By Dr. John Garrett, 17th Training Wing
/ Published January 06, 2016
GOODFELLOW AIR FORCE BASE, Texas --
History has been hard on Neville Chamberlain. As Prime Minister of Great Britain from May 1937 until May 1940, he had “the hope of doing something to improve the conditions of life for the poorer people.” Indeed, he won passage of legislation limiting working hours for women and children. He secured the “holidays with pay” act. He mended relations with Ireland. And then he left for Munich where, in his hands, appeasement became a dirty word.
That was unfortunate. He travelled to Munich in September 1938 to meet with the leaders of Germany, Italy, and France and settle the Sudeten question. Adolf Hitler, the leader of Germany, alleged the ethnic Germans living in Czechoslovakia were being mistreated, threatening war on their behalf. For Chamberlain, the issue was not so much the Sudeten Germans or the Czechs as it was the 17 million people who perished in the First World War 20 years earlier. He, like most Europeans, wished never to confront that kind of carnage again. Plus, he was told, the British Army was not ready for war. It needed time. So he signed the agreement giving the Sudetenland to Hitler and called it “peace for our time.” It wasn’t. Six months later, Hitler invaded the rest of Czechoslovakia. Six months after that, he invaded Poland. World War II had begun.
That appeasement could whet an appetite rather than sate it was the lesson most people drew from Munich. Back in Washington, President Franklin Roosevelt drew another. He had not attended the conference in Munich. He had not been invited to attend. For Roosevelt, that spoke volumes. “If I had possessed 10,000 planes,” he lamented afterwards, “I could have gone to Munich and saved the Czechs.”
Air power – for Roosevelt, that was key, in diplomacy as in war. “Airplanes were the war implements that would have an influence on Hitler’s activities,” chief of the Army Air Corps, General Hap Arnold, recalled Roosevelt telling him. At a private White House meeting in November 1938 Roosevelt elaborated on his views. “When I write foreign countries I must have something to back up my words,” he said. “Had we had this summer 5,000 planes and the capacity immediately to produce 10,000 per year, Hitler would not have dared to take the stand he did.”
Two months after the private White House meeting, Roosevelt went to Congress and aired his views, requesting 6,000 planes. He settled for half that number from a jittery but still isolationist Congress. But then came the German attack on Poland in September 1939, the attacks on Norway, Denmark, and the Low Countries the following spring, and finally the overrunning of France in May 1940. “All you have to do is ask for it,” Sen Henry Cabot Lodge told Arnold at the time. Arnold asked for a 54-group force, to include 11,000 aircraft and the pilots to fly them.
For the Army Air Corps, pilot production had never been a particular strength. The high point, reached in the late 1930s, was 246 new pilots in a single year. To ramp up production after Munich, the Air Corps contracted with nine civilian schools to deliver primary instruction, the first of three stages of pilot training. Unfortunately, basic pilot training, the second stage, was still confined mainly to Randolph Field in San Antonio, while advanced training took place only at nearby Kelly and Brooks Fields. To flesh out the new 54-group force, that was not going to cut it. In the minimum, the production of new pilots would have to reach 7,000 per year. As a first step in that direction, the Air Corps Training Center (the forerunner of today’s Air Education and Training Command) commissioned a site board in May 1940 to identify locations for four new flying training facilities. The first of these, a bombardier school, would take over Ellington Field near Houston. The second, a new basic school, would be set up at the municipal airport in Montgomery, Alabama. For the third, another municipal airport, this time in Stockton, California, would host construction of an advanced flying school. Finally, a second advanced school would be established at a site somewhere in west- or south-central Texas.