World War II: General Henry "Hap" Arnold

General Henry "Hap" Arnold. Photograph Courtesy of the US Air Force

Henry Harley Arnold (born at Gladwyne, PA on June 25, 1886) had a military career peppered with many successes and few failures. He was the only officer to ever hold the rank of General of the Air Force. He died January 15, 1950 and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Early Life

The son of a doctor, Henry Harley Arnold was born at Gladwyne, PA on June 25, 1886. Attending Lower Merion High School, he graduated in 1903 and applied to West Point. Entering the academy, he proved a renowned prankster but only a pedestrian student. Graduating in 1907, he ranked 66th out of a class of 111. Though he desired to enter the cavalry, his grades and disciplinary record prevented this and he was assigned to the 29th Infantry as a second lieutenant. Arnold initially protested this assignment but ultimately relented and joined his unit in the Philippines.

Learning to Fly

While there, he befriended Captain Arthur Cowan of the US Army Signal Corps. Working with Cowan, Arnold aided in creating maps of Luzon. Two years later, Cowan was ordered to take command of the Signal Corps' newly-formed Aeronautical Division. As part of this new assignment, Cowan was directed to recruit two lieutenants for pilot training. Contacting Arnold, Cowan learned of the young lieutenant's interest in obtaining a transfer. After some delays, Arnold was transferred to the Signal Corps in 1911 and began flight training at the Wright Brothers' flying school in Dayton, OH.

Taking his first solo flight on May 13, 1911, Arnold earned his pilot license later that summer. Sent to College Park, MD with his training partner, Lieutenant Thomas Millings, he set several altitude records as well as became the first pilot to carry US Mail. Over the next year, Arnold began to develop a fear of flying after witnessing and being a part of several crashes. Despite this, he won the prestigious Mackay Trophy in 1912 for the "most meritorious flight of the year." On November 5, Arnold survived a near-fatal crash at Fort Riley, KS and removed himself from flight status.

Returning to the Air

Returning to the infantry, he was again posted to the Philippines. While there he met 1st Lieutenant George C. Marshall and the two became life-long friends. In January 1916, Major Billy Mitchell offered Arnold a promotion to captain if he returned to aviation. Accepting, he traveled back to College Park for duty as the supply officer for the Aviation Section, US Signal Corps. That fall, aided by his friends in the flying community, Arnold overcame his fear of flying. Sent to Panama in early 1917 to find a location for an airfield, he was en route back to Washington when he learned of the US entry into World War I.

World War I

Though he desired to go to France, Arnold's aviation experience led to him being retained in Washington at the Aviation Section's headquarters. Promoted to the temporary ranks of major and colonel, Arnold oversaw the Information Division and lobbied for the passage of a large aviation appropriations bill. Though mostly unsuccessful, he gained valuable insight into negotiating the politics of Washington as well as the development and procurement of aircraft. In the summer of 1918, Arnold was dispatched to France to brief General John J. Pershing on new aviation developments.

Interwar Years

Following the war, Mitchell was transferred to the new US Army Air Service and was posted to Rockwell Field, CA. While there, he developed relationships with future subordinates such as Carl Spaatz and Ira Eaker. After attending the Army Industrial College, he returned to Washington to the Office of the Chief of Air Service, Information Division, where he became a devout follower of the now-Brigadier General Billy Mitchell. When the outspoken Mitchell was court-martialed in 1925, Arnold risked his career by testifying on behalf of the air power advocate.

For this and for leaking pro-airpower information to the press, he was professionally exiled to Fort Riley in 1926 and given command of the 16th Observation Squadron. While there, he befriended Major General James Fechet, the new head of the US Army Air Corps. Intervening on Arnold's behalf, Fechet had him sent to the Command and General Staff School. Graduating in 1929, his career began to progress again and he held a variety of peacetime commands. After winning a second Mackay Trophy in 1934 for a flight to Alaska, Arnold was given command of the Air Corps' First Wing in March 1935 and promoted to brigadier general.

That December, against his wishes, Arnold returned to Washington and was made Assistant Chief of the Air Corps with responsibility for procurement and supply. In September 1938, his superior, Major General Oscar Westover, was killed in a crash. Shortly thereafter, Arnold was promoted to major general and made Chief of the Air Corps. In this role, he began plans for expanding the Air Corps to place it on par with Army Ground Forces. He also began pushing a large, long-term research and development agenda with the goal improving the Air Corps' equipment.

World War II

With the growing threat from Nazi Germany and Japan, Arnold directed research efforts to exploit existing technologies and drove the development of aircraft such as the Boeing B-17 and Consolidated B-24. In addition, he began pushing for research into the development of jet engines. With the creation of the US Army Air Forces in June 1941, Arnold was made Chief of the Army Air Forces and acting Deputy Chief of Staff for Air. Given a degree of autonomy, Arnold and his staff began planning in anticipation of the US entry into World War II.

Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Arnold was promoted to lieutenant general and began enacting his war plans which called for the defense of the Western Hemisphere as well as aerial offensives against Germany and Japan. Under his aegis, the USAAF created numerous air forces for deployment in the various theaters of combat. As the strategic bombing campaign commenced in Europe, Arnold continued to press for the development of new aircraft, such as the B-29 Superfortress, and support equipment. Beginning in early 1942, Arnold was named Commanding General, USAAF and made a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Combined Chiefs of Staff.

In addition to advocating for and supporting strategic bombing, Arnold backed other initiatives such as the Doolittle Raid, the formation of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs), as well as communicated directly with his top commanders to ascertain their needs firsthand. Promoted to general in March 1943, he soon had the first of several wartime heart attacks. Recovering, he accompanied President Franklin Roosevelt to the Tehran Conference later that year.

With his aircraft pounding the Germans in Europe, he began focusing his attention on making the B-29 operational. Deciding against using it Europe, he elected to deploy it to the Pacific. Organized into the Twentieth Air Force, the B-29 force remained under Arnold's personal command and flew first from bases in China and then the Marianas. Working with Major General Curtis LeMay, Arnold oversaw the campaign against the Japanese home islands. These attacks saw LeMay, with Arnold's approval, conduct massive firebombing attacks on Japanese cities. The war finally came to an end when Arnold's B-29s dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Later Life

Following the war, Arnold established Project RAND (Research and Development) which was tasked with studying military matters. Traveling to South America in January 1946, he was forced to break off the trip due to declining health. As result, he retired from active service the following month and settled on a ranch in Sonoma, CA. Arnold spent his final years writing his memoirs and in 1949 had his final rank changed to General of the Air Force. The only officer to ever hold this rank, he died on January 15, 1950 and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

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Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: General Henry "Hap" Arnold." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Hickman, Kennedy. (2023, April 5). World War II: General Henry "Hap" Arnold. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: General Henry "Hap" Arnold." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 7, 2023).