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The origin of 12th Air Force began with a series of meetings conducted in mid-1942 when Allied planners were developing a strategy for the invasion of Northwest Africa. Dubbed Operation Torch, the hope was that this effort would serve as a preliminary step toward the invasion of Europe. Because this extensive and complex operation would require a new Air Force organization to provide manpower and equipment, plans for the activation of 12th Air Force were prepared simultaneously with the invasion strategy.

The headquarters and headquarters squadron of 12th AF activated at Bolling Field, Washington, D.C., on Aug. 20, 1942, and a headquarters detachment for planning was also formed, in England, under the direction of Brig. Gen. James H. Doolittle. During the interim period between the activation of 12th Air Force headquarters and its arrival in England, Doolittle was responsible to Maj. Gen. Carl Spaatz, Commander of 8th Air Force, resulting in 12th Air Force code name, "8th Air Force Junior," or "Junior." The Headquarters element, from Bolling Field, arrived in England in early September and Doolittle formally assumed command of 12th AF on Sept. 23, 1942.

On Nov. 10, 1942, 12th AF's 33d Fighter Group's Curtiss P-40 Warhawks took off from the USS Chenango, an aircraft carrier, and landed at Port Lyautey airdrome, French Morocco. This operation marked the inception of a fighting tactical air force that would see action in ten separate campaigns in North Africa, Sicily, Italy, and Southern France. By the end of World War II, the Airmen of 12th AF had flown 21 different types of aircraft that included heavy bombers, seaplanes, and light observation planes.  They also developed close air support air-ground coordination teams that set a model for other numbered Air Forces.  By the end of the war, 12th Air Force Airmen completed 430,681 sorties, dropped 217,156 tons of bombs, and destroyed 2,857 enemy aircrafts, while only losing 2,667 of their own aircraft. On Aug. 31, 1945, after hostilities ended in Europe, 12th Air Force was inactivated.

During the postwar period, when the overriding interest of the American people was the return to peace and normalcy, those who were responsible for defense preparations began to rebuild a peacetime air force. As a component of this preparation, 12th AF reactivated on May 17, 1946, at March Field, Calif., and was reassigned to the recently established Tactical Air Command (TAC). During this time, 12th AF became the first numbered air force to be equipped with a jet aircraft, the P-80. The 12th AF also participated in numerous exercises to refine air-ground coordination and cooperated with naval and ground forces in a number of amphibious operations connected with the defense of Alaska.

In December 1948, 12th AF moved to Brooks AFB, Texas, under the newly formed Continental Air Command.  For a little over a year, 12th AF was responsible for maintaining the operational readiness of Air Force Reserve Program units in Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and New Mexico.  By June 1950, 12th Air Force was inactivated.

Reactivated on Jan. 21, 1951 in Wiesbaden, Germany, and assigned to U.S.  Air Forces in Europe (USAFE), 12th AF became the first USAFE unit to be committed to the newly created North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in April 1952. Charged with conducting the aerial mission of NATO's Allied Air Forces Central Europe, 12th AF along with French and Canadian air units formed the 4th Allied Tactical Air Force. As part of a USAFE base realignment, 12th Air Force moved in April 1953 to Ramstein, Germany. From Ramstein AB, 12th Air Force continued to operate in its coequal role as a tactical air force for USAFE and NATO through December 1957.

In January 1958, 12th AF Force relocated to James Connally AFB, Texas, and was reassigned to Tactical Air Command. The 12th AF remained at James Connally AFB for the next ten years where its mission was "to ensure tactical aircrew and unit combat readiness" to include the capability to conduct joint air operations. During this time 12th AF participated in several missions that included the 1958 Formosa Straits Crisis, the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, and the 1965 Dominican Republic Crisis. For its part in the Formosa Straits Crisis, 12th AF was awarded the 1958 Mackay Trophy for rapid and effective deployment of Composite Air Strike Force X-Ray Tango.

During the Vietnam War (1965-1973), 12th AF and 9th Air Force - two of Tactical Air Commands numbered air forces - were the primary source for tactical fighter, reconnaissance, and airlift forces used throughout the Southeast Asian theater. By late 1965, as the air effort expanded in support of ground forces, the need for replacement aircrews for units in theater rose sharply. To meet this need, the 12th Air Force mission shifted in emphasis from ensuring tactical operational readiness to training aircrews and support personnel for Southeast Asian operations.

