Maj. Gen. Hugh J. Knerr should be remembered as one of America’s most important and influential airmen, and yet he is a relative unknown in comparison with World War II contemporaries—Arnold, Spaatz, Andrews, and Eaker, to name a few.
Knerr was a gifted airman, brilliant logistician, and near-genius at devising organizational fixes. He was also stubborn and very much his own man. Partly because of these attributes, his career was sidetracked several times.
Knerr was an early and outspoken advocate of creating an independent Air Force. In fact, he was one of a handful of airmen who kept alive the theories of air warfare propounded by Gen. William “Billy” Mitchell. He also played a key role in organizing and building up GHQ Air Force, the forebear of today’s service.
In World War II, though, he made his major mark in logistics work. It was a field of airpower that was as misunderstood as it was critical to combat success.
Knerr’s serious career began in 1925, when he was sent to the Air Service Tactical School at Langley Field, Va. There, Knerr found to his disappointment that the tactical school gave short shrift to ground attack and emphasized pursuit as “the basic weapon for the air.”
Bombardment aviation, he noted, “was capable of destroying the enemy’s means of resistance at the source on the ground, rather than after we got into the air.” In this, Knerr saw great combat potential. “When you take an enemy’s bullets and beans away from him,” said Knerr, “his airplanes become impotent.”
He also emphasized the crucial importance of maintenance and supply to combat operations.
Tactical School Years
Knerr’s tenure at the tactical school was tempestuous. He argued with faculty members, and his devotion to his own views got him in trouble. For example, a spate of aircraft incidents at Langley prompted Knerr to write a report challenging the school’s sloppy maintenance. As a result, said Knerr, he was “placed under arrest pending the outcome of an investigation.” The arrest, in his view, was intended to teach him “the advisability of not sounding off in the face of entrenched authority.”
Knerr was a strong devotee of Billy Mitchell, whose acid critiques of Army and Navy actions in the 1920s landed him in a court-martial. “Mitchell’s courage in castigating the fumbling leadership in the Army and Navy,” said Knerr, “was like a breath of fresh air in a stuffy room.”
During the period 1927-30, Knerr commanded the 2nd Bomb Group at Langley, one of only three combat groups in the Army Air Corps. The entire Air Corps comprised fewer than 1,000 officers and about 8,700 enlisted men.
Knerr recognized that the 2nd Bomb Group consisted of extraordinarily competent airmen. However, it lacked leadership, discipline, and enthusiasm. Knerr’s solution was to inaugurate a new training program, one that “left everyone too tired to get into trouble on the weekends.”
He worked his airmen hard, pioneering the development of bomber formations that established a basis for tactics employed in World War II. In addition to developing formation flying, Knerr was one of the first airmen to emphasize and develop military transport.
Knerr also thought about basic requirements for bomber aircraft. In 1927-28, he had formulated a concept for an advanced bomber that could carry a 1,000-pound bomb load at 10,000 feet with a speed of at least 150 mph. In 1930, heading for the field service unit at Materiel Division, Wright Field, Ohio, he further refined these bombardment concepts.
Knerr, the chief of the field service section in the period 1932-35, played an important role in repairing and modifying aircraft for airmail operations. In early 1934, Air Corps support of the airmail flights, ordered by President Franklin Roosevelt, proved to be far less than successful. Hampered by poor navigation equipment and terrible winter weather, the Air Corps suffered a host of crashes and 12 fatalities.
To revitalize the public image of the Air Corps, the War Department in the summer of 1934 approved a major flight of long-range aircraft to Alaska. Lt. Col. Henry H. “Hap” Arnold was appointed flight commander, with Knerr as his executive officer. Knerr’s job was to get 10 new Martin B-10 bombers ready for flight, which he did with his usual intensity.
In July 1934, the B-10s flew from Washington, D.C., to Alaska and, by the end of the return flight, each of the airplanes had logged some 18,000 miles. Arnold won his second Mackay Trophy for the flight, but angered senior naval officers, who saw it as an infringement upon the Navy’s coastal defense mission.
It also strained Knerr’s relations with Arnold, who was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for leading the flight, while other flight members went unrewarded.
