Arnold, Henry Harley (1886-1950)

Photograph of Air Force General "Hap" Arnold

U.S. Air Force

Henry Arnold was born in Gladwyne, Pennsylvania, the son of a physician who "ruled with an iron hand" (Wolk 2010) and a mother who gave him a broader outlook. He graduated from West Point in 1907 with marks unremarkable enough that he was assigned to the infantry rather than the more prestigious artillery or engineers. He saw service in the Philippines and in the aeronautical section of the Signal Corps before being taught to fly by the Wright Brothers themselves, receiving the 29th air pilot license. He won the first Mackay Trophy on 9 October 1912 by flying a triangular course over Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. After a brief stint back in the infantry (he pulled out of a flat spin at the last possible second on 5 November 1912 and for a time was quite afraid of flying), he returned to the air service as a captain, just prior to the U.S. intervention in the First World War. Although he became the youngest colonel in the Army in 1917, he never saw combat.

Arnold testified at the Mitchell court-martial, and after Mitchell was convicted, Arnold considered leaving the Army to become President of Pan American Airways. He was threatened with a court-martial of his own when it was discovered he had distributed a pamphlet calling for pressure to be put on Congress in favor of the Air Corps. However, Arnold refused to resign and the threat of a court-martial turned out to be a bluff.

Arnold never attended the Air Corps Tactical School, but he graduated from the Army Industrial College in 1925 and from the Command and General Staff school in 1929, and he held important air commands throughout the 1930s. While stationed at March Field, he became acquainted with aircraft manufacturer Donald Douglas and Nobel physicist Robert Millikan of Caltech, contacts that would prove useful during the Second World War. Arnold won a second Mackay Trophy in 1934 for leading a flight of ten B-10 bombers from Bolling Field near Washington, D.C., to Fairbanks and attained the rank of brigadier general in 1935. Following the death of General Oscar Wendover in September 1938, Arnold became temporary chief of staff for the Air Corps. 

The next month, on 14 November 1938, Roosevelt met with Arnold and the other service chiefs and called for an Army Air Corps of 10,000 aircraft and a production capacity of 12,000 aircraft per year. Roosevelt had been shocked by the Munich Crisis and, given that he made no mention of new Air Corps bases or other support facilities, it is likely he intended most of the aircraft production to be sold to the British and French. Arnold organized the Spaatz Board to plan the expansion of the Air Corps to 10,000 aircraft over the next two years. The expansion was greatly assisted by Robert A. Lovett, the new assistant secretary of war for air, who was a former Navy pilot and industrialist well suited to get the most of out the aircraft industry while trying to persuade Roosevelt to be realistic. When Roosevelt expanded the goal in January 1942 to 60,000 aircraft produced in 1942 and 125,000 in 1943, Lovett worked tirelessly with Arnold to point out that such lofty goals would mean production of easier types (fighters instead of bombers) and a shortage of spare parts.

Arnold was confirmed as chief of the newly-renamed Army Air Forces in June 1941, a position he would hold (under various titles) throughout the war. He was promoted to lieutenant general in December 1941, general in 1943, and General of the Army in December 1944, becoming the only Air Force officer to ever reach five-star rank. His organization of 20 Air Force in April 1944, under his own direct command, is viewed as an important step in the direction of an independent postwar Air Force.

Arnold epitomized the bomber cult that dominated the upper ranks of the Air Force. Though most Army officers were strong advocates of the “Germany first” strategy, Arnold was particularly adamant about concentrating the Air Force’s entire fighting strength in Europe in order to achieve decisive results in the air war with Germany. The Pacific received a mathematically precise 30% of the Air Force squadron strength, and the Pacific squadrons were usually last in line for the latest aircraft types.

Arnold was known as "Hap" because of his perpetual slight smile, which was probably the result of a nerve disorder similar to Bell's palsy. The nickname was ironic: Arnold had a ferocious temper and no discernible sense of humor. Arnold also had a reputation as what we would today call a micromanager, injecting himself into the smallest details of Air Force operations. However, his connections with the aviation industry and friendship with Harry Hopkins, Roosevelt's influential "assistant president", served him well. He was also one of the few persons towards whom Marshall was willing to show real affection. Though critics accused Arnold of being an intellectual lightweight, an assessment shared by Willmott (1983), Secretary of War Stimson was a strong supporter of Arnold, believing him possessed of a "quick mind" but sometimes inclined towards "half-baked actions" (Wolk 2010). A member of the British Joint Staff Mission claims Hopkins told him that Arnold "was not a great staff officer or strategist, that he was lost when dealing with the Chiefs of Staff, but that he was a born leader and a terrific fighter who had the whole of the air force behind him" (quoted by Roberts 2011).

Arnold has been sharply criticized for his management of the B-29 program (Tillman 2010):

And yet Arnold came perilously close to dropping the cerulean sword from his eager hands. He permitted himself to be stampeded into prematurely committing the world's mos sophisticated aircraft to combat in a primitive theater, beyond effective range of the enemy heartland.... Yet Arnold proved unable to accept he blame for his poor decisions, and he removed subordinates who strove mightily to deliver the undeliverable. His callous handling of Kenneth Wolfe especially does him no credit.

Arnold suffered from serious heart trouble from 1943 on and retired in June 1946. However, he was named the first general of the Air Force in May 1949 in recognition of his great contributions. He also published several books on air power, taking the position that future wars would be fought by what we now call techno-warriors, and advocating for a strong United Nations and multilateral control of nuclear energy. He also predicted that nuclear weapons would not be used in future wars, just as gas had not been used in the Second World War.

Service record


Born at Gladwyne, Pennsylvania

Graduates from West Point, standing 66th in a class of 111

Taught to fly by Wright Brothers
Air Officer, 9 Corps Area, Northern West Coastbut

Commander, Rockwell Field, California

Army Industrial College

Chief, Information Division, Office of the Chief of the Air Service

Commander, 16 Observation Squadron, Fort Riley, Kansas

Command and General Staff School

Commander, Fairfield Air Depot, Ohio

Commander, March Field

Officer-in-charge, Civilian Conservation Corps, California

Commander, Alaska Flight
Brigadier general
Commander, 1 Wing, March Field

Assistant Chief of the Air Corps

Chief of the Air Corps

Acting Deputy Chief of Staff for Air, U.S. Army

Chief of the Army Air Forces
Lieutenant general


General of the Army     


Retires following serious heart attack

Dies at Sonoma, California


Arnold House: A Brief History (accessed 2007-4-27)

Boatner (1996)

Dupuy (1992) (accessed 2008-1-3)

Larrabee (1987)

Parrish (1978)

Perret (1991)

Roberts (2011)

Willmott (1983)

Wolk (2010)

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