I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that I wanted to write more about the multiple air force divisions of the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) during WWII, and I’m doing so today.
A very good source of information is available in PDF format on the internet, a 520-page volume called Air Force Combat Units of World War II, edited by Maurer Maurer and published by the Office of Air Force History in Washington, D.C., in 1983.
This work describes US air force combat units, divided by and described by Groups, Wings, Divisions, Commands, and Air Forces. I have included a link at the bottom of this article in the Sources section to this volume for those interested in learning more, but today I’m noting only information at the highest level, the different air forces themselves.
All descriptive information below is taken directly from and is credited to this volume.
The various numbered air forces which operated during World War II by theater of operation were:
EUROPEAN THEATER OF OPERATIONS (ETO)
Eighth Air Force (Strategic Operations)
Constituted as VIII Bomber Command on 19 Jan 1942. Activated in the US on 1 Feb 1942. An advanced detachment was established in England on 23 Feb and units began arriving from the US during the spring of 1942. The command conducted the heavy bombardment operations of Eighth AF (see US Strategic Air Forces in Europe) from 17 Aug 1942 until early in 1944. Redesignated Eighth AF on 22 Feb 1944. Afterward, engaged primarily in bombardment of strategic targets in Europe. Transferred, without personnel, equipment, and combat elements, to Okinawa on 16 Jul 1945. Although some personnel and combat units were assigned before V-J Day, the Eighth did not participate in combat against Japan. Transferred, without personnel and equipment, to the US on 7 Jun 1946. Remanned and re-equipped as part of Strategic Air Command.
My dad, George Edwin Farrar, served in the 544th Bomb Squadron of the 384th Bomb Group of the 8th Air Force.
Ninth Air Force (Tactical Operations)
Constituted as V Air Support Command on 21 Aug 1941. Activated on 1 Sep 1941. Redesignated Ninth AF in Apr 1942. Moved to Egypt and began operations on 12 Nov 1942, participating in the Allied drive across Egypt and Libya, the campaign in Tunisia, and the invasions of Sicily and Italy. Moved to England in Oct 1943 to become the tactical air force for the invasion of the Continent. Helped prepare for the assault on Normandy, supported operations on the beach in Jun 1944, and took part in the drive that carried the Allies across France and culminated in victory over Germany in May 1945. Inactivated in Germany on 2 Dec 1945.
US Strategic Air Forces in Europe (originally Eighth Air Force)
Constituted as Eighth AF on 19 Jan 1942 and activated on 28 Jan. Moved to England, May – Jun 1942, and engaged primarily in bombardment of targets in Europe. Redesignated US Strategic Air Forces in Europe on 22 Feb 1944. Afterward, coordinated AAF activities in the EAME Theater, exercising some operational control over both Eighth AF (originally VIII Bomber Command) and Fifteenth, and some administrative control over Eighth AF and Ninth. Served with the occupation forces in Europe after World War II. Redesignated United States Air Forces in Europe in Aug 1945. Directed USAF operations in the Berlin airlift, Jun 1948 – Sep 1949.
MEDITERRANEAN THEATER OF OPERATIONS (MTO)
Twelfth Air Force (Tactical Operations)
Constituted as Twelfth AF on 20 Aug 1942 and activated the same day. Moved to England, Aug-Sep 1942, and then on to North Africa for the invasion of Algeria and French Morocco in Nov 1942. Operated in the Mediterranean theater until the end of the war, serving with Northwest African Air Forces from Feb to Dec 1943, and afterward with Mediterranean Allied Air Forces. Inactivated in Italy on 31 Aug 1945.
Fifteenth Air Force (Strategic Operations)
Constituted as Fifteenth AF on 30 Oct 1943. Activated in the Mediterranean theater on 1 Nov 1943. Began operations on 2 Nov and engaged primarily in strategic bombardment of targets in Italy, France, Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Austria, Hungary, and the Balkans until the end of the war. Inactivated in Italy on 15 Sep 1945.
CHINA-BURMA-INDIA (CBI) THEATER OF OPERATIONS
Tenth Air Force (Burma-India)
Constituted as Tenth AF on 4 Feb 1942 and activated on 12 Feb. Moved to India, Mar-May 1942. Served in India, Burma, and China until Mar 1943 when Fourteenth AF was activated in China. Then the Tenth operated in India and Burma until it moved to China late in Jul 1945. Returned to the US, Dec 1945 – Jan 1946. Inactivated on 6 Jan 1946.
My father’s brother, my uncle Carroll Johnson Farrar, Jr., served in the 315th Service Squadron of the 10th Air Force.
Fourteenth Air Force (China)
Constituted as Fourteenth AF on 5 Mar 1943 and activated in China on 10 Mar. Served in combat against the Japanese, operating primarily in China, until the end of the war. Moved to the US, Dec 1945 – Jan 1946. Inactivated on 6 Jan 1946.
Twentieth Air Force (Strategic Operations)
Constituted as Twentieth AF on 4 Apr 1944 and activated the same day. Some combat elements moved in the summer of 1944 from the US to India where they carried out very heavy bombardment operations against targets in Japan, Formosa, Thailand, and Burma. Other combat elements began moving late in 1944 from the US to the Marianas, being joined there early in 1945 by the elements that had been in India. Headquarters, which had remained in the US, was transferred to Guam in Jul 1945. From the Marianas the Twentieth conducted a strategic air offensive that was climaxed by the dropping of two atomic bombs on Japan. After the war the Twentieth remained in the theater and eventually became part of Far East Air Forces. Served in combat for a short time at the beginning of the Korean War but later was concerned primarily with logistic support for the operations of other organizations and with air defense for the Ryukyus. Inaczivated on Okinawa on 1 Mar 1955.
