Strategic Air Command

History of the Strategic Air Command
Page 1-  Background

     In the very broadest sense, the Strategic Air  Command began with the development of a new concept in warfare - that of Air Power.  The airplane was invented by the Wright Brothers in 1902.  A few years later, the United States Army purchased several aircraft to determine how it could benefit from the new technology.  They were initially seen as a means of conducting long range reconnaissance.  Accordingly, they were assigned them to the Signal Corps.
     The United States entry into World War I saw the first use of the fragile aircraft in the planned reconnaissance role, but it wasn't long before pilots began carrying hand guns to fire at other aircraft and small hand-held bombs to drop on strategic targets.  The effects were minimal.
      Following the War, General Billy Mitchell tried to convince the army that the airplane could be a powerful offensive weapon.  To prove his point, he used his tiny biplanes to bomb - and sink - captured German battleships.  Eventually others began to see his vision as the airplane being used as long range artillery.  This led to the formation of the Army Air Corps.
      In 1937, the United States Army Air Corp took delivery on a revolutionary new aircraft - the Boeing B-17.  It could deliver a substantial bomb load to far distant targets.  This new capability revealed that most army pilots knew nothing about long-range navigation.  It was one thing to follow visual landmarks to reach a target only a few miles away; it was quite another to fly a plane long distances over oceans that had no landmarks.  Fortunately a young officer stationed in Hawaii  had been studying the subject and had become a competent navigator.  His name was Curtis LeMay.  He was assigned to the group.
     The U.S. Army wanted to fly it's B-17s to South America to demonstrate it's new long range striking power to the world.  LeMay scrounged up some maps from the National Geographic Society and the mission was successfully flown.  The U.S. Navy ridiculed the airplane.  Although General Mitchell had proven that airplanes could sink battleships, the Navy maintained that the tests were not fair, because the German ships had been anchored.  If they had been moving and defended by anti-aircraft batteries, then the planes could not have gotten close to the ships, much less sunk them.  Toward resolving the dispute, a test was held off the coast of San Francisco.  In spite of the navy "fixing the rules," the new bombers successfully dropped bombs on the battleship Utah.  
      On the morning of December 7, 1941, the naval and air forces of the Japanese Empire attacked the United States military installations at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.  It was the home of the Pacific Fleet and most of the navy's battleships were at anchor in the harbor.  Virtually all were sunk.  The attack resulted in the United States declaring war on Japan.  It's German and Italian allies then declared war on the United States.  The U.S. was suddenly thrust into a two-front war.  One good thing came out of the Pearl Harbor attack:  It dramatically demonstrated that airplanes were an extremely powerful offensive weapon.  To the navy's dismay, they could most certainly sink battleships.
      The purpose of war is to destroy the enemy's ability to wage war.  During World War II, the United States built an enormous war machine.  It was slow getting started but by 1943, fleets of American and British aircraft were bombing strategic targets in Europe.  In the Pacific, the naval war was largely fought by carrier based-aircraft.  The battleship was obsolete.  The army and marines invaded and captured islands that could be used as air bases.
      The full significance of Air Power did not come into being until 1945.  The Marianna Islands had been captured and were used to base the army's new long range bomber, the B-29.  Under General Curtis LeMay, they conducted the infamous "fire-bombing of Japan."  The Japanese war industry relied heavily on cottage industry, where families made parts in their homes.  These were made of highly-combustible materials.  Fleets of B-29s dropped thousands of incendiary bombs, mixed with delayed fuse high-explosive bombs to hamper fire-fighting efforts.  The bombing of  Tokyo resulted in the world's first known fire storm.  The city was a solid sheet of fire, twelve miles across and two miles deep.  The heat caused such high winds that bombers in the trailing edge of the formation faced flames 20,000 feet - almost four miles - up.  Violent updrafts shot them upward thousands of feet in a few seconds.   
      By late summer almost a hundred Japanese cities had been reduced to ashes.  However a few were kept "off limits" and not bombed, so that they could be used to test a new weapon then in development.  In late 1945, it was unleashed.  The 509th Bomb Groups dropped the new atomic bomb, first on Hiroshima, and later on Nagasaki.  The Japanese soon sued for peace and a treaty was signed aboard the USS Missouri.  
     The United States had anticipated that the armed invasion of Japan would be extremely bloody.  It was estimated that American soldiers would suffer a million causalities.  As it turned out, the American invasion of Japan consisted of General Douglas MacArthur flying into Tokyo airport and traveling by motorcade to his new headquarters.  His entire route was lined with Japanese soldiers, their rifles at "present arm."
     This vividly demonstrated the concept of Air Power.  A well-equipped and fanatical enemy enemy had been forced into surrender by prolonged and effective aerial bombardment.  Although the two atomic bombs are often credited for ending the war, that is not totally accurate.  In his autobiography, General LeMay stated that they had accounted for less than one half of one percent of the bomb damage suffered by Japan.  It had been the fire bombing that had reduced the country to ashes.  The atomic bombs simply gave the government the means to save face by surrendering.

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