Editorial Note: Led by Editor Dr Mike Hankins, From Balloons to Drones produces a monthly podcast that provides an outlet for the presentation and evaluation of air power scholarship, the exploration of historical topics and ideas, and provides a way to reach out to both new scholars and the general public. You can find our Soundcloud channel here. You can also find our podcast on Apple Podcasts and Google Podcasts.
In our latest podcast, we interview Dr Laurence Burke II, the Aviation Curator at the National Museum of the Marine Corps. We ask how did the US get from the first flight of an aeroplane in 1903 to full-fledged military-capable aeroplanes in only short few years? Burke takes us through the people that made that journey happen. He explores the different approaches to the airplane made by the US Army, Navy, and Marines Corps, and why each of them went about exploring military aviation in a unique way.
Dr Laurence Burke is the Aviation Curator at the National Museum of the Marine Corps. He earned an undergraduate degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, a master’s in Museum Studies from George Washington University, and, in 2014, a PhD in History and Public Policy from Carnegie Mellon University. Since then, he has taught history at the United States Naval Academy as a post-doc and then was Curator of U.S. Naval Aviation at the National Air and Space Museum for several years before starting the job at Quantico.
Header image: A Wight Model A arrives at Fort Myer, Virginia aboard a wagon for testing by the US Army, attracting the attention of children and adults, 1 September 1908. (Source: Wikimedia)
Editorial note: In this series, From Balloons to Drones highlights research resources available to researchers. Contributions range from discussions of research at various archival repositories to highlighting new publications. As part of this series, we are bringing you a monthly precis of recent articles and books published in air power history. This precis will not be exhaustive but will highlight new works published in the preceding month. Publication dates may vary around the globe and are based on those provided on the publisher’s websites. If you would like to contribute to the series, please contact our Editor-in-Chief, Dr Ross Mahoney, at email@example.com or via our contact page here.
Kristen Alexander and Kate Ariotti, ‘Mourning the Dead of the Great Escape: POWs, Grief, and the Memorial Vault of Stalag Luft III,’ Journal of War & Culture Studies (2022), DOI: 10.1080/17526272.2022.2097774.
In March 1944 seventy-six Allied prisoners of war escaped from Stalag Luft III. Nearly all were recaptured; fifty were later shot. This article examines what happened in the period between recapture and the interment of the dead prisoners’ cremated remains at Stalag Luft III. It positions what came to be known as ‘the Great Escape’ as an event of deep emotional resonance for those who grieved and reveals the dual narrative they constructed to make sense of their comrades’ deaths. In discussing the iconography of the vault constructed by the camp community to house the dead POWs’ ashes, this article also suggests a dissonance in meaning between that arising from personal, familial grief and the Imperial War Graves Commission’s standardised memorial practice. Focusing on the Great Escape’s immediate aftermath from the perspective of the POWs themselves provides a more nuanced understanding of the emotional impact of this infamous event.
Susan Allen, Sam Bell and Carla Machain, ‘Air Power, International Organizations, and Civilian Casualties in Afghanistan,’ Armed Forces & Society (2022), doi:10.1177/0095327X221100780.
Can the presence of international organizations reduce civilian deaths caused by aerial bombing? This commentary examines this question in the specific context of the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan. We evaluate this based on interviews conducted with members of international organizations that were present in Afghanistan during the conflict, existing intergovernmental organizations, nongovernmental organizations, and government reports, and with quantitative data on civilian casualties between 2008 and 2013. We conclude that there is tentative evidence from Afghanistan that international organizations can in fact reduce the severity of civilian killings that result from the use of air power. However, there is much need for greater data sharing to more fully answer this important question.
Derek Lutterbeck, ‘Airpower and Migration Control,’ Geopolitics (2022), DOI: 10.1080/14650045.2022.2094776.
Migration scholarship has thus far largely neglected the role of aircraft in both (irregular) migration and state policies aimed at controlling migration. Drawing inspiration from the field of strategic studies, where ‘airpower’ has been a key theoretical concept, this article explores the role of aerial assets in states’ migration control efforts. The article discusses three main dimensions of the use of airpower in controlling migration: the increasing resort to aircraft for border enforcement purposes – or what can be referred to as ‘vertical border policing’ –, states’ tight monitoring of the aerial migration infrastructure, and the use of aircraft in migrant return operations. As a core element of state power, it is airpower’s key features of reach, speed and height which have made it a particularly useful migration control instrument.
Priya Mirza “Sovereignty of the air’: The Indian princely states, the British Empire and carving out of air-space (1911–1933),’ History and Technology (2022), DOI: 10.1080/07341512.2022.2079370.
Who owns the skies? Under British colonialism, the ownership of the skies of India was a contested matter. The onset of aviation presented a challenge to the territorial understanding between the British and semi-sovereign Indian princes, Paramountcy (1858–1947). Technology itself was a tricky area: roadways, railways, telegraphs, and the wireless were nibbling away at the sovereign spheres which Paramountcy had put in place. This paper looks at the history of aviation in princely India, from aviation enthusiasts such as the rulers of Kapurthala, Jodhpur and Bikaner to subversive princes like the Maharaja of Patiala who worked towards a military air force. The paper tracks the three stages of the journey of aviation in princely India, from individual consumption, to the historical context of World War One which aided its access and usage, and finally, the collective princely legal assertion over the vertical air above them in the position, ‘sovereignty of air’. The government’s civil aviation policy in India remained ambiguous about the princes’ rights over the air till 1931 when their sovereignty of the sky was finally recognised. The paper focuses on the Indian princes varied engagement with aviation, modernity and their space in the world.
Ayodeji Olukoju ‘Creating ‘an air sense:’ Governor Hugh Clifford and the beginnings of civil aviation in Nigeria, 1919-1920,’ African Identities (2022), DOI: 10.1080/14725843.2022.2096566.
This paper focuses on the neglected subject of the beginnings of civil aviation in Nigeria in the aftermath of World War I. Until now, the literature on civil aviation in British colonial Africa had focused largely on Kenya, Central and South Africa and on post-World War II West Africa. This paper, relying on previously unexploited archival material, examines policy debates and options considered by the Colonial Office, the Air Ministry and the Nigerian colonial government. The unique, pioneering aviation drive of Nigeria’s Governor Hugh Clifford took place in the context of immediate post-World War I dynamics: economic vicissitudes, Anglo-French rivalry in West Africa and the policy interface between London and the colonies. This paper demonstrates that aviation development in Nigeria had roots in the early 1920s, and that the initiative was not a metropolitan monopoly, thereby illustrating the extent of colonial gubernatorial autonomy vis-à-vis London.
S. Seyer, ‘An Industry Worth Protecting? The Manufacturers Aircraft Association’s Struggle against the British Surplus, 1919–1922,’ Journal of Policy History 34, no. 3 (2022), pp. 403-39.
The American aircraft industry’s important role in the economic, military, and cultural expansion of the United States over the past one hundred years has been well documented by historians. But America’s twentieth century aerial dominance was not preordained. After World War I, the nascent American aircraft industry faced a concerted British effort to dump thousands of war surplus machines on the U.S. market. With aircraft outside of the nation’s tariff regime, members of the Manufacturers Aircraft Association turned to Congress for emergency protections in the face of what they considered an existential threat. Despite efforts to equate a strong industrial base for aviation with the national defense, aircraft antidumping legislation became mired in partisan debates over tariff policy and accusations of wartime corruption. In the absence of relief from Congress, the Wright patent served as a barrier against the importation of foreign surplus machines.
Ameya Tripathi, ‘Bombing Cultural Heritage: Nancy Cunard, Art Humanitarianism, and Primitivist Wars in Morocco, Ethiopia, and Spain,’ Modernist Cultures 17, no. 2 (2022), pp. 191-220.
This article examines Nancy Cunard’s later writing on Spain as a direct legacy of her previous projects as a modernist poet, publisher and black rights activist. Cunard was a rare analyst of the links between total war, colonial counter-insurgency, and cultural destruction. Noting the desire of both the air power theorist and art collector to stereotype peoples, from Morocco to Ethiopia to Spain, as ‘primitive’, the article brings original archival materials from Cunard’s notes into dialogue with her journalism, and published and unpublished poetry, to examine how she reclaimed and repurposed primitivism. Her poems devise a metonymic and palimpsestic literary geopolitics, juxtaposing fragments from ancient cultures atop one another to argue, simultaneously, for Spain’s essential dignity as both a primitive and a civilised nation. Cunard reconciles Spain’s liminal status, between Africa and Europe, to argue for Spain’s art, and people, as part of a syncretic, universal human cultural heritage, anticipating the art humanitarianism of organisations such as UNESCO.
Stephen Bourque, D-Day 1944: The Deadly Failure of Allied Heavy Bombing on June 6 (Osprey: Osprey Publishing, 2022).
D-Day is one of the most written-about events in military history. One aspect of the invasion, however, continues to be ignored: the massive pre-assault bombardment by the Allied Expeditionary Air Force (AEAF), reinforced by RAF Bomber Command and the US Eighth Air Force on June 6 which sought to neutralize the German defenses along the Atlantic Wall. Unfortunately, this failed series of attacks resulted in death or injury to hundreds of soldiers, and killed many French civilians.
Despite an initial successful attack performed by the Allied forces, the most crucial phase of the operation, which was the assault from the Eighth Air Force against the defenses along the Calvados coast, was disastrous. The bombers missed almost all of their targets, inflicting little damage to the German defenses, which resulted in a high number of casualties among the Allied infantry. The primary cause of this failure was that planners at Eighth Air Force Headquarters had changed aircraft drop times at the last moment, to prevent casualties amongst the landing forces, without notifying either Eisenhower or Doolittle.
This book examines this generally overlooked event in detail, answering several fundamental questions: What was the AEAF supposed to accomplish along the Atlantic Wall on D-Day and why did it not achieve its bombardment objectives? Offering a new perspective on a little-known air campaign, it is packed with illustrations, maps and diagrams exploring in detail the features and ramifications of this mission.
Laurence Burke II, At the Dawn of Airpower: The U.S. Army, Navy and Marine Corps’ Approach to the Airplane 1907–1917 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2022).
At the Dawn of Airpower: The U.S. Army, Navy, and Marine Corps’ Approach to the Airplane, 1907-1917 examines the development of aviation in the U.S. Army, Navy, and Marine Corps from their first official steps into aviation up to the United States’ declaration of war against Germany in April, 1917. Burke explains why each of the services wanted airplanes and show how they developed their respective air arms and the doctrine that guided them. His narrative follows aviation developments closely, delving deep into the official and personal papers of those involved and teasing out the ideas and intents of the early pioneers who drove military aviation Burke also closely examines the consequences of both accidental and conscious decisions on the development of the nascent aviation arms.
Certainly, the slow advancement of the technology of the airplane itself in the United States (compared to Europe) in this period affected the creation of doctrine in this period. Likewise, notions that the war that broke out in 1914 was strictly a European concern, reinforced by President Woodrow Wilson’s intentions to keep the United States out of that war, meant that the U.S. military had no incentive to “keep up” with European military aviation. Ultimately, however, he concludes that it was the respective services’ inability to create a strong, durable network connecting those flying the airplanes regularly (technology advocates) with the senior officers exercising control over their budget and organization (technology patrons) that hindered military aviation during this period.
Jim Leeke, Turtle and the Dreamboat: The Cold War Flights That Forever Changed the Course of Global Aviation (Dulles, VA: Potomac Books, 2022).
