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.