Adapted from the Air Force Historical Division's A History of the United States Air Force, 1907-1957 for the special Golden Anniversary of the US Air Force issue of Air Force Magazine.
The leaders of the Army Air Force came out of World War II convinced that their long-cherished faith in strategic bombardment had been vindicated by the record. Their conviction was borne out by the final judgment of the United States Strategic Bombing Survey: “Allied airpower was decisive in the war in western Europe. … It brought the economy which sustained the enemy’s armed forces to virtual collapse, although the full effects of this collapse had not reached the enemy’s front lines when they were overrun by Allied forces.” And enemy leaders like Albert Speer, the German production chief, and Premier Kantaro Suzuki of Japan testified feelingly to the decisive role that strategic bombardment had played in the defeat of their countries.
No accurate assessment of exactly how much strategic bombardment contributed to the defeat of Germany and Japan is possible. Not even the leaders of the AAF claimed that victory could have been won by strategic bombardment alone within the framework of the war as actually fought. But as a test of the theories of the major prophets of airpower—Mitchell, Andrews, Douhet, and Trenchard—World War II proved to be more than adequate. If it did not prove them right beyond question, it demonstrated that it was only a matter of time before they would be wholly correct.
The selection of Gen. George C. Kenney as the first commander of SAC was also a measure of the command’s top priority. Second only to Spaatz among combat leaders of the AAF, Kenney reacted to his new job with characteristic vigor and competence and devoted the next two and a half years to building SAC into an effective fighting force.
The command’s mission was to be prepared to conduct long-range operations in any part of the world at any time, but its ability to do this in 1946 fell so short as to be almost negligible. The B-29s could not attack intercontinental targets from the United States, and the B-17s were already obsolescent. Nor were there adequate bases overseas to be used in an emergency. Even in the United States there were not enough base facilities to accommodate the larger bombers. But this was still not the whole picture. Demobilization had ripped the organizational fabric of most of the units into shreds, and they could not muster enough combat and ground crews to be classed as effective combat groups.
Although SAC consistently received top priority among the Air Force’s combat commands from the beginning, this was not an overriding priority. Like the rest of the Air Force in the postwar years, SAC lacked planes, bases, equipment, and trained men. Like the others, it had to learn how to do its job in spite of inadequate resources.
In November 1948, a month after taking over SAC, LeMay moved his headquarters from Andrews AFB, near Washington, D.C., to Offutt AFB, at Omaha, Neb. This was a more central location from which to control the command that grew into a global air force during the next half-dozen years.
During 1948 the first improved postwar bombers—the B-50 and the B-36—arrived in the combat wings. The B-50 had greater speed and combat radius than the B-29 but was essentially an advanced model of the Superfortress. The B-36, on the other hand, was the largest bomber in the world with a range approaching that of the intercontinental bomber about which air leaders had been dreaming for a generation. Later versions were greatly improved by the addition of four jet engines to the six reciprocating engines that normally powered the B-36. The increased power gave the plane greater speed and altitude and unquestionably prolonged its effective life.
By 1950, SAC had grouped its strength under the Second, Eighth, and Fifteenth Air Forces. All had specialized missions: the Eighth operated medium and heavy bombers; the Fifteenth, medium bombers only; and the Second, reestablished in November 1949, reconnaissance planes only. Geographically, there were no clear lines between the air forces, so that the Fifteenth, from its headquarters in California, controlled MacDill AFB in Florida, while the Second, from its headquarters in Louisiana, controlled Travis AFB in California. A reorganization early in 1950 divided the country into geographical regions, with the Second responsible for the eastern United States, the Eighth for the central, and the Fifteenth for the western. In addition, all three air forces contained both bombardment and reconnaissance units, giving them balance flexibility they had not had before.
The Korean War and related events sped up the acquisition of rights to overseas bases and the extension of direct SAC control to overseas areas vital to its operations. In the United Kingdom, where SAC bombardment units had been present most of the time since 1948, SAC was represented by the 7th Air Division from March 1951, in Morocco by the 5th Air Division from June 1951, and on Guam by the 3d Air Division from June 1954. The growing importance of the overseas bases led to the establishment in July 1956 of SAC’s first overseas air force—the Sixteenth—in Spain. The 5th Air Division came under the control of the Sixteenth Air Force in 1957. Also in 1957, after the dissolution of the Northeast Air Command, SAC’s Eighth Air Force took over direct control of a number of bases in Newfoundland, Labrador, and Greenland, including Thule. SAC’s acquisition of direct control over its major overseas bases gave it a completely global character befitting its mission.
