William W. Momyer

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William Wallace Momyer
William W. Momyer portrait.jpg
General William W. Momyer
Born(1916-09-23)September 23, 1916
Muskogee, Oklahoma, U.S.
DiedAugust 10, 2012(2012-08-10) (aged 95)
Merritt Island, Florida, U.S.
AllegianceUnited States
Service/branchUnited States Army Air Corps
United States Army Air Forces
United States Air Force
Years of service1938–1973
Commands heldTactical Air Command
Air Training Command
Seventh Air Force
832d Air Division
312th Fighter-Bomber Wing
314th Air Division
8th Fighter-Bomber Wing
33rd Fighter Group
Battles/warsWorld War II
Vietnam War
AwardsDistinguished Service Cross
Air Force Distinguished Service Medal (2)
Army Distinguished Service Medal (2)
Silver Star (3)
Legion of Merit (3)
Distinguished Flying Cross

William Wallace Momyer (September 23, 1916 – August 10, 2012) was a general officer and fighter pilot in the United States Air Force. Among his notable posts were those commanding the Air Training Command, the Seventh Air Force during the Vietnam War, and the Tactical Air Command (TAC). During his tour in Southeast Asia, he was concurrently the deputy commander of the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) for air operations and thus responsible for Operation Rolling Thunder, the air campaign against North Vietnam, which Momyer executed in the face of micromanagement from President Lyndon B. Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara.[1]

Momyer was acknowledged in the Air Force community as "a true expert in tactical air warfare."[2] His predecessor as commander of TAC described him as difficult to work for or with because he was "much smarter than most people."[2] After his retirement in 1973, he spent five years researching and writing Airpower in Three Wars, his treatise on airpower doctrine, strategy, and tactics.[3]

Momyer is a controversial figure historically for an incident of racial intolerance during World War II when as a fighter group commander he recommended that the 99th Fighter Squadron, a segregated African American unit then attached to his command, be removed from combat operations. The controversy reached the highest levels of the United States Army Air Forces, was widely reported in the American press, and resulted in an official study that exculpated the "Tuskegee Airmen."

Early life[edit]

Momyer was born in 1916, the son of a lawyer in Muskogee, Oklahoma. He was 14 when his father died of a heart attack and he moved with his mother to Seattle, Washington,[4] where he attended Broadway High School and graduated with a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Washington in 1937.[5] His nickname within the service was "Spike".[2]

Momyer entered military service in 1938 as an aviation cadet in the Air Corps, and after successfully completing primary and basic pilot training at Randolph Field, moved on to the advanced training school at Kelly Field, Texas, graduating in February 1939. He received his commission as a second lieutenant and a rating of pilot, assigned to pilot and flight commander duties until February 1941, when be became military observer for air with the military attaché in Cairo, Egypt. In this capacity, he was technical advisor to the Royal Air Force in equipping the first squadrons of the Western Desert Air Force with Curtiss Tomahawk fighters, which enabled him to fly combat missions.[5][6][n 1]

Service in World War II[edit]

Early in 1942, at the age of 25, Momyer replaced Col. Elwood R. Quesada as commanding officer of the Curtiss P-40 Warhawk-equipped 33d Fighter Group. In October the group was carried to North Africa aboard the USS Chanango as part of Operation Torch. Launching from the aircraft carrier on November 10, the group attempted to land at the Port Lyautey airfield in French Morocco, which was still under occasional fire from French forces. Several aircraft were disabled in landing accidents and Momyer was awarded the Silver Star for personally extricating a trapped pilot from a P-40 that had flipped onto its back.[7]

From Telergma Airfield, Algeria, and Thelepte Airfield, Tunisia, Momyer led the 33rd FG on combat missions in the Tunisia, Sicily and Naples-Foggia campaigns. For his performance during several combat actions of the North African campaign, he received the Distinguished Service Cross and two oak leaf clusters to his Silver Star. In North Africa, while leading his group on a ground attack against German positions near El Guettar, he single-handedly engaged 18 Junkers Ju 87 (Stuka) aircraft escorted by German and Italian fighters on 31 March 1943, and had four confirmed kills.[8] He accrued more than 200 combat flying hours and became an ace with eight credited aerial victories.[5]

