Carl A. Spaatz, born in Boyertown, Pa., on June 28, 1891, became the first Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force in September 1947. For two years after the end of World War II, he had led the fight to separate the Army Air Forces from the Army and thereby create an independent air service.
His success in this endeavor was typical of his career: Someone would give Spaatz a tough, thankless job to do, and then he would quietly and relentlessly go about getting it done.
Spaatz was not flashy. Today, few Americans outside the service he helped found would even remember him. Fewer still can correctly pronounce his name, despite his addition of the extra “a” in 1937. (The right way is “spots,” as on a leopard, not “spats” as in old-fashioned footwear.)
Spaatz showed his determination early in life. When he was a teenager, his father suffered burns in a fire and could not work at the family newspaper. Spaatz for several months ran the enterprise, doing everything from selling advertising to setting type by hand.
In 1910, the young man entered the United States Military Academy at West Point. His four years there produced a permanent distaste for professional military education. For the rest of his career, Spaatz attended service schools only when unavoidable or as a last resort. His record of demerits at West Point showed his particular antipathy for “bull” and spit and polish. He never earned a cadet rank and remained a “cleansleeve” throughout his four years.
Spaatz coasted through West Point on wit rather than scholarship, finishing 57th out of 107 class members in academics and 95th in conduct. He excelled at the things that really interested him-bridge, poker, and the guitar. Three things that he acquired at the academy stuck to him for the rest of his life-a nickname, a desire to fly, and a reputation for honesty.
Three Lasting Items
Spaatz had the kind of pale, freckled complexion characteristic of most redheads. It so happened that he shared the trait with a certain upperclassman, Francis J. Toohey. In short order, his classmates stopped using the name “Carl.” Thereafter, he was known as “Tooey” Spaatz.
On May 29, 1910, early aviator Glenn Curtiss flew over West Point on a trip from New York City to Albany. Spaatz watched him go by and then and there decided that he, too, would learn to fly. And he did.
As for honesty, Spaatz demonstrated it at West Point in a typically damn-the-consequences way. Upon returning to post after an evening out, Spaatz was asked whether he had just come from a specific off-limits drinking establishment. He promptly replied, Yes. However, no one else had seen him there, and, after some scratching of heads, an honor committee refused to punish him. The panel ruled that he had simply told the truth.
After West Point, Spaatz went directly to the infantry. Rules required that he spend one year in a regular branch of the Army before transferring to his chosen specialist branch, the Signal Corps Aviation Section. He wound up in Hawaii, serving as a white officer in a company of the 25th Infantry Regiment, an all-black unit. Spaatz recalled that he “enjoyed that year of service with that outfit as much as any I ever had,” but 2nd Lt. Spaatz made no lasting mark on the 25th, and he was eager to start flying.
At about the same time, he met Ruth Harrison, the 17-year-old daughter of a cavalry officer. The two were married in July 1917.
Spaatz, when his year with the infantry was over, reported for flight training at the North Island field in San Diego. The date was Nov. 25, 1915. His training consisted of two to five hours of dual instruction, combined with lectures on flight safety and engine maintenance. On his first solo flight, his engine quit, but he managed to land safely.
Spaatz’s first actual flying assignment came in May 1916. He flew as part of the 1st Aero Squadron under Capt. Benjamin D. Foulois. The squadron was attached to a force under Brig. Gen. John J. Pershing, who had embarked on his famous Punitive Expedition into Mexico, an action provoked by the cross-border raids of Mexican guerrilla Francisco “Pancho” Villa. Pershing never caught Villa, and the US force returned within its borders after 11 months in Mexico.
Off to France
In June 1917, Spaatz was promoted to major. (His next promotion would not come for nearly 18 years.) The United States had only a month earlier entered World War I on the side of the Allies, and Spaatz was one of only 65 flying officers in the Army, so there never was any doubt that he would be shipped over to Europe. He arrived in France in September 1917, and by November, he had assumed command of the 3rd Aviation Instruction Center, Issoudun, France. (Spaatz commanded the unit until the arrival of Lt. Col. Walter G. Kilner, then became the officer in charge of training. He took command again in May 1918.) The US had no modern aircraft of its own, and this center trained all US fighter pilots in the use of French fighters.
