I was watching an episode of 12 O’Clock High and I just thought I would pass along some observations on what it was like flying for the 8th Air Force between 1942 to 1945. I have a bit of credibility; my father flew 30 missions over Germany in 1945.
I’ll start with what Bill Mauldin said in trying to get the folks back home to understand what it was like for an infantryman.
Dig a hole in your back yard while it is raining. Sit in the hole until the water climbs up around your ankles. Pour cold mud down your shirt collar. Sit there for forty-eight hours, and, so there is no danger of your dozing off, imagine that a guy is sneaking around waiting for a chance to club you on the head or set your house on fire.
Get out of the hole, fill a suitcase full of rocks, pick it up, put a shotgun in your other hand, and walk on the muddiest road you can find. Fall flat on your face every few minutes as you imagine big meteors streaking down to sock you.
After ten or twelve miles (remember—you are still carrying the shotgun and suitcase) start sneaking through the wet brush. Imagine that somebody has booby-trapped your route with rattlesnakes which will bite you if you step on them. Give some friend a rifle and have him blast in your direction once in a while.
Snoop around until you find a bull. Try to figure out a way to sneak around him without letting him see you. When he does see you, run like hell all the way back to your hole in the back yard, drop the suitcase and shotgun, and get in.
If you repeat this performance every three days for several months you may begin to understand why an infantryman sometimes gets out of breath. But you still won’t understand how he feels when things get tough.
Here’s what I have to say about flying and fighting in a B-17 or B-24.
It’s oh-dark-thirty. You get up and shave with tepid water because you’re only allowed so much coal for the furnace. You shave very close because if you don’t, the oxygen mask you wear later will feel like thirty-grit sandpaper on your skin.
At breakfast, the oatmeal is overcooked, the powdered eggs are burnt, and the pancakes are rubbery. The coffee, however, is warm — just like the powdered milk. This could be your last meal. If the previous night was a bit too strong, breakfast is vomit and a cigarette.
At briefing, the MET officer says, “High and persistent contrails.” You moan because you know that means the Luftwaffe will have a big white arrow in the sky pointed right at you. And the distant target means this is a long mission. No milk run today.
You take off, form up, and climb to your cruising altitude of 25,000 feet. It is 40 degrees below zero. If you remove your gloves and touch anything, your skin will stick to the metal. You are on oxygen; there is no pressurization. The skin of the airplane is 40 thousandths of an inch thick. That is your entire armor. Flak rips through it like a blowtorch through butter. Not to mention 20 millimeter cannon shells. Your .50 caliber machine gun holds enough ammunition for 1 minute and 45 seconds of continuous firing. This mission will last eight to ten hours.
You fight your way to the target through everything the Luftwaffe throws at you; 109s, FWs, guns, cannon, rockets, missles, jet planes, rocket planes. If this is 1942 or 1943, your fighter escort has left you long ago. If it’s 1944 or 1945, well…there are only so many P-51s to go around. You find the primary target is obscured by clouds. You shift to the secondary and it is, too. The closest tertiary target, or target of opportunity, is far enough away to make you think about fuel. You fight your way back and hope to pick out a target of opportunity on the way. You don’t find one. You drop your bombs in the channel because you can’t land with them. When you land, you fire two flares to show you have wounded aboard. So do a lot of the other bombers. Some of the bombers will fly again with work. Others will only be useful as parts. You don’t get mission credit.
You do this 38-40 times in the hope that at least 35 of them will count. You also know that if you only have a 1% chance of dying per flight, that rises to 40% by flight number 12. Not all 12 count as missions; you know that, too. When you get 35, you’ll get some time off stateside. But each group has an infantry quota to fill. A number of officers and enlisted men are transferred from flight operations to the infantry; you could finish maybe 10 to 15 missions and get transferred. See what Bill Mauldin said above about the infantry.
Freedom isn’t free. Remember…