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The Wild Blue: The Men and Boys Who Flew the B-24s Over Germany 1944-45by Stephen E Ambrose
The B-24 was built like a 1930s Mack truck, except that it had an aluminum skin that could be cut with a knife. It could carry a heavy load far and fast but it had no refinements. Steering the four-engine airplane was difficult and exhausting, as there was no power except the pilot's muscles. It had no windshield wipers, so the pilot had to stick his head out the side window to see during a rain. Breathing was possible only by wearing an oxygen mask — cold and clammy, smelling of rubber and sweat — above 10,000 feet in altitude. There was no heat, despite temperatures that at 20,000 feet and higher got as low as 40 or even 50 degrees below zero. The wind blew through the airplane like fury, especially from the waist gunners' windows and whenever the bomb bay doors were open. The oxygen mask often froze to the wearer's face. If the men at the waist touched their machine guns with bare hands, the skin froze to the metal.
There were no bathrooms. To urinate there were two small relief tubes, one forward and one aft, which were almost impossible to use without spilling because of the heavy layers of clothing the men wore. Plus which the tubes were often clogged with frozen urine. Defecating could be done only in a receptacle lined with a wax paper bag. A man had to be desperate to use it because of the difficulty of removing enough clothing and exposing bare skin to the arctic cold. The bags were dropped out of the waist windows or through the open bomb bay doors. There were no kitchen facilities, no way to warm up food or coffee, but anyway there was no food unless a crew member had packed in a C ration or a sandwich. With no pressurization, pockets of gas in a man's intestinal tract could swell like balloons and cause him to double over in pain.
There was no aisle to walk down, only the eight-inch-wide catwalk running beside the bombs and over the bomb bay doors used to move forward and aft. It had to be done with care, as the aluminum doors, which rolled up into the fuselage instead of opening outward on a hinge, had only a 100-pound capacity, so if a man slipped he would break through. The seats were not padded, could not be reclined, and were cramped into so small a space that a man had almost no chance to stretch and none whatsoever to relax. Absolutely nothing was done to make it comfortable for the pilot, the co-pilot, or the other eight men in the crew, even though most flights lasted for eight hours, sometimes ten or more, seldom less than six. The plane existed and was flown for one purpose only, to carry 500 or 1,000 pound bombs and drop them accurately over enemy targets.
It was called a Liberator. That was a perhaps unusual name for a plane designed to drop high explosives on the enemy well behind the front lines, but it was nevertheless the perfect name. Consolidated Aircraft Corporation first made it, with the initial flight in 1939. When a few went over to England in 1940, the British Air Ministry wanted to know what it was called. Reuben Fleet of Consolidated answered, "Liberator." He added, "We chose the name Liberator because this airplane can carry destruction to the heart of the Hun, and thus help you and us to liberate those millions temporarily finding themselves under Hitler's yoke."
Consolidated, along with the Ford Motor Company, Douglas Aircraft Company, and North American Aviation — together called the Liberator Production Pool — made more than 18,300 Liberators, about 5,000 more than the total number of B-17s. The Liberator was not operational before World War II and was not operational after the war (nearly every B-24 was cut up into pieces of scrap in 1945 and 1946, or left to rot on Pacific islands). The number of people involved in making it, in servicing it, and in flying the B-24 outnumbered those involved with any other airplane, in any country, in any time. There were more B-24s than any other American airplane ever built.
It would be an exaggeration to say that the B-24 won the war for the Allies. But don't ask how they could have won the war without it.
The Army Air Forces needed thousands of pilots, and tens of thousands of crew members, to fly the B-24s. It needed to gather them and train them and supply them and service the planes from a country in which only a relatively small number of men knew anything at all about how to fly even a single-engine airplane, or fix it. From whence came such men?
Copyright © 2001 by Ambrose-Tubbs, Inc.
from Chapter One: Where They Came From
The pilots and crews of the B-24s came from every state and territory in America. They were young, fit, eager. They were sons of workers, doctors, lawyers, farmers, businessmen, educators. A few were married, most were not. Some had an excellent education, including college, where they majored in history, literature, physics, engineering, chemistry, and more. Others were barely, if at all, out of high school.
They were all volunteers. The U.S. Army Air Corps — after 1942 the Army Air Forces — did not force anyone to fly. They made the choice. Most of them were between the ages of two and ten in 1927, when Charles Lindbergh flew the Spirit of St. Louis from Long Island to Paris. For many boys, this was the first outside-the-family event to influence them. It fired their imagination. Like Lindbergh, they too wanted to fly.
In their teenage years, they drove Model T Fords, or perhaps Model A's — if they drove at all. Many of them were farm boys. They plowed behind mules or horses. They relieved themselves in outdoor privies. They walked to school, one, two, or sometimes more miles. Most of them, including the city kids, were poor. If they were lucky enough to have jobs they earned a dollar a day, sometimes less. If they were younger sons, they wore hand-me-down clothes. In the summertime, many of them went barefoot. They seldom traveled. Many had never been out of their home counties. Even most of the more fortunate had never been out of their home states or regions. Of those who were best off, only a handful had ever been out of the country. Almost none of them had ever been up in an airplane. A surprising number had never even seen a plane. But they all wanted to fly.
There were inducements beyond the adventure of the thing. Glamour. Extra pay. The right to wear wings. Quick promotions. You got to pick your service — no sleeping in a Navy bunk in a heaving ship or in a foxhole with someone shooting at you. They knew they would have to serve, indeed most of them wanted to serve. Their patriotism was beyond question. They wanted to be a part of smashing Hitler, Tojo, Mussolini, and their thugs. But they wanted to choose how they did it. Overwhelmingly they wanted to fly.
They wanted to get off the ground, be like a bird, see the country from up high, travel faster than anyone could do while attached to the earth. More than electric lights, more than steam engines, more than telephones, more than automobiles, more even than the printing press, the airplane separated past from future. It had freed mankind from the earth and opened the skies.
They were astonishingly young. Many joined the Army Air Forces as teens. Some never got to be twenty years old before the war ended. Anyone over twenty-five was considered to be, and was called, an "old man." In the twenty-first century, adults would hardly give such youngsters the key to the family car, but in the first half of the 1940s the adults sent them out to play a critical role in saving the world.
Most wanted to be fighter pilots, but only a relatively few attained that goal. Many became pilots or co-pilots on two- or four-engine bombers. The majority became crew members, serving as gunners or radiomen or bombardiers or flight engineers or navigators. Never mind. They wanted to fly and they did.
Copyright © 2001 by Ambrose-Tubbs, Inc.
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