Orvil Anderson – Major General, United States Air Force

Courtesy of the United States Air Force


Retired December 31, 1950, Died August 23, 1965

Looking back on his experience as a military aviator, General Orvil Anderson would sometimes remind a listener – and most people usually found that they didn’t talk with him; they listened – that his aviation career began in World War I, “This is where I entered,” he would reminisce, “and I admit that I entered just because I wanted to fly an airplane.”

Named Orvil Orson Anderson at his birth in Springville, Utah, in 1895, an Army clerical error changed his name to “Orvil Arson” when he left Brigham Young University and enlisted in the Aviation Section of the U.S. Army Signal Corps on August 23, 1917.

Although the young Anderson wanted to be a pilot (and thought about joining the Royal Air Force), a U.S. Army recruiting sergeant talked him into enlisting: if he enlisted, the recruiter promised, he would be flying in a couple of weeks – but if he signed up as a cadet his name would be buried beneath 15,000 earlier applications. Once enlisted, Anderson put his flight training request into channels. When nothing happened, he went to balloon observer’s school and August 3, 1918 finally won a commission as second lieutenant, Air Service, Army of the United States. Staying in the service after the armistice – although at first he fully intended to separate and study law – Anderson received a regular commission as a first lieutenant July 1, 1920. In September 1922 he was on the Virginia-to-California first trans-continental airship flight made by the nonrigid C-2. Three years later he commanded the 8th Airship Company. His lighter-then-air service culminated Nov. 11, 1935, when he piloted the National Geographic Society – Army Air Corps stratosphere balloon Explorer II to a world’s record ascent of 72,395 feet.

Already, however, Captain Anderson had decided that balloons had no military future. “I guess they were probably right,” he would recollect, “when they called me a maverick … I never could quit thinking. I’ve got to analyze something in terms of cause and effect.”

While he was probably “No. 1” in the military balloon field, Anderson could see that the Martin B-10 bomber could do everything that an airship could do, in all kinds of weather, and much more efficient. So, in 1933 he recommended that the Air Corps discontinue its airship programs.

After two years in the stratosphere exploration project, he began to retread his military career. He attended the Air Corps Tactical School in 1936-37 and the Command and General Staff School in 1937-1938. Now a major, he was assigned as executive secretary to the Air Corps Board at Maxwell Field in August 1938. This assignment did not look promising, but he would later recall that for the first time he got an opportunity to do some deep thinking about the whole range of Air Corps potentialities and problems.


While with the Air Corps, Anderson began to demonstrate his abilities as a thinker and planner. During World War II, he served as chief of the Plans Division, Headquarters Army Air Force, 1941-1943; chairman of the Combined Operational Planning Committee, European Theater of Operations, 1943-44; deputy commander for operations, Eighth Air Force, 1944-45; and senior military advisor, U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey, 1945-46. He was promoted to brigadier general September l8, 1942 and to major general February 28, 1944.

At the end of World War II he faced another turning point, this time without qualms. Believing that his future lay in developing new generations of Air Force thinkers, he agreed in 1946 to become the founding commandant of the War College. “This is the end of the line for me,” he told General Carl Spaatz, “I’ve seen it all and done it all, and now I want to spend the rest of my career helping to mold the Air Force of the future” In the fledging Air War College “General Andy” successfully established the educational processes that would continue long after his relief as commandant and his retirement from the Air Force in 1950.

In 1954 he returned to Maxwell Air Force Base as Executive Director of the Air Force Historical Foundation, the organization which he believed could “contribute to the efficacy of the air power mission by enhancing the scope of national comprehension and by rekindling an esprit de corps in all airmen”.

His genius shone brightest as a thinker and planner whose mind cut through to the heart of the matter and whose dogged determination usually got him a hearing. Anderson’s professional analysis of airships in 1933 got the Air Corps out of the balloon business and concentrated behind the development of heavier-than-air flight. In 1938 he participated in the preparation of the Air Corps Board’s “Report on Air Corps Mission under the Monroe Doctrine” which, for the first time, positively demonstrated the cost effectiveness – as it would later be called – of long-range bombardment over shorter-ranged planes favored by the War Department Staff.


In the European theater on Jan. 4, 1944, Anderson persuaded Major General Jimmy Doolittle to issue orders to Eighth Air Force fighter pilots to “pursue the Hun until he was destroyed”. Until then, escorting fighters had been rigidly required to provide position defense for bomber formations. Anderson recognized that Herman Goering had violated the first rule of air fighting by directing his Luftwaffe pilots to ignore American fighters and to attack the bombers. He also knew that airpower could not be decisive unless it was freed from defense and allowed to attack the enemy.

In his work with Strategic Bombing Survey, Anderson had a large share in the recording of the airpower lessons of World War II. He nevertheless warned that experience should not blight initiative. “Progress in the development of science and strategy”, he reported, “is vitally depended upon the soundness of the evaluations of the past battle experience and upon the boldness, inspiration and depth of the projected thinking which creates the solution for the future.” In 1949 he headed the Air University committee on Air Force research and development which worked with Dr. Louis N. Ridenour’s scientific group to provide the rationale leading to the establishment of a separate Air Research and Development Command. “We cannot hope to win a future war,” Anderson predicted, “on the basis of manpower and resources. We will win it only through superior technology and superior strategy.”


In the beginning, Anderson had wanted to fly an airplane. He finally got to take pilot training in 1925 and would be rated both as a command pilot and senior balloon pilot. But he also found flying was not all that he wanted. His inquisitive mind and his dedication to the interest of the nation made him seek to understand the effect of air power on war. In the end, he learned that airpower was more than flying, more than men, more than materiel. “Airpower” he would say, “is a sensitive alloy. Men and machines and concepts are fused into an entity. Its temper must be free from timidity and enslavement to vitiating preconceptions.” Looking toward the future, Anderson offered one last word of guidance. “Comprehension is the key to sound solution. Experience can only serve as a check on the validity of solutions previously reached. But experience, if it be not slanted in its lesson values, can expand man’s comprehension and it is in this that experience gives its profit.”

During his career, the General was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal  with Oak Leaf Cluster, the Silver Star, the Legion of Merit, the Distinguished Flying Cross with Oak Leaf Cluster,  the Bronze Star Medal, and the Air Medal.

Following his death on August 22, 1965, he was buried with full military honors in Section 34 of Arlington National Cemetery.


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