Army Aviation

The Early Years of Struggle, 1942-1954

1942-1954, From Balloons to Air Mobility / By Lieutenant General Robert R. Williams, Ret.: The roots of Army Aviation can be traced back to the Civil War in 1861 with the formation of the Balloon Corps, which pioneered the missions of reconnaissance and artillery spotting. These two basic missions were accomplished in World War I by the Army Air Service using fixed-wing aircraft, plus a few balloons.

The Piper L- 4 Cub, shown here on the USS LST-906 flight deck being prepared for take-off with additional L-4s stowed alongside the deck, was the first plane used by the first class of Army aviators at Ft. Sill, Oklahoma, August 1942. / U.S. ARMY SIGNAL CORPS PHOTO

Between World War I and World War II, while the Army Air Corps was concentrating on increasing capabilities, for what had become its primary missions – namely bombing, close air support, and air-to-air combat-the Artillery was experimenting with smaller, unsophisticated aircraft for adjustment of artillery fire.
On 6 June 1942, the War Department authorized the Artillery to have as organic two “Cub” type aircraft in each Artillery Battalion. These were flown and maintained by artillery personnel completely separate from the Army Air Force, accomplishing the same mission as the Balloon Corps in the Civil War. These were the roots of Army Aviation from 1861 to 1942.

The Army Air Force was charged with the higher echelon maintenance, supply, and procurement of aircraft for the Field Artillery. This made the Air Force the technical service supporting artillery aircraft in a role parallel to that of the Ordnance and Quartermaster Corps.

The concept of aircraft as organic to artillery units was neither applauded nor generally accepted. A senior Army Air Force staff officer wrote in a restricted memorandum, “Let the Ground Forces have aircraft and they will soon learn their lesson and be glad to give them back to us.’’ The Army Air Force did not actively oppose organic Field Artillery aviation; instead, they organized Air Force liaison squadrons equipped with L-5 type aircraft to be based at Corps level to compete with Field Artillery aviation for the same basic missions. Aircraft based back at Corps level under control of the Air Force flown by sergeant pilots with no knowledge of artillery were no competition for the highly responsive organic artillery aircraft operating as part of the artillery units and flown by well-qualified commissioned officers.

Since the Field Artillery did not enthusiastically welcome the addition of aircraft, the first group of aircraft shipped to England went to storage and the pilots to a replacement depot for assignment. Artillery battalion commanders complained that when committed to combat, the light planes would be a problem and a nuisance. A big question was, what was the burden vis-a-vis the benefit?

Prior to actual combat experience, it was generally believed that the small, fabric covered, unarmed Cubs would be highly vulnerable. Their employment was planned for very short duration low altitude, behind the lines missions to adjust artillery fire. Surprisingly, combat quickly demonstrated the high survivability of light aircraft when operated in close coordination with our anti-aircraft weapons and artillery. The enemy soon learned that the defenseless appearing Cub was actually armed with a full battalion of field artillery and that it was much healthier to hide from the Cub than to try and shoot it down, proving the adage that fewer ducks would be shot if ducks could shoot back. This point, demonstrated in World War II and again in later conflicts, is that, like the infantryman, aircraft can survive and fight in the most hostile environment if properly integrated into the combined arms team.

With proven survivability the Cub became the primary, not the emergency, means of fire adjustment. The missions for Cubs expanded and included reconnaissance, column control, medical evacuation, wire laying, and transport of commanders and staff officers. Some success was reached with wholly unorthodox anti-tank missions using bazookas fastened on the wing struts.

In January 1944, in a lengthy memorandum to the Chief of Staff, the Commanding General Army Air Forces, GEN H.H. Arnold, objected to the Field Artillery employing its organic aircraft for any missions other than fire adjustment and contended that the Ground Forces request for 185 hp L-5s went beyond the approval of “Cub” type aircraft. GEN Arnold recommended that “organic air observation for field artillery be discontinued” and that “all Air Corps property now in organic air observation for field artillery be returned to the Army Air Forces: The use of the term Air Corps property instead of aircraft is significant. It illustrated a basic tenet of all Air Forces that everything that flies in the military is really inherent to the Air Force and that Army, Navy, Marine, and Coast Guard aviation are aberrations.

