One of my boyhood heroes was a teen-age neighbor named Frank LaGrand Jr., a handsome high school athlete I saw at Church every Sunday and admired greatly. He was the kind of person I wanted to be like. No one was surprised when he donned a uniform with the hard-won gold wings of a naval aviator and went off to do his part in WWII. He became a talented instructor pilot training others. One day, encountering severe weather over Washington’s Cascade Mountains, and after shepherding his flight of cadets to safety, he failed to return to his base and was reported down and missing, somewhere in that wilderness of forested peaks and valleys. While serving overseas myself in a different air war, I received a letter from home telling me that Junior’s crash site had been found by hunters – eight long years afterward. He was an only son. His story was not unusual.
The undeniable fact is that flying can be a dangerous activity at the best of times, and with the exigencies of war added to the mix, it can bring together a deadly combination of exacerbating factors. World War II was our country’s first real introduction to what historians call “total war”, in this case one for which we were woefully unprepared, both militarily and philosophically. At every measurable level we had to learn how to do it the “hard way” – by sheer and often painful experience. Those who made it all possible truly deserve the appellation “The Greatest Generation”.
Our leaders early on decided that civilian morale was of paramount importance, even if it meant withholding reminders of just how costly the victory we thought would come quickly was actually becoming. Casualty figures were routinely “doctored” or left untold in the interest of keeping the home front boat from rocking. Our public media were cooperatively complicit in “gentling” the war news deemed “safe” to report. While we were quick to report on the enemy’s highly publicized “propaganda” programs, we quietly carried on one of our own; for the “public good”.
Even today, 70 years after the fact, it is difficult to extract the actual numbers of lives lost in aviation accidents in the course of preparing for and executing the war plans which eventually brought about that celebrated victory, and in the process, we have failed to recognize the sacrifice of countless thousands of young Americans and the families they left behind. Combat losses were bad enough: In just the month of June, 1944, the Army Air Force in Europe lost an average of 50 planes per day, and in the 2nd Schweinfurt raid alone, 65 of our bombers went down with 642 lives lost, nearly 20% of those who had breakfasted together that morning!
Meanwhile, back in the continental U.S. between December 1941 and 1945 the AAF suffered more than 52,000 aviation accidents with 14,000 aircraft wrecked and 14,903 deaths resulting. In addition to those numbers, 909 planes went down en route to an overseas deployment, usually with the loss of entire ferry crews. During the same period, U.S. Naval aviation accidents in the states accounted for another 8,134 deaths. As horrendous as those figures appear, they do not include accidents in Alaska and Hawaii, since those areas included combat statistics.
Berrett Tillman, a respected aviation writer and historian goes on to reveal that 137 young officers died learning to fly the vaunted and highly effective P-51 Mustang fighter, while a staggering 1,125 P-47 Thunderbolts went down, taking with them the lives of another 455 airmen before they could even get into the real war! And although we may never know the exact numbers, it is likely that close to 20,000 of those pilot lives lost overseas were probably as a result of non-combat accidents.I hope that when my days on this earth are ended, I may have the privilege of meeting up on the other side with those of my countrymen – those of that “greatest generation” – who paid the highest price for their patriotism while preparing to defend their country, and who never received the victory medals and accolades their sacrifice so richly deserved. To Frank LaGrand, Jr. and all those others, I salute you MY BROTHERS!