United States Army Air Forces (USAAF)
Us army air corps shield
USAAF Shoulder Sleeve Insignia
Active 1941-06-20 to 1947-09-17
Branch United States Army
Gen. Henry H. Arnold, 1941-46
Gen. Carl Spaatz, 1946-47

The United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) was the aviation component of the United States Army primarily during World War II. The title of Army Air Forces succeeded the prior name of Army Air Corps in June 1941 during preparation for expected combat in what came to be known as World War II. Although countries such as ally Great Britain had a separate Air Force, the Army Air Forces were part of the US Army and a direct precursor to the U.S. Air Force. The USAAF formally existed between 1941 and 1947 as an autonomous part of the U.S. Army, co-equal to the Army Ground Forces and Army Service Forces.


Lineage of the United States Air ForceEdit

  • ** The Air Corps became a subordinate element of the Army Air Forces on 20 June 1941, and it continued to exist as a combat arm of the Army (similar to Infantry) until disestablished by Congress with the creation of the U.S. Air Force in 1947.

Origins of the air armEdit

The USAAF had its roots in a turn-of-the century effort at technology assessment of the progress of aviation. The issuance of a patent to the Wright Brothers in 1906, and the interest of President Theodore Roosevelt brought about the creation on August 1, 1907, of the Aeronautical Division of the Signal Corps, headed by Captain Charles deForest Chandler, established to develop all forms of flying. In 1908, the corps ordered a dirigible balloon and contracted with the Wrights for an airplane. Despite a crash that destroyed the first model, the Wright plane was delivered in 1909. The inventors then began to teach a few enthusiastic young officers to fly.

The progress of U.S. military aviation was slow in its early years. Congress voted the first appropriation for military aviation in 1911 and expanded the service into an Aviation Section in 1914. A provisional squadron was formed to support the Punitive Expedition under General John J. Pershing on the Mexican border in 1916 but failed, largely because of poor equipment unsuited to the harsh expeditionary conditions and bad maintenance.

The importance of military aviation was established with its role in Europe during World War I. At the time of America's declaration of war against Germany on April 6, 1917, the Aviation Section was marginal at best. France asked the United States to provide an air force of 4,500 airplanes and 50,000 men, and with more enthusiasm than wisdom, Secretary of War Newton D. Baker asked for and received $640 million from Congress for aviation. The result was chaos. By May of 1918, it was clear that the Signal Corps was overtasked in the aviation mission. The War Department then set up a Air Service consisting at first of two agencies reporting directly to the Secretary of War: one under a civilian, to deal with the manufacturers, and one under a military officer, to train and organize units. In August President Woodrow Wilson appointed John D. Ryan, Second Assistant Secretary of War, to consolidate the whole under the aegis of the Air Service.

As a result of the important role air power had played in the war, a movement developed during the 1920s and 1930s to create an independent air force. The model for this was the Royal Air Force in Great Britain, which early in 1918 had combined its Army and Navy air arms into the RAF. However the U.S. Army's leaders viewed the airplane primarily as merely a weapon for supporting infantry, and gave the Air Service a branch status comparable to that of the field artillery, responsible for procuring equipment and training units. Local ground forces commanders, none of them aviators, directed the aviation units. A series of boards and commissions studied and restudied the question of air organization, with no result other than approval of the name change to the U.S. Army Air Corps in mid-1926.

The Air Corps Act of 1926 changed the name of the Air Service to the Air Corps, "thereby strengthening the conception of military aviation as an offensive, striking arm rather than an auxiliary service," and created an additional Assistant Secretary of War to help foster military aeronautics. Other provisions required that all flying units be commanded by rated personnel and that flight pay be continued, but the position of the air arm within the Department of War remained essentially the same as before. Perhaps the most promising aspect of the act for the Air Corps was the authorization to carry out a five-year expansion program, though inadequate funding limited growth to organizational changes and aircraft development.

The formulation of theories of strategic bombing (long-range bombardment intended to destroy an enemy nation's war-making potential) at the Air Corps Tactical School gave new impetus to arguments for an independent air force. Despite what it perceived as obstruction from the Army General Staff, much of which was attributable to a shortage of funds, the Air Corps made great strides during the 1930s. A doctrine emerged that stressed precision bombing of industrial targets by heavily armed long-range aircraft, and the Air Corps was given the mission of coastal defense.

The next major step toward a separate air force occurred in March 1935 with centralization of all combat air units within the United States into a single command called General Headquarters Air Force. GHQ Air Force took control of aviation operations away from corps area commanders, which had controlled them since 1920, and organized them administratively into four geographical districts headquartered in Los Angeles, Seattle, New York, and Tampa, and created a strike force of three wings.

GHQ Air Force was small in comparison to European air forces. Lines of authority were difficult as GHQ Air Force controlled only its combat units, with the Air Corps still responsible for all support functions, and the corps area commanders still in charge of all airfields and the support personnel manning them. The commanders of GHQ Air Force and the Air Corps, Major generals Frank Andrews and Oscar Westover, clashed philosophically over the direction in which the air arm was heading, adding to the difficulties.

