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Was It the Air Corps or Army Air Forces in WW II?
By C. C. Elebash  Colonel (Retired), U.S. Air Force - January 2002
(used by permission)

A group of Northwest Florida citizens are planning the construction of a World II Memorial. The memorial will honor soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines of all military services. It will be located on Pensacola’s Bayfront Parkway adjacent to a World War I Memorial and the WallSouth Vietnam Memorial.

The following question arose during planning for the memorial: should Army aviation in WW II be identified as the Air Corps or as the Army Air Forces? This is not a new question. It is a “frequently asked question” by people interested in the history of military aviation. The following paragraphs explain the situation.

U.S. Army personnel have traditionally been assigned to branches: Infantry, Artillery, Air Corps, Quartermaster Corps, Corps of Engineers, etc. Branches were generally responsible for training and materiel, although their roles changed from time to time. Operational commands, such as combat divisions and corps, integrated personnel from multiple branches; e.g., Infantry, Artillery, Quartermaster and so on. 

The Air Corps became the branch for Army aviation in 1926. A few years later, in 1935, General Headquarters (GHQ) Air Force was created for operational aviation units. This arrangement existed in the period leading up to United States entry into WW II. There were two aviation organizations: the Air Corps managed materiel and training and GHQ Airforce had operational units.

The Army Air Forces (AAF) came into being on June 20, 1941, six months before Pearl Harbor. As war approached, Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson and Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall saw the need for a stronger role for Army aviation. Consequently they created the Army Air Forces with General H. H. (Hap) Arnold as its head. 

Army Air Forces attained quasi autonomy in March 1942, a few months after the we entered the war. Acting under authority of the War Powers Act, Secretary Stimson approved a major War Department reorganization. Army Air Forces and Army Ground Forces were made co-equal commands. Significantly, as Commanding General of the AAF, General Arnold became a member of the WW II Joint Chiefs of Staff along with the Army Chief of Staff (General Marshall), the Chief of Naval Operations (Admiral Ernest J. King), and President Roosevelt’s principal military adviser (Admiral William D. Leahy).

The AAF expanded rapidly. It initially had two subordinate organizations, the Air Corps for training and materiel and Air Force Combat Command (replacing GHQ Air Force) for operational forces. As the wartime build-up proceeded, more commands were added -- Flying Training Command, Technical Training Command, Ferrying Command, the numbered air forces and so on. 

In the course of wartime expansion and reorganization, the Air Corps ceased to be an operating organization. All elements of Army aviation were merged into the Army Air Forces. Although the Air Corps still legally existed as an Army branch, the position of Chief of the Air Corps was left vacant, and the Office of the Chief of the Air Corps was dissolved. 

The Army Air Forces thus replaced the Air Corps as the Army aviation arm and -- for practical purposes -- became an autonomous service. All World War II Army aviation training and combat units were in the AAF. About 2.4 million men and women served in the AAF. Around 600,000 of these were members of other branches, such as Engineers, Ordnance and Quartermaster. (The official history published after the war is entitled The Army Air Forces in World War II.)

World War II Air Corps personnel had a strong sentimental attachment to their branch. The Air Corps had an aura about it that seemed to set it apart from other Army branches. Now, sixty years later, many WW II servicemen still proudly identify themselves as veterans of the Air Corps. However -- although the Air Corps was their branch -- they actually served and fought in the Army Air Forces! 

In honoring Army aviation in WW II, the most appropriate and inclusive identification is Army Air Forces.


Endnote: The Army Air Forces existed until Congress established the United States Air Force (USAF) in 1947. The new U.S. Air Force absorbed personnel from the Air Corps and from other Army branches who had been serving in the AAF. 

References:

The Army Air Forces in World War II, seven volume official history, edited by Wesley Frank Craven and James Lea Cate, Office of Air Force History, Washington, D.C., New Imprint 1983.

The Birth of the United States Air Force, Air Force Historical Research Agency Web Site, Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, October 12, 2001. http://www.maxwell.af.mil/au/afhra/

Hap Arnold and the Evolution of American Airpower, Dik Alan Daso, Smithsonian History of Aviation Series, Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington and London, 2000.

Winged Victory: The Army Air Forces in World War II, Geoffrey Perret, Random House, New York, 1993.


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