During the initial campaign to evict the Axis forces from Tunisia in which the Luftwaffe had air superiority, the 33rd FG, in addition to supporting the push to the east, kept half of its operational strength in reserve in the Oran area to help 12AF guard the Strait of Gibraltar and other lines of communication from possible attack from Spain or Spanish Morocco.[9][n 2] Because of the inadequate training and equipment of the A-20 light bomber complement of the XII Air Support Command and the tactical ineffectiveness of the French P-40 squadron attached, the burden of air support fell primarily on the understrength 33rd FG.[10] Thus despite cautions from Generals Jimmy Doolittle and Howard Craig to group commanders to conserve strength, Momyer was compelled to commit his aircraft to battle in small increments.[11]

Curtiss P-40Fs similar to those flown by the 33rd FG in 1942–43

The priority of demands by ground force commanders for "umbrellas" (defensive air cover from attacks by Stukas) meant that other tactical missions such as close air support and escort were necessarily left to small elements, and without air superiority, attrition was high during the German offensives in central Tunisia of 18 and 30 January 1943.[12] On 2 February 1943, during German attacks on Faid Pass, where the Luftwaffe had been reinforced by the remains of the Desert Luftwaffe retreating with Rommel, the group was tasked to provide both an air cover umbrella for Allied ground forces under attack by Stukas and escort for attacking U.S. bombers, losing nine aircraft.[13] As a consequence the 33rd Fighter Group was one of four Twelfth Air Force groups[n 3] so debilitated that they were withdrawn from combat to reconstitute losses in pilots and acquisition of better aircraft.[14][n 4]

Of the situation, Momyer himself said:

The German Air Force (GAF) controlled the air in northern and southern Tunisia. Friendly losses were so high that the mission of the air forces and the structure of the command and control system had to change drastically... The German fighters, by concentrating against small formations of U.S. and British fighters trying to maintain umbrellas over ground forces throughout the day, made Allied air losses prohibitive.[15]

Soon after, during the Battle of the Kasserine Pass, Allied tactical airpower was reorganized in North Africa with the activation on 18 February of the Northwest African Tactical Air Force (NATAF) under the command of RAF Air Marshal Arthur Coningham.[n 5] The 33rd returned to combat on 22 February from Youks-les-Bains Airfield, the last forward field for the Twelfth Air Force.[16] Coningham, like Momyer, advocated attacks on the Luftwaffe including their airbases to achieve air superiority, which they considered essential before direct air support of ground units could be undertaken. NATAF initiated a counter-air campaign in mid-March that achieved air superiority soon after.[17] The 33rd FG, operating from the recaptured Sbeitla Airfield, transitioned at the direction of Coningham to the role of fighter-bomber at the same time and increased its effectiveness while decreasing its losses.[18]

Following the surrender of Axis forces in North Africa on 13 May, the Allied air forces immediately began a campaign of softening up the island of Pantelleria in preparation for Operation Corkscrew, the amphibious landing to seize the island scheduled for 11 June as a preliminary step in the Allied invasion of Sicily. The 33rd FG began fighter-bomber attacks on the island on 29 May, augmented by attachment to the group of the segregated 99th Fighter Squadron (known unofficially as the "Tuskegee Airmen"), which flew its first combat mission on 2 June.[19][n 6] Following the surrender of Pantelleria on 11 June, the 33rd FG maintained patrols over the island and Allied shipping until 26 June, when it moved to the island's airfield to begin attacks on Sicily, invaded in July. The 99th FS was then sent to another group.[20]

Racial controversy[edit]

