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Air mobility history: Attacks on Pearl Harbor led to growth in military airlift

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Story by Scott Sturkol on 12/07/2011
SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill. -- Seventy years ago, at 7:55 a.m., 183 Japanese attack aircraft began an attack on military facilities in Hawaii on a day that President Franklin Roosevelt later called a "day that will live in infamy."

Official history from the state of Hawaii further states, "The second wave consisted of 170 aircraft. Ninety-four American ships were in Pearl Harbor. Four hundred American aircraft were parked at Ford Island, Hickam Field, Wheeler Field, Ewa Marine Corps Air Station, Kaneohe MCAS, Bellows Station and Haleiwa Field. The American Aircraft Carrier Saratoga was in San Diego, the Lexington was delivering planes to Midway Island and the Enterprise delivering planes to Wake Island. The Japanese attack sunk 18 American ships and destroyed 188 American aircraft and caused 2,335 American military deaths while losing 29 Japanese planes, damaging 50 Japanese planes and suffering fewer than 100 Japanese deaths."

It was in the aftermath of the attacks where military airlift expanded its role in delivering the "beans and bullets" to forces that continues to this day. Ironically, before the attacks on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Army Air Corps Ferrying Command was busy setting up a global air transport network.

According to the history publication, "Anything, Anywhere, Anytime: An Illustrated History of the Military Airlift Command, 1941-1991," the Air Corps Ferrying Command (created on May 29, 1941) was "heavily involved" in surveying routes to Alaska, Australia, Africa, India and Great Britain to "ensure that lend-lease aircraft reached the Allies in an efficient and safe manner."

The publications shows one major step in the development of the route system happened in September 1941 when two modified B-24 Liberators carried diplomat Averell Harriman and his staff to Moscow to discuss lend-lease procedures with the Soviets.

"The planes first carried Harriman to Scotland, and from there, they flew a 3,150-mile circular route to Moscow," the publication states. "Then, the two airplanes returned to Washington over different routes. Maj. Alva L. Harvey took his B-24 home by way of the Middle East, India, Singapore, Darwin, Port Moseby, Wake Island and Hawaii.

"Lt. Louis T. Reichers took his plane to Cairo, across Central Africa and the South Atlantic to South America. Following the coast northward, Reichers passed through the Caribbean to Florida. The pioneering efforts of these two fliers paid dividends when the worldwide scope of the war soon forced the Air Corps Ferrying Command to expand its ferrying and air transport services over the South Atlantic and across Africa to the Middle East."

The publication shows the most significant route that was "enormously important" after the Pearl Harbor attacks on Dec. 7, 1941, was the South Atlantic route.

"The route was especially critical following Pearl Harbor when President Roosevelt ordered the immediate reinforcement of the Philippine air force. With Japan cutting off the Pacific route, the (Air Corps Ferrying Command) used the South Atlantic route to rush some 80 B-17 and LB-30 bomber aircraft to the Philippines. Designated 'Project X,' the assignment was the first major foreign ferrying operation of the war and the first overseas movement of tactical units."

Also stated in official U.S. Army history about the U.S. Army Air Forces in World War II, an article entitled, "Early Airlift and Airborne Units," highlights how the Pearl Harbor attacks affected the growth of military airlift.

"After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor...change became the order of the day," the article states. "Germany declared war against the United States a few days later and, among many challenges, the AAF forged its aerial support network into military air routes around the world."

The article also highlighted the inclusion of civilian aircraft aiding in the building of the United States air mobility network across the globe - matching history documented in the MAC publication.

"With so much activity along the segments of the South Atlantic route, the route became one of the first candidates for civil contract work," the article states. "Beginning in the spring of 1941, Pan American Airways began to handle this task, moving airplanes across the Caribbean and down the eastern coast of South America to Natal, Brazil. From there, three principal airways went to Africa's western coast. Most of that air traffic then winged across central Africa to the Sudan, from which point other routes spread through the Middle East and across India. Pan Am's experience in the Caribbean and South America ensured recognition of local customs and supported the need to obtain supplies from local sources. By the end of 1942, Pan Am had delivered about 460 airplanes over this southern air transport system."

As the war progressed, air mobility components of the U.S. Army formed into the Air Transport Command and the Troop Carrier Command in 1942, history shows. On Dec. 12, 1941, the U.S. Navy created the Naval Air Transport Service to provide logistics airlift for Navy's fleets and "far flung" bases as well. On May 3, 1948, the Military Air Transport Service was created and aligned under the still-new U.S. Air Force. MATS later became Military Airlift Command. On June 1, 1992, Air Mobility Command activated to continue on this important airlift heritage as the Military Airlift Command inactivated.

Seventy years after the attacks on Pearl Harbor, Air Mobility Command and mobility Airmen are still using the routes built by those air mobility pioneers to "answer the call."

(Air Mobility Command History Office contributed to this article.)


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