The Turtle and the Dreamboat is the first detailed account of the race for long-distance flight records between the U.S. Army and U.S. Navy less than fourteen months after World War II. The flights were risky and unprecedented. Each service intended to demonstrate its offensive capabilities during the new nuclear age, a time when America was realigning its military structure and preparing to create a new armed service – the United States Air Force.
The first week of October 1946 saw the conclusion of both record-breaking, nonstop flights by the military fliers. The first aircraft, a two-engine U.S. Navy P2V Neptune patrol plane nicknamed the Truculent Turtle, flew more than eleven thousand miles from Perth, Western Australia, to Columbus, Ohio. The Turtle carried four war-honed pilots and a young kangaroo as a passenger. The second plane, a four-engine U.S. Army B-29 Superfortress bomber dubbed the Pacusan Dreamboat, flew nearly ten thousand miles from Honolulu to Cairo via the Arctic. Although presented as a friendly rivalry, the two flights were anything but collegial. These military missions were meant to capture public opinion and establish aviation leadership within the coming Department of Defense.
Both audacious flights above oceans, deserts, mountains, and icecaps helped to shape the future of worldwide commercial aviation, greatly reducing the length and costs of international routes. Jim Leeke provides an account of the remarkable and record-breaking flights that forever changed aviation.
Micheal Napier, Flashpoints: Air Warfare in the Cold War (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2022).
The Cold War years were a period of unprecedented peace in Europe, yet they also saw a number of localised but nonetheless very intense wars throughout the wider world in which air power played a vital role. Flashpoints describes eight of these Cold War conflicts: the Suez Crisis of 1956, the Congo Crisis of 1960-65, the Indo-Pakistan Wars of 1965 and 1971, the Arab-Israeli Wars of 1967 and 1973, the Falklands War of 1982 and the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88. In all of them both sides had a credible air force equipped with modern types, and air power shaped the final outcome.
Acclaimed aviation historian Michael Napier details the wide range of aircraft types used and the development of tactics over the period. The postwar years saw a revolution in aviation technology and design, particularly in the fields of missile development and electronic warfare, and these conflicts saw some of the most modern technology that the NATO and Warsaw Pact forces deployed, alongside some relatively obscure aircraft types such as the Westland Wyvern and the Folland Gnat.
Highly illustrated, with over 240 images and maps, Flashpoints is an authoritative account of the most important air wars of the Cold War.
David Nicolle and Gabr Ali Gabr, Air Power and the Arab World – Volume 6: World in Crisis, 1936-March 1941 (Warwick: Helion and Company, 2022).
Volume 6 of the Air Power and the Arab World mini-series continues the story of the men and machines of the first half century of military aviation in the Arab world. These years saw the Arab countries and their military forces caught up in the events of the Second World War.
For those Arab nations which had some degree of independence, the resulting political, cultural and economic strains had a profound impact upon their military forces. In Egypt the Army generally remained quiet, continuing with its often unglamorous and little appreciated duties. Within the Royal Egyptian Air Force (REAF), however, there were a significant number of men who wanted to take action in expectation of what they, and many around the world, expected to be the defeat of the British Empire.
The result was division, widespread mistrust, humiliation, and for a while the grounding of the entire REAF. In Iraq the strains of the early war years sowed the seeds of a yet to come direct armed confrontation with the British.
Volume 6 of Air Power and the Arab World then looks at the first efforts to revive both the REAF and the Royal Iraqi Air Force (RIrAF), along with events in the air and on the ground elsewhere in the Arab world from 1939 until March 1941.
This volume is illustrated throughout with photographs of the REAF, RIrAF and RAF and a selection of specially commissioned colour artworks.
Adrian Phillips, Rearming the RAF for the Second World War: Poor Strategy and Miscalculation (Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2022).
When the RAF rearmed to meet the growing threat from Nazi Germany’s remorseless expansion in the late 1930s, it faced immense challenges. It had to manage a huge increase in size as well as mastering rapid advances in aviation technology. To protect Britain from attack, the RAF’s commanders had to choose the right strategy and the right balance in its forces. The choices had to be made in peacetime with no guidance from combat experience. These visions then had to be translated into practical reality. A shifting cast of government ministers, civil servants and industrialists with their own financial, political and military agendas brought further dynamics into play. The RAF’s readiness for war was crucial to Britain’s ability to respond to Nazi aggression before war broke out and when it did, the RAF’s rearmament was put to the acid test of battle. Adrian Phillips uses the penetrating grasp of how top level decisions are made that he honed in his inside accounts of the abdication crisis and appeasement, to dissect the process which shaped the RAF of 1940. He looks beyond the familiar legends of the Battle of Britain and explores in depth the successes and failures of a vital element in British preparations for war.
John Quaife, Battle of the Atlantic: Royal Australian Air Force in Coastal Command 1939-1945 (Newport, NSW: Big Sky Publishing, 2022).
At the outbreak of World War II, somewhat by accident — and just as the first shots of the war were fired — young Australian airmen from the Royal Australian Air Force were engaged in operations that would become known collectively as the Battle of the Atlantic. Arguably lesser-known than air campaigns in other theatres, large numbers of Australians who volunteered for service with Royal Australian Air Force, found themselves fighting in this battle. Australians were there at the outbreak and many would go on to fly some of the final missions of the war in Europe.
This book captures some of the experiences of the Royal Australian Air Force members who served with Coastal Command and, through the weight of numbers alone, stories of the Sunderland squadrons and the Battle of the Atlantic dominate the narrative. Being critical to Britain’s survival, the battle also dominated Coastal Command throughout the war but Australians served in a surprising variety of other roles. The nature of many of those tasks demanded persistence that could only be achieved by large numbers of young men and women being prepared to ‘do what it took’ to get a tedious and unrewarding job done. Over 400 did not come home.
Steven Zaloga, The Oil Campaign 1944–45: Draining the Wehrmacht’s Lifeblood (Oxford: OIsprey Publishing, 2022).
With retreating German forces losing their oilfields on the Eastern Front, Germany was reliant on its own facilities, particularly for producing synthetic oil from coal. However, these were within range of the increasingly mighty Allied air forces. In 1944 the head of the US Strategic Air Forces, General Carl Spaatz was intent on a new campaign that aimed to cripple the German war machine by depriving it of fuel.
The USAAF’s Oil Campaign built up momentum during the summer of 1944 and targeted these refineries and plants with its daylight heavy bombers. Decrypted German communications made it clear that the Oil Campaign was having an effect against the Wehrmacht. Fuel shortages in the autumn of 1944 forced the Luftwaffe to ground most of its combat units except for fighters involved in the defense of the Reich. Fuel shortages also forced the Kriegsmarine to place most of its warships in harbor except for the U-boats and greatly hampered German army campaigns such as the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944-45.
This fascinating book packed with key photos and illustrations examines the controversies and debates over the focus of the US bombing campaign in the final year of the war, and the impact it had on the war effort overall.
At one minute past midnight on 17 January 1991, US Air Force Major Kathy Rambo-Cosand prepared to take off in a Lockheed C-141 Starlifter from Ramstein Air Base, Germany. It was snowing, and her aircraft was packed with 44,000 pounds of cluster bombs headed for Saudi Arabia. The aircraft was severely overweight: she was authorised to fly at ‘emergency war weights.’ If the C-141 lost an engine on take-off from Ramstein’s short runway, they would most likely crash. She worried about what the cluster bombs might do if that happened. Moreover, an accident was a realistic possibility: A Lockheed C-5 Galaxy had crashed, taking off from Ramstein just a few months earlier, killing 13 of the 17 people on board.
As Rambo-Cosand and her crew waited for their take-off clearance, a call came on the radio: “All missions are cancelled.” The airspace over Saudi Arabia had been shut down as coalition fighters and bombers kicked off Operation DESERT STORM, the coalition effort to remove Iraqi forces from Kuwait. Rambo-Cosand and her crew waited in their aircraft as planners decided what to do. Finally, at 2:30 a.m., she received the call to take off. With the C-5 crash and the enormity of her cargo weighing heavily on her, Rambo-Cosand pulled onto the runway and lumbered into the sky. Unfortunately, the most stressful take off of her career was for naught: when they arrived over Italy, they were turned back to Ramstein.
At that point, Rambo-Cosand had been flying in and out of Saudi Arabia for the past four months, and it would be many more months before she finally returned home to her family. Indeed, the rapid build-up, sustainment, and eventual employment of forces in the Middle East as part of Operation DESERT SHIELD/STORM was only possible because of support aircraft that did everything from hauling cargo to communications jamming. Moreover, it was these aircraft that women like Rambo-Cosand flew since they were not allowed to fly in combat; a provision within the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act passed by Congress in 1948 prohibited that. This article explores the experience of some of those women during DESERT SHIELD/STORM and details some of the challenges faced by US females operating in a combat environment.
The Women Aviators of Operation DESERT SHIELD/DESERT STORM
Despite the combat restrictions, women soon arrived in Saudi Arabia. Some of the first women were pilots, like US Army Captain Victoria Calhoun, a Boeing CH-47 Chinook helicopter pilot at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, who deployed on 9 August, two days after Operation DESERT SHIELD began in response to the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq. Calhoun had asked to be stationed at Fort Bragg the previous year because she figured if any action happened, it would happen there. She was right, but shortly after arriving, her unit deployed to support the 1989 invasion of Panama, and her operations officer would not let her go, replacing her with a less-experienced male pilot. A year later, she feared the same thing might happen. However, when someone questioned her battalion commander about whether women would deploy to Saudi Arabia, he said, “They have to go. If they don’t go, we’re not mission capable as a unit!”
Calhoun arrived at Dhahran Air Base with an advance party to conduct reconnaissance and prepare the base for more arrivals. At first, there was not much flying for the Chinooks, mainly because the sand in Saudi Arabia caused maintenance nightmares. The missions Calhoun flew transported parts and supplies around to other units, a mission nicknamed “Desert Express.”
Reserve units began activating on 24 August. All C-5 reserve squadrons were activated as the massive cargo aircraft hauled most of the Army’s tanks and larger helicopters to the theatre. Major Stephanie Wells, a C-5 pilot from Kelly Air Force Base, Texas, was activated on 29 August. She was thrilled to be part of the team: when she had initially called her unit on 6 August to inquire about deploying, she was told that women would not be allowed to go. Nevertheless, Wells was soon flying C-5s all over the world. At first, she never knew where she would be going on any given day, but then things settled down, and she began flying missions out of Dover Air Force Base, Delaware.
Technical Sergeant Donna Davis, a C-5 flight engineer in a reserve unit at Travis Air Force Base, California, soon wound up in Germany. When a crew landed, after eight hours of crew rest, Davis says they were normally assigned to an aircraft brought in by another crew. The crews stopped to rest, but the aeroplane kept going. The crews often pulled 24-hour shifts before going back into crew rest, and Davis found it hard to sleep more than about four hours at a time. She was not alone; most of the crews were exhausted all the time and, as she says, “Thank goodness for autopilot.”