Creation and expansion of the Army Air ForcesEdit

The likelihood of U.S. participation in World War II prompted the most radical reorganization of the aviation branch in its history, developing a structure that gave it total autonomy by March 1942. On June 20, 1941, under a revision by the War Department of Army Regulation 95-5, Major General Henry H. Arnold, then Chief of the Air Corps, assumed the title of Chief of Army Air Forces, creating an echelon of command over all military aviation components. The AAF was directly under the orders of the Chief of Staff of the Army, General George C. Marshall.

Arnold and Marshall agreed that the AAF would enjoy autonomy within the War Department until the end of the war, while its commanders would cease lobbying for independence. Marshall, a strong proponent of airpower, left understood that the Air Force would likely achieve its independence after the war. Soon after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, in recognition of importance of the role of the Army Air Forces, Arnold was given a seat on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the planning staff that served as the focal point of American strategic planning during the war, so that the United States would have an air representative in staff talks with their British counterparts on the Combined Chiefs, and in effect gained equality with Marshall.

GHQ Air Force was replaced by the Air Force Combat Command, and its four geographical districts were converted in January 1941 into numbered air forces, with a subordinate organization of 54 groups. Organizationally, the Army Air Forces was created as a higher command echelon encompassing both Air Force Combat Command and the Army Air Corps, thus bringing all of the air arm under a centralized command for the first time. Yet these reforms were only temporary, lasting just nine months as the air arm streamlined in preparation for war, with a goal of centralized planning and decentralized execution of operations.

Executive Order 9082 [1] changed Arnold's title to "Commanding General, Army Air Forces" on March 9, 1942, making him co-equal with the commanding generals of the new Army Ground Forces and Services of Supply, the other two parts of the Army of the United States. War Department Circular No. 59 reorganized the Army Air Forces, disbanding the Combat Command (formerly GHQAF) and changing the Air Corps to a non-organizational combat arm, eliminating their layer of command. Replacing them were eleven numbered air forces (later raised to sixteen) and six major commands (which became eight in January 1943: Flying Training, Technical Training, Troop Carrier, Air Transport, Materiel, Air Service, Proving Ground, and Anti-Submarine Commands). In July 1943 Flying Training and Technical Training Commands merged into a single Training Command.

As a result of its exponential growth during World War II, the Army Air Forces became the world's largest and most powerful air force. The expansion from the Air Corps of 1939, with 20,000 men and 2,320 planes (a limit set in 1934), to the autonomous AAF of 1944, with almost 2.4 million personnel and 80,000 aircraft, was a remarkable feat. Robert A. Lovett, the Assistant Secretary of War for Air, together with Arnold, presided over an increase of personnel and equipment greater than for either the ground Army or the Navy, while at the same time dispatching combat air forces to theaters of war all over the globe.

Growth of the US Army Air Forces in World War II, aircraft
Type of aircraftDec 31, 1941 Dec 31, 1942 Dec 31, 1943 Dec 31, 1944 Aug 31, 1945Date of maximum size
Grand total 12,297 33,30464,23272,72663,715July 1944 (79,908)
Combat aircraft4,47711,60727,44841,96141,163May 1945 (43,248)
Very heavy bombers-3919772,865August 1945 (2,865)
Heavy bombers2882,0768,02712,81311,065April 1945 (12,919)
Medium bombers7452,5564,3706,1895,384October 1944 (6,262)
Light bombers7991,2012,3712,9803,079September 1944 (3,338)
Fighters2,1705,30311,87517,19816,799May 1945 (17,725)
Reconnaissance4754687141,8041,971May 1945 (2,009)
Support aircraft7,82021,69736,78430,76522,552July 1944 (41,667)
Transports2541,8576,46610,4569,561December 1944 (10,456)
Trainers7,34017,04426,05117,0609,558May 1944 (27,923)
Communications2262,7964,2673,2493,433December 1943 (4,267)

SOURCE: Army Air Forces Statistical Digest (World War II), Table 84

Growth of the US Army Air Forces in World War II, Personnel
DateTotal USAAF Tot Officers Tot Enlisted # overseas Officers o/sEnlisted o/s
July 31, 1939 24,7242,63622,0883,9912723,719
December 31, 193943,1183,00640,1127,0073516,656
December 31, 1940101,2276,43794,79016,07061215,458
December 31, 1941354,16124,521329,64025,8842,47923,405
December 31, 19421,597,049127,2671,469,782242,02126,792215,229
December 31, 19432,373,882274,3472,099,535735,66681,072654,594
Peak size (March 1944)2,411,294306,8892,104,405906,335104,864801,471
December 31, 19442,359,456375,9731,983,4831,164,136153,5451,010,591
Peak overseas (Apr 1945)2,329,534388,2781,941,2561,224,006163,8861,060,120
August 31, 19452,253,182368,3441,884,838999,609122,833876,776

SOURCE: Army Air Forces Statistical Digest (World War II), Table 4

War strategyEdit

As Arnold's staff saw it, the first priority in the war was to launch a strategic bombing offensive in support of the RAF against Germany. The Eighth Air Force, sent to England in 1942, took on that job. After a slow and often costly effort to bring the necessary strength to bear, joined in 1944 by the Fifteenth Air Force stationed in Italy, strategic bombing finally began to get results, and by the end of the war, the German economy had been dispersed and pounded to rubble.

