Activate : To bring into existence by assigning personnel (from 1922 to 1959, and again after 1968). During 1959 – 1968, “activate” meant to place on the active list, thereby making the unit or establishment available to be organized.

Active list : USAF-controlled and Major Command-controlled units currently in active status, along with all Majcom-controlled units awaiting activation.

Assign : To place a unit in a military organization as a permanent subordinate element or component of that organization. A unit is customarily to an establishment, never to another unit.








At the peak of its strength in World War II, the United States Army Air Forces (AAF) had more than 2,400,000 men and women in uniform. There were pilots, navigators, bombardiers, gunners, and radio operators, clerks and typists, artists and flautists, teachers, mechanics, statisticians, and engineers - for it took many talents and skills to conduct and support the war in the air. All these persons, from privates to generals, had to be welded into an organization capable of giving direction and coordination to their diverse activities. For combat the men were formed into squadrons, and squadrons into groups. Above the groups were wings, and wings were organized into commands, and commands into the 16 air forces of the AAF. The upper part of the structure had to be built while the war was on, but the foundation was old. Some of the squadrons, two of the groups, and one wing had combat records from the First World War. One squadron, the oldest in the Air Force, could trace its history back to 1913.



The Army had established an Aeronautical Division in the Signal Corps on 1 August 1907 and had acquired its first plane in 1909. Army men had learned to fly, but for some time the aviators were not organized into units for operations. Consequently in 1913, when relations between the United States and Mexico were strained as a result of a revolution in Mexico, there was no aviation unit for service along the Mexican border. The Army, however, sent some of its flyers and planes to Texas, and on 5 March 1913 these were formed into the 1st Aero Squadron, a provisional organization made up of two companies. Later that year, in December, after the provisional unit had moved to San Diego for training, it was organized officially as an Army squadron. Following Pancho Villa's raid on Columbus, New Mexico, in March 1916, the squadron joined the force that Brig. Gen. John J. Pershing organized to try to capture the Mexican bandit. Thus the 1st Aero Squadron, which provided communication and reconnaissance services during the Mexican expedition, was the first American aviation unit to take the field for a military campaign.

Meanwhile, although war had broken out in Europe, little progress had been made toward expanding the Army's air arm. Congress created an Aviation Section in the Signal Corps by an act approved on 18 July 1914, but the legislators provided little money for the new service. Moreover, the Signal Corps naturally used the meager resources to develop aviation as a means of communication, observation, and reconnaissance, rather than as an instrument for combat. One company of the 2nd Aero Squadron was organized in 1915 and sent to the Philippines. The following year plans were made for five more squadrons. One, the 7th, was formed in February 1917 for duty in the Panama Canal Zone. Another, the 6th, was organized in Hawaii in March 1917. Three others, the 3rd, 4th, and 5th, were being formed in the United States at the time the nation entered World War I in April 1917.


World War I

Pershing, who became commander of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) soon developed a plan for the deployment of 260 combat squadrons to France. Later the plan was revised with the number of squadrons reduced to 202, all of which were to be at the front by 30 June 1919. In Pershing's view, the main functions of the AEF's Air Service were to drive off hostile aircraft and to obtain information about enemy movements. Half of the 202 squadrons, therefore, were to be observation units assigned to 3 armies and 16 corps. Of the remainder, 60 were to be pursuit squadrons. But the plan also provided for 27 night-bombardment and 14 day-bombardment squadrons.

The first American aviation unit to reach France was the 1st Aero Squadron, an observation organization, which sailed from New York in August 1917 and arrived at Le Havre on 3 September. As other squadrons were organized at home, they too were sent overseas, where they continued their training. It was February 1918 before any American aviation squadron entered combat, but by Armistice Day, 11 November 1918, 45 combat squadrons (20 pursuit, 18 observation, and 7 bombardment) had been assigned to the front. During the war the aero squadrons played important roles in such famous battles as the Aisne-Marne, St. Mihiel, and the Meuse-Argonne. Some, like the 94th Squadron that had Captain Eddie Rickenbacker for its commander, or the 27th that had "balloon buster" Frank Luke as one of its aviators, made distinguished records in combat.

