The Principles of War Podcast
Culture of Military Innovation
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48 – Creating a culture of military innovation – GEN Kenney and the Fifth Air Force

This podcast discusses how GEN Kenney created a culture of military innovation in the US Fifth Air Force leading up to the Battle of the Bismarck Sea.

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This is the third part of our Battle of the Bismarck Sea Podcast series.

We look at the Battle of the Bismarck Sea and GEN Kenney as an example of how to build a culture of military innovation and creativity.

If you’re interested in building a culture of military aviation, please listen to the podcast, because we will provide specific examples of how it was done in WW2 in the South West Pacific Area.

Creating a culture of Military Innovation

The lack of resources often meant that GEN Kenney had a lot of roles and missions for which he didn’t have the correct type of mission.  “If I don’t like the way a plane comes to me or I have  a special job to do and I have lots of them, I will fix the airplane myself and say nothing.”  He was taking a bottom up approach, even though he was the commander of the 5th Air Force.  Army Air Force doctrine started WW2 designed around airframes like the B-17 and the goal of creating an independent Air Force through strategic bombing.  This meant that attack aviation was very undervalued in doctrine.  Fighting in France highlighted the need for attack aviation, but USAAF doctrine was slow to respond.  Kenney served in France as an Air Attache and was able to see some of the issues first hard.

Missions most likely to be conducted in the SWPA were maritime strike, air interdiction and close air support.  Kenney did not have airframes suitable to these roles, especially when considering the range that most missions would have to be conducted at.

Maritime strike was doctrinally done at 25,000 feet.  You can’t hit moving targets at 25,000 feet, so pattern bombing was the answer.  Kenney did not have the number of aircraft required to conduct pattern bombing attacks.  With reduced numbers of aircraft, Kenney looked at dropping the altitude to increase the accuracy.

Kenney experienced cultural resistance from the Bomber Mafia.  BRIG GEN Kenneth Walker followed the Industrial Web doctrine, precise attack against critical industrial targets.  In 1935  B-17 could fly 2,600  miles at 250 miles per hour carrying 2,500 lbs.  It was faster than one of the fighters in service.  This was the aircraft that the Bomber Mafia had been waiting for but the doctrinal use of the B-17 initially ignored the problems that the RAF had, which included navigation to a city, let alone a point target and often crushing levels of casualties on daylight raids.

BRIG GEN Walker failed to be able to think about the experiences of the RAF.  He was fixated on high level bombing at daylight.  He thought the B-17, being more heavily armed and armoured would ensure that the bomber would always get through.  Walker showed great leadership of his men by regularly undertaking missions, even after Kenney prohibited going on missions.  Kenney attempted to prove the efficacy of low level flying with an attack on the SS Pruth just off Port Morseby.  Kenney ordered an attack at dawn on Rabual on a convoy.  Walker ignored the order for the timing and also ignored the order not to go on the mission.  6 B-17 and 6 B24’s took part in the strike.  There was only 1 ship sunk.  Two B-17s were shot down, one of them being the B-17 that Walker was on.  He highlighted the institutional resistance to change.

The B-25 was a platform with a lot of innovation having already been adapted for use in the Doolittle raid on Tokyo, flying B-17s off the USS Hornet.  Kenney looked to create a low level bomber.  He needed to find solutions to anti aircraft fire, along with the way of dropping the bomb at low level.  We look at the career of Paul ‘Pappy’ Gunn. Starting as a moonshine runner, he was given the choice of jail or the military.  He joined the navy as a mechanic, before becoming a naval pilot.

He moved to Manila and worked for Philippines Airlines.  He was verbally inducted into the Army Air Force by BRIG GEN Brereton as a CAPT, based on his work in the Philippines after the Japanese strike on Pearl Harbour.

He started work on the Douglas A-20 Havoc – the Boston in RAAF service.  It was lightly armed with .30 calibre guns.  Pappy Gunn installed 4 x .50 cal machine guns.  This work started the process that lead to the B-25 Commerce Strafer.  Pappy Gunn started working with the manufacturer.  Kenney heard about the modifications to the A-20 and the B-25 and was enthusiastic about the modifications to the B-25.

Pappy Gunn as a naval aviator had a better understanding of maritime strike and the technical capability to solve some of the problems of the low level maritime strike mission profile.  Pappy Gunn’s creativity was encouraged by GEN Kenney.

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Robert Hernandez June 4, 2020 at 3:00 am

With the likes of men from Pappy Gunn,Big Jim Davis Ed Lardner and others the Fifth Air Force was like no other Theater Air Force.My Father flew with the Fifth from 1943 to 1946The ability to adapt was well within all Groups and Squadrons.

Robin Orton August 4, 2021 at 12:23 am

No mention here of the contribution of the RAAF who introduced the low-level attacks developed by the RAF in the European theatre.

admin September 19, 2021 at 1:50 pm

Hi Robin, yes I am very slow in finishing off the Battle of the Bismarck sea. Will definitely be discuss the techniques learnt in the Atlantic and bought to the Pacific theatre by the RAAF.


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