Sunday, October 16, 2016

The Mighty Eighth

Ruthann’s War (awaiting release from The Wild Rose Press) unfolds in a small town’s school community in 1945-46. Though World War II has officially ended, most people still feel the effects of the four-year conflict in one way or another.
Ruthann Cooper, the new third-grade teacher in Camden, brings with her conflicting emotions about her fiancé Jack, a pilot whose B-17 didn’t return from it’s ninth mission over Hitler’s Europe. She doesn’t want to admit it was a whirlwind wartime romance--the young college student and the handsome 1st Lieutenant with his wings shining from the lapel of his uniform. She mourned him as long as she could and hid her shameful guilt for forgetting him and moving on. 

But this blog--while it stems from the novel--isn’t about the novel. It’s about all the Jacks who climbed into the Flying Fortresses and soared into the skies on their daylight bombing missions, early deemed the only way to win the war. It’s about all the men who died to ensure the right too many of this sad world to show contempt for the country which has given them everything.
Long before the United States entered the war, the stubborn RAF flew doggedly onward to repel Hitler’s destruction of England. They deserve mention here because, as Winston Churchill once said, “Never have so many owed so much to so few.”

The United States Eighth Air Force sprang to life in 1942. Known as the United States Army Air Corps/Force, its task was to take the war to the skies. Though many kinds of planes--fighters as well as bombers--flew the missions, the focus today is on the B-17 or Flying Fortress. With a wing span of just over 103 feet, it could fly at speeds up to 287 mph and as high as 35,600 feet with a range of 3,400 miles.

Ten men formed the crew of each plane:  pilot, co-pilot, bombardier, navigator, flight engineer (who usually manned the top turret), radio operator, two waist gunners, tail gunner and a ball turret gunner. The bombardier assigned to the “lead” plane bore the heavy responsibility of using the top-secret Norden bomb site to toggle his bombs exactly on target because the the other planes bombed at his command.

Five men commanded the Eighth Air Force, including Lt. General James H. "Jimmy" Doolittle of the 1942 Tokyo raid. Some 46,456 combat crews and fighter pilots (in all theatres), became casualties in this massive endeavor launched from airfields all over England and the Pacific. Ground crews often worked through the night and worked miracles to keep the big birds flying--and sweated out each mission from below though part of each one had gone with the crews.

The average age of a pilot was 21. Men of 25 were often referred to as “old men”. Conditions aboard the plane were uncomfortable with heavy clothing, oxygen masks, parachutes, and the real probability of death as the plane approached the flak fields of the enemy coast. Twenty-five missions could earn a flier a trip home--but it wasn’t certain or even probable. 

Fourteen medals of honor and thousands of other decorations were awarded to the crews who risked it all. Wednesday I’ll tell you about one young man who received his MOH posthumously. His picture--and that of his brother who also died on a mission over Europe--hangs in the airport of my hometown.
Also on Wednesday, I’ll recommend some books and films for anyone interested in learning more about the men and planes which gave up all their tomorrows for our todays.

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