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Section 2: Equipment and Services

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Chapter 5: The Definition of Policies

DURING World War II the United States conceived, constructed, and employed with devastating success the largest and most powerful air force the world had yet known. In the fullest sense it was a triumph of the American people as a whole, for it was the product of a truly national effort, a remarkable collaboration among the scientific, industrial, and military components of American society. But considerations of space and balance make it possible here to attempt no more than an account of the AAF’s part in the common effort to provide the weapons and the logistical support which underwrote the massive combat operations of the war.

The Air Corps in 1939

Prior to 1939 the Air Corps, like the rest of the U.S. Army, had suffered the neglect which was then the usual lot of our armed forces in peacetime. Although the Air Corps Act of 1926 had established a maximum strength of 1,800 serviceable planes for the Army, to be attained in 5 years, the number actually on hand 10 years later was only 946.1 In June 1936, Congress accepted the recommendations of the latest of the many boards which periodically examined the mission and needs of the Air Corps and sanctioned a maximum Air Corps strength of 2,320 planes, which the Air Corps hoped to attain by 30 June 1940.2 As a result of this legislation, congressional appropriations for the Air Corps during fiscal years 1937–39 were almost double those of the preceding three years, reaching over $70,000,000 in 1939, as compared with barely $30,000,000 in 1935.3 But in the face of events in Europe and the Far East it became apparent to many people, and especially to President Roosevelt, that much more would be required. On 30 June 1938, the year in which

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the President launched a new program of expansion, our total Army air strength was only 1,401 planes, of which fewer than 900 (and many of them obsolescent) could be classed as combat planes.4 The existence of a comparable situation in the Navy had been noted in time to make a 3,000-plane program a significant feature of the Naval Expansion Act of May 1938.5 By fall it had become apparent that the Air Corps too must be re-equipped and greatly expanded.

The Office, Chief of Air Corps and the War Department General Staff (WDGS), assured of a favorable reception by the White House, drafted suggestions for increases in the size of the Air Corps, ranging up to a total strength of 7,000 planes.6 At a White House conference on 14 November the President raised the figure to 10,000 planes, suggesting an Air Corps equipped with 3,750 combat planes and 2,500 training planes, with 3,750 combat planes in reserve. His primary interest at this time seems to have been to build up the American aircraft industry to a point where it could provide France and England with the planes which would enable them to stand up to Germany,7 but there can be no doubt that the Chief of the Air Corps and the WDGS conceived their responsibility to be the development of a balanced U.S. air force. To that end the Air Corps immediately directed its full if still limited resources.

Air Corps plans drawn in December for the 10,000-plane air force provided for 5,620 combat planes (of which 2,915 would be in reserve), 3,750 training planes, and 630 miscellaneous planes. The War Department, however, seeing an opportunity for strengthening the Army’s ground components, succeeded in convincing the President that only $300,000,000 of the $500,000,000 he intended to request from Congress should go to the Air Corps, and that only $180,000,000 of this sum should be used for combat planes. The practical outcome was to place a limit of 6,000 on the proposed aircraft strength.8

The President’s message to Congress on 12 January 1939 asked that $300,000,000 be allotted for a “minimum increase of 3,000 planes,” and expressed the hope that “orders placed on such a large scale” would “materially reduce the unit cost and actually provide many more planes.” He suggested that $50,000,000 be appropriated immediately in order to permit acceleration of aircraft production.9 By 3 April, Congress responded to the President’s appeal for this “minimum program for the necessities of defense” by passing a bill which authorized the Secretary of War to “equip and maintain the

Wright Field, Ohio, June 

Wright Field, Ohio, June 1934

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Wright Field, Ohio, September 1944

Patterson Field Ohio, 
January 1933

Patterson Field Ohio, January 1933

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Air Corps with not to exceed six thousand serviceable airplanes ... together with spare parts, equipment, supplies, hangars,” and other such requisites. The act authorized appropriations up to $300,000,000, to which would be added the necessary sums for maintenance of an air force of that strength. The number of planes authorized included those necessary for the training and equipment of the National Guard and the Organized Reserve.10 This authorization was followed by further legislation appropriating funds and providing contractual authority to bring the strength of the Air Corps up to 5,500 planes – the program finally decided on by the Air Corps and the WDGS as the most feasible of attainment within the $300,000,000 to be made available. The appropriations would make possible the procurement of 3,251 planes – double the number on hand in the Air Corps at the beginning of 1939. Air Corps leaders hoped to achieve by 30 June 1941 a balanced air force of 5,500 planes,* with a complement of 48,000 officers and enlisted men and the organization necessary to operate such a force.11

When Germany pounced on Poland in September 1939, the Army’s air arm had barely embarked on its new program of expansion. At the close of 1938, the statistics showed a first-line combat aircraft strength of less than 500 planes† (not including observation planes) and a personnel of 2,337 officers, 29 warrant officers, and 19,301 enlisted men (including flying cadets). Not without reason did Maj. Gen. Frank M. Andrews, commanding the GHQ Air Force, describe the Air Corps in January 1939 as a “fifth rate air force”12 At the end of August 1939, on the eve of war, the Air Corps had a strength of 2,720 officers, 27 warrant officers, and 23,779 enlisted men (including 860 flying cadets). Of the approximately 1,500 tactical aircraft,‡ only about 800 were classified as standard or first-line, and of the 59 “skeletonized” squadrons, 3 were balloon and 10 were observation squadrons. The 26,526 officers and men in the Air

* The Navy, which had to gear its expansion of aircraft strength to its carrier program, planned to attain its maximum strength of 3,000 planes in fiscal year 1944.

