United States Army Air Force
George E. Preddy  352nd FG Association Archive

United States Army Air Force
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Origin

The "air division" part of the current United States Air Force originated on August 1st, 1907, as the Aeronautical Division, Signal Corps. During WWI, the name changed several times, the last time being on May 24th, 1918, to Air Service, United States Army. The next change came on July 2nd, 1926, when the name changed into United States Army Air Corps.

On March 1st, 1935, still struggling with the issue of a separate air arm, the Army activated the General Headquarters Air Force for centralized control of aviation combat units within the continental United States, separate from but coördinated with the Air Corps. The separation of the Air Corps from control of its combat units caused problems of unity of command that became more acute as the Air Corps enlarged in preparation for World War II. This was resolved by the creation of the Army Air Forces on June 20th, 1941. This was the most radical reorganization of the aviation branch in its history, developing a structure that both unified command of all air elements and gave it total autonomy .

The United Stated Army Air Force (USAAF) was however still a part of the United States Army at that time (and would remain so until the creation of the autonomous United States Air Force in September of 1947).

The United States Army was thus divided into three forces by 1942:

  • The Army Ground Forces
  • The Services of Supply (became the Army Service Forces in 1943)
  • The Army Air Force

Each force had a commanding general who reported directly to the Chief Of Staff of the US Army.

For the Army Air Force this was Henry H. Arnold.

The AAF controlled all parts of military aviation formerly distributed among the Air Corps, General Headquarters Air Force, and ground forces corps area commanders, and thus became the first air organization of the U.S. Army to control its own installations.

World War II was also the reason that the USAAF became the world's most powerful Air Force. Below are 2 tables indicating statistical information gathered from the Army Air Force Statistical Digest (World War II) which show the total numbers of personnel and aircraft starting with the very beginning of the USAAF in 1941 through VJ-day in 1945:

Airplanes on hand with the USAAF, by type and principal model , cumulative each end of year, starting November, 1941, through August 1945:

Type & Model
Dec. 31st, 1941
Dec. 31st, 1942
Dec. 31st, 1943
Dec. 31st, 1944
Aug. 31st, 1945
Peak
Grand Total
12 297
33 304
64 232
72 726
63 715
79 908 (July 1944)
Combat Aircraft
4 477
11 607
27 448
41 961
41 163
43 248 (May 1945)
Very Heavy Bombers
-
3
91
977
2 862
2 865 (Aug 1945)
Of which B-29s
-
-
76
942
2 132
2 132 (Aug 1945)
Heavy Bombers
288
2 076
8 027
12 813
11 065
12 919 (Apr 1945)
Of which B-17
198
1 239
3 528
4 419
3 677
4 574 (Aug 1944)
Of which B-24
89
834
3 490
5 678
4 236
6 043 (Sept 1944)
Medium Bombers
745
2 556
4 370
6 189
5 384
6 262 (Oct 1944)
Of which B-25
151
1 128
2 117
1 942
1 865
2 656 (July 1944)
Of which B-26
181
712
1 651
1 239
730
1 931 (Mar 1944)
Light Bombers
799
1 201
2 371
2 980
3 079
3 338 (Sept 1944)
Of which A-20
417
569
867
1 417
739
1 711 (Sept 1944)
Of which A-26
-
-
6
653
2 049
2 049 (Aug 1945)
Of which A-36
-
111
226
37
-
452 (Apr 1943)
Fighters
2 170
5 303
11 875
17 198
16 799
17 725 (May 1945)
Of which P-38
96
1 123
1 805
2 759
2 417
2 863 (Mar 1945)
Of which P-39
609
1 116
2 019
746
22
2 150 (Feb 1944)
Of which P-40
938
2 133
2 245
1 716
116
2 499 (Apr 1944)
Of which P-47
1
442
3 765
5 100
5 308
5 595 (Jun 1945)
Of which P-51
-
57
1 165
3 914
5 384
5 541 (Jul 1945)
Reconnaissance
475
468
714
1 804
1 971
2 009 (May 1945)
Transports
254
1 857
6 466
10 456
9 561
10 456 (Dec 1944)
Of which C-46
-
28
244
1 278
2 276
2 276 (Aug 1945)
Of which C-47
33
835
2 230
4 901
4 598
4 901 (Dec 1944)
Trainers
7 340
17 044
26 051
17 060
9 558
27 923 (May 1944)
Advanced
1 574
5 890
9 770
9 495
7 432
10 650 (Jul 1944)
Basic
2 248
5 261
7 485
4 706
635
8 038 (May 1944)
Primary
3 518
5 893
8 796
3 278
1 491
9 397 (Jun 1944)
Communications
226
2 796
4 267
3 249
3 433
4 267 (Dec 1943)
Liaison
225
2 795
4 255
3 193
3 244
4 211 (Jun 1944)
Rotary Wing
1
1
12
56
189
189 (Aug 1945)

