Columnist Jim Cahillane: U.S. Air Force blues

  • A B-36 RAF Fairford circa 1954. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • A B-47 RAF Fairford circa 1954.


Published: 7/1/2021 7:29:18 PM

In his new book, “The Bomber Mafia,” Malcolm Gladwell goes into great detail about World War II’s Norden bombsight. As an amateur historian, I’ve been the incidental beneficiary of lived experience in place of Gladwell’s admission of research-lite. The Internet has empowered people with a cell phone or computer to be factually in league with generations of scholars.

One reviewer of Malcolm’s book concluded that its hero is Curtis LeMay, general of the U.S. Army Air Force. LeMay is described by his admirers as a ‘doer’ when compared with his peers, those inclined to think long and hard before acting: Ex. Precision bombing vs. Napalming up a civilian firestorm.

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

One hasty decision made me a member of President Truman’s newly integrated USAF. Volunteers arrived by the thousands at Lackland AFB in San Antonio. Basic training was reduced from weeks to a few days. In no time, me and some other recruits were bused downstate to Bergstrom Air Force Base, near Austin. Coincidentally, the trip was a pivot point mirroring Gladwell’s tale, 1941-1945, and my corresponding Air Force years 1951-55. A loud pair of F-15 fighters are over Williamsburg right now. Their engine roar reminds me of the day Bergstrom’s F-80s, did a mock strafing run on our unsuspecting base. I was as shaken as a lieutenant, who dove for cover.

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

A bit of perspective. I’m a year older than Malcolm’s English father, Graham. He and I were children when Hitler invaded Poland, Sept. 1, 1939. Malcolm’s research for “The Bomber Mafia” taught him things that I learned just showing up. His awe of wartime leaders came to life when, in 1952, I witnessed Gen. Curtis LeMay, his cigar teeth-clenched, walking swiftly into the chow-hall at Rapid City, South Dakota.

The base was named for the city, but became Ellsworth AFB when its commander, Gen. Richard Ellsworth was, ironically, lost in a 1953 B-36 bomber crash. The VHB hangar signs at Rapid City decoded to Very Heavy Bomber. I drove the access road up to the base plateau as a B-36 landed. Its vibrations from six-propellors and four jet engines shook the ground. It was a high-priced but bypassed weapon of the Cold War. A B-36 was twice the size with double the range and payload of the B-29. My English airbase was RAF Fairford. Our B-36s and B-47s flew reconnaissance missions along the Soviet Border. YouTube has a clip from a Hollywood film: (Six Turning, Four burning—B-36 Convair–Peacemaker). Those 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 built 2032 of them.

In World War II, Gen. Ellsworth flew dangerous missions in the CBI — China, Burma, India — theater. Braving the Himalayas was known as flying the ‘Hump.” The irony is found in that Ellsworth died during a low-level nighttime exercise in Newfoundland.

(One memory of Gen. Ellsworth: He OK’d his airmen to be film extras in 1952’s “The Battles of Chief Pontiac.” Duties cost my shot at acting alongside Lakota Native Americans, Lex Barker and Lon Chaney Jr.).

Malcolm’s postwar experiences, he says, drove him to investigate and write about his obsessions, like the “Bomber Mafia.” Prewar planners sought practical ways to test their theories. One was their choke-point scheme to kill Germany’s Schweinfurt ball-bearing factories. Gladwell: “They dropped two thousand bombs. And of those, eighty 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 few bombs deep into enemy territory demanded a strategy rethink. Nonetheless, it was repeated with even higher losses. The movie, “12 O’clock High,” offers Hollywood’s version of the stress of 8th Army Air Force crew losses on their commanders. The fabled Norden Bombsight often failed because of combat variables, like high-altitude jet streams.

A wall in our Maddingly, England American Military Cemetery lists all 5,127 warriors lost in battle. Joseph Heller’s book and film, “Catch-22,” pitched morbid math. Crew deaths averaged 20% per mission. You’d have to be insane to keep flying. If you asked to be excused, it showed that, in fact, you were sane, so you had to fly.

In the Pacific: The B-29 Superfortress resulted from in a $3 billion program to reach Japan. Its 1500-mile range meant capturing many island airstrips. Gen. LeMay replaced the hesitant General Haywood Hansell. LeMay’s new strategy was napalm from 5000 feet. Japan’s wood and paper cities burned; hundreds of thousands died; atomic bombs fell. Surrender! V-J Day came to pass without a costly seaborne invasion by armed forces.

The Bomber Mafia’s contributions were thought — priceless.

Writer Jim Cahillane lives in Williamsburg. On July 10th 2021: The Mount Tom B-17 Memorial Committee will mark the 75th Anniversary of the 1946 crash of a converted bomber transporting victorious servicemen home from war. All 25 were lost.


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