As the initial troops and equipment flowed to Saudi Arabia, Rambo-Cosand, who was in a reserve unit at McGuire Air Force Base, New Jersey, debated what to do. She had met her husband when she had been one of the first ten women to attend US Air Force pilot training in 1976, and they had just settled with their two children into new quarters after a move to Honduras. She hated to leave her 2-year-old and 7-year-old at home, but she decided to volunteer to fly some missions, thinking that if enough reservists volunteered, her unit would not be activated. However, before she could arrive to begin her volunteer tour, her unit was activated on 9 September. Rambo-Cosand moved heaven and earth to get to McGuire in less than 24 hours, begging the US Embassy to get her on a 6:00 a.m. flight out of Honduras the following day. Even living overseas, she beat several airline pilots in her squadron to McGuire.
After arriving at McGuire, Rambo-Cosand flew first to Zaragoza, Spain, and then began flying shuttles to Saudi Arabia. Working 30-hour days, she and her crew flew 150 hours in 16 days compared to the normal 75 hours they might fly in a month. She recalls, “We were like zombies.” But like most pilots, Rambo-Cosand enjoyed what she was doing. She found aeromedical evacuation flights of wounded personnel to be the most special. Whenever she carried patients, she always went back to talk to them and hold their hand before returning to the cockpit, hoping they would make it.
By early October, enough forces were in place to defend Saudi Arabia should the Iraqis attack. An additional a build-up of forces began in early November to prepare for an offensive operation. In November, the United Nations Security Council also set a deadline for Iraq to withdraw forces by 15 January 1991. The deadline passed, and the air war started on 17 January.
On the first day of the war, US Air Force Captain Sheila Chewing helped two McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle fighter pilots shoot down two Iraqi Mikoyan MiG-29 Fulcrums. She was a weapons controller onboard a Boeing E-3 Sentry, an Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft distinguished by a gigantic disc-shaped radar antenna mounted on top of the aircraft and used for tracking both friendly and enemy aircraft. She spotted the MiG-29s on her radar screen onboard the AWACS and then directed the F-15 pilots until their own radars could track the enemy aircraft and launch missiles at them. Chewing later said, “When that happened [bringing down an enemy plane], we really felt like we were doing our jobs.”
While airlift crews shuttled endlessly among the US, Europe, and the Middle East, some women who flew refuelling tankers and other support aircraft settled at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey. Air Force Captain Christina Vance Halli, a Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker pilot, was happy to deploy to support DESERT STORM. She was tired of being at Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota, where she mostly sat alert with bomber crews and rarely flew. Instead, she and the rest of her crew flew as passengers to get to Incirlik. During a stop in Greece, it was obvious they were getting closer to the action: a man wearing a flak jacket met them at the aircraft and instructed them to low crawl across the ramp to his vehicle.
The aircraft that launched from Incirlik did so as part of a large strike package of tankers, communications jammers (EC-130s), tactical reconnaissance aircraft (RF-4Cs) and the fighter aircraft that would be striking targets deep into Iraq. For most missions, the slower Lockheed EC-130s launched first to get into position to provide jamming protection for the striking aircraft. At the same time or shortly after, McDonnell Douglas RF-4C Phantom aircraft took off and finally, the KC-135s departed, followed by the striking aircraft. A typical strike package had three to five tankers, each servicing four to eight fighters. The refuelling’s were a bit of an adventure, done in radio silence and mostly at night, but the skill of all crews involved prevented any mishaps. The fighters followed the tankers to Iraq’s northern border, refuelling as needed and getting a top-off before entering Iraq. At that point, the tankers did a U-turn and held in orbit, waiting for the strikers to return.
In the meantime, the EC-130s orbited nearby to provide jamming support. Captain Amy Hermes Smellie was an EC-130 co-pilot. She recalls sometimes seeing anti-aircraft artillery in the distance as the strikers reached their targets; on other occasions, she wore night vision goggles look for targets. Unlike the other support aircraft that might carry one or two women aviators on a mission, the EC-130s were often packed with women linguists in the back of the aeroplane. Smellie says the linguists were the driving factor in EC-130s; the Air Force might have been able to fly EC-130 missions without women pilots, but they did not have enough male linguists.
The ground campaign began on early 24 February. That day Major Marie Rossi, the company commander of one of Calhoun’s sister units, appeared on CNN, saying, “[T]his is the moment that everybody trains for – that I’ve trained for – so I feel ready to meet the challenge.” To prepare for the assault, coalition ground forces had quietly moved hundreds of miles to the west, including Calhoun’s CH-47 unit, which moved from Dhahran to Rafha. Instead of flying to Rafha, Calhoun was put in charge of a convoy for the move. However, once at Rafha, she got in on the action. On the second day of the ground war, she flew Chinook missions to move elements of the US 101st Airborne Division to Forward Operating Base Cobra, 93 miles inside Iraq, to provide a logistics base for the 101st as they conducted their assault. Overall, Calhoun flew 22 hours of combat, flying into Iraq and coming within 90 miles of Baghdad.
Offensive operations ended at 08:00 on 28 February, but that did not stop the danger. Marie Rossi, the pilot who had appeared on CNN, died on 1 March, the day after the cease-fire, when her helicopter hit an unlit radio tower.
US Navy women did not get as many opportunities to fly during the war as their Air Force and Army counterparts. A handful of women, mostly in helicopter combat support squadrons, carried personnel and equipment around the Persian Gulf and flew other support missions, including search and rescue. Lieutenant Commander Lucy Young, who had qualified to fly Douglas A-4 Skyhawk strike aircraft and was the US Navy’s first female strike instructor, nevertheless was not allowed to fly in combat. By 1991, she had left the Navy and was in a reserve unit in Atlanta, flying McDonnell Douglas C-9s, a small cargo aircraft like the commercial DC-9. Young’s squadron was never activated, but she spent three weeks flying people and cargo around the Middle East during the build-up in September 1991 while male strike pilots she had trained headed for the war on aircraft carriers.
Captain Peggy Phillips, a C-141 pilot in the reserves at McChord Air Force Base, Washington, says that the women transport pilots were the ‘first in and last out’ of the theatre. This was especially true of the reservists; many were activated in August or September of 1990 and not deactivated until May or June 1991. Another aspect of being an airlifter was that the crews received no parades or big welcomes when they returned home like many of the combat units, who deployed and returned as a group. Instead, the airlifters dribbled over and back, activating, and deactivating on individual timelines. Phillips had a two-day notice to deactivate. She quietly went home with no fanfare.
The Dangers faced by Female Aviators
Going up against the fourth largest army in the world, planners expected the overall battle to be short but potentially very bloody, with as many as 30,000 casualties. Given that the all-volunteer force in place since the mid-1970s was 15% female, at least some of those casualties were expected to be women.
Although the aircraft flown by women aviators largely kept them away from enemy fire, the missions weren’t risk-free. Tankers occasionally flew over hostile territory with their strike package. For example, Captain Ann Weaver Worster reportedly flew her tanker 250 miles inside Iraq on one mission. In another instance, an SA-8 surface-to-air missile exploded above a KC-135 flying out of Incirlik.
Once the Iraqis started launching SCUD missiles during Desert Storm, the transport and other support crews were vulnerable when they landed in Saudi Arabia. For example, Rambo-Cosand received word of a ‘black flag’ SCUD alert during one flight, and the crew donned their chemical warfare gear before landing. Once on the ground, the crew dashed to a bunker in their gear, where they stayed for several hours until their aircraft could be refuelled and reloaded for their return flight.
In addition to dealing with hostile forces, the women aviators also dealt with a hostile environment from their hosts. For example, Saudi ground crews refused to take fuel orders from women crewmembers and women who stayed in Saudi Arabia overnight had to cover up if they wanted to go off base.
Naysayers had predicted that women would become pregnant to avoid going to war. Some pregnant women could not deploy, but it was not only women who wanted to stay home for family reasons. Halli, the KC-135 pilot, recalled that her navigator did not want to deploy because his wife was pregnant; he was replaced with another navigator.
During their deployments, men and women left behind families, including small children. For example, C-5 flight engineer Donna Davis left her son with her parents, although she made it home for Christmas. Unlike crewmembers who lived near McGuire, Rambo-Cosand found it difficult to get home whenever she had a few extra days in the US, although she did make it back to her family in Honduras for a few days about every six weeks. Sometimes childcare took creative juggling. For example, C-141 pilot Peggy Phillips had three small children and an airline pilot husband who was also an activated reservist. The couple served in the same unit at McChord, and their commander allowed them to work their schedules so that while one was flying on a trip, the other worked in the squadron.
Conclusion – An Opportunity for Change
Carolyn Becraft, a significant player in the fight to overturn the archaic combat exclusion law, says activating the reserves had a huge impact on the public’s acceptance of women going into hostile territory. Unit activations turned into local stories, and people saw their neighbours, both men and women, heading to war.
The women aviators in Desert Shield and Desert Storm and other women who served in the Middle East, collectively proved they could participate in combat. After legislation and a Presidential Commission to further study the issue, women aviators finally earned the right to fly combat aircraft on 28 April 1993. However, for most women who flew in Desert Storm, the change came too late in their careers. Tanker pilot Christina Vance Halli left the Air Force and applied to fly General Dynamics F-16s at the Air National Guard unit in Fresno, California. The unit seemed receptive, allowing her to go through a process of visits and interviews before turning her down. Their reason? She did not have any fighter experience.
Eileen A. Bjorkman is a former flight test engineer in the USAF with more than thirty-five years of experience and over 700 hours in the cockpits of F-4s, F-16s, C-130s, and C-141s. Her most recent book is Unforgotten in the Gulf of Tonkin: A Story of the U.S. Military’s Commitment to Leave No One Behind (2020) She is also the author of The Propeller under the Bed: A Personal History of Homebuilt Aircraft and has published articles in the Smithsonian’s Air & Space Magazine, Aviation History, Sport Aviation, the Everett Daily Herald, and the Herald Business Journal.
Header image: Members of the US.’ Air Force disembark from a Lockheed C-141B Starlifter aircraft upon their arrival in support of Operation DESERT SHIELD. This is the type of aircraft flown by Major Kathy Rambo-Cosand and Captain Peggy Phillips as mentioned in this article. (Source: Wikimedia)
 Interview with Kathy Rambo-Cosand, 21 April 2021.
Conduct of the Persian Gulf War: Final Report to Congress (Washington, D.C.: US Department of Defense, 1992), p. 45
Editorial Note: 2021 marks the 30th anniversary of Operation DESERT STORM. To mark this anniversary, during 2021, From Balloons to Drones will be publishing a series of articles that examine various aspects of DESERT STORM’s air campaign. We will be publishing pieces throughout 2021, and if you would like to contribute to the series, please contact our Editor-in-Chief, Dr Ross Mahoney, at firstname.lastname@example.org or via our contact page here. The official call for submissions can be found here.
In this first instalment, Dr Brain Laslie provides a review of one of the first memoirs to emerge after the end of the First Gulf War; She Went to War: The Rhonda Cornum Story. Rhonda Cornum’s story is interesting for several reasons. First, it provides an army view of the air war rather than the more common air force view. Second, much of its focus relates to the latter part of the conflict, and finally, and most importantly, the book provides an insight into the experience of female prisoners of war (POW) in wartime.
Rhonda Cornum with Peter Copeland, She Went to War: The Rhonda Cornum Story (30th Anniversary Edition). Cardiff, CA: Waterside Productions, 2020. Pbk. 240pp.
Reviewed by Dr Brian Laslie
This was it. This was life as a POW. This was my life for the near future. This room, those walls, that ceiling. My reality. (p. 168).
