Part 1 - A case study in modernization: General Henry ‘Hap’ Arnold, the B-29 Superfortress, and visions of an independent Air Force

  • Published
  • By Dr. Jeremy Prichard
  • 20th Air Force History Office

Even before the United States committed armed forces to the Second World War, Gen. Henry ‘Hap’ Arnold understood that American military participation in the conflict, should it occur, might provide the U.S. Army Air Corps (later the Army Air Forces) an opportunity to demonstrate the military value of an independent air force. If the U.S. entered war, Arnold intended to leverage the fighting by pursuing his vision of a co-equal military air branch.

Arnold’s and the Army Air Corps’s best prospect for exhibiting this capability occurred with a modernization program begun in 1938: the production and employment of the B-29 Superfortress. Because of the stakes he placed on the B-29 project, Arnold involved himself in virtually every component, from production through operational output – with challenges at each stage threatening his goal of proving the B-29’s capabilities before war’s end.

Though they disagreed often, Gen. Henry 'Hap' Arnold and President Franklin Roosevelt mutually desired to improve the U.S. military’s bomber enterprise before and after American entry into World War II. Here they are seen conferring at Castelvetrano, Sicily, shortly after the Tehran Conference. (Photo from the National Archives)


In November 1938, two months following then-Maj. Gen. Arnold’s appointment as chief of the Army Air Corps, President Franklin Roosevelt invited Arnold and others to the White House to discuss a major buildup of U.S. airpower. Roosevelt, unnerved by German Chancellor Adolf Hitler’s bellicose rhetoric threatening to establish a new racial order across Europe, understood the Nazi Party leader’s intention to employ the Luftwaffe, or the German Air Forces, as a weapon of extortion in this objective, what British Prime Minister Winston Churchill described as “the blackmailing power of air-bombing.”

Roosevelt hoped to counter this threat. He sought to hasten U.S. aircraft manufacturing, particularly among bombers. Within months, Arnold authorized manufacturing of a “very long-range heavy bomber,” one that could fly faster, further and higher than both the B-17 Flying Fortress or the B-24 Liberator – the two early workhorses of the war – while also carrying a heavier bomb load than either of those four-engine forebears.

What resulted was the most expensive weapons system program that the U.S. pursued during World War II. For Arnold and others, however, the B-29 program represented more than the next generation of aircraft; it embodied an opportunity to demonstrate the strategic capabilities of the airplane to the American public, thus revealing the urgency of establishing a separate military branch to control such affairs.

Before that, though, Arnold would have to intervene in the aircraft’s production, establish a command structure that allowed the advanced bomber to operate without bureaucratic interference, and appoint commanders willing to exploit the airplane’s effectiveness to a point that satisfied Arnold’s ambitions. Overcoming all would not be easy.

Continue to Part 2 - A case study in modernization: Challenge #1 production here.

This is part 1 of 5 of an article that was adapted from Dr. Prichard's briefing at the Fall 2022 Twentieth Air Force Senior Leader Conference held at F. E. Warren AFB, Wyo. The following resources were used in the development of both that presentation and this article:

Maj Gen (ret) John W. Huston, ed., American Airpower Comes of Age: General Henry H. “Hap” Arnold’s World War II Diaries, vol. 2 (Maxwell AFB, AUP 2002)

Maj James M. Boyle, “How the Superfortress Paced the Attack Against Japan,” Air Force Magazine (December 1964): 63-69

Malcolm Gladwell, The Bomber Mafia: A Dream, a Temptation, and the Longest Night of the Second World War (New York: Little, Brown and Co., 2021)

Herman S. Volk, “The Twentieth Against Japan,” Air Force Magazine (April 2004): 68-73

Charles Griffith, The Quest: Haywood Hansell and American Strategic Bombing in World War II (Maxwell AFB, AUP 1999)

William W. Ralph, “Improvised Destruction: Arnold, LeMay, and the Firebombing of Japan,” War in History 13, no. 4 (2006): 495-522