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AIR FORCE HISTORY: Hap Arnold - Architect of America’s Air Force

Major Arnold with the first completed Liberty V12 engine. (Air Force photo)

Major Arnold with the first completed Liberty V12 engine. (Air Force photo)


If I had eight hours to chop down a tree I would spend six hours sharpening my axe.” — Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States

We lost one of our greatest Airmen in Jan. 1950. Hap Arnold was one of those individuals who always seem to be smiling. He always looked as though he was thinking about something humorous or was about to tell you a joke. His full name was Henry Harley Arnold, but his friends called him ‘Hap’ because of that ever-pleasant expression.

The man who would one day command the mightiest air force ever known was born in Gladwyne, Pa., a suburb of Philadelphia, on June 25, 1886. Arnold did not start his military career in a way that would predict he would become one of America’s greatest military leaders of all time.

However, this historian posits that it was Arnold’s work during the interwar years that merits the most praise. As air power was still being figured out, by the early 1930s Lt. Col. Hap Arnold created a dream team of great airmen whose names read like a Who’s Who of the great founders of the United States Air Force.

One of these was a young man by the name of Maj. Gen. Clarence Tinker, Post Operations and Executive Officer for the Air Corps’ 1st Pursuit Wing in Oct. of 1932. This was the first time the two men worked together with the intention “to develop, update and perfect the tactics of pursuit and bombardment.” The team did extraordinary work on this somewhat ordinary mission while at March Air Field, Calif. After all, one could imagine every Air Corps wing at the time was working on the same problem. However, it was Arnold’s team that had the most open-minded approach “with a view of getting at the facts and principles of modern aerial operations, regardless of the rules of tactical employment of the past or present.” They worked on techniques of placing squadrons in wartime conditions by sending them to remote auxiliary fields for weeks at a time. Even night flying and high-altitude operations were stressed. In his autobiography, Global Mission, Arnold stated, “The keenness of officers like Spaatz, McNarney, Hunter, Clarence Tinker, and Ira Eaker, pushed everything rapidly ahead.”

Hap Arnold progressed quickly through the ranks, and by Feb. 11, 1935 he had received the temporary rank of Brigadier General, and on Sept. 29, 1938 he was named Chief of Staff of the Air Corps.

With Hitler now marching across Europe, he became concerned with America’s lack of combat aircraft. He discussed US air power versus German air power with President Roosevelt and a decision was made to build 11,000 new combat aircraft. Then, in 1941, the Army Air Forces was established and Major General Arnold became Chief of Staff for Air and Chief of the Army Air Forces.

It was during this period of rapid advancement that Arnold recommended to the Adjutant General that General Tinker be appointed for the purpose of selecting land to be procured for the greatly needed bombing and aerial gunnery ranges. The recommendation of the “Tinker Board” were all but automatically approved by the Chief of the Air Corps, General Arnold. Thus, it was on April 3, 1940 that General Tinker announced to the Salt Lake City press corps that the selection of a million acre tract in western Utah as the site for the largest bombing and gunnery range in the world, near a then small Army base called Hill Field. General Tinker’s skill with the press was yet just one more skill learned from his mentor and friend, Hap Arnold.

Only 300 pilots were being trained annually prior to 1939, but the training figure increased to 3,000 a year in early 1941, and 33,000 after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7. A week later, Arnold was promoted to lieutenant general. Thereafter, he was included in all military meetings in the White House. Maj. Gen. Ira C. Eaker, another close friend and the leader of the Eighth Air Force during WWII said that Hap Arnold used his knowledge of the planes developed in the war in Spain just prior to WWII to have, at the earliest possible time, have prototypes of proper bombers and fighters at the earliest date – even while fighting for monies through inter-service rivalries and overcoming those who did not foresee what air power would become. “Without his judgment and wisdom, often complete disregard for regulations and authority, realizing the urgencies, realizing fully that we would be ultimately drawn into the war; this lack of preparedness which was very prominent in 1939 and 1940 could have continued indefinitely. The wisdom of Arnold and the methods he employed closed that gap very quickly.”

Arnold called on his friends and anyone he had ever met, looking for competent individuals who could be placed in leadership positions. A sad result of relying on the best people he knew was the death of his protégé and friend, Major General Clarence L. Tinker, whom he had entrusted the task of taking over the brand new Seventh Air Force, formerly known as the Hawaiian Air Force a.k.a. “The Pineapple Air Force,” to take the fight to the Japanese after the attacks on December 7, 1941. It was Hap Arnold who held out hope longer than others in service that General Tinker might be found alive, but who also helped push changing the name of an emerging air field near Oklahoma City to Tinker Field.

Arnold survived several heart attacks during his adult life, his heart finally giving out at his ranch home in California. He was 63 years old and had served his country for 42 of those years. Although he had never fired a gun or dropped a bomb in combat, he had led the development and employment of the largest air force in the world. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery with the full military honors he so richly deserved.

Sources include: Osage General by James L. Crowder, September 2000 Aviation History article by C.V. Glines, AF.mil, General Hap Arnold Bio by WASP Deanie Parrish for Wings Across America.