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Origins of Fort Rucker and Army Aviation

Fort Rucker, AL - Home of Army AviationAlthough both Fort Rucker and Army Aviation trace their origins back to earlier eras, they came into being during the early months of World War II. The United States entered the war on December 8, 1941, following the surprise Japanese attack on Hawaii, the Philippines, Guam, and Midway. On December 15, Congress voted an appropriation of $10 billion for the defense of the United States and established a military service draft for men from 20 to 44 years of age During World War II, America conducted a manpower mobilization unprecedented in its history in terms of total numbers; the United States put into uniform more than 16 million men (one-sixth of the total male population) and also approximately 333,000 women. This mobilization called for the creation of new training camps and military bases, including Camp Rucker.

Camp Rucker

The original name of the post was Ozark Triangular Division Camp, but before the camp was officially opened on 1 May 1942, the War Department named it Camp Rucker. The post was named in honor of Colonel Edmund W. Rucker, a Civil War Confederate officer, who was given the honorary title of “General,” and who became an industrial leader in Birmingham after the war. In September 1942, 1,259 additional acres south of Daleville were acquired for the construction of an airfield to support the training camp. It was known as Ozark Army Airfield until January 1959, when the name was changed to Cairns Army Airfield. The first troops to train at Camp Rucker were those of the 81st (Wildcat) Infantry Division; the 81st Division left Rucker for action in the Pacific Theater in March 1943. Three other infantry divisions received training at Camp Rucker during World War II — the 35th, the 98th, and the 66th. The 66th (Panther) Division left for the European Theater in October 1944.

Camp Rucker was also used to train dozens of units of less than division size; these included tank, infantry replacement, and Women’s Army Corps units. During the latter part of World War II, several hundred German and a few Italian prisoners-of-war were housed in stockades near the railroad east of the warehouse area, on the southern edge of the post. Camp Rucker was inactive from March 1946 until August 1950, between WWII and the Korean conflict. The principal Army unit operating at Rucker during the Korean conflict was the 47th Infantry Division, which trained replacement troops for combat in Korea. The post again became inactive in June 1954, after an armistice was signed. Camp Rucker reopened in August of that year, however, when the Army Aviation School began moving to Camp Rucker from Fort Sill, Oklahoma.

Origins of Army Aviation

Army Aviation traces its origins back to the American Civil War. Both Union and Confederate forces used helium-filled balloons to direct artillery fire, marking the beginning of U.S. military aeronautics and of aerial support of Army ground forces. The Army also used balloons during the Spanish American War and World War I, but airplanes replaced balloons for most military purposes during the latter conflict.

Army Aviation began in 1909 with the Army’s acquisition of its first heavier-than-air aircraft, an airplane built to Army specifications by the Wright brothers. During World War I, the Army’s aircraft strength grew from a few dozen to more than 11,000 planes, and the number of aviation personnel came to total more than 190,000. The Army Air Service was created in May of 1918.

After World War I, General William Mitchell and other Air Service leaders spoke out forcefully in favor of an independent air force. Since they envisioned aviation as a separate striking force, capable of independent operations, they opposed its remaining an arm of the ground forces.

Although Congress as well as most Army leaders rejected Mitchell’s argument, the Air Service did become a separate combat arm, equal in status to the infantry, cavalry, and artillery. In 1926, the name of the air arm was changed to Army Air Corps, and then, in June 1941, the Air Corps and other Army air elements were merged to form the Army Air Forces, co-equal with the Army Ground Forces and the Army Service Forces.

During the 1930s, many Army Air Corps leaders became preoccupied with strategic air operations. Like Billy Mitchell before them, they advocated using air power independently of the Army ground forces to destroy enemy targets behind the lines of combat. This Air Corps emphasis on strategic operations disturbed some ground forces leaders, who believed their aerial support needs were being neglected.

Aerial support was particularly vital for artillery fire adjustment. Partly because Air Corps fire support aircraft were not always available, the chief of field artillery and other artillery officers became interested in using light aircraft organic to the artillery units.

The Army experimented with using small organic aircraft for artillery fire adjustment and other functions in maneuvers at Camp Beauregard, La., in August 1940. The tests were repeated on a larger scale in the Army maneuvers in Louisiana, Tennessee, Texas, and the Carolinas in 1941. The Army’s “Grasshoppers,” as these light planes came to be called, proved to be much more effective than the larger Air Corps planes used for the same purposes.