† A comparison with the U.S. Navy reveals that as of 30 June 1938 the Navy had more than 800 aircraft which were classed as first-line, and as of 30 June 1939, more than 900 first-line planes. Actually, many of these planes would have been classified as obsolescent had there been anything with which to replace them, for several hundred of them were old biplanes and far behind Air Corps planes in performance.

‡ Of the 1,500 total, more than 300 were observation planes used chiefly for artillery spotting, liaison, and observation within corps and division sectors.

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Corps represented some 14 per cent of the total strength of the Army.13 By contrast the German Air Force in September 1939 had a personnel strength of over 500,000 and a first-line aircraft complement of 3,750 planes, supported by a 10 to 25 per cent reserve of first-line planes. The Royal Air Force at the same time had over 100,000 officers and men and at least 1,750 first-line planes.14

The disparity between the Air Corps and these European air forces was even greater than statistics on the number of aircraft would indicate. Probably only in the quality of its officers and men could the Air Corps compare with the Luftwaffe and the Royal Air Force at that time. American pilots and mechanics were well trained and the greater number of Air Carps men were veterans of many years’ service. But this hard core, invaluable as it was as a cadre for the new air force, could not be considered an air force in being. It would require several years of expansion and development before the United States could regard itself as a peer among the air powers of the world. Fortunately, time and geography were on our side.

A more detailed comparison of the Air Corps with the Luftwaffe as of September 1939 illustrates vividly the relative unpreparedness of the former. As against the total of 26,000 officers and enlisted men in the Air Corps, the German Air Force could show at least as many in its Air Ministry and headquarters staffs alone, 50,000 to 75,000 aircrewmen, some 75,000 men in airfield servicing units, 75,000 to 100,000 in signal units, between 50,000 and 75,000 in airfield construction work, 75,000 in maintenance and supply services, and 50,000 to 75,000 in training. The Luftwaffe, moreover, had the air bases and other installations needed to support a modern air force.15 The number of first-rate military air bases in the United States could almost be counted on the fingers of both hands.* The Air Corps lacked not only bases but also the organization and equipment with which to build them. Fortunately, the construction industry in the United States could and eventually did meet the need. As for other deficiencies, the Air Corps had too few signal personnel, its maintenance and supply organization was inadequate, its headquarters staffs were all under-manned and overworked. Although it received substantial supply, maintenance, and technical support from the Army – particularly from the Corps of Engineers, the Ordnance Department, and the Quartermaster, Signal, and Medical Corps – the Air Corps lacked the capacity

* For a discussion of air base development, see above, {#chapter04 Chapter 4].

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to employ to maximum effect even the limited number of planes at its command. The supporting machinery had yet to be created, and the approximately 2,000 pilots and 2,600 aircraft mechanics were all too few.16

Even the planes with which the war was to be fought had yet, with few exceptions, to be developed. Of all the models of aircraft on hand in the Air Corps in September 1939, only one – the B-17 – actually flew as a first-line plane during World War II. The roster of then current aircraft types is completely unfamiliar to Americans who well remember the Mustang (P-51), the Marauder (B-26), the Thunderbolt (P-47), or the Liberator (B-24). In 1939 the B-18 was the standard bombardment plane, the A-17 the standard attack plane, and the P-36 the standard fighter; almost 700 of the 800 first-line combat aircraft of the Air Corps consisted of these three models. By the time of America’s entry into the war two years later, all of them would be obsolete.17

The Air Corps was well aware that its planes had been accurately described by President Roosevelt in January 1939 as “antiquated weapons.”18 The latest model of the P-36 had an operating speed of 270 miles per hour, a ceiling of 32,000 feet, and a maximum armament of three .30-caliber and one .50-caliber machine guns. The chief British fighters – the Spitfire and the Hurricane – were both far ahead of the P-36 in performance. The former – soon to be recognized as the best fighter in the world-had an operating speed of 312 miles per hour, a ceiling of 35,000 feet, and an armament of eight .303-caliber machine guns. The Me-109, best of the German planes and second only to the Spitfire among the fighters of the world, had an operating speed of 298 miles per hour, a service ceiling of 36,000 feet, and it carried two machine guns and two 20-mm. guns.19 The contrast was all the more significant because the P-36 was at the height of its performance potential in 1939, while the German and British fighters were still capable of further developments and would show significant improvement in performance during the course of the war. In its attack bombers, the United States was even more outclassed. The German Heinkel 111, Dornier 17, Junkers 87, and especially the Junkers 88 (available only in small numbers in September 1939), were all superior to the American attack bombers. The highly over-rated Ju-87, a single-engine monoplane which became famous as the dread Stuka dive bomber in 1940, had a maximum speed of 245 miles

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per hour and a cruising speed just under 200 miles. The Ju-88 had a top speed of nearly 300 miles per hour and a cruising speed of 260. It could carry a bomb load of 2,200 pounds and was armed with three machine guns. The American A-17, by contrast, was a single-engine monoplane with a maximum speed of 220 miles per hour and a cruising speed of 170; it carried five .30-caliber machine guns and a normal bomb load of 654 pounds. It had a service ceiling of 19,400 feet.20 The British had no outstanding plane in this category.