Observation planes frequently operated individually, and pursuit pilots often went out alone to attack a balloon or to meet the enemy in a dogfight. But the tendency was toward formation flying for pursuit as well as for bombardment operations. The dispersal of squadrons among the various army organizations made it difficult, however, to obtain coordination of aerial activities. Some higher organization was required. Squadrons with similar functions were formed into groups, the first of these being the 1st Corps Observation Group, organized in April 1918. The following month the 1st Pursuit Group was formed, and by 11 November 1918 the AEF had 14 groups (7 observation, 5 pursuit, and 2 bombardment). In July 1918 the AEF organized its first wing, made up of the 2d and 3rd Pursuit Groups and, later, the 1st Day Bombardment Group.

Some airmen, including William Mitchell, were advocating the formation of an air force that would concentrate control over military aviation for heavy blows against the enemy. In September 1918, for the Allied assault against the German salient at St. Mihiel, Mitchell brought together almost 1,500 American and French planes for coordinated operations in which observation and pursuit supported ground forces, while the other two-thirds of the air force bombed and strafed behind the lines. Later, during the Meuse-Argonne offensive, Mitchell attained a somewhat smaller concentration of air power for use in keeping the enemy on the defensive.

In France the Air Service was part of Pershing's expeditionary force. In the United States the Chief Signal Officer was responsible for organizing, training, and equipping aviation units until 21 May 1918. At that time the President created a Bureau of Aircraft Production and made it responsible for aeronautical equipment; training of personnel and units was the responsibility of the Division of Military Aeronautics, which had been created by the War Department on 27 April 1918. Although the bureau and division were recognized by the War Department on 24 May 1918 as forming the Army's Air Service, no Director of Air Service was appointed until 27 August 1918.



After the war the Army quickly demobilized most of its air arm, including the wing, all of the groups, and most of the squadrons. Almost immediately, however, it began to create new organizations for peacetime service. In many instances these new organizations had no connection with those that had been active during the war. For example, at Selfridge Field in August 1919 the Army organized a 1st Pursuit Group that was in no way related to the AEF's 1st Pursuit Group, which had been demobilized in France in December 1918. A little later, however, the Army began a series of organizational actions that eventually enabled many active organizations to trace their histories back to World War I. In the case of the 1st Pursuit Group, for instance, the Army reconstituted the World War I group of that name and consolidated it with the active group. This process of reconstituting old units and consolidating them with active units has continued up to the present time.

In 1920 an act of Congress (approved on 4 June) created the Air Service as a combatant arm of the United States Army. But the Air Service and the Air Corps that replaced it in 1926 (act of 2 July) did not control the combat units, for their training and operations came under the jurisdiction of ground forces. With this arrangement the Air Service and Air Corps were responsible for matters relating to personnel and materiel logistics, particularly training individual pilots and other specialists, and developing, procuring, storing, and distributing aeronautical equipment.