Meanwhile, Roosevelt had directed formation of a board under former Secretary of War Newton D. Baker to consider the question of control of military aviation, an issue of long-standing controversy within the War Department. The issue was simply this: With aviation technology advancing rapidly, who should control the military air weapon
Air Corps officers such as Maj. Carl A. “Tooey” Spaatz argued that airmen knew best how to organize and employ aircraft. Knerr, by then a lieutenant colonel, added that Army airmen required their own promotion list and the opportunity to present their requirements directly to Congress, without going through the filter of the War Department General Staff.
Turning down the idea of a Department of Aviation, the Baker Board in 1934 recommended establishment of a GHQ Air Force, to operate the Army’s strike aircraft to support ground forces and defend the coasts. The Office of the Chief of Air Corps would control personnel, supply, and the budget.
Brig. Gen. Frank M. Andrews was appointed commanding general of GHQ Air Force, with headquarters at Langley Field. Andrews, who while at the Tactical School at Langley in the late 1920s came to know and respect Knerr, now picked him as his chief of staff. Among others Andrews tapped for his staff were Henry B.S. Burwell, Follett Bradley, George C. Kenney, and Joseph T. McNarney.
Under Andrews, GHQ Air Force blossomed into what has been called “the nation’s first air force.” Knerr, now a colonel, played a major role in this. Andrews and Knerr promoted the new B-17 bomber—only 13 were allocated to GHQ Air Force—as the basic air weapon.
However, Maj. Gen. Oscar Westover, Chief of the Air Corps, kept control of GHQ Air Force’s entire logistics and support budget. Knerr commented that “this was like giving a youngster an automobile but leaving the keys with his mother.”
Although Knerr plunged deeply into the business of building this air force, his advocacy of the B-17 fell on deaf ears at the War Department. “The Army,” he stated, “feared we would cut heavily into their budget.” The Navy, he noted, “viewed with alarm our invasion of their domain.”
War Department leaders continued to view support for Army ground forces as the main mission of the Air Corps. According to Maj. Gen. Stanley D. Embick, War Department deputy chief of staff: “If the equipment to be provided for the Air Corps be that best adapted to carry out the specific functions appropriately assigned to it under joint action, there would appear to be no need for the B-17.”
Knerr and Andrews, however, would not stop badgering the War Department for a larger bomber force. The result was the breakup of Andrews’ staff. In 1938, Knerr was demoted to lieutenant colonel and exiled to Ft. Sam Houston, Tex. Kenney, Bradley, and McNarney were also sacked.
At Ft. Sam Houston, Knerr found himself assigned to the exact office once occupied by Mitchell. “A photograph of Lt. Col. Billy Mitchell, on the wall in back of my desk, made me feel highly honored to be his successor,” said Knerr.
(Later, Andrews himself was demoted to colonel and sent to the same office at Ft. Sam Houston, where he languished until Gen. George C. Marshall, War Department Chief of Staff, brought him to the General Staff in Washington.)
To relieve his boredom, Knerr published The Student Pilot’s Primer, which went through several printings and was used as a basic text in high schools and colleges.
Frustrated by being put out to pasture, Knerr retired in March 1939, convinced that as a civilian he could more effectively influence public opinion on the subjects of airpower and the need for an independent air force. “Sometimes it is necessary,” he emphasized, “to violently rock the boat to dislodge the rats.”
After retiring, he signed on to work for Sperry Gyroscope, accepted speaking engagements around the country, and published articles on the nation’s lack of military preparedness. He drew special attention to the lack of airpower. Knerr had only harsh words for the Navy, claiming it was overly dependent on battleships.
Following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into war, Knerr’s forays became progressively strident. The War Department, specifically Maj. Gen. Joseph McNarney, asked Knerr to cease his public commentary.
In the midst of this angry standoff, the Army Air Forces recognized that Knerr, airman and crack logistician, could make a major contribution to its wartime operations. In October 1942, Knerr was recalled to active duty. Arnold directed him to make recommendations on how AAF logistics could be more effectively organized. Based on Knerr’s proposals, Arnold closed his logistics depot near National Airport in Washington, D.C., and concentrated the function in Air Service Command in Dayton, Ohio.
