Part 3 - A case study in modernization: Challenge #2 command structure

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


Challenge #2: Command Structure

With mounting political pressure and a personal interest in seeing the project through completion, Arnold would assume even greater oversight of the B-29 program once aircraft reliably rolled off the assembly lines.

The program’s early production delays forced U.S. military leaders to reconsider deploying B-29s against Germany. When made aware that planes weren’t expected to achieve operational capability until 1944, U.S. leaders determined to employ them solely in the Pacific Theater.

Military command structure in the Pacific was vastly different than what Arnold witnessed in Europe, however. In the latter theater, beginning in 1943, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower was appointed commander of Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force. This established a unity of command for Allied forces fighting across the continent.

No unity of command, or anything remotely comparable to what Allied leaders created in Europe, existed in the Pacific. There, theater commanders retained control of their respective zones: Adm. Chester Nimitz of the Pacific Ocean Areas, Gen. Douglas MacArthur of the South West Pacific Area, and Gen. Joseph Stilwell of the China-Burma-India region.

Arnold’s next challenge, therefore, was preventing any theater commander from usurping his envisioned B-29 program, complicated by the fact that Superfortresses would routinely fly over each military leaders’ respective area of responsibility.

When Arnold formed the last numbered air force of the war, Twentieth Air Force, on April 4, 1944, he also took the unusual step of assuming the organization’s command. He took this action, he later claimed, reluctantly, doing so to stay abreast of B-29 operations and to spare a lower-ranking officer from having to placate the tricky Allied command personalities and relationships across the Pacific Theater.

[It’s worth noting that, coupled with this assignment, Arnold retained overall charge of the Army Air Forces, meaning he was still responsible for every air component involved in the war – not just the Pacific. In fact, Arnold spent more time in Europe during the war than the Pacific as part of his official duties.]

World War II era Twentieth Air Force emblem

Furthermore, Arnold successfully lobbied for Twentieth Air Force’s direct reporting to the Joint Chiefs of Staff – a historic feat that placed an Army Air Force command on parity with the Army and the Navy. [This arrangement established a postwar precedent of combatant commands reporting directly to the Joint Staff, akin to Strategic Air Command during the Cold War era.]

Organizationally, two bomber commands reported to Twentieth Air Force: XX Bomber Command and XXI Bomber Command, each comprised of bombardment wings, groups, and squadrons.

B-29s assigned to XX Bomber Command began operating from India and China within months of the first assortment of aircraft arriving from stateside. Early operations from this remote environment highlighted various challenges, notably the constant risks traversing over the Himalayan Mountains and the remaining sheer distance from the Japanese mainland. Making matters worse for crews were recurring aircraft malfunctions resulting from the rushed assembly timelines Arnold insisted upon.

Operating B-29s out of the China-Burma-India theater was always considered a temporary setup until Allied forces had successfully captured the Mariana Islands from Japanese troops. Once U.S. soldiers, sailors and Marines gained control of the Mariana Islands of Saipan (captured 9 July 1944), Guam (captured 21 July 1944), and Tinian (captured 1 August 1944), all B-29s would relocate with re-assignment to the XXI Bomber Command, with headquarters on Guam. (Guam also served as the unofficial headquarters for Twentieth Air Force; Arnold and his staff remained in Washington, D.C.)

General Arnold, 20 AF/CC, addressing the 58th Bombardment Wing at Tinian on 15 June 1945. Arnold spent a few days in Guam and Tinian in June 1945, as part of a larger tour across the Pacific, which included stops in Iwo Jima and the Philippine Islands. Arnold spent less than two weeks in the Pacific during his time as 20 AF/CC. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Air Force)

B-29 missions flying from the Mariana Islands were well within range of Japan, ultimately eliminating the need for XX Bomber Command and its Indian and Chinese bases. XX Bomber Command inactivated in July 1945, one month after its units merged with XXI Bomber Command.

It took longer than Arnold, or the White House, or anyone, wanted, but the desired proximity of operating B-29s out of the Mariana Islands – and without interference from any of the region’s theater commanders – brought Arnold one step closer toward achieving his vision.

Continue to Part 4 - A case study in modernization: Challenge #3 operational effectiveness here.

This is part 3 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