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 fivestar 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 desk work, 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, 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, advocative, 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.
The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.
Return: American Airpower Biography
Home Page | Feedback? Email the Editor