At 2AM, Sergeant Gatt entered his billet to wake the officers selected for the day’s mission: he would light four cigarettes at a time, and put a cigarette between the lips of each chosen man. The enlisted men had been woken up a half hour earlier to check and arm their guns. But they could catch up on sleep while the formation assembled in the sky.
Four officers and six enlisted men made the crew of a B-17. Nine bombers made a Squadron, three Squadrons made a Group – each Group had its own airfield.
Four Groups was a Wing, four Wings a Division, and three Divisions made the United States 8th Bomber Command. A single bombing mission could involve more than a thousand planes – not counting fighter support or the enemy fighters that came to meet them. A thousand bombers flew in a formation more than a mile long: four thousand engines, ten thousand men, two million gallons of fuel, five million horsepower, six million pounds of high explosives. Per day. Every day, until the war was won. The world had never seen anything like it before, and will never see anything like it again.
There was no more dangerous theater of the air war. When Lieutenant Truman Smith graduated pilot school in late 1943, age twenty, his graduating class of 300 men was told to expect that three percent of them would survive the war. In just under three years of fighting, the 8th Air Force lost more than 4000 bombers and 26,000 men – their entire fighting strength more than twice over. It took Smith’s crew four months to complete their combat tour of 35 missions (upped from 25 after the Normandy invasion, when it was judged the odds had improved as the Luftwaffe collapsed). On the way, Smith lost his radioman, grounded from frostbite, and his left waist gunner, who died of anoxia when his oxygen equipment malfunctioned. His bombardier had two purple hearts from flak. Smith came close to being killed on nearly every mission – he once looked down to see a basketball-sized hole blasted in the fuselage right next to his foot. He recalls seeing a B-17 explode in a fireball in front of them: seeing engines, doors, bodies and pieces of wing shoot by their windows – and a huge cartwheeling propelling scything towards them through the air. But he escaped unharmed, and went on to write one of the best war memoirs I’ve read.
In a brilliant 2004 piece in the Wall Street Journal, David Gelernter wrote that if we actually believed “the greatest generation” was “the greatest generation” we’d listen to their stories. Instead we’ve mostly ignored them. Truman’s book shows signs of this. He is a superb storyteller and a first-rate writer; he could have used an equally good editor to catch the rare typo and tighten things up here and there. But nobody bothered.
Read it anyway. The story is thrilling, brilliantly told, and extremely important.
Overall Goodness Rating (OGR): 9/10
The Wrong Stuff, by Truman Smith. University of Oklahoma Press, 1996. 358 pages.