The Mighty Eighth


Last year, I screened The Cold Blue, which was an amazing film. In WW2, 5 famous Hollywood directors, William Wyler, John Huston, John Ford, George Stevens, and Frank Capra went into harm’s way with small film crews and documented the war. John Ford, for example shot – I believe- the only footage of Midway as it was being attacked.

I’m in danger of swaying into this fascinating story, but I will say one thing. The war affected them all, and it can be reflected in their post war work. George Stevens, for example, having seen so much death and destruction in Europe, in making Shane, thought gunfire and being shot should be portrayed realistically, a first for a Hollywood Western.

When the audience first saw this in 1953 theaters, they were shocked.

OK, completely unrelated to any of my upcoming post, but having a heart for the South, can’t let Wilson get away with that.

Shane would have been very different had Stevens not been in war-ravaged Europe.

Wyler did a lot of filming over there, but he is probably most famous for the making of The Memphis Belle.

In 1943, before the bombers could have a long range fighter escort, the attrition rate was terrible. All men were 19, 20, 21 or thereabout. In fact, more men of the 8th AAF died in Europe than all of the Marines in the Pacific. Your odds of dying before you could complete your (at first) mandatory 25 missions was 50%.

So when the Memphis Belle was one of the first to complete those missions, she went on a bond tour back in the states with the crew. Wyler filmed some of the missions. He had a crew of 5 cinematographers, and one was killed when his (another) plane was shot down over France.

When I say they went into harm’s way, they were at the front.

So to take this history a bit further, Wyler’s daughter, Catherine, produced the excellent 1990 remake of the Memphis Belle . I believe it accurately depicts a mission over Germany in a B-17.


In 2018, all of Wyler’s 16mm film – the raw film used in making the first Memphis Belle – was discovered.

It was the unused footage that was used in making The Cold Blue. But before they used it, it went through some digital magic.

The footage looks almost like it was shot yesterday.

This movie is a documentary, with the stars being the 90+ year old veterans of the 8th AAF.

They are all telling you what life was like in those days, and the restored footage is used as they are narrating.

What an amazing video.

I’m watching it, pausing it, and transcribing for you what these veterans were saying.


In 1943 the odds of completing 25 missions over Europe or less than 25%

“You knew that the odds were against you. It was like being on death row in the penitentiary and you knew your turn was coming“

“You’d come back from a mission so glad that you are still alive and the next morning they’d  put a flashlight in your face say you’re going again.”

“Anybody that said they weren’t afraid was full of crap.“

“One of the guys was saying I don’t think I’m going to make it“ and that’s something nobody wants to hear. Well anyway his wife was expecting within a day or two and they sent him up the next day. And he was killed coming back in the channel.”

“The old man on our crew was 25. He was the waist gunner.“


“Most of the time we had powdered eggs for breakfast. Every once in a while you’d get fresh eggs. Then you were allowed 2 fresh eggs over easy which was a real treat. After a while we realized that when you got fresh eggs it was going to be a real tough mission. So we wanted fresh eggs but we didn’t want fresh eggs.”

“One thing that always got me about these briefings, there was a Catholic chaplain in the back hearing confessions and giving communions. He knew you might not come back.”

“Towards the end of the war there would be formations of over 1,000 airplanes. “That was one of the most amazing things. The choreography of putting 1,100 airplanes together. Every 30 seconds a plane would go on the runway. That lead plane didn’t get off the runway before the second plane was doing its run up.”

“One day we came within 3 or 4 inches of walking up with another bomb group.”

“It was weird but you’d be up in the air 2 or 300 feet climbing then all of a sudden you’ll see a bright flash. You saw a red flash and stuff coming down and you knew darn well it was a mid air collision.”

“You were a family. The crew trained together, lived together and flew together. The officers were closer to their crew than other officers. We were a family in the air. We all did our duties and we did that well. We were a family of brothers. There was no saluting or yes sir / no sir at all.”

The flight from England to the intended target could take five hours.

In order to form up and make this round-trip B-17s could be airborne 14 hours.

Over 12,000 B-17’s were built and over 5000 were lost in combat.

1/3 of those losses were caused by flak

1 million Germans manning 40,000 guns were waiting for the formations to arrive. They could see them 50 miles away from the contrails. 

“At 25,000 feet the B-17 was neither pressurized nor heated and it was like standing on the summit of Mount Everest. The only time you didn’t feel the cold was when you were fighting  fighters or bombing”. It could be -40F. 

“We come back to the base and those who were wounded were noted by a red flare set off and they come in first.”

“With the job we had a 50% chance of dying.” 

“Did you know that some B-17’s had bombs go through their wings? They were out of position”. 



What a powerful video. I’m not embarrassed to say, in seeing some of those segments, of a shot out rear turret or someone’s residue on a window, I was tearing up.

They also give you a restored version of the original 1943 Memphis Belle. 

Here’s an interesting video on how they made it, with examples of unrestored and restored scenes. Absolutely amazing in the result of the restoration. Catherine Wyler said that her father would have been in awe of the effort.


It is available here.


There is a Netflix series called Five Came Back about those 5 directors who went to war, And they are narrated by famous current directors – Steven Spielberg, Guillermo del Toro, and Lawrence Kasdan.

Sounds like an upcoming post.


Filed under Air Force, Army Aviation, Movie Review, Patriotism, USAF, Valor

2 responses to “The Mighty Eighth

  1. Pingback: A Time Portal to Germany, May 1945 | The Lexicans

  2. ohengineer

    If you’ve never been to the “Mighty Eighth Air Force” Museum at Pooler, GA, it’s worth the trip.

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