When I started the AAF Collection I was confused over the terms Army Air Corps versus Army Air Forces. My father often spoke of his service in the Air Corps, but the material I found all seemed to refer to the Air Forces. I researched the question and uncovered the following history of the Army Air Forces.
Airplanes were a small part of the Signal Corps at the close of World War I. In that war, they were used chiefly for aerial reconnaissance in support of ground troops. A total of 600 American airmen were killed and 340 planes lost. US planes dropped only 138 tons of bombs.1
A few men, such as Brigadier General Billy Mitchell, recognized the importance that air technology would play in future wars. He lobbied for the creation of a separate Air Force in order to develop the technology and tactics necessary. The Army and Navy were reluctant to relinquish control. To them, air power was of limited use.
This political conflict between military branches continued throughout the 1920s and 1930s. In 1920 the Air Service was formed, but this was little more than a graduate school for Army officers interested in flying. It was renamed the Air Service Tactical School in 1922. In July 1926 the US Army Air Corps was created. It had 1,200 obsolete planes, 900 officers, and 8,500 enlisted men.2
Many officers continued to press for a separate Air Force. The Army was restructured in 1934 and along with it the General Headquarters Air Force (GHQ Air Force) was organized. This limited organization contained tactical units, but administration, supply, schools, and research and development were still part of the Air Corps. The Army General staff was still in control. It had 1,800 planes, but there was no air combat training.3
In 1939 as war loomed, Congress authorized a total of 5,500 planes and appropriated $120 million for air base development.4 The attack on Pearl Harbor resulted in another reorganization. The Air Corps was combined with the Air Force Combat Command and the new organization was called the Army Air Forces. It was a new organization without wartime experience. Political infighting continued during the war and many mistakes were made. The Air Force did not become a separate military branch until 1947.5
Prior to the war, the Air Force had only 20,000 personnel. By December 1942 that number had grown to 1,600,000 and by December 1943 it was 2,400,000. During this time the Aviation Cadet Recruiting Program was in full swing. The greatest growth in the Army Air Forces occurred between January 1, 1942 and June 30, 1943. In 1943 alone 66,000 pilots, 16,000 navigators, 16,000 bombardiers, 92,000 gunners and 544,000 technicians were trained. With the huge influx of recruits, the recruitment program began to level off and it was eventually suspended in March 1944. With enough aircrews, the Army’s training philosophy switched from an “operational” mode to a “replacement” mode. New recruits were trained principally to replace those killed and those returning from combat tours.6 By mid-year 1944 the Allies controlled the skies over Europe.7
So during the late 1920s and all during the 1930s, most young men and women knew of the Army Air Corps. As the war began, they wanted to join the Army Air Corps, just as it was renamed the Army Air Forces. During the ensuing rapid development of air bases and training programs, everything was in constant change. Many cadets probably continued to refer to their branch of service as the Air Corps, even though technically it was the Army Air Forces.
- Geoffrey Perret, Winged Victory: The Army Air Forces in World War II. New York: Random House, 1993, pp. 5 and 7.
- Ibid., pp. 7, 13, and 24.
- Ibid., p. 29.
- Ibid., p. 34.
- Edward Jablonski, Flying Fortress: The Illustrated Biography of the B-17s and the Men Who Flew Them. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1965.
- Army Air Forces, The Official Guide to the Army Air Forces, May 1944, pp. 8-122.
- Kenneth Winchester (ed.), WWII: Time-Life Books History of the Second World War. New York: Prentice Hall Press, 1989, p. 340.