World War II: March 2001 From the Editor | HistoryNet MENU

World War II: March 2001 From the Editor

8/19/2001 • World War II Archives


Aviation pioneer Ira C. Eaker was an architect of the Eighth Air Force.

On August 17, 1942, American heavy bombers conducted their first raid against occupied Europe when 12 Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses, escorted by Royal Air Force (RAF) Supermarine Spitfire fighters, attacked the rail yards at Rouen, France, northwest of Paris. The American bombers dropped only 18 1/2 tons of bombs on the yards and nearby repair facilities that day. All the Flying Fortresses returned safely to their English base. Of course, this initial mission was dwarfed by the size of later raids. It was, nevertheless, a harbinger of the death and destruction that would ravage the cities of Germany in the coming months.

Nearly as notable as the raid itself were two of its participants. Major Paul Tibbetts piloted the lead aircraft. Three years later, he would find himself on the other side of the world at an American air base on the island of Tinian in the Pacific. One of the Mariana Islands, Tinian was home to a fleet of gigantic Boeing B-29 Superfortress bombers. On August 6, 1945, Tibbets piloted the B-29 Enola Gay, which dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima.

Also participating in the Rouen raid was 46-year-old Brig. Gen. Ira C. Eaker, the commander of VIII Bomber Command and later the entire Eighth Air Force. Eaker’s philosophy was simple: “I don’t want any American mothers to think I’d send their boys someplace where I’d be afraid to go myself.”

Eaker had always been something of a risk taker. In 1929 he and three other pilots had set an endurance record for flying. He was the first to make a transcontinental instrument flight in 1936. He had served as a member of the defense team during the court-martial of vehement air power advocate Brig. Gen. Billy Mitchell. He and friend General Henry “Hap” Arnold, commander of the U.S. Army Air Forces, had co-authored three books on aviation.

In the early days of American involvement in World War II, Eaker proved equal to myriad logistical and training tasks as American airmen and planes arrived in England. He was also a tireless supporter of daylight bombing. He firmly believed that American bombers had been constructed to defend themselves against marauding German fighters during daylight attacks, and that precision bombing by day was the best way to achieve the desired results.

After a second raid over occupied France, Eaker assessed the results and concluded, rather optimistically, that 10 percent of the bombs dropped had hit their aiming point precisely and that as many as 90 percent had fallen within a mile of it. Assessments of the RAF’s accuracy achieved under the cloak of darkness revealed much poorer results. “It is safe and conservative to say, therefore,” Eaker concluded, “that high-level day bombing will be at least 10 times as effective for the destruction of definite point targets as night area bombing.”

When the British tried to push the Americans into adopting a night bombing strategy similar to their own, it was Eaker who convinced Prime Minister Winston Churchill to give him the opportunity to continue his strategy. Churchill had come to Casablanca to confer with President Franklin D. Roosevelt in January 1942.

A one-page memorandum from Eaker, which he delivered to the British prime minister during a face-to-face meeting, contained the sentence, “By bombing the devils around the clock, we can prevent the German defenses from getting any rest.” Churchill seized upon this single comment and responded to Eaker, “Young man, you have not convinced me you are right, but you have persuaded me that you should have further opportunity to prove your contention.”

The next day, the “Casablanca Directive” called for bombing Adolf Hitler’s Europe night and day. Although Eaker’s bomber force sustained heavy losses at times, he remained a staunch advocate of the strategy. His actions at Casablanca very likely saved the Eighth Air Force as an independent fighting force.

Later in the war, Eaker went on to command Allied air forces in the Mediterranean. His most famous and controversial raid during the Italian campaign was the bombing of the abbey at Monte Cassino during the Allied drive toward Rome. He returned to the United States in the spring of 1945 as deputy commander of the Army Air Forces and played a pivotal role in constituting the U.S. Air Force as a separate branch of the armed services. A grand old man of the Air Force, he died in 1987 at the age of 91.

Michael E. Haskew, Editor, World War II


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