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Henry H. Arnold was one of the truly great men in American airpower. Taught to fly by the Wright brothers, he rose steadily in rank and responsibility throughout the 1920s and 30s and became the commanding General of the Army Air Forces (AAF) during World War II. In 1944 he was promoted to five star rank, but his health was very poor-he suffered five heart attacks during the war-and he retired six months after Japan surrendered. Thomas M. Coffey's, Hap: The Story of the US Air Force and the Man Who Built It (New York: Viking Press, 1982) relies heavily on interviews and memoirs of Arnold's contemporaries to portray his life, and the result is an interesting though incomplete study.

    Graduating from West Point in 1907, Arnold had hoped to join the cavalry. However, his cadet performance was so dismal he instead was relegated to the infantry. After a tour in the Philippines, he reapplied to the cavalry, but was again refused. Largely out of a desire to escape from the infantry, Arnold then applied for the Signal Corps and became one of America's first military pilots. Aviation was extremely dangerous in those early days, and after several crashes and near crashes, Arnold elected to ground himself. After more than three years of deskwork, he overcame his fears and returned to flying. Because of his relatively extensive experience in aviation, and much to his chagrin, he was forced to remain in Washington on the Air Service staff during the First World War. After Armistice Day, he slowly began his steady rise in rank and responsibility. He commanded wings and bases, became a protégé of Billy Mitchell, twice won the Mackay Trophy for aeronautical achievement, were he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for leading a flight of B10 bombers to Alaska to display the range of strategic airpower, and was named assistant to the chief of the Air Corps in 1935. When Oscar Westover was killed in a plane crash in 1938, Arnold succeeded him as chief. In this position he was instrumental in laying the groundwork for the massive industrial expansion the war required. During the war itself he sat as an equal member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and was responsible for guiding the air strategy of the various theaters. Belying his nickname "Hap" (short for "happy"), Arnold was a difficult taskmaster. He continually interfered in the affairs of his subordinates, refused to use or even organize his staff effectively, and his mercurial temper often made him quite nasty. Nonetheless, he was a man whose great weaknesses were also his great strengths. His drive, vision, and sense of initiative were indispensable in leading the air arm.

    Coffey has done an excellent job of bringing Arnold's complex personality to life. Although his portrait is largely sympathetic, Coffey leaves one with the image of a difficult and irascible husband, father, subordinate, and commander. Yet, his genius for accomplishing great things and inspiring others to perform great deeds as well is apparent. Because Coffey relies so heavily on interviews, however, his story is incomplete and biased. For example, Arnold's decision to command personally the B29 forces in the Pacific was an unprecedented action for a member of the joint chiefs. Although the author notes this, he fails to explain how Arnold was able to convince the other chiefs-to say nothing of the theater commanders involved-to accept such an unusual command arrangement. More significantly, although Coffey alludes to Arnold's vision as an air strategist and strategic bombing advocate, he gives almost no insight into this area. Arnold's extensive writings on this subject (he authored or coauthored four books plus his memoirs) are scarcely mentioned. As a result, this biography is more of a sketch than a portrait; it provides an outline and some interesting hints, but the detail is lacking.

    Flint O. DuPre, Hap Arnold: Architect of American Air Power (New York: Macmillan, 1972) is a fairly short character sketch based on Arnold's memoirs that is of little use. Murray Green performed an enormous amount of research over a period of several years, which included dozens of interviews with friends, family, and colleagues of Arnold. He began to write a biography, but never completed it. His effort, tentatively titled "Hap Arnold and the Birth of the United States Air Force," consists of a draft that takes Arnold up to the start of World War II. Even though only the first 20 years of Arnold's career have been covered and they are still in draft, this is an interesting start. Because of the depth of research, Green offers insights and provides information not contained elsewhere: Arnold's cadet experiences and the unique culture of West Point at the turn of the century, his relationship with Charles Lindbergh and the America First organization, and the general's problems with President Roosevelt concerning the shipment of aircraft to Europe in the late 1930s. Green's unfinished manuscript is located in the Special Collections Branch of the Air Force Academy library, along with all the notes and interviews he conducted over the years.