Only in the field of heavy bombers did the Air Corps hold first rank. The B-17 was superior to the Focke-Wulf of the Germans and the Manchester of the British, but in September 1939 the Air Corps had only twenty-three (including three experimental B-17A’s) Flying Fortresses. American commercial transport planes could more than stand the test of foreign competition; they provided the promise of a superior military air transport service, but such a service did not exist in 1939.21

If the United States was not a “fifth rate” air power in 1939, it certainly ranked no better than third or fourth. Its inferiority was both quantitative and qualitative, and only the prospect that world events might permit the time necessary to overcome these disadvantages offered ground for hope that the Air Corps could be made ready for any emergency. Given time, the nation’s potential resources for aircraft development and production might be effectively mobilized: it could be expected that a nation which prided itself on its productive genius would provide the means for overcoming the quantitative disadvantage, but this would count for little unless production in quantity measured up to qualitative standards set by the intense rivalry of actual warfare.

Resources for Research and Development

The emergence of the airplane as a major weapon had confronted military leaders with problems of technological development which became ever more pressing and critical. Even in peacetime, the rate of obsolescence in aviation equipment was so high as consistently to give the Air Corps first claim upon Army funds available for research and development. Profiting also by the intimate ties which bound together in a common adventure all leaders in the field of aviation, whether civil or military, the Air Corps had kept well abreast of world developments until the mid-1930’s, when the unveiling of the

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German Air Force inaugurated a period of intense competition. The difficulty after 1935 is suggested by comparative figures on the anticipated longevity of military planes as first-line equipment. As of 1 September 1934 the first-line longevity of Air Corps models was six years for pursuit, attack, and bomber aircraft; eight years for observation planes; and ten years for all others. By 1 September 1939 first-line longevity was estimated at four years for pursuit, five years for attack and medium bomber, six years for heavy bomber and observation, eight years for transport, and ten years for all other aircraft.22 In 1934 and 1935 official War Department boards had stated confidently that Air Corps equipment was “equal or superior, with few exceptions, to that of any other nation.”23 By 1939 the Air Corps and such civilian leaders as Dr. Vannevar Bush were one in warning of the need to catch up with the progress of other countries.24

The situation in 1939, of course, reflected in part the inadequacies of earlier programs of research and development. Three considerations had been fundamental to the shaping of those programs: 1) a national policy resting upon the assumption that we would fight only a strictly defensive war, 2) an uncertain delineation of responsibilities between the two services for defense of the immediate approaches to the United States, and 3) the limited funds available. Air Corps expenditures for research and development during the 20 years since the close of World War I had ranged from a low of $2,184,000 in 1927 to a high of $5,966,851 in 1936. From 1933 onward the total had averaged over $4,000,000 per year until fiscal 1939, when it dropped to $3,574,209 – a sum, incidentally, only half the amount spent that year for research by E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Company.25 The high point of appropriations available for research and development had coincided with the clarification of the Air Corps’ mission that opened the way for development of the long-range bomber, which in 1939 represented the chief, and a highly important, result of previous development programs. Everything considered, the Air Corps in maintaining first rank in this major category had done perhaps as well as could have been expected in the circumstances. Perhaps it could be argued that too much of its limited energies had been concentrated on the long-range bomber. But, in any case, the disturbing uncertainties which had characterized official policy as to the proper mission of the Air Corps since 1936* made clear an immediate need

* See above, Chapter 1.

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for a well-defined and well-rounded program of development closely geared to the anticipated needs of national policy.

A special air board, appointed by the Chief of Staff in March 1939 to review the over-all problem, warned in its report in the following September that failure to “anticipate potential developments in such a rapidly progressing science as aeronautics inevitably will result in the supply of aircraft to the armed forces with characteristics that are ineffective against enemy weapons.” The report emphasized the need for coordination of the basic and applied research activities of the country, advocated that the War Department adopt a policy of “long term, adequate and continuing research, experimentation and development of aviation based upon the ‘pay as you go’ principle,” and recommended that the Chief of the Air Corps be directed to prepare for approval a five-year research and development program subject to annual revision.26 Such a program had already been outlined by an Air Corps board appointed by Arnold in May 1939 and headed by Brig. Gen. Walter G. Kilner.* The report submitted by the Kilner Board on 28 June 1939 contained a comprehensive outline of proposed military characteristics for aircraft, weapons, and equipment that could be procured by 1944, and sketched an administrative plan for a major research and development program to be undertaken in the interval.27

Addressing itself to the basic problem of formulating desired military characteristics, the board realistically concluded that “efficient airplanes are a compromise between requirements for military use and technical features of design.” Current procedures, it was found, restricted the technical staffs of the Air Corps and the aircraft manufacturers in “determining the best compromise of technical features that will result in the best airplane for military use.” For the purpose of facilitating practical compromises between aircraft manufacturers and the Air Corps in the development of new equipment, it was proposed that desired military characteristics be stated in terms as general as was possible. The board gave first priority to the development of liquid-cooled engines of various types with a range in horsepower from 1,500 to 2,400 – a program basic to the improved performance of all classifications of planes. It noted the need also for a 3,000-horsepower engine if a truly long-range bomber were to be developed.

* The other members of the board were Lt. Col. Carl Spaatz, Lt. Col. Earl L. Naiden, Maj. Alfred J. Lyon, and Charles A. Lindbergh.