The composition, organization, and command of the combat elements of the air arm during the 1920's and early 1930's were based on principles laid down by the War Department General Staff in 1920. These principles, as they related to military aviation, were reflected in a war plan that called for the following aviation organizations as part of an expeditionary force: one observation squadron for each of divisions and one for each of 18 corps; one observation group (four squadrons), plus one attack wing (one attack and two pursuit groups), for each of 6 armies; one attack wing, one observation group, and one bombardment group for General Headquarters (GHQ). Thus the war plan placed the greatest emphasis on observation aviation. It gave lesser roles to pursuit aviation, which was to destroy enemy planes and assist in attacking enemy troops and other objectives, and to attack aviation, which was to harass the enemy's ground forces. It assigned a minor place to bombardment aviation, with the mission of destroying military objectives in the combat theater and in the enemy's zone of interior. Furthermore, it placed aviation under the command of ground officers at division, corps, army, and GHQ levels. As a result, the structure was condemned by Billy Mitchell and other Air Service officers who discounted the importance of observation aviation, sought recognition for bombardment as a major instrument of warfare, desired a greater proportion of pursuit units for counter-air operations, and wanted aviation units organized as an air force under the command of airmen. One of the important facets of the history of the Army's air arm during the 1920's and 1930's was the conflict between air and ground officers over the composition, organization, and command of military aviation. While this is not the place for a detailed review of that subject, the progress that the airmen made toward gaining acceptance for their point of view is reflected in organizational changes mentioned in subsequent paragraphs.

The principles behind the war plan were applied to the smaller peacetime organization that was to be capable of rapid expansion in an emergency. For several years the striking force based in the United States consisted of three groups, the 1st Pursuit, the 2nd Bombardment, and the 3rd Attack. There also was one observation group (the 9th), and there was one observation squadron for each of the Army corps. During the same period there were three composite groups on foreign service, the 4th being in the Philippines, the 5th in Hawaii, and the 6th in Panama.

In 1926 the Army began to expand its air arm, and in the years that followed new groups were activated: the 18th Pursuit (in Hawaii) in 1927; the 7th Bombardment in 1928; the 12th Observation and 20th Pursuit in 1930; the 8th and 17th Pursuit in 1931; and the 16th Pursuit (in the Canal Zone) and the 19th Bombardment in 1932. Consequently by the end of 1932 there were 15 groups (45 squadrons). The distribution of the squadrons by function is significant. The number of attack squadrons (4) was the same as it had been a decade earlier, while the strength in observation aviation had decreased from 14 to 13 squadrons. The growth had, therefore, been in other types of aviation, the number of bombardment squadrons having increased from 7 to 12, and pursuit squadrons from 7 to 16. Five more pursuit squadrons were activated in 1933, bringing the total strength to 50 squadrons.

The most important change in the combat organization of the air arm in the two decades between World Wars I and II came on 1 March 1935. At that time the War Department established General Headquarters Air Force (GHQAF) and placed it under the command of an air officer to serve as an air defense and striking force. Some observation units remained assigned to corps areas, but all the pursuit, bombardment, and attack units in the United States became part of the new combat organization. The combat elements of GHQAF were organized into three wings: the 1st Wing (with headquarters at March Field) had two bombardment groups, one attack group, and three observation squadrons; the 2nd Wing (Langley Field) had two bombardment and two pursuit groups, plus three observation squadrons; the 3rd Wing (Barksdale Field) had an attack and a pursuit group, plus one bombardment, one attack, and two pursuit squadrons. The commanding general of GHQAF, who reported to the Army's Chief of Staff and was to report to the commander of the field force in time of war, was responsible for the organization, training, and operations of this air force. The Chief of the Air Corps still retained the responsibilities associated with personnel and materiel logistics.

The change of the 9th Group from observation to bombardment in 1935 should be noted because that redesignation was an indication of the decline of observation and the growth of bombardment aviation. Two years later the 12th Observation Group was inactivated. And the same year (1937) the 10th Transport Group, the first group of its kind, was activated. But there were no other significant changes, the number of groups remaining at 15 (10 in the United States and 5 on foreign service), until 1939.


World War II

In January 1939 President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked Congress to strengthen America's air power, which, the President said, was "utterly inadequate." On 1 September 1939 Hitler attacked Poland, and the Second World War began. In the months that followed, as Axis forces won one victory after another, the Army's air arm expanded rapidly. By the end of 1940 there were 30 groups. Within another year, that is, by the time the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and the United States entered the war, the number of active groups had increased to 67, but many of them were still in the process of being organized and few had aircraft suitable for combat.