Spaatz arrived at Issoudun only to find no good roads, a handful of shoddily constructed buildings, a sea of mud, and a veritable mob of dispirited trainees and instructors. When he left in September 1918, Issoudun had become the largest training field in the world. Under Spaatz, Issoudun graduated 766 fighter pilots and suffered 56 training fatalities.
Spaatz gained invaluable experience as a trainer and administrator of a fledgling air force, but like any officer, he wanted to fight at the front. Brig. Gen. William “Billy” Mitchell was impressed with Spaatz’s record and wanted to send him back to the US to help upgrade the training effort. Spaatz, however, resisted and managed to get two weeks at the front.
He reported to the 2nd Pursuit Group, which had entered combat five weeks earlier, and promptly won the respect of his fellow pilots, mostly first and second lieutenants, by sticking his major’s insignia in his pocket and becoming one of them.
He shot down his first German airplane on Sept. 15.
For actions 11 days later, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and made the New York Times. The headline read, “Flying Officer Shoots Down Three Planes-Two German and His Own.” When Ruth Spaatz saw the headline she said, “That has to be Tooey!” He had concentrated so fiercely on damaging the enemy that he had neglected to check his own fuel. He ran out of gas and crashed in no-man’s-land. Fortunately for Spaatz, French “poilu” rather than German grenadiers won the race to his airplane.
By that time, Mitchell had had enough. He packed Spaatz off to the US, telling him, “I will be glad to have you command a group at any time under my command.” Spaatz arrived home on Oct. 13, 1918, and traveled to Washington, where he first met Col. Henry H. “Hap” Arnold. The two would become fast friends, with great benefit to each of their subsequent careers. At the war’s end Spaatz was in the midst of an inspection trip of training bases in the US. He had finished the war as a recognized expert in training and pursuit aviation.
Spaatz, at that time, believed that the Air Service deserved autonomy within the Army. By 1924, however, he had come around to adopt the more radical belief of his mentor, Mitchell, that the country required an Air Force that would be separate from, and coequal with, the Army and Navy.
When Mitchell was tried at court-martial in late October and November 1925, Spaatz testified for the defense. He forthrightly told the highest ranking court-martial board in US history that the Air Service had only 59 modern airplanes and that “by dragging all administrative officers from their desks,” the service might field 15 pursuit aircraft.
When asked the key question-Was the War Department slowing the development of airpower?-he quickly answered Yes, beating the prosecutor’s objection. Spaatz was warned that his testimony might damage his career, but he refused to trim to the prevailing wind. He noted, perhaps naively, “They can’t do anything to you when you’re under oath and tell them the answers to their questions.”
In late 1928, the Army Air Corps needed publicity and to demonstrate the potential of air-to-air refueling. Spaatz’s friend Capt. Ira C. Eaker came up with the idea of carrying out a world record endurance flight. Spaatz got the job. During the period Jan. 17, 1929, Spaatz, Eaker, Lt. Elwood R. Quesada, Lt. Harry A. Halverson, and SSgt. Roy W. Hooe kept Question Mark aloft over southern California for 11,000 miles and a then world record 150 hours, 40 minutes, and 15 seconds.
Early in the mission, an accident caused Spaatz to be drenched with high-octane aviation gasoline. The crew quickly took off his clothes and rubbed him down with zinc oxide to prevent serious burns and injury. He instructed them, “If I’m burned and have to bail out, you keep this plane in the air.” On the next refueling, Spaatz manned his post wearing only skin cream, goggles, a parachute, and a grin.
Spaatz became a lieutenant colonel in 1935, and with the promotion came orders to attend the Army Command and General Staff School, which Spaatz thankfully observed had just shortened its course from two years to one. He went only to get away from Washington and made little attempt to conceal his dislike for a curriculum that lacked an appreciation of modern airpower. He graduated 94th of 121, with an unfavorable recommendation for further staff training.