    Arnold's memoirs were written with the help of William R. Laidlaw and are titled Global Mission (New York: Harper and Row, 1949). They tend to resemble the man who wrote them: energetic, enthusiastic, ad vocative, a mixture of broad vision and intimate detail, and somewhat disorganized. Arnold had a legendary temper, but that is not in evidence here. He had obviously mellowed in the four years since his retirement; thus, the spirited arguments with the other services-and even with individuals in his own service-are muted. Arnold notes his differences with the Navy, but he has nary a contrary word for Admirals Leahy, King, Nimitz, or Towers, his main antagonists. Although this restraint is commendable, it finesses some of the key strategic issues of the war, and we are left with rather bland comments like "after some discussion we were able to reach a compromise." His biggest barbs are reserved for the Chinese-who he saw as hopelessly corrupt-and the Soviets-who he viewed with increasing distrust as the war progressed. By the end of the war, Arnold was already a cold warrior and concluded his memoirs with a warning to maintain an air force powerful enough to counter the Soviet Union. Especially useful are his fascinating stories of the early years of aviation and the evolution of airpower in the two decades following the First World War. His detailed account of the war years is also quite interesting, and the sheer volume of the problems he encountered are clearly illustrated. In seven pages he lists the subjects of dozens of memos that he had to write in a typical day, everything from the design of buttons that were miniature compasses to assist downed aircrews to the location of B29 bases in China. Overall, this was an enjoyable and very readable book-one of the best of the wartime memoirs of a senior leader.

    Arnold's voluminous war diaries are soon to be published. John W. Huston has laboriously edited these enormously valuable chronicles, while adding context and commentary. The availability of this source to the general public will be a much-welcomed event.

    During forty-one years of active duty service in the U.S. Army and Air Force, General Arnold Compiled a record unparalleled in military history. Universally acknowledged as the father of the modern American Air Force, he took charge of the Army Air Corps in 1938, when it was a small collection of 20,000 men and a few hundred less-than-battle worthy planes.

By 1944, under the whip of his compelling, relentless vigor, the Air Corps had grown into an organization of 2.4 million men and women and eighty thousand aircraft. Never before or since, has a military machine of such size and complexity been created in so short a period. At the height of World War II, General Arnold commanded the largest Air Force the world has ever seen, consisting of 2,400,000 man and 75,000 aircraft.

People who knew General Arnold were not surprised that he died virtually penniless - money had little attraction for him - airplanes were his sole obsessions. The Wright Brothers had taught him to fly in 1911, and he was the holder of the second U.S. Army's Pilot's License. He spent more than half his life fighting for the development of air power and air transportation.
Many times throughout General Arnold's active years, it seemed unlikely that he would ever complete an Air Corps career - let alone play such a pivotal role in the development of modern air power. However, this air power advocate and visionary had the conviction and determination to keep fighting for the Air Force that he dreamed of. His dream came true on September 18, 1947 when the Air Force became a separate branch of the armed services. Today, the U.S. Air Force continues the tradition of excellence that was set by it's "father," and the spirit of "Hap" Arnold is kept alive through the many community and corps service projects of the Arnold Air Society and Silver Wings.


Henry H. "Hap" Arnold -- Portrait of a Visionary

    During the early 1940's there were no wind tunnels or steel pipes dotting the landscape of Middle Tennessee. There was no Air Force base stretching between Manchester and Tullahoma. There were thoughts of the global conflict that was underway, not of an engineering development center. Little did anyone know that a high-technology testing complex would one day arise from the forests of Middle Tennessee.

    There was a man with a vision, however, to look beyond the war and the United States' technological capabilities of the 1940s and look into the future. He was a man with a vision to keep the U.S. Air Force on the leading edge of technology.

    His name was Henry H. "Hap" Arnold. The man destined to become the "father" of the modern U.S. Air Force was born on June 25, 1886 in Gladwyn, Pa.

    Following the family tradition of a military career, Arnold entered West Point in 1903, the same year the Wright Brothers flew at Kitty Hawk.