Major Rhonda Cornum was a member of the US Army’s 2-229th Attack Helicopter Battalion attached to the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) during Operation DESERT STORM. As a medical doctor, her job was to fly as a member of a UH-60 crew behind attacking AH-64 Apaches and provide medical support to any downed aircrew. On 27 February 1991 – the fourth day of the ground war – Cornum and the other members of her UH-60 crew diverted to become a search and rescue aircraft sent to pick up a downed F-16 pilot, Captain William F. Andrews. During the rescue mission, the UH-60 she was riding was shot down. Her subsequent ordeal is detailed in the book She Went to War: The Rhonda Cornum Story (with her co-author Peter Copeland). Originally published in 1992, Cornum’s book was one of the early personal reflections of service during DESERT STORM. The book has now been re-released as part of the 30th anniversary of DESERT STORM.
The crash resulted in the loss of Chief Warrant Officer Four Philip Garvey, Chief Warrant Officer Three Robert Godfrey, Sergeant 1st Class William Butts, Staff Sergeant Patbouvier Ortiz, and Sergeant Roger Brelinski. Only three crew members survived: Cornum, Staff Sergeant Daniel Stamaris, and Specialist Four Troy Dunlap. The three survivors were rapidly captured by the Iraqi military (pp. 12-3). Among the trio of survivors, Cornum was the most seriously injured. Her injuries sustained in the crash included ‘two broken arms, both at odd angels; a smashed finger […] a blown out knee and various lacerations and bruises’ (p. 79-80) and – as she later discovered – a bullet wound in her back (pp. 97-8).
Captured almost immediately Cornum was taken to a series of bunkers and one gets the sense that the Iraqi military was not entirely prepared to deal with her and other captured Americans preferring to shuttle them up the chain of command. This description harkens back to Everett Alvarez’s early days of captivity after he became the first POW during the Vietnam war and detailed in his autobiography Chained Eagle (1989).
Cornum, suffering from her severe wounds, also learned to deal with a myriad of other problems. These problems included boredom and the indeterminable waiting for something to happen (p.39, 41), a sexual assault at the hands of one of the guards, and the complete inability to do anything on her own from dressing to going to the bathroom. Cornum was forced to rely on her captors or a fellow POW to help her with her dressings and personal hygiene.
She Went to War certainly deserves to be included under the rubric of air power books coming out of DESERT STORM, but this particular book is essential for another reason as it is one of the few works that explore the experience of female POWs. Cornum and US Army Specialist Melissa Rathbun-Nealy were the only two female POWs taken prisoner during DESERT STORM. As such, Cornum’s insightful work adds something unique to the historiography of DESERT STORM; a female perspective. Indeed, arguably the critical work on POWs’ experience during DESERT STORM remains Tornado Down (1992), the account of Britain’s Flight Lieutenants John Peters and John Nichol who were shot down on the first day of the air campaign. As we enter into a period of historical reflection thirty years later, Cornum and Copeland’s book should enter the conversation as one of the great memoirs to come from DESERT STORM.
The advent of flying craft was, without doubt, a threat to the long-established roles of ground forces. Most historians are familiar with the intra- and inter-service battles that raged during the early days of aviation, but rare are the works that dive into specific details within the various army branches. Seeking to fill that historiographical gap, Lori Henning’s meticulously researched book does just that.
Harnessing the Airplane tells the story of how cavalrymen in the United States (US) and the United Kingdom (UK) dealt with the integration of aircraft – and to a lesser degree, the tank – into their branch. Analysing the first four decades following the aircraft’s invention, Henning shows that cavalrymen generally accepted the new technology, but were cautious about relinquishing the cavalry’s reconnaissance mission too hastily. Instead, the cavalry sought to experiment with aircraft to find ways to improve the reconnaissance service they provided to ground commanders.
Chapter one, ‘State of Affairs,’ sets the stage for the following analysis. In this chapter, Henning provides brief histories of the US and British cavalries. This baseline helps explain why both services saw the integration of the aircraft differently. The US cavalry embraced a wide range of missions and used the horse primarily for mobility purposes. This view of how to use horses led to strong resistance against aircraft as the US Cavalry viewed ground reconnaissance as one of its most essential functions. The British used the cavalry primarily for mounted combat and the pursuit of retreating enemy forces and this view allowed the British cavalry to be somewhat more accepting of aircraft.
Chapter two, ‘Early Response to Heavier-Than-Air-Flight,’ highlights the natural connection between aircraft and the cavalry. With reconnaissance being the first purpose of aircraft, cavalry reconnaissance was not surprisingly one of the first missions the aircraft sought to assume. In the earliest days, both nations’ cavalries acknowledged the potential of aircraft, but concluded that the technology was not sufficient; as Henning stated (p. 32):
The general consensus was that aviation would support the cavalry in the field as an auxiliary service and not replace mounted forces.
Chapter three, ‘Developing a Relationship in the 1920s,’ explores how both nations’ evaluated the First World War and the effectiveness of the new technologies that were introduced in that conflict. In the First World War, aircraft played a significant role while both cavalries were effectively absent. The public sentiment that the cavalry had become obsolete increased and cavalrymen in both nations had to defend their branch and find ways to justify its continued existence.
Chapter four, ‘National Economy,’ looks at the factor that may have been more damning to the cavalry than its poor performance in the First World War. In examining the financial arguments favouring aircraft over the cavalry, Henning provides a glimpse into reality. This was that the US and UK sought ways to decrease military expenditures and the aircraft’s proponents were more vociferous and persuasive in making this case than the proponents of cavalry.
Chapter five, ‘Autogiros and Mechanization,’ examines how cavalrymen continued to seek ways to work with the air forces to maximise both services’ effectiveness. By the 1930s, the relationship between air forces and cavalry had stabilised, but as time passed, airmen sought independence and increasingly focused on the strategic vice tactical use of aircraft. Both the British and American cavalry branches realised the need for its own air support, and as such, they turned to a new type of aircraft – the autogiro – to provide the airborne reconnaissance they needed.
Henning’s concluding chapter reminds us of the folly of abandoning functioning capabilities without first providing suitable replacements. Cavalrymen instantly recognised the potential of aircraft and tanks but approached their integration into the army from a cautious view. Despite being labelled as ‘backwards,’ the cavalrymen prudently sought ways to integrate the aircraft as its capabilities increased slowly. In telling this story, Harnessing the Airplane captures the essence of how organisations incorporate new technologies. Henning’s expert analysis highlights the challenge leaders face when presented with the next ‘game-changing technology.’ As she demonstrates, often, many are eager to go all-in without first ensuring that the ‘new’ can replace the ‘old.’ As we now stand at another technological crossroads with continual talk of replacing soldiers with robots, manned aircraft with drones, and analysts with artificial intelligence, this work highlights the rational approach of the early 20th century cavalrymen and provides a case study for today’s military thinkers to consider.
Editorial Note: During 2019, From Balloons to Drones is running a series of articles looking at various aspects of the air war over Vietnam from the French-Indochina War through to the end of the Vietnam War. In this article, Dr Robert Kodosky discusses the differing attitudes towards armed helicopters between the US Army and US Marine Corps as they entered the Vietnam War. If you would like to contribute to the series, then please email our editor, Dr Ross Mahoney, at email@example.com or via our contact page here. The official call for papers is here.
In Vietnam, the US Army utilised helicopters according to its thinking about conventional warfare during the previous decade. Without the ‘helicopter in Vietnam,’ US Army officials concluded that America and its allies in Vietnam ‘would not have been able to outmanoeuvre the enemy nor exercise their superior firepower.’ While accurate, this observation adhered to the assumption that these tactics aligned to an effective counterinsurgency strategy. As one wartime study commissioned by the Department of Defense contended, ‘the crude use of overwhelming firepower seems more appropriate to total war.’
The US Army appropriated helicopters to fight the war it wanted in Vietnam, one of attrition. In comparison, Marines employed rotary craft to fight the war they got. The US Marine Corps (USMC) weaponised helicopters to align with counterinsurgency goals and remained cautious about the firepower they delivered. In July 1967, for example, the commander of Fleet Marine Forces, Pacific, General Charles Krulak noted that armed helicopters carried out two-thirds of all USMC UH-1E flights in Vietnam during the previous year. He found this unacceptable. More arms, Krulak observed, denied the USMC ‘the eyes which are so urgently needed over the jungle environment.’ He suggested that the USMC had erred in putting ‘too many rocket pods’ on UH-1Es and had ‘unconsciously encouraged their misuse.’
This example, set by the USMC in Vietnam, remains vital today. Despite ‘deliberate application of COIN [counterinsurgency] practices in Iraq and Afghanistan,’ some aviators have remained ‘focused on killing insurgents.’ One AH-64 Apache battalion commander deployed to Iraq cited ‘winning hearts and minds’ as ‘ground-guy stuff.’
As such, this article explores foundational thinking surrounding the decision to weaponise helicopters in both the US Army and the USMC. Each initially conceptualised weaponising helicopters to wage a conventional war, whether as weapons platforms to combat tanks or to facilitate amphibious landings. This resulted in experimentation in ways to arm helicopters to deliver indiscriminate firepower. While the US Army remained on this path, the USMC deviated from it, based on their observations of the French effort to quell insurgents in Algeria and their own early experience in Vietnam. The USMC then decided to weaponise helicopters in Vietnam because they perceived them better able to deliver discriminate firepower than fixed-wing craft.
Blitzkrieg from Above
Contemporary observers largely concurred that the Vietnam War provided the ‘crucible for the helicopter.’ Military officials reaffirmed this view afterwards, citing helicopters as counterinsurgency tools essential for ‘mobility, rapid deployment of troops and logistics support.’ The US Army declared that helicopters ‘represented the most revolutionary change in warfare since the blitzkrieg.’
This view found widespread acceptance. According to US Army General William C. Westmoreland, commander of Military Assistance Command, Vietnam between 1964 and 1968, America ‘achieved the ability to use the helicopter and employ the tactics of air mobility.’ This reflected the US Army’s view that its efforts during the Korean War suffered from doctrinal and technological limitations that prohibited employing rotorcraft to gain the initiative by enabling mobility. In Korea, this resulted in a deadlock. Westmoreland observed that the Vietnam War readied America’s use of helicopters to ‘take off.’ This ‘is not the end,’ he advised, it ‘is only the beginning.’
This proved prescient. In 2004, the US Army alone deployed more than 500 helicopters to Afghanistan and Iraq. In counterinsurgency missions especially, the helicopter played ‘a key role.’ It continues to do so. There exists an ‘intensive use of rotary wing aircraft,’ rendering the helicopter as ‘omnipresent across a large spectrum of defense missions.’
There exists good cause, however, to explore the centrality of helicopters critically in the execution of counterinsurgency operations. A recent study concerned with American involvement in Vietnam, Soviet engagement in Afghanistan and French participation in Algeria argues that helicopters proved ‘indecisive or bad at enabling legitimacy, population control, and isolation, key tenets of successful COIN.’
This view is reflected by commentary offered by a counterinsurgency veteran to the Armed Forces Journal. It cited the proclivity of AH-64 Apache and OH-58D operators for flying low to the ground. While this proved ‘occasionally fruitful in detecting enemy activity,’ it observed that helicopters ‘can only scatter a farmer’s sheep so many times before he sees coalition forces as an annoyance rather than an ally.’