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Second priority went to fire-control apparatus, a major deficiency in current Air Corps equipment. In third priority came the development of superior fighter (pursuit) aircraft – a recommendation undoubtedly prompted by the Spitfire and Me-109. The chief pursuit types recommended were a single-engine interceptor of maximum obtainable speed with endurance of one hour at that speed, and a twin-engine fighter with a tactical radius of 300 miles and the maximum speed obtainable. Desired speeds ranged up to 500 miles per hour. The advanced bombardment types which should be developed by 1944 included a long-range bomber with a 3,000-mile tactical radius, a maximum speed of 400 miles per hour above 20,000 feet, and a bomb load of 4,000 pounds; a heavy bomber with a 2,000-mile radius, high speed of 375 miles per hour above 20,000 feet, and a bomb load of 2,000 pounds; a two-engine medium bomber with a 1,000-mile tactical radius, speed of 400 miles per hour, and a normal bomb load of 600 pounds; a two-engine light bomber with a 500-mile tactical radius, high speed of 400 miles per hour, and a bomb load of 1,200 pounds. Other priorities called for a special high-altitude photographic plane, for flight-test research, and for studies in the problems of mass production.

Concerned as it was with the immediate problems of shaping a practical program realistically based on current technological achievement, the Kilner Board omitted the mention of projects lying on the frontiers of scientific research – such as jet propulsion, guided missiles, and radio aids. The same concentration on objectives that seemed to be more immediately obtainable was reflected in the subsequent decision to drop the project for a bomber with a 3,000-mile radius from the budgetary estimates for the fiscal year 1941 in order to concentrate on the 2,000-mile-radius bomber. With this one exception, the report of the Kilner Board was accepted as the authoritative statement of the more immediate goals of the Air Corps.28 Anticipated budgetary needs for the new research and development program were indicated by the board’s recommendations for the expenditure of $21,813,000 in 1940, $23,421,235 in 1941, $21,213,325 in 1942, and $20,313,325 for each of the two remaining fiscal years. These sums would cover expenditures for experimental airplanes, special projects, engines and propellers, accessories and armament, plant maintenance and overhead, payrolls, and service-test equipment. The totals did not include funds to be expended by the technical services of the Army – more

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especially, Signal, Ordnance, and Engineer – for research and development of direct benefit and importance to the Air Corps.*

As with all other phases of its operations, the Air Corps was subject to the higher authority of the War Department in the formulation and execution of its programs, and it could depend upon several of the Army’s technical services for assistance in the development of materiel peculiar to air operations. Within the Air Corps, the Materiel Division, headed in September 1939 by Brig. Gen. George H. Brett, carried the primary responsibility; located at Wright Field in Dayton since its creation in 1926, it controlled directly the chief experimental installations belonging to the Air Corps – also located at Wright. The division’s experimental engineering section supervised nine laboratory branches: aircraft, powerplant, propeller, armament, flight-test, photographic, equipment, materials, and engineering shops. An aircraft radio laboratory at Wright Field was under the control of the Signal Corps.29

In 1939, Wright Field was an impressive installation with special hangars and other experimental facilities in addition to its laboratories – the whole comprising a plant valued at $10,000,000 – and for fiscal year 1940 the Air Corps planned to spend $6,481,000 for the construction of additional facilities. The majority of its staff of almost 2,000 (of whom approximately 90 per cent were civilians) was engaged in experimental and related activities, the rest for the most part in procurement. Although the Materiel Division also operated the Air Corps Engineering School at Wright Field, the number of engineering officers trained was small, the Air Corps depending heavily upon civilian engineers. The general shortage of officers in the Air Corps had resulted in priority being given to flying operations; only later would the Air Corps attempt to provide more fully for its engineering needs from within its own ranks.30

Outside of its own resources and those of the War Department, the Air Corps could draw upon the results of experimental work undertaken by the Navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics.31 and the basic research undertaken in a variety of fields by the Bureau of Standards.32 Of the greatest aid to the Air Corps (and to the Navy and the aircraft industry as well) was the work of the National Advisory Committee for

* The Kilner Board could the more easily omit from its report recommendations for development of radio aids because research in this field fell within the province of the Signal Corps.

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Aeronautics, established in 1915 for “scientific research on the fundamental problems of flight.”33 Its main laboratory, located at Langley Field in Virginia, was well equipped and modestly but expertly staffed; its appropriation for 1939 exceeded $4,000,000, but much of this sum was for construction. By 1939 the work of NACA had come to be governed in large measure by the needs of the Air Corps and the Navy Bureau of Aeronautics, which claimed a constantly increasing share of its services; hence, in June of that year the President placed it under the supervision of a newly established Aeronautical Board, jointly representative of the Army and the Navy.34

The Air Corps had found little occasion as yet to draw directly upon the potentially great resources of the American universities. It had enjoyed the benefit of several projects in fundamental phases of the physical sciences sponsored by the NACA and the National Academy of Sciences, and the Materiel Division had made suggestions to universities with facilities for aeronautical research as to areas that might be usefully studied. But in 1939 one contract for $15,000 represented the Air Corps’ only effort to employ academic facilities for its own purposes.35 Its research program continued, however, to depend heavily upon the assistance of the aircraft industry.

