20 June 1941: The Department of War established the United States Army Air Forces. The new organization consisted of Headquarters Army Air Forces, the newly-formed Air Force Combat Command, and the existing United States Army Air Corps. The U.S.A.A.F. was placed under the command of Major General Henry Harley (“Hap”) Arnold, Chief of the Air Forces.
At the end of 1941, the U.S. Army Air Forces had a strength of 354,161 (24,521 officers and 329,640 enlisted) and 12,297 aircraft, with 4,477 of these classified as combat aircraft. Over the next 3 years, personnel would increase to a peak of 2,411,294. The number of aircraft reached a maximum 79,908 by July 1944.
The most advanced aircraft in the inventory of the Army Air Forces at its inception were the Boeing B-17C/D Flying Fortress heavy bomber, the North American B-25 Mitchell and Martin B-26 Marauder medium bombers, Lockheed P-38 Lighting and Curtiss Wright P-40B Warhawk fighters, and the Douglas C-39 transport.
On 18 September 1947, the United States Army Air Forces was detached from the United States Army and became a separate military service, the United States Air Force.
On 21 December 1944, General Arnold was promoted to a five-star rank, General of the Army. On 7 May 1949, his rank was officially changed to General of the Air Force.
21 April 1911, Lieutenants Thomas DeWitt Milling and Henry H. Arnold, United States Army, received orders to proceed to the Wright Flying School at Simms Station, northeast of Dayton, Ohio, for flight training. This photograph shows him at the controls of a Wright Model B while at the school, May 1911.
After completing the training, Lt. Arnold received Fédération Aéronautique Internationale pilot certificate #29, and was appointed the U.S. Army’s Military Aviator #2.
“Hap” Arnold had a distinguished career in military aviation. During World War II, General Arnold commanded the United States Army Air Forces. On 21 December 1944, he was appointed General of the Army, one of ten U.S. Navy and U.S. Army officers promoted to 5-star rank, and the seventh in order of date of rank. In 1949, he was appointed General of the Air Force, the only individual to have held that rank.
9 October 1912: In October, Lieutenants Henry H. Arnold and Thomas DeWitt Milling, both assigned to the Aeronautical Division, Signal Corps, United States Army, were ordered to enter the competition for the first Mackay Trophy for “the most outstanding military flight of the year.” Milling withdrew because of illness shortly after the competition started.
“Hap” Arnold won when he flew a 40-horsepower Wright Model B biplane over a triangular course from College Park to Washington Barracks at Washington D.C., on to Fort Myers, Virginia, and back to College Park.
The Mackay Trophy was established on 27 January 1911 by Clarence Hungerford Mackay, who was then head of the Postal Telegraph-Cable Company and the Commercial Cable Company. Originally, aviators could compete for the trophy annually under rules made each year, or the War Department could award the trophy for the most meritorious flight of the year.
The Wright Model B was a two-place, single-engine biplane. The elevator was at the rear, rather than in canard position as had been the earlier Wright airplanes. (This configuration was known as “headless.”) Roll control was through the Wright Brother’s wing-warping system. The Model B was 26 feet (7.925 meters) long with a wingspan of 39 feet (11.887 meters). It had an empty weight of 800 pounds (363 kilograms) and a gross weight of 1,250 pounds (567 kilograms).
The Model B was powered by a water-cooled, fuel-injected, 240.53-cubic-inch-displacement (3.942 liter), Wright “4-40” inline four-cylinder overhead valve gasoline engine, which produced 32 horsepower at 1,310 r.p.m. The engine weighed 160 pounds (73 kilograms). Two 8½ foot (2.591 meters) diameter, two-bladed, counter-rotating propellers, driven by a chain drive, are mounted behind the wings in pusher configuration. They turned 445–470 r.p.m.
The Wright Model B had a maximum speed of approximately 40 miles per hour (64 kilometers per hour) and its range was 110 miles (177 kilometers).
Approximately 100 Model B aeroplanes were built by the Wrights and under license by Burgess from 1910 to 1914. Three are known to exist.
Arnold won the Mackay Trophy again in 1934 when he commanded a flight of ten Martin B-10 bombers from Bolling Field, Washington, D.C., to Fairbanks, Alaska, and back.
Lieutenant Arnold went on to have a successful career in military aviation.
1 August 1943: Operation TIDALWAVE. 178 B-24 Liberator very long range heavy bombers bombers of the 8th and 9th Air Forces, with 1,751 crewmen, made an extreme low-level attack on the Axis oil refineries at Ploesti, Romania.
The mission was a disaster: 53 B-24s were lost, 310 crewmen killed in action, 108 captured, and 78 interred in neutral countries. The damaged refineries were repaired within weeks and their output was higher than before the attack.
Five Medals of Honor were awarded, three posthumously, the most for any single air action in history.
