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The Mighty Eighth! – A historical reflection on the 8th Army Air Force in World War II.

As we celebrate with our families this thanksgiving, let us remember the generation that may have left an empty chair at our family’s table. The greatest generation is leaving us and I wanted to write a story to remember a small part of that generation that was mighty in its deeds and holds one of the highest places in the pantheon of the history of this nations military forces.

 Growing up, I have always felt a deep sense of gratitude in my heart for the men of the 8th Army Air Force that served

so bravely in the European theatre during World War II. I learned of their heroism from movies made after the war as well as from the TV series of the sixties, “Twelve O’clock High”.  Growing older I have read the actual history behind the myth and it has served to increase my admiration even more. They were not “supermen” of my childhood but were human with all of the frailties we all possess. But they were able to transcend them.

The 8th Air Force was activated in SavannahGeorgiaon 28 January 1942 at the Chatham Armory. It consisted of two planes and a few dozen airmen under Brigadier General Ira C Eaker. He would eventually move his HQ to the United Kingdomin February. The first bombing mission of the eighth wasn’t until July 4th 1942 when six American aircrews borrowed 6 Royal Air force (RAF) Boston Bombers painted with US markings. The planes went out for a low level bombing run overHolland but only three came back. This was to be a prophetic sign of things to come for the eighth. Two days earlier the first Boeing B-17 arrived that would be the backbone of the eighth’s future.

 The Army Air Corps chiefs at the pentagon were convinced that daylight strategic bombing could win the war againstGermanyby destroying its industrial war machine. Other members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff had their doubts. The Boeing B-17 flying fortress, so named due to its size, boasted an armament (7 to 12 guns) with a 4,000 to 8,000 lb bomb load; arguably the most successful heavy bomber of all time. Its revolutionary Norden bomb sight was said to be so accurate it could drop a bomb from 25,000 feet into a pickle barrel. That may have been true for its testing in the clear skies of the southwesternUSbombing ranges but not for targets inNorthern Europeobscured by fog, clouds and heavy anti-aircraft flak.

The B-17 was supposed to be able to take the war directly to the Reich with its 2,000 mile operational range. For much of the war it would have to do that alone without fighter escort for the complete round trip since long range fighter escorts where not available until January of 1944. The RAF had given up on daylight strategic bombing two years earlier and settled for a night bombing campaign after terrible losses. The Army Air Corps was convinced they could succeed where their British cousins had failed. They felt that daylight bombing was the way to go but at the time they could not conceive of the cost that would be paid to make such a campaign successful.

 Enough about the overall strategy, what about the men? The Second World War was truly a citizen’s war fought by all classes of Americans. From the poor farmer’s son to the city boy that played stick ball from his tenement stoop to America’s Hollywoodroyalty. Famed actors not only served in the eighth Air force but were in the direct line of fire. Jimmy Stewart flew as a bomber on numerous missions deep into Nazi-occupied Europe, mostly with the 445th bomb group. In 1944, he twice received the Distinguished Flying Cross for actions in combat and was awarded the Croix de Guerre. He also received the Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters.  Clark Gable volunteered for service at the age of 40, went to Officer Candidate School, and was trained as a photographer and aerial gunner. He flew several combat missions over Europe as a photographer with the 351st and 91st bomb groups. On one combat mission over GelsenkirchenGermany he was nearly hit when a fire do to flak damaged the airplane.

Flak damage to the nose of a B-17 back from a misson

The greatest enemy after Flak or Enemy fighters was the altitude. Bombers were not pressurized and oxygen masks were required over 11.000 feet. If your oxygen mask failed or clogged with vomit or blood and failed to be cleared, unconsciousness usually followed after 20 minutes accompanied by brain damage or even death.  At the normal operational altitude of 25,000 feet, the average temperature fell to 20 to 40 below zero. Electrically heated flight suits were usually worn to keep crew members warm during the 6 to 10 hour missions. At these cold temperatures exposed flesh became frostbitten very quickly. Exposed hands froze to metal almost immediately when inexperienced gunners instinctively took their gloves off to clear a jammed gun in the heat of aerial combat.

