By Luke Truxal

For those who study the history of the United States Air Force and its forebears, there is a noticeable gap in the historiography regarding biographies of Second World War air force commanders. There are several biographies for men such as General Carl Spaatz, General of the Air Force Henry H. Arnold, General James Doolittle, General Curtis LeMay, and even Major General Haywood Hansell. Yet, many other prominent commanders, staff officers, and theorists do not have their own biographies. However, this research note solely focuses on General Ira Eaker, who, in 1943, commanded what became the US Eighth Air Force, the Mediterranean Allied Air Forces in 1944 and was deputy Chief of the Air Staff for the United States Army Air Forces in 1945.

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James Parton has largely written Eaker’s history in “Air Force Spoken Here”: General Ira Eaker and the Command of the Air. Parton’s biography is a strong defence of Eaker. In many cases, he has created much of the narrative that we accept regarding Eaker’s performance as a commander during the Second World War. However, there is one problem with Parton’s book; he was Eaker’s staff officer. Given this, Parton’s book jumps between biography and personal memoir in several places. For example, when writing about Eaker’s defence of daylight precision bombing at the Casablanca Conference in 1943, Parton slips into a personal memoir. In a paragraph, he describes the trip to Spaatz’s headquarters, the poker game he played with Eaker and Spaatz, and how he edited Eaker’s proposals for the Casablanca Conference.[1] It is unclear whether this can be classified as a biography since it is unclear if Parton is writing about himself or Eaker. Also, as a staff officer deeply devoted to Eaker, Parton may not be the general’s best or most objective biographer. Simply put, Eaker needs a new biography.

For those interested in writing a biography on Eaker, there are several places to start. First, Parton’s biography is a great place to get background information on Eaker, even if the analysis is sometimes questionable. Another series of sources that need to be examined are the books that Eaker published with Arnold before the Second World War. Arnold and Eaker wrote: Army Flyer, Winged Warfare, and This Flying Game.[2] These books lay out their vision for the future of air power and, in some cases, offer analysis of air campaigns during the Second World War before the entrance of the United States into the conflict. These books give some insight into Eaker as an air power theorist and precision bombing advocate before the war. Three major archives should be consulted for wartime records. First, the Library Congress has Ira Eaker’s papers. Speaking from personal experience, they are well-organised and easy to work through. Even better, several vital figures whom Eaker corresponded with also deposited their papers at the Library of Congress. Another archive to consult is the Air Force Historical Research Agency, where you can find records on the Eighth Air Force and Mediterranean Allied Air Forces. Finally, the National Archives and Records Administration has more records and correspondence.

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Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris shakes hands with Lieutenant General Ira Eaker at a handover ceremony of a US Army Air Force airfield into RAF control, c. November 1943. (Source: IWM)

Research is not the problem with writing a biography on Eaker. He wrote a lot about air power before, during, and after the Second World War. There is much research readily available on Eaker. This is purely speculation, but the reason why there is not a biography on Eaker is most likely that it is a hard biography to write. Eaker is not a polarising figure. Biographers note that they either fall in love with or hate the person they are writing about. It is hard to do that with Eaker. He is a likeable person and, at times performs quite well as a commanding officer. Yet, he also makes several significant mistakes during the war as well. It is hard to write a book analysing an officer whom both deserves blame for the failures of the 1943 air offensives against Germany and, in the same breath, say he played a major role in the success of the air war in 1944 and 1945.

In conclusion, it is time to put the James Parton book on Eaker aside and write a new biography on Eaker to start a proper historical debate on his career. There is ample archival material available to sift through and analyse. The challenge will be how to assess his performance during the war. Here is a thought to possibly hang onto for those who might want to take up this project. Maybe the challenge of writing a biography about Eaker is that he is representative of the struggles that early American air commanders faced during the strategic bombing of Germany in 1942 and 1943. Eaker was testing new ideas in a new form of warfare and without ample resources as the commander of the Eighth Air Force. He made several errors in 1943 that was amplified by his lack of resources. Yet, with more resources and experience, his performance improved over time. In many ways, Eaker represents the struggles that many American officers faced during the air war against Germany.

Dr Luke Truxal is the Book Review Editor at From Balloons to Drones and an adjunct at Columbia State Community College in Tennessee. He completed his PhD in 2018 from the University of North Texas with his dissertation ‘Command Unity and the Air War Against Germany.’ His previous publications include ‘Bombing the Romanian Rail Network’ in the Spring 2018 issue of Air Power History. He also wrote ‘The Politics of Operational Planning: Ira Eaker and the Combined Bomber Offensive in 1943’ in the Journal of Military Aviation History. In addition, Truxal is researching the effectiveness of joint air operations between the Allied air forces in the Second World War.

Header image: Major General Ira C. Eaker presents an award to an enlisted man of the 479th Anti-Submarine Group during a ceremony at an air base in St Eval, United Kingdom, c. 1943. (Source: NARA)

[1] James Parton, “Air Force Spoken Here”: General Ira Eaker & the Command of the Air (Bethesda, MD: Adler & Adler Publishers Inc., 1986), p. 220.

[2] Henry H. Arnold and Ira C. Eaker, Army Flyer (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1942); Henry H. Arnold and Ira Eaker, Winged Warfare, (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1941); Henry H. Arnold and Ira Eaker, This Flying Game, (Ramsey, New Jersey: Funk and Wagnalls Company, 1938).

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