The following is from an official U.S. Air Force publication:
U.S. Air Force Fact Sheet
OPERATION TIDALWAVE, THE LOW-LEVEL BOMBING OF THE PLOESTI OIL REFINERIES, 1 AUGUST 1943
Prior to World War II, the U.S. Army Air Corps (Army Air Forces as of June 20, 1941) developed a doctrine of high-altitude, precision, daylight, massed bombing of selected enemy military and industrial targets. Combined with the Royal Air Force’s concentration on mass air attacks on industrial areas at night by 1943, this doctrine evolved into the Combined Bomber Offense featuring “around-the-clock” bombing of German targets.
Petroleum production and distribution systems were among the highest priority targets, and perhaps the most inviting of these was the concentration of oil refineries at Ploesti, Rumania, which according to Allied intelligence estimates, produced as much as one third of Germany’s liquid fuel requirements. One of the most heavily defended targets in Europe, Ploesti lay outside the range of Allied bombers from England but could be reached by Consolidated B-24 Liberator bombers from the Middle East or North Africa.
Allied leaders determined to bomb Ploesti during the Casablanca Conference in January 1943 and Gen. Henry H.” Hap’ Arnold delegated the problem to Col. Jacob Smart of his Advisory Council. Smart, the principle architect and planner for Operation TIDALWAVE, proposed, in complete antithesis of USAAF bombing policy, a low-level massed raid on the nine most important Ploesti refineries by five B-24 bomb groups, two from North Africa and three borrowed from Eighth Air Force in England .
By July 1943, the five groups—the 44th, 93rd, and 389th Bombardment Groups from England had joined the 98th and 376th Bombardment Groups at Benghazi, Libya, where they made final preparations and conducted additional low-level training under the direction of Ninth Air Force.
Commanded by Brig. Gen. Uzal G. Ent, the force of 178 B-24s took off on the morning of 1 August, followed a route across the Mediterranean, passed the island of Corfu, crossed the Pindus Mountains into Rumania, and approached Ploesti from the east. While over the Mediterranean the formation divided into two parts: the first led by Col. Keith K. (K.K.) Compton commander of the 376th, consisted of the 376th and 93rd Bomb Groups; the second led by Col. John R. (Killer) Kane, commander of the 98th, included the 98th, 44th, and 389th Bomb Groups. Mandated radio silence prevented the leaders from reassembling the formation. The goal of a single, mass attack disappeared.
Compton’s formation reached Rumania well ahead of Kane’s. It descended to low level and, in error, made its planned turn to the south at Targoviste, miles short of the correct Identification Point (IP). Compton led two bomb groups toward Bucharest. Col. Addison L. Baker, commanding the 93rd Bomb Group following Compton, saw Ploesti to his left, turned his group and led it into the target first. Meantime, Compton found that he was heading to Bucharest and turned, almost reversing course, and bombed Ploesti from the south.
As the two groups emerged from Ploesti and escaped to the south, the 98th and 44th Bomb Groups led by Kane plunged into Ploesti where they found many of their targets in flames. They sought alternate targets of opportunity. Far to the north, the 389th Bomb Group successfully bombed its target, a separate refinery at Campina, as planned.
Survivors of the attack fled south alone or in small groups trailed by Axis fighters which took a toll of the weakened force. Bombers crashed in fields or disappeared into the water; some diverted to Allied bases in the region; others sought sanctuary in neutral Turkey. Some 88 B-24s, most badly damaged, managed to return to Benghazi. Personnel losses included 310 airmen killed, 108 captured, and 78 interned in Turkey. Five officers: Kane, Baker, Col. Leon W. Johnson, Maj. John L. Jerstad, and 2nd Lt. Lloyd H. Hughes, earned the Medal of Honor; Baker, Jerstad, and Hughes posthumously.
Despite the extreme heroism of the airmen and their determination to press the mission home, the results of Operation TIDAL WAVE were less than expected. TIDALWAVE targeted nine major refineries that produced some 8,595,000 tons of oil annually, about 90 percent of all Rumanian oil production, and the attack temporarily eliminated about 3,925,000 tons, roughly 46 percent of total annual production at Ploesti. Three refineries lost 100 percent of production. Unfortunately, these losses figures were temporary and reflected much less than the planners had hoped for. The Germans proved capable of repairing damage and restoring production quickly, and they had been operating the refineries at less than full capacity, anyway. Ploesti thus had the ability to recover rapidly. The largest and most important target, Astro Romana, was back to full production within a few months while Concordia Vega was operating at 100 percent by mid-September.
The U.S. Army Air Forces never again attempted a low level mission against German air defenses.
Dr. Roger Miller, Historian, AFHSO.
Air Force Historical Studies Office Joint Base Anacostia Bolling, DC.