In September 1943, after the 99th was again attached to his group, Momyer recommended in a memo to Major General Edwin J. House, commanding XII Air Support Command, that it be removed from operations and assigned coastal patrol duties in P-39 Airacobras, alleging that it was ineffective in combat because "(in) my opinion... they have failed to display the aggressiveness and desire for combat that are necessary to a first-class fighting organization. It may be expected that we will get less work and less operational time out of the 99th than any squadron in this group."[21] One source claimed that Momyer had blamed the squadron for seeing little air-to-air combat while ignoring both their being awarded a Distinguished Unit Citation and that he had personally ordered them into a ground attack role.[22][n 7] House forwarded his own memo with a similar recommendation to NAAF Deputy Commander Major General John K. Cannon based partly on Momyer's report, and within four days the memo went up the chain of command to Headquarters AAF in Washington D.C.[23]

Reports in the press that the AAF was considering downgrading the combat role of the 99th FS, partly based on Momyer's assessment, were followed in October by a review conducted by the War Department’s Advisory Committee on Negro Troop Policies, after House's report reached it, in which Colonel Benjamin O. Davis Jr. refuted the allegations and defended his former command. The 99th Fighter Squadron continued in combat, although with a different group, and became the nucleus of the African-American 332nd Fighter Group.[24] An official study was then undertaken to compare the 99th's performance with that of other P-40 units operating in the Mediterranean and reported on 30 March 1944 that the 99th had performed as well as the other Warhawk outfits.[25][n 8] Historian Walter J. Boyne wrote: "Momyer's illustrious combat record was tarnished by (the) incident of racial intolerance... at a time when such attitudes were still pervasive... Momyer's assessment was wrong."[26]

Momyer was replaced in command of the 33rd FG in October 1943,[27] and did not have another combat command during the remainder of the war.[n 9] He returned to the United States in 1944 to become chief of the Combined Operations Branch of the Army Air Forces Board, with the mission of devising doctrine for cooperation of air, land, and sea forces in combat operations. From his work came AAF (and later USAF) doctrine that after the first priority of achieving air superiority was successful, the next priority for airpower was isolating an enemy’s forward forces by destroying his forces in the rear.[26]

Post World War II and USAF career[edit]

Lt. Gen William W. Momyer as Commander, Air Training Command

He became the Assistant Chief of Staff (A-5) for Tactical Air Command in 1946 during the formation of TAC headquarters, and continued serving with TAC until he entered the Air War College in 1949.[5]

Upon graduation from the Air War College in 1950 he became a member of the faculty. He attended the U.S. Army War College in 1953–1954 and then went to the Republic of Korea where he commanded the 8th Fighter-Bomber Wing. With the redeployment of units from Korea to Japan, the 8th Fighter-Bomber Wing moved to Itazuke Air Base.[5]

In March 1955 Momyer returned to Korea to establish the 314th Air Division and command all U.S. Air Force units there. Returning to the United States in October 1955, he assumed command of the 312th Fighter-Bomber Wing at Clovis Air Force Base, New Mexico, (subsequently renamed Cannon Air Force Base).[5]

Momyer assumed command of the 832d Air Division, Cannon Air Force Base, in May 1957. As commander of the two F-100D Super Sabre fighter wings, he had the distinction of commanding the first units to take top honors for both conventional and special weapons teams during the U.S. Air Force Fighter Weapons Meet at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada.[5]

Momyer was director of plans, Headquarters TAC, Langley Air Force Base, Virginia, from July 1958 to October 1961. He was assigned to Headquarters U.S. Air Force from October 1961 to February 1964 as director of operational requirements, and during the period of February–August 1964, as assistant deputy chief of staff, programs and requirements.[5] Of this period in his career, Boyne writes: "Characteristically, he continued to do as much work as possible himself, earning fame for his reading speed and total recall. This performance masked an important shortfall, though: By failing to use his deputies effectively, he also failed to train a next generation to replace him."[26]

Vietnam era commands[edit]

