of critical mistakes. They were unable to match US and Allied production of aircraft, so the numerical advantage shifted. The Axis nations could not hold on to their qualitative superiority. And perhaps most fateful of all, both Germany and Japan clung to the concept of airpower as an adjunct to ground and naval forces, whereas the US and the British wielded their airpower as a strategic weapon.

Albert Speer, Hitler’s Minister of Armaments and War Production, said that Allied strategic airpower was the equivalent of a “new front” for Germany, tying up 10,000 guns, hundreds of thousands of forces, and about half the electronics industry. Had it not been for this “air front over Germany,” Speer said, defensive strength against tanks could have been doubled.

The Allied landings at Normandy in 1944 were aided tremendously by an air campaign that pounded rail centers, bridges, roads, and airports and that isolated the invasion beaches from reinforcement. Ground troops fighting their way across Europe had no worries about air attack because the Luftwaffe had been put out of action.

In the Pacific, conventional bombing destroyed some sixty percent of Japan’s industrial output. From the South Pacific to the coastal waters of Kyushu and Honshu, US airpower took its toll on Japanese shipping. American forces held air supremacy. The empire was reduced to using the airplanes it had left as kamikaze suicide craft. The B-29 gave the Army Air Forces a bomber that could deliver atomic weapons on Japan from bases in the Marianas and induce the Japanese surrender at last.

The era of two-dimensional warfare was ended. The age of military airpower had begun. The United States and its Allies had defeated Axis plans for world conquest. For the US Army Air Forces, however, there was yet one more legacy. On September 18, 1947, the US Air Force would become a separate military service. It happened largely because of what the Army Air Forces achieved in World War II.