The resources for scientific research maintained by American industrial corporations were to prove a major asset to the nation in its preparation for war. In 1938, 1,750 corporations maintained 2,237 research laboratories staffed by 44,292 persons and spent for research a total of approximately $100,000,000. This compared with approximately 435 laboratories and $10,000,000 in England. Within the aircraft and allied industries at least 34 and probably 45 or 50 of the 125 or more companies had substantial design departments and laboratories, and at least several maintained laboratories which made important contributions in pure research. In a comprehensive survey of the aircraft industry in 1939 the Aeronautical Chamber of Commerce of America reported that American aircraft manufacturers had spent $44,000,000 in research and development during the previous five years.36

In fields of research bearing directly on military needs, the work of the aircraft industry was largely, if indirectly, subsidized by the Air Corps and the Navy Bureau of Aeronautics. Although companies in allied industries of importance to the Air Corps – such as the Aluminum Company of America, General Electric, Eastman Kodak, Standard

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Oil – were strong enough to maintain large research organizations, most of the manufacturers in the aircraft industry were too small to provide for this need out of their own resources. Consequently, the Air Corps found it necessary to make available to them through experimental contracts the funds necessary for designing, building, and testing new aircraft, engines, and other equipment. Such contracts with the industry probably absorbed the greater part of the research and development funds available to the Air Corps. For fiscal year 1940, beginning 1 July 1939, the Air Corps used more than 60 per cent of its $10,000,000 research and development fund for payment on contracts for experimental or service-test airplanes, engines, propellers, and other equipment.37

These contracts were let on the basis of design competitions among several manufacturers, each company submitting a bid based on engineering data secured at its own expense. A contract was then awarded to the successful competitor for construction of experimental planes – usually three. If the experimental model met established tests, the manufacturer might be awarded a production contract. Since the cost of the experimental models usually exceeded the amount actually stipulated in the contract, the Air Corps permitted the manufacturer to include the unabsorbed portion of his developmental costs in the final contract. It was a system honored by long practice, but there were disadvantages for both parties to the contract. Unsuccessful competitors could not be reimbursed for their designs and, consequently, only the larger companies could afford to compete. By 1939 both the Air Corps and the manufacturers strongly favored a plan of negotiated experimental contracts with direct payment to the contractor for the work done, but such a policy did not come fully into effect until 1942.38

Resources for Production

If the quality of its aircraft was of major concern to the Air Corps in 1939, quantity of production was no less a pressing consideration. Indeed, from the very beginning of its unprecedented expansion the Air Corps found itself under the heaviest pressure to meet its quantitative goals even at the expense of qualitative standards. Fortunately, American scientific and industrial resources protected the Air Corps from a truly dangerous compromise, but the problems of production in 1939 were as immediate as were the problems of development.

Previously drawn plans for industrial mobilization proved to be of

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little assistance. Since 1920 the Assistant Secretary of War had possessed statutory authority and responsibility in this area of planning. In addition to the War Department organization developed by the Assistant Secretary, there was also the Army-Navy Munitions Board, an effective instrument during the 1930’s for coordinating the requirements of the two services.39 Within the Air Corps, industrial planning was handled by the Industrial Planning Section of the Materiel Division at Wright Field, and by Air Corps officers on duty in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of War. But the funds made available had never been sufficient to permit the breadth and depth of study necessary to produce the kind of mobilization plan the Truman Committee found lacking in 1941.40 Moreover, the planners not surprisingly had failed to envision the full scale either of the war that would be fought or of the part that would be played by the airplane. The projected maximum Army mobilization of 4,000,000 men included an Air Corps of only 200,000, with a complement of 12,000 aircraft, many of them observation planes. Air Corps procurement programs and plans for industrial expansion were accordingly modest in the extreme – and hence extremely unrealistic in terms of the demands of 1939–41, not to mention 1942–45. Procurement studies prepared in connection with a Protective Mobilization Plan of 1939 called for production of more than 24,000 tactical and training planes for the Air Corps during the first 12 months after M-day, with the industry attaining a production rate of 1,000 aircraft per month in the third month after M-day. These requirements, of course, were far beyond the existing capacity of the aircraft industry which in 1938 had produced a total of 3,623* planes, only half of them of military types.41

Existing mobilization plans were naive in other respects also. The General Staff required that only planes which it had accepted as standard could find place in production plans. The result was that planes already obsolete or rapidly becoming so – the B-10, B-12, and P-26, for example – continued to hold prominent positions in procurement programs until 1939. Developmental models of the P-38 and P-39 could not be included, because they had not yet been accepted as standard. Probably the most unrealistic of assumptions was the one that aircraft designs could be frozen as of M-day and that industry could then proceed to produce standard types without change or interruption.42

* The figure does not include civil aircraft exported.

