“Building an army in the air, regiments and brigades of winged cavalry on gas driven flying horses”,
The America Air Entry into the Great War

By late 1916, three years of continuing and savage fighting had ravaged much of northern France and the Low Countries. A dreaded stalemate had descended over the Western Front. By January 1917, and after showing early promise, the air campaign that visionaries thought would magically deliver a knockout blow to the enemy’s will to fight, did not materialized and in fact, it can be argued that it exacerbated the horrendous stalemated of the trenches. Aviation pioneer Orville Wright wrote in December 1916 that “neither side has been able to win on account of the part of the aero plane has played. The two sides are apparently equal in their aerial equipment and it seems to me that unless present conditions can be changed, the war will continue for years!” The only hope Orville saw of ending the war promptly was if the Allied achieve “such overwhelming superiority in the air that the Germans’ eyes can be put out” But by early 1917, the only real opportunity to accomplish Orville’s proposition rested with the United States and on April, that possibility grew with America’s entry into the War to End all Wars.

Along with the US entry in the war came boosting remarks by many American commanders about what the new American power could bring to the table. General Squier, the US Army’s top aviation officer remarked that “America would put the Yankee punch in the war and sweep the German lines”. This sentiment was echoed in Washington where the nation’s leaders blindly believed that the American way and know-how will carry the day for the exhausted Allies. No where was the sentiment more palpable than in the War Department, where Secretary of War, Newton Baker declared that “a huge American aviation program would be an expression of America’s traditions of doing things on a splendid scale”. The seeds were planted for the US to develop and deploy the grandest air armada the world had ever seen. And if America planed to deploy such a “splendid force”, they needed a strong willed man to lead it.

A brash, self promoting, aggressive and extremely capable, thirty-seven year old Major named William “Billy” Mitchell was the choice. The young Mitchell became a converted to the cause of air power sometime in the early 1900s. By 1906, he published an article on the Cavalry Journal stating that “Conflicts no doubt will be carried out in the future in the air”. In the spring of 1917, Mitchell and several other Army officers were sent to France as military observers to learn about air tactics and operations. Mitchell heard the news of the US declaration on war while he was traveling in Spain. He immediately boarded the first train he found bound for Paris. In Paris, Mitchell opened a small office with two French military liaison officers attached to it. It was there that the brash Mitchell began to craft numerous air plans and operational packages that he would cable to Washington for further study. In his papers, Mitchell wrote about the size of the Army’s air arm, America’s manufacturing capabilities and his goals for a massive industrial effort concentrated on aircraft design and development. There are rumors, albeit without much evidence to support it so far, that Mitchell played a pivotal role in French Premier Alexandre Ribot’s request to Washington for 4,500 new aircraft, 5,000 pilots and 50,000 mechanics early in the summer of 1917.

The “outrageous” proposal caught the US General Staff completely off-guard. But it did find a sympathetic ear on the President and his allies in the US House of Representatives. In July 1917, the House passed the largest, single piece appropriation bill ($ 640,000,000) in the country’s history. Unfortunately for the Allied, no amount of money was able to cover the fact that by the mid 1910s, America’s industrial base was unable to mass produce the numbers of aircraft the Bill intended. Even with the decision to manufacture only European design, America’s industries were inadequate set up for the task. This was a daunting task for an industry that “only” produced 87 airplanes the previous year. The Americans were years behind Europe. Something “must be done” said a surprise President Wilson. In the spring of 1917, the President appointed Howard E. Coffin to head a committee for the mobilization of the nation’s resources towards mass production of aircraft and its systems. Coffin, a workaholic automobile executive, promptly applied his automaker, assembly line methods to the aircraft industry. He was so sure of his methods that a few months after his appointment, Coffin boosted to The Saturday Evening Post that “fifty thousands open roads to Berlin” will be available very soon. To make his promise a reality, Coffin had to employ several unorthodox methods. Chief among them was the creation of the Spruce Production Regiments. In 1917, the US had a sever shortage of spruce lumber, a vital ingredient in the construction of aircraft frames. To combat this, Coffin recruited 26,500 soldiers and placed them in massive logging camps all along the Pacific Northwest. He also shifted all aircraft engine production into one single model, the American Liberty engine. The Liberty was the brainchild of two auto engine designers, JG Vincent of Packard Motor Car Company and EJ Hall of Hall and Scott Motor Car Company. On May 1917, both men was urgently summoned to Washington and told that they will be sequestered in a hotel room until they came up with a workable and innovating design. With the help of workers from the National Bureau of Standards, they did it in just five days. The first Liberty engine rolled out of the production lines in December.