Arnold in 1943 directed Knerr to assess the air logistical setup in Britain. In the UK for two years under Maj. Gen. Ira C. Eaker and then under Spaatz, Knerr applied his logistics genius to major problems confronting the Eighth Air Force bombing campaign over Western Europe.
As commander of Eighth Air Force Service Command, Knerr established more depots and instituted assembly-line procedures to reduce the backlog of airplanes and equipment requiring repair. He also organized better accounting methods, and by the end of 1943, he reported that “we were providing more aircraft ready to fly than there were crews to man them.”
Arnold was impressed with Knerr’s operation and even agreed not to send trained depot units—which had not worked well—but rather to let Knerr provide on-the-job training.
In early 1944, Spaatz appointed Knerr—by now a major general—to an additional position as deputy commander for administration of US Strategic Air Forces in Europe. According to Knerr, he assured Spaatz that he could handle this dual responsibility, whereupon Spaatz emphasized that “he was ready to sink or swim” with Knerr’s performance.
Praise From Arnold
As it turned out, Spaatz need not have worried. The D-Day invasion of Europe succeeded in no small measure because of the effectiveness of the air logistics supporting the massive movement of men and materiel.
“The contributions of your command,” Arnold wrote Knerr, “represent one of the greatest ever to be made in the history of aviation.”
In the postwar years, during the battle for a separate Air Force, Knerr once more jumped into the fray, returning to his signature barbs when referring to the other services.
“Each was intent on being top dog in the defense establishment,” he noted, “but cooperative in discouraging the creation of a US Air Force—not unusual in big families. The Pentagon housed a big family but far from a happy one. The Army appeared to me to have the rule of a fussy old grandmother, the Navy that of a pompous grandfather, and the Air Force, a redheaded brat feeling his oats.”
Knerr played a major role in structuring the headquarters of the newly established United States Air Force. The problem was that during the war the Air Staff in AAF headquarters was unable to make decisions quickly enough.
Spaatz, succeeding Arnold as AAF commander in February 1946, directed Knerr, now secretary-general of the advisory Air Board, to come up with recommendations for a new headquarters organization.
The Air Board emphasized that present Air Staff operations remained unsatisfactory “in speed and efficiency to fight the next war.” Knerr advocated the deputy chief of staff system that worked so well in the UK during the war, and he was supported by Lt. Gen. Nathan F. Twining, heading Air Materiel Command, and Maj. Gen. Muir S. Fairchild, Air University commander.
In the deputy structure, according to Knerr, “undivided responsibility and authority can be fixed at every level. The next higher or lower commander can put his finger on the individual due for praise or censure without tracing the buck through the pinball mechanism of a staff.”
At Knerr’s urging, Fairchild directed a study at Air University that called for three deputy chiefs of staff: personnel and administration; materiel and logistics; and plans and operations. The major objective was to reduce the commanding general’s workload. Spaatz, relying on the work conducted by Knerr and the Air Board and by Fairchild and Air University, directed that the Air Force implement the deputy organization.
With establishment of the United States Air Force in September 1947, USAF headquarters, under Spaatz, Chief of Staff, and Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg, vice chief of staff, featured three deputy chiefs of staff: materiel, operations, and personnel and administration.
Although the Air Board remained in an advisory role to Spaatz, during 1947-48 it considered many crucial issues facing the new service. Its recommendations on a host of personnel and organizational issues formed a broad framework upon which the Air Force was able to build during the early years of independence.
Following his service on the Air Board, Hugh Knerr closed his long career in 1948-49 as Air Force inspector general.
Knerr passed away on Nov. 1, 1971. The Air Force’s official biography said this of him:
“Hugh Knerr’s great technical knowledge, his command flying experience, his loyalty to his organization, and his dogged determination made him an officer that the Air Force’s top leaders—Generals Andrews, Arnold, and Spaatz—depended on in building and running the air arm of the turbulent ’30s and the wartime ’40s.”
Herman S. Wolk is senior historian in the Air Force Historical Research Agency‘s Washington, D.C., operating location. He is the author of The Struggle for Air Force Independence, 19431947 (1997) and Fulcrum of Power (2003). His most recent article for Air Force Magazine, “The Twentieth Against Japan,” appeared in the April issue.