I have always enjoyed seeing places of historical importance, with their evidence of importance hidden in plain sight. Virginia City, Nevada is such a place. To most of the visitors, it is simply an old western town whose shops now sell ice cream and T Shirts.
For those who know the history, it’s where Samuel Clemens became Mark Twain. It’s a place that produced so much silver that it built San Francisco, and was the beginning of a few major corporations today.
The Wendover Airfield is another such place. My curiosity about it was built over some years. On a past cross country trip of some years ago, I stopped there and saw dozens of old wooden buildings whose condition reminded me of the Bodie State Historic Park, which is kept in “arrested decay”. And there was a huge hanger just to the east of the main facility. It looked a bit different from a typical hanger, as it has offices or workshops all along the sides.
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.
I just started a book that Hogday recommended, about the 8th Army Air Force in England. I know that they suffered tremendous casualties, but just cold numbers really don’t tell the whole story. Yes, more were killed flying those bombers and fighters into Nazi-occupied Europe than all of the Marines killed in the Pacific. Over 26,000 airmen were lost in those skies.
One had to complete 25 missions before you could rotate home and the odds, particularly in 1943, of doing that were if not stacked against you, pretty heavy. I’m trying to remember a statistic citing death or seriously wounded before those 25 missions were complete, but 1:3 seems to come to mind.
I have been doing more reading these last few years, and a book recommended by a fellow Lexican is almost finished. Chickenhawk, by Robert Mason, tells of the author’s journey from Army Helicopter training at Ft Wolters, TX to some of the biggest battles, such as Ia Drang, of the Vietnam War. All from the prospective of an Army UH-1 “Huey” pilot. His story begins with the start of the massive build up, in 1965.
He wrote about everything from the difficulty in training at Wolters, to the stupid stuff like not having any flak jackets – causing the deaths of friends – for months while a neighboring unit 100 miles away had more than they knew what to do with.
And no, the book title is not about what you may think it is.
I’m watching a wonderfully produced program on YouTube on the Memphis Belle. Beautifully made because it goes from the restoration crew at Wright-Patterson doing the restoration, telling you how they refabricated parts, to voices of the now-gone crew talking about certain missions, to general information on her missions first to France, then Germany.
The Belle was famous – became an iconic piece of American history, for finishing 25 missions and boosting the morale of a war-weary American public.
Among the things I learned during her 6 month combat tour was that 10 engines were replaced, major wing parts, and the vertical stabilizer.
That a flight crew had only a 28% chance of surviving though the magic 25 combat missions and the ticket home.
How A-List Hollywood Director William Wyler, in Europe as an Army Major, picked the Belle as the B-17 he would use to document the war.
How every day in the War, the Pentagon sent 297 telegrams to the families of the 8th AAF crewmen giving them the worst news.
For those you who have used the Internet awhile, you probably heard the story decades ago. Probably in the early 90s. The interesting thing about this is that when it was revealed it was a mystery solved after 47 years.
In the darkness of a December 20, 1943 morning in an English side Quonset hut, an orderly shined a light into the face of Lt Charles “Charlie” Brown to tell him that it was time to get up and attend the briefing.
Members of the 379th Bomb Group of the mighty 8th Army Air Force were to receive their briefing for that day’s bombing raid.
They were to bomb the Focke-wulf aircraft factory on the Northern German coast at Bremen.
They were told to expect heavy flak and hundreds of fighters in opposition. The CO giving the briefing, Col “Mo” Preston, would be leading the massive formation. He was no commander who led from the desk.
Although LT Brown and his crew had trained together and had 100s of hours stateside in the Flying Fortress, this would be his first bombing mission with that crew. After 100s of hours, the crew became as a family.
At Bremen during that same hour, a German Luftwaffe Leutnant, Franz Stigler, was most likely sleeping. They wouldn’t know about the raid until hours later. The B-17 crews deliberately had no radio communication once they started up on the tarmac.
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.
For those of us who have been allowed more years, it is interesting what age does to perspective. When I was in the Army serving in the FRG – Federal Republic of Germany in 1973 and 1974, I thought WW2 was ancient history. I was 23 years old.
And I had had a college deferment, so by the time I got drafted at the ripe old age of 22, I was considered an “old man” in some quarters.
And how I ended up in Germany – a bureaucratic quirk of fate – is the subject of another story.