Biographical Background: Major General Ralph Royce

by Gus Breymann

Born in Marquette, Michigan in1890, Ralph Royce graduated from the U. S. Military Academy in 1914.  He completed Signal Corps Aviation School in San Diego, California in 1916.  His first flying assignment was with the First Aero Squadron, which flew in the punitive expedition against Pancho Villa in Mexico in 1916.  In 1917, as commander of that squadron, Royce took it to France to fight in World War I; his was the first U. S. squadron in that country, where it saw action in the St. Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne offensives.


 1st Aero Squadron

Back in the U. S., Royce commanded the First Pursuit Group and the post at Selfridge Field, Michigan twice in the 1920s and ‘30s. In 1930, Major Royce won the Mackay Trophy for the "Arctic Patrol" flight from Selfridge Field to Spokane, Washington. He served as operations officer for the long, technically challenging Alaska flight of ten new B-10 aircraft led by Lt. Col. Henry “Hap” Arnold in 1934.  Throughout the month of February, 1935, he led a group of officers and enlisted men on a flight through several Upper Midwest states to test endurance in extremely low temperatures. In the Philippines between 1937 and 1939, he was air officer in Manila and was also detached for temporary duty in China.


 1st Pursuit Squadron

 June  31, 1937  Davis-Monthan

Immediately before the U. S. entered World War II, then Colonel Royce was Military Attaché for Air in London. Shortly after Pearl Harbor, he was assigned to Australia, first in Melbourne and then in command of the Northeast Sector of the Allied Air Forces in Townsville.  One of his assignments while in Australia was to receive General Douglas MacArthur, his family and staff, when they landed at Batchelor aerodrome from Mindanao.  As chief of staff to Lt. Gen. George Brett, commander of Allied air forces in the Southwest Pacific, Brig. Gen. Royce led the April, 1942, special mission to the Philippines that now bears his name.  He was promoted to Major General in June, 1942.  In late 1942 and 1943, General Royce held two commands in the United States.  In 1943, he commanded U. S. Army Forces in Cairo, Egypt.  In 1944, he was named deputy commander of the Ninth Air Force.  After landing in France, he was named Deputy Commander of the Allied Air Force and later as commander of the First Tactical Air Force (Provisional).


Major General Ralph Royce retired from active duty in June, 1946.  In 1947, he served briefly as the first director of the Michigan Department of Economic Development during the governorship of Kim Sigler.  He retired to Florida, where he died in 1965. 

When reviewing the air histories of both wars, it is remarkable how many close personal ties there were in both.  A number of young fellow officers with General Royce before and during the World War I (“Hap” Arnold, George Brett, Carl Spaatz, Martin Scanlon, Lewis Brereton, and others) remained military colleagues throughout World War II.  Perhaps that is nothing more than a clue to just how small the air service was before the second war broke out.     

In addition to those aviation pioneers, General Royce was associated with European and Middle Eastern royalty, with industrialists and financial leaders, and with top politicians and military leaders around the world.  Military and civil aviation was in its youth, and it was only natural for those at the top of society to want to connect with the still small circle of dashing and intrepid aviators. 

General Royce’s decorations include the Distinguished Service Cross; Distinguished Service Medal; Legion of Merit with one Oak Leaf Cluster; Distinguished Flying Cross; the French Croix de Guerre with Gilt Star; the French Legion of Honor (Commandeur); and the Yugoslavian Carageorge Star with Swords.  He was rated a command pilot and combat observer.


 Another Royce family member also achieved leadership recognition during World War II.  Rear Admiral Donald Royce, who died in 1990, was Major General Ralph Royce’s younger brother.  Two Michigan brothers; two graduates of their respective military academies; and two officers near the top ranks of U. S. Navy and the U. S. Army Air Forces.  Quite a distinction! 


In addition, Royce’s son, Scott, a 1939 University of Michigan engineering graduate, had an remarkable career in the USAAF during World War II himself, having worked on the little-known (and aborted) Halverson Project and participated in the low-level B-24 bombing missions of the Ploesti oilfields in 1943.   

 Scott Royce - Gus Breymann via Gus Breymann

Historians and aviation enthusiasts have been left with an unassembled whole regarding Major General Ralph Royce’s life and career.  This brief overview of his career cannot do him justice.  His life deserves a book because it contains elements of a remarkable biography that spanned two world wars and theaters from the Southwest Pacific to Europe and to the Middle East.  He was an important participant in and witness to the rapid growth of aviation.  Indeed, the general himself contemplated writing his autobiography in retirement in Florida.  He hired an assistant, began writing chapters, and searched for a publisher.  He even chose a working title: “Prop Wash.”  Unfortunately, his manuscript did not reach publication, although it survives at the Air Force Museum.

Portions of this biography and the accompanying images are courtesy of the Ralph Royce Collection (69-D09) via the National Museum of the United States Air Force ®