At the beginning of 1955, SAC undertook a number of measures to increase this effectiveness and decreased vulnerability to attack. The strategic value of the northeastern United States as a base of operations against overseas targets was stressed increasingly in SAC’s plans. Bombers taking off from New England instead of New Mexico, for instance, could reach their targets more quickly and with fewer refuelings or stops, since they would be closer to begin with. In June 1955, SAC moved the Eighth Air Force headquarters from Carswell AFB, Tex., to Westover AFB, Mass. The Eighth took over responsibility for bases, units, and personnel in the northeastern part of the United States and moved additional bombardment wings into that area.
There was another important gain to be derived from more bases. A large base housing ninety bombers could not get its planes into the air as quickly as two bases housing forty-five planes each. And squadron airfields with only fifteen planes could cut the takeoff time to a bare minimum. In short, the speed with which SAC could get its bombers into the air might well mean the difference between success and failure. More bases would certainly improve the chances of success.
The need for an intercontinental bomber had been recognized even before World War II, and the development of the B-36 had begun in 1941. But until 1949 the Air Force had to rely almost entirely on the obsolescent B-29, which obviously could not reach targets in Europe or Asia from the United States. How would SAC carry out its mission if its planes could not fly to the targets and back? Even the B-36s, when they arrived, would not be able to reach all of the targets from bases in the United States. And since B-29s and B-50s would be in use for a number of years after 1948, something would have to be done to enable them to carry out their mission.
Bombardment units were not permanently stationed at the overseas bases. Housekeeping units maintained the bases, providing services to the bombers that came from time to time for training and orientation in the particular areas. These bases were the stepping stones between the home bases in the United States and the target areas.
Initially, SAC used the British trail-line or gravity-flow system. In 1950, Boeing developed the flying boom, a telescoping aluminum tube that could be used up, down, or to either side. The boom system sped up refueling and therefore provided a much greater degree of operational flexibility.
In 1955, SAC had thirty-six air refueling squadrons assigned as integral parts of bombardment wings. In a departure from this practice, SAC organized two air refueling wings in 1955 and gave them geographical areas of responsibility, free of assignment to specific bombardment wings.
Refueling attained precision status in the 1950s. Individual planes and mass formations alike were refueled on schedule, often in mid-ocean. The combat radius of the B-47s grew steadily, thanks to modifications, improved operating techniques, and air refueling. By 1956 the B-47 could fly three times its normal radius with two or more refuelings en route. Refueling became a normal part of almost every long-range flight. Early in 1956, SAC planes were averaging almost 3,000 aerial refuelings per week.
The Fighter MissionWorld War Ii experience over Germany firmly implanted in the minds of Air Force tacticians the importance of fighter escort for strategic bombers faced with strong fighter opposition. For more than a decade after the war, SAC insisted on its own fighter units.
SAC applied to the fighter the same principle of radius extension that it had applied to the bombers. The F-84 Thunderjet, its chief fighter of the 1950s, became adept at aerial refueling, and beginning in 1952, whole fighter wings moved overseas with the aid of two or three “drinks” over the Atlantic or the Pacific. Although this remarkable development helped to make the fighters almost as mobile as the bombers, it did not make fighter escort much more practicable.
The major event was the replacement of the older bombers by the much swifter jets. The new planes changed SAC’s tactics for penetrating enemy territory. In place of flying in large and vulnerable formations, the fast B-47s and B-52s would fly singly or in small formations under cover of darkness or bad weather, relying on speed, deception, and evasive tactics to get them to the target and back. This spelled the end of the escort fighters.
Even before 1957 it became apparent that the fighters had no truly legitimate mission in SAC. They were essentially fighter-bombers, and while they could use atomic weapons, so could the planes of the Tactical Air Command, where the Air Force’s fighter-bombers were properly assigned. Furthermore, in the event of war, the fighter-bombers of TAC would supplement the strategic air offensive wherever possible. It was only logical, therefore, that most of SAC’s fighter units should be transferred to TAC to strengthen the USAF fighter-bomber force. In 1957 the remaining SAC fighter wings were inactivated and their personnel used by SAC for other purposes.
SAC’s mission required that in peacetime it behave as if it were at war. Obviously, there were limits to how far if could go in this direction, for it did not actually fly to wartime targets or drop real bombs. But SAC’s training certainly became as demanding and realistic as was ever devised for a modern military force in peacetime, and its global scope was truly breathtaking.