In February 1944, LTG L.J. McNair, Commanding General Army Ground Forces, in a memorandum to the Chief of Staff, responded to GEN Arnold’s memorandum as follows: ‘’The main issue is satisfactory air observation for field artillery. The present system is outstandingly successful – one of the remarkable developments in connection with effective artillery support which is being given the infantry in all theaters.

On the other hand, field artillery air observation by the Air Force has been unsatisfactory since the advent of military aviation. There is abundant reason to doubt that the results would be otherwise if this task were returned to the Air Force.” The recommendation of the Commanding General Army Air Forces was not approved.

In May 1945, the Commanding General Army Ground Forces recommended to the Chief of Staff that aircraft be made organic to additional Ground Force units. GEN Marshall, Chief of Staff of the Army, suppressed Air Force opposition by sending a memorandum to the Commanding General Army Air Forces observing that he had studied the matter and strongly suggested the AAF ‘’go along with this wholeheartedly and not reluctantly’’. The War Department approved six light planes to be assigned to each infantry, airborne, and mountain division, nine to each armor division, seven to each cavalry division, two to each cavalry squadron and separate tank battalion, one to each separate engineer battalion, and two to each cavalry group and tank destroyer group. Organic aviation now belonged to almost every branch of the Ground Forces.

In July of 1947, the U.S. Military underwent a major reorganization. The Department of Defense was created and absorbed the War and Navy Departments. The three major elements became the Army, Navy, and Air Force. The Army, like the Navy and Marines, retained its aviation.

The Struggle
During the next 10 years, the Air Force strove in a series of agreements and memorandums of understanding to limit the growth of Army Aviation by obtaining aircraft weight and mission limitations and retaining responsibility for logistical support of Army aircraft. The most frustrating behavior of the Air Force was in carrying out its responsibility for development and procurement.

The Air Force chose to play the role of “Godfather” rather than sticking to its legal responsibility of being the Army’s technical servant. The Air Force’s conduct in this area is best reflected in an incident reported by GEN Jim Gavin, one of the truly great proponents of Army Aviation.

In his capacity as president of the Army Airborne Panel in 1948, GEN Gavin attempted to convince the Air Force director of requirements of the Army’s need for more and larger helicopters. Finally, exasperated by GEN Gavin’s persistence, the Air Force general replied, “I am the director of requirements, and I will determine what is needed and what is not. The helicopter is aerodynamically unsound. It is like lifting oneself by one’s boot straps. It is no good as an air vehicle, and I am not going to procure any. No matter what the Army says, I know that it does not need any.’’

With this kind of official antagonism, the Army was unfortunately unable to make significant progress in fulfilling its helicopter requirements before the beginning of the Korean Conflict. As of 30 June 1950, the Army had only 56 utility/observation helicopters, and no cargo helicopters in its inventory. The Army’s inability to obtain adequate quantities of the types of helicopters it required contributed significantly to the growing sentiment within some circles that the Army should obtain total control over its own aircraft development and procurement, and that it should become more involved in the tactical air support of the ground forces.

In 1949, the Army foresaw the future of the cargo helicopter in logistical support and established an experimental program with five transportation companies. A procurement program through the Air Force of H-19, H-21, and H-25 type helicopters to equip these companies was initiated. The Warrant Officer pilot program was established to fly the cargo helicopters.

In 1952, the Secretary of the Army recognized that the Army Aviation Program had become so important, expensive and controversial that there should be a focal point on the Army Staff. He directed that an office be established in G-3 responsible for “the overall supervision and coordination of the Army Aviation program’’. The Army Aviation Branch with three officers was established to carry out the responsibilities. This office was expanded and elevated to Directorate level in 1955.