Military personnel in Continental US and overseas:

End of month
Dec 31st, 1939
Dec 31st, 1940
Dec 31st, 1941
Dec 31st, 1942
Dec 31st, 1943
Dec 31st, 1944
Aug 31st, 1945
Total Army Air Forces
43 118
99 993
354 161
1 597 049
2 373 882
2 359 456
2 253 182
Officers
3 006
5 203
24 521
127 267
274 347
375 973
368 344
Enlisted personnel
40 112
94 790
329 640
1 469 782
2 099 535
1 983 483
1 884 838
Continental US
35 566
83 910
328 277
1 355 028
1 638 216
1 195 320
1 253 573
Officers
2 650
4 586
22 042
100 475
193 275
222 428
245 511
Enlisted personnel
32 916
79 324
306 235
1 254 553
1 444 941
972 892
1 008 062
Overseas
7 552
16 083
25 884
242 021
735 666
1 164 136
999 609
Officers
356
617
2 479
26 792
81 072
153 545
122 833
Enlisted personnel
7 196
15 466
23 405
215 229
654 594
1 010 591
876 776

At its peak moment, the USAAF accounted for 2.411.294 people, which accounted for 31.4% of the total US Army strength.

 

Structure

Obviously, leading, structuring and organizing such a vast organisation wasn't a simple task. The key unit of the Army Air Forces for both administrative and tactical purposes was the Group.

A Group was an organization of three or four flying Squadrons combined with their attached ground support elements.

To give an idea: the Air Service and the later Air Corps had established 15 combat groups between 1919 and 1937:

  • 1st Pursuit Group (Interceptor)
  • 2nd Bombardment Group (Heavy)
  • 3rd Bombardment Group (Light)
  • 4th Composite Group
  • 5th Bombardment Group (Medium)
  • 6th Bombardment Group (Medium)
  • 7th Bombardment Group (Heavy)
  • 8th Pursuit Group (Fighter)
  • 9th Bombardment Group (Medium)
  • 10th Transport Group
  • 16th Pursuit Group (Interceptor)
  • 17th Pursuit Group
  • 18th Pursuit Group (Interceptor)
  • 19th Bombardment Group (heavy)
  • 20th Pursuit Group

With the start of WWII, the Air Corps expanded to 30 groups by February 1st, 1940. By the end of the war, the total number of operational groups was 243:

  • 25 Very Heavy Bombardment Groups (flying B-29s)
  • 72 Heavy Bombardment Groups
  • 20 Medium Bombardment Groups
  • 8 Light Bombardment Groups
  • 71 Fighter Groups
  • 29 Troop Carrier and Combat Cargo Groups
  • 13 Reconnaissance Groups
  • 5 Composite Groups

In order to properly organize all those groups and establish a proper chain of command, the USAAF structure was as follows:

As of June 20th, USAAF controlled the aviation branch of the US Army. The USAAF normally held 3 Commands and was led by a 3 Star General (Lieutenant General).

Next in line are the so-called Commands. These are normally led by a 2 Star General (Major General). Several independent support organisationsor Commands remained under the direct control of Headquarters Army Air Forces because they supported several or all numbered Air Forces to which the operational units (Groups and Squadrons) were assigned. These Commands were:

