On this day in 1974, U.S. Army General Carl Spaatz, fighter pilot and the first chief of staff of an independent U.S. Air Force, dies in Washington, D.C., at age 83.
Spaatz was born in 1891 in Boyertown, Pennsylvania, and graduated from the Military Academy at West Point in 1914. He was a combat pilot during World War I, and at the outbreak of World War II went to England to help evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the German military. (During the Blitz, the air raids on England by the German Luftwaffe, Spaatz would sit on rooftops to better observe German air tactics.) In July 1942, he became commander of the U.S. Eighth Air Force and inaugurated daylight bombing runs against German-occupied territory in Europe. Two years later, Spaatz was made commander of U.S. Strategic Air Forces in Europe and continued the practice of daylight bombing, the target now being Germany itself, especially its fuel-oil plants. Since Germany had already lost access to oil in Romania after that country's occupation by the Soviet Union, the destruction of its native oil production proved particularly devastating to Germany's ability to keep up aircraft production.
In 1945, with the war in the West over (Spaatz was present at the formal German surrender at Reims on May 8), his focus shifted to the Pacific and the Japanese. Although he initially opposed the use of atomic weapons against Japan, he eventually acquiesced and directed the bomb drops on order from President Truman. In fact, his telegraph to Washington stating that there were no Allied prisoner of war camps in Hiroshima resulted in that city becoming the first target of the atom bomb.
In September 1947, General Spaatz, an illustrious combat career behind him, was named the first chief of staff of the now independent U.S. Air Force, which previously had been a unit of the Army. But a desk job was not for him. He retired in 1948.