missions

It is a strange idea to give a pilot minimal training and then send them out to do a mission, but it depends, I suppose on the mission they are sent out to do. With Japan losing the war and most of the well trained pilots gone, as a result of major battle losses, a new breed of pilots was born. These new pilots were called Kamikaze or Suicide Bombers. They required only minimal training, because most would not return from their missions. It was part of a strange plan that required the pilot to deliberately give up their life for the mission. Of course, every soldier knows that the next mission could end badly, and that losing their life is never out of the question, but the idea of heading out with the specific plan of crashing your plane into a ship is very foreign to me.

From a training aspect, I suppose the Japanese felt it was a good tradeoff. The Kamikaze pilots needed little training and could do great damage taking planes full of explosives and crash them into ships. Still, it seems to me that the cost of the training, and the loss of the planes on every mission…not to mention the loss of pilots, would completely defeat the purpose of the pilot training. Nevertheless, Kamikaze pilots have been around a while, and some nations see suicide missions as honorable somehow. Everyone knows that in a war, people are going to die, from both sides, but to specifically plan to take your own life for the mission, seems crazy to me, and to most sane people.

For the Japanese, the Kamikaze mission brought a temporary measure of success, I suppose. At Okinawa, they sank 30 ships and killed almost 5,000 Americans. In that process, 30 pilots, who paid for the victory with their lives, were also lost in the mission. And in the end, the Kamikaze missions made no real difference in the war’s outcome. They still lost the war, and to me, that does not make the Kamikaze missions worthwhile. I don’t think it ever pays to take so little consideration for the lives of the people who serve under you. I believe that is the biggest mistake made by these horrific regimes. Such a murderous nation cannot long succeed, because people will eventually put a stop to it. The only sad part is that sometimes it takes so long to put a stop to these horrific acts. Kamikaze pilots, suicide bombers, and any other soldier who’s mission requires his own death, all fall into the category of a price too high to pay.

The battleFlakYesterday, I read a tribute written by the grandchild of an airman who served in a B-17 Bomber during World War II, and I found myself both curious and a little annoyed by the first few lines of the story. Oh, I know that the writer was as proud of his grandfather, as I am of my dad, but when the story started out saying that in order to go home, those men had to fly twice as many missions as the 25 my dad’s group had to fly, I got really curious. My search for information would lead me to probably the same “bone chilling” feeling as the other author’s information had. The author’s grandfather, like my dad, was the flight engineer, except that he had been stationed in Northern Africa, where my dad had been in England, at Great Ashfield. While I don’t dispute his grandfather’s bone chilling missions, I’m nevertheless, not sure he understood what the fighting was like in England, and especially at Great Ashfield.

It is true that the crews at Great Ashfield only flew 25 missions before going home. The reasons are maybe even more bone chilling than the mission report the other author was reading. The article I found puts it like this. “The average life of a B-17 bomber at Great Ashfield was just over 4 months. Very few B-17 bombers that were transferred to the base lasted a complete tour of duty. The average Airman lasted 15 combat missions and few completed an entire tour of 25 missions. Much less 35 !!!! The average LIFE of a Ball Turret Gunner in combat was 12 MINUTES.” Thankfully my dad was not the ball turret gunner, but rather the top turret gunner…still, Great Ashfield was where my dad had served!!! And he was one of those “few” who lived to go home. His plane was one of those “very few” Bombers that lasted a complete tour of duty. In all the years that I have known about my dad’s war years, I guess that I didn’t really allow myself to think about what could have happened…probably because it was too hard to think about.

Even when Dad told me about the 3 Poplar trees at the end of the runway…the landmark that let them know that for another mission, at least, they were safely home. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to board that B-17 Bomber in the morning, not knowing whether or not you would see the base again…much less your family. Then to see those trees, and to know that you were safe, would be almost overwhelming.

I am no longer annoyed at the author of the other article, and I agree that his grandfather is just as much a hero as my dad is. Both of these men bravely stepped into those planes Dad looking at B-17G BomberSafely Homeevery time they were told to, and flew off into battle, not knowing if they would return. Rather than feeling annoyed, I feel a kinship to the other author, because had circumstances ended differently neither of us would have existed. Our lives are what they are, because his grandfather and my dad were among the few who survived battle in a B-17 Bomber, and among the few whose B-17 Bomber and the grace of God, brought them safely home to their families.