He went from Leavenworth to Langley Field, Va., home of the 2nd Wing. He stayed until November 1938, when then-Major General Arnold called him to Washington to help plan the air portion of the rearmament program just instituted by President Roosevelt in recognition of war looming in Europe and the Far East. As head of the Air Corps plans section, Spaatz helped to implement an ever-growing program. Pilot training alone increased a hundredfold.
From late May to early September 1940, Spaatz served in Great Britain as an official Air Corps observer. During the dark days of the fall of France and the Battle of Britain, he remained confident the Royal Air Force would win out. He shared that view with William J. Donovan, Roosevelt’s special envoy. Donovan, in turn, convinced the President to continue supplying aid. Spaatz left England, having made many friends within the RAF and still convinced the Air Corps was on track in backing the development of strategic bombardment. In June 1941, when Gen. George C. Marshall, Army Chief of Staff, authorized the creation of the Army Air Forces, Chief of the AAF Arnold named Spaatz the first chief of the Air Staff.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor brought the US into World War II, Arnold assigned Spaatz to command Eighth Air Force, which was to spearhead the American strategic bombing campaign against Germany from bases in England. Assembling units, completing their training, and taking them across the Atlantic to newly built stations took time. Spaatz, now a major general, could not launch his first heavy bomber raid until Aug. 17, 1942. He had to withstand pressure from Washington to begin operations immediately and from London to defend British airspace and to switch to night bombing operations. By October 1942 the Eighth had dispatched 1,000 bomber sorties. Then grand strategy intervened.
On Nov. 8, 1942, the AngloAmerican Allies began their invasion of French North Africa. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the invasion commander, soon realized that he needed closer coordination between his air and ground units. Spaatz got the job and eventually a third star. First as advisor, next as coordinator, and last as Ike’s overall air commander, he smoothed tangled airground relations, integrated the AAF and RAF operations, and conducted a devastating anti-air and interdiction campaign against the Axis in Tunisia.
After the Axis surrender in Africa in May 1943, Spaatz’s Northwest African Air Forces paved the way for Allied invasions on Sicily and Italy. The bombing of Rome on July 19, 1943, caused the fall of dictator Benito Mussolini and his replacement by an Italian government anxious for peace.
Spaatz convinced the Combined Chiefs of Staff of the need for establishing a second US strategic air force in Europe. Fifteenth Air Force, established in November 1943 and based in Italy, opened a new air front forcing Germany to spread its defenses and giving the Allies the capability of attacking a new range of targets, especially the Rumanian oil fields, which supplied much of the Nazis’ fuel.
Spaatz in December 1943 started the most crucial phase of his wartime service. At Arnold’s instigation, Eaker moved from Eighth Air Force to the Mediterranean and Spaatz transferred to England, where he had operational control of the two largest strategic air forces ever fielded-Eighth and Fifteenth-and administrative control, including the power of promotion, over the world’s largest tactical air force, Ninth Air Force, which was based in England with the mission of supporting the cross-channel invasion into northern France.
Spaatz, to meet this challenge, organized a headquarters based on the deputy system rather that the traditional G sections. He had two deputies, one for operations and one for logistics. His was the first modern headquarters to place the two on equal footing. He not only gave his deputies wide responsibility, he gave them the authority to go with it.
Everything pointed toward the invasion of Europe on the French coast. A key question confronted Spaatz and Eisenhower, the man entrusted with command of the invasion by Roosevelt and Churchill–What was the best use of strategic airpower in helping the invasion
Strategic air’s primary role was to ensure Allied air supremacy over the beachhead and inland. Only the heavy bombers and their escort fighters had the range and capability to carry the fight into Germany, for by this stage in the war the Luftwaffe had ceased stationing strong forces in forward bases in France and reserved its strength for defense of the cities and industry of the Fatherland.
Spaatz and the new commander of Eighth Air Force, Lt. Gen. Jimmy Doolittle, began to go after the Luftwaffe almost as soon as they arrived. In late January 1944, with Spaatz’s permission, Doolittle radically changed the role of the fighter escorts. He told them not to stay glued to their bombers but to hunt down German fighters from the tops of the clouds to the tops of the trees.
