Updated: Jan 26, 2022
In aerial combat, battles are won for a number of reasons, such as numerical advantage, quality of aircraft, superior logistics, as well as highly trained pilots and aircrew. A more prevalent advantage in recent years is the adaptability of the commander to employ new concepts and strategies in order to achieve air superiority. This blog is dedicated to one such commander-General George Kenney.
George Churchill Kenney was born in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia in 1889. The family was on vacation in order to escape the heat and humidity of summertime Boston. The oldest of four children, Kenney grew up in Brookline, a suburb of Boston, graduating from Brookline High School in 1907. Later that year, Kenney entered the Massachusetts Institute Of Technology (MIT), pursuing a degree in civil engineering. When his father left the family, Kenney withdrew from MIT and worked at several positions before becoming a surveyor for the Quebec Saguenay Railroad. Kenney returned to Boston after the death of his mother in 1913, where he took a job with Stone & Webster, a prominent electrical engineering firm. The following year, he entered employment with the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad as a civil engineer with his crowning achievement the construction of a major bridge in New London, Connecticut. Kenney then formed a partnership, the Beaver Contracting And Engineering Corporation with high school friend Gordon Glazier. The Beaver firm participated in a number of key projects, to include a bridge over the Squannacook River, as well as a seawall at Winthrop, Massachusetts.
Shortly after the United States entered World War I in 1917, Kenney enlisted as an aviation cadet in the US Army Signal Corps, Aviation Section. During June and July of that year, he took part in a ground school, conducted at MIT. Kenney later received primary flight training at Hazelhurst Field in Mineola, New York. Upon completing primary flight training in November 1917, Kenney was commissioned as a first lieutenant, leaving for France later that month. Upon arriving in France, he received additional flight training at Issoudun. Upon completion of training there, Kenney was assigned to the 91st Aero Squadron. Kenney flew the Salmson 2A2, a reconnaissance biplane, which had a crew of two, including a pilot and an observer. Kenney crashed in a 2A2 on takeoff in March 1918, breaking an ankle and a hand in the process. He began flying missions again on June 3. Kenney won his first aerial victory on September 15, 1918, when his flight of four aircraft was attacked by six German Pfalz D III scout planes. His observer, William Badham, shot one of them down with Kenney awarded a Silver Star following the action. Kenney encountered a similar situation on October 9 while flying a reconnaissance patrol near Jametz in support of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, during which Kenney's flight was attacked by several German fighters. Again, Kenney managed to shoot down one of the fighters and was subsequently awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. Kenney served briefly with the Allied occupation forces in Germany, being promoted to captain. In 1919 he returned to United States to command the Eighth Aero Squadron, flying missions over the Mexican border during the Mexican Revolution.
Although the Army was contracting in size after World War I, there were a number of Regular Army Commissions offered to reservists. Kenney applied and was commissioned as a captain in the Air Corps in July 1920. During the years between the wars, Kenney served in a number of roles, the first as an air detachment commander at Camp Knox, Kentucky, followed by a stint as an engineering student at McCook Field, just outside of Dayton, Ohio. After his training at McCook, Kenney became the Air Service Inspector at the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company in Garden City, New York, in charge of inspecting fifty Martin NSB-1bombers purchased by the Air Corps from 1921 to 1923. In 1923, Kenney returned to McCook where he advanced methods for mounting .30 caliber machine guns on the wings of a DH4 bomber. In 1926, Kenney again became a student at the Air Corps Tactical School at Langley Field, Virginia, considered the advance Air Corps training school at the time. After completion of the tactical school, he attended the Command and General Staff School at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. As an officer advanced course, it was required of both Air Corps and Army ground officers, the officers learning how to control and staff large formations of troops. Though required for advancement, Kenney and a number of other Air Corps officers considered the course irrelevant to their needs. Kenney then returned to Langley Field as an instructor at the Tactical School. During his tenure there, Kenney taught classes in attack aviation, advancing the concept of low-level attacks to achieve greater accuracy against ground targets. While such attacks could subject an aircraft to enemy ground fire as well as fragmentation from its own bombs, Kenney believed these problems could be overcome by modifications to both aircraft and tactics. This strategy ran counter to the prevailing doctrine at the time, which emphasized high altitude strategic bombing. By 1932, Kenney had entered the Army War College in Washington, D.C. Classes there were primarily conducted by student committees, studying World War I battles applying current aerial tactics. Kenney's committee studied the Second Battle of the Masurian Lakes, followed by work on War Plan Orange, with Kenney writing a paper titled "The Proper Composition of the Air Force". An unknown advantage of the War College was Kenney developed a close working relationship with two students, Richard Sutherland and Stephen Chamberlain, both of whom he would work with while serving in the South Pacific. Upon graduation from the War College, Kenney assumed a staff post in the Plans Division of the Office of the Chief of the Air Corps. He performed a number of duties during this time, among them, the preparation of reports offering the Air Corps a greater degree of independence. Kenney's efforts bore fruit with legislation directing the Army to create General Headquarters Air Force, a centralized command led by an aviator, which reported directly to the Army Chief of Staff. In the mid 1930's, Kenney fell into disfavor with the Army Chief of Staff over his objections to the Air Corps desire to purchase more B-17 Flying Fortresses. He then had a training assignment at the Infantry School at Fort Benning, Georgia before finally commanding the 97th Observation Squadron at Mitchell Field, New York in 1938.
