I have long had a fascination with the aviators of WW2. In training, it was up or out. And by “out”, so many were killed in training flights and not simply washed out. Chuck Yeager’s autobiography had a chapter or 2 on his training days at Tonopah, NV.
I’d have to admire any aviator who, graduating from the venerable PT-17 (Stearman) biplane, to the T-6 (called by the AAF) or SNJ (called by the Navy) when finally strapped into a 1,500 hp Mustang or 2,000 hp Corsair (there were no dual seat trainers) and takes off, hopefully giving it enough rudder so the massive torque wouldn’t run it off the runway.
And kill yourself.
Happened to a lot of students.
The Army and Navy were really cranking out the pilots.
Even around my hometown, there are 2-3 small airfields today that were built by the Army as training fields in WW2.
Past graduation, there were B-29 captains with all of 300 hours total time and 21 years old.
The 8th AAF (Army Air Force) has also interested me for some time. A few years ago, I reviewed a fascinating video, The Cold Blue. It was fascinating on several levels. First, they used some of the unused footage that famed Hollywood director William Wyler had in making the Memphis Belle for the (then) War Dept. And he apparently had a lot of unused film – seen for the first time in 70 years. He and his crew had cojones – going on actual B-17 missions where one’s odds of getting killed or seriously injured were 1:3. One of his film crew was killed on a mission over France.
Second, because of the magic of computers and digital restoration, this footage looked like all of this was shot just yesterday.
Finally, they interviewed a number of these now old veterans, who told you what it was like going on a mission over Nazi-held Europe. They were/are “living history”.
I never will forget what one of them said – that at the beginning of each mission, he felt like he was being led to a wall to be shot.
Would this be the day?
And they did this – day after day.
Knowing my interest, and the fact that one of our Lexicans lives in East Anglia, where so many of these 8th AAF airfields were, he recommended a book about those days.
What made this book so good were the recollections of a 100 or more people – some British – some as children at the time, some American Airmen.
The author, Martin Bowman, spent almost 20 years interviewing both Brits and 8th AAF veterans.
The “friendly invasion” started slowly in 1942, with a trickle. By 1943, it became a deluge. A British child at the time recalled standing by the roadside losing count of all these olive drab trucks with white stars. And she remarked that “They speak English, but they don’t!”
By 1944, there were 200,000 AAF personnel in Britain, with the capability of mounting single raids of 2,000 B-17s and B-24s and 1,000 fighters. That is why it was called “The Mighty Eighth“.
The old adage by G.B. Shaw that “England and America are two countries separated by a common language” had its humorous aspects with this invasion. An American airman and his British date were getting impatient waiting for each other because the Airman had told her “I’ll meet you on the first storey“.
The British first storey is our second storey.
Most British who were children had fond memories, and sometimes sad memories, of the airmen who befriended them. In a country used to years of deprivation, Americans would save their candy rations to give to the children at Christmas.
One Brit recalled a pilot who would let him sit in the cockpit of his P-47. He would wait every evening patiently for him to taxi back to his parking spot, until one evening he didn’t come back.
I imagine that incident was repeated many times, because an overall theme I got from this book was the prevalence of sudden and unexpected death, both among the airman and the civilian British.
The British suffered quick and unexpected death not only from the Germans but wounded bombers returning.
Londoners still went to the movies and to restaurants, despite the uncertainty of a V1 or V2 bomb snuffing out their lives at any time and any place.
A serviceman recalled wondering why his British date was late and went to her home, only to discover that her entire block was leveled by a V2.
Londoners even got used to the nightly blackouts, when at times you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face.
What impressed me is that they made do with the situation, and carried on with normal life as best they could.
Serviceman would bring their British friends simple things like oranges, which they hadn’t had in years. I was reminded that by 1942, when “our” war was really beginning, the British had been fighting and dying for 3 1/2 years.
I learned about the “Piccadilly Commandos”, which were legendary among the 8th AAF.
“Drawn from all over the USA, from big cities to one-horse towns, these men suddenly found themselves facing the dreaded flak gunners in the skies over occupied Europe, and contending with British accents and traditions on their time off. ‘Over-sexed, over-paid, and over-here’ might have been the English complaint, but the growing respect and affection between the ‘Yanks’ and their ‘Limey’ hosts – a good deal of embarrassment and confusion notwithstanding – is a touching note in this wartime history”.
“…I shall always remember that vast contrast when they left. One moment it was all noise, shouting, trucks starting, stopping and then dead silence, with everything deserted. I walked back home across the runway. There was no one in sight; it was just as if everyone had fallen asleep. We should never forget the 390th, the boys who had come so far from their homes in America, many of them never to return. For more than two years they lived in and were a part of our countryside and we missed them sincerely when they were gone.”
—An English girl who lived in one of the farms on the Base at Station 253, Framlingham (Parham)
It was a great book with a hundred recollections.
10/16/22 – Perhaps before I leave this post something should be said about 2 famous members of the 8th AAF – Jimmy Stewart and Clark Gable.
Jimmy Stewart enlisted in the Army after Pearl Harbor. Something I learned from Screenwriter Robert Avrech’s late site, Seraphic Secret, was that as a testimony to Stewart’s character, he continued to send his agent 10% of his Army pay of $110/month.
He eventually became a B-24 pilot – flying some of the most dangerous missions. After one mission, upon landing in England, he quipped to his crew chief “A fellow could get hurt in one of these things!”
But the war affected him deeply. He didn’t even know if he wanted to continue being an actor upon his return. Hollywood Director Frank Capra (who incidentally was one of the 5 Hollywood directors who went overseas on behest of the War Dept (and subsequently made the Why We Fight Documentaries), talked him into staring in his first film upon his return, It’s A Wonderful Life.
Stewart, suffering from what we now call PTSD, genuinely portrayed his anguish in that movie.
Of Stewart, one of those who knew him in the 8th AAF said:
“Everyone had nothing but praise for Stewart, for here was a man with nothing to gain and everything to lose taking such risks over the best defended targets in Germany. “
Harry H. Darrah, talking about James Stewart, movie star
(quote taken from American Bomber Boys)
Stewart remained in the Air Force reserve and rose to the rank of Major General. He also served for a short time in Vietnam, flying a B-52.
Of Clark Gable, he enlisted as a door gunner after the death of his movie star wife, Carole Lombard. She died in a plane crash while promoting war bonds for the government. And the story behind that was that her choice to take the plane back to Los Angeles versus the train was based on the flip of a coin with her agent. Her death devastated Gable and while no one can give his motives for joining, I have believed it was a death wish.