  • Training Command: the Army Air Forces Training Command (AAFTC) originally consisted of two subcommands-the Technical Training Command, organized March 26th, 1941, and the Flying Training Command, activated January 23rd, 1942. They were combined into a unified Training Command with headquarters at Fort Worth, Texas, on July 7th, 1943, with a coordinated curriculum providing training for both aircrewmen and ground technicians. It was also responsible for the Officer Candidate School for air officers and for basic training for draftees.
  • Air Material Command: the Air Corps Materiel Command which was established in 1926 was redesignated Air Materiel Command on March 9th, 1942, and served as the aeronautical Research and Development Center for the AAF. It was responsible for procurement, and contracting for purchase of all aircraft and related equipment used by the War Department.
  • Air Transport Command: its mission was to meet the urgent demand for the speedy reinforcement of the United States' military bases worldwide during World War II , using an air supply system to supplement surface transport. ATC also operated a worldwide air transportation system for military personnel. Air Transport Command was the precursor to what became the Military Air Transport Service in 1948, re-named the Military Airlift Command in 1966 and today's Air Mobility Command .
  • Personnel Distribution Command: individual redistribution centers, with headquarters at Atlantic City, N. J., were organized on August 15th, 1943 to provide rest and recreation for combat returnees, and to reassign returned personnel. The centers were consolidated on June 1st, 1944 in accordance with new rotation policy, with three major subdivisions; (1) Redistribution Stations, (2) Convalescent Hospitals, and (3) Overseas Replacement Depots.
  • Proving Ground Command: originally organized as the Air Corps Proving Ground, May 15th, 1941, with headquarters at Eglin Field, Fla., it was redesignated Proving Ground Command, April 1st, 1942. It conducted operational tests and studies of aircraft and airborne equipment.
  • Troop Carrier Command: the Troop Carrier Command was dissociated from Air Transport Command, its parent organization, on June 20th, 1942. It coordinated the organization and training of troop carrier, glider, medical air evacuation, and other airborne units. Also it was responsible for developing joint airborne combat tactics in conjunction with Army Ground Forces.
  • AAF Tactical Center: at the entry of the United States into World War II on December 7th, 1941, the USAAF had expanded to 67 groups from a pre-1939 total of 15, but approximately half were paper units just forming. The entry into the war meant an immediate significant increase in the numbers of new combat groups, expanding to 269 groups by the end of 1943.
    The training establishment then in place was inadequate to train units wholesale, and the concept of training cadres who in turn would direct the training of their assigned units was adopted. AAFSAT was established on October 9th, 1942, to provide this training.
  • Antisubmarine Command (discontinued on August 31st, 1943): on September 22nd, 1942 the USAAF began to organize the Army Air Forces Antisubmarine Command (AAFAC), using the I Bomber Command as its core for personnel and aircraft. The Air Force had been engaged in anti submarine war for almost a year. During that time it had laid the basis for an effective organization and made plans for a larger anti submarine force. The new AAFAC was constituted on October 13th and activated on October 15th.
  • Flight Control Command (established on March 29th, 1943, and disbanded on October 1st, 1943)

The USAAF held a direct command over 16 numbered Air Forces, distributed worldwide to fight the War and defend the US homeland. Several of these Air Forces were created from scratch during the war whilst others, such as the Eighth Air Force, grew out of earlier commands (in their case VIII Bomber Command). A numbered Air Force is led by a 1 Star General (Brigadier General).

During WWII, these numbered Air Forces were:

  • 1st Air Force - Assigned to Northeast United States (zone of interior)
  • 2nd Air Force - Assigned to Northwest United States (zone of interior)
  • 3rd Air Force - Assigned to Southeast United States (zone of interior)
  • 4th Air Force - Assigned to the Southwest United States (zone of interior)
  • 5th Air Force - Assigned to the Philippines, Australia and Soutwest Pacific
  • 6th Air Force - Assigned to the Caribbean Islands, Panama, South America
  • 7th Air Force - Assigned to Hawaii & Central Pacific
  • 8th Air Force - Assigned to Europe
  • 9th Air Force - Assigned to the Middle East, North Africa & Europe
  • 10th Air Force - Assigned to India, Burma
  • 11th Air Force - assigned to Alaska
  • 12th Air Force - assigned to North Africa, Mediterranian
  • 13th Air Force - assigned to South Pacific
  • 14th Air Force - assigned to China
  • 15th Air Force - assigned to North Africa, Mediterranian
  • 20th Air Force - assigned to the Pacific

A numbered Air Force is usually assigned for geographical purposes, and primarily used only during wartime. In peacetime, they generally only consist of a limited number of headquarters staff who's job it is to prepare and maintain wartime plans.

Numerical designations for Numbered Air Forces are written out (eg. Eighth Air Force instead of 8th Air Force), but Arabic numerals are used in abbreviations (eg. 8th AF).

