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World War II
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The Air War

At that time, military strategists were determined not to fight another World War I, a long war of attrition and senseless slaughter. They were looking for a way to shorten war by returning the advantage to the offense, which from the days of the Civil War had been battered almost every time they attacked dug-in positions. The solution the strategists came up with was air power -- winged victory.

The European theorists of winged victory insisted that the next war would be short and total. It would be won from the skies with air fleets of long-range bombers whose chief targets would be civilians. Pulverizing entire cities would shatter civilian morale and lead to a mercifully quick capitulation.

In World War II, first the Germans, then the British, in retaliation, attacked enemy cities from the sky. But when America's Eighth Air Force entered the war over Europe in 1943, it had its own idea about air power. The key to it was the top-secret Norden bombsight, which pilots said could guide a bomb into a pickle barrel from 25,000 feet. This would allow Americans to bomb cities with surgical precision, targeting only strategic economic positions like armaments factories. Few lives, friend or foe, would be lost.

[picture of B-17s in flight]

The ultimate weapon of strategic bombing was the B-l7 Bomber, the Flying Fortress. It was a fearsome air machine bristling with machine guns and capable of delivering huge bomb loads deep into enemy territory. With planes like this, and the equally formidable B-24 Liberator, the war could be won, the Bomber Barons argued, without terrible slaughter on the ground, an idea that appealed to Americans back home.

Strategic bombing was warfare perfectly suited to the American character. As the British historian John Keegan writes: "It combined moral scruple, historical optimism, and technological pioneering, all three distinctly American characteristics." The problem was, it didn't work.

[picture of a B-24]

To bomb precisely, you must bomb in clear daylight. So it was agreed the British would go into Germany by night and terror bomb entire cities. And the Americans would go in by day after their strategic targets. Right off, the Americans ran into problems -- recurring cloud cover over targets, and heavy enemy resistance from fighter planes and ground-based artillery. Pin-point bombing became an oxymoron.

German military production actually increased in 1943, and strategic bombing turned out to be deadly dangerous. A flyer had only one chance in three of surviving a tour of duty. Going on a deep penetration bomb-run over Germany was more dangerous than fighting in a foxhole.

The crew's first battle was with the cold. Temperatures dropped to 50 degrees below zero at 20,000 feet. Since the planes weren't pressurized, the crew had to wear ill-fitting oxygen masks. Saliva, or vomit from airsickness, would sometimes get in the mask and freeze the hose, causing men to pass out, and even die from oxygen deprivation. And when a gun jammed in the chaos of combat, men would forget and pull off their gloves to try to clear the jam. Their cold hands would freeze to the bare metal of the gun, and to pull them away they had to tear off the flesh.

Combat usually began when the limited range fighters peeled off and left the bomber fleets. Then came the Luftwaffe, climbing out of the sun. German pilots discovered that the "forts" were inadequately armed in the nose section. So the Germans attacked the bomber formations head on, in packs, wing to wing, wing-tip to wing-tip, blazing away, coming in so close one crewman said he could see a German pilot as if in "a movie close-up." And bodies without chutes would tumble out of shattered planes, as machine gunfire ripped through your fuselage.

It was at moments like this that many airmen resigned themselves to the certainty of their own death, usually without panicking. Then the fighters would leave, and it would get quiet. The airmen knew then that they were entering the dreaded flak field.

This was a section of sky over the target thick with bursting artillery shells, each hurling shards of steel through the air. The bombers, bumping and shuddering, couldn't evade these deadly shells. They had to hold formation right to the target point. As one pilot said, "That's when you learned that it's possible to sweat at 30 degrees below zero."

When bombers hit their targets and the men saw the columns of smoke, the lead pilot would shout into the intercom, "Okay! We're fighting for us now. Let's get the hell out of here."

One crew learned at its morning briefing that it was being sent back to the German target where its formation had lost 20 percent of its planes. After this briefing, some of the fliers went back to the barracks to write a last letter or put on clothing suitable for surviving capture or for burial.



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