PACIFIC OCEAN AREA (POA)
Fifth Air Force (Southwest Pacific Area – SWPA, Far East Air Force – FEAF)
Constituted as Philippine Department AF on 16 Aug 1941. Activated in the Philippines on 20 Sep 1941. Redesignated Far East AF in Oct 1941, and Fifth AF in Feb 1942. This air force lost most of its men and equipment in the defense of the Philippines after 7 Dec 1941. Later in Dec 1941 headquarters and some crews and planes moved to Australia, and in Jan 1942 they were sent to Java to help delay Japanese advances in the Netherlands Indies. The Fifth did not function as an air force for some time after Feb 1942 (the AAF organizations in the Southwest Pacific being under the control of American-British-Dutch-Australian Command and later Allied Air Forces). Headquarters was remanned in Sep 1942 and assumed control of AAF organizations in Australia and New Guinea. The Fifth participated in operations that stopped the Japanese drive in Papua, recovered New Guinea, neutralized islands in the Bismarck Archipelago and the Netherlands East Indies, and liberated the Philippines. When the war ended in Aug 1945 elements of the Fifth were moving to the Ryukyus for the invasion of Japan. After the war the Fifth, a component of Far East Air Forces, remained in the theater, and from Jun 1950 to Jul 1953 it was engaged in the Korean War.
Seventh Air Force (AAFPOA)
Constituted as Hawaiian AF on 19 Oct 1940. Activated in Hawaii on 1 Nov 1940. Redesignated Seventh AF in Feb 1942. Provided air defense for the Hawaiian Islands and, after mid-1943, served in combat in the central and western Pacific areas. Transferred back to Hawaii in Jan 1946. Redesignated Pacific Air Command in Dec 1947. Discontinued on 1 Jun 1949.
Thirteenth Air Force (Air Forces Pacific)
Constituted as Thirteenth AF on 14 Dec 1942. Activated in New Caledonia on 13 Jan 1943. Served in the South Pacific and, later, Southwest Pacific, participating in the Allied drive north and west from the Solomons to the Philippines. Remained in the Philippines, as part of Far East Air Forces, after the war. Transferred, without personnel and equipment, to Okinawa in Dec 1948 and back to the Philippines in May 1949.
AMERICAN THEATER OF OPERATIONS
First Air Force
Constituted as Northeast Air District on 19 Oct 1940. Activated on 18 Dec 1940. Redesignated First AF early in 1941. Trained new organizations and, later, replacements for combat units. Also provided air defense for the eastern US until 1943. Assigned to Air Defense Command in Mar 1946 and to Continental Air Command in Dec 1948, being concerned primarily with air defense until 1949 and with reserve and national guard activities thereafter.
Second Air Force
Constituted as Northwest Air District on 19 Oct 1940. Activated on 18 Dec 1940. Redesignated Second AF early in 1941. Served as both an air defense and a training organization in 1941. Afterward, was engaged chiefly in training units and replacements for heavy and, later, very heavy bombardment operations. Inactivated on 30 Mar 1946.
Third Air Force (Antisubmarine)
Constituted as Southeast Air District on 19 Oct 1940. Activated on 18 Dec 1940. Redesignated Third AF early in 1941. Trained units, crews, and individuals for bombardment, fighter, and reconnaissance operations. Also had some air defense responsibilities during 1940 – 1941 and engaged in antisubmarine activities from Dec 1941 to Oct 1942. Assigned in Mar 1946 to Tactical Air Command to serve as a troop carrier organization. Inactivated on 1 Nov 1946.
Fourth Air Force
Constituted as Southwest Air District on 19 Oct 1940. Activated on 18 Dec 1940. Redesignated Fourth AF early in 1941. Provided air defense for the western US until 1943, and at the same time trained new organizations. Later, was engaged primarily in training replacements for combat units. Assigned to Air Defense Command in Mar 1946 and to Continental Air Command in Dec 1948, being concerned chiefly with air defense until 1949 and with reserve and national guard activities thereafter.
Sixth Air Force (Antisubmarine)
Constituted as Panama Canal AF on 19 Oct 1940. Activated in the Canal Zone on 20 Nov 1940. Redesignated Caribbean AF in Aug 1941, and Sixth AF in Feb 1942. Served primarily in defense of the Panama Canal; also engaged in antisubmarine operations. Redesignated Caribbean Air Command on 31 Jul 1946.
Eleventh Air Force (Alaska)
Constituted as Alaskan AF on 28 Dec 1941. Activated in Alaska on 15 Jan 1942. Redesignated Eleventh AF in Feb 1942. Participated in the offensive that drove the Japanese from the Aleutians, attacked the enemy in the Kuril Islands, and, both during and after the war, served as part of the defense force for Alaska. Redesignated Alaskan Air Command in Dec 1945.
The Office of Air Force History’s Air Force Combat Units of World War II
To review combat missions of the various air forces of the USAAF, please refer to:
Kit C. Carter and Robert Mueller’s U.S. Army Air Forces in World War II Combat Chronology 1941 – 1945
Jack McKillop’s Combat Chronology of the US Army Air Forces
Except for entries from Air Force Combat Units of World War II, edited by Maurer Maurer and published by the Office of Air Force History in Washington, D.C., 1983, © Cindy Farrar Bryan and The Arrowhead Club, 2021