Numbered Air Forces began as named organizations in the United States Army Air Corps before Word War II. The first four NAFs were established as the Northeast, Northwest, Southeast and Southwest Air Districts on October 19th, 1940, with the purpose of providing air defense for the United States. These Air Districts were redesignated as the First, Second, Third and Fourth Air Forces on September 18th, 1942.
Other organizations established during this period and that became Numbered Air Forces later on included the Philippine Department Air Force (later Fifth Air Force), the Panama Canal Air Force (later Sixth Air Force), the Hawaiian Air Force (later Seventh Air Force) and the Alaskan Air Force (became Eleventh Air Force).

After WWII, the then formed USAF continued to use both named and numbered Air Forces. While the named Air Forces were used in both tactical and support roles, numbered Air Forces were generally employed only in tactical roles.

Next in line were the so-called Divisions. A Division was an intermediate level of command, subordinate to a Numbered Air Force, controlling one or more Wings.

Combat Wing: Two or more groups compose a Wing. There is only one Wing on an Air Force base, and the Wing Commander is quite often considered to be the "Installation Commander." There are two types of Wings: Composite and Objective . Composite Wings operate more than one kind of aircraft. Individual composite wings can have different missions.
Objective Wings streamline and consolidate responsibilities and clarify lines of command. They may have operational missions, such as air combat, flying training, or airlift, and they may provide support to a MAJCOM or a geographically separated unit (GSU). Wings may also have a specilized mission (e.g., an "Intelligence Wing").

Whatever the wing's mission, every wing conforms to the overall concept of "one base, one wing, one boss." Wing commanders most often hold the rank of Colonel, although some "high visibility" Wings could have an O-7 (Brigadier General) in command. They could hold between 144 and 225 aircraft.


Group
: Two or three Groups make a Wing and each Group consists out of two of three Squadrons. Within the Air Force, Groups are usually based upon assignment of squadrons with similar functions. For example, the Supply Squadron, Transportation, and Aircraft Maintenance Squadron would be assigned to the Logistics Group. The flying squadrons would be assigned to the Operations Group. The Dental Squadron and the Medical Squadron would be assigned to the Medical Group, etc. Usually, Groups take on the number of the Wing they are assigned to. The 49th Logistics Group, for example is assigned to the 49th Fighter Wing, at Holloman AFB in New Mexico. The group commander is usually a colonel (O-6), a Lieutenant Colonel (O-5) or in some cases even a Major.
Groups could hold somewhere between 48 and 75 aircraft.

Squadron: A Squadron comprises out of two or more flights (usually 4) and can hold a few hundred people and somewhere between 8 and 24 aircraft.
The squadron is considered to be the basic unit in the Air Force and is the lowest level of command with a headquarters element (example, a Squadron Commander, or Squadron First Sergeant). In the Air Force, a Squadron commander is generally in the rank of Captain through even a Lieutenant Colonel (O-5), although smaller squadrons may be commanded by Lieutenants. Squadrons are usually identified both numerically, and by function. An example would be the 49th Security Forces Squadron, or the 501st Maintenance Squadron.

Flight: A Flight is the smallest formation officially recognized by the Air Force. It usually ranges from a dozen people to over a hundred and typically comprises of 4 aircraft. A flight is further divided into two or more sections, but that depends on how the Squadron is organized.
There are three types of flights: Numbered, Alpha , and Functional . Numbered flights incorporate small mission elements into an organized unit. For example, flights in basic training are numbered flights. While in basic, you could be assigned to "Flight 421," for instance.
Alpha flights are components of a squadron and consist of elements with identical missions. Flights A, B, and C, of a Security Forces Squadron would be an example.
Functional flights consist of elements with specific missions. The "Military Personnel Flight (MPF)" and the "Social Actions Flight" are two examples of functional flights.

Element (or Section): Two or more airmen can form an "element" or "section." Generally, the section is the place (duty section) where the person works. For example, the Administrative Section, or the Life Support Section. It's not absolutely necessary to have a "section."
For example, many aircrew members and Security Forces (Air Force "cops") don't have a "section." Instead, they belong (as a group) to a "flight."
In Air Force Basic Training the term "element" is used. Each basic training "flight" is divided into four "elements," each with an assigned "element leader."

We're trying to cover each numbered Air Force in this section. Below you can find an overview of all 16 numbered Air Forces. Click an Air Force in order to view its history and details, or select a numbered Air Force in the column on the left.

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