Memorial Day Thoughts

Now that the kids are in bed it is time to reflect a bit on Memorial Day. I’ve been listening to Masters of the Air: America’s Bomber Boys Who Fought the Air War Against Nazi Germany as an audiobook. One sobering statistic is that only about 25 percent of the early B-17 crewmen completed their 25 missions and came home in one piece. After facing terrifying flak and fighter attacks they would get back into the planes somehow and head out despite knowing that the odds of a safe return were not very good and also that neither were the odds of substantially affecting the German war effort (the average bomb dropped by U.S. bombers in World War II was off target by about three quarters of a mile, according to an official study quoted by the author).

As a pilot I don’t have a lot of trouble imagining that they went out on their first mission, but I have trouble imagining the kind of courage that it took to go out on the 2nd through 25th.

Anyway, I am grateful that at least some Americans had that kind of courage and to them I give thanks today.


11 thoughts on “Memorial Day Thoughts

  1. This is not about American (or other) airmen in WWII, but about the concept of human cannon fodder itself.

    Paraphrasing Tina Turner, what’s courage got to do with it, Phil? Once these boys were drafted, what choices other than the brig, or the firing squad, did they have? Men (=Homo Sapiens of the male gender) have for ages been conditioned to sacrifice themselves on the altar of vaguely defined higher goals, by way of defensive offense of their often imprecisely justified single-ethnic realms, far more often than not for reasons that only “make sense” to the tiny elites that call the shots. Conditioned to such a degree, that, unless they go with the rest of their cohort, they’ll forever be branded “cowards.” And then, should they survive, they’ll be rewarded by non-combat womenfolk and older men alike with being “brave,” “daring,” “heroes,” and other such allegedly honorific epithets, even in generations to come [here’s looking at you, Phil]. Moreover, such rewards need not be solely of the verbal kind, nor strictly for surviving an ordeal in some war either… survival of any kind will trigger that reward-hero instinct. Just recall the hordes of women practically begging to be laid by any passing-by dusty fireman/etc. on his way to/from the Ground Zero in the weeks post 2001/9/11 in and around Manhattan – a phenomenon duly noted, and commented favorably upon also in The New York Times (I probably could dig up the reference).

    You rightly speak out against the “culture” of victimhood, but all “war hero worship” really is the other side of the same stupid, false coin. As if having by chance survived some horror automagically makes the survivor into a sage and a saint. For that reason alone, I reserve respect only to those former servicemen who lock their war memories in a box, and do not extol their “battle experiences” other than to discourage young boys from seeing wars as the surest way to become a “hero,” etc. And if I need to learn about some historical time, books etc (often more than one point of view) are the way to go, not single narrow testimony of a participant (never mind the latest horror that I’ve learned of, a named holographic “Holocaust survivor” which—not “who”—can interactively be queried with some 2000 prerecorded questions. Kid you not, @BBCClick went gaga over it).

    ObLitContent: “Ordinary Heroes” by Scott Turow, which a. o. things paints the Battle of the Bulge in quite different colors and images than the visual carnage sandwich of “Saving Private Ryan.” There the apple-cheeked Tom Hanks stands for Virtue but, alas, doesn’t make it save for the final sound-bite that’s supposed to justify all such sacrifice.

  2. From people who served I understand that the standard of behaviour in these circumstances is ‘do not let down your buddies’, with ample scope for interpretation of what ‘let down’ and ‘your buddies’ are. Thus, if the highest ranked officer in a plane crew decided to overcome his fear so he would not let down the command and/or let down the other officers who were prepared to fly, everybody in the crew will fly, not to let down the commander.

    In fact people who served also mentioned that they felt most of the hardships in training had little/no practical value aside from forcing people to see themselves as part of ‘a group’ who passed training and hardship together, and thus people had to behave in a specific way not to let the group down.

  3. That most supposedly aimed bombs were far off-target was not generally known until after the war.

  4. They must have had well aligned financial incentives. Probably, correctly discounted the actuarial value of various veteran’s benefits over their lifetime.

  5. A friend who died recently was a 20 yr old B-17 commander who arrived at 8th (Army) Air Force in England in October 1944. By then the Allies held airfields on the Continent and it was the time of the thousand-plane raids on Germany. The deployment had been upped to 35 missions and the casualties reduced, but by today’s standards it was still a very dangerous job; they lost a few bombers every day just forming up in the lousy British weather, and the flak batteries were dialled in on the rigid bombing routes dictated by the bombsights. My friend lost two airplanes and 18 engines, but thankfully no crewmen. He was able to land the planes in Belgium but they were written off on the spot, one with over 200 flak impacts.

    He later benefitted from the bad weather experience. After a short time as a civilian, he was recalled for the Korean war and stayed in. When the Air Force started deploying all-weather fighters, he got a billet in Air Defense Command and flew F-94s, F-89s, F101s, and finally the F-106.

    He retired as a 2-star assigned to NATO. In his liason duties and at the embassies he would encounter ex Luftwaffe officers and wives who lamented the saturation bombing, not knowing he was in B-17’s. He told them they shouldn’t have started it and they had it coming. He had a very simple and direct viewpoint gained from experience watching his barracks-mates go “poof” in the flak and the soupy wx.

    FWIW, we were friends for many years before he recounted any of this.

  6. PS – for a sobering tourist stop in London, go behind the altar at St Pauls cathedral and review the books of names and details of the US servicemen who died serving in England. Almost all are air crew, and approximately the same number died in 8th AF airplanes as all Americans who died in Viet Nam.

  7. In retrospect, the bombing campaign was a tremendous waste of lives on both sides without much effect on the outcome of the war, but modern large passenger planes are bascially spin-offs of bomber technology, so there’s that.

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