In August 1964 Momyer became commander of the Air Training Command and held that post until July 1966, when he went to Vietnam to serve as Deputy Commander for Air Operations, Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), and concurrently, Commander, Seventh Air Force. He served in this important dual role until August 1968, at which time he assumed command of Tactical Air Command.[5] During Momyer's tour in Southeast Asia, he was a vigorous exponent of an all-jet air force, believing that jet fighter-bombers could outperform the often more accurate but slower (and thus more vulnerable) propeller-driven strike aircraft such as A-1 Skyraiders and T-28 Trojans.[28]

Momyer has been subject to criticisms for his relationship to subordinates and insistence on implementation of his own views. Brigadier General Chuck Yeager, in his autobiography, related that in early 1968 he had been assigned as prospective commander of the 35th Tactical Fighter Wing, a unit at Phan Rang Air Base in Vietnam. While he was awaiting orders, Yeager was advised that Momyer had rejected him because as Seventh Air Force commander, he was entitled to select his own wing commanders and had not been consulted about the assignment. This resulted in Yeager being forced on Momyer by General John D. Ryan, Pacific Air Forces (PACAF) commander and a Yeager admirer. Although Momyer prevailed in the subsequent political tug of war, the controversy resulted in Momyer's lasting enmity towards Yeager, whom he had never met, for reasons that Yeager was unable to discern.[29] Later that year Momyer became commander of TAC, in which Yeager was now a wing commander, culminating in early 1969 in a showdown in which Momyer purportedly threatened to terminate Yeager's command and possibly career. Yeager instead was promoted to brigadier general when the promotion board requested that Yeager be added to its selection choices after Momyer did not include him as one of his TAC recommendations.[30]

Boyne stated: "(Momyer) brushed off subordinates’ opinions even though he often questioned his superiors’ views when they differed from his own."[2] However, he supported Colonel Jack Broughton in his lobbying of higher echelons to have planning of air missions against North Vietnam determined by local commanders instead of being dictated by the White House, although Momyer later withheld award of decorations earned by Broughton when Ryan, one of the higher echelons opposing the lobbying, made known his intense dislike of Broughton. Momyer also notably brought Colonel Robin Olds to the Seventh Air Force, despite a personal animus, to reduce loss rates in the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing,[31] and implemented the tactical initiative Operation Bolo proposed by Olds even while expressing personal disapproval of Olds' public persona.[6]

Momyer retired from the Air Force on September 30, 1973. He and his wife, Marguerite Willson Momyer, were married 69 years until her death in 2004. He died from heart failure on August 10, 2012 at an assisted living center in Merritt Island, Florida, aged 95.[4]

Awards and decorations[edit]

Momyer received the following awards and decorations:[5]

