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Within twenty-four hours after the first bombs from carrier-based Japanese airplanes exploded at Pearl Harbor, the United States entered a world-wide war in which the flying machine, largely a bit player previously, assumed an ever larger role. But, on December 7, 1941, what would become the single largest component of the American aerial arms, the Eighth Air Force, which carried the heaviest portion of war in the skies to Germany, did not even exist on paper. For that matter, the entire U.S. Air Force hardly deserved the name, so deficient was it in terms of numbers of combat aircraft performance capability and qualified airmen compared to enemy forces.
The Japanese Mitsubishi Zero or Zeke fighters in the South Pacific flew faster, higher and farther than any comparable aircraft in the American arsenal. In Europe, the German Messerschmitt 109 and 110 and the Focke Wulf 190s could outperform the P-39s and P-40s, the best U.S. Air Corps fighters. Only the biggest bombers, the four-engine B-17 Flying Fortress and the B-24 Liberator, surpassed what the enemy operated, but this reflected more the Axis powers' decision to employ smaller bombers than any deficiency of design or production on their part.
The inventory of all types of planes available to the handful of air crews was small; U.S. factories had yet to move into high gear and much of what was produced had been committed to Allies already engaged in combat. What had been accomplished during the two years and three months from the onset of the war in Europe to the entry of the United States was a series of plans that would eventually help shape the use of American military assets. During what were officially labeled United States-British Staff Conversations of March 27, 1941, and became known as ABC-1, the participants settled on a number of policies including, "U.S. Army air bombardment units [would] operate offensively in collaboration with the Royal Air Force, primarily against German Military Power at its source." In the immediate aftermath of the devastation wrought against the U.S. fleet and the rapid onslaught of the Japanese against the Asiatic outposts of the Allies, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his associates, in accord with such agreements as ABC-1 and various elaborations of the overall War Plan Orange series, had agreed that execution of the war against Germany held first priority.
In preparation for the mandates of ABC-1, before December 7, 1941, an American military mission occupied offices in London. But even before then in recognition of the ties with Great Britain and the inevitability of a confrontation with Adolf Hitler's Nazi Germany, a stream of U.S. observers made their way to England to watch the RAF fight the Battle of Britain against German fighters and bombers during the summer of 1940. They also scouted potential bases for American contingents and managed lend-lease deals that included American-built planes such as A-20 light bombers dubbed "Bostons" by the RAF.
The advent of war almost instantly changed the nomenclature from the limited title of "mission" to U.S. Army Forces in the British Isles (USAFBI), and the label presaged the establishment of a significant presence of men and machines. As chief of the Army Air Forces, Lt. Gen. Henry (Hap) Arnold secured approval from the War Department to activate an air force as part of USAFBI. He chose Maj. Gen. Carl Spaatz, a World War I combat pilot, respected tactician, strategist and administrator to head the outfit and nominated Brig. Gen. Ira Eaker to run the bomber command. Even before Spaatz and Eaker could begin to mobilize the airplanes to carry out the task, they encountered fierce opposition from the brass in charge of all U.S. Army efforts in England. The traditional resistance of ground commanders to grant any autonomy to the air forces succumbed only through the intervention of Army chief of staff Gen. George C. Marshall. The vehicle tapped for Spaatz and Eaker was the Eighth Air Force, activated in January 1942.
While the newly formed outfit initially consisted of a medium bombardment group, two pursuit groups (the designations of fighters or interceptors were not yet in vogue) and auxiliary units, other priorities reduced the Eighth to a bare skeletal form as the Japanese advanced in the Pacific. The original bomber group committed to the Eighth joined Lt. Col. James H. Doolittle to train for his mission against Tokyo. Other aircraft allotted to the Eighth were siphoned away to participate in the critical antisubmarine warfare off the U.S. coast and for other responsibilities.
In February of 1942, Ira Eaker took up station in England as the head of the Eighth Bomber Command, but the parent organization was not in residence until May 11, 1942, when the first contingent of thirty-nine officers and 384 enlisted men set foot on British soil. Eaker, at the time all too aware of what little material strength he brought with him, rose to speak to an assembly of RAF guests at an early June ceremony at the newly opened High Wycombe headquarters. "We won't do much talking until we've done more fighting. We hope that when we leave you'll be glad we came. Thank you."
Eaker's twenty-three words could hardly offend the host country as they implicitly recognized that six months after the declaration of war, the American contribution to the air war effort in Europe had been only money and goods while British fliers continued to pay a bloody price. But while the British approved the gracious note, furious discord marked the opinions and policies of the two Allies even before they joined forces to fight.
With less than thirty years' presence in the fields of combat, aerial warfare had never generated a consensus on its conduct. In 1907, a scant four years after the Wright brothers successfully demonstrated a twelve-second, 120-foot flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, the U.S. Army created the Aeronautical Division as a wholly controlled subsidiary of the Signal Corps. The premise for this arrangement lay in the belief that the basic role of the airplane would be as a more mobile reconnaissance tool, an improvement on the balloon-borne observer who had appeared overhead as early as the French Revolution and later in the Civil War. In 1910, nineteen-year-old U.S. Military Academy plebe Carl Spaatz gazed skyward and saw aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss win a $10,000 prize as the first to fly all the way down the Hudson River from Albany to New York City, passing West Point en route. Spaatz instantly decided to make a career in the fledgling Aeronautical Service.
During World War I, while experts tinkered with such basic problems as reducing the fatality rate in accidents below that incurred during battle, and preventing machine guns from shooting off propeller blades, the air arm, renamed the Aviation Section, remained a Signal Corps fief until 1918 when American Expeditionary Force commander, Gen. John J. Pershing, removed Signal Corps control and President Woodrow Wilson officially proclaimed the Air Service as an organization within the Army. The military mission had slowly begun to evolve from solely scouting to a more active role in warfare. The European combatants all sought to develop aircraft that themselves served as weapons. The initial idea of inflicting damage on the foe's observation planes soon led to a battle for control of the air. Machine guns enabled fliers to strafe ground forces, and the addition of bombs provided the opportunity to hammer troop concentrations, artillery positions and even lines of transportation. The top Allied commanders had even begun to think of striking at cities or factories; although in some circles there was great reluctance to the notion of dropping high explosives on civilian areas. Occasionally, German airplanes and long range artillery did hit some populated sections, and their dirigibles struck London.