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Around the Great War > Aviation > The History of the U.S. Air Service in World War I

The History of the U.S. Air Service in World War I

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25th Aero Squadron, 1918
© D.R.

In 1917, the entrance of the United States was seen as a crucial step to finally securing victory in Europe. While the Allies were ecstatic over the news, the United States had no army with comparable field experience to countries such as Britain and France, who had already been exposed to three bloody years of constant fighting. Especially in one aspect the United States was lagging far behind its allies: It had barely any air force to speak of.

While no nation at the time of America’s declaration of war had an independent air force branch, America lacked a competitive air service outright. Only a few machines were available to the US Military, with hardly any men to fly them. This is somewhat surprising, since just after the turn of the century, America had been a pioneer in setting up a dedicated Aeronautical Division in the Signal Corps. Yet even though between 1910 and 1914, America tested the use of aviation for military purpose, the progress stagnated beyond these early projects.

Remembering this early stage in American aviation, General Milling, who had been one of the earliest American pilots, commented that :

‘[…] the pioneer flyers had seen the true role of aviation even while their equipment was still in the ‘egg crate’ stage. […] almost from the beginning the airplane was seen not only as a means of observation and liaison, but as a striking arm against forces in the field and supporting facilities to the rear.1 

The potential of aviation as an integral part of future military operation was thus clear to some of the earliest American aviators. Nonetheless, little attention was given to these new capabilities by the rest of the army. Thus, when the war started in 1914, American aviators were but a handful of men organized in the Signal Corps. The Aviation Section of the Signal Corps had replaced the earlier Aeronautical Division, counting 44 officers, 224 enlisted men and a meagre 23 aircraft2 by the end of 1914. Taking part in Pershing’s Punitive Expedition, the aviators were able to get some operational experience, mainly in  reconnaissance and liaison. The scope of these operations was limited however and nothing comparable to what was going on in Europe at the time for the next three years. Come 1916, American volunteers found another way to get involved on the side of the Allies.

The Lafayette Flying Corps, a collection of American volunteers fought side by side with the French prior to America’s declaration of war on Germany and the Middle powers. Under the command of French officers and flying French equipment, they were the first Americans to experience modern air combat and operations. Yet, squadrons like the Escadrille Lafayette, founded in 1916, were not incorporated into the American force until spring 1918, well after the United States entered World War One.

The Entrance of the United States of America into World War

Upon the declaration of war on Germany, the Allies hoped to use American industrial capacity and manpower to sway the tide not only on the ground but also in the air. This is probably best represented by King George III asking General Pershing in June 1917 whether the rumours that America would soon have 50,000 aircraft in the air were true. Pershing was reported to have been embarrassed by this overestimation of American military prowess, responding that at this juncture, there could be no talk of any major American commitment in the air.

Gen. Pershing was correct, there could still be no talk of such a thing as an American air force. Its aviation force was pitifully small: only 131 officers, half of them reservists, 1087 men and 280 aircraft, none of which ready for combat duty. Even if the United States Navy Air Service were added, the total amount would increase by only 48 officers, 230 men and 54 aircraft. Indeed, it took until September 1917 before an Air Service attached to the American Expeditionary Force was officially established. As an internal study of the Army Air Force admits : ‘The entrance of the United States into the war in April 1917 […] found the country almost totally unprepared in aeronautical experience, equipment and personnel. […] Moreover, the Aviation Section of the Signal Corps had no accurate knowledge of the equipment of a military airplane. No airplane in America up to 1917 had ever mounted a machine gun, and aviation personnel had practically no knowledge of radiotelegraphy and telephony, photography, bombing equipment, lights for night flying, aviators clothing, compasses used in flying, or other aviation instruments well known to the aviators of Germany, England and France3

Gearing up for war: Material and production

Pressed into action, America was in dire need to a comprehensive and daring expansion into aviation. And that is exactly what they did. Next to setting up a training force in the United States, a separate force was planned, one to be attached to the American Expeditionary Force. In May 1917, the Aircraft Production Board was instructed to gear up American aviation for war. This was a big step for America as the Aircraft Production Board ‘made a detailed study of European experience in aircraft production and cooperated with aeronautical engineers in the standardization of aircraft parts. Under its supervision the aircraft industry began the production of the Liberty motor which combined the best and most recent aeronautical principles4.

Initially, President Wilson authorized $640,000,000 to be made available to fund the aviation effort. This was the largest single sum ever dedicated to a specific purpose in the US until that date. Yet, while America leapt into the production of several thousands of aircraft, somewhat overzealous estimations fell on inefficient management, resulting in failure. While America was well capable of mass producing vehicles and engines, planes were somewhat of a novelty and production techniques had to be adapted first. In fact, the mass‐produced Liberty motor was unsuited to the majority of planes American aviators were eventually equipped with during World War One.

As a result, American aviators could not as of yet rely on their own country to supply them with machines. Instead, France stepped in. As France produced the majority of aircraft on the side of the Allies and had some planes to spare, French aircraft became a common feature among American squadrons. Amongst them were modern Nieuports and powerful SPAD VII and SPAD XIIIs, which were later also produced under license in the United States. Today, few of these venerable machines remain but there is a notable exception: ‘Smith IV’ one of the original SPAD XIIIs used by the American Expeditionary Forces during the Great War can nowadays still be seen in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C..