The air arm grew even more rapidly in the months following Pearl Harbor, and by the end of 1943 there were 269 groups. At that time 133 of the groups were in the United States: 77 were being manned or trained; 56, which provided the strategic reserve, served as part of the defense force, as operational training units (OTU's) that prepared new units for combat, or as replacement training units (RTU's) that trained replacements for organizations overseas. Early in 1944 most of the OTU's and RTU's were inactivated or disbanded, the training activities being given to base units. As a result the number of combat groups fell to 218, but the formation of new groups brought the figure up to another peak of 243 in February 1945. When Allied forces landed on the beaches of Normandy on 6 June 1944, the United States had 148 combat groups in the European-African-Middle Eastern Theater for the war against Germany. By August 1945, when combat operations in the Asiatic-Pacific Theater came to an end, the United States had 86 groups in the war against Japan.

In addition to the expansion, other important changes had taken place in the air arm. By 7 December 1941 more emphasis was being placed on bombardment. Of the 67 groups active at that time, 26 were bombardment organizations; half of the 26 were heavy and the other half were medium and light bombardment groups, the light groups having replaced the attack organizations of an earlier time. There also were 26 pursuit, 9 observation, and 6 transport groups. During the war, pursuit units were redesignated fighter, observation became reconnaissance, and transport became troop carrier. With the development of B-29 aircraft, very heavy bombardment organizations were added to the combat force. In the spring of 1945, when America's air strength in the overseas theaters of operations reached its peak, the 243 combat groups of the AAF were divided as follows: 25 very heavy, 72 heavy, 20 medium, and 8 light bombardment groups; 71 fighter groups; 29 troop carrier groups; 13 reconnaissance groups; and 5 composite groups. At the same time there were 65 separate squadrons, mostly reconnaissance and night fighter, which were not assigned to groups but to higher echelons of organization.

As the number of groups increased, the number of wings multiplied. Earlier, during World War I and in GHQAF, wings had been composite organizations, that is, had been made up of groups with different kinds of missions. Most of the wings of World War II, however, were composed of groups with similar functions.

The growth of the air arm resulted in important organizational changes and developments above the group and wing levels. The separation of the combat organization (GHQAF) from the logistic organization (Air Corps) created serious problems of coordination. To correct this condition, GHQAF was placed under the Chief of the Air Corps, Maj. Gen. Henry H. Arnold, in March 1939. The two organizations were separated again in November 1940, but about the same time Arnold joined the War Department General Staff as Deputy Chief of Staff for Air, a position that enabled him to coordinate the two sections of the air arm. On 20 June 1941 the War Department created the Army Air Forces with the Air Corps and GHQAF, the latter redesignated Air Force Combat Command, as its major components and with Arnold as chief. In an Army reorganization on 9 March 1942 the Air Corps and Air Force Combat Command were discontinued and Arnold was made Commanding General of Army Air Forces.

During the war most of the AAF's combat groups and wings were assigned to numbered air forces. The first four of these air forces had their origins late in 1940 when GHQAF was becoming so large that its headquarters could not exercise adequate control over the training and operations of the various GHQAF organizations. General Headquarters Air Force was subdivided, therefore, into four air districts (Northeast, Northwest, Southeast, and Southwest), which were redesignated First, Second, Third, and Fourth Air Forces early in 1941. These four air forces remained in the United States throughout the war, but others were established for service overseas: the Fifth, Seventh, Tenth, Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Twentieth served in the Asiatic-Pacific Theater; the Eighth, Ninth, Twelfth, and Fifteenth operated in the European-African-Middle Eastern Theater, the Eighth being redeployed to the Pacific after the war ended in Europe; the Sixth was in the Panama Canal Zone and the Eleventh in Alaska.

