Gladwyne's Hap Arnold's Fight for U.S. Air Superiority During WWII and After

Arnold knew the value of discretion when pushing for the development of the U.S. Air Force, and used it to his advantage.

Gladwyne’s Henry “Hap” Arnold addresses students in Ardmore shortly after World War II.Disincentives have their place. His boss’ court-martial for insubordination taught Gladwyne’s Henry “Hap” Arnold the value of discretion. Specifically, it taught him to keep his mouth shut, salute and work within the system to achieve a goal.

Arnold’s boss was Gen. Billy Mitchell, who was thrown out of the U.S. Army in 1926 for too vigorously advocating an air force as a third branch of the military. At the time, both the Army and Navy brass—steeped in centuries of tradition—saw aviation as just another tool. As a result, the United States aeronautical industry lagged behind those of other great powers. Mitchell’s departure left Arnold the leading uniformed advocate for expanded air power in the United States between the world wars.

“Unlike Mitchell, [Arnold] would demonstrate the leadership skills needed to realize the vision,” concluded historians Francois LeRoy and Drew Perkins.

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As chief of the U.S. Army Air Corps and commander of the U.S. Air Force during World War II, Arnold oversaw development of the intercontinental bomber, the jet fighter and atomic warfare. Equally important, he developed and executed a strategy for U.S. air superiority in WWII and the post-war era.

According to LeRoy and Perkins, Arnold also “promoted and institution alized military and civilian collaboration in the academic and industrial arenas.” That’s really just jargon for his role in what Dwight Eisenhower called the “military-industrial complex.”

The third of five children, whose father was a physician, Arnold was part of a family whose immigrant ancestors had been Mennonites. During the Revolution, the family had dropped their pacifist
beliefs to join the more militant Baptists. Arnold’s grandfather fought at Gettysburg, and his father, Herbert, was a surgeon in the Spanish-American War.

Dr. Arnold carried his love of military discipline into his home. He refused to eat store-bought food, so his wife had to churn butter, bake bread and grow vegetables. The kids learned early not to speak unless spoken to.

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“Hap”—short for happy, since he always seemed to be smiling—was a mischievous boy and an indifferent student. Even fear of his father couldn’t make him diligent. Instead, he merely followed along with his father’s plan that he would attend Bucknell University and become a Baptist minister.

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Hap’s older brother, Tom, was destined for West Point. On the eve of his examination, however, Tom announced that he wanted to remain at Penn State. “Humiliated by the first defeat he had ever experienced within his own family, Dr. Arnold turned to Henry,” wrote historian Thomas M. Coffey. “One of his sons, he announced, was going to take that examination.”

Hap took the test and was admitted. But he remained an indifferent student. Discipline at West Point was actually more liberal than at home. Plebes could even smoke in their off-hours, something Dr. Arnold would never permit.

Rather than lose such newfound freedoms, Arnold stepped up his academic game, though only just enough. He placed in the middle of his 1907 graduating class—not good enough for the cavalry on which he’d set his heart. “The Army had a place for officers like him, but it was not in the elite, high-riding cavalry,” wrote Coffey. “It was in the mud-slogging, footsore infantry.”

Arnold spent two years mapping Luzon and Corregidor in the Philippines with the Signal Corps. Then, reassigned to Fort Jay in New York, he made a stop in Paris on his way stateside. There, Arnold saw an aircraft that inventor Louis Bleriot had flown across the English Channel.

“I didn’t have any blinding vision of the future of air power,” Arnold subsequently wrote. “But one thought I did have was: ‘If one man could do it once, what if a lot of men did it together at the same time? What happens then to England’s splendid isolation?’”

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Inspired—and desperate to get out of the infantry—he applied for transfer to the Signal Corps, which then included the Army’s limited aviation operation. In 1911, Arnold was accepted and assigned to Dayton, Ohio, where they took flight lessons from Orville Wright. A year later, as one of two of the Army’s first officially trained military pilots, he helped establish the corps’ first flight school, serving as a test pilot, mechanic and instructor. He and his colleague, Thomas Millings, conducted experiments in aerial gunnery, photography, reconnaissance and more.

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As Hap Arnold became increasingly enthusiastic about airpower, he also discovered that his enthusiasm marked him as odd in an Army that considered airplanes mainly an improved form of observation balloon.

