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Marking 75 Years of 12 Air Force: The World War II Years

  • Published
  • By Jenny Crider
  • 12th Air Force (Air Forces Southern) historian

This is a the first piece of a three piece series article on the history of 12th Air Force in celebration of its 75th Anniversary.

Seventy-five years ago during the United States buildup of forces for World War II, the Army Air Forces established Twelfth Air Force.  The numbered air force activated on August 20, 1942 at Bolling Field, Washington, D.C., where it would remain for all of eight days.

The organization first moved to England to train under Eighth Air Force where it earned the nickname “Eighth Air Force Junior.” 

While there it received a new commander, Brigadier General James H. “Jimmy” Doolittle, fresh off the historic Doolittle Raid, the surprise bombing of Tokyo, Japan, in April 1942.  The recently promoted general officer worked to establish a fighting force capable of opening up another, this time, southern front in the European Theater. 

By December 1942, 12th Air Force moved both its forward and rear echelons to North Africa as allied forces executed Operation TORCH, the invasion of North Africa.  In charge of tactical operations for missions in and around the Mediterranean Sea, 12th Air Force forces helped secure the Allied victory. 

Soon after, 12th Air Force and its assigned forces participated in Operation HUSKY, the invasion of Sicily, officially moving the allied offensive out of North Africa and towards Europe.  The success of Operation HUSKY led to a number of results including the toppling from power of the Italian leader, Benito Mussolini.  The operation also opened up the Mediterranean Sea lanes to Allied ships for the first time since 1941.  Additionally, the impending Allied invasion of Italy forced Adolf Hitler to divert his forces from the eastern front.

Bolstered by the successes in Sicily, forces assigned to 12th Air Force moved to the continent participating in the invasion of Italy. Some of those forces were stationed in the vicinity of Naples on March 18, 1944, when Mount Vesuvius erupted resulting in the destruction of over 80 aircraft.  Other 12th Air Force forces went on to carry out additional operations in Southern France and the Balkans. 

By the end of World War II, The Airmen of 12th Air Force had flown 21 different types of aircraft and developed close air support airground coordination team and completed 430,681 sorties, dropped 217,156 tons of bombs, and destroyed 2,857 enemy aircrafts, while losing 2,667 of their own aircraft. 

For its service in World War II, 12th Air Force earned a number of campaign streamers including: Air Combat, European-African-Middle East Theater, Algeria-French Morocco, Tunisia, Sicily, Southern France, and a number for campaigns in Italy including: Naples-Foggia, Anzio, Rome-Arno, North Apennines, and Po Valley. The Army Air Forces also awarded 12th Air Force a Meritorious Unit Citation for its actions during the latter half of 1944. 

August 31, 1945, the Head Quarters element was operating out of Florence, Italy, when the Army Air Forces inactivated 12th Air Force.

While often not as well remembered as 8th Air Force or 9th Air Forces, 12th Air Force played a vital role in World War II helping bring about the Allied victory in Europe.