Some air forces, particularly the larger ones, had subordinate commands (or sometimes divisions) that provided an additional echelon of organization, by bringing together wings (or groups) with similar functions. An air force, such as the Ninth, could have a bomber, a fighter, a troop carrier, and a tactical air command, the number and kind depending upon the size, functions, and peculiar needs of the air force. There also were some separate commands, such as the Antisubmarine Command, which were not assigned to numbered air forces.

The arrangement of the various layers of organization is best seen by looking at the organizational position of some particular squadron, such as the 93rd Bombardment Squadron, which took part in the B-29 offensive against Japan in 1945. That squadron was assigned to the 19th Bombardment Group, of the 314th Bombardment Wing, of the XXI Bomber Command, of the Twentieth Air Force. But the organization was much more complex than is indicated by such a chain, for operational and administrative requirements resulted in the establishment of organizations above the numbered air forces. There was, for example, the U.S. Strategic Air Forces in Europe, which had some administrative control over both the Eighth and Ninth Air Forces (the one engaged primarily in strategic and the other in tactical operations), and which exercised some operational control over the two strategic air forces in Europe (the Eighth in England and the Fifteenth in Italy). Furthermore, American organizations sometimes became part of combined (i.e., Allied) commands. In April 1942, for instance, an organization called Allied Air Forces was created in Australia to control operations of Australian, Dutch, and American air forces; and in February 1943 American, British, and French elements in North Africa were combined to form the Northwest African Air Forces. The complexity of these organizational arrangements was compounded by the assignment of AAF units overseas to United States Army organizations, and by the relationships of those Army organizations to joint (i.e., Army-Navy) and combined commands.

This volume is not concerned with all of this vast organization but with the AAF structure from groups to numbered air forces. Within those limits, the major attention is focused on the groups, the basic operational organizations in the aerial war that America fought in the years between the attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 and the Japanese surrender on 2 September 1945.



Once the victory had been gained, the United States plunged into demobilization, just as it had done at the end of the First World War. Officers and men were sent home. Bases were closed. Airplanes were stored or sold. And by July 1946 the Air Force had only 2 groups that were ready for combat, although 52 were carried on the list of active organizations. A new Air Force had to be built on the ruins of demobilization, the goal being 70 groups, the strength that was authorized for peacetime. In addition, reserve and national guard forces would be available for active duty in an emergency. There was much opposition, however, to a large military establishment in peacetime, and to the financial burden such an establishment placed on the nation. Consequently, the Air Force had to cut to 48 groups.

Then came the Korean War, precipitated by the Communist attack on the Republic of Korea on 25 June 1950. The United States rushed combat forces across the Pacific to strengthen those already present in the Far East. Others were sent to Europe to meet the increasing threat of Communist aggression in that part of the world. At home the air defense force was expanded. Under these conditions the number of groups jumped from 48 to 87 within a year. In June 1952, when the strength was stated in terms of wings rather than groups, the Air Force had 95. By the end of the Korean War on 27 July 1953 the number of wings had increased to 106. The expansion had been accomplished in part by ordering reserve and national guard organizations to active duty. Those organizations were called for 21 months, but some were relieved before the end of that period. In fact, some reserve organizations were in active service for only a few days, just long enough to assign their personnel to other organizations. Most of the reserve and guard elements that served the full term of 21 months were replaced by newly-activated organizations of the regular Air Force.

The program for expansion had first provided for 95 wings, but that goal was revised in November 1951 when the Joint Chiefs of Staff authorized a force of 143 wings to be attained by mid-1955. In 1953 the goal was reduced temporarily to 120 wings by June 1956, but later the same year it was changed to provide for 137 wings by June 1957. Under these changing programs the strength of the Air Force, in terms of the number of active wings, increased steadily. By he beginning of 1956 there were 127 wings, made up of 392 combat squadrons.

