Since the dawn of the air power age, an irresistible and romantic image has formed in our culture of airmen sailing, quite literally, above the fray. To the mind’s eye, the words “air mission” still seem to conjure up images of a crystal clear day, blue skies, and fair weather. Nothing messy here–no mud or blood, and no dying grunts. Just handsome flyboys and their beautiful machines sailing off into the "wild blue yonder,” dropping their payloads, and returning to base for a well-deserved Scotch. It was the glamour arm of World War II.
Anyone who still clings to these notions, however, needs to look a bit more carefully at the U.S. strategic bombing campaign over Germany. When you do that, you’ll realize that this was very dangerous work: a long, hazardous flight, explosive cargo (at least on the way out), and a wall of Flak over your target area. And let us not forget those German fighters: Messerschmitts and Focke-Wulfs swooping down, up, and often straight at you at breakneck speed. U.S. bomber losses were horrific from the start. They stayed horrific as the tide turned, and they could still be shocking well after the U.S. had gained air superiority over Europe. Eventually, by some estimates, losses would total 77% of the crewmen who flew. It’s a sobering thought: casualties among USAAF bomber crews were considerably higher than those suffered by the entire U.S. Marine Corps as it stormed its way across the Pacific from one bloody island to the next.
To be sure, much of the casualty problem resulted from the new battle environment. There were just so many unusual ways to die up there. If the Germans didn’t get you, anoxia or frostbite might, and if you were injured from any cause–well, let’s just say that it’s not as if there was an ambulance immediately available. Add in personnel policies that (in the war’s early years at least), kept you flying missions until you died, and one thing becomes clear: when it came to personal peril and nail-biting terror, bomber crews endured conditions as rough as those of any sad-sack slogging his way through the Hürtgen Forest.
Glamour arm? Wild blue yonder? Oh yeah: it was wild, all right.
Next week, let’s ask whether at least some of the problems were avoidable.
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