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Columnist Jim Cahillane: the blues of the US Air Force

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In his new book, “The Bomber Mafia”, Malcolm Gladwell explains in detail the Norden sight of WWII. As an amateur historian, I have been the incidental beneficiary of lived experience instead of Gladwell’s admission of research-lite. The Internet has enabled people with cell phones or computers to be in factual contact with generations of academics.

A reviewer of Malcolm’s book concluded that his hero is US Army Air Force General Curtis LeMay. LeMay is described by his admirers as a “doer” compared to his peers, those who tend to think long and hard before acting: Ex. Precision bombardment against Napalming against a civilian firestorm.

In 1945, the United States Air Force brought World War II to a decisive end. Two years later, “Army” was removed from its name and the United States Air Force was born. In 1951, I signed up for four years. At 18, time is more of a concept than reality.

A hasty decision made me become a member of President Truman’s newly integrated USAF. Volunteers have arrived by the thousands at Lackland AFB in San Antonio. Basic training has been reduced from a few weeks to a few days. In no time at all, I and other recruits were bused to Bergstrom Air Force Base near Austin. Coincidentally, the trip was a pivotal point reflecting the story of Gladwell, 1941-1945, and my corresponding years in the Air Force 1951-55. A loud pair of F-15 fighters are over Williamsburg at the moment. The roar of their engine reminds me of the day Bergstrom’s F-80s simulated a strafing on our unsuspecting base. I was as shaken as a lieutenant diving for cover.

Later, in England, mechanics developed even noisier B-47 Stratojets on the flight line. I slept well in my nearby Quonset hut!

A little hindsight. I’m a year older than Malcolm’s English father, Graham. He and I were children when Hitler invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. Malcolm’s research for “The Bomber Mafia” taught him things that I learned just by introducing myself. His admiration for wartime rulers was awakened when, in 1952, I saw General Curtis LeMay, teeth clenched like a cigar, quickly enter the dining hall in Rapid City, South Dakota.

The base was named for the city, but became Ellsworth AFB when its commanding officer, General Richard Ellsworth was, ironically, lost in a B-36 bomber crash in 1953. The panels of the VHB hangar in Rapid City decoded in Very Heavy Bomber. I drove the access road to the base plateau as a B-36 landed. Its vibrations from six propellers and four jet engines shook the ground. It was an expensive but bypassed Cold War weapon. A B-36 was twice the size with twice the range and payload of the B-29. My English air base was RAF Fairford. Our B-36s and B-47s carried out reconnaissance missions along the Soviet border. YouTube has a clip from a Hollywood movie: (Six Turning, Four burning — B-36 Convair – Peacemaker). These behemoths retired in 1959. Convair produced 388 B-36s at $ 3.6 million each, $ 36 million today. The B-47 cost $ 20 million in today’s money. Boeing has built 2,032.

During World War II, General Ellsworth carried out dangerous missions in the CBI theater – China, Burma, India. Braving the Himalayas was known as the “Hump”. The irony is that Ellsworth died during a low-level night exercise in Newfoundland.

(A memory of General Ellsworth: he accepted his aviators to be extras in “Battles of Chief Pontiac” from 1952. The duties cost me the chance to play alongside the Indians Lakota, Lex Barker and Lon Chaney Jr. ).

Malcolm’s post-war experiences, he says, prompted him to investigate and write about his obsessions, such as the “Bomber Mafia.” Pre-war planners were looking for practical ways to test their theories. One was their strangulation plan to kill the Schweinfurt ball bearing factories in Germany. Gladwell: “They dropped two thousand bombs. And of these, eighty have found their mark. Eighty bombs are not enough to destroy a sprawling industrial complex. Production resumed in a few weeks. Our boffins had to rethink their plans.

Losing eighty B-17s (2.6 million each) and 552 airmen to drop a few bombs deep into enemy territory required a reworking of strategy. Nevertheless, it was repeated with even higher losses. The film, “12 O’clock High”, offers the Hollywood version of the stress of the 8th Army Air Force crew losses on their commanders. The legendary Norden Bombsight often failed due to combat variables, such as high altitude jet streams.

A wall in our American Military Cemetery in Maddingly, England lists the 5,127 warriors lost in action. Joseph Heller’s book and film, “Catch-22,” presented morbid mathematics. Crew fatalities averaged 20% per mission. You would have to be crazy to keep flying. If you asked to be excused, it showed that in fact you were sane, so you had to get on a plane.

In the Pacific: The B-29 Superfortress is the result of a $ 3 billion program to reach Japan. Its 1,500-mile range meant capturing many island airstrips. General LeMay replaced the hesitant General Haywood Hansell. LeMay’s new strategy was napalm at 5,000 feet. The wood and paper towns of Japan have burned down; hundreds of thousands have died; atomic bombs have fallen. Surrender! VJ Day passed without a costly sea invasion by the armed forces.

The contributions of the Bomber Mafia were considered invaluable.

Writer Jim Cahillane lives in Williamsburg. July 10, 2021: The Mount Tom B-17 Memorial Committee will mark the 75th anniversary of the 1946 crash of a converted bomber carrying victorious military personnel. The 25 were lost. www.mttommemorial.org. [email protected]


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