The Korean conflict did for helicopters what World War II did for light aircraft; it proved their utility, supportability, and survivability. Prior to Korea there was a general agreement that the helicopter had capabilities that qualified it for Army employment for some purposes; however, it faced the same doubts as the Cub experienced before World War II. The critics and the Nay Sayers chorused that the helicopter could not survive in combat – it was too fragile and too complicated. A frequent statement heard in the Pentagon and Congress was, “You can bring the helicopter down by hitting it with a rock.” Again, like the Cub, actual combat proved the helicopter’s value when properly employed. It had proven survivability. Its performance in the front line casualty evacuation mission established one of its most important roles, convincing many Army leaders that larger helicopters as programmed by the Transportation Corps could make great contributions in both tactical and logistical airlift. Two companies of the Army’s first cargo helicopters – the H-19 – were employed in Korea near the end of the conflict.

More Controversy
The most publicized and successful mission of helicopters in Korea was medical evacuation. The mission was performed by both Army and Air Force helicopters. That situation ignited a new controversy between the Army and Air Force at the Washington level over which service had responsibility for the medical evacuation mission. The controversy came to a quick climax, not over actions in Korea, but as a result of an incident at Ft. Bragg, NC.

During a training exercise, an Army man was injured. An Army helicopter arrived at the scene of the accident and the injured man was loaded on the helicopter for transport to the hospital. Before the Army helicopter could depart, an Air Force major flying an Air Force UH-12 arrived and ordered the injured man to be unloaded from the Army helicopter and loaded into the Air Force helicopter.

H-19 Sikorsky helicopters from the 6th Transportation Helicopter Company, the first Army heliborne cargo unit to be employed in a combat zone, resupply infantry in Korea, March 1953. / U.S. ARMY FILE PHOTO

The press got the story, and so did the Secretary of Defense. The Secretary of Defense called in the Secretaries and Chiefs of Staff of the Army and Air Force. In two lengthy sessions totaling over eight hours and with no staff officers present, the five men hammered out the roles and missions questions concerning Army Aviation.

The results were promulgated in the November 1952 Memorandum of Understanding. The key points were that the Army was given the mission of medical evacuation and airlift of small units. The Air Force’s reaction to the document was expressed by an Air Force general when someone referred to it as a ‘’Memorandum of Agreement”. The general said, “It is not an agreement. We would never agree to that. It is an understanding of what the Secretary of Defense directed. In addition, you should understand that the Air Force considers a small unit as being one man.”

Army Aviation Unshackled
The 1952 Memorandum of Understanding removed many of the fetters from Army Aviation. In early 1953, the Army Aviation program was reviewed in depth by the Army Materiel Requirements Review Panel and based on that review; the original five experimental transportation cargo helicopter companies program was expanded to a 12 battalion program. The 12 battalion program was approved by the Joint Chiefs of Staff without controversy. Additional CH-21, CH-34, and CH-37 aircraft were procured to equip the new battalions.

A small part of the Air Force responsibility for supply of Army aircraft was transferred to the Ordnance Corps in 1949. Experience had proven that if the greatly enlarged Army Aviation program was to succeed, the Air Force’s strangle hold through control of supply, procurement, and development must be broken. In 1953, the Transportation Corps established the Army Aviation Field Service Office in St. Louis. This office, the predecessor of today’s U.S. Army Aviation and Troop Support Command, took on the responsibility for logistical support for Army Aviation from the Air Force.

In 1954, the Army Aviation School moved from Ft. Sill, OK to Ft. Rucker, AL, and the Army Aviation Center was established. In 1955, the Army Aviation Board was activated at Ft. Rucker. The organization was in place, and the climate was ripe for Army Aviation to really move into Air Mobility.

LTG Williams was with the famous “Class Before One” and helped to validate the need for light aircraft in the artillery adjustment role. The first Master Army Aviator, he was Director of Army Aviation during 1966-1967, followed by a combat tour in Vietnam as CG, 1st Avn Bde. He is considered the “Father of Army Aviation.”