Activation of the ‘Global Twentieth’ – Commemorating Seventy-Five Years

  • Published
  • 20th Air Force History Office

By Dr. Jeremy Prichard, 20th Air Force Historian

It was both an extraordinary and astonishing remark, perhaps even hyperbolic.

On August 7, 1945, Gen. Carl A. Spaatz wired a message to the Twentieth Air Force Chief of Staff in Washington, Brig. Gen. Lauris Norstad. Spaatz, only weeks earlier having assumed command of the US Army Strategic Air Forces (USASTAF) at Guam, informed Norstad of his recent inspection of Twentieth Air Force “Baker Two Nine” (B-29) stations throughout the Pacific region. In his assessment, Spaatz considered this “the best organized and most technically and tactically proficient military organization that the world has seen to date” (emphasis added).

The date was noteworthy as Spaatz delivered his message one day after a Twentieth Air Force crew deployed an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, though his dispatch neglected that detail.

Another interesting observation was that until only one month prior, Gen. Spaatz had spent the majority of the war in Europe pursuing and destroying the German Reich and its Luftwaffe, of which he and the Allies were ultimately successful. After briefly making his rounds in the Pacific, the former air commander to Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower commended the “Global Twentieth” as a more efficient and structured enterprise than the renowned air armada that he helped direct in defeating the Nazis.

More than that, though, the truly surprising part of Gen. Spaatz’s comment was that at the time of his wire, the Twentieth Air Force had existed on paper less than a year and a half.

On April 4, 1944, Gen. Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, Commanding General of the US Army Air Forces, formed the last numbered air force of the war, Twentieth Air Force. This organization was responsible for the major bomber commands operating out of India and, eventually, the Mariana Islands. Units that fell under the Twentieth flew the new B-29 Superfortress, one of the most expensive weapons programs that the United States pursued during World War II. Unlike its fellow four-engine bombers, the B-17 and B-24, the B-29 was a strategic aircraft that could fly faster, further, and carry a heavier bomb load than those wartime predecessors.

Gen. Arnold envisioned these long-range bombers devastating the Japanese into submission, thus rendering a proposed land invasion of the home islands unnecessary. Accomplishing such a feat would provide an added postwar benefit, one that Arnold clearly intended: demonstrating the value of an independent air force, a co-equal military branch to both the Army and the Navy. He placed responsibility for that massive undertaking on the new Twentieth Air Force.

To prevent a theater commander from usurping his envisioned B-29 program in the Pacific, Arnold took the unusual step of assuming command of Twentieth Air Force while retaining his overall charge of the Army Air Forces. This arrangement established a precedent of specified commands reporting directly to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, akin to Strategic Air Command (SAC) during the Cold War era.

The first Twentieth Air Force bombing operation on Japanese-occupied territory occurred June 5, 1944, one day prior to the D-Day Invasion in Europe. Those initial bombing campaigns against Japanese objectives demonstrated early mechanical and targeting shortfalls with the B-29 program. Aware that President Franklin D. Roosevelt was intimately monitoring B-29 operations over Japan, Arnold decisively replaced leaders that failed to produce timely results.

Arnold and his program benefitted from two developments beginning in late-1944. First, the Allied capture of the Mariana Islands placed B-29s within 1,500 miles of Tokyo. From there, Maj. Gen. Curtis E. LeMay, commander of the XXI Bomber Command – a subunit of Twentieth Air Force – changed B-29 tactics from high-altitude daylight bombing to low-level area nighttime attacks, with effective results. For five months beginning in March 1945, Twentieth Air Force crews routinely bombed Japan’s industrial and urban centers. So destructive were those incendiary air raids that, even before the two atomic bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japanese Premier Suzuki was convinced that his nation should surrender “merely on the basis of the B-29s alone.”

Thus was the Twentieth’s legacy and the end of World War II, one that Gen. Spaatz lauded as “the best organized and most technically and tactically proficient” in history.

Despite its brief tenure, the “Global Twentieth” gained an enduring reputation for its outsized contribution during the war. That attribute resonates with today’s Twentieth Air Force, the enterprise having replaced long-range bombers with long-range strike capabilities via its Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) arsenal. And while the weapons and tactics have changed since the organization’s early days in the Second World War’s Pacific Theater, contemporary Twentieth Airmen inherited from its forebears a projection of strength and unparalleled combat capability first developed 75 years ago.