Wild Blue Yonder

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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9 Responses

  1. Tukhachevsky

    Wow, I knew the bomber casualties were bad but not that bad! The comparison with the USMC really brings it into focus.

    Reply
  2. JWD

    I respect all the airmen very, very much. They will always be in my heart.

    Reply
  3. B. Horne

    It makes me wonder about our modern Air Force compared with other services today–still the glory and excitement of flying, but the airmen casualty rate has to be a fraction of a percent.

    Reply
  4. Alice

    Dr. Citino’s portrayal of the public’s perception of the “flyboy” is spot on. With songs like Sinatra’s “ Come fly with me” or Heinz Cereal’s “Famous Aviators” of the 1930’s card series, to movies such as “Top Gun”, all are part of our collective memory, conjuring up images of the dashing Romeo of the skies. If I am correct in my reading, Dr. Citino is pointing out that this glossy, distorted snapshot of reality- does a disservice to the brave airmen that fought, especially those that gave their all. By viewing the pilots through rose colored lens and forcing them into an iconic role we cease to view their reality; including the stress and strain of the issues Citino mentions.
    Could some of the problems have been prevented–like all situations: of course. Nevertheless, lessons tend to come at a high price: in war often the highest price.
    When you are in the middle of a battle it is difficult to know exactly what is needed at the time—only hindsight seems to provide this clarity. God willing, we learn from the mistakes. It is unjust to view any person, regardless of the branch they serve with as gods or impervious: they are individuals doing the very best they can with what they are given. We in turn owe them our very best efforts to provide the safest and most trustworthy equipment and intelligence. From an historical perspective, it appears much of the mistakes were honest and unintentional due to the new battle environment and the pressures to get and keep the planes flying.

    Reply
  5. Rob Citino

    B. Horne: Good point. Technological superiority has made our airmen nearly invulnerable in recent decades. But check out the Vietnam casualties: a HEAVY price paid.

    Alice: Beautifully said. Wish I’d written it.

    –Rob C.

    Reply
  6. James Holoka

    Yes, one thinks of John Magee’s famous poem “High Flight” (1941). For an example of the (back) down to earth realities, see item 2009.04.01 in the Michigan War Studies Review .

    Reply
  7. Tommy Ortega

    Air superiority in WWII was key and was a devastating blow to the US early in the war. 77%? wow, I did not know that. Unwanted at its inception, the Messerschmitt Bf 109 became the most widely produced, the most respected, and the most varied Luftwaffe fighter for the Germans. I had the privilege to actually see a real shot down A/C in person at Deutsches Technikmuseum in Berlin. Perhaps the most noteworthy of the many versions of the Bf 109 was the Bf 109E, which ruled the skies over Europe until mid-1940 when it first encountered the Supermarine Spitfire. I compared cockpits from both aircraft’s and the Bf 109 had a tiny tiny cockpit and very minimal rear visibility, I can’t imagine the horror of knowing someone is on your tail.

    Great post once again Mr Citino

    Reply

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