Such criticism is not new. Sir Robert Thompson, who directed the British Advisory Mission to the Republic of Vietnam between 1961-1965, became an outspoken critic of America’s strategy in Vietnam. Thompson was a widely respected expert on counterinsurgency based on his experience in Malaya. Thompson labelled attrition, using the number of Vietnamese communists killed as a metric of success, as an ‘error.’ The ‘main contributing factor to this,’ he contended, ‘was the helicopter.’
The Army Way – Cavalry Without Horses
The development of the US Army’s thinking about the use of helicopters as air cavalry capable of aerial assault originated during the Korean War. In July 1952, the US Army’s 6th Transportation Company (Helicopter) received the H-19 Chickasaw. Capable of faster and farther travel than the H-13, the Chickasaw constituted the US Army’s first true cargo and transport helicopter. While used to assist medical evacuation and resupply efforts, the H-19 executed the US Army’s first air assault combat missions, shaping Army thinking about helicopters after the war.
In 1955, Redstone Rocket likened helicopter performance favourably in Korea to fixed-wing operations during the Second World War. It framed the helicopter’s potential within conventional missions such as ‘smoke laying’ and ‘armor column control.’ It observed that helicopters took with them ‘two American military traditions: To get there ‘fustest with the mostest’ and to ‘hit ‘em where they ain’t.’”
James M. Gavin, a veteran of the Second World War and later a Lieutenant-General in the US Army of the 1950s, introduced his concept of airborne armoured cavalry in ‘The Future of Armor,’ an article that appeared in the US Army’s Infantry Journal in 1948. He argued that ‘striking at high speed by air’ and ‘entering ground combat’ enabled ‘mobility and the retention of the initiative.’ Armoured cavalry offered this potential, Gavin contended, rendering it uniquely able to ‘play the decisive role in future airborne combat.’
Gavin expanded on his idea over the next 15 years, including in an article for Harper’s Magazine, published in 1954. In ‘Cavalry, and I Don’t Mean Horses,’ Gavin suggested that the US 8th Army in Korea suffered from a lack of airmobile cavalry. He pressed for the return of a ‘mobility differential,’ one that could make a difference for American commanders in Korean-style conflicts and any war waged directly against the Soviet Union.
Mobility comprised more than speed, Gavin clarified, it included the capability to deliver superior firepower. The Second World War informed Gavin’s thinking and influenced the US Army’s development of its air assault concept. During the Second World War, in addition to its functions of target acquisition and artillery fire observation, organic US Army aviation ‘provided highly responsive capabilities.’
Gavin served in President Dwight Eisenhower’s administration as Assistant Chief of Staff for Operations (G-3) and was a critic of the President’s ‘New Look’ national security policy that prioritised massive nuclear retaliation. Gavin advocated the need for force readiness, ‘based on his concepts of mobility, firepower and control derived from his experience in World War II.’ He cited helicopters as able to ‘provide the mobility advantage that U.S. forces needed.’ These fulfilled the traditional cavalry missions of ‘reconnaissance, screening and exploitation.’
Gavin’s notions about air mobility became those of the US Army. General Hamilton Howze, appointed by Gavin as the first Director of Army Aviation in 1955, instituted them. In this capacity, Howze ‘saw to it that every imaginable weapon was strapped onto a US-1 (Huey).’ Also a veteran of the Second World War, Howze envisioned the utility of air mobility within conventional thinking about linear warfare against a mechanised adversary.
By the winter of 1961, with ‘the Army’s aviation resources suddenly in high demand’ due to America’s increasing commitment in Vietnam, Secretary of Defense for the President John F. Kennedy’s administration, Robert S. McNamara, grew ‘sharply critical of the Army’s conservative approach’ to improve air mobility.
Kennedy had shifted national defence from the massive retaliation endorsed by Eisenhower’s New Look. He called for ‘Flexible Response.’ This aimed to counter Soviet aggression using proxies throughout the world. It emphasised a rebuilt conventional force with the capacity to deploy quickly. McNamara pressed the military for ‘maximum mobility.’ He tasked the US Army with figuring out how to achieve this, within ‘an atmosphere divorced from traditional viewpoints and past policies.’ Howze, McNamara suggested, stood capable of creating such a climate.
The Howze Board
The US Army’s Tactical Mobility Requirements Board convened under Howze’s direction in May 1962. Its membership included 200 officers and 41 enlisted personnel from the Army, along with 53 civilians. The US Air Force (USAF) observed the Board’s work, carried out from May until the end of July. Testing utilised 125 helicopters and 25 fixed-wing aircraft to log over 11,000 hours of flight time. Conditions simulated a variety of scenarios, from Lieutenant-General Walton Walker’s withdrawal to Pusan in 1950 to counter-guerrilla exercises.
It all constituted ‘tactical experimentation’ with considerable attention provided to wargaming against the Soviet Union and an emphasis on the potential to deliver ‘heavy firepower.’ One ‘suggestive scenario’ featured in the Board’s final report, for example, simulated a Soviet incursion in Iran through the Zagros mountains.
Howze briefed the Pentagon in 1957 about the potential of air mobility to defend against a Soviet attack. Only the terrain shifted between then and 1962 as the earlier simulation situated the campaign in Bavaria. The interest in maximising the firepower of helicopters remained unabated.
As Director of Army Aviation, Howze worked ‘to prove that the helicopter’ constituted a ‘superior weapons platform.’ In 1958 the US Army successfully tested an H-34 loaded with 40 2.75- and 2.5-inch rockets, nine machine guns and two 20mm cannon.
For McNamara, the Howze Board staged a full field demonstration which featured four gunship helicopters attacking fortifications with machine guns and 2.75-inch rockets. It all climaxed with 30 Hueys ‘flying low, from behind the grandstands, at 110 miles per hour.’ Loaded with infantry, the helicopters landed in the smoke where soldiers dismounted and attacked. It all took two minutes.
The Howze Board sought out information about Southeast Asia by dispatching a team to visit Military Advisory Assistance Groups in Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Marine Task Force 116 Headquarters at Udorn, Thailand. Since the middle of 1962, a UH-1 Tactical Transport Helicopter Company armed with machine guns and 2.75-inch rockets operated in Vietnam to escort CH-21 helicopters. Nevertheless, the visiting Board members reported back that there existed resistance to arming helicopters from the USAF.
This only intensified with the Board’s recommendation for US Army air mobility, to include weaponised helicopters. A USAF Board headed by Lieutenant-General Gabriel Disosway issued a four-volume rebuttal to the Howze findings. It criticised weaponising helicopters, utilising an OV-1 Mohawk as a close-support aircraft and argued that USAF fighter-bombers provided better support.
This resulted in the decision to further test the airmobile concept by activating the 11th Air Assault Division (Test) at Fort Benning in 1963. Eighteen months of tests and exercises brought approval from all members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff except USAF General John McConnell who maintained his services’ opposition. For the USAF, the fundamental issue remained ‘centralised versus decentralised aircraft management and command.
Ultimately, the USAF won the battle, but it lost the war. The US Army relinquished the 24-armed Mohawks recommended by Howze. It activated the 1st Cavalry Division, however, in July 1965. By the 3 October 1965, the entire division reached its base area at An Khe in Vietnam’s Central Highlands. Its orders to seek out and destroy a North Vietnamese force building up in the area culminated in the Battle of Ia Drang in November.
The US Marine Corps Mantra – Tolerance, Sympathy and Kindness,
The USMC had long expressed interest in the idea of weaponising helicopters. As far back as 1949 they ‘envisioned that the supporting tactics’ of helicopters ‘might include the use of covering artillery fire’ to ‘neutralize anti-aircraft weapons’ and tanks. The limited lift capability and the instability of helicopters at the time rendered it unworkable. The idea remained, however, and the war in Vietnam reinvigorated it.
Lieutenant Colonel Victor J. Croizat served as the first USMC advisor to the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN). An authority on French military matters, Croizat visited Algeria where the French faced an insurgency. Accompanied by Major David Riley, Croizat reported their observations to Washington in July 1957.
The French employed helicopters judiciously, in support of ground elements, only until these became ‘capable of self-support with organic weapons.’ While obsolete helicopters ‘hampered’ French efforts, Croizat recommended that the USMC remain ‘abreast of the French experiences.’ As the USMC did that, the Division of Aviation cited that ‘the basic problem [still remaining] is that of determining whether or not Marine Corps Helicopters should be armed.’
There existed a few reasons for opposing armed helicopters in the USMC. These included the inadequacy of rotary-wing aircraft to serve as weapons platforms and the perceived inferiority of helicopter pilots. The most substantial objection, however, stemmed from fears of helicopters replacing fixed-wing to protect helicopter transports.
This necessitated a ‘major change of concept’ while threatening the identity of the USMC. According to Major General Norman J. Anderson, planners foresaw that ‘sacrificing fixed wing capabilities to helicopters’ risked the USMC losing its primary distinction from the US Army; ‘its combination of ground and air combat power.’
By April 1962, a USMC medium helicopter squadron had deployed to Vietnam. Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 362 (HMM-362) constituted the second element of task unit SHUFLY which occupied an old Japanese landing strip near Soc Trang, 85 miles south of Saigon. It operated in support of ARVN forces throughout southern Vietnam.
Unlike US Army helicopters already operating in other parts of South Vietnam, the USMC HUS-ls remained unarmed. USMC commanders reasoned that weapons mounted in the cargo hatch mitigated against efficient loading and unloading in landing zones. Moreover, armed aircraft presented hostile appearance to Vietnamese civilians. They acknowledged this as counterproductive to counterinsurgency by providing fodder for insurgent propaganda.
The USMC began devising counterinsurgency-specific roles for helicopters. For example, they soon observed that during large engagements, small numbers of insurgents peeled away to escape into covered areas. The USMC instituted ‘Eagle Flights’ aimed to thwart such escapes in which four helicopters loaded with ARVN troops circled over contested areas and timed landing to cut off any attempted escapes.
The USMC quickly deduced the ‘unique links’ between the ‘political and military aspects of the struggle in Vietnam.’ By August 1962, the US marines at Soc Trang began arming their helicopters by mounting M-60 machine guns inside the cargo hatch. While this constituted a radical change, one that realised fears of surrendering fixed-wing capabilities to rotary craft, the USMC adopted it as a defensive tactic, one compliant with the counterinsurgency they sought to execute. The M-60s served as protection for landing and only fired at clearly identified enemies. The USMC refrained from their use in the Mekong Delta’s heavily populated areas.
The US marines who served at Soc Trang became the most vocal advocates of weaponising helicopters. Their argument, however, derived from their conviction, gained from experience. That argument was that counterinsurgency success hinged on a discriminate application of firepower. The early operational experience gained by the US marines that served at Soc Tran convinced them that helicopters could operate with restraint better than fixed-wing aircraft. They sought to explain that in the densely populated areas where helicopter assaults transpired, the application of firepower required ‘almost surgical precision.’
While 500-pound bombs delivered by fixed-wing aircraft ‘might indeed suppress fire,’ this would ‘hardly win the ‘hearts and minds’ of the frightened or uncommitted residents.’ According to Colonel Noah C. New, the USMC ‘learned early’ the incompatibility of helicopters and jets in Vietnam. Because there ‘were so few Marines involved, at Soc Trang’ however, making a ‘convincing argument’ to others that the war in Southeast Asia required ‘new approaches’ proved difficult.
