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Army Air Forces Enlisted in WWII

Strong Contributors: Army Air Forces Enlisted in World War II
During World War II, enlisted men and women in the Army Air Forces (AAF) carried out a wide variety of specialized jobs in locations across the globe. While some roles were highly complex and others were quite ordinary, each was foundational to the AAF’s overall success. In fact, it was estimated that a single, routine bombing mission required at least 500 separate skills. Some enlisted men served as pilots or air crew, but of the nearly two million enlisted Airmen who served during the war, most never took to the air. From preparing meals to monitoring weather conditions for the day’s missions, enlisted personnel in WWII performed roles essential to victory.  

Enlisted Roles
Enlisted Airmen assumed more responsibilities than ever before during World War II, with some even crossing into careers dominated by officers. This included combat air crew. They faced dangerous conditions and relentless enemy attacks, often with inadequate supplies and training. Despite this, enlisted men were often eager to prove their mettle in aerial combat, and they did.

The ground crew supported the work of the air crew whose lives depended on them. They repaired and maintained aircraft, built and guarded bases, cooked meals, drafted reports, cared for the wounded, and everything in between. Each faced their own challenges such as high-pressure situations and overwhelming workloads, as well as adjusting to new wartime realities.   

“We had some ingenious and talented people and you didn’t have to be an Air Force pilot to be a strong contributor to the effort during the war.”
–Stephan Howell, Ninth Air Force Crew Chief

By the Numbers
Fighting the war called for a massive increase in enlisted personnel, and the Army Air Forces grew from 20,824 enlisted in 1939 to 1,900,805 by 1945. Nearly one third of all enlisted in the AAF during the war became mechanics, followed by large numbers of aerial gunners, radio operators, and armament specialists. Innovations in areas such as electronics, radar, and medicine increased needs for new specialties and training. During the war, the AAF required four technical specialists for every pilot, while the ratio of ground to flight personnel approached seven to one.


Wartime Diversity
The wartime air arm was more diverse than ever before—comprised mostly of Airmen whose service was temporary rather than a career venture. Although women were excluded from most flying duties and all combat roles, by January 1945, enlisted women served the AAF in more than 200 types of jobs.

The large majority of Black Airmen, on the other hand, served in unskilled labor roles in segregated units although some did become pilots. Those who did serve on air and ground crews had to meet higher standards than their white counterparts. Once in operation, there was no denying that their performance was first-rate.

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