Conger Pratt was born on September 2, 1882 at Fort Stanton, New Mexico, the son of Captain Henry Clitz Pratt (1843-1887) of the 13th Infantry, a veteran officer whose career had begun in 1862 as a lieutenant in the New York Volunteers during the American Civil War. Captain Pratt died in March 1887 when his son was just four years old. Conger Pratt was also the grandson of Colonel Henry Clay Pratt (1814-1884), West Point Class of 1837, who had been cited for gallantry during the Mexican-American War and served 42 years in the Army.
In 1909, while serving as a military aide in Washington, D.C., Conger Pratt met Sadie Murray, daughter of Brigadier General Arthur Murray, the Chief of Coast Artillery, at her debut. He remained associated with General Murray and his family for several years, and in October 1913, while he was stationed in California, the couple became engaged and married on February 7, 1914. They remained wedded until her death in October 1963.
Pratt was appointed to the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York from the state of Wisconsin, entering the Corps of Cadets on August 1, 1900 and graduating on June 15, 1904, 57th in a class of 124. By War Department General Orders No. 121, dated July 11, 1904, he was appointed a second lieutenant in Troop E, 4th Cavalry, and entered active duty on September 15. After a month at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, Pratt proceeded to his duty station at the Presidio of San Francisco, California, where his troop trained in preparation for being sent to Malabang, Mindanao, in the Philippine Islands in September 1905 for a two-year tour of duty. Following their overseas service, his troop transferred to Fort Snelling, Minnesota, in November 1907.
In April 1909, Pratt was appointed aide-de-camp to President William Howard Taft with concurrent duty as assistant to the Officer-in-charge, Public Buildings and Grounds. In March 1911, he was detached on temporary duty to the Southern Department at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, where he served five months as aide to Major General William Harding Carter, who had organized most of the Army into the Maneuver Division as a demonstration of force to revolutionaries in Mexico. After arrival in San Antonio, Pratt was promoted to first lieutenant on March 30, filling a vacancy in the 9th Cavalry. In August he returned to Washington and finished his capital tour in December 1911. Next assigned as aide-de-camp to Major General Arthur Murray, who had completed his term as Chief of Coast Artillery, Pratt awaited transfer to San Francisco.
In March 1912 Pratt accompanied Murray to the Presidio, where the general took command of the Army's Western Department, and on December 16, 1912, transferred to the 1st Cavalry, posted at the Presidio. Pratt performed troop duties at numerous locations in California during 1913-1914, including six months at the regiment's camp in Yosemite National Park between May and November 1913. He spent most of 1915 as Murray's aide again, to the general's retirement in December. From there Pratt reported to San Antonio, Texas, in January 1916 as aide to Brigadier General George Bell, Jr., and accompanied his headquarters to the El Paso District in support of the Punitive Expedition against Pancho Villa in Mexico. There he was promoted to captain, 1st Cavalry, on July 1. In October he was assigned as assistant adjutant of the District. On January 31, 1917, Pratt left El Paso to rejoin his original regiment, the 4th Cavalry, at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, arriving in March. After the United States entered World War I in April, Pratt received temporary promotion to major in his branch. In August he secured another commission as temporary major, this one in the Signal Corps, and assignment to the Aviation Section. He left Hawaii in the first week of October 1917.
As with most mid-career officers transferred into the Aviation Section during its wartime expansion, Pratt was assigned training duties. To gain experience, he reported to Kelly Field on October 14 and a month later became the post adjutant at Call Field, a newly opened flying training field at Wichita Falls, Texas. His three months at Call Field prepared him to be the first base commander of Brooks Field near San Antonio Pratt was promoted to temporary lieutenant colonel within a few days of taking command in February 1918. During this time he was an administrator, not a flier. In Europe the Air Service of the AEF organized and began combat operations, and Pratt was promoted to colonel (temporary, Signal Corps) at the end of August. To qualify himself for an aviation command, Pratt completed pilot training and received a rating of Junior Military Aviator on September 12, 1918.
Within ten days, Pratt was on duty at the Division of Military Aeronautics in Washington, D.C. He was sent to Europe at the end of the first week of October, when the Meuse Argonne Offensive was underway, to participate in staff operations of the American Expeditionary Force. By the time of his arrival, the final push had begun that resulted three weeks later in an armistice with Germany on November 11. Pratt returned to the United States and the DMA, assigned to the Board of Organization on December 2. In January 1919, with demobilization underway, he became base commander of Kelly Field. On March 9 President Woodrow Wilson issued an executive order formally consolidating all military aviation functions under the Director of Air Service, Major General Charles Menoher, and Pratt was assigned to his staff on March 17 to help organize and implement a "divisional staff" system along the lines of that used by the AEF. As acting Third Assistant Executive, Pratt supervised the Operations and Training Group until April, when General Billy Mitchell took over.