B-17 formation over Regensburg on August 17, 1943

 And what about the missions they flew? The first Official Mission of the 8th Air Force using their own planes (Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses) did not occur until August 17, 1942 when they attacked Rouen/Sotteville marshalling yard inFrancewith 12 aircraft. All planes returned safely but this result was the exception and not the rule. Before long range fighter escorts were included but appeared late in the air war. The most notable of the escorts were the famed P-51 mustangs. Losses on some bombing raids deep into occupiedEuropewere astronomical and would be considered by today’s commanders unacceptable. One of the most deadly missions was mission number 84.

Mission number 84, the Schweinfurt/ Regensburgraid on August 17, 1943 was to prove that huge bombing missions

concentrated on vital German industrial sites could cripple the Nazi war machine. The invasion of Europewas scheduled for late spring the following year and in order for that invasion to be successful the German Luftwaffe had to be neutralized prior to that huge undertaking.  The original targets were the plants in RegensburgGermanythat produced one of the preeminent fighters of the German Luftwaffe, the Messerschmitt Bf 109. In planning the raid on the Regensburg, the 8th Air Force decided to add a second but no less important target, the ball bearing plants at Schweinfurt. The thought was that a huge bomber stream starting from Englandheading in the same direction but splitting off midway would overwhelm German defenses. The mission plan called for the 4th bomber wing of the 8th Air force to hitRegensburg and then proceed south over the Alps to bases inNorth Africa.

The 1st bomber wing would follow fromEnglanda very short time later with the goal of catching German fighters on the ground refueling. After striking their targets, they would return toEngland. As with all bombing raids deep into Europe, the shield for the bombers was their fighter escort but would only cover them untilBelgium. With a little luck along with the required close coordination and timing of both bomber wings, it was hoped that losses would not be high.

 As with most war plans it fell apart almost as soon as it was implemented. The morning of the mission fog rolled over most of the airfield where the mission was scheduled to launch. Though the mission plan required both Regensburgand Schweinfurtto be hit one after the other, the 4th bomber wing was dispatched even though the 1st was delayed for a short but crucial period of time. The 4th bomber encountered 90 minutes of aerial combat with the Luftwaffe and lost 15 B-17’s. The bombing run was relatively successful overRegensburg and then began their trek over the Alps intoNorth Africa. During this leg, 9 additional B-17’s were lost with 2 damaged B-17s forced to land in neutralSwitzerland. Several other B-17’s crashed into theMediterranean after running out of fuel.

 If the 4th bomber wing’s mission was a bad dream the 1st Bomber wings mission turned into an outright nightmare. Because of the delay, the Luftwaffe was ready with more than 300 fighters to meet them. On the way toSchweinfurt the wing lost 22 B-17’s. At 3 PM they arrived over the target and heavy flak tore at the bomber stream. 3 more B-17s were lost. On the way home they encountered a running battle with Luftwaffe fighters where 11 more B-17’s were lost before the bombers were able to rendezvous with their escorts inBelgium.

 The total losses of the combined raids were as follows:

  1. 376 B-17’s took off from their bases inEngland.

  2. 26 aborted.

  3. 35 were lost en route to their targets.

  4. 60 were shot down.

  5. 168 were damaged.

  6. 55 aircrews were lost totaling over 550 men.

The eighth would continue to have horrendous losses which would not begin to abate until the long range fighter escorts arrived. The favorite number of each aircrew member was 25. If in 1942 & 1943 you survived your 25th mission, you were allowed to go home. But an astounding 75% of The Eighth Air Force crews never made it to that number. They were either dead, terribly injured, shot down or were prisoners of war. As unbelievable as these numbers are, a sizeable number of airmen that finished their 25th mission voluntarily signed up for an additional tour. Where did we get such men?

 Out of the 12,000 Boeing B-17‘s produced, 4,757 were lost during action or accidents.

Most crew members of the eighth who flew missions on B-17’s credit their survival to the sheer toughness of the plane. Many planes came back from missions littered with bullet holes or hopelessly damaged. But those same planes returned their crews safely to their English bases.

 The final cost in lives for the Mighty Eighth was a heavy one:

  1. 26,000 deaths.

 This was more than the total number of all marines killed in all of World War II.

 So when you and your family gather together this Thanksgiving to sit down for the traditional Thanksgiving meal, remember to lift your eyes to Heaven and thank God for the men of The Mighty Eighth and all those who sacrificed their lives to secure the freedoms we enjoy.

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