Kenney was assigned as Chief of the Production Engineering Section at Wright Field, Ohio in 1939. In early 1940, he was sent to France as an Assistant Military Attache for Air, monitoring Allied air operations in early World War II. As a result of this experience, Kenney made a number of recommendations in regard to Air Corps tactics and equipment, which included equipping all aircraft with self-sealing fuel tanks, as well as increasing the armament from .30 caliber machine guns to .50 caliber guns. Kenney again ran afoul of the Air Corps leadership when he made unfavorable comparisons of Air Corps planes against those of the German Luftwaffe. He was then sent back to Wright Field in January 1941 as commander of the Air Corps Experimental Depot and Engineering School, as a brigadier general. The following year, Kenney was promoted to major general, commanding the Fourth Air Force, an air defense and training organization headquartered in San Francisco. In July Kenney was ordered to take command of the Fifth Air Force and other Allied Air Forces in the Southwest Pacific Area under General Douglas MacArthur. MacArthur had problems with the previous commander, Lieutenant General George Brett, with the choice between Kenney and Major General James Doolittle. MacArthur chose Kenney and their first meeting got off to a rocky start with MacArthur lecturing Kenney about the shortcomings of the Fifth Air Force. While Kenney realized MacArthur had a limited understanding of air operations, he needed his cooperation. Part of the problem was MacArthur's chief of staff, General Richard Sutherland. However, Kenney and Sutherland were able to resolve their differences during the first meeting with Sutherland allowing Kenney a free hand in controlling the air forces.
One of the early areas of agreement between MacArthur and Kenney was Kenney's desire to send home officers who lacked initiative and an unwillingness to engage the enemy-something Washington would not allow Kenney to do. However, MacArthur supported Kenney and the two began to form an effective relationship. Another early decision made by Kenney was to separate both US and Australian air commands. With the priority of resources being sent to the European Theater, Kenney and his staff had to develop tactics that would maximize the effectiveness of what the Fifth Air Force already possessed. Due to the relatively few bombers in service, Kenney decided to have them fly night missions, unless enough fighter escorts were available since daylight missions were proving costly. Another tactical change involved tactical shipping strikes by bombers. Prewar Air Corps doctrine for attacking shipping called for large formations of high-altitude bombers covering a ship with a wall of bombs dropped an altitude above the effective range of the defending ship's anti-aircraft guns. However, those results required a force three times the number the Fifth Air Force could send on any mission. To surmount this, Kenney began to send bombers on low-level anti-shipping missions using bombs armed with instantaneous fuses. Such bombs would detonate as soon as they hit the water, putting holes in the side of the target ship. A similar tactic was the use of skip bombing, in which a low flying aircraft would approach a target ship dropping its bombs on the water, skipping like pebbles then bouncing into the side of a ship. Already in limited use by the Australians, British and Germans early in the war, Kenney had Major Paul Gunn, a staff officer, conduct a number of experiments to get skip bombing down to a science, practiced on a daily basis by the Fifth Air Force. A related bombing technique, mast-height bombing, in which the attacking plane would approach the ship at a low level, then dropping down to mast-height and releasing their bombs at a predetermined distance from the ship was also utilized. Both techniques were effective and could be used interchangeably. Another tactic applied by the Fifth Air Force was to support ground operations by having transport planes fly in or drop supplies to combat areas from which to establish new bases. Kenney was even able to have ground crews torch trucks and equipment in half, in order to make them easier to transport. He also began a program of aircraft modifications. Major Gunn modified a small number of Douglas A-20 Havoc attack bombers by installing four .50 caliber machine guns in their noses while adding two 450 gallon fuel tanks to increase the range of the plane. This program was successful and was replicated on the B-25 Mitchell medium bomber, though a more difficult task. The dozen guns in the front with the related ammunition, caused the aircraft to be nose heavy, despite adding ballast to the tail. In addition, vibrations caused by the machine guns firing also caused rivets to pop at times. To lighten the load, both the tail guns and belly turrets were removed since the anti-shipping strikes were low-level missions. Kenney needed a capable, long-range fighter aircraft that could perform a variety of missions. He got this in late 1942 with the introduction of the twin-boom Lockheed P-38 Lightning. Though the P-38 had teething troubles at first, once the pilots were thoroughly acquainted with the plane it proved to be a versatile aircraft.
In March 1945, Kenney was promoted to general (four star), after being placed in charge of all Far East Air Forces (FEAF), which included the Fifth, Seventh and Thirteenth Air Forces in June 1944. After the war, Kenney became the first commander of the newly formed Strategic Air Command (SAC) in 1946. At this time Kenney became involved in political efforts directed at forming an independent air force. He was appointed as U.S. representative to the United Nations Military Staff Committee, considered to be a key assignment at the time. However, these two endeavors began to take their toll on the daily operations at SAC. Initially, Kenney left operations at SAC to his deputy commander, Major General St. Clair Streett. The following year Strett was replaced by Major General Clements McMullen. Due to Kenney's outside activities, McMullen became the de facto commander of SAC. Shortly after assuming command, McMullen initiated a cross-training program in early 1948, designed to reduce the number of officers required on SAC bombers. Though the concept looked fine on paper, it imposed additional stress on aircrews, with no one having a thorough understanding of their duties, as well as creating morale problems. As a result of this and aggressive political activities toward Cold War policy, in addition to opposition to the B-36 Bomber program, Kenney was relieved as commander of SAC in October 1948, assuming the post as commander of the Air University until his retirement in September 1951. Though Kenney could be outspoken at times, he was a consistent advocate of airpower. He was one of a few commanders who could think out of the box and make it happen. He assumed command of the Fifth Air Force at a critical time, virtually reinventing the doctrine of tactical bombing, as evidenced by the destruction of Japanese shipping due to skip bombing missions. Kenney's ability to do more with less, made him a true innovator of airpower.
This article is the first of a series about leaders of aviation.