Fifth Air Force (5 AF) activated for the first time in its history as the Philippine Department Air Force at Nichols Field, Philippines, in September 1941. The following month the organization underwent a re-designation that reflected a wider area of responsibility in the region: Far East Air Force (FEAF).
FEAF immediately experienced its baptism by fire in December 1941, only a few hours after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, had drawn the U.S. into World War II. The enemy forces’ strike on the Philippines was also a surprise attack that caught all U.S. forces on the islands flat-footed, destroying most FEAF aircraft on the ground before they could be deployed against the invaders. However, some FEAF aviators succeeded in becoming airborne and engaged enemy fighters, helping to slow the Japanese advance on the Philippines and thereby enabling many Allied forces to withdraw south to the Netherlands East Indies (Indonesia) and Australia.
FEAF headquarters relocated briefly to Australia, then Java, and back to Australia as the Japanese war machine pressed forward and expanded the boundaries of its empire. On Feb. 5, 1942, FEAF received its numerical designation, becoming “5 Air Force” and then “Fifth Air Force” September 18 while under the command of Lt. Gen. George C. Kenney. By this time, Fifth Air Force and other Allied air, land, and sea forces had stalled the enemy juggernaut and subsequently began the long counteroffensive to liberate the Southwest Pacific region from the Japanese.
From 1942 to the end of the war, Fifth Air Force under General Kenney served as the flying vanguard for General Douglas MacArthur’s island-hopping campaign, driving enemy forces out of New Guinea, the Bismarck Sea, and the Philippines. Shortly before the Japanese surrender, Fifth Air Force established its headquarters on Japanese soil for the first time, operating out of Hamasaki, Okinawa. Fifth Air Force accomplishments by the end of World War II included 3,445 aerial victories and ten Medal of Honor recipients, two of whom were the highest-scoring aces in U.S. history, Maj Richard Bong (40 confirmed victories) and Maj Thomas McGuire (38 confirmed victories).
Fifth Air Force arrived on mainland Japan in September 1945 to participate in the Allied occupation of the country and provide the protective air component for the defense of the Republic of Korea (ROK, or South Korea). During this time, Fifth Air Force played a major role in establishing the ROK Air Force (ROKAF), which activated in 1949.
The scourge of war abruptly struck again in June 1950, when the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, or North Korea) unleashed a massive blitzkrieg on the South. The invasion inaugurated a conflict that continued until July 1953, during which time Fifth Air Force served as the combat air force for United Nations Command (UNC). In December 1950, Fifth Air Force relocated its headquarters to South Korea and remained there to oversee combat operations before returning to Japan in 1954.
During the course of the conflict, Fifth Air Force warfighters flew more than 625,000 missions and recorded 953 aerial victories against DPRK, Chinese, and Soviet aircraft. In addition, close air support missions accounted for more than 45 percent of enemy troop casualties. A total of 38 fighter pilots accomplished ace status, including Lt. Col. James Jabara, the first jet ace in history, and Capt. Joseph McConnell, the leading ace of the conflict, scoring 16 confirmed victories. Four Fifth Air Force Airmen earned the Medal of Honor in combat operations, all of them posthumously awarded.
Following the Korean War armistice, Fifth Air Force returned to Japan to resume its role of maintaining a strong tactical posture for the defense of that country, as well as the ROK and the northwestern Pacific region. Moreover, Fifth Air Force played a critical role in the establishment of another allied air force, Koku-Jieitai, the Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF), which activated in 1954.
Another hot spot in the Cold War against communism broke out ten years later in a region south of the Fifth Air Force area of responsibility (AOR). The 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Incident drew the U.S. into a conflict in support of allies in Southeast Asia, the Vietnam War. Fifth Air Force assisted with effort, rotating aircraft, crews, support personnel, and supplies through the region until the U.S. disengagement and withdrawal from the conflict in the early 1970s.
The Fifth Air Force AOR remained a tense region during and after the Vietnam War. Repeated DPRK incursions across the Korean de-militarized zone (DMZ) and events such as the 1968 USS Pueblo incident and the 1983 shoot-down of a South Korean airliner affirmed the necessity of Fifth Air Force units to maintain high levels of readiness for the possibility of hostilities escalating on the peninsula and other parts of the Fifth Air Force AOR.
In November 1974, HQ Fifth Air Force relocated to Yokota AB, its present home station. Fifth Air Force’s direct oversight of the Korean peninsula ended in 1986 with the activation of Seventh Air Force (7 AF) at Osan AB, ROK. With its AOR now centered exclusively on Japan, Fifth Air Force has focused much of its energy on building and strengthening the alliance with the host nation through numerous bilateral initiatives with Koku-Jieitai, expanding the capabilities of the Japanese air service and bringing it into a more active partnership that maintains the security of the Pacific region.
The Fifth Air Force presence in Japan transcends readiness in combat operations and has included valuable assistance coordinated and rendered to the host nation and other peoples throughout the region in response to natural disasters. Such aid occurred following the 1995 Kobe earthquake, the 1997 typhoon that struck Guam, the 2004 tsunami that surged across the Indian Ocean, the 2008 Myanmar cyclone, the 2009 Indonesia earthquake, and several other catastrophes. Most notably, Fifth Air Force played a major role in Operation TOMODACHI, a massive coordinated relief effort launched in response to the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake.
Fifth Air Force Mission Today:
Fifth Air Force supports the Defense of Japan, advances U.S. interests, and promotes broader Indo-Pacific security by advancing bilateral air, space and cyberspace capability and interoperability, and ensures U.S. Air Force forces are ready to respond rapidly to a crisis or contingency.
Fifth Air Force Vision:
Fifth Air Force Airmen are resilient, lethal warfighters who build multilateral partnerships that integrate and advance air, space and cyberspace capabilities to ensure the stability and security of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific.
Units that fall under 5 AF
35th Fighter Wing
374th Airlift Wing