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Thursday, July 22, 2010 12:59 am

Careless with heroes

What “Sentimental Journey” reminds us of

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We can all be grateful that when a heavy bomber visits our city, it is an occasion for a family outing. In June the “Sentimental Journey,” a restored B-17 Flying Fortress, spent a couple of days at Capital Airport. Crowds gather whenever one of these old beauties from World War II comes to town. Children and grandchildren marvel at tales from the days when Dad and Granddad was a hero and the U.S. fought wars that needed to be fought, and the aging pilots, navigators, gunners, radiomen, bombardiers, mechanics and factory hands gather to touch it and talk and remember when.

The Flying Fortress (so nicknamed because it had machine guns like a hedgehog has spines) had a wingspan of 104 feet. It wasn’t fast – it cruised at 215 miles per hour, which made for very long missions in a very uncomfortable aircraft – but it could fly at 35,000 feet and had a range of 3,400 miles. Along with the B-24, the B-17 was the main weapon in the Allied strategic bombing campaign to cripple Germany’s ability to make war by bombing its factories, rail lines and oil refineries. Great fleets of them roared over European cities from English airfields.

Heroes most of aviators might have been to the folks back home, but to the generals the crews that operated and maintained the B-17 they were merely parts in a complex techno-industrial system. The plane was merely a platform for the super-secret Norden bomb sight, a miracle weapon that promised to let our boys land their bombs within a 100-foot circle from heights beyond the range of enemy guns.

To say that the Norden proved unreliable in combat conditions is to say not quite enough. After disappointing early results, the Pentagon, being the Pentagon, improved the bomb sight’s efficiency by redefining “direct hit.” Instead of the 100-foot circle promised by its manufacturer, a direct hit was redefined as anywhere within 1,000 feet of the target. (If you were aiming at the Old State Capitol, any bomb that fell between 4th and 7th streets would count as direct hits.) Even under perfect conditions, only about half of U.S. bombs fell within a quarter of a mile of their targets, and many a plane returned to base with as many as nine of ten of their bombs having landed on something other than what they were aiming for.

The generals, being generals, solved the problem (and rescued their honor) by simply aiming at targets that even the Norden couldn’t miss. Like cities. The “precision bombing” promised by the boffins gave way to carpet bombing of whole cities, using fire bombs that started blazes that destroyed what the planes couldn’t blow up. That’s what happened in February of 1945, when British and U.S. aircraft made four raids on Dresden, the old Saxon capital city, the “Florence of the North.” In addition to burning alive probably 20,000 or so old men, women and kids, the resulting firestorm destroyed material vital to the Nazi war effort such as Baroque churches, ancient manuscripts and uncountable artworks. The B-17 proved to be only occasionally effective at crippling war production, but it was very efficient at crippling civilization.

The B-17 was famed for its ability to take punishment (many an airman regarded his plane as a hero) and punishment it got. Until late in the war, the Allies lacked long-range fighters capable of escorting the bombers all the way to a target and back, with the result that they were often exposed to marauding German fighters. In the famous raids on aircraft ball-bearing works at Schweinfurt and Regensburg – an incident exploited in the almost good 1949 movie, Twelve O’Clock High – 60 of nearly 300 B-17s were lost, with a further 87 so damaged they weren’t worth fixing. The human cost to the Americans was 55 crews comprising more than 550 crewmen.

As a result of these losses, the Eighth Air Force could not mount a follow-up attack for two months, during which time the Germans had largely recovered from the damage done by the first raid. A second raid proved nearly as costly to the Allies, so the generals suspended further raids for a time; presumably they feared that, at those loss rates, they would run out of airplanes and flyers before they ran out of war.

It is natural for the young to celebrate the youthful bravery of the parent or grandfather or uncle who was in the war. To gaze upon the “Sentimental Journey” and reflect that the youth and bravery of the people we ask to fight wars are so often stupidly used or even wasted by the people who start them is painful. What is becoming in a daughter or a grandson or a niece is not always becoming in a citizen, however, and we should never forget how careless our presidents and generals tend to be with our heroes.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at peptobiz@mindspring.com.

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