Tactical air forces supported the ground forces in the Mediterranean and European theaters, where the enemy found Allied air supremacy a constant frustration. In the war against Japan, General Douglas MacArthur made his advance along New Guinea by leap-frogging his air forces forward and using amphibious forces to open up new bases. The AAF also supported Admiral Chester Nimitz's aircraft carriers in their island-hopping across the Central Pacific and assisted Allied forces in Burma and China.

Arnold directly controlled the Twentieth Air Force, equipped with the new long-range B-29 Superfortresses used for bombing Japan's home islands, first from China and then from the Marianas. Devastated by fire-raids, Japan was so weakened by August of 1945 that Arnold believed neither the atomic bomb nor the planned invasion would be necessary to win the war. The fact that AAF B-29s dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, nevertheless, demonstrated what air power could do in the future. The Strategic Bombing Survey provided ammunition for the leaders of the AAF in the postwar debates over armed forces unification and national strategy.

Main Article: United States aircraft production during World War II

The sixteen air forcesEdit


By the end of World War II, the USAAF had created sixteen numbered air forces (First through Fifteenth and Twentieth) distributed world-wide to prosecute the war and defend the Americas, plus a Zone of the Interior general air force within the continental United States to support the whole. An additional eight air divisions served as an additional layer of command for the vast organization, capable of acting independently if the need arose. Several of these air forces and divisions grew out of earlier commands—for example, the Eighth Air Force was originally VIII Bomber Command, then later had its designation again assigned to the command when that organization was discontinued——as the service expanded in size and organization, with multiple lower tiers added and higher echelons such as United States Strategic Air Forces (USSTAF) in Europe and U.S. Strategic Air Forces in the Pacific became necessary to control the whole.

Several air forces were created de novo as the service expanded during the war. Inclusive within the air forces and divisions were a total of 91 administrative command headquarters called wings, denoted as bombardment, fighter reconnaissance, training or composite as defined by their functional role. Larger support organizations, such as Air Transport Command (successor to the pre-war Air Corps Ferrying Command) remained under the control of Headquarters Army Air Forces, while their operational organizations (wings, groups, and squadrons) were assigned to the numbered air forces.

In August 1945, the U.S. Strategic Air Forces became the United States Air Forces in Europe (USAFE). In 1947, USAFE became a component of the newly-created United States Air Force. From 1948–49, the unit was responsible for the Berlin Airlift.


While officially the air arm had become the Army Air Forces, colloquially the term Air Corps persisted among the public as well as veteran airmen, whose branch remained the Air Corps; in addition, the singular "Air Force" often crept into popular use, reflected by usage of the term "Air Force Combat Command" in 1941-42. This misnomer crept onto official recruiting posters (see image on right) and was important in promoting the idea of an "Air Force" as an independent service.

List of numbered air forcesEdit

Air Force independenceEdit

Following the immense buildup in aviation infrastructure and personnel during the war, and in recognition of the tremendous new importance and strength of airpower, then President Harry S. Truman created the United States Department of the Air Force in 1947. This legislation renamed the aviation military group again to the United States Air Force, elevating it to a truly separate branch of the U.S. military. The Key West Agreement outlined the air assets that each service would be permitted to maintain, with the Air Force getting the bulk of strategic, tactical and transport aircraft. The Army was permitted light aircraft for reconnaissance, the transport of general officers and other miscellaneous duties, under the auspices of Army Aviation. This state-of-affairs lasted until the 1960's, when the advent of the jet-turbine helicopter and the concept of air-mobile brigades increased the size and scope of Army Aviation once again.

People who served in the United States Army Air ForcesEdit

Many persons on this list also served in the United States Air Force after it became an independent service on September 18, 1947.

Badges of the United States Army Air ForcesEdit

To denote the special training and qualifications required for membership in the USAAF, the following military badges (known colloquially but ubiquitously throughout the service as "wings") were authorized for wear by members of the Army Air Forces during World War II:

These aviation qualification badges were typically worn in full three-inch size on service or dress uniforms, but two-inch versions were also authorized for less-formal shirt wear. Most aviation badges were made of sterling silver or were given a silver finish, and various devices were used to attach them to uniforms. These included the traditional pin and safety catch and, later, clutch-back fasteners. Most USAAF badges of World War II are now obsolete, having been superseded by later designs, and further information on them can be found under Obsolete badges of the United States military.

External linksEdit



preceded by:
United States Army Air Corps
United States Army Air Forces
succeeded by:
United States Air Force
Community content is available under CC-BY-SA unless otherwise noted.