America’s Young Men at War in the Air - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
America’s Young Men at War in the Air

Deadly-Sky-American-Combat-Airman/dp/B008SLRENY">Deadly Sky: The American Combat Airman in World War II
By John C. McManus
(NAL Caliber, 464 pages, $16 paperback)

In Deadly Sky, historian and World War II chronicler John C. McManus gives us a close and intimate a view of the lives of American combat airmen in all theaters of World War II. As close a look as readers can get without having actually gone wheels-up with these aerial gladiators that McManus has so clearly come to understand and admire.

Between 1941 and 1945 young pilots, bombardiers, navigators, and gunners served and suffered in Europe and the Pacific, and even in America where hazardous training claimed many lives. And they were indeed very young. Most of them in their early twenties and late teens. Wrestling the controls of a heavy bomber took strength. Withstanding G-force was a requirement of fighter pilots. Both required keen eyesight and dexterity. These were not the skies for old men.

The price these young gladiators paid was high. During the war, combat airmen suffered more than 120,000 casualties, including more than 40,000 dead. There were many ways for an airman to meet his maker in these very unfriendly skies. There was flak. There were enemy fighters, the ever-present dangers of colliding with another plane in close formation flying, and the myriad things that could go wrong with highly complex, high performance (for the time) aircraft, often operating in less than ideal weather. It was an intensely hazardous business that required men who were competent, well-trained, determined, and courageous. It was America’s great good fortune that such men, little more than boys when they signed up, were available when needed.

The airmen were the first to admit that the ground-pounders of the infantry had it worse than they did. The poor dog-faces in Europe had to sleep on the frozen ground. In the Pacific they made do in malarial, tropical hell-holes with spiders the size of Buicks. Neither knew when they would see their next hot meal. At least for the airmen, if they and their plane survived the day’s mission, there was hot food back at base, booze, a warm bed, and for many lucky lads employed in the strategic bombing campaign against Fortress Europe, a warm English girl.

But there were special horrors for the men who fought in the air. McManus, a clear and unsparing writer, relates these ways to die in the air in detail. Such clear detail that some parts of the book are not for the faint of heart. McManus is no ghoul. But he doesn’t avert his eyes either. I’ll admit to skipping a few pages.

Deadly Sky is not about specific campaigns. Not about strategy, and only coincidentally about tactics. It’s not a book about generals or admirals. It’s about all aspects of the daily lives of the junior officers and NCOs who fought the air war for America. It’s not about the big picture of any theater of war, but of the many, many small pictures that made up the war for those who fought it in the air. McManus uses interviews with veterans, military archives, and veteran’s letters, memoirs, and diaries to draw for readers a picture of the combat airman’s experience from training through combat, and for the lucky ones, the end of their combat tour and their return home. A fine example of the many insightful quotes is this one from pilot Elmer Bendiner of the 379th Bomb Group on the business of the big and small picture:

Generals do not necessarily share the same world with lieutenants and sergeants. To expect otherwise is to imagine that horse and rider experience the same sensation during the gallop. An ordinary soldier judges whether an engagement has been tough by the effects on himself and on the men he knows. He fights in a narrow space barely big enough for his own terrors and triumphs. That other larger battle of gains and losses, victories and defeats, is something he reads about.

In separate chapters McManus tell us how airmen were chosen and trained for the various jobs, who washed out and why. The Arsenal of Democracy turned out war planes and airmen by the tens of thousands. The second took longer. By the time an airman was in combat in Europe or the Pacific he had undergone more than a year of intense training. The air war was not amateur hour.

Readers will learn all about the various planes used in the different theaters, their strengths and weaknesses, and what the airmen thought of them. Then there’s the bulky clothing and oxygen equipment necessary to keep airmen alive in the thin air of 25,000 feet, which can get down to 60 degrees below zero. McManus tells of the varying living conditions in the different theaters of war, and the relationship airmen enjoyed (or didn’t) with local populations (see above re warm English girl).

McManus explores what amounted to leadership in the air, what kept up and what threatened morale among airmen who knew every time they took off on a mission they might not return. We learn what the airmen thought about the enemy they were fighting, and how they thought about the men who fought with them. How they dealt with the loss of fellow crewmen, with many of whom they had become closer than with any blood relation. How they dealt with not just the horrors, but with the confusion and chaos of combat. And, sadly, with how the brutalizing experiences affected many airmen for long after their tours, even the war, had ended.

Bookstore shelves offer many volumes that give us overviews of the World War II air campaigns — what the generals did, what damage was done, how the lines moved on the maps. Deadly Sky completes the picture, showing readers what was happening to the men in the planes. For anyone wishing a thorough picture of this part of the biggest war in history, Deadly Sky is essential.

Professor McManus (who, happily, does not write like a professor) is Curator’s Professor of U.S. Military History at Missouri University of Science and Technology. His previous books on World War II include The Dead and Those About to Be Dead, Grunts, and The Deadly Brotherhood.

Larry Thornberry
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Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.
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