There had been many organizational changes in the period from 1946 to 1956, but the most important one in the view of the professional airmen was that which gave the Air Force its independence. Congress provided the necessary legislation in 1947 when it created a Department of the Air Force and established the United States Air Force as a separate service equal to the Army and the Navy in the nation's military establishment. On 18 September 1947, W. Stuart Symington became the first Secretary of the Air Force. And a week later, on 26 September, Gen. Carl Spaatz, who had succeeded Arnold as Commanding General of the Army Air Forces, became the first Chief of Staff, United States Air Force.

Earlier, on 21 March 1946, Spaatz had undertaken a major reorganization that had included the establishment of three new combat commands in the United States: Strategic Air Command (soon known everywhere as SAC), to provide a long-range striking force capable of bombardment operations in any part of the world Air Defense Command (ADC), to defend the United States against attack from the air; and Tactical Air Command (TAC), to support the operations of ground forces. TAC and ADC were reduced from major commands to operating commands when they were assigned to the Continental Air Command (ConAC) at the time the latter was established on 1 December 1948. ADC was discontinued on 1 July 1950 but re-established as a major command on 1 January 1951. A month earlier, on 1 December 1950, TAC had been removed from the control of ConAC and again made a major command. As a result of these changes ConAC became responsible mainly for supervising reserve and national guard affairs. In addition to its commands in the United States, the Air Force had combat forces stationed overseas, with Far East Air Forces, United States Air Forces in Europe, Caribbean Air Command, and Alaskan Air Command as the major commands for the various areas of operations.

The World War II commands, which had been subordinate to the numbered air forces, were eliminated in the reorganization of 1946, and the numbered air forces were made components of the major commands at home and overseas. The new organizational hierarchy thus contained the following levels: squadron, group, wing, air force, command. In 1948, and afterward, wings were redesignated divisions, and placed immediately below the numbered air forces in the organizational pyramid, new wings being constituted and activated to take the place of the ones that had been elevated to the division level. In addition to support and service elements, each of these new wings, as a general rule, had one combat group, which carried the same numerical designation as the wing itself. In 1952, however, the Air Force began to inactivate the combat groups and assign their combat squadrons directly to the wings. Consequently no organizations in the Air Force perpetuated the histories of the World War II combat groups that had been inactivated. The Air Force decided, therefore, to bestow the histories of combat groups on like-numbered wings. For example, the 9th Bombardment Wing, created after World War II, received the history of the 9th Bombardment Group, together with the Campaign credits and decorations that had been earned by the group during the war.

Despite all the changes that had taken place since V-J Day, the Air Force in 1956 was to a large extent made up of elements that carried on the traditions of organizations that had been active during World War II. The history of each of those organizations had been shaped by many forces. Domestic politics, the national economy, and international affairs were important factors in fixing the size, and hence the number of active groups or wings, of the Air Force. Science and technology determined the kind of equipment available at any particular time. Fortune, too, had a part in forming the histories of the various organizations. It is evident, for example, that chance, rather than design, sometimes decided which organizations would be kept active and which would be retired. The results are reflected in the historical sketches presented in this book. Some groups, for instance, have lengthy records of service; others were created at a relatively late date or have been inactive for long periods. Some were sent overseas for combat; others were kept at home. Some received the newest planes from he production lines; others were forced to use old, worn-out craft.

But no organization had its life shaped entirely by forces beyond its control, for its own people, the men and women who gave the organization a living existence, made history in many ways. A fighter pilot flew out to battle and came back an ace. A gunner returned from a bombing mission to be decorated for bravery above and beyond the call of duty. But one did not have to be a hero to have a place in history. The mechanic armed with his wrench, the clerk with his typewriter - each had his own important part to play. And at their head to lead them was a commander who, by virtue of his authority and responsibility, had a special role in the historical process.

Thus, through the workings of numerous and diverse forces, each organization acquired a historic character and personality of its own. At the same time, each contributed to the development of a larger history that goes back to a day in 1907 when the Army named a captain to take "charge of all matters pertaining to military ballooning, air machines, and all kindred subjects."