At three-thirty on the afternoon of August 17th, 1942, twelve Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses of the United States Army Air Forces trundled onto the runway of Grafton-Underwood air field in England’s East Anglia. These four-engine bombers were part of the 97th Bomb Group (Heavy) of the Eighth Bomber Command (soon to be known as the Eighth Air Force) which had been organized at Savannah Army Air Field in Georgia in January, 1942, one month after Pearl Harbor and Nazi Germany’s declaration of war against the United States. Until today the German war-making machine had remained safe from any kind of American response; secure and confident behind its “Atlantic Wall”.
In the lead aircraft named Butcher Shop 27-year-old Major Paul W. Tibbets (*) was at the controls while across from him in the right seat sat Colonel Frank A. Armstrong Jr., newly appointed Commanding Officer of the 97th B.G.. (Nine years later as a brand new airman of the USAF, I would serve under the command of Major General Frank Armstrong, (played by Gregory Peck in the movie Twelve O’clock High.) This modest flight of a mere dozen bombers on a mission to bomb German marshaling yards at Rouen in occupied France may have seemed an inauspicious event when compared to the vicious and deadly two years of warfare the Nazis had already thrown against the beleaguered people of Britain in their island home. In fact, it was the very tip of a sword pointed at the heart of the Nazi Empire. By 1945 this 8th Air Force would consist not of 1200 men, 100 combat aircraft and leaders with an unproven fighting doctrine, but an armed force of more than 200,000 people, 2000 four-engine bombers and 1000 fighters capable of flying over 440,000 bomber sorties to deliver nearly 700,000 tons of bombs on a vast scale of target-territory; and they believed they could do it accurately, from high altitude and in the broad light of day. As a sight the world will never see again, on a mission of maximum effort an 8th Air Force bomber stream en route to a target in Germany would stretch 90 miles in length across 10 miles of sky and contain 1,000 bombers and nearly as many accompanying escort fighters. As one respected historian would record: “Never before or since has a military machine of such size and technological complexity been created in so short a time.” Had it not been so, I believe – and only America could have done it – the world would not have been able to stave off the military totalitarianism that threatened peace and freedom everywhere.
The cost would be high. The 8th Air Force alone would suffer wartime casualties of 47,000; more than the entire Marine Corps in WW II. Of those, 26,000 would be fatalities. The average pilot’s age was 21 and the enlisted crew members 18 or 19. Most of them had been students, farm boys and sandlot baseball players a year earlier. Now – as volunteers! – they faced Focke Wulfe 190s and Messerschmitt Me 109s, the world’s fastest, deadliest and best-flown fighters – every time they went aloft in their lumbering B-17s and B-24s. Even more fearsome was the enemy flak (Fliegerabwehrkanone) thrown up by the radar-aimed 88 mm anti-aircraft guns; the war’s most effective such weapon.
In addition, flying tight formations through England’s unforgiving fog banks and cloud cover, breathing oxygen without which death was seconds away, warding off frostbite at temperatures of minus 60 degrees and doing so for eight hours at a time, all while fighting a determined and experienced enemy while flying over territory occupied by civilians who hated you more than the uniformed soldiers you prayed would get to you first if you managed to leave your flaming bomber.
In 1943-44 8th Air Force flight crew were required to complete 25 missions (30 & 35 later). Mathematically they stood only a 50% chance of surviving beyond seven. But they flew. And they died. They were American boys. And they earned the right to be remembered.
Just outside Savannah, Georgia where their unit was born in the desperate days of 1942, the Museum of the Mighty 8th Air Force stands today as a field of honor for all who served as the first American force to face Hitler’s threat when no other was available or ready. I have found it to be – for me – the most personally meaningful of all WWII archives-of-memory, and somehow, the most intimate. Over the coming weeks I will try to explain why.