A Concise History of the U.S. Air Force/Trial and Error in World War I

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Trial and Error in World War I

The potential of the airplane was proved in World War I when its use in critical reconnaissance halted the initial German offensive against Paris. It was not used to harass troops or drop bombs until two months into the war. On the basis of an aviator's report that the German army had a large gap in its lines and was attempting to swing wide and west around the British army, British commander Sir John French refused requests from the French to link up his army with their forces to the east. At the resulting battle of Mons southwest of Brussels on August 23, 1914, the British slowed the overall German advance, forcing it to swing east of Paris. The Allies, on the basis of a British aviator's report of the move, stopped the Germans at the battle of the Marne from September 6 to 9. The Germans, on the basis of one of their aviator's observation of the Allies' concentration, retreated behind the Aisne River. These actions, spurred by aerial observation, forced the combatants into fixed positions and initiated four years of trench warfare.

When American aircrews arrived in France three years later to join the conflict, they found mile after mile of fetid trenches protected by machine guns, barbed wire, and massed artillery. The airplane's primary roles remained reconnaissance and observation over the trenches of both sides, into which were poured men, supplies, and equipment in huge quantities easily seen from the air. Thousands of aviators fought and died for control of the skies above armies locked in death struggles below

In 1914 the U.S. Army's Aviation Section of the Signal Corps had five air squadrons and three being formed. By April 6, 1917, when the United States declared war on Germany, it had 56 pilots and fewer than 250 aircraft, all obsolete. Congress appropriated $54.25 million in May and June 1917 for "military aeronautics" to create a total of 13 American squadrons for the war effort. However, French Premier Alexandre Ribot's telegraphed message to President Woodrow Wilson in late May revealed that the United States did not yet comprehend the scale of the war. Ribot recommended that the Allies would need an American air force of 4,500 aircraft, 5,000 pilots, and 50,000 mechanics by 1918 to achieve victory. Trainer aircraft and spare parts would increase America's contribution to over 40,000 aircraft―this from a country that had produced only a few hundred, both civilian and military, from 1903 to 1916.

In the United States an outpouring of patriotism accompanied the declaration of war. Talk of "darkening the skies over Germany with clouds of U.S. aircraft" stiffened Allied resolve. It also appealed to the American people. Congress supported their sentiments when it approved $640 million on July 24, 1917, the largest lump sum ever appropriated by that body to that time, for a program to raise 354 combat squadrons.

President Wilson immediately created the Aircraft Production Board under Howard Coffin to administer an expansion, but the United States had no aircraft industry, only several shops that hand-built an occasional aircraft, and no body of trained workers. The spruce industry, critical to aircraft construction, attempted to meet the enormous demand under government supervision. A production record that approached a national disaster forced Wilson on May 21, 1918, to establish a Bureau of Aircraft Production under John Ryan and a separate Division of Military Aeronautics under Major General William Kenly. The division would be responsible for training and operations and would replace the Aviation Section of the Signal Corps. Perhaps as an indication of the Army's attitude toward the new air weapon, the two agencies remained without a single overall chief. Not until four months before the end of the war did Wilson appoint Ryan Director of the Air Service and Second Assistant Secretary of War in a late attempt to coordinate the two agencies.

Despite President Wilson's initiatives American aircraft production fell far short of its goals. In June 1917 a mission led by Major Raynal Bolling to investigate conditions on the Western Front, decided that America's greatest contribution to the war besides its airmen would be its raw materials from which the Allies could produce the necessary aircraft in Europe, rather than in the United States. This time-saving approach was not particularly popular, given American chauvinism at the time. The United States would build engines, trainer aircraft, and British-designed DH-4 bombers. It would buy combat aircraft from France (4,881), Britain (258), and Italy (59).

American industry managed to turn out 11,754 aircraft, mostly trainers, before the end of the war—a significant accomplishment. Detroit produced 15,572 Liberty engines, big 12-cylinder in-line liquid-cooled power plants of 400 horsepower that were more efficient than other wartime engines. The Army set up ground schools at 8 universities, 27 primary flying schools in the United States, and 16 advanced training schools in Europe. On Armistice Day the Air Service had 19,189 officers and 178,149 enlisted men filling 185 squadrons.

One of the first American airmen to reach France was Major William “Billy” Mitchell, who studied British and French aerial

A formation of De Havilland DH-4s, British-designed, American-built bombers of World War I.

The most efficient aircraft engine of the war, the American 12-cylinder, 400-horsepower, liquid-cooled Liberty. Standing beside it is Henry H. "Hap" Arnold, future Commanding General, U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF).

techniques and recommended the establishment of two air forces, one to support ground forces and another to launch independent strategic attacks against the sources of German strength. A dearth of aircraft and aircrews prevented the development of the latter effort, and the 1917 Bolling mission had given the idea lowest priority. American Expeditionary Force commander, General John Pershing, created a divided tactical aerial force, with, first, Brigadier General William Kenly, then Benjamin Foulois, and, finally, Mason Patrick as Chief of Air Service, American Expeditionary Force, and Mitchell as Air Commander, Zone of Advance. A less-than-clear chain of command insured a collision between Foulois and Mitchell, but Pershing wanted Mitchell in charge of combat operations.

