EARLY AIRLIFT AND AIRBORNE UNITS
The meteoric growth of airlift capability during the Second World War had its origins in requirements for delivering aircraft to France and Great Britain on the eve of hostilities, as well as in the need to establish rapid, secure lines of transportation to friendly nations under enemy threat in distant areas of the world. The Air Corps Ferrying Command (ACFC) and the Air Transport Command (ATC) emerged in this first wave of development. The rush of events included changes in nomenclature when the War Department established the U.S. Army Air Forces (AAF) on June 20, 1941, to control both the Army Air Corps and the Air Force Combat Command.
In the wake of rapid German military successes that began with the
invasion of Poland in the autumn of 1939 and culminated with the fall of
France in the spring of 1940, a flood of aircraft orders from Britain inundated
suppliers in the United States. British and French aircraft orders had
already sparked significant production increases dating from 1938.
The Air Corps Ferrying Command, created on May 29, 1941, immediately began flying airplanes to Newfoundland. The new organization expanded operations during July, delivering 1,350 aircraft to Great Britain by December 7, 1941. In addition, the ACFC inaugurated an emergency, transatlantic transportation service for key personnel, high-priority cargo, and diplomatic correspondence. The first operations began on July 1, 1941, when a four-engine B–24 bomber flew a Washington-Montreal-Newfoundland- Scotland mission. Within a few weeks, the “Arnold Line,” as military personnel called it, scheduled at least six round-trips each month, a frequency that persisted until interrupted by hazardous winter weather over the Atlantic. By the end of 1941, authorization from the White House officially allowed the ACFC to operate far-flung routes on a global basis, a process that had already begun to evolve in response to other requirements related to Lend-Lease agreements.
When Germany invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, the
States extended Lend-Lease to that nation as well. To assist the Soviets,
one aerial route ran north across Canada and through Alaska to Siberia. Deliveries to Britain continued to move across the North Atlantic.
important new aerial route assisted Britain in North Africa, and extended
across the Near East to reach southwestern points of the Soviet Union.
The ACFC solidified these routes, building on the pioneer flights accomplished
by commercial operations of the 1930s. The command installed
vital meteorological equipment and weather stations and began to
erect and furnish maintenance facilities, provide housing for itinerant
crews and personnel, and organize the far-flung infrastructure needed to
support hundreds of aircraft moving along thousands of miles of airways
each day. In all of this, the command relied on the resources of airplanes
With so much activity along the segments of the South Atlantic route, the route became one of the first candidates for civil contract work. Beginning in the spring of 1941, Pan American Airways began to handle this task, moving airplanes across the Caribbean and down the eastern coast of South America to Natal, Brazil. From there, three principal airways went to Africa’s western coast. Most of that air traffic then winged across central Africa to the Sudan, from which point other routes spread through the Middle East and across India. Pan Am’s experience in the Caribbean and South America ensured recognition of local customs and supported the need to obtain supplies from local sources. By the end of 1942, Pan Am had delivered about 460 airplanes over this southern air transport system.
During 1942, many other airlines became contractors for ferrying aircraft around the world. Northeast, along with TWA, flew missions over North Atlantic routes. New schedules from the United States to Alaska were flown by Northwest Airlines, Western Air Lines, and United Air Lines. Additional U.S. carriers signed on during the war, implementing services through Central and South America as well as within the continental United States. During 1942, the airlines and their crews performed nearly 88 percent of the military’s ferrying and airlift activities. By the end of the war, military transports and personnel predominated, although contractors still did as much as 19 percent of the work.
At the same time that worldwide air routes were being hammered out, military leaders overhauled the Army’s organizational structure. During the spring of 1941, the General Staff thoroughly revamped the air services, creating the U.S. Army Air Forces in June 1941. General Arnold became chief of the new AAF, guiding it through succeeding organizational changes. After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, change became the order of the day. Germany declared war against the United States a few days later and, among many challenges, the AAF forged its aerial support network into military air routes around the world.
Early in 1942, Arnold authorized an Air Service Command to handle all aerial transport among U.S. bases within the Western Hemisphere. This command also received responsibility for providing airlift for infantry, gliders, and paratroop units. The Ferrying Command was charged with delivering aircraft and providing air transport services outside the Western Hemisphere. As a history of the Military Airlift Command noted later, the separation of troop carrier operations from long-range air logistics marked “a watershed in a doctrinal issue” (p. 18). The Ferrying Command was a single command with global responsibilities, and its mission, and that of its successors, “represented the logical development of these doctrinal ideals.”
When U.S. military forces transferred overseas in the course of
Another issue evolved from the role of the Naval Air Transport
which was hastily organized after Pearl Harbor to offer rapid transportation
of dispatches and personnel to remote naval installations around
the world and to supply rapid logistical support for critical, lightweight
items required by far-flung units of the fleet. For these tasks, the Navy
collected an assortment of land and sea airplanes, after pressing into service
long-range flying boats originally intended for patrol and rescue duties.
