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A superb story of uncommon courage
on 8 October 2001
One of the first American pilots with the Eighth Air Force to arrive in England was told by RAF pilots ". . . . . . we would get our butts blown off if we persisted with daylight bombing. We were told that the Luftwaffe was highly skilled and that their 88s were very accurate, both of which were confirmed later."
In contrast, American armchair theoreticians said daylight bombing by heavily armed B-17s that flew without fighter escorts could smash the Luftwaffe and cripple Germany. They were incredibly wrong. Mistakes in war are paid for by the combat forces, and in World War II the Eighth Air Force had the highest casualty rate of American forces. Of the 210,000 aircrew, 26,000 were killed -- a casualty rate of 12.38 percent. It compares to a 3.29 percent casualty rate for the U.S. Marines, 2.25 percent for the U.S. Army, and 0.41 percent for the U.S. Navy.
Flying a B-17 wasn't easy. It's incredibly noisy, crowded almost beyond belief with equipment and instruments. The bombardier gets an beautiful view, but often was the first victim of head-on attacks by German fighters. The rest of the crew lived and fought in the midst of a honeycomb of wires, pipes, ribs, struts, bulkheads and every other piece of metal that constitutes the complex structure of the aircraft.
This is a book about the raw courage of thousands of young Americans, many of them knowing they would never live to the end of their allotted 25 missions, who went into combat day after day. Astor does a superb job of combining oral history with relevant figures to outline the courage of these aircrews.
He tells it with humor and the sheer horror of the war in the air. The raid on Ploesti by the Ninth Air Force shows what the aircrews were up against; of the 178 Liberators in the raid, only 33 were fit for action on the day after the raid. Such losses didn't deter the generals commanding the Eighth, a few weeks later the ill-fated raid on Schweinfurt by 291 bombers resulted in an 88 percent rate of loss and damage. As a postwar report noted, "In one raid, the Eighth Air Force had temporarily lost its air superiority over German targets."
Astor is blunt in refuting the hot air of the generals and planners. After the raid, Gen. Hap Arnold boasted "All five of the works at Schweinfurst were either completely or almost completely wiped out." The reality is that 3.5 percent of the three main plants were destroyed, and 6.5 percent damaged. No German production was held up because of it.
Eventually, of course, the Eighth Air Force wiped out the Luftwafe over Germany. It happened within a relatively few weeks, after long range fighters began to accompany bombers to the target and back. The ultimate defeat of the Germans came when they ran out of pilots; Germany fighter production reached its wartime peak in the fall of 1944, but they didn't have trained pilots to fly these aircraft.
Could it have been handled better ? Almost certainly, if I've read Astor right. The key would have been listening to the aircrews and incorporating their ideas into the dream world of the armchair planners. In place of this, we were blessed by the Germans making even more serious mistakes. Plus, of course, the superb courage of the aircrews of the Eighth Air Force.
Astor neatly sums up the whole incredible experience in a delightfully readable book. Since World War II, other historians have cited America's productive capacity and mechanical genius as the crucial element in victory. This book shows a more basic element, the raw courage of volunteers who chose to serve in the most dangerous element of the armed forces in World War II.
Courage made the Eighth Air Force the most successful military venture in history, and Astor skillfully uses oral history to paint a vivid eyewitness portrait of this triumph. This is the human element of war in all of its heroism and stupidity.