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Hap Arnold and National Hat Day

Mid-January already. Where does the time go?  Next thing you know it will be Easter, then Christmas, then…um…what’s the next greeting card holiday?

There’s a little time dysmorphia here, since this is drafted in mid-November Thanksgiving is next week for me, for you, the next holiday is…well, today in the US, Martin Luther King Day (which this year is also his birthday).  But other 15 January events include the birth of Joan of Arc in 1412, about whom surprisingly much-and little–is known for certain. And on 15 January 1535, Henry VIII declared himself the head of the Church of England; I suppose when you create the thing you can take charge of it. His daughter, Elizabeth I was crowned queen on this day in 1559. Frigate USS President was captured by four British ships outside New York Harbor on 15 January 1815, one of the last naval actions of the War of 1812. The dismembered and brutalized body of Elizabeth Short, the Black Dahlia, was found in Leimert Park in Los Angeles on this day in 1947, a case that remains unsolved at this writing. And on this day, the Miracle on the Hudson, when Sully Sullenberger landed US Airways flight in the Hudson River off Manhattan, saving all passengers on board, inspiring one of the better films of 2016, Clint Eastwood’s Sully. But today we’re talking about aviation pioneers, and hats.

Arnold became one of the first qualified pilots in the Army, with a flying license signed by Orville Wright. 

Henry Harley Arnold was born in Gladwyne, Pennsylvania on 25 June 1886, scion of the prominent Arnold family whose members included governors, churchwardens, generals, historians, and at least one notorious traitor, Benedict. After the primary grades Henry intended to become a Baptist minister, but family pressure sent him to West Point.  He graduated in the middle of his class and was commissioned a lieutenant in the infantry in 1907. Under protest, he was sent to the Philippines and helped to map Luzon. In 1909 Arnold saw his first airplane in Paris, flown by Louis Bleriot. After his transfer to the Signal Corps in 1911, Arnold became one of the first qualified pilots in the Army, with a flying license signed by Orville Wright.

Arnold spent most of WWI building schools and bases in the US, but arrived in France on 11 November 1918, just in time for the victory parades.

With the Aeronautical Division in Maryland, Arnold set and broke altitude records one after another, was the first man to fly over the US Capitol, and the first to carry a US Congressman in an airplane. This was also when he gained his best known nickname, “Hap” or “Happy,” for reasons unclear to this day. Nonetheless, flying in pre-WWI crates was excessively dangerous, and when the third of his pilot-friends in two years was killed in a crash, Arnold went off flying status. After five years away from flying, and after befriending George C. Marshall in the Philippines,  Arnold was invited back into the Signal Corps by none other than Billy Mitchell.  Arnold spent most of WWI building schools and bases in the US, but arrived in France on 11 November 1918, just in time for the victory parades.

When Malin Craig summoned Arnold to Washington DC in 1933, it wasn’t to punish him, it was  to make Arnold the Assistant Chief of the Air Corps. When the chief was killed in 1938, Arnold was appointed to replace him.

The inter-war years was a tumultuous time for everyone, but Arnold managed to survive reprimands, exiles, and both the Command and General Staff School and the War College with high marks, though his irascible temper got him into hot water from time to time.  He built bases and CCC camps, commanded earthquake relief missions, and directed the Army Air Mail fiasco in the Rocky Mountain region without scandal himself. When Malin Craig, the Army Chief of Staff, summoned Arnold to Washington DC in 1933, it wasn’t to punish him, it was to make Arnold the Assistant Chief of the Air Corps. When the chief was killed in 1938, Arnold was appointed to replace him.

By Pearl Harbor, the US had the second-largest heavy bombardment force in the world, second only to the RAF, and were the only ones using the Norden bomb sight. 

As head of the Army Air Corps, then the Army Air Force, then the Army Air Forces, then the US Air Force, Arnold was a passionate advocate for air power, particularly for long-range bombardment. At the same time, he recognized that Claire Chennault’s pursuit aviation, and the US Navy’s passion for air supremacy over the fleet, also required fleets of single-engine planes, as well.  But Arnold was an excellent politician, and recognized that bombers were more popular with Congress than fighters, and thus perhaps put more of his pre-1941 energies into B-17s than into P-40s. By Pearl Harbor, the US had the second-largest heavy bombardment force in the world, second only to the RAF, and were the only ones using the Norden bomb sight.

Arnold, alone among senior officers, insisted that the Allied ground invasion of France was unnecessary, that Germany would have been defeated by aerial bombardment alone…eventually.

Arnold’s pursuit of long-range aviation met its peak with the development of the Boeing B-29 Superfortress. Arnold and the other air power advocates insisted that strategic bombardment of enemy infrastructures (as opposed to the “tactical” bombardment of torpedo factories and ball bearing plants) were the key to victory: Arnold, alone among senior officers, insisted that the Allied ground invasion of France was unnecessary, that Germany would have been defeated by aerial bombardment alone…eventually.

Arnold and the postwar US Air Force could easily claim that it was by the destruction of Japanese warfighting ability by war power alone that the war was ended, saving millions of lives that would have been the result  of a bloody and costly invasion.

In the Pacific, where the B-29’s were Arnold’s and his alone to command, the huge distances required the services of the longest-range aircraft of the day, with the largest bomb loads. Led by Curtis E. LeMay, the B-29s devastated Japan, and were the only aircraft in the world capable of dropping the atomic bombs. As the war against Japan came to a sudden halt after their deployment, Arnold and the postwar US Air Force could easily claim that it was by the destruction of Japanese warfighting ability by war power alone that the war was ended, saving millions of lives that would have been the result  of a bloody and costly invasion.

The lasting and most damaging legacy of his life and career had been Arnold’s claim that air power alone defeated Japan, and it is my and my co-author’s aim to refute that claim in our book, How the Samurai Lost, expected for publication at the end of 2018.  

But Arnold was not a well man when the war ended, having suffered four heart attacks in two years between 1943 and 1945. He left the active list in 1946, retired to a ranch in Sonoma, California in 1947, and died on 15 January, 1950. Arnold’s legacy in the air forces is both broad and deep, with numerous awards for excellence and scholarship named for him. The lasting and most damaging legacy of his life and career had been Arnold’s claim that air power alone defeated Japan, and it is my and my co-author’s aim to refute that claim in our book, How the Samurai Lost, expected for publication at the end of 2018.


Today is also National Hat Day, for reasons unknown to our friends at the National Day Calendar. It is claimed by some that John Hetherington, a London haberdasher, first wore a top hat in London on 15 January 1797, causing a sensation. This claim has been discredited, however, and most sources credit the topper/stovepipe/high/silk/beaver hat’s invention to the French at the end of the 18th century, as an evolution of the sugarloaf hat (see above).

Overall, the notion of a National Hat Day is…a little disturbing.  Why? But, here in the Great Lakes, mid-January should have everyone wearing a hat.  That said, it isn’t this cold in the whole country (think Hawaii and Puerto Rico), so…why National Hat Day. Eh, but who am I to argue with tradition, silly or not?

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