The Air Services of the US Military
By James “Ski” Schiaffino Post 1814
I always enjoyed the stories my wife’s uncle Joe told about his adventures during World War II. I imagine that ‘adventures’ isn’t quite the appropriate word, but for a teenager it would probably come close. We teasingly referred to him as ‘Tailgunner Joe’ (no relation to the infamous politician) although he went by ‘Bud’ -short for Buddy, a name his crew members gave him. His only complaint about the deprivations of war was that because of his age he wasn’t allowed to consume alcohol. But because of his age he was considered by the crew to be a good luck charm. He probably was. You see he was a tail gunner on a B-24 Liberator in Europe. The B-24’s had a greater range and a heavier bomb load than the B-17’s but it flew at a lower altitude. This made it vulnerable to land based anti-aircraft fire.
I mentioned that he was a good luck charm. That was proven on a mission late in the war. As he recounted the story, the plane was attacked by Meserschmits and the tail section was raked by bullets. Then they flew into the air defenses and his aircraft was hit by ‘ack-ack’ fire further damaging it. The plane made it back safely, but Uncle ‘Bud’ didn’t. He was injured and spent a good deal of time recuperating. He earned his Purple Heart. But he was always proud to have served in the Army Air Corps. He gave me his Army Air Corps medallion. It is silver and has wings and a bomb in the center.
Today that renowned arm of the service is part of a large umbrella of air services that include the Army, the Navy, the Coast Guard, the Marines and the Air Force.
Although the official origin of the Army Air Corps was 2 July 1926, the army was using air surveillance as early as the Civil War. The Union Army Balloon Corps was organized as a civilian operation, which employed
seven specially built, gas-filled balloons and allowed American aeronauts to track Confederate troop movements during battles.
The invention of the aeroplane replaced tethered balloons as the primary source of aerial reconnaissance. However, those planes still closely resembled the original Wright Brothers design and well, it took a great deal of courage to take to the air in them. At the start of World War I, America had a total of 54 aeroplanes, none of which were appropriate for combat patrol.
American aeronauts instead used French Nieuports, SPAD VIs and SPAD XIIIs. The later were made in the US after acquiring a license to produce them. They were American volunteers already flying for the French in the Lafayette Flying Corps or The Escadrille Lafayette and the British in the Royal Flying Corps.
The European armies had developed the more sophisticated form of aeroplane used in World War I. The US Air Service, which eventually evolved into the Army Air Corps, performed their reconnaissance duties and combat patrols as a branch of the American Expeditionary Force. Additionally, they also performed “bombing runs”. These consisted of aeronauts literally tossing explosives out of the cockpit by hand. Occasionally, the pilot or observer would actually shoot at their enemy counterparts with rifles or pistols. This was the origin of ‘aerial dogfighting’.
The use of pistols and rifles proved somewhat impractical, so a new idea was floated, ie: machine guns. Initially, they tried to mount machine guns on the front of the aeroplane. All the pilot had to do was point the plane at the target and pull the trigger. Aeroplanes immediately began to fall from the sky. Unfortunately, they were the planes with the mounted machine guns. It seems as though the pilots shot off their own propellers. Not to bore you with details, to put it simply, the Germans invented synchronized firing, the British improved it, and the Germans perfected it using electricity and not mechanical gears. Synchronized firing in layman’s terms meant that the gun fired the bullet in the space between the propeller blades.
During the war the Americans eventually deployed 45 combat squadrons, 23 Balloon Companies and 13 Photo Reconnaissance units. By the end of the war American aviators were responsible for downing be