Friday, September 21, 2012

Twelve O'Clock High

There were about 40 heavy bomb groups based in England by 1944.  Each group flew from its own base in East Anglia, an area about the size of the southern half of Vermont.  Their outbound course was usually east; their destination about 400-600 miles. 

Each group consisted of about 50-60 aircraft; B-17s and B-24s.  Each plane was “manned” by 9 or 10 brave “aerial children” Ernest K. Gann described.  They were destined to go down in flame and in history as the Eighth Air Force.

One of them gave me life.  Quantifying what they did during the war has always been difficult for those of us with an interest.  There were plenty of old movies describing their service, but they themselves told little about it. 

Although detailed records were kept, many of those records were purposely vague.  The actual statistics describing their losses was frightening.  Air Force commanders had several important challenges to manage…their losses had to be left vague in order to mislead the enemy, but as important, to avoid discouraging newly arriving air crew.  Their odds of survival was not good.

Only recently (after 2000), as many of the individual records have been passing to sons and grandsons, has further detailed research been possible.  Not all descendents have the interest or the knowledge of where to begin.  Raw statistics have been available for decades, but a means of clearly illustrating the losses remained elusive.

The illustration (top) shows a collage of the total number of aircrews assigned to my father’s group during the 17-months they flew their missions; there were about 480 crews that flew from that particular base.  (Note: the illustration is not precisely accurate as I’ve used some individual crew pictures more than once in order to illustrate rather than memorialize).  

Green notation shows the number of crews shot down and taken prisoner (POW); the yellow notations show those killed (KIA).  The manner in which they were shot down was similar to the way hunters take down high-flying geese…they hit a plane now and then, but not often did they down a lot of planes any single day.  I've counted about 60 of the crews were lost while my father was flying his missions, so he saw them...that's most likely why he never talked about it much.  He was 21-22.

The losses were steady enough over time to account for a lot of lost young men--about 10 per crew.  The illustration clearly shows that and it was similar for every one of the other 39 heavy bomber groups based in England.  I'm not aware of anything like the illustration ever put together before.

A very good period film made for the Air Force can be viewed HERE.  It was filmed to commercial standards and directed by a well-known film maker.  It's about 1:30 long and features the airmen actors, no scripts.


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