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FIRST DEFEATS AND RECOVERIES

Posted 10/28/2009 Printable Fact Sheet
 
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Boeing B-17D
Boeing B-17D at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Note the smoke from the burning ships in the background. (U.S. Air Force photo)
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It is not within the scope of this report to present a detailed operational history of the Army Air Forces. Certain operations are touched on because they are representative; other campaigns, strategically of equal or greater importance are left out; some episodes, minor in any historical perspective, are dealt with because they throw light on our essential problems.

December 7, 1941 (December 8, Hawaiian time) found the Army Air Forces equipped with plans but not with planes. When the Japanese struck, our combat aircraft strength was little better than a corporal's guard of some 3,000 planes; of these only 1,157 were actually suited to combat service.

We had 159 four-engined bombers. At the various bases outside of the United States, we had only 61 heavy, 157 medium, and 59 light bombers, plus 636 fighters -- a total of 913 combat planes. These were apportioned among Alaska, Hawaii, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Panama, Trinidad, Newfoundland, Iceland, Greenland, The Virgin Islands, British Guiana and the Windward Islands.

Of our total 1,157 combat planes 526 were strategically located to meet possible attacks on the Hawaiian and Philippine Islands. Within a few hours that number was reduced to 176.

The Japanese had set about their initial task with a fine attention to detail. Their work at Hickam and Wheeler fields on Oahu was fully as thorough as at Pearl Harbor. They smashed at our airdromes, caught most of our planes on the ground, and left us without any hope of continuing our reinforcement of the Philippine air arm via Hawaii. On the island of Luzon they disposed of two thirds of our strength before we could recover from the surprise attack and rebuild our air defense.

On Luzon, it must be said, we had maintained an air alert since November 15. Even so, General MacArthur reported that at the end of the first day of war there were only 17 heavy bombers and approximately 70 fighters left out of a force of 35 B-17's, 30 medium and 8 light bombers, 220 fighters and 23 other airplanes. In the days that followed, 14 of the B-17's managed to get to Australia, but the fighters were destroyed one after the other.

Our last two worn-out P-40's sank a couple of Japanese ships with 500-1b. bombs that had been hitched to the wings. This was the origin of our fighter bombers.

In January, 10 of the 14 B-17's plus 38 other heavy bombers, flanked by a few A-24's and P-40's, were used in Java with the then prevailing 10 to 1 odds against them. They supplemented the Dutch, Australian and British strength in another doomed attempt to stop the relentless Japanese push to the South. They gave a good account of themselves in the Battle of Macassar Strait. On the day before the surviving 14 bombers left for Australia (the first week of March) they flew 10 missions, sinking 5 enemy ships and damaging 4 others. But not by the most sanguine stretch of the imagination could they be called an Air Force.

Those same 14 bombers formed the nucleus of our Fifth Air Force. The Fifth is now one of fifteen. The Army Air Forces which the Axis calculated would be the weak link in our chain of battle, has instead turned out to be our greatest strength and has so far supplied in our margin of victory. The war has not yet been won, but certainly our offensives on all fronts have averted its loss. Our arm of the service has been in continuous contact with the enemy over all the continents and all the oceans. Since the tragic day of December 7, 1941, we have been operating day and night in all conceivable kinds of terrain.

Because of the lack of patrol planes of adequate range, speed and striking power, the aircraft of our First Bomber Command were pressed into coastal patrol service. These airplanes formed the nucleus of our Anti-Submarine Command which did such superb work until its functions and equipment were taken over by the Navy in the fall of 1943.

We have proved that our prewar plane designs and prewar concepts of air strategy and tactics were sound. From the wreckage of a score of airfields scattered in the Pacific area rose an air force of 2,385,000 officers and enlisted men - a number still growing. As of October 31, 1943, those men have already flown over a quarter of a million combat sorties, expended in combat more than forty million rounds of ammunition, used up nearly two billion gallons of gasoline, destroyed in aerial combat 8,478 enemy airplanes, probably destroyed 2,555 more and damaged another 2,834. These figures do not include enemy planes destroyed on the ground nor the extraordinary score run up by the American Volunteer Group in China.

In the Pacific we blasted the Japanese and promoted their hasty exit from the Aleutians; we opened up and operated a pipeline of airplanes and supplies to Australia; we were largely instrumental in saving that continent by transport and troop carrier operations of unprecedented scope. We are now helping to clear New Guinea and its neighboring islands; we are providing a lifeline to keep China in the fight.

Below and across the Mediterranean, we were in the spearhead of the offensive that has driven the Nazis from El Alamein westward, out of Tunisia and Sicily and up through Italy. The most skillful and unscrupulous of Herr Goebbels' propaganda experts have not been able to explain away our 8th Air Force which has rained destruction on the citadel of Fe stung Europa. Field Marshal Goering's boast that Germany, shall never be bombed has gone the way of Admiral Yamamoto's promise to dictate peace terms from the White House.

This report was prepared by the Army Air Forces and is dated Jan. 4, 1944.

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