The Birth of Army Aviation

Following a final series of experiments with organic Army spotter aircraft conducted in 1942, the secretary of War ordered the establishment of organic air observation for field artillery – hence the birth of modern Army Aviation – on 6 June 1942. It was this new World War II-era phenomenon with its few small single-engine spotter planes, organic Army Aviation, that eventually evolved into today’s Army Aviation Branch. On the other hand, the organization that had been the Army Air Service and the Army Air Corps continued through World War II as the Army Air Forces and finally became the U.S. Air Force in 1947.

Organic Army Aviation first entered into combat in November 1942 on the coast of North Africa. During World War II, L-4 Grasshoppers and a few larger L-5 Sentinels were used to adjust artillery fire, gather intelligence, support naval bombardment, direct bombing missions, and perform other functions. Most training of both pilots and mechanics was conducted by the Department of Air Training within the Field Artillery School at Fort Sill, Okla., although the Army Air Forces conducted some primary training of organic Army Aviation personnel.

The Korean conflict provided new challenges and opportunities for Army Aviation. Organic Army Aviation had acquired its first helicopters, thirteen H-13 Sioux, in 1947, shortly before the U.S. Air Force became independent of the Army. In Korea, the Army employed the 0-1 Bird Dog and other improved fixed wing planes, but also helicopters. The Army used its H-13s primarily for medical evacuation, command and control, and transport of lightweight and valuable cargo. Because of the rugged terrain of the Korean peninsula, the value of helicopters came to be recognized by all the services; the demand for both helicopters and trained aviators consistently exceeded the supply.

In 1951 the Army began organizing five helicopter transport companies and training warrant officer pilots. There was, however, an ongoing rivalry between the Army and the Air Force concerning responsibility and resources for the aerial support of ground forces. Because of this rivalry, and also because of the shortage of helicopters, only two Army transport companies were supplied with H-19 Chickasaw helicopters in time to participate in the Korean conflict. Transport helicopters nevertheless proved themselves by moving cargo and personnel during the final months of the war and then by participating in prisoner exchanges and other functions after the cessation of hostilities.

During the Korean conflict, the Department of Air Training at Fort Sill expanded, and in early 1953, it became the Army Aviation School. As a result of the expansion of both aviation and artillery training, Fort Sill became overcrowded, and the Army decided to move the Army Aviation School to a different post. When no satisfactory permanent Army post was found, a temporary post, Camp Rucker, Ala., was chosen. The Army Aviation School began moving to Alabama in August 1954 and the first class began at Rucker in October.

Camp Rucker Named Fort Rucker

Camp RuckerOn Feb. 1, 1955, the Army Aviation Center was officially established at Rucker. In October of that year, the post was given permanent status with the name change from Camp Rucker to Fort Rucker.

Before the mid 1950s, the Army Air Forces-U.S. Air Force had provided primary training for Army Aviation pilots and mechanics. In 1956, DOD gave the Army control over all of its own training. Gary and Wolters Air Force bases in Texas, where the Air Force had been conducting this training, were also transferred to the Army.

Lacking adequate facilities at Fort Rucker, Army Aviation continued primary fixed-wing training at Camp Gary until 1959 and primary rotary-wing training at Fort Wolters until 1973.

In 1956, the Army Aviation Center began assembling and testing weapons on helicopters. These tests, conducted while the Air Force still theoretically had exclusive responsibility for aerial fire support, led to the development of armament systems for Army helicopters.

The first armed helicopter company was activated in Okinawa in 1962. It was deployed to Thailand and then to Vietnam, where it flew escort for lift helicopters. The Department of Defense did not abolish mission restrictions on the Army’s rotary-wing aircraft, thereby technically authorizing the Army to arm helicopters until 1966.

The “Howze Board,” or “Tactical Mobility Requirements Board,” was established in 1962 to develop and test the concept of air mobility. After test exercises, war games, and concentrated study and analysis, the Howze Board recommended that the Army commit itself to organic air mobility — later known as air assault. The Howze Board recommended the extensive use of helicopters to transport infantry troops, artillery, and supplies, as well as to provide local aerial fire support.

These recommendations were tested by the 11th Air Assault Division (Test) from 1963 to 1965. In 1965, the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) was organized and sent to Vietnam, where it repeatedly demonstrated the validity of the airmobile concept in actual combat.

1961: “America’s Helicopter War” in Vietnam Begins

Both Army Aviation and the helicopter came of age during the conflict in Southeast Asia. From the arrival in Vietnam of the first Army helicopter units in December 1961, until the completion of the disengagement processes in 1973, Vietnam was America’s “Helicopter War.”

The most widely used helicopter, the UH-1 Iroquois, or Huey, began to arrive in Vietnam in significant numbers in 1964. Before the end of the conflict, more than 5,000 of these versatile aircraft were introduced into Southeast Asia. They were used for medical evacuation, command and control, air assault; personnel and materiel transport; and gun ships.