COMMAND PILOT WINGS.png USAF Command Pilot Badge


  1. ^ Boyne notes that one of the units with which Momyer flew was No. 112 Squadron RAF, the first unit to paint the "shark's teeth" markings associated with P-40s on its aircraft.
  2. ^ Only two of its three squadrons were forward-based at Thelepte, and both of those were half-strength due to combat losses and the transfer of P-40s on 9 January 1943 to the Free French to equip the first squadron of GCII/5. (Mayock, p. 112)
  3. ^ In addition to the 33rd FG, the 14th Fighter Group (P-38s), 52nd Fighter Group (Spitfire Vs), and 319th Bomb Group (B-26s) also had to be withdrawn because of severe attrition in the month leading up to Kasserine. (Mayock, pp. 156–157)
  4. ^ The "better equipment" for the 33rd FG was the P-40N variant, whose air combat capability was much closer to that of the German Bf 109 Gustav then in use in Tunisia. (Mayock, p. 159)
  5. ^ The reorganization of Allied tactical airpower in North Africa was not a consequence of the Kasserine crisis but the result of decisions handed down from the Casablanca Conference a month before.
  6. ^ The 99th FS was a separate squadron unassigned to any group until May 1944. It was assigned directly to XII Air Support Command and temporarily attached to groups for its combat missions. The 99th was twice attached to the 33d FG, in May–June and August–October 1943.
  7. ^ The 99th FS earned this Distinguished Unit Citation while attached to the 324th Fighter Group and it had not yet been awarded for Momyer to "ignore."
  8. ^ The study was conducted by the AAF's Statistical Control Division, Office of Management Control, and examined operations between 3 July 1943 and 31 January 1944. (Haulman "Chronology", p. 19)
  9. ^ Momyer was replaced in command of the 33rd FG on the same date that the 99th FS was attached to the 79th Fighter Group in Italy, and the day after Davis defended his squadron's performance to a War Department inquiry. (Haulman "Chronology", p. 14)
  1. ^ Boyne, "Momyer", pp. 64–65
  2. ^ a b c d Boyne, "Momyer", p. 64
  3. ^ Boyne, "Momyer", p. 68
  4. ^ a b Megan McDonough, Retired Air Force Gen. William W. Momyer dies at 95, The Washington Post (September 1, 2012). Retrieved 29 OCtober 2013
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j "General William Wallace Momyer". U.S. Air Force (af.mil). Retrieved 16 October 2013.
  6. ^ a b Boyne, "Momyer", p. 65
  7. ^ Boyne, "Momyer", pp. 65–66
  8. ^ Boyne, "Momyer", pp. 66–67
  9. ^ Mayock (1946), pp. 73 and 81
  10. ^ Mayock (1946), p. 120
  11. ^ Francis (1997), pp. 215–216
  12. ^ Mortenson (1987), p. 68
  13. ^ Mayock (1946), pp. 125–126
  14. ^ Mayock (1946), pp. 156–157, 159
  15. ^ Momyer (1978), p. 40
  16. ^ Mayock (1946), p. 173
  17. ^ Boyne, "Momyer", p. 66
  18. ^ Craven and Cate (1949), p. 175, 181
  19. ^ Haulman, "Chronology", p. 8
  20. ^ Craven and Cate (1949), p. 427, 430–431
  21. ^ Francis (1997), p. 89
  22. ^ Bucholz (2007), pp. 24–25
  23. ^ Haulman, "Chronology", p. 13
  24. ^ Haulman, "Chronology", p. 14
  25. ^ Haulman, "Misconceptions", p. 4
  26. ^ a b c Boyne, "Momyer", p. 67
  27. ^ 33d Operations Group Fact Sheet Archived 2012-03-22 at the Wayback Machine, AFHRA. Retrieved 26 October 2013.
  28. ^ Tilford (2009), p. 76
  29. ^ Yeager (1985), pp. 298–299
  30. ^ Yeager (1985), pp. 303–305
  31. ^ Sherwood (1999), pp. 27–28


---(2010). "Tuskegee Airmen Chronology", AFHRA. Retrieved 31 October 2013
  • Mayock, Thomas H. (1946). The Twelfth Air Force in the North African Winter Campaign, 11 November 1942 to the Reorganization of 18 February 1943, USAF Historical Study No. 114, Air Force Historical Research Agency
  • Momyer, General William W. (USAF ret.) (1978). Airpower in Three Wars, Department of Defense, Department of the Air Force.
  • Mortenson, Daniel R. (1987). A Pattern for Joint Operations: World War II Close Air Support, North Africa. Washington, D.C.: Office of Air Force History/U.S. Army Center of Military History.
  • Sherwood, John Darrell (1999). "Old Lionheart". Fast Movers: Jet Pilots and the Vietnam Experience. Free Press. ISBN 978-0-312-97962-1.
  • Tilford, Earl H. (2009). CROSSWINDS: The Air Force's Setup in Vietnam: Volume 30 of Williams-Ford Texas A&M University Military History Series, Texas A&M University Press. ISBN 9781603441261.
  • Yeager, Gen. Chuck, and Janos, Leo (1985). Yeager: An Autobiography, Bantam Books. ISBN 0-553-05093-1

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