In 1912, he met Billy Mitchell, the youngest officer ever assigned to the general staff. Mitchell was even more gung-ho about military aviation than Arnold, who became executive officer of the corps’ aviation service in 1916.

During World War I, Arnold—who was stationed in Washington, D.C.—was among the best-known American flyers. Mitchell won the Distinguished Service Cross, along with other medals, and high praise for leading nearly 1,500 Allied aircraft in the Battle of Saint-Mihiel.

But Mitchell also alienated superior officers. “[He] interpreted resistance to his ideas as proof that his opponents were stupid,” wrote Coffey. “It’s difficult to per-suade a man by telling him he’s stupid.”

After the war, someone else was named head the aviation service. Named assistant chief, Mitchell—with Arnold as his assistant—pursued an aggressive public education campaign to convince the nation of the importance of military aviation. Stationed on the West Coast, Arnold established an aerial forest-fire patrol, organized a series of aerial stunt shows and demonstrated the first successful in-flight refueling.

Mitchell, meanwhile, conducted bombing trials. In 1921, at his urging, the Navy allowed him to attempt to sink the Ostfriesland, a confiscated German battleship, using a half dozen small, wood-and-canvas biplane bombers. Each plane carried one 2,000-pound bomb. None thought the flimsy planes any threat to the 23,000-ton warship, but the Ostfriesland rolled over and sank 22 minutes after the first bomb hit.

The public was wowed, and Mitchell was a hero. But the brass still wouldn’t listen. Congress provided few resources for aircraft research and design, and no incentives for aircraft manufacturers. The country believed itself safe behind its oceans. “Airpower doesn’t seem to be getting anywhere at all,” Mitchell lamented to Arnold.

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When a dirigible crashed in 1925, kill-ing 14, Mitchell harshly criticized both the Navy and the War departments. That led to his trial and conviction of insubordination the following year.

Though ordered to stop, Arnold testified on Mitchell’s behalf, undertook a letter-writing campaign, and pleaded his case in the papers and on radio. Some higher officers wantedto court-martial Arnold, too. Instead, he was banished to a remote cavalry outpost in Kansas, where he remained until 1929.

While in Kansas, Arnold devised and tested aerial and ground tactics, working to bridge the gap between the Army’s aviation and infantry elements. He even wrote a book.

Transferred to Dayton, Arnold oversaw the air service’s material and maintenance operations, and got more involved in research and development. He became convinced of the need for more collaboration between the military, civilian and academic institutions.

Arnold’s reputation and rank continued to rise. In 1931, he took command of March Field in California, a leading region for aeronautical research and aircraft manufacturing. He sought out allies at the California Institute of Technology, which owned the world’s largest wind tunnel, and even recruited aircraft designer Donald W. Douglas (as in McDonnell-Douglas) to the cause of military aviation.

Arnold’s men conducted public air shows. In the snowy winter of 1932-33, they dropped supplies to stranded Native Americans. Arnold also commanded a squadron of 10 B-10 bombers on an 8,000-mile flight from Washington, D.C., to Alaska and back, thus demonstrating its potential for long-range deployment.

In 1935, Arnold—now a brigadier general—was given command of three fighter and three bomber squadrons, with which he conducted intensive simulated combat exercises. His experience with the B-10s convinced him that a better plane was needed for long-range missions. Boeing produced a design for a multi-engine bomber, but Arnold had to fight for it. The Army preferred to spend its money on short-range support planes.

During World War II, the B-17 would be used for daylight precision-bombing missions over Europe. But what finally convinced the ground generals was the need to defend Alaska and Hawaii. Later in life, Arnold concluded that the B-17 represented “a turning point in the course of air power—of world power.”

By the start of Word War II, Arnold had been promoted to major general and appointed chief of the Army Air Corps. He oversaw the corps’ expansion to 60,000 aircraft and 2.1 million men. He was the chief architect of the air wars against Germany and Japan. His B-17s decimated German manufacturing. His B-29s fire-bombed Japan and dropped A-bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The Army Air Corps became the U.S. Air Force in 1947, the year Arnold retired. Events might’ve proceeded quite differently if Hap Arnold hadn’t learned early when to zip his lip.

Mark E. Dixon welcomes comments. Write a letter.
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