An official website of the United States government
Here's how you know
A .mil website belongs to an official U.S. Department of Defense organization in the United States.
A lock (lock ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .mil website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

Courage in the face of responsibility

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Ed "Sped" Redman
  • 509th Operations Group deputy commander
History cannot light a path out of our darkness, but it can remind us at times that things are not so bad. Those who think that our nation has never been as divided politically as it is today would do well to consider the United States at the outset of the Civil War.

Likewise, those of us in the Air Force who think that our service has never had to do more with less resources ought to consider the Pacific Army Air Forces during World War II. Until victory in Europe was achieved, the Pacific Theater played second fiddle, and was undermanned, underfunded, and under-equipped with aircraft, parts and supplies.

It was in this arena that one of our great Air Force leaders thrived. General George C. Kenney boldly applied one innovation after another in order to provide lethal airpower to General Douglas MacArthur's combat operations in the Southwest Pacific.

This year, General Schwartz added MacArthur's Airman, by Col. Thomas E. Griffith, Jr., to the 2010 Chief of Staff of the Air Force Reading List (University Press of Kansas, 1998.) What makes Kenney's biography so useful to today's Airmen is that it reminds us all that leadership at any rung in today's Air Force must have the courage to try new things.

Two of the many innovations attributed to Kenney were signals intelligence and low-altitude attacks on Japanese shipping. Days after taking command of the Allied Air Forces in the Pacific, Kenney witnessed a Japanese air raid on an American airfield at Papua, New Guinea; the warning time had been "less than five minutes." Immediately looking for new solutions, he first installed new radars and then coastal observation stations; neither achieved adequate warning. Eventually, Kenney established secret stations far enough forward to intercept and decode Japanese radio transmissions. By July of 1942, these stations were able to warn of raids up to seven hours in advance, giving fighter units ample time to intercept and break up Japanese attacks.

In like manner, Kenney solved the problem of interdicting Japanese shipping. Early war strategies of high-altitude bombardment and fighter strafing fared poorly; the bombers could not accurately hit moving ships, and fighters did not have the range to reach enemy shipping lanes. At first, Kenney decided to send B-17s at low altitude. They proved to be accurate and deadly, but could not maneuver away from the ships' anti-aircraft fire, so he tried again with lighter, more maneuverable B-25s. These worked beautifully.

In March 1943, during the Battle of the Bismarck Sea, General Kenney's Mitchell bombers destroyed a 16-ship Japanese convoy so completely that enemy garrisons near New Guinea would no longer be reinforced throughout the remainder of the war. The author commented, "What makes Kenney's shift to low-altitude attacks so noteworthy is that it represents both a dramatic change from established methods and a flexibility missing in other air commanders."

This observation is reason enough to read MacArthur's Airman. At a time when he might have argued to be too busy to entertain new ideas, General Kenney instead looked to invention as a means to overcome several limitations posed by the demands of the European theater. His example is helpful to all of us who lead in the modern arena of air and space power.

Prussian War theorist Carl von Clausewitz identified two types of courage; physical, or battlefield courage, and moral courage, or courage in the face of responsibility. General Kenney's biography is a focus on the latter. He reminds all Air Force leaders of all ranks to have the moral courage to consider and try new possibilities, evaluate failures, and try again.