George Howard Brett (1886-1963) was a senior USAAF officer who was on a tour of the Middle East and China at the time of the Pearl Harbor attack, and in the aftermath took command of all American forces in Australia in December 1941, holding that post through some of the disastrous early fighting in the Pacific.
Brett graduated from the Virginia Military Institute in 1909 with a degree in engineering. In 1910 he joined the Philippine Scouts as a second lieutenant, and in the following year received a regular army commission in the cavalry. In 1916 he learnt to fly, but was then assigned to the office of the chief signal officer. Much of his career would be spent in logistical and administrative positions. In 1917 he went to France where he was in charge of purchasing and supplying all aviation related items for the air wing of the American Expeditionary Force. During the First World War he served in France, Washington, London and then France again, but always in logistic posts, and it was his ability in this field that saw he reach brigadier general in 1938.
On 1 October 1940 Brett was appointed as acting chief of the Army Air Corps, under 'Hap' Arnold. This appointment was made permanent in May 1941, the month before Arnold became the Chief of the Army Air Force, a new organisation that had authority over both wings of Army Aviation – Brett's Army Air Corps, which had responsibility for material procurement, personnel and training, and the Air Force Combat Command.
On 31 August 1941 Brett left the United States for Cairo on one of two survey flights made by B-24s of Ferrying Command to investigate the possibility of creating a regular air-route to Cairo across the South Atlantic. Brett's task was to visit Cairo and then Britain to examine the problems the RAF faced in maintaining American aircraft provided under lend-lease. While in Cairo Brett decided that a force of B-24s should be diverted from Britain to the Middle East, where he believed they would be able to attack the Germans in southern Europe and in the desert. On his arrival in London he gained approval for this idea, and on 17 October a tentative agreement was made to divert 16 B-24s to the Middle East.
Brett completed his main task during October and submitted his report at the end of the month. Brett made four main suggestions. 1 - the AAF to set up mobile repair depots manned by civilians to service American aircraft being used by the RAF. 2 - the to AAF take over existing British facilities already involved in the repair of American equipment and prepare to expand them. 3 – the construction of a third echelon maintenance base at Langford Lodge, to provide repairs too complex for local services. 4 – if the AAF began to operate its own units from Britain then it should take over all third echelon maintenance of American built aircraft along with the supply of spare parts.
A shortage of personnel meant that General Arnold was unwilling to approve the 1st, 2nd or 4th of these points, but work began on building the maintenance base at Langford Lodge, and on 1 May 1942 Lockheed were given a contract to operate the new base. Brett also found a suitable site for a second depot, at Warton twenty-five miles to the north of Liverpool.
Brett's travels continued for the rest of 1941. He visited Moscow with Averell Harriman, and then began a tour of the Middle East, India and China that brought him to Chungking on 22 December, where he discussed the use of heavy bombers from China with Chiang Kai-Shek.
This journey overlapped with the attack on Pearl Harbor and the US entry into the war. Brett was appointed to command US Forces in Australia (soon renamed as US Army Forces in Australia, or USAFIA), and made his way by air from China to Australia, visiting General Wavell in India and the Dutch authorities in the Dutch East Indies on the way. He reached Australia on 31 December.
On his arrival in Australia Brett reported that he would be unable to carry out many tactical air operations until a large air base at Darwin and a supply and repair depot at Townsville had been set up. On 3 January 1942 he met with the Australian chiefs of staff and informed them of the general strategy he had agreed with Wavell. It was already clear that neither man believed that the Philippines could be saved, and any Allied counterattacks would have to come from Burma, the Dutch East Indies, Malaya or Australia. Brett also ordered two ships that had been dispatched to the Philippines to unload their troops at Darwin instead.
For the moment the focus of Allied efforts moved north from Australia into the short-lived American-British-Dutch-Australian Command, under General Wavell. On 7 January Brett was promoted to Lieutenant General, and in the second week of January he flew to Java for a conference with Wavell. Brett was appointed his deputy commander, with power over the operation direction of all Allied air forces and responsibility for the air supply routes from Australia and India.
By mid February it was clear that Java would soon fall to the Japanese. Brett believed that India and Burma were the keys to the Allied position, and on 18 February he informed the War Department that the best way to attack Japan would be an offensive through China. With this in mind he decided to send most American infantry and fighter aircraft in the ABDA area west to India. General Brereton was sent on to India, while on 23 February Brett flew to Melbourne for what he believed would be a short visit (on the same day Wavell was ordered to leave Java).
The Combined Chiefs of Staff Committee approved Brett's decision to send Brereton to India, but decided that the main American effort in the area would be based in Australia. Brett was ordered to remain there as commander of USAFIA, at least until General MacArthur arrived, and on 23 February he was appointed commander of the new Fifth Air Force, a post he would hold until 4 August.
Brett's aircraft had carried MacArthur, his family and his staff on the last stage of their journey from the Philippines to Australia – a flight of 1,500 miles from Del Monte Island. Once in Australia MacArthur became commander of the South West Pacific Area, and on 18 April Brett was appointed as his Commander of Allied Air Forces. During this period Brett attempted to increase the flexibility of his limited air forces by making the squadron rather than the group the main tactical unit, and by creating flexible headquarters in each defensive area, each capable of handling any variety of squadrons, and ready to leapfrog forward when the Allies returned to the advance.
Brett was soon replaced as Commander, Allied Air Forces. He can hardly have endeared himself to MacArthur when he diverted ships from the Philippines, and very few of MacArthur's original command team in Australia remained in their posts for long. The Japanese landings at Buna added to MacArthur's discontent. Despite some accurate intelligence and ten hours advance waning the only aircraft that had reached Buna at the crucial moment had been five B-26s. On 4 August Brett was replaced by Major General George C. Kenney, who had arrived in Australian on 28 July, having been appointed on 13 July. Brett was also replaced as commander of the Fifth Air Force.
Brett was only unemployed for a few months. In November 1942 General Frank Andrews went from the Caribbean to command the US Army Forces, Middle East. On 4 November Brett was appointed as commander of Caribbean Defense Command, a post he held until the end of the war.