General Wallace M. Greene, Commandant of the USMC between 1964 and 1967, grasped the problem. In May 1965, six-armed Marine UH-1Es arrived at Da Nang. Greene explained this to the press, attributing the development to the ‘peculiar circumstances’ that the USMC confronted. He rationalised it as a counterinsurgency imperative, noting that ‘tactical fixed wing aircraft have not been available because of political considerations.’ The armed helicopter, Greene insisted, represented an appropriate tool for the USMC ‘in the environment of political-military artificialities which exist in the Republic of Vietnam.’
The decision by the USMC to weaponise helicopters exhibited recognition of the Vietnam War’s nature. It derived from the early experience at Soc Trang but also profited from the USMC’s experience in waging America’s ‘small wars’ in the early twentieth century. This is evident through the efforts initiated by USMC General Lew Walt. He commanded Marine Amphibious Force III that operated in I Corps, the tactical zone that included South Vietnam’s five northernmost provinces.
Walt, a veteran of both the Second World War and the Korean War, identified the conflict in Vietnam as something different. It resembled the kinds of engagements he heard about as a young officer ‘from men who fought Sandino in Nicaragua or Charlemagne in Haiti.’ Walt understood the USMC mission in Vietnam as framed by ‘sympathy, understanding, regard for the people.’ This echoed advice from the Small Wars Manual of 1940 that noted that ‘tolerance, sympathy and kindness should be the keynote of our relationship with the mass of the population.’ That insight informed the decision made by the Marines to weaponise helicopters in Vietnam.
In contrast to the US Army, the USMC sought to apply firepower discriminately. They also recognised the value of helicopters to provide reconnaissance, a critical task of counterinsurgency as ‘the enemy relies on stealth instead of mass.’ According to Major General William Gayler, commander of the US Army’s Aviation Center of Excellence, ‘the most critical gap for the Army is a light armed reconnaissance helicopter.’ One with the ability ‘to fight for information about terrain and enemy, that enables ground force commanders, that gives decision space, manoeuvre room and reaction time.’ Superior eyesight is sometimes more important than superior firepower. In Vietnam, the USMC understood this well. As military officials contemplate the use of helicopters in contemporary counterinsurgencies, ones where ‘hearts and minds’ remain as vital to secure as they did in Vietnam, the history of thinking within both the USMC and the US Army about weaponising helicopters for use in Vietnam offers valuable lessons.
Dr Robert J. Kodosky chairs the history department at West Chester University and advises the Student Veteran Group. He is the author of Psychological Operations American Style (2007), numerous articles about the Vietnam War and the forthcoming Tuskegee in Philadelphia: Rising to the Challenge (2020).
Header Image: An AH-1G Cobra gunship helicopter of the 334th Helicopter Company, 145th Aviation Battalion over Vietnam in 1969. (Source: Wikimedia)
 Lieutenant General John H. Hay, Jr., Vietnam Studies: Tactical and Materiel Innovations (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1974), p. 6.
 Raymond D. Gastil, Toward the Development of More Acceptable Limits for Counterinsurgency (New York: Hudson Institute, 1967), pp. IV-15.
 Lieutenant Colonel William R. Fails, Marines and Helicopters, 1962-1973 (Washington, DC: History and Museums Division, US Marine Corps, 1978), p. 111.
 On the use of USMC aviation in the small wars between the First and Second World War, see: Wray Johnson, Biplanes at War: US Marine Corps Aviation in the Small Wars Era, 1915-1934 (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2019).
Editorial Note: During 2019, From Balloons to Drones is running a series of articles looking at various aspects of the air war over Vietnam from the French-Indochina War through to the end of the Vietnam War. In this article, Hayley Michael Hasik discusses the cultural legacy of American helicopters during the Vietnam War. If you would like to contribute to the series then please email our editor, Dr Ross Mahoney, at firstname.lastname@example.org or via our contact page here. The official call for papers is here.
The scene opens with a squadron of helicopters sweeping across the landscape flying in formation over the open rice paddies of Vietnam. The whap-whap-whap of the Huey rotors quickly fades into the background becoming part of the soundtrack of the scene. Gunfire echoes in the background as the helicopters move into the landing zone encountering anti-aircraft fire from nearby North Vietnamese forces. The enemy remains hidden by the dense ground cover; their position betrayed only by the muzzle flashes of their weapons. The Huey slicks touch down, and soldiers quickly disembark and scatter before the Hueys take off just as quickly as they landed. Troops fan out across the open paddies, slogging through high water on alert looking for any sign of the enemy. The whole process seems to happen in slow motion, taking several minutes, but takes mere seconds; the longer these helicopters are on the ground, the more susceptible they are to enemy fire. Or so the narrator declared.
The scene above is not taken from a Hollywood blockbuster, but rather archived footage used in the Bell Helicopter-sponsored 2005 documentary entitled Huey in a Helicopter War, produced as part of the series, Heart of Darkness: Vietnam War Chronicles. This was not the first instance where Bell, responsible for the development and manufacture of the iconic UH-1 Huey helicopter, helped shape the public image of the Huey in the Vietnam War. Bell was just one of many corporations involved in helping to construct the symbolism of helicopters both during and well after the war. Corporations like Bell, Sikorsky, Hughes Helicopter, and AVCO Lycoming Division participated in and directed the creation of the helicopter mythology and iconography during the Vietnam War. Corporate advertisements and sponsorships in Army Aviation magazine reveal an intimate connection between the legacy of helicopters and these corporations.
As Army Aviation developed into a distinct entity within the U.S. Army in the 1950s and early 1960s, a separate culture also began to develop. Part of this culture included periodicals like Army Aviation, whose readership included ‘civilians, military in every grade from NCO to general officer, and a handful of loyal industry supporters’ with connections to companies such as the helicopter manufacturer Sikorsky and the AVCO Lycoming Division, which produced Lycoming engine used to power many of these helicopters. The Department of Air Training Artillery School at Fort Sill, Oklahoma published the first edition in 1952 as a newsletter, The Army Aviator. This newsletter kept readers apprised of events in army aviation. Examples include the construction of airfields, updates and changes to flight safety, various aspects of training, and plans and projects slated for the future of army aviation. There were no images, and certainly no sponsorships, within these yellowed pages. In 1953, the Artillery School became the Army Aviation School at Fort Sill before moving to Camp Rucker, Alabama (now Fort Rucker) in late 1954. Coinciding with this restructuring and increasing professionalisation of Army Aviation, in May 1954, The Army Aviator became the Army Aviation Magazine:
[a]n unofficial, all-component monthly publication financially & editorially supported by voluntary subscriber/correspondents […] No implication must be made that ‘Army Aviation’ is an authorized Army publication.’
In 1957, the Army Aviation Association of America (Quad-A) was founded as a ‘not-for-profit organization dedicated to representing the broad interests of Army Aviation.’ The Quad-A took over publication of the magazine, providing ‘an essential public forum for the current and future leaders’ in the field of army aviation. This professionalisation coincided with the introduction of corporate sponsors and advertising and contributed further to the developing culture of army aviation.
Corporate Sponsorship and Advertisements
Focusing specifically on the corporate sponsorships and accompanying advertisements published in Army Aviation during the early years of the Vietnam War helps to uncover how the iconography of helicopters developed during the war. Much credit for the imagery of helicopters is given to the media during the war and popular culture after the war. These corporate sponsorships also illustrate how the military-industrial complex was both an economic and cultural phenomenon. The imagery, rhetoric, and symbolism used in the magazine are similar to the images and rhetoric later used in films, on book covers, and recounted in histories of the war. The sponsorships fit into three broad categories. First, advertisements relied on old technology to reinforce the newness and progress of the new technology. Second, the language used in these ads worked alongside the imagery to highlight the toughness and durability of these fragile aircraft. Finally, corporations co-opted actual events in Vietnam, specifically the Battles of Ap Bac and Ia Drang, to portray helicopters as the future of warfare. Focusing on the early years of the war allows one to understand better how helicopters were introduced to the Army and how they were contemporarily incorporated into the narrative of the Vietnam War. How did machines that were fragile, difficult to fly, and, as Jim Willbanks once noted in lecture, could be punctured with an icepick, eventually become the sight and sound of the Vietnam War.
The efforts to draw specific connections between helicopters (the new technology) and tanks or other Second World War machines/weapons (the old technology) is a recurring theme in corporate efforts to promote helicopters as the epitome of technological progress. The most striking visual representations of this phenomenon are the Sikorsky Aircraft advertisements from February 1963 and December 1965. Sikorsky blatantly placed this technology side-by-side to illustrate how this new technology had subsumed old technology, making it hard to ignore the portrayal of helicopters as a sign of military progress. The 1963 advertisement showed a Skycrane effortlessly lifting a tank over a tree line. The symbolism of this photograph is palpable. The new technology (helicopter) reduces the old technology (tank) to cargo. The new technology (helicopter) makes the old technology (tank) obsolete. Not only can this helicopter transport the tank, but, in many instances, the helicopter can go where the tank cannot, rendering the tank incapable of the same role it played in the Second World War and even Korea. The description that accompanied the advertisement explained how these helicopters were in their final testing phase, meaning they had not yet been used in Vietnam, but that did not stop the corporations from marketing them.
This symbolism continued at the end of 1965 with a two-page advertisement highlighting the workhorse capabilities of the Skycrane, which was described as capable of carrying ‘over 10 tons of almost anything […] or 67 combat-equipped troops.’ Not only was the Skycrane capable of carrying a tank, as demonstrated nearly three years earlier, but the advertisement showed the Skycrane hovering over a bulldozer, truck, 105-millimetre howitzer, a small aeroplane, and a detachable van capable of holding 67 combat-equipped troops. This new technology subsumed the old technology of the tank and replaced multiple other forms of technology, like the truck and jeep, or made these machines and weapons accessible where they might not have been due to an inability to handle the rugged terrain or dense jungles of Vietnam.
These comparisons between the Second World War and the Vietnam War provided vivid visual images that people could relate to and put the helicopter into terms of America’s most recent large-scale military victory. General John Tolson asserted that the ‘versatility and uniqueness’ of helicopters made them the ‘keystone to airmobility,’ and, ‘The simple fact is that no other machine could have possibly accomplished the job of the helicopter.’ In reality, compared to tanks and other armoured vehicles, helicopters of the Vietnam era were vulnerable, easily breakable, and just not that tough. Helicopters were portrayed as more powerful than the technology that helped the US win the Second World War, so they must be powerful enough to win in Vietnam. Or so these ads suggested.
The use of targeted language provided a corporate answer to understanding why helicopters were such a prominent symbol of the Vietnam War. Not only were the advertisements visually promoting the concept of military progress but the phrasing and word choice throughout these sponsorships throughout the Vietnam War reinforced these visual images. AVCO Lycoming Division described the Huey as ‘one of the world’s toughest, most durable helicopters’ and the Lycoming engine that made it fly was ‘the world’s toughest, most durable helicopter engine.’ Not only were these helicopters tough and durable, but the missions they carried out were described as ‘demanding’ and ‘rough.’ They were, as Hughes Helicopter pointed out, a ‘tough machine for a tough war.’ ‘Helicopters with demanding missions are powered by General Electric,’ was General Electric’s motto. AVCO portrayed the Huey as the ultimate hero. ‘Out here, when things get rough they call in Huey,’ is nothing short of a Superman reference made by AVCO. Hueys were called in for everything from reinforcements and fire power to evacuations and rescues; they were showcased as being capable of any mission. On top of that, one advertisement alluded to helicopter engines, and by association helicopters, as bulletproof. The chosen descriptors worked alongside well-chosen photographs to reinforce certain conceptions of the helicopter. As Alasdair Spark noted in his social history of helicopters, ‘the helicopter became the American touchstone, symbolizing a transcendent American power incarnate in metal.’ Society began to see the helicopter as a tough and rugged and exceptional piece of technology.