    After graduating from West Point in 1907 he served a tour in the infantry in the Philippines.

    In 1911, at the age of 25, Arnold volunteered for flight training with the Wright Brothers in Dayton, Ohio, beginning his aviation career. In those early stages of Arnold's aviation career, Congress appropriated $125,000 for aviation development. Although it would not pay for the instruments in even one of today's fighters, in 1911, this money paved the way for some of the first contributions to aviation history. New equipment for training and reconnaissance work and more openings for new pilots could now be realized.

    Groundbreaking ceremonies were being held for the first military aviation school at College Park, Md. In essence, the money opened new doors for future aviation pioneers, including young Lieutenant Arnold.

    Arnold made many "first" contributions to aviation during his early career. He was the first to demonstrate how the airplane could be used for reconnaissance and was awarded the first MacKay trophy for his efforts. He was awarded the first military aviator's badge and expert aviator's certificate for his pioneering flights. During his assignment at College Park, Arnold established a world altitude record of 6,540 feet.

    Arnold enjoyed a highly successful military career. His contributions to the aviation industry during that time, helped further developments in the field of aviation and helped fuel his vision of a stronger, more prominent U.S. Air Force.

    While chief of the Army Information Service, during World War I, Arnold also served as assistant director of military aeronautics, responsible for training pilots and acquiring most military flying bases in the United States.

    After the war, he promoted innovations such as the aerial forest patrol and in-flight refueling while on the road to becoming chief of the information Division for the Air Corps in 1925.

    Arnold was credited for seeking publicity and support for air power throughout his career, working closely with the motion picture industry still in its infancy.

    He also began an association with members of the scientific community at the California Institute of Technology that was to have a significant impact on the Air Force of today.

    Another of Arnold's aviation "firsts" was his organization and leadership of ten Martin B-10 bombers on a historic flight from Ohio to Alaska. The planes flew 18,000 miles round trip, then conducted over 35,000 square miles of aerial surveys of Alaskan territory. Arnold was awarded his second MacKay trophy for this flight.

    It was during his term as chief of the Air Corps, that Arnold began turning his vision of a supreme American air power into a reality. World War II had helped develop Arnold's vision. As Commanding General, Arnold led his worldwide Army Air Forces to victory through the use of strategic air power. The Air Corps had grown from a group of 24,000 men to an organized force of more than two million, and from a collection of 2,400 aircraft to more than 80,000. The war had demonstrated air superiority was a prerequisite to any ground or naval action.

    To Arnold, it seemed the most important lesson of the war was the need for preeminence in air research to provide national security. Toward the end of World War II, Arnold met with Dr. Theodore von Karman, one of the world's great aeronautical scientists, to discuss developing a plan to help guarantee the superiority of future air power.

    Von Karman recalled a statement Arnold made in their initial conversation: "We have won this war....I do not think we should spend time debating whether we obtained the victory by sheer power or by some qualitative superiority. Only one thing should concern us. What is the future of air power and aerial warfare? What is the bearing of the new inventions, such as jet propulsion, rockets, radar, and the other electronic devices?"

    Arnold looked to the scientific and academic communities, for the expertise which could help him find the answers for which he was looking.

    Arnold asked von Karman to "gather a group of scientists who will work out a blueprint for air research for the next twenty, thirty, perhaps fifty years." He wanted the group to look into every science and find the basic developments that could make U.S. air power invincible.

    Arnold's vision of an Air Force "built around scientists--around mechanically minded fellows" to support an engineering development center, progressed slowly though the political sphere between 1946 and 1949. Arnold witnessed the Center's major hurdle of Congressional approval and funding, but died of a heart attack on January 15, 1950, more than a year before the Center was dedicated in his honor by President Truman on June 25, 1951.

    The only Air Force officer to ever hold five-star rank, General of the Air Force, Henry Harley Arnold was enshrined into the National Aviation Hall of Fame on December 19, 1967, for his outstanding contributions to aviation by his pioneering flights, devotion to concepts of strategic air power, and brilliant leadership of the Air Force in World War II.




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Last modified: October 11, 2003