When Woodrow Wilson signed legislation on 24 July 1917 earmarking $640 million for expenditure on US military aviation, it was the largest amount of money ever appropriated for a single purpose by Congress up to that time. But as Patrick Gregory explains the move marked a necessary effort to rebuild an air service, almost from scratch.
Posted on centenarynews.com 24 July 2017
The extraordinarily large amount of money which Congress and President pledged to the Aviation Section in July 1917 – only one branch of the country’s armed forces, and a nascent one at that – marked an acknowledgment by the American authorities of the size and scale of the task faced by the service. It was time to catch up, they realised, and fast.
The air service had found itself chronically underprepared and under-resourced at the outbreak of war, with few pilots and fewer planes. It could boast only 131 officers, chiefly pilots and student pilots out of an enlisted staff of 1087 men. Of those 131 only 26 were deemed fully trained. Worse still, no one serving had had proper combat experience. The groundwork had not been laid, or preparation made, and the Air Service now faced a steep development curve. Having been pioneers of aviation only a decade previously, America now lagged a long way behind the rival, experienced Great War combatants fighting in the skies over Europe.
Part of the problem encountered by the air service stemmed from its curious origin within the military firmament. Still a junior member of the armed forces, and officially only an adjunct of the Signal Corps, it needed to carve out a place for itself in Washington as well as stake a real claim in Pershing’s plans for his American Expeditionary Force.
Even the name of the junior partner changed from one minute to the next, a clue to its uncertain status. It was known by a variety of titles by different parts of government and the armed forces: the ‘Aviation Section’, the’ Aeronautical Division’, the ‘Airplane Division’, the ‘Air Division’. All were terms used to describe what was still officially the ‘Aviation Section of the Signal Corps’. Only in time would it evolve into its longer lasting title of ‘U.S. Air Service’, yet even that soubriquet only really began to come into common usage in France in the autumn of 1917.
A notable spur in kick-starting the new rebuilding effort had actually come, curiously, from an external source: a cablegram sent to the White House by the French Prime Minister Alexandre Ribot a month after America’s entry into the First World War.
It took the form of a shopping list. Ribot requested a greatly increased aviation effort from France’s new ally, and was quite specific as to what he wanted them to put into the field and when: 4,500 planes, 5,000 pilots and 50,000 mechanics along with the necessary equipment; all to be ready by the following spring. The cable had the desired effect. Wilson forwarded the message to the Joint Army and Navy Technical Board which quickly approved its content, pushing it through its various departmental hierarchies and signing it off with Secretary of War Newton Baker. Its passage through Congress was similarly swift.
However, if political approval had been secured quickly, the practical task of actually building the air service would remain the principal headache. What aircraft should be made, where and by whom? And how was this process to be started? A commission of investigation, the Bolling Commission, was set up, which travelled to Europe to study Allied plane design and production methods: those methods currently pursued by the Allies in Britain, France and Italy. Bolling was tasked with obtaining the rights to manufacture any aircraft it decided to put into production in the US, as well as purchasing planes in Europe; and to prepare for the training of American pilots there.
After some weeks of consultation, it was eventually decided to manufacture only a limited number of aircraft in America – notably the Curtiss JN-4 ‘Jenny’ trainer and a US-versioned model of the British De Havilland DH4 reconnaissance-bomber, powered by a newly developed American ‘Liberty’ engine – but other combat types, the majority of them pursuit/fighters, would be purchased outright from the Allies.
Next, ambitious manpower and targets were set for the effort by the Aviation Section: 345 combat squadrons, 263 of them scheduled for use by the end of the following June; heady targets indeed. Capturing the mood of the time, Brigadier General George Squier, Chief Signal Corps commander, spoke enthusiastically of building an army in the air with ‘regiments and brigades of winged cavalry on gas-driven flying horses’.
In order to help meet these targets Pershing signed a joint accord with the French Air Ministry for the French to supply 875 training planes and 5,000 service-type aircraft by June 1918. These included planes which would go on to form an important part of the American air effort the following year: Breguets, Nieuports and Spads.
‘Whilst delays in supply inevitably occurred – with difficulties in the US production effort emerging, and the gargantuan order taken by the French authorities proving to be overly ambitious – the planes did in time begin to arrive at the front and in numbers’. Alongside the planes, trained pilots. Some of these had cut their teeth in the volunteer Franco-American Lafayette Escadrille and Lafayette Flying Corps; others were trained, at least initially, primarily by Allied instructors.
In Paris and then at the new AEF headquarters at Chaumont a leadership began to emerge for the new service, figures who would come to dominate the aviation war effort for the Americans in 1918: Brigadier General Benjamin Foulois, who began the war as the senior flying officer in Washington but who then came to Europe as Chief of the Air Service, AEF; Major General Mason Patrick, later put in charge of the whole service by Pershing; and one of the most celebrated of all the American air leaders at the front, Colonel, later Brigadier General, William ‘Billy’ Mitchell, an energetic if at times spiky officer and an early proponent of ‘air power’ as a major offensive tool.
The US Air Service was finally able to take off.