If designing and building a workable engine turned out to be relative easy, building the aircraft itself turned to be a long and painstaking process. It was soon realized inside Washington circles that the Americans would take years, even a decade, to catch up with the Europeans in aircraft design and development, so the decision was adapted to standardized few of the Europeans models. Planes such as the Italian Caproni bomber, the French SPAD, and the British Bristol fighter as well as the DH4; were viewed as firm and basic concepts from which the massive US industrial base could made “copies” of. But the reality was, as it is today, that aircraft manufacturing and design goes hand in hand. The degree of hand craftsmanship so integrated in all European designs clashed with the American way of mass production. The production problem would lead to countless delays and setbacks on the productions lines. Tens of millions of dollars were “wasted” on producing Italian and British aircraft. For example, the failure to properly adapt the Liberty to heavier Caproni bomber meant that the vaunted Italian bomber would be underpowered for its task. The same goes with the DH4 conversions. The DH4 was the only aircraft type the American mass produce (1.400 units were sent to France), but once it arrived on the front, the American DH4 proved to be an unreliable air platform. The Liberty engine, which was adapted to fit a smaller engine section, gave the plane a bigger torque than its airframe could take. Pilots who try to run the engine at full throttle usually discovered that the plane’s airframe began to disintegrate in mid air. Such was the traumatic experience of American manufactured aircraft than by the end of the war, more than 80% of all US Air Service pilots were flying French made aircraft.

No matter which planes they flight, Mitchell was determined to make the American air effort in the war as grandiose as he could. It must have shock the inflatable Mitchell the news that Brigadier General Benjamin Foulois was appointed Chief of the Air Service, “an artillery man” as Mitchell usually called him. Foulois arrived in France in the fall 1917 ready to take command of one hundred officers and around three hundred men. The next summer saw Foulois take overall command of air operations for the American First Army under the command of “Black Jack” Pershing. For Mitchell the appointment of a “land commander” to such a prestigious (and a post he himself held briefly) was adding insult to injury. He repeatedly clashed with his new leader. So much so that Foulois wrote a letter to Pershing asking him to relive Mitchell from all active commands and to “ship him to the US for good”. Pershing’s response was as pragmatic as his management skills. He knew men like Mitchell would form the cornerstone of his Army’s air arm. Pershing would live with a hotheaded officer as long as he delivers in the battlefield. Foulois was “asked” by Pershing’s chief of staff to accommodate the brash, but highly innovating Mitchell. Foulois abdicated and in July 1918, ceded to the young officer the top tactical command of all United States air forces in Europe.

Mitchell did not have long to bask in the glory of his new command. A few weeks later, Pershing’s First Army was given its own sector on the Western Front, the Saint-Mihiel salient. A twenty four mile long bulge in the lines that the Germans had held since their 1914 Verdun campaign. Now, four years later, the newly arrived Americans were given the task of straightening out the bulge. The situation was tailor made for Mitchell’s newly developed tactics. The brash American would have under his command the largest air armada the world had ever seen, 1,418 aircraft, around 700 of them from French operated squadrons. Their assigned task was more complex than any air effort so far in the conflict. First, they will sweep the salient’s skies of any German fighter paving the way for the second phase of the operation: the strafing of enemy positions. Meanwhile, after achieving air superiority, the artillery spotting package began to pin point German troop concentration areas for artillery bombardment attacks.

On the early hours of September 12th, and in the mist of a strong southwest winds, Mitchell’s massive air armada took to the air. With more than 700 fighters in their fold, the force was prepared to face the new Fokker D.VII, a single seat fighter that came too late to alter the results on the front. In fierce air to air combat, the Allies were able to clear the Saint-Mihiel sector of any organized German resistance. Without fighter cover, the Germans on the ground were sitting ducks. For most of the American offensive, Allied fighters and bombers pounded away at the retrieving German columns near Vigneulles and St. Benoit. “Dripping down at the head of the column I sprinkled a few bullets over the leading teams”, recalled the famous American air ace, Eddie Rickenbacker. “Horses fell right and left…The whole column was thrown into the wildest confusion” added an exuberated Rickenbacker. The clearing and strafing strategy proved so successful that Mitchell employed it a moth later in the Meuse-Argonne offensive. On October 9th, a force of two hundred bombers and one hundred fighters attacked with impunity the German ground formations in the largest, single daytime raid of the war.

The Saint-Mihiel air success was, for the most part, due to the enormous scarifies and valor exhibit by the American airmen and their ground support personnel. It’s a testament to them and their visionary leaders that the 1918 battle for the important Saint-Mihiel salient resulted in a clear Allied victory instead of another stalemate. And although the Americans did not built an “army in the air”, their new air tactics and the implementation of old concepts by their leaders, more noticeable, the brash Mitchell; accentuated the American entry into the War to End all Wars.

– Raul Colon

The First World War, Hew Strachan, Penguin Books 2003
World War I, HP Willmott, Covent Garden Books, 2003
The Illusion of Victory, Fleming, Basic Books, 2003
The US Air Force: A Complete History, Group West Publishing 2004

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