By mid-1966, 12th AF units were training combat aircrews at full capacity. In order to provide a steady stream of aircrews to the combat area, Replacement Training Units were activated at most 12th AF bases. In addition to providing trained and experienced pilots for tactical fighter aircrews, 12th AF was also heavily involved in providing tactical airlift support and developing a tactical reconnaissance mission.  In Sept. 1968 James Connally AFB, closed and 12th Air Force moved to Bergstrom AFB, Texas.

As the tempo of combat operations in Southeast Asia began to slow in the early 1970s, 12th AF began a shift away from combat crew replacement training and back to combat readiness to include rapid reaction capabilities. To conduct this mission 12th AF directed the activities of four air divisions and thirteen tactical flying and training wings. In addition, 12th AF supervised the activities of the only squadron dedicated to training tactical launch crews for the Ground Launched Cruise Missile weapon system. In October 1983, 12th AF participated in Operation Urgent Fury, the joint and combined invasion of the island nation of Grenada. During this contingency, 12th AF provided an Air Force element to the joint operations staff. This cadre of 12th AF personnel worked to direct tactical air operations and ensure the most efficient use of available forces.

In January 1987, an additional mission was assigned to 12th AF, that of the air component for the United States Southern Command (USSOUTHCOM). At this time the 12th AF commander took on the added responsibility of United States Southern Command Air Forces commander. As such, the commander managed all Air Force personnel and assets in the USSOUTHCOM area of responsibility (AOR), which consists of Central and South America as well as the Caribbean Sea region. One notable operation in this new role was its participation in Operation Just Cause in Dec. 1989, during which 12th Air Force and other Air Force units deployed in support of U.S. Army forces in order to return democracy to Panama.

With the end of the Cold War in 1991, the 12th AF's air component mission shifted to what it remains today: counter-transnational organized crime, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, and building partnership capacity. This tripartite focus has placed 12th Air Force into a direct relationship with the majority of air forces in the region and has offered unparalleled opportunities for cooperation and engagement. In June 1992, 12th AF was assigned to the newly established Air Combat Command. Later that year, in October 1992, the organization was moved to Davis-Monthan AFB, Ariz. In September 1994, 12th AF participated in Operation Uphold Democracy   a United Nations mandated and U.S. led Multi-National Force operation designed to return power to the democratically elected Haitian President and restore stability and democracy to the region.

By the time the Panama Canal Treaty reached the final moment of implementation on December 31, 1999, the US had dismantled and removed its entire military presence from Panama. This meant that 12th AF had to oversee the closures of Panama's Albrook Air Force Station and Howard AFB and to absorb their mission-essential operations. Between 1999 and 2000, 12th AF moved all key operations out of Panama to Davis-Monthan AFB, Ariz., and other strategic forward operating locations throughout Central and South America, and the Caribbean region.

As part of a Department of Defense effort to realign designations with functions, 12th AF was re-designated 12th Air Force (Air Forces Southern) on February 29, 2008. This new designation reflects the role that 12th AF, a component Numbered Air Force, executes as the air component for USSOUTHCOM. In mid-January 2010, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake with multiple aftershocks brought devastation to the people and infrastructure of Haiti. In response, USSOUTHCOM tasked 12th AF (AFSOUTH), as part of Operation Unified Response, to open an airway and provide air and space command and control for a massive air relief effort. On a single runway airfield, Airmen continuously coordinated the ingress of U.S. and international relief supplies and emergency response personnel and the egress of medical evacuees. In addition, 12th AF (AFSOUTH) also executes and/or participates in numerous humanitarian assistance exercises to include New Horizons and Beyond the Horizon.

Today, the dual mission of 12th AF (AFSOUTH) continues as an Air Combat Command (ACC) component Numbered Air Force and as the air component for U.S. Southern Command. As part of ACC, the unit ensures that assigned and aligned forces, 10 active and 23 Air Force Reserve Command and Air National Guard units are properly trained and equipped. As the air component for USSOUTHCOM, it has the responsibility for all USAF forces in the U.S. Southern Command AOR, developing air and space contingency plans, and providing command and control of the AOR air, space, and cyber operations. With a long and proud history, stretching back nearly three quarters of a century, 12th AF (AFSOUTH) stands ready to support the defense requirements of the United States and its allies today and into the future.