The AH-1 Cobra arrived in 1967 to partially replace the Huey in its gun ship capacity. Other important helicopters in Vietnam included the CH-47 Chinook, the OH-6 Cayuse, the OH-58 Kiowa, and the CH-54 Tarhe.

Although the concept of air mobility had been developed with a mid-intensity European conflict in mind, Army Aviation and the helicopter had proven themselves during the low intensity conflict in Southeast Asia. Afterwards, the Army turned its major attention back to the threat of a mid or high intensity conflict in Europe, and doubts reemerged about the value of helicopters in that sort of arena.

Some military leaders believed that the helicopter could not survive and perform an essential role in a heavy combat environment. To gain general acceptance and ensure further success, Army Aviation continued to develop new doctrine, tactics, aircraft, equipment, and organizational structure. New or radically modified aircraft were adopted from the late 1970s into the mid-1980s. These included the UH-60 Black Hawk, AH-64 Apache, D-model of the CH-47 Chinook, and OH-58D version of the Kiowa.

The creation, implementation, and consolidation of the Army Aviation Branch dominated the 1980s. Prominent aviators, aswell as other Army leaders, had debated the establishment of Aviation as a separate branch since the time of the Korean conflict.

The opposition to a separate aviation branch had resulted in part from Army attitudes regarding the Army Air Corps and the U.S. Air Force. In Army circles, both of these aviation organizations were believed to have been unreliable in performing their mission of supporting the ground forces — even after having been given resources to do so.

Since Army Aviation had demonstrated its commitment to the support of the ground battle in Vietnam, however, opposition to a separate aviation branch began to wane.

Also, Army Aviation had grown in size and technological sophistication. This growth caused increasingly complex problems in training, procurement, doctrine development, proponent responsibility, and personnel management. Many non-aviators as well as aviators became convinced that these problems could be solved more effectively by the creation of an aviation branch.

April 1983: The Birth of the Army Aviation Branch

Both Department of the Army and U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command conducted extensive studies of the separate-branch question during the 1970s through 1982. In March 1983, the Chief of Staff of the Army recommended forming a separate aviation branch. The Secretary of the Army approved that recommendation on April 12, 1983 – the date celebrated as the Branch’s birthday.

Aviation Officer Basic and Advanced Courses began at Fort Rucker in 1984, and a gradual consolidation of aviation-related activities followed. In 1986, the U.S. Army Air Traffic Control Activity became part of the branch. In the following year, a Noncommissioned Officers Academy was established at Fort Rucker. In 1988, the Army Aviation Logistics School, which had been dependent on the Transportation Center at Fort Eustis, was incorporated into the Aviation Branch.

Also in 1988, the Army Aviation Modernization Plan was given final approval and implemented. The modernization plan called for a gradual reduction in the number of Army aircraft as older models were replaced by modern ones. Aircraft that appeared during the late 1980s and early 1990s included the armed OH-58D Kiowa Warrior and the new TH-67 Creek training helicopter.

Army Aviation’s role of providing the indispensable vertical dimension to the modern battlefield has become universally recognized. For example, during operations in Grenada, Panama, and the Persian Gulf region, Army Aviation played major and decisive roles.

One of the very first blows of Operation Desert Storm was struck by Army Aviation. Apache helicopters destroyed key Iraqi early warning radar sites and thus opened the air corridors to Baghdad for the bombing campaign that preceded the ground war. Then during the 100 hours of ground combat, Army helicopters dominated nighttime operations.

The decreased military budgets following the end of the Cold War forced both the Army and Army Aviation to downsize. Army Aviation’s response was to develop the “Aviation Restructure Initiative,” a plan to decrease the size of the force while continuing to provide a capable, ready force.

By the late 1990s, continuing deficiencies and unintended results of the ARI led to a series of aviation plans as key pieces of the Army-wide modernization and transformation. In 2003, the Aviation Branch assumed overall responsibility for unmanned aerial vehicles within the Army.

Operations since Desert Storm showed the versatility and flexibility of Army Aviation. Examples were uses of AH-64 Apaches in peacekeeping operations in the Balkans as a deterrent to mobs threatening fellow citizens or paramilitary groups trying to remove weapons from agreed cantonments.

The beginning of the Global War on Terrorism in 2001 drew Army Aviation again into ongoing combat.

Events in Afghanistan and Iraq have reaffirmed the qualities that caused the creation of Organic Army Aviation in 1942. These qualities included the responsiveness to the needs of the ground commander and commitment to the Soldier in the ground fight. At the same time, Army Aviation – including Army Special Operations Aviation – has played vital and ever-expanding roles across the spectrum of Joint and Combined operations.


 

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