General Electric, AVCO, and Hughes Helicopter all used this type of terminology to emphasise the toughness and ruggedness of these fragile, or at the very least complicated, machines. Veteran pilots like Warrant Officer James Scott recounted the real-life difficulties of flying helicopters stating, ‘Helicopters are not meant to fly […] They’re an anomaly – they fly, but they’re not supposed to.’ Philip Chinnery echoed this sentiment stating:
It is said that flying a helicopter requires great faith and that becoming an old helicopter pilot requires constant suspicion. When one considers how a helicopter flies through the air, we can understand how helicopter pilots grow old before their time […] To fly a helicopter, the pilot requires both hands and both feet and most of his fingers too.
That fragility and extreme diligence and skill needed to operate these machines were not evident in these advertisements. Indeed, further research is required to understand why toughness, rather than speed, manoeuvrability, or versatility was the characteristic most heavily used throughout these advertisements.
Helicopters, Advertisements and the Future of Warfare
Finally, these advertisements co-opted events in Vietnam to further develop perceptions of helicopters as the future of warfare. Both Ap Bac and Ia Drang were the focus of these sponsorships. Generally, these advertisements appeared a few months after the event. In March 1963, a Bell Helicopter ad declared, ‘Combat Proven.’ The ad goes on to say, ‘throughout the engagement, the five Iroquois provided steady fire support.’ The image is hard to make out, but it is clearly a Huey flying over what appears to be some dense jungle. The Battle of Ap Bac in January 1963 is generally viewed as the first significant test of US helicopters in combat. American helicopters supported and inserted roughly 1,500 Army of the Republic of Vietnam troops. However, Bell spun the events of Ap Bac. Fourteen of the 15 American helicopters used in the battle were damaged, and five were destroyed. Ap Bac was far from the successful inauguration the Army had hoped for. The helicopters might have been combat tested, but it is hard to call them combat proven.
The second event that corporations appropriated was the Battle of Ia Drang. In the January 1966 issue of Army Aviation, there are references to Ia Drang on the cover and the advertisements inside. This cover had a set of images featuring the Chinook helicopter. The first image was a Chinook in flight against a plain white backdrop and immediately below it was a second image of two Chinooks on the ground being loaded with troops for transport. The headline reads: ‘This is a horse. (It must be a horse. The First Cavalry rides it.)’ Before even opening the issue, AVCO presented the reader with powerful imagery referencing the 1st Cavalry Division, which had been recently battle-tested in the Battle of Ia Drang. Although Ia Drang proved more successful than Ap Bac, it was still a great test for helicopters, which suffered heavy damage. Commander of the 1st Cavalry Division General John Tolson noted that throughout the 35-day campaign, 59 American helicopters were hit by enemy fire, three while on the ground. The North Vietnamese shot down four helicopters, of which the U.S. Army recovered three. Despite these losses, helicopters proved their worth by providing over 5,000 tons of cargo to troops in the field, transporting whole infantry battalions and artillery batteries, and transporting 2,700 refugees. Bell and Lycoming were quick to capitalise on this ‘success.’ Whether or not these corporations were trying to sell actual helicopters or an idea the helicopter symbolised is something deserving further exploration.
It is worth noting the profit motive of corporations like Bell. A document found at the Texas Tech Archives entitled, ‘Bell Helicopter Highlights’ offers a timeline of Bell helicopter contracts, key production developments, and record achievements published by Bell Helicopter Textron. The U.S. military contracts with Bell from 1961 through 1973 total over one trillion dollars. This total is just the contracts listed within this single document and warrants further inquiry to verify exact numbers. Nevertheless, these preliminary figures allude to the stake that corporations like Bell had in both the technological development and public perception of army aviation during the Vietnam War.
Through both images and language, these magazines presented the idea of military progress by way of helicopters. All these images and the accompanying descriptive language served to create and reinforce the helicopter as a symbol of technological progress. These helicopters were the latest and greatest accomplishment from the military-industrial complex and as such were capable of not only carrying out the tasks of outdated and obsolete equipment, like the tank but should be capable of winning the war in Vietnam. There were no true obstacles these machines could not overcome. This imagery reinforced Alasdair Spark’s assertion that ‘in technology and mobility this was the ideal American way of war, and appropriately evoked the mythic American style of war.’ The problem with these advertisements was that in some cases, they used actual events to help craft their imagery. By grounding their advertisements in perceived reality, these corporate sponsors perpetuated the notion that helicopters were ubiquitous and only capable of success. These images failed to examine or display the failures of helicopters.
Chris Bishop summed it up best when he said:
The Huey became an icon of the Vietnam War. It was a star of primetime news reports, its distinctive shape and the sound of its twin-bladed rotor becoming more familiar to the world at large than any other aircraft of the time.
Although the Huey is arguably the most recognisable helicopter, it was not the only one to come of age during the Vietnam War. The iconic status of Hueys and other helicopters was not merely a post-war phenomenon and cannot be credited only to the media. From advertisements in Army Aviation to documentaries and film, helicopters became a prominent sight and sound of the Vietnam War during the war. In many ways, ‘the helicopter, like the soldier, is a veteran of Vietnam’ and it is time we understand how the helicopter developed from combat to cultural icon.
Hayley Michael Hasik is currently a third-year doctoral student at the University of Southern Mississippi working on a degree in U.S. history with an emphasis on cultural history, war and society, the Vietnam War, helicopters, and veterans’ experiences. Hayley’s current research focuses on examining the legacy of the ‘Helicopter War’ in Vietnam. Her project seeks to uncover how and why helicopters became such an integral part of Vietnam War history and memory. Hayley has extensive oral history experience and co-founded the East Texas War and Memory Project in 2012.
Header Image: U.S. Army Bell UH-1D helicopters airlift members of the 2nd Battalion, 14th Infantry Regiment from the Filhol Rubber Plantation area to a new staging area, during Operation ‘Wahiawa,’ a search and destroy mission conducted by the 25th Infantry Division, northeast of Cu Chi, South Vietnam, 1966. (Source: Wikimedia)
Heart of Darkness: Vietnam War Chronicles, Huey in a Helicopter War, directed by Bill G. Buck (Entertainment One Ltd., 2005).
 James R. Bullinger (ed.), Army Aviation Association of America: 50th Anniversary, 1957-2007 (Monroe, CT: Army Aviation Publications, 2007), p. 19.
 Alasdair Spark, ‘Flight Controls: The Social History of the Helicopter as a Symbol of Vietnam’ in Jeffrey Walsh and James Aulich (eds.), Vietnam Images: War and Representation (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989), p. 89.
 Texas A&M University-Commerce, Archives and Special Collections, James G. Gee Library, East Texas War and Memory Project, Interview with James Scott, OH 1001.1, interviewed by Hayley Hasik, 6 May 2013.
 Philip D. Chinnery, Vietnam: The Helicopter War (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1991).
 Texas Tech University, The Vietnam Center and Archive, Dominick Cirincione Collection, Box 04, Folder 03, 4020403002, ‘Bell Helicopter Highlights,’ (ND). Figures calculated by the author; Walter Boyne, How the Helicopter Changed Modern Warfare (Gretna, LA: Pelican Publishing Company, 2011), pp. 90-4.
The strategic bomber has stood as one pillar of American military strength since the Second World War, and even today, the deployment of B-1s, B-2s and B-52s to forward bases across the globe sends a strong message to potential adversaries. Serving as a true ‘Book of Genesis’ chapter to this capability, The Origins of American Strategic Bombing Theory by Craig F. Morris covers the period of 1916 to 1942 and explores the growth of an idea within the United States Army, rather than deal primarily in technology or personalities. By recounting how air power theory matured (and was withheld) within the United States Army, he also delivers an excellent case study on how an organisation reacts to disruptive technology.
There is a stark comparison in air power capability that comes early from Morris. The book’s introduction begins with the arrival of United States Army Air Force B-17s in England in 1942. Operationally untested, their existence still spoke of the maturity of America’s investment in technology, organisation, and air power doctrine during the interwar period. Contrast that scene with the experience of the United States Army’s 1st Aero Squadron in Mexico in 1916, which Morris covers in his first chapter. There is obviously no suggestion that the 1st Aero Squadron’s Curtis JN-3 biplanes were to be used as bombers against Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa; what Morris does is illustrate the lack of intellectual depth the United States Army had with its heavier-than-air aviation capability. While the technology was relatively new, that lack of innovation remains surprising considering how the First World War had quickly illustrated the utility of aviation.
The Mexican adventure serves another purpose – it introduces several personalities from the 1st Aero Squadron who were sent to Europe when the United States entered the First World War. The most significant focus of The Origins of American Strategic Bombing Theory falls on 1917 to 1919, which stands to reason – it is here that the Aviation Section of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) first encountered the idea of strategic bombing from the Allied (and Central) powers. This transfer of ideas is explored mainly through the experiences of Edgar S. Gorrell, a veteran of the 1st Aero Squadron in Mexico who was sent to Europe to study how the United States would grow its aviation forces in the First World War. The AEF ground commanders wanted aviation to provide the battlefield reconnaissance and air defence, but Gorrell’s exposure to Allied air power theory led him to become a proponent of using bombers to open a ‘new front’ on an enemy’s warfighting infrastructure, effectively bypassing the war in the trenches on the Western Front.
Gorrell is the personality most consistently covered in The Origins of American Strategic Bombing Theory, which is arguably a testament to the aviator’s recordkeeping and his early advocacy of strategic bombing. The First World War ended before Gorrell could successfully argue the case for an American strategic bomber force, but the Armistice allowed him to leave two critical legacies to the future of air power development. Gorrell was tasked with organising the official history of the AEF, an assignment which allowed him to draw together air power lessons from the AEF and Allied into an official post-War record. On top of this, he drove a post-war bombing survey that examined what impact Allied bombing made on Germany’s warfighting effort.
When dealing with the events of 1919 to 1942, The Origins of American Strategic Bombing Theory does not enjoy the singular narrative focus that Gorrell’s experiences during the First World War afforded it (Gorrell left the military as a Colonel in 1920 at the age of 28, worked in the motoring industry, and died in March 1945). In Morris’ defence, strategic bombing theory in the interwar period was driven by complex variables, from personalities such as Billy Mitchell and rapidly growing aviation technology; through to economic resources (like the Great Depression), along with shifting strategic and foreign policy. The main conflict affecting strategic bombing theory (and the introduction of a supporting capability) was between the US Army’s General Staff, and aviation proponents within the Air Corps, as the Air Service had become in 1926. As aviation technology grew and the Air Corps Tactical School developed its ideas for air power, the Army General Staff were justifiably worried that a strategic bombing capability would lead to an independent Air Force, and a competitor for government funding.
The examination of this conflict makes The Origins of American Strategic Bombing Theory an excellent study in how organisations react to disruptive technology (both positively and negatively). The parallels to modern disruptive technologies (for example, autonomous systems, or space-based systems) do not feel completely analogous, given the purely historical lens of this book. That being said, it gives numerous examples of both innovative and misguided thinking at different levels within the United States Army in dealing with aviation. While history arguably vindicated the strategic bomber concept, Morris does well explain Army’s reservations with this new field.