I have been reading through some of my dad’s letters home to his family from World War II, and I find myself thinking about the secrets that had to be kept. During wartime, locations and mission cannot be spoken of, because it might, or more likely would, compromise the mission and the men involved. I’m sure it was hard for the men, when they couldn’t tell their families where they were, other than the country they were in. Still, they knew that what they were doing was bigger than they were, and they were a part of something greater than their own needs…and there were spies everywhere. Letters and calls could be intercepted, and if they were, missions could fail, and lives would be lost.

Mixed in with the necessity of secrecy, was the need to let family know you were ok. Remember, that most of these men were very young, and many had never been away from home before. Now on that first trip away from home, there are people trying to kill them. My dad had lived away from home before going into the Army Air Forces, but he was very loving and loyal toward his family. It was very important to him that they not worry about him. Dad was also an honorable man. He was a patriot. He would never do anything that would dishonor or put in danger his country, or the men he served with. I can imagine that these men all found themselves in a tough place at that time in the world’s history, but they did what they had to do, because they were a part of something greater than their own feelings, or those of their families.

My dad was the top turret gunner and the flight engineer on a B17 Bomber, stationed at Great Ashfield, Suffolk, England. It was a base in the middle of the English countryside, surrounded by civilian towns and farms. These people knew all too well how important the United States military presence was to their safety, and indeed their very lives. If one of those men had revealed information about their upcoming missions, the entire area could have been attacked and destroyed. So important was their mission over there, and so grateful were the people of that area, that memorials were erected to remember…forever, the sacrifice made by the brave men of the 385th Heavy Bombardment Group, U.S. Army Air Forces. The memorials were placed so that generation, and future generations would remember the sacrifices made to save their lives by men who were a part of something greater than their own lives…to protect the lives of people they didn’t even know. That is what my dad was a part of when he was barely more than a teenager.

Those years changed who my dad was, just like they changed the lives of all the men who lived through that turbulent time in the history of the world. Those were hard times for everyone, and yet my dad and the other young men he served with, played their very important part with dignity and honor, placing the lives of innocent civilians ahead of their own lives, because they were a part of something greater.

There is something about getting a brand new car that is so exciting. It’s never been used by anyone else. That’s kind of how my dad felt about the B-17G Bomber that he and his crew were assigned. It was brand new. They were to be the first crew to fly her. I’m sure they weren’t the last, since their plane survived the time they were in it. But I don’t really know if the plane continued to fly in war times. The B-17 bombers had a strange history, and I’m sure many people wouldn’t have felt like it was going to be a very safe plane since the early prototypes didn’t fly well. That is probably a fact that I’m sure my grandparents were thankful not to have known, and hopefully my dad didn’t know either. Still, the early models that crashed were built in the mid 1930’s and the B-17G version, which came out in the mid 1940’s, was the final and by far the best version.

I am thankful that it was the final version that carried my dad on his missions, and even more thankful that his plane brought him back every time…even though they flew through many hazardous missions. My dad was so proud of his plane, and he believed that it would bring him safely home again. He could seen why the plane was called The Flying Fortress and The Super Dread, because it could come home even after taking some damage, provided the damage left the fuselage in one piece, of course.

In my dad’s letters, he described the beautiful plane to his family. Dad could see the beauty in the planes, of course, because he had worked for Douglas Aircraft Company, building planes. So, the intricacies and the strength of the B-17G Bomber made sense to him, where they were probably lost on my grandmother. I took my dad out to the airport the August before he passed away, and he got one last chance to go through the B-17G bomber. He was still highly impressed with the plane, and all it could do. He told me where he was stationed on the plane, and what his duties were, and what a wonderful plane it was. I could still see the look of wonder on his face…almost like that of a little boy with his first toy car or plane. As we went through the plane, I could see why my dad was so impressed with it.

Dad went on to tell his family about how smoothly the plane flew, and how impressed the crew was. He also wanted them all to know that this was a plane that would keep him safe and bring him home. It was very important to him that his family not worry. My dad knew that “not worrying” would be difficult, but he wanted to encourage them and let them know that God would take care of him and bring him back safely. Dad did return from World War II, of course, and he was unscathed. He had experienced things he never expected to experience, and sadly, he really never much enjoyed flying after that time, but he was always in awe of the B-17G Bomber.

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