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By August 1938 the Air Corps had sufficient “misgivings concerning the war productivity of American Industry in the matter of aeronautical products” to summon a conference of the aircraft industrialists, including representatives of airframe, engine, propeller, and instrument companies.43 At the meeting on 6 September the participants explored the capabilities of the aircraft industry to meet emergency requirements and the problem of achieving mass production more quickly in wartime. After due consideration of the varied factors involved, the consensus was that the “only thing to do was throw away all the present war plans.” The manufacturers could not supply the detailed information needed to enable the Air Corps to plan production to meet its stated requirements – 12,000 combat aircraft and 2,000 training aircraft in the first six months after M-day. They recommended that the Air Corps finance plant studies which would produce the data needed, and made a strong plea for a peacetime expansion of the Air Corps that would permit the aircraft industry to reach a production level closer to mobilization production requirements.44

The enactment of legislation for the expansion of the Air Corps in April 1939 and the subsequent appropriation of funds for the purpose converted quantity production into a real and immediate problem. Although Arnold had directed in April that Air Corps officers dealing with outside agencies express confidence “in the ease and facility of accomplishing the Expansion Program, [and] that our aircraft industry is perfectly capable of producing the 3,000 airplanes needed in the two years’ time,” he apparently had mental reservations of his own. He followed his admonition that “optimism must be the keynote” with a call for another conference of aircraft manufacturers at which he sought assurances to justify his optimism.45 The meeting, held in Washington early in July at the invitation of Assistant Secretary of War Johnson, was attended by officials of eighteen leading companies representing the major branches of the industry. Arnold presented two questions to this group. First, was the capacity of the aircraft industry sufficient to “absorb the load ... of the Expansion Program, and at the same time take care of the Navy load, plus the commercial load and any other load that may be put upon it by foreign orders?”.46 Second, what steps had to be taken to expand the existing industry to meet the emergency wartime requirements which might be imposed on it?

The official War Department stand was that the Air Corps must

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have its 3,000 planes by 1 July 1941, regardless of other commitments by the industry. Arnold requested the industry to provide him with a yardstick by which the Air Corps could make an objective and reasonably accurate measurement of the productive capacity of the industry without further expansion. Aside from the value of such an instrument for planning purposes, Arnold felt he needed it in order to “show to my superiors that we have every reason to believe that if the allocation of orders is made as we recommend, that the deliveries will be completed inside of two years.” The manufacturers were confident of their ability to meet the requirements on schedule and agreed to cooperate with the Materiel Division in providing the desired yardstick.47 One of some value was eventually formulated by a committee, but events swiftly rendered it obsolete.48

The problem of planning an expansion of the industry to meet future emergency requirements was, of course, less susceptible to practical demonstration than was the need for an immediate Air Corps build-up. Discussion centered about means by which the expansion could be accomplished rather than on its size or scope. The larger companies favored expansion of their own facilities rather than subcontracting or the conversion of other facilities, particularly those of the automobile industry, and they opposed the construction of government plants. Arnold told the manufacturers to write their “own ticket,” but he left no doubt that the Air Corps would assume its responsibility for adjustment of individual plans to the over-all requirements of the industry and of the War Department.49 In his report on the conference to the Assistant Secretary he expressed the view that the “greatest accomplishment” had been the “impression made on those representatives of the Industry of their obligation to the Government from a National Defense standpoint.”50 In August, Arnold directed that the Materiel Division secure from all Air Corps contractors factory plans covering the essential elements of production. He called for other studies, including a complete survey of the industry, and stressed the importance of reaching an agreement with the Navy on dividing the productive capacity of the industry between the two services.51

The War Department had no aircraft plants of its own, although there had been official proposals in 1937 and again in 1938 for the construction of air arsenals to be used in time of emergency52 To have revived these proposals in 1939 probably would have involved political

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difficulties and, in any event, might have served chiefly to render more complex a problem already difficult enough. And so plans proceeded on the assumption that the government would continue to rely upon the traditionally close tie between its Air Corps and the aircraft industry. Some picture of that industry becomes thus a necessary part of any attempt to sketch the over-all problem faced in 1939.

The foundations of the American aircraft industry, somewhat shaky to be sure, were laid in World War I, when the manufacturers delivered 13,894 aircraft and 41,953 engines to the military services between April 1917 and November 1918. By the end of the war the industry had reached a production rate of 21,000 planes per year and employed 175,000 people53 Postwar readjustments were severe, and only the strongest companies survived to enjoy the boom years of 1928 and 1929. In the latter year, production exceeded 6,000 planes. Although the Army and Navy continued to be the largest purchasers of aircraft, their volume of purchases was small and the industry had little incentive to standardize its methods in order to achieve mass production. It remained a handwork industry until the enormous demands of 1940–41 forced a conversion to mass-production methods.54

For a time in the late 1920’s it had appeared that the private and commercial plane market might sustain a swift and phenomenal growth of the industry, but the hope was short-lived; Army and Navy purchases in the amount of approximately $380,000,000 between the fiscal years 1931 and 1939, remained the industry’s chief prop. The Air Corps spent $219,000,000 for aircraft during that period, with a range from the $2,000,000 spent in 1934 to the $46,000,000 in 193955 So meager were regular funds for aircraft procurement that the Army and Navy were forced to depend partly on the emergency agencies engaged in public and federal works projects. In 1934–35, the Air Corps bought more than 100 planes with $7,497,612 allotted to it by the Federal Works Agency.*56 Military expenditures for aircraft mounted after 1935, the Air Corps spending $160,000,000 between fiscal years 1936 and 1939 inclusive, and the Navy, $83,000,000. Foreign and private orders increased also, so that by 1939 the aircraft industry was in the healthiest condition of its recent history, employing approximately 50,000 people57

* The Navy also received funds from this agency for the same purpose.