Such a state of readiness did not exist when SAC carried out its first temporary overseas deployment in November 1946. In order to get the necessary spares to support six B-29s in Germany for thirty days, the 43d Bombardment Group had to cannibalize other B-29s. Communication failures across the Atlantic and inadequate weather information further complicated the flight, but the B-29s finally arrived at Frankfort, Germany, on November 17, four days after leaving Davis-Monthan AFB, Ariz. After twelve days of training activities, the planes returned to the United States. This mission helped convince SAC that its units should be deployed periodically to overseas bases for intensified training under simulated wartime conditions.
Within the United States, SAC’s units “attacked” such targets as New York, Chicago, and Kansas City. In the largest such mission during 1947, the command sent all the B-29s it could put into the air—101—against New York City on May 16.
From 1948 on, the tempo of rotation and training flights increased steadily. Fifteen bombardment groups flew to European bases during 1949. The effectiveness of this intensive training was demonstrated in 1950 during the Korean War. Alerted on July 1, the B-29s of the 22d and 92d Bombardment groups left the United States on July 5 and arrived two days later in Okinawa and Japan, respectively. They flew their first mission against the North Korean oil refinery at Wonsan on July 13. In all, SAC had four bombardment groups, a bombardment squadron, and a reconnaissance squadron operating over Korea in 1950.
SAC planes made more than 3,400 overseas flights during the first six months of 1954. The 92d Bombardment Wing, first complete B-36 wing to be deployed overseas, flew 5,000 miles from Fairchild AFB, Spokane, Wash., to Andersen AFB, Guam, in October and spent ninety days on the island. By June 1955, SAC’s jet bombers and fighters were flying approximately 50,000 hours per month, and the rate was rising steadily.
As General LeMay put it, “Moving an entire combat wing is comparable to picking up one of our major domestic airlines, moving it across an ocean, and putting it back in operation all within a matter of hours. This is now accomplished as a routine training deployment.” It was routine to the extent that each SAC unit normally moved to a base outside the United States for a three-month period of training and maneuvers annually. In addition, SAC planes flew to the far corners of the world on normal training missions. Obviously, such a scheme of deployment and training could operate only wit a strong and mobile logistical system.
SAC participated in most of the major atomic tests, beginning with Operation Crossroads in July 1946. During Crossroads, SAC provided bombers, photographic planes, and air logistic support for the task force off Bikini Atoll in the Pacific. This and subsequent tests permitted SAC to obtain accurate technical information that was vital to its effective use of atomic weapons. From time to time the command revised its plans, techniques, and operational procedures as a result of these tests.
The importance of accurate navigation and bombing led SAC to start an annual bombing competition among its units in 1948. Picked crews had to make flights of thousands of miles and bomb visually and by radar from high altitudes. The success of the bombing competition resulted in the inauguration of the annual reconnaissance and navigation competition in 1952. According to LeMay, his crews could find their targets with certainty, coming within fifteen miles of any place on earth by celestial navigation alone. Radar navigation could take them precisely to their targets.
The Human FactorReaching and keeping the high standards of performance required by LeMay was not without its human cost. But an intensive flying safety program that emphasized accident prevention lessened the physical toll. The rate of accidents per 100,000 flying hours declined steadily from fifty-four in 1949 to forty-one in 1950 and to an all-time low of nine in 1956. SAC made this fine record in spite of the continual addition of new types of planes, for which the accident rate was normally higher. The increasing proficiency of the aircrews themselves contributed greatly to the achievement.
Other conditions, not confined to SAC alone, also affected the morale of the command. Poor housing was often the law straw that led officers to resign and airmen not to reenlist. Sometimes air and ground crews had to go as far as twenty miles from the base to find decent living quarters. Aside from the inconvenience, this created a serious operational problem, for it meant that SAC’s planes might well be delayed in taking to the air in the event of an alert. Other conditions affecting morale included inadequate pay and allowances and inadequate medical care for dependents.
But over and above all material inducements there existed a sense of dedication and mission among many of SAC’s people—ranging from the highest to the lowest—that kept them chained to their duties in spite of physical and mental hardships. Some cracked under the strain; some left before they cracked; others found the financial rewards of civilian life too tempting to resist. Those who stayed formed the hard core of professionals without which SAC could not endure. And for many of them the inspiration was that without SAC the nation might not endure.
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Daily Report: Read the day's top news on the US Air Force, airpower, and national security issues.
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