Some Americans had already acquired combat experience in France, serving with French and British squadrons before the United States entered the war. Among the most famous were members of the Lafayette Escadrille, including Norman Prince (five victories) and Raoul Lufbery (seventeen victories). These veterans transferred to the Air Service and provided the cadre for new squadrons arriving from the United States. After advanced training, American squadrons joined French and British units for combat experience. Only when American ground units were ready for combat did Air Service squadrons join American armies. Flying French SPAD and Nieuport fighters and French Breguet and British DH-4 bombers, all-American units under American command began operations in March and April 1918. Lieutenants Alan Winslow and Douglas Campbell gained America's first aerial victories on April 14, 1918, in French Nieuport fighters armed with British Vickers machine guns.

The United States may have been slow in developing aerial weapons, but its ground commanders quickly put them to use. Airmen flew infantry contact patrols, attempting to find isolated units and reporting their location and needs to higher headquarters. Of these missions, the 50th Aero Squadron's search for the "Lost Battalion" in the Meuse-Argonne during the offensive of September and October 1918 is perhaps the most famous. Two airmen, pilot Harold Goettler and observer Erwin Bleckley flew several missions at low altitude, purposely attracting German fire to find out at least where the "Lost Battalion" was not. They paid with their lives but helped their squadron narrow its search. For their heroism, Goettler and Bleckley won two of the four Medals of Honor awarded to American airmen during the war. The other two went to Eddie Rickenbacker and Frank Luke for aerial combat.

Reconnaissance missions to determine the disposition and makeup of enemy forces were critical and were usually carried out by aircraft flying east at low altitude until shot at. Allied ground troops, for example, needed to know about German activity at the Valleroy railroad yard during the battle of St. Mihiel or, best of all, that the "convoy of enemy horse-drawn vehicles [was] in retreat along the road to Thiaucourt."

World War I Aviation Heroes


Three heroes of World War I: Captain Eddie Rickenbacker; top, left, Lieutenant Frank Luke, top, right, both recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor; and the forceful and controversial advocate of air power and service autonomy, Brigadier General Billy Mitchell, center, Assistant Chief of Air Service, American Expeditionary Force (AEF).

Early Military Aviation Leaders


The three Chiefs of Air Service, AEF: Major Generals William Kenly, top, left, Benjamin Foulois, top, right, and Mason Patrick, bottom, left. Major General Charles Menoher, bottom, right, Chief of Air Service after World War I, set up tactical, training, and engineering centers at Langley, Brooks, Kelly, and McCook Fields.

Airman Gill Wilson wrote spiritedly of such missions in the following lines:

Pilots get the credit
But the gunner rings the bell
When we go to bomb the columns
On the road to Aix-la-Pelle!

The pilots of each side, attempting to prevent their counterparts from conducting tactical reconnaissance, encountered fierce air-to-air combat in aerial "dogfights" that evoked images of medieval warfare and its code of chivalry. The men in the trenches welcomed these solitary knights of the skies who were willing to take on the heavily-defended German observation balloons and their artillery fire aimed at everything that moved. More often than not, life was short in World War I and American aviators lived it valiantly. Frank Luke spent only seventeen days in combat and claimed four aircraft and fourteen balloons, the most dangerous of all aerial targets. Shot down at age 21, he died resisting capture behind German lines. The United States awarded him a Medal of Honor and named an air base after him. Raoul Lufbery claimed seventeen victories before jumping from his own burning aircraft without a parachute. But more died in crashes brought on by malfunctioning aircraft than in combat.

Low-level flight in close support of the infantry was exceedingly dangerous as it involved strafing and bombing over enemy positions. The 96th Aero Squadron flew twelve day bombardment aircraft in three missions against ground targets the first day of the St. Mihiel offensive on September 12, 1918. The next day it mustered only four aircraft ready for duty. Casualty rates of 50 percent or higher were not unusual. When Brigadier General Billy Mitchell had his way, targets were farther to the rear and included rail centers and bridges. One of his officers, Lieutenant Colonel Edgar Gorrell, developed a plan to bomb Germany's "manufacturing centers, commercial centers, and lines of communication." General Pershing approved the plan, but opposition from other ground commanders and insufficient aircraft thwarted America's nascent testing of strategic bombing.

As an American air force, the First Air Brigade (strengthened by French units) in June 1918 fought superior German forces during the battle of Château-Thierry, a bloody initiation to full-scale combat for most American pilots. Mitchell, however, learned the lessons of massing air power in the battle area and of seizing the offensive. This experience served him well at St. Mihiel in September. With nearly 100 squadrons amounting to 1,500 aircraft under his control, Mitchell organized two forces, one to provide escorted reconnaissance and the other to serve as an independent striking force. With superior numbers, mostly French, Mitchell's airmen seized the initiative, gained air superiority, attacked enemy ground forces, and interdicted supplies flowing to the German front lines. In the final action of the war, during the Meuse-Argonne offensive in September and October, Mitchell concentrated a largely American force to establish air superiority in support of American ground operations.

By Armistice Day on November 11, 1918, the Air Service had prepared and sent 45 squadrons to fight under Mitchell, with 140 more organizing in the United States. In supporting the war the Air Service had about 750 American-piloted aircraft in France, or about 10 percent of all Allied forces. Seventy-one Americans became aces, downing 5 or more enemy aircraft, led by Eddie Rickenbacker with 26 victories. His success paled compared with Manfred yon Richthofen's (German) with 80 kills, René Fonck's (French) with 75, and Edward Mannock's (British) with 73, but few claimed as many as quickly as the American. The launching of 150 bombing attacks and the claiming of 756 enemy aircraft and 76 balloons in 7 months of combat and the losses of 289 aircraft, 48 balloons, and 237 crewmen did not turn the tide of war but were portentous of things to come. The airplane had entered combat, and by eliminating the element of surprise through observation and reconnaissance, it had helped Allied forces to victory on the Western Front.