And Now You Know More: The Eight Air Force in World War II


By Thomas Best

This month, there is going to be a monumental docudrama on TV highlighting the challenging military service of the Eighth U.S. Army Air Force (and specifically the “Bloody 100th Bomb Group” over Europe during World War II).  Similar to the series you might have seen featuring the “Band of Brothers” and “The Pacific,” I have seen the previews of this nine-part series named “Masters of the Air.” Estimated to have cost $250 million and taken ten years to produce, Tom Hanks and Stephen Spielberg’s production looks impressive.  Therefore, I would like to share from some books I purchased to read up on this upcoming series.

The first book, and main source for the series, is Donald Miller’s, “Masters of the Air.” Impressive is the stoicism, bravery, and love for one another shown by these young men in their late teens and early twenties who flew in B-17 Flying Fortresses and B-24 Liberators as bombers, and fighters such as the P-47 Thunderbolt and P-51 Mustang. Imagine yourself flying through a dense flak field of exploding shells or facing screaming Luftwaffe fighters pouring machine gun and cannon fire upon your plane.  Not surprisingly, many of these men adopted a fatalistic attitude that they were not likely to complete their tour of duty by either being shot down and captured as POWs.

I also think many of you would still be surprised to learn that these men suffered the highest casualty rate of any branch of the service during the war. Close to 28,000 flyers died. Another 18,000 men were wounded. And 28,000 flyers over Europe became POW’s.  Add in other flyers lost to mental troubles and the casualty total rises to over 70,000 or about 34% of the over 200,000 Air Corps servicemen who served.  Their total was far more than all the Marines who fought in the Pacific Theater.  

Of particular interest was the truth about what family members back home were hearing about their loved ones in the air service.  From 1942 through 1943, their heavy losses were being downplayed and the ability of the top-secret Norden Bomb Site to provide pinpoint strategic daylight strategic bombing was being over- hyped. Especially over targets deep inside Germany, the bombers were not yet delivering the needed destruction against German industrial and transportation sites. All the while Nazi flak crews and fighters were sometimes knocking out from one-fourth to one-third of the bombers. Not until late in the war when Nazi fighters were less of threat, especially against the more deadly and long-range P-51 fighters, did flight crews create more destruction while suffering fewer losses themselves.

Indeed, there are so many fascinating stories to tell from this superlative book. From ordinary men from all over the U.S. who rose to the challenge of trying to survive 25 missions (later rising to 30 and 35 required missions) to heroic tales of Jimmy Stewart as a bomber pilot and Joseph Kennedy (John’s older brother) who died on a secret bombing mission, Miller’s stories will keep you spellbound—just as I am sure the docudrama will this next January.

Thank you for listening.

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