Mon September 28, 2009
"Mighty by Sacrifice: The Destruction of an American Bomber Squadron, August 29, 1944"
WWII veterans are passing on now at a rapid rate and the generation that came home and resumed civilian life and said so little about their experiences will soon be silent forever. Their stories, like the ones the Noleses have captured in this book, must not be lost.
By Don Noble
The title, "Mighty by Sacrifice," is taken from a poem by Kipling, "The Islanders" in which Kipling writes that when the threat appears, "ye shall send men, not children or servants," and one of the marks of their greatness will be their capacity for selflessness, for sacrifice. This is absolutely true of the WWII American Air Forces who flew over Europe, mainly from England, but in this case from Amendola, Italy.
These bomber groups, which were at their most active in 1944 and '45, bombed Hitler's railyards, factories, and most importantly, the rare oilfields and refineries of the Third Reich, especially Ploesti, in Romania. It was learned after the war that even ball-bearing factories could be up and running in a month, but that the shortage of gasoline not only limited the activities of trucks and tanks, but also the amount of training a German pilot could receive. Since the long-distance raids deep over enemy territory were fantastically dangerous, this became very important. The anti-aircraft fire was deadly, but the attacking fighters were murder, and even the Flying Fortresses with their 13 fifty-caliber machine guns, including the ones manned by the very vulnerable ball turret gunner, were not defensible against high-speed fighters with experienced pilots.
Readers of Joseph Heller's "Catch-22" may remember that one of the many seeming absurdities in that novel was that the number of required missions, before an airman could return home, was raised from 25 to 30 to 35 and finally to 50. This, it turns out, is fact. The Air Force leadership came to realize that experienced airmen were so valuable that they must be kept. Since the casualty rates on raids over Europe were high, usually 10 percent and sometimes 25, the odds on surviving 50 missions were poor. You do the math.
On the brighter side, since the crews sometimes flew every other day, say, 50 missions could be accomplished, by the very, very lucky, in 100 days.
James Noles, Birmingham attorney and author of three previous books, most notably "Twenty-Three Minutes to Eternity: The Final Voyage of the Escort Carrier USS Liscome Bay," and his father, James Sr., have put together a most readable story. Their structure is fairly conventional. The Noleses deliver mini-biographies of the members of their cast, appropriately starring Bill Tune, the pilot of the bomber Tail End Charlie, from Carbon Hill, Alabama. These mini-biographies are alike in form, but the effect, as it often is in WWII stories, is to show the huge diversity of Americans who fought. Joe was an Italian-American barber in Chicago. Harry was a Hungarian-American miner in Pennsylvania, etc. WWII movies usually have this ethnic mix in every platoon. The wonderful part is, it's true!
The book follows these men through their entry into the service from civilian life, training, life at the field in Amendola, Italy, flights over Northern Italy, Hungary, Romania and Czechoslovakia and finally, the almost unbelievable day, August 29, 1944, when the entire bomber squadron, all seven planes, was shot down with most men killed and almost all the rest sent to a German POW camp. There the men suffer through the hardships of cold and hunger and, ironically, the terror of uncertainty over what will happen to them on their liberation day.
The Noleses managed to get many of the stories of these men at first hand, and there is no time to waste. WWII veterans are passing on now at a rapid rate and the generation that came home and resumed civilian life and said so little about their experiences will soon be silent forever. Their stories, like the ones the Noleses have captured in this book, must not be lost. Happily the UA Press has developed a fine series in military history?mainly Vietnam and WWII?to accommodate these stories.
This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio. Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show "Bookmark." His latest book is "A State of Laughter: Comic Fiction from Alabama."