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The aircraft industry in 1939 was the result of a highly competitive process which had permitted the survival of only a relatively few dominant organizations. The limited size of the market, the rapid and expensive technological changes affecting the product, and the strong element of risk had led to consolidations and financial arrangements which left most of the surviving companies in good shape. In general, their current assets exceeded their current liabilities several times over; and the strength of aircraft shares on the stock market, well above the industrial average, reflected the optimistic prospects of the industry. Ranking 41st among the industries of the United States in 1939, with an output valued at almost $280,000,000, the aircraft industry would be transformed by 1944 into the nation’s largest industry in terms both of volume of business and earnings. At the end of 1939, the 13 leading companies had a net worth of about $138,000,000 and a total working capital of about $60,000,00058 This was about the equivalent of the automobile industry of 1910–11.*

The aircraft industry proper was divided into several major segments – airframes, engines, propellers, and instruments. Other industries, particularly aluminum and rubber, were of great importance in the manufacture of planes, but they were regarded as allied industries and are not included in this discussion. The airframe manufacturer built the airframe shell and performed the task of assembling the component parts into a complete military aircraft, installing the engines, propellers, instruments, tires, and other items which were purchased separately by the Air Corps and sent to the airframe manufacturer. These items and others, including tires and guns, were known as government-furnished equipment (GFE). For some types of planes during World War II (the B-25, for instance) GFE ran to as many as 750 items.

The leading airframe manufacturers were Douglas, Boeing, North American, Lockheed, Glenn L. Martin, Consolidated, and Curtiss

* Sales and net worth of the 13 leading aircraft companies had increased steadily since 1935:

Fiscal Year Net Sales Earnings(before taxes) Increase in Net Worth Net Worth Year End
(in millions of dollars)
1935 45 4 66
1936 72 7 17 83
1937 117 14 11 94
1938 152 24 17 111
1939 237 44 27 138

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Airplane Division, a subsidiary of Curtiss-Wright. Douglas had total sales of $57,000,000 in the three-year period 1936–38. Other companies, particularly Consolidated, Republic, and Glenn L. Martin, were rescued from difficulties only by Army and Navy or foreign purchases during 1938 and 1939. At the end of 1938 the five companies which were to be the leading airframe manufacturers of World War II employed an average of approximately 3,500 people each, as compared with an average of more than 100,000 each in 1943.59 Two powerful horizontal-type organizations which also manufactured airframes and propellers, United Aircraft and Curtiss-Wright, handled most of the engine business in the United States. Just coming into the field in 1939 was the Allison Division of General Motors, scheduled to play an important role during World War II. A few smaller companies, Ranger and Lycoming, also produced engines, but Pratt & Whitney (a division of United Aircraft) and Wright Aeronautical Corporation virtually monopolized military engine production. In 1938 the engine companies employed less than 9,000 people in contrast with the more than 300,000 employed in 1943. The lucrative propeller market belonged chiefly to Hamilton Standard, a division of United Aircraft, although Curtiss Propeller was beginning to offer some competition in 1939. Kollsman, Pioneer, and Sperry were the chief instrument producers.60

The greater part of the industry in 1939 was concentrated along the Atlantic and Pacific seaboards, more than 80 per cent of it within 200 miles of the coasts of the United States. The northeast, traditional center of manufacturing in the United States, had 24.2 per cent of the industry’s total airframe floor space, 80.7 per cent of the engine, 81.8 per cent of the propeller, and most of the instrument floor space. The attractions of climate and cheaper costs had brought such large manufacturers as Douglas, Consolidated, and North American to California; thanks to this movement of airframe manufacturers to the west coast in the 1930s, the Pacific area had 45.4 per cent of the airframe floor space but only 4.3 per cent of the engine floor space. The total floor space for the industry, a convenient measurement of production capacity, was 7 to 8 million square feet for airframes, 2.7 million for engines, and 290,000 square feet for propellers.61 The location of most of the important aircraft plants along our coasts rendered them vulnerable to attack in wartime, particularly from the air, and lent special significance to the problem of locating new facilities.

The over-all production record for the late 1930’s was not unimpressive

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in terms of planes produced. From a total of 1,057 planes in 1933, production had mounted to 1,568 in 1935, 2,700 in 1936, over 3,200 in 1937, and more than 3,600 in 1938. The record for 1939 was destined to be the best since 1929 – 5,856 planes, and this was achieved with an estimated use of only 60 to 75 per cent of productive capacity. But the planes turned out during these years were chiefly private and commercial types, not to be compared with the larger, more powerful, and more complex military aircraft. In 1937 only 949 out of 3,200 planes produced were military types, and in 1939, 2,141 out of 5,856, of which only 560 were delivered to the Air Corps.* Production in 1939 included 3,555 light private planes. Even if all of the resources used in the manufacture of private and commercial planes had been converted to the production of military aircraft, the industry would not have been able to produce enough of them to equal its total production for 1939. In July 1939 General Brett stated flatly that a production rate of 1,000 aircraft per month by M plus 3 was “completely beyond possibilities of realization should M-day occur within the near future.”62 This was true of both airframe and engine manufacturers.