On June 20, 1942, Arnold issued AAF General Orders that responded to these issues and set the pattern for most of the war’s duration. This included creation of the Air Transport Command, which was responsible for all ferrying requirements within the United States and overseas. Additionally, the ATC was authorized to transport all personnel, mail, and matériel for the War Department, with the exception of specific combat commands who had their own aircraft. The ATC also assumed the task of running all overseas airways, including facilities, communication, support, and related requirements. The Air Service Command retained only its continental flying tasks. The new Troop Carrier Command became the focus of airborne combat operations and ad hoc air transport within operational theaters. Although the Navy continued to operate its own Naval Air Transport Service, a committee within the Joint Chiefs of Staff exercised more unified control toward the end of the war. This bureaucratic element (the Joint Army-Navy Air Transport Committee) helped focus plans to create a single airlift command after World War II.
Meanwhile, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor had triggered an immediate need for many more airplanes and pilots. Early in 1942, the Army’s air transport resources included only eleven four-engine airplanes, converted B–24 Liberator bombers. In addition, there arose a severe shortage of modern transports like the DC–2 conversions. Fortunately, the means to fill this gap already existed, owing to the foresight of Edgar Gorrell, president of the Air Transport Association (ATA), the trade organization for major airlines in the United States.
With military approval, the civil airline fleet of the United States
had an operational blueprint in case of a national emergency like
war. Gorrell, a veteran of the U.S. Air Service in World War I, recognized
the potential military value of the growing airline fleet of cargo airplanes,
and had begun planning for an aerial mobilization as early as 1936 with
the cooperation of the “Big Four” of the airline industry (American,
Eastern, TWA, and United). Assisted by Air Corps officers, he had updated
the plans over the years and included options for effective disposition of
airplanes, flight crews, and ground personnel on twenty-four hours’
As the Ferrying Command became the basis for a worldwide air transport system, Arnold and other AAF leaders prudently decided to bring in someone with prior experience in managing the large flotilla of aircraft, complex scheduling, and thousands of personnel bound to grow to even larger proportions. A veteran of civil operations could also do a better job of molding these Air Transport Association assets. In 1942, C. R. Smith became a colonel in the ATC as deputy commander to the ATC chief, Brig. Gen. Harold Lee George. All of the ATA carriers in the United States had to make the best of stripped-down fleets and reduced schedules. American’s own Flagship Fleet dropped from 79 to 41 airplanes; overall, the total number of ATA civil airliners in the United States dropped to 176 from a total of 359. The airline industry did its best to meet civilian demands during the war by squeezing more air time out of each remaining airplane. In the case of American Airlines, Smith’s residual management team elicited 30 percent more flying hours each year, compared with a typical prewar year.
In the meantime, Smith settled into his job as the operations chief for the ATC. At the beginning of the war, the preferred route to the European theater still ran across the South Atlantic, from Natal, Brazil, to Dakar, Senegal. Smith listened carefully to those who argued for a regularized North Atlantic crossing, flying the Great Circle route from Newfoundland via Greenland and Iceland, to Great Britain. He authorized a technical staff and a survey flight in a former American DC–3 using American personnel. Having proved the feasibility of North Atlantic service on a regular basis, the ATC soon launched dozens of similar ferry and cargo flights.
While General George and C. R. Smith at ATC contended with cargo flights and ferrying duties, the Troop Carrier Command (TCC) began to evolve. As the first U.S. effort at airborne combat operations for para-troops and glider troops, its creation resulted directly from events in wartime Europe.
During the spring of 1940, German forces invaded Denmark and Nor-way,
using aerial assault units in a series of successful parachute and cargo-airplane
operations to seize key positions and then relying on aerial resupply
until more substantial forces joined up. U.S. strategists took notice.
During the summer of 1940, the U.S. Army had taken its first steps toward developing paratroop forces and planning for airborne assaults. Germany’s aerial invasion of Crete accelerated preparations for field exercises, which included airborne units scheduled for long-overdue, full-scale maneuvers. Conducted in Louisiana, these exercises revealed that the U.S. armed forces were unprepared for modern war. Troop formations included soldiers equipped with broom handles to represent machine guns and automobiles fitted with stove pipes wheeled around to portray tank units. The recently formed 50th Transport Wing scraped together a polyglot force of thirty-nine airplanes for the occasion and managed to stage the U.S. Army’s first airdrop with more than one company of paratroopers in a single operation. Much more needed to be accomplished, and the time to do it was short.
Working rapidly in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, the Army created a new Airborne Command with two components, the 82d and the 101st Airborne Divisions. The chief architect for subsequent airborne missions was Lt. Col. James M. Gavin, a commander from the 82d Airborne Division. Gavin, a student of the recent European experiences in airborne attack, was also informed by the difficulties experienced during the Louisiana maneuvers. Basically he focused on the need to drop paratroops as a cohesive, concentrated force. With enough airplanes, Gavin argued, a major airborne assault could achieve substantial victories and pave the way for the rapid advance of conventional ground troops. In the process of additional training and maneuvers, the 82d Airborne established a standard jump altitude of six hundred feet—high enough to reduce injuries and low enough to concentrate the jumpers in a compact area as a cohesive fighting force. Using formations of thirty-six to forty-five transports like the C–47 (the military version of the DC–3), it was possible to insert a battalion in two minutes and drop a regiment in ten minutes. Typically, mission planners picked a jump zone within a few miles of enemy positions where paratroops could seize a key area behind the lines and hold it until Allied forces broke through to meet them. These principles formed the basis for fourteen major airborne assaults by U.S. forces during the Second World War. In addition, numerous smaller actions and reinforcement missions took place in every theater of the war.