|United States Air Forces Southern Command|
|Branch||United States Air Force|
|Garrison/HQ||Howard Air Force Base, Panama|
|Hubert R. Harmon|
The United States Air Forces Southern Command is an inactive Major Command of the United States Air Force. It was headquartered at Albrook Air Force Base, Canal Zone, being inactivated on 1 January 1976.
Formerly designated as Sixth Air Force, the command's mission was the defense of the Panama Canal and for USAF relations, including foreign military sales (FMS) and disaster relief assistance, with the Latin American nations. The command supported disaster relief to countries such as Guatemala, Jamaica, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Panama and Colombia. It also assisted nations in Central and South America in purchases of United States military aircraft and trained their technicians in logistics and maintenance for the aircraft.
The first United States air units arrived in the Canal Zone in February 1917, with the 7th Aero Squadron being organized on 29 March at Ancon. It was equipped with Curtiss JN-4 "Jennys" and Curtiss R-3 and R-4 floatplanes.
The squadron initially came under the control of Headquarters, U.S. Troops, Panama Canal Zone, and beginning on 1 July 1917, Army aviation units were assigned directly to the Panama Canal Department, which was the senior United States Army headquarters in the Canal Zone. During World War I, the 7th Aero was assigned to patrol for German U-boats offshore of the Canal Zone under direction of Coast Defenses of Cristobal, from 1 June – 15 November 1918.
The 7th Aero Squadron was assigned to several fields during 1917 and 1918, those being Corozal (16 April); Empire (May); Fort Sherman (29 August); Cristobal (March 1918) before finding a permanent home at Coco Walk, which became France Field in May 1918.
A second permanent army airfield, Albrook Field, opened in 1932 due to France Field becoming too small for the numbers of aircraft being assigned to the Canal Zone, as well as having a poor landing surface; offering no room for expansion, and providing little defense for the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal. A third airfield, Howard Field was built on the Canal Bruja Point Military Reservation, opening on 1 December 1939. By 1940, a rapid increase in the number of flying squadrons in both the Canal Zone as well as in Panama as a result of the pre–World War II mobilization of the Air Corps warranted a new organization, and the Panama Canal Air Force was created as a major command. After several organizational changes and the establishment of the United States Army Air Forces in 1942, Sixth Air Force became the controlling Air Force command authority for USAAF activities in the Caribbean, as well as in Central and South America. Through all these redesignations it was part of the Caribbean Defense Command, (10 February 1941 – 1 November 1947), which was the senior United States Army headquarters in the Canal Zone. The Caribbean Interceptor Command, was the Air Force component (10 February 1941 – 17 October 1941) of the CIC until being inactivated and replaced by VI Interceptor Command.
In early 1942 the Nazi Germany's Kriegsmarine, began anti-shipping operations using U-boats in the Caribbean. The subs sank several tankers in the harbor at Sint Nicholaas, Aruba and even shelled an oil refinery on the island. The refineries at the island of Aruba and Curaçao possessed oil from wells in Venezuela, and accounted for one-third of the Allies' supply of gasoline.
The first wartime mission of the newly created Sixth Air Force was to perform antisubmarine operations in the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico areas and to cover Allied shipping convoys in the area. The Sixth Air Force expanded throughout the Caribbean and Latin America, stationing units from Cuba in the north to British Guiana and Surinam on the northern coast of South America to protect the Venezuelan oilfields. Air bases were established along the western coast of South America, in Peru, Ecuador as well as in the Galápagos Islands, Panama, Guatemala and Costa Rica. In order to protect the vital Air Transport Command South Atlantic Air Route to Europe and North Africa, Sixth Air Force combat units were stationed in Brazil to patrol the South Atlantic air routes.
Sixth Air Force had the responsibility for tracking down submarine wolfpacks, which consisted of groups of three of more subs attacking Allied shipping using a strategy now known as "Search and Destroy". As most shipping in the Caribbean was not in defensive convoys, aerial surveillance of the area was crucial to their safety. However, in the fall of 1942 the German Navy changed tactics and reduced their submarine activity in the Caribbean region to concentrate its activity on the North Atlantic convoy route and the approaches to northwest Africa. With the withdrawal of submarines from the Caribbean region the Sixth Air Force concentrated its efforts as a striking force on its primary function of guarding against possible attacks on the Panama Canal.
With the end of the war, most of the wartime Caribbean air bases used for antisubmarine patrols were returned to civil authorities in late 1945 or early 1946. The Lend-Lease air bases from Great Britain, which were on 99-year leases were reduced to skeleton units and used largely as MATS weather stations. They were all closed for budgetary reasons in 1949.
The postwar Sixth Air Force, redesignated Caribbean Air Command as part of the 1946 USAAF reorganization, and its successor units returned to its prewar mission, the defense of the Panama Canal; support for friendly Latin American air forces, and to provide support to Latin American nations engaged in anti-communist activities during the Cold War. Howard Air Force Base became a focus for military air support, with many surplus USAF aircraft being transferred to Latin American air forces there, as well as the establishment of the Inter-American Air Forces Academy, which provided technical training and education for airmen and officers from approximately 14 Latin American countries.
In the post Vietnam War drawdown of the USAF, the United States Air Forces Southern Command was inactivated in 1976 for budgetary reasons. Most of its functions and resources passed to the Tactical Air Command, which established the USAF Southern Air Division (later 830th Air Division; Air Forces Panama) as the USAF component of the United States Armed Forces in the Panama Canal Zone.