Both American airmen knew that, to kill the Luftwaffe, they needed to destroy its trained pilots, the men who provided its fighting leadership. This could only be done by drawing them into a grinding battle of attrition. Spaatz, one of the greatest believers in the information supplied by Ultra (the Anglo-American breaking of high-level German codes), had learned that the Luftwaffe had begun 1944 with a severe shortage of fighter pilots, and he knew that the American pilot replacement system could sustain heavy losses. In the cold logic of war the Germans would have to replace an expert with 20 or more kills with a kid with less than 100 hours’ flight time, while Spaatz could replace an American of 250 hours of flight training with an equally skilled flier.
The battle raged through May 1944. Spaatz drove his men and machines relentlessly. When operations in “Big Week,” Feb. 20-25, damaged much of the German aircraft industry, he sent his forces straight at Berlin, knowing that the Luftwaffe would have to fight. Hermann Goering, Luftwaffe commander in chief, admitted later that he knew the Germans had lost the war when he saw Mustangs over the capital.
The Americans won the battle decisively. Spaatz observed, “The concentrated attacks on the Luftwaffe production and product paid the dividends we had always envisioned, the dividend being beyond expectation. During the entire first day of the invasion, enemy opposition in the air, fighter or bomber, was next to nil.”
Oil or Railroads
However, strategic airpower also had to make a direct contribution to clearing the invasion’s path. All agreed it would have to expend bombs on German coastal fortifications, but a great controversy arose over the targeting of the remainder of the strategic effort. In a dispute that crisscrossed service and national lines, Spaatz recommended the bombing and destruction of the German synthetic oil industry, which should halt the German war machine in its tracks. His opponents advocated a large-scale attritional attack on the French and Belgian rail network between the German border and the invasion site, which would hamstring German logistics and slow reinforcements. On March 25, Eisenhower chose the rail attack plan.
In public, Spaatz loyally accepted the verdict, but he quietly conducted a behind the scenes campaign to further the oil plan. On April 5, the first time since August 1943, Fifteenth began operations against Ploesti, the center of Rumanian oil production. Instead of hitting the town’s rail marshaling yard, the bombers “missed” and hit the adjacent refineries-a few days later they returned and “missed” again. Ploesti oil output fell more than 40 percent, making the Nazis more reliant on synthetic production.
By the middle of April 1944 the Eighth had yet to bomb any of its rail targets. At the same time the Luftwaffe failed to contest two large raids over central Germany, leading Spaatz to fear they had begun to conserve their forces for the invasion. In addition, the British chose that moment to insist that Spaatz divert much of his force to bombing launching sites on the French coast for the V-1 jet propelled bomb. Spaatz knew that the Germans would not waste aircraft defending French targets. He went to Eisenhower and, after a session both men kept confidential for the rest of their lives, they hammered out an agreement. Spaatz got permission for two attacks on synthetic oil before the invasion-to test if the Germans would fly to defend it. The next day Eighth bombed V-1 sites and a day after it hit the largest marshaling yard in Europe–Hamm, the gateway to France. In the face of determined aerial resistance, the AAF hit synthetic oil on May 12 and 28. Ultra revealed it struck the enemy in the solar plexus. Consequently, Eisenhower made oil strategic airpower’s top priority for the rest of the war.
During the summer of 1944, Spaatz continued the strategic offensive against Germany and at the same time cooperated with the land forces. Three times he sent hundreds of heavy bombers to attack German front lines just prior to ground attacks. Regrettably, the attacks inflicted friendly casualties, but the July 25 Operation Cobra strike paved the way for the decisive breakout from the beachhead. As American ground forces conducted their lightning drive through France, Spaatz converted two groups of B-24s to aerial freighters to haul gas and other crucial supplies for advancing armored units.