One of the most significant qualities of The Origins of American Strategic Bombing Theory is also the chief criticism – by covering 25 years in 207 pages, it is very concise. The narrative is clear, comprehensive, and does not feel like any essential facts have been left out. However, the quality of Morris’ writing would comfortably permit this to be a longer work, and the narrative could afford to provide further exposition to selected events, technologies and personalities (beyond Gorrell), that shaped and developed air power theory. On several occasions, this reviewer found himself looking for other resources to further his appreciation of the events in this book – especially about the limited performance of bomber aircraft during the First World War.
While remaining engaging to read, Morris’ work is academically well-presented. It both recounts history as well as briefly discussing the views of academics and historians on the subject matter where relevant. There is considerable inertia when it comes to people’s understanding of events from a century ago, and Morris is clear when he debates, debunks or reaffirms the established narratives of other authors. The introduction specifically accounts for early air power studies into strategic bombing by historians/academics including Mark Clodfelter, Stephen McFarland, I.B. Holley, and Maurer Maurer.
Overall, The Origins of American Strategic Bombing Theory is clear and well-sourced and can be easily approached by anyone with no depth of knowledge of the central subject matter. This reader found it to be enjoyable and informative, providing a good account of early strategic bombing theory and American air power development. While being a self-contained work, it is likely to whet the reader’s appetite for reading works covering related subject matters.
Eamon Hamilton graduated from the University of Western Sydney with a Bachelor of Communications (Journalism). He works as a Public Affairs Officer for the Royal Australian Air Force. He lives in Sydney. He runs the Rubber-Band Powered Blog and can be found on Twitter @eamonhamilton.
Header Image: A Boeing Y1B-17 in flight. This aircraft would eventually be developed B-17 Flying Fortress. (Source: Wikimedia)
In the following series of posts, Johannes Allert explores Colonel Edgar Gorrell’s role in co-ordinating US civilian aviation assets in support of military aviation strategy during the Second World War.
I came solely to benefit [American] commercial aviation, to try to keep it supreme in the air, [and] to do what I could for national defense.
Edgar Gorrell speaking before the Senate Committee Investigating Air Safety – January 1936
‘Chicago Banker, Air Transport Head, Dies.’ This headline in the Associated Press dated March 5, 1945, informed the world about the passing of Colonel Edgar Staley Gorrell and indicated that the decedent’s work evolved more around finance than flying. Later that same year his alma mater at West Point paid homage to his career stating his most notable contribution ‘was his formulation of the plan for strategic air bombardment of Germany’ and further asserted his ideas concerning aerial bombing predated those of Mitchell and Douhet. His brief life, however, encompassed far more than the obituaries or a singular doctrine reveal, yet his legacy quickly faded amidst the Allies’ triumph in the World War II and was further overshadowed by Strategic Air Command’s ascent during the Cold War. With the collapse of the Soviet empire, however, interest in his work reemerged in 1990 with the publication of Marvin Skelton’s article entitled ‘Colonel Gorrell and his nearly forgotten records.’ The author, utilising West Point’s Assembly, reasserts ‘one of his most notable contributions to the development of military aviation was his formulation of the plan for the strategic air bombardment of Germany.’ George Williams later countered this assertion arguing Gorrell merely copied theories previously proposed by Major Lord Tiverton and Hugh Trenchard. Rebecca Grant, however, rebuts this notion in her article published in November 2008 and stated Gorrell’s work concerning strategic bombardment was, in fact, the key to allied’ air victory in the Second World War. In actuality, his varied career concentrated on the growth and development of civil aviation yet; historians repeatedly define him as the principle architect responsible for creating the original blueprint designed to target German industry through strategic precision bombing. Further, complicating matters was the fact that, unlike many of his colleagues who frequently engaged in a very public and ideologically driven campaign promoting a bomber-centric doctrine, Gorrell’s preference involved coordination of civil air assets with military airlift operations. As history demonstrates; his results lay in actual achievements that endure today.
Edgar Gorrell’s Early Years
Small in stature, yet boundless in energy, Gorrell entered the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1908. His classmates nicknamed him ‘Nap’ (an abbreviation for Napoleon) and the moniker proved appropriate because, like his namesake, Gorrell was indefatigable. As a young cadet, his interest in aviation blossomed when he witnessed Glen Curtiss complete the final leg of his Albany to New York flight. Briefly serving as an infantry officer, Gorrell quickly transitioned to the Signal Corps and obtained a pilot’s license within its air service section. In 1916, he flew reconnaissance missions in support of General John Pershing’s Punitive Expedition against the elusive Pancho Villa. This marked the first time in American military history where powered flight and ground forces operated jointly. Although the exercise achieved less than expected results, the experience left an indelible impression upon the young aviator. During America’s brief involvement in the First World War, he served under the flamboyant and controversial General William “Billy” Mitchell; however, unlike his superior, Gorrell was short on style and long on substance. While Mitchell sparred with General Benjamin Foulois over control of the America’s emerging Air Service, Gorrell created a detailed and comprehensive air offensive aimed at crippling Germany’s industrial centre. Although hostilities ceased before his plans were implemented, they were later resurrected and used as a template in the Army Air Force’s bombing campaign against Germany in the Second World War.
Following the Armistice, Gorrell further burnished his credentials by chronicling America’s aviation efforts in the Great War as part of the Army’s official history – a project concocted by the general staff as an instructional aide for future wars. However, in a rush to demobilise, many perceived the gathering and analysis of squadron operations as an unnecessary task, yet Gorrell embraced the challenge and delivered a detailed report never published but often referred to as ‘The Gorrell Histories.’ He later incorporated aspects of his experiences in the Great War into academic lectures and speeches where he effectively debunked two myths concerning America’s involvement in the First World War. The first pertained to the ‘Billion Dollar Bonfire’ propagated by the media criticising the U.S. military’s disposal procedures of surplus aircraft at war’s end. Countering the charge of carelessness on the part of the Air Service that sent taxpayer’s dollars up in smoke, Gorrell provided a comparative analysis revealing the cost break down and the logic behind the disposal procedure. Secondly, he argued that despite early setbacks associated with coordinating aircraft production congruent with allied war aims, American industry succeeded in supporting the Allied war effort by producing quality tools and equipment including the lighter and more reliable Liberty aircraft engine based upon the British Rolls-Royce design. From this and other experiences in his varied and fruitful career, Gorrell repeatedly maintained that careful planning, preparation, and just plain hard work were fundamental ingredients for success.
In the next part, here, we will explore Gorrell’s role the emerging to role of civil aviation in air transport in the US.
Johannes Allert holds an MA in Military History from Norwich University and has served as an adjunct for Minnesota State University – Moorhead and Rogers State University (Oklahoma). His thesis concerning Lieutenant General Frank M. Andrews appeared in Air & Space Power Journal. He assisted in editing Naval Press Institute’s The Secret War for the Middle East – The Influence of Axis and Allied Intelligence Operations in WW II. His other articles concerning aviation appear in Minnesota History Magazine. He has also written for North Dakota History Magazine. Currently, he is a Legacy Research Fellow for the Minnesota State Historical Society and is working on a larger book project entitled Discovering Minnesota’s Lost Generation – Reflections and Remembrances of the Great War. His other ongoing book projects include Marshall’s Great Captain – The Life of Lieutenant General Frank Maxwell Andrews and Citizen-Soldier: Major General George Leach.
Header Image: A Curtiss JN-3 of the US 1st Aero Squadron during the Mexico Expedition of 1916. (Source: Wikimedia)
 ‘CHICAGO BANKER, AIR TRANSPORT HEAD, DIES.’ Col. Edgar Staley Gorell. 54. President of Air Transport Association of America and Chicago Investment Banker, died today of a heart condition after a brief illness. Lubbock Morning Avalanche, Tuesday, March 6, 1945, http://newspaperarchive.com, (accessed 6 February 2014), p. 1.
 Quoting directly from Assembly ‘One of his most notable contributions to the development of military aviation was his formulation of the plan for the strategic air bombardment of Germany. It is difficult in these days. When huge German and Japanese cities lie in heaps of rubble, to appreciate the daring imagination which conceived that plan in 1917 and 1918. No Douhet or Mitchell had yet preached the modern gospel of air power.’ Gorrell’s obituary is reproduced and available on line. Cullum No. 5049. Mar 5, 1945. Died in Wash DC. Age 54 http://apps.westpointaog.org/Memorials/Article/5049/
 Marvin Skelton, ‘Colonel Gorrell and his “nearly forgotten records”’, Over The Front, 5(1) (1990), pp. 56-71.
 George K. William, “The Shank of the Drill’: Americans and Strategical Aviation in the Great War,’ Journal of Strategic Studies, 19(3) (1996). pp. 381-431
 Rebecca Grant, ‘Airpower Genesis,’ Air Force Magazine, 91(11) (2008), pp. 54-57.
 At Strategic Air Command’s zenith, Thomas Greer’s ‘Air Army Doctrinal Roots, 1917-1918’ published in Military Affairs states Gorrell’s plan ‘was a truly striking forerunner of the doctrine which matured years later at the Air Tactical School’ and quotes (then) Major General Laurence Kuter ‘the earliest and least known statement concerning the conception of American airpower.’ Thomas Greer, ‘Air Army Doctrinal Roots, 1917-1918,’ Military Affairs, 20(4) (1956), p. 214.
 Mark Clodfelter, Beneficial Bombing: The Progressive Foundations of American Air Power, 1917-1945 (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2010), pp. 7-8.
 Skelton, ‘Colonel Gorrell and his “nearly forgotten records”’, p. 56-8.
 In James J. Hudson, Hostile Skies: A Combat History of the American Air Service in World War I (Syracuse,: Syracuse University Press, 1968), pp. 54-8, the author chronicles the friction between Mitchell and Foulois. Mitchell arrived in France ahead of his peers and after consulting with various allied air strategists, became the self-declared American authority on air power. Contemptuous of Foulois’ Air Staff, Mitchell frequently referred them as ‘an incompetent lot’ or simply ‘carpetbaggers’ this implies they were newly arrived outsiders out to take credit for his efforts.
 Following the Armistice, and order was dispatched to all air units directing each to prepare a history and forward it to the Information Section. However, feedback concerning the order surfaced indicating a lack of enthusiasm for the project since ‘The Z. of A. has no further interest in war. The squadrons have but one idea – getting home. Writing history does not appeal to them.’ Consequently, M.G. Mason Patrick assigned Col. Edgar Gorrell the task of assembling a staff, gathering the information, and submitting a report to include any information that might ‘assist in establishing Army aeronautics on a sound basis for the future which would leave unanswered questions that might be asked concerning the Air Service in Europe.’ Gorrell’s History of the American Expeditionary Forces Air Service, 1917-19, Record Group 120 (National Archives, Washington, D.C. 1923), pp. 1-4.
 Edgar Staley Gorrell, The Measure of America’s World War Aeronautical Effort (Northfield, VT: Norwich University, 1940) pp.73-7.
 Gorrell’s commencement address to the Norwich Corps of Cadets on 7 June, 1937 emphasized the concepts of life time learning, empathy, and above all hard work and diligence in problem solving far outweighs the label of genius. ‘Standing on the threshold of a Profession,’ Graduation Address to the Corps of Cadets Norwich University, Northfield, VT. June 7, 1937. Courtesy of Norwich University Archives & Special Collections http://library2.norwich.edu/catablog/aviation/gorrell-edgar-s-1891-1945