In September 1939 the Air Corps estimated that the aircraft industry as then organized had a potential capacity of 15,000 airplanes per year, while the engine industry had a maximum capacity of 14,000 tactical engines (1,000-horsepower or better). The potential engine deficiency was much greater than a mere matching of the two numbers would indicate, for the trend toward larger and more powerful planes had resulted in the development of many types of two- and four-engine planes – including fighters and transports as well as bombers. The estimated deficiency was 8,680 engines. In order to meet a possible requirement for 40,000 airplanes per year (25,000 more than potential production), the Air Corps estimated that some 20 factories, each capable of producing 1,200 planes annually, would have to be built. Locations recommended were interior industrial cities, with the exception of three plants on the Pacific coast. Expansion of airframe manufacture would have to be matched by expansion of aircraft engine production to more than 80,000 annually. New plants and conversion of part of the automobile industry would have to be the answer to the problem of expansion of engine production. Corresponding increases in production of propellers and other accessories – carburetors, wheels, magnetos – would also be necessary.63

* This figure also included planes for the Organized Reserve and the National Guard.

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There were expressions of doubt within the Air Corps as to the validity of the estimated potential of the existing industry. The figure of 15,000 aircraft depended upon the industry’s adopting a two and one-half shift basis of operations and rested on the assumption that aircraft designs could be frozen to a greater extent than later proved possible. It was also assumed that stocks of GFE, machine tools, and raw materials in good quantity would be on hand, and that an ample supply of labor would be available.64 War Department planners estimated that the industry could achieve the maximum production rate of 15,000 planes per year nine months after M-day.65 But in the absence of firm figures as to military requirements over an extended period of time all estimates of productive capacity remained problematical.

The Air Corps and the manufacturers alike agreed that the most constructive step that could be taken would be to increase peacetime production by placing larger military orders. The closer the industry approached its 15,000-plane capacity prior to M-day, the better would be the chance of meeting M-day and post-M-day goals.66 The 3,000 planes to be built for the Air Corps in 1940 and 1941 plus 1,100 to 1,200 planes for the Navy would help, but these figures still fell short of potential capacity, and the industry would have no assurance of continuing orders after fiscal year 1941 except for small replacement orders. Accordingly, there was little incentive for expansion in response to American military procurement alone, except temporarily in order to meet contractual obligations.67

The disastrous consequences of the overexpansion of the late 1920’s and the constricting influence of the depression years had left the aircraft manufacturers with a disinclination to expand their plant facilities at their own expense. Additions were made only when absolutely necessary and frequently were paid for out of operating profits. In spite of the rapid growth of the business after 1935 very few manufacturers enlarged their plants until 1939, when a number of companies undertook limited expansions, chiefly on the strength of foreign military orders. Among those which increased their floor space, either by construction or by lease, were Pratt & Whitney, Lockheed, Glenn L. Martin, Wright Aeronautical, Boeing, North American, and Douglas. It was estimated that during the first six months of 1939 manufacturing area in the airframe plants was increased by 17 per cent and in engine plants by 20 per cent.68 Possibly the most compelling

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reason for the expansion which began at this time was the need to meet delivery dates, particularly for the Army and Navy, and to take care of additional foreign orders which were anticipated. Since this production could not be stretched over a long period of time, some additional space was needed, at least for the life of the contracts. Increased subcontracting was necessary, but some manufacturers preferred to use their own facilities as much as possible and undertook the expansions indicated.69

The British Royal Air Force and the French Air Force played a major part during 1938 and 1939 in increasing the actual and potential production of the American aircraft industry. These air forces, already aware in 1938 that they were losing the race for air superiority to the Luftwaffe, turned to the United States for the additional production which would help them overtake the Germans. Orders placed in 1938 and down to September 1939 totaled some 1,600 aircraft, chiefly bombers, pursuit planes, and trainers. The embargo placed on munitions exports by invocation of the Neutrality Act at the outbreak of war early in September was raised in November, and the British and French, spurred on by the actuality of war, increased greatly their American orders. It is estimated that foreign orders accounted for some $400,000,000 of the $680,000,000 backlog of orders at the end of 1939. The aircraft industry received higher prices for and made larger profits from the sale of military aircraft to foreign air forces than to our own military services and hence were receptive to orders from abroad.70 From the long-range viewpoint, of greatest significance for the United States was the willingness of foreign countries to pay for the plant expansion which was considered necessary in order to meet their orders on time. It is accurate to say, then, that the initial expansion of the American aircraft industry in 1939–40, and one which was of great benefit to the country, was paid for by Great Britain and France.

The export business had always been of importance to the American aircraft industry, averaging about 15 per cent of its total production in the late 1930’s. In dollar value it was even more important, for most of the planes exported were the more expensive military and commercial planes rather than the small private planes – and the profit margin was generally higher on planes for foreign purchasers. Since the reluctance of the Air Corps and the Navy to permit sale abroad of current production types of military aircraft had limited their

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market, a number of manufacturers had urged the military services during 1938 and 1939 to lift this restriction, arguing that the benefits to the country would be greater than any loss. They pointed out that larger orders would lead to increased production and possibly to expanded capacity. As for giving away military secrets, the United States would still control the flow of spare parts, and continued operation of the planes by foreign powers would be impossible without the parts.71 Arnold, convinced of the overriding importance of increasing production and hopeful of getting for the government a lower unit price as a result, recommended in August 1939 the release for export of “aircraft and aircraft equipment in a production status, with the exception of bombsights, fire control, navigational and similar equipment. ...” The President approved the recommendation on 8 August.72 In time, this decision would present critical questions involving the interests of the RAF and a rapidly expanding AAF, but there can be no doubt as to the ultimate advantage of the boost thus given to the productive capacity of the American aircraft industry.