Part 5 - A case study in modernization: War’s end – modernization objectives met

  • Published
  • By Dr. Jeremy Prichard
  • 20th Air Force History Office


War’s End – Modernization Objectives Met

So effective was LeMay’s new B-29 bombing strategy that it ultimately accomplished Arnold’s aim of averting a ground invasion of Japan, likely saving countless lives as a result. War in the Pacific officially ended in September 1945, two months before U.S. military leaders’ proposed invasion of Japan.

Twentieth Air Force was responsible for ending the war in the Pacific – both by preventing a ground-invasion of the Japanese mainland and by demonstrating airpower’s ability to end a conflict, the first in recorded military history.

The dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, both by Twentieth Air Force B-29 crews, didn’t end the war so much as accelerate it. The incessant area bombing conducted prior to those two catastrophic events ultimately incentivized Japan to seek a cessation of hostilities, even if that decision was delayed. The Premier of Japan, Prince Fumimaro Konoye, was not alone when he assessed “… the determination to make peace was the prolonged bombing by the B-29s.”

Rather, Arnold argued that the two atomic bombings allowed the Japanese emperor to “save face” and seek an end to that “prolonged bombing.” Arnold’s writings, in fact, indicate his concerns that the expected news coverage from the two atomic bombs would detract from the months-long devastating campaigns conducted by B-29 crews that he preferred news agencies highlight.

Given his focus on the B-29 program, it’s worth considering whether Arnold didn’t come to appreciate the aircraft more than the objectives he placed in it. Years later, Gen. Lauris Norstad, who served as Twentieth Air Force Chief of Staff during the war, offered the following: “His life was that B-29. Arnold was into every damn detail.”

Gen. Henry H. “Hap” Arnold receives a report from B-29 maintainer SSgt Leo F. Fliess sometime in 1945. Maj. Gen. Curtis E. LeMay stands in the background. (Courtesy photo from 20th Air Force History Archives)

Arnold retired one year after the war ended. On September 18, 1947, Stuart Symington, the first Secretary of the Air Force, and Gen. Carl Spaatz, the first Air Force Chief of Staff, rushed a wire to the retired five-star general with the following message: “At long last the U.S. Air Force came into being at noon today.”

His long-awaited goal accomplished, Arnold’s efforts – challenging, unexpected and controversial as they were – in directing the B-29 program from before and through the end of the war in the Pacific played a prominent role in that outcome.

Arnold’s experiences offer today’s Airmen an opportunity to reflect upon an earlier modernization effort and consider what parallels, if any, they provide today’s forces who will be instrumental in ongoing innovations to U.S. military defense.

Are Airmen prepared for the inherent challenges created by modernization? How much risk are they willing to endure in pursuit of the service’s objectives? Can leaders identify with the challenges that Arnold and his contemporaries faced?

Not only does Arnold’s modernization effort before and during World War II offer an opportunity to ponder resemblances for today’s and tomorrow’s Air Force; his experiences provide a chance to reflect on overcoming obstacles, both known and otherwise, and consider how much might be required of every Airmen into accomplishing the service’s goals.


This is part 5 of 5 of an article that was adapted from Dr. Prichard's briefing at the Fall 2022 Twentieth Air Force Senior Leader Conference held at F. E. Warren AFB, Wyo. The following resources were used in the development of both that presentation and this article:

Maj Gen (ret) John W. Huston, ed., American Airpower Comes of Age: General Henry H. “Hap” Arnold’s World War II Diaries, vol. 2 (Maxwell AFB, AUP 2002)

Maj James M. Boyle, “How the Superfortress Paced the Attack Against Japan,” Air Force Magazine (December 1964): 63-69

Malcolm Gladwell, The Bomber Mafia: A Dream, a Temptation, and the Longest Night of the Second World War (New York: Little, Brown and Co., 2021)

Herman S. Volk, “The Twentieth Against Japan,” Air Force Magazine (April 2004): 68-73

Charles Griffith, The Quest: Haywood Hansell and American Strategic Bombing in World War II (Maxwell AFB, AUP 1999)

William W. Ralph, “Improvised Destruction: Arnold, LeMay, and the Firebombing of Japan,” War in History 13, no. 4 (2006): 495-522