In August 1919, Congress extended the existence of the Air Service, created as a temporary wartime organization, for another year while decisions were made regarding the form that the peacetime military air arm would take. All of Pratt's wartime promotions expired by September 8, returning him to his permanent establishment rank of captain, and he entered the course of study for junior officers at the General Staff School in Washington, D.C. on September 1. By the date of his graduation, June 29, 1920, Congress passed the National Defense Act of 1920 which made the Air Service a statutory combatant arm of the line, enabling Pratt to transfer to that branch. He was initially promoted to major, Cavalry, on July 1, 1920, the effective date of the new law, and then transferred in grade to the Air Service on August 6. Pratt served in the Office of the Chief of Air Service until July 13, 1920, when he again became post commander at Kelly Field. On September 25 Pratt moved up to Air Officer, Eighth Corps Area, located at Fort Sam Houston, until April 26, 1921. During that period his pilot rating was changed to Airplane Pilot.
In the spring of 1921 Pratt began more than three years of continuous professional military education. From April to June he completed the two-month student officer course at the Air Service Bombardment School being established at Kelly by the 2nd Group (Bombardment), then in September entered the courses of the General Service Schools at Fort Leavenworth: the School of the Line in 1921-22, and the Regular Course of the General Staff School in 1922-23. The commandant's annual report for 1922 described the curricula of both courses as paralleling each other, dealing with all aspects of military organization and the various service branches, with the Line course being "elementary" while the Staff course "reached the broader and higher phases." Pratt completed the Line course as a Distinguished Graduate. Between August 15, 1923, and June 30, 1924, he successfully completed the course of study at the Army War College in Washington, D.C.
On June 30, 1924, Pratt was assigned to the Operations and Plans Group in the Office of the Director of Air Service, serving in that capacity for four years.
On July 1, 1926, the Air Service was renamed the Air Corps by act of Congress, but except for an increase in general officer positions from two to four, and an advocate in the War Department in the person of the new Assistant Secretary of War for Air F. Trubee Davison, little changed in the service. Pratt's position continued, now under the Chief of Air Corps.
On June 5, 1928, Pratt was assigned command of Mitchel Field, New York, and promoted to lieutenant colonel, Air Corps. The Army's annual maneuvers were held in Ohio in the last two weeks of May 1929. Pratt was assigned to command the aviation of the "Blue" force near Dayton. He established his headquarters at the Fairfield Air Depot and dispersed his 82 airplanes at several airports in the vicinity. During maneuvers, his bombardment and attack forces made several simulated air raids on "Red" force airfields in the vicinity of Columbus and Newark, Ohio, while his pursuit aircraft defended against Red force attacks, culminating a large mock air battle over Cincinnati at the end of the first week. The finale of the maneuvers was a live ordnance demonstration that Pratt orchestrated on the portion of the depot reservation that is now the main runway of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.
In July 1929 Pratt received orders transferring him to Fort Shafter, Hawaii, to assume the duties of Air Officer for the Hawaiian Department. This overseas tour was cut short in July 1930 by the retirement of Brig. Gen. William E. Gillmore, one of the three Assistant Chiefs of Air Corps. Gillmore's retirement left a vacancy in the billet of Chief of the Air Corps Materiel Division, and President Herbert Hoover named Pratt to fill the position. Pratt became a brigadier general and took charge of the division on August 1, 1930 at its Wright Field headquarters. One of the key decisions of Pratt's tenure was to advise the Boeing Aircraft Company in 1932 that the design and production specifications of its proposed Boeing 247 airliner were developments of the Air Corps' B-9 monoplane bomber and therefore classified information, and that the Air Corps would block export of the airliner if Boeing responded to interest expressed by the Empire of Japan. His term as Assistant Chief of Air Corps expired July 16, 1934, and he returned to his permanent rank of lieutenant colonel with temporary duty in the Office of the Chief of Air Corps.
Pratt had only once before commanded an air unit (the 1st Wing in the summer of 1920 concurrent with his duties as base commander of Kelly Field) when the War Department activated the General Headquarters Air Force on March 2, 1935 and named him to command its 2nd Wing at Langley Field, Virginia. In December 1935 the GHQ Air Force conducted a major exercise under field conditions in which 55 of its best bombardment and attack aircraft simulated air raids on Miami, Florida, defended by 55 Boeing P-26 fighters based at Miami Municipal Airport under Pratt's direction. The interceptors succeeded in defeating the first simulated attack on December 3, launching 36 fighters just four minutes after 18 bombers were observed over Hollywood, Florida, theoretically wiping out the bomber force. In the week of operations that followed, the attackers succeeded in reaching their targets only when the bombers and attack aircraft approached simultaneously from different directions, or when the attacking bomber force split to use similar tactics.