By the end of the war, the AEF had received 6364 airplanes. 4874 were French, 258 British, 19 Italian and 1213 American. Of this total, 1664 were trainer aircraft5

Boys become aviators

Of course, no Air Force would ever be effective without proper training. Here the Americans, with no practical experience in the operation of a military aviation, had to once again rely on their European allies to set the foundation. Once again it was France that gave vital assistance, training the first
batch of American pilots. Initially, there was some confusion among French instructors and American aviators. French instructors had assumed that they would be training men completely unfamiliar with aircraft. Yet, many of the initial cadets had already some flying experience from back home.
What they lacked was operational and combat experience. Eventually, the issues were overcome and French experiences honed by years of fighting did part valuable lessons on American aviators.

As General Arnold admitted:

In 1917 America ‘had no theories of aerial combat, or any air operations except armed reconnaissance. Despite Billy Mitchell’s eagerness to blow up Germany, we hadn’t a single bomber. Such things as formation flying, a new German development appearing on the Western front that spring, were unknown to us. […] Our first projected task was to provide every two ground divisions with one squadron of aerial reconnaissance and one balloon company. For the moment, a complete lack of combat experience had left American aviators behind.6

French assistance could not be relied on indefinitely since training was limited mostly to the operational side of things. America still lacked its own curriculum, supporting infrastructure and doctrine on aviation, something that was required if it wanted to build up a strong Air Force independently from its war time allies. As such, many of the first graduates became instructors instead of front‐line pilots and it was them who established a clear understanding of air power within the United States army. 

American aerial frontline operations

Over the next months and until the armistice in November 1918, American military aviation began to grow substantially. The first squadrons arrived in April 1918, and over the course of the war, fighter, bomber and reconnaissance squadrons would be in service at the front at any given time. The peak was arrived at between October and November 1918, when a total of 45 squadrons were present at the front lines, the grand majority comprised of fighters and observers. An additional 23 balloon companies were in service, as well as 13 photo sections.7

The number of personnel rose from the previously quoted figures, to 6,861 air service officers and 51.229 supporting personnel by November 11, 1918. By that time, 767 pilots were equipped with 740 planes in the Air Service of the A.E.F. One notable example that shows how quickly America embraced aviation was General Mitchell’s strategy at St. Mihiel. Borrowing the German concept of concentrated force in a quest to establish air superiority, General Mitchell not only managed to convince General Pershing but also the French Marshall Foch. With their approval, Mitchell’s staff organized just under 1500 French, British, Italian and American aircraft of all types and secured dominance over the airspace at St. Mihiel. With this success, the Allies would mount ever larger aerial operations. In the area of Argonne‐Meuse, allied aviators following Mitchell’s principles made a crucial contribution to stopping German offensive operations. As the General himself declared: ‘it was indeed the dawn of the day when great air forces will be capable of definitely effecting a ground decision on the field of battle. 8

Final figures

Next to the success American aviators enjoyed by quickly and enthusiastically adopting the aerial element of modern warfare, a price had to be paid. Nowadays, it is somewhat challenging to establish exact figures on the number of planes brought down by the Air Service, and how many pilots and planes were lost. All in all, it seems likely that the American Air Service is responsible for around 750 ‐ 800 downed enemy aircraft of all types and an additional 70 balloons. The own losses amount to about 280 ‐ 350 aircraft and 48 balloons. Since the Air Service of the A.E.F. relied more heavily on fighter squadrons than observers and bombers that were more easy victims, these figures do make sense towards the end of the war. Around 600 Air Service men of the combat squadrons became casualties of war. 235 lost their lives, 130 were wounded, 145 captured. Additionally, around 650 Air Service members died in accidents or due to illness.

At the end of the war, 611 decorations had been awarded to the men of the Air Service, 4 Medal of Honours and 312 Distinguished Services Crosses. France awarded another 210 decorations to Air Service members, while an additional 91 were awarded by other nationsix. After the Armistice of 1918, the Air Service would see quick demobilization on a grand scale, making it only a fraction of its size war size only two years later. It was these men however, that paved the way for America to enter the stage of military aviation and modern warfare. America still had to build up a viable infrastructure for its Air Service and begin producing its own aircraft, but the experiences of World War One would go a long way to help the nation in this endeavour. The foundations were set here, in 1918, and the U.S. Military would never be the same again.

1 ‐ General Milling cited in Green, T. The Development of Air Doctrine in the Army Air Arm 1917 ‐1941
2 Hennessy, J. 1958
3 Army Air Forces Historical Studies No:25, Organisation of Military Aeronautics 1907‐1935, Congressional & War Department Action, Unclassified, P. 26]
4 Army Air Forces Historical Studies No:25, Organisation of Military Aeronautics 1907‐1935, Congressional & War Department Action, Unclassified, P. 26
5 Thomas, Capt. Shipley (1920). The History of the AEF. George H. Doran Co., p.386]
6 General Arnold cited in Green, T. The Development of Air Doctrine in the Army Air Arm 1917 ‐1941 , P. 4
7 Maurer, Maurer, ed. (1978). The U.S. Air Service in World War I, "Volume II: Early Concepts of Military Aviation", Diane Publishing
8 General Mitchell cited in Green, T. The Development of Air Doctrine in the Army Air Arm 1917 ‐1941 , P. 6
9 Maurer, Maurer, ed. (1978). The U.S. Air Service in World War I, "Volume II: Early Concepts of Military Aviation", Diane Publishing