As war clouds gathered over Europe in the 1930s a small but dedicated handful of men occupied senior leadership positions in the United States Army Air Corps, most of them students of the influential and revered General Billy Mitchell and the doctrine of strategic air power he had loudly proclaimed, much to the annoyance of Army Generals and Navy Admirals. They included such “true believers” and powerful voices as Henry (Hap)Arnold, Ira Eaker, Karl “Tooey” Spaatz, Curtis Lemay and Frederick Anderson, each of whom would soon play key roles in shaping military aviation history. American planners were forced to think in strategic rather than just tactical terms given the great distances involved in confronting any foreign aggressor. The same considerations coming into play when forecasting the growth of commercial air transport, U.S airframe and power plant manufacturers were far ahead in multi-engine thinking and design with Boeing Corporation, Douglas and Consolidated Aircraft all investing in designing and tooling up for what they saw coming. At the same time Henry Ford’s production line technology and Shell Oil’s development of newer more powerful 100 octane aviation fuel (at the urging of civilian Jimmy Doolittle,) gave a giant boost to the changing palette of industrial applications to fit changing needs. (Shell’s aviation fuel turned out to be magic for Rolls-Royce’s Merlin engine!)
Boeing’s B-17 “Flying Fortress” and Consolidated’s B-24 “Liberator” four-engine bombers were virtually the very incarnation of Billy Mitchell’s “Ideal”, and teamed with Britain’s Lancasters would carry the air War against Germany and her occupied territories for the next four years. The concept behind the idea of precision day-light bombing was first of all, a bomber specifically armed with the firepower to protect itself from every direction and angle of air attack, and to become a part of a flying “box formation” with other such ships capable of the same protective screen on a mutual and combined scale, so that a squadron of 12 bombers, a group of 36 or larger missions of multiple groups or wings would build on the idea of a self-defending “box.” The further idea of accuracy made possible by the new and revolutionary Norden bombsight added to the American war doctrine of bombing military/industrial/transportation targets while minimizing the impact on civilian populations. The RAF’s nighttime “carpet bombing” of cities and population centers, while less costly in bombers and crews was in contrast to the U.S. preference, although everyone knew civilians were dying both ways.
Either of the two U.S. 4-engine bombers called for a basic crew of ten: 4 commissioned officers (pilots, navigator and bombardier) and 6 enlisted sergeants (radio man, engineer and gunners.) After initial training in their specialties (most navigators and bombardiers were drawn from unsuccessful pilot candidates,) they were organized and then trained together as crews. Crew integrity was at the center of life and survival, and a bomber crew was as close to a real “family” as any military organism I can think of. They trained together, lived together, laughed (if at all) together, fought and often died together. They watched out for each other’s oxygen, patched up wounds, helped each other out of burning planes and shared secrets nobody else even knew. They had discovered and were practitioners of real “love”.
The most “helpless” and vulnerable crew member in a WWII B-17 was the belly gunner, usually chosen because of his small size and tolerance of claustrophobia. Sealed into his tiny, circulating, cramped glass bubble, sighting his twin .50 caliber machine guns between his folded knees after take-off for long “exhilarating” hours at a time, without his parachute for which there was no room, his was the loneliest but most important “outpost.” To escape from his “nest” an electric motor had to turn and align his small bubble with an aperture in the fuselage deck. With an electrical failure there was no escape, and in a forced landing, the exposed turret is the first casualty. I know of one bomber crew in which the two waist gunners made a pledge to their belly gunner friend that in such an event, they would remain behind to die together, When their B-17 was afire and falling, they removed their chutes and huddled near their friend’s turret while the rest of the crew jumped.
They were ordinary American “boys” doing what the times and their oaths demanded of them at 25,000 feet above a world torn apart by war.