In September 1935, politically embattled Chief of Air Corps Benjamin Foulois decided to retire in December "for the good of the service" and took his terminal leave. The Roosevelt administration scrutinized senior Air Corps officers for a replacement, and looked at Pratt as one of its two main candidates, the other being Brigadier General Oscar Westover. Foulois was leaving the service under a threat of being fired for the adverse aftermath of the Air Mail scandal of 1934, but primarily because he had become a public advocate of an independent air force and a critic of both the administration and General Staff for opposing it. During subcommittee hearings of William N. Rogers, Foulois was accused of corruption in aircraft procurement and lost all of his support in Congress. Pratt testified about the accepted practice of negotiating contracts rather than using the competitive bid process, thus giving support to Foulois. Although Foulois was later exonerated regarding the allegations, and Pratt's credentials were obviously superior to those of Westover, he was viewed warily for his role in aircraft procurement and as possibly being another Foulois or Billy Mitchell. "He has greater mental ability than others on the list," noted Secretary of War George Dern to Roosevelt, "but it is possible that he is not as cooperative as Westover." Westover was selected to become the Chief of Air Corps because he opposed independence and considered anyone who advocated it as insubordinate.
Pratt received his permanent promotion to colonel on August 1, 1936. On January 16, 1937, the Senate approved a promotion list to permanent brigadier general that included Pratt and, among others, George C. Marshall, with date of rank from January 1. Pratt became commandant of the Air Corps Tactical School and ex officio president of the Air Corps Board at Maxwell Field, Alabama, on March 14, his last assignment as a member of the Air Corps.
Pratt was the first member of the Air Corps to achieve the permanent grade of brigadier general, 16 years after the air branch became a combat arm with its own officers. He completed his assignment as commandant of ACTS on August 6, 1938, and with no vacancies in the Air Corps for a general officer, returned to Washington to prepare for his first assignment in the Army at large commensurate with his rank.
On October 24, 1938, he arrived in Manila to take command of the 23rd Infantry Brigade, part of the Philippine Division, garrisoned at Fort William McKinley. The 23rd Brigade was the Philippine Scouts component of the division, consisting of the 45th and 57th Infantry Regiments, with a tactical responsibility for the defense of the Lingayen area on Luzon. Pratt twice became interim commander of the Philippine Division when its commander was advanced to command of the Philippine Department, from July 25, 1939 to November 1939 replacing Major General Walter S. Grant, and from May 31, 1940, to the end of his own tour on November 6, 1940, replacing Major General George Grunert, thus becoming the only man in American military history ever to command both an air force wing and an army division.
Just prior to his return to the United States, Pratt was promoted to temporary major general, with permanent rank bestowed on March 1, 1941. His next assignment was another field command, the II Corps, from December 26, 1940 to the following August 21, with his headquarters in the Pennsylvania Railroad Building in Wilmington, Delaware. During Pratt's time as commander, both the 28th and 29th Infantry Divisions were inducted into Federal Service as part of the II Corps, on February 17 and February 3, 1941, respectively. In August 1941 Pratt moved to Baltimore to command the Third Corps Area, which had begun functioning as a service command headquarters in 1940, and was there when the United States entered World War II on December 7, 1941.
In January 1942, Pratt took command of the Trinidad Base Command at Fort Read. He had been chosen upon the recommendation of Lieut. General Frank M. Andrews, the former commander of GHQ Air Force now commanding the Caribbean Defense Command, to put a general of "higher rank and more diplomatic experience" in the position after friction developed between the previous U.S. commander and the colonial governor. He also held commands of the Puerto Rican Department (March 1943), and the Antilles Department (July 1943), which combined his previous commands. In November 1943 he returned to the United States for duty with the Third Service Command (a redesignation of his previous command, Third Corps Area) before becoming commanding general of the Southern Defense Command in January 1944. His last command was of the Western Defense Command in October 1944, and while its commanding general, he issued the revocation order of December 17, 1944, rescinding the February 1942 order for Japanese American internment. At the end of the war he was assigned to the Office of the Chief of Staff.
His retirement was effective September 1, 1946, like his grandfather, after 42 years of service. Pratt was carried on the retired list of the United States Air Force in the rank of major general.
Pratt ended his career with ratings of Senior Pilot, Combat Observer, and Technical Observer. Decorations he received included the Army Distinguished Service Medal with oak leaf cluster. Pratt was also a Knight of the Order of the Crown of Italy, Grand Officers of the Order of the Liberator (Venezuela) and the Order of the Southern Cross (Brazil), Commander of the Order of Merit, Juan Pablo Duarte (Dominican Republic), and Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire (KBE).
SOURCES - U.S. decorations: Biographical Data on Air Force General Officers, 1917–1952, Volume II – L through Z; Foreign decorations: Cullum's Biographical Register, Volume 9