Once the Allies reached the German border, the last phase began. Spaatz agreed to make the transportation system second priority after oil. These two target systems received the bulk of the remaining bombing. Although Spaatz had to hand over one-third of the Eighth to the tactical air forces to help fight the Battle of the Bulge, the attacks on oil and transportation proved decisive. Lack of oil grounded the Luftwaffe and stopped the Panzers. Wrecking the rail system halted the distribution of coal and forced an embargo on the shipment of manufacturer’s sub-assemblies. By February 1945, Germany was finished as an industrial power. In March 1945, Spaatz became a full general. On May 7, 1945, he attended the surrender of Germany to the western Allies. The next day, as the official American representative, he attended the German capitulation to the Soviets in Berlin. (May 8 is officially noted as Victory in Europe day.) He noted in a letter, “Germany has been more completely destroyed than any nation since Carthage.”
To the Pacific
Spaatz had not completed his wartime service. Arnold wanted the AAF in on the kill for Japan and placed him in overall command of Twentieth Air Force, in Guam, and Eighth, in the process of moving to Okinawa. On July 29, 1945, after a short rest with his family, he arrived on Guam. Upon receiving authorization from President Truman and Army Chief of Staff Marshall, he ordered the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Three weeks later, Sept. 2, he stood on the deck of USS Missouri, witnessing the final Axis surrender-he was the only American general to attend the three major ceremonies ending the war.
The shooting had stopped, but Spaatz immediately found himself in the midst of the most bruising bureaucratic fight in American history-the unification of the armed services under a single Department of Defense. Arnold had made it possible by gaining Marshall’s agreement to a separate air force, but Arnold’s bad heart forced him from active duty by November 1945. Someone else would have to do the hard work of fighting it out with the Navy, creating a new service, and presiding over the destruction of the largest aerial armada ever created. Spaatz got the job as the second and last Commanding General of the Army Air Forces. Fortunately for the air service, Spaatz had an excellent and tested working relationship with the new Army Chief of Staff–Eisenhower. During the war at off-duty parties, Eisenhower would sing and Spaatz would accompany him on the guitar. They formed an effective, although not uniformly successful, tag team against the Navy. In March 1946, in the midst of the struggle, Spaatz changed the basic structure of the AAF by creating major commands based on function. The three new operational commands were Air Defense Command, Strategic Air Command, and Tactical Air Command, which formed the combat backbone of USAF for more than 40 years. The formation of a tactical command reassured the Army that USAF would meet its airlift and close air support needs. It also dampened separate Army campaigning for its own air arm.
With the creation of the US Air Force in September 1947, Spaatz made two further contributions to his service. First, he created the Air Staff. As befitted a man who loathed paperwork, the organization chart for his initial staff was the simplest in the history of the institution. Perhaps that organization’s subsequent expansion reflected the growing complexity of the modern military, perhaps not.
Spaatz’s Air Staff reflected his wartime experience with the deputy system. It granted responsibility and authority to four deputy chiefs of staff: operations, materiel, and to meet the needs of a headquarters of an entire service, personnel and administration, and an air comptroller. Secondly, in March 1948, he met with the other service chiefs and the Secretary of Defense at Key West, Fla., where, after a good deal of head butting, they reached an agreement defining the roles and missions of each service. This confirmed USAF’s primary roles in continental air defense, providing tactical support to the Army, and in conducting strategic air warfare.
A few days later, worn out by almost nine years of unremitting labor, Spaatz retired to enjoy his family and grandchildren. (Spaatz’s official retirement date was June 30, 1948.) In the years 1950-51, Spaatz served one term as Air Force Association Chairman of the Board. He worked as a columnist until 1961 and at age 70 retired for good. He died from complications of a stroke on July 14, 1974, and is buried at the Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs, Colo.-whose site he helped to select.
Spaatz stands in the front rank of airpower leaders. He was a man who, when he spoke at all, told the unvarnished truth, often to superiors. He hated paperwork and disliked professional military education. He just got things done.
Eisenhower gave equal billing to Spaatz and Gen. Omar Bradley, calling them the two officers most responsible for victory in Europe. Ike perhaps best summed up the essence of Tooey Spaatz: “Experienced and able air leader; loyal and cooperative; modest and selfless; always reliable.”
Richard G. Davis is a senior historian with the Air Force History Support Office, Bolling AFB, D.C. Before joining the Air Force history program, he was an archivist at the National Archives. He is the author of Carl A. Spaatz and the Air War in Europe, 19401945.