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Determining the Facts

Reading 1: History of the United States Air Force

Orville and Wilbur Wright achieved the world's first controlled, powered flight on December 17, 1903, on North Carolina's Outer Banks. Soon thereafter, they began trying to convince the Federal Government of the airplanes' military potential. On August 1, 1907, the War Department created the Aeronautical Division within the Army's Signal Corps to study "ballooning, air machines and all kindred subjects." When the Army advertised for an air machine that could carry two people and fly at speeds of 40 miles per hour, the Wright Brothers produced a plane that exceeded these specifications. On August 2, 1909, the Army purchased its first plane from the Wright Brothers for $25,000.

For the next several years, Army officers tended to view the airplane as merely a tool to assist ground operations rather than as an offensive force in itself. The Federal Government shared this view and did not assign funds to further military aviation. More than a decade after the first flight, when the United States declared war on Germany in 1917, military aviation was still practically non-existent. America's involvement in World War I provided the impetus for expanding the aircraft industry and military aviation.

When the United States entered the war, Germany had much more advanced aviation capabilities. To counter this, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Aviation Act in 1917, which budgeted more than $600 million to build up America's aviation program. The Army initially used military planes strictly to gather information about the enemy's positions. Soon, however, the United States produced more advanced airplanes capable of attacking enemy aircraft with machine guns and dropping bombs on selected targets. On May 24, 1918, the Aviation Section (formerly the Aeronautical Division) became separate from the Signal Corps and was renamed the United States Army Air Service. During the War, Air Service aircraft dropped roughly 115 tons of bombs during more than 200 bombing attacks.1 The Service downed more than 750 enemy aircraft, while losing less than 300 of its own. When the United States and its allies defeated Germany and the other Central Powers on November 11, 1918, the Air Service included 20,000 officers, 170,000 men, and 740 aircraft.2

After the war, the Air Service dramatically reduced its strength as funding dropped. Although some airmen argued that air power should form the core of the nation's military program, most politicians and military leaders agreed that the Service should continue to support ground troops as part of the Army. The most vocal advocate of air power was Brigadier General William "Billy" Mitchell, an Army pilot and Chief of the Air Service. He argued that airplanes could do more than spy on enemy troops or shoot down enemy planes. In fact, he proved that airplanes could destroy huge battleships that were once thought unsinkable. Although he faced much resistance within the military, Mitchell continually lobbied for increased air power. On July 2, 1926, the Air Service was expanded and renamed the United States Army Air Corps. During the 1920s and 30s, many advances in military as well as commercial airplanes took place.

In September 1939, World War II broke out in Europe as Germany invaded Poland. Attacks by the German Air Force, the Luftwaffe, on other European countries over the next year proved that air power was devastatingly effective. Aware of the events unfolding in Europe, the United States government called for rapid expansion of the Air Corps. Air Corps personnel increased from about 21,000 in 1938 to 354,000 by the end of 1941, when the Japanese air attack on Pearl Harbor brought the United States into the war.3

A few months before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Army had upgraded the Air Corps to the United States Army Air Forces. Headed by General Henry "Hap" Arnold, the Army Air Forces had gained considerable autonomy, if not independence. By the end of World War II, United States aviation production was the largest industry in the world. With more than two million men and 80,000 planes, it also was the largest air force in the world.4

Germany surrendered on May 8, 1945, but the Japanese government was determined to continue fighting. Rather than risk losing thousands of lives invading Japan, President Harry Truman authorized the use of the newly-developed atomic bomb. On August 6 , the B-29 Enola Gay dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, killing more than 300,000 people. A few days later another bomb destroyed the city of Nagasaki. The war ended with Japan's surrender on September 2, 1945. Air power had forever changed the way in which wars would be fought. The B-29, which played such a critical role in the victory, became a symbol of America's air power supremacy.

After the war, President Harry Truman called for a reorganization of the military. On July 26, 1947, he signed the National Security Act into law. This Act created the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the National Security Council. It also called for the Air Force, Army, and Navy to be equal under a new Department of Defense. On September 18, 1947, W. Stuart Symington became the first Secretary of the Air Force, and air activities were officially transferred from the Army to the new Department of the Air Force. After 40 years under the Army, the Air Force had at last achieved full independence.

Questions for Reading 1

1. When was the first air division created? What military service was it placed under?

2. How did World War I impact the United States' military aviation program? How did the Army first use airplanes in World War I? How did this change over time?

3. Why do you think military and political leaders were initially reluctant to expand the use of airplanes beyond support for ground troops?

4. How did World War II impact the United States' military aviation program?

5. When and how did the United States Air Force become an independent service?

Reading 1 was compiled from George V. Fagan, The Air Force Academy: An Illustrated History (Boulder, Col.: Johnson Books, 1988); Nancy Warren Ferrell, The U.S. Air Force (Minneapolis: Lerner Publications Company, 1990); Bernard Fitzsimons, U.S. Air Force (New York: Arco Publishing, Inc., 1985); and Bill Yenne, The History of the U.S. Air Force (New York: Exeter Books, 1984).

¹ Bernard Fitzsimons, U.S. Air Force (New York: Arco Publishing, Inc., 1985), 13.
2 Ibid.
3 Bill Yenne, The History of the U.S. Air Force (New York: Exeter Books, 1984), 26.
4 Ibid., 37.

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