Millard Fillmore Harmon, 1888-1945

Millard F. Harmon (1888-1945) was a senior American airman of the Second World War who spent most of the war serving in the Pacific, taking part in the fighting in the Solomon Islands before holding a number of overlapping and sometimes contradictory positions under Nimitz in the central Pacific. During this later period his most important achievement was to make sure that enough resources were dedicated to supporting the Army's B-29 campaign against Japan in what was a Navy theatre.

Harmon graduated from West Point in 1912 74th in his class of 95. He earned his wings as a pursuit pilot, took part in the Punitive Expedition to Mexico in 1917 and then joined the French Squadron of the American Expeditionary Force in France. From 9 April-19 December 1941 he commanded the Second Air Force (the former North West Air District). Soon after the American entry into the war he was appointed Chief of the Air Staff (26 January 1942) and became the AAF's representative on the Munitions Assignment Board (MAB), the body responsible for assigning all munitions produced in the UK and the US.

Senior  B-29 officers
Millard F. Harmon (centre)

Much of Harmon's wartime career would be plagued by awkward command structures. In the summer of 1942 he was appointed as Commander of US Army Forces in the South Pacific Area (COMGENSOPAC). This was a Navy theatre, and so overall command was held by Admiral Ghormley (COMSOPAC). The doctrine of undivided theatre commands meant that Harmon did not have operational control over any Army aircraft in the South Pacific – that role was filled by Admiral McCain (COMAIRSOPAC), who commanded all land based air units in the area – Navy, Marine, USAAF and Commonwealth. Harmon had command of the training and administration of all air and ground units in the area, and was responsible for organising the system that supplied and ran the numerous island bases that were stretched out across the South Pacific. He also had tactical command over army ground units in the area, but as an airman he often found himself defending operations over which he had no direct control.

Harmon reached New Caledonia on 26 July 1942, just over a week before the Marines landed on Guadalcanal. When he had been Chief of the Air Staff Harmon had been on the committees that had decided what went where, and thus been involved in fighting off claims for extra men and equipment from theatre commanders across the Pacific. He now found himself in the opposite position. He was very quickly forced to admit that when he was in Washington he had underestimated the Japanese threat in the Solomon Islands. He now estimated that he needed another three fighter, two heavy bombardment and two dive bomber squadrons as well as a full infantry division and nearly three regiments of coastal artillery if he was to successfully defend the islands under his command. On 21 August, when he made his first review of available air strength, the Army had 24 B-24s, 33 B-17s, 16 P-39s on Fiji and 27 P-400s, two P-39s and two P-43s on New Caledonia. He was given the authority to temporarily divert any aircraft passing through his command on their way to Australia, but no increase in his own air strength. 

The tone of Harmon's dispatches became increasingly pessimistic as the Guadalcanal campaign became bogged down. Only with the appointment of Admiral Halsey as COMSOPAC on 20 October 1942 did the time improve, and by 27 October Harmon believed that the crisis was over. He would continue to have a good working relationship with Halsey throughout the fighting in the Solomon Islands.

The autumn of 1942 also saw Harmon struggling to defend the performance of his B-17s. They spent most of their time flying reconnaissance missions, and when they did carry out long range strikes on enemy shipping they were not very effective, with a hit rate of about 1%. Harmon believed that the main problem was that most raids were taking place at or above the normal maximum range of a fully loaded B-17, forcing them to operate with a reduced bomb load. He believed that the power of bombardment stood in inverse ratio to the distance to the target.

At first Harmon had not objected to the command structure in the South Pacific, which denied the AAF operational control of their aircraft, but after a few months in his post he realised that this was reducing the efficiency of all air operations, and began to push for the creation of a new South Pacific air force. The new air force was to act as the level below COMAIRSOPAC, who continue to decide what tasks the aircraft under his command should perform, leaving the new air force commander to carry out those tasks. This proposal was eventually accepted by General Marshall, and on 5 December he informed Harman that all AAF units in the South Pacific were now part of the Thirteenth Air Force. On 13 January 1943 Harmon activated the new 13th Air Force HQ, based on Espiritu Santo and under the command of General Nathan Twining.

December also saw Halsey order Harmon to go to Guadalcanal and put in place plans for the final elimination of all Japanese forces on the island. Harmon approved General Patch's plans for a final offensive, and by January 1943 the last Japanese forces on the island were on the run. On 2 January 1943 Patch's command officially became the 14th Corps. In the following month Harmon was promoted to Lieutenant General.

By the spring of 1943 the Thirteenth Air Force has operational autonomy, but operational control was now held by COMAIRSOLS (Commander, Air Forces Solomon Islands). That post was held by Admiral Fitch, and on 3-4 March the two men had a direct conference to work out the correct way to use air power. At the end of the meeting Fitch agreed that local air commanders would have the right to advise COMAIRSOLS on the correct formations, bomb loading and escort techniques for their missions.

In the summer of 1943 Halsey was concerned about the slow progress being made on New Georgia, where a force under General Hester was attempting to capture Munda airfield. On 13 July Harmon was ordered to go directly to New Georgia and take personal command of the battle. Once there he replaced Hester with Major General Oscar W. Griswold, and on 5 August all Japanese resistance ended around the vital Munda airfield.

July 1943 also saw the AAF gain operation control of its own aircraft in the South Pacific for the first time when General Twining, commander of the Thirteenth Air Force, became COMAIRSOLS, which gave him command of all Army, Navy, Marine and Commonwealth land based aircraft in the area.

One of Harmon's main concerns was the poor leave facilities available for his aircrews. By November he had improved the situation to the point where most aircrew spent nine days every three months in New Zealand, followed by a period of training, before returning for another six weeks of active service. This improved morale amongst the aircrew, but ground crew were less fortunate and by the end of the year morale was low amongst this group of men, who had spent month after month on the same island base.

In 1944 the war began to move away from the South Pacific Area, and on 24 March it was officially decided to liquidate SOPAC. A new Pacific Ocean Area was to be formed, which would contain the old Central Pacific and South Pacific Areas. Admiral Nimitz would be the overall commander of the Pacific Ocean Area, with General R. C. Richardson as Commanding General, U.S. Army Forces, Pacific Ocean Areas and Harmon as Commander of HQ, Army Air Forces, Pacific Ocean Area, an appointment he took up on 1 August 1944. In theory this put him under Richardson, but he would actually report directly to Nimitz. Harmon was also appointed as Deputy Commander of the Twentieth Air Force, under General Arnold, who retained operational command of that air force from his base in Washington. Harmon's tangle of authority, responsibility and accountability was further complicated on 6 December 1944 when he was given command of Strategic Air Force, POA (Task Force 93), which gave him command of all land-based aircraft in the theatre – Navy, Marine and Seventh Air Force (but not operational command of the B-29s).  Eventually this confused command structure would cost him his life.

Most of Harmon's efforts went into making sure that enough resources were devoted to the B-29 programme. These very long range aircraft required massive airfields, supply depots and repair and maintenance facilities. While the B-29 was a top priority for the Army Air Force it was not so important to Nimitz, and it was often only Harmon's persistence than ensured that facilities were ready when needed. He was rewarded for his efforts on 24 November 1944 when the B-29 assault on Japan began with an attack on Nakajima's Musashino aircraft plant at Tokyo.

Harmon also spent much of his time attempting to gain operational command of XXI Bomber Command and the B-29s, but without success. At the end of February he left Guam to fly to Washington in an attempt to untangle his complex web of authority and responsibility, but on 26 February 1945 his aircraft went missing. It was never found.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (22 April 2009), Millard Fillmore Harmon, 1888-1945, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/people_harmon_MF.html

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