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Deadly Sky: The American Combat Airman in World War II

Deadly Sky: The American Combat Airman in World War II

by John C. McManus

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“From the training camps to the combat missions, this is war from the perspective of the young Americans who lived through it: the pilots, the bombardiers, the navigators, and the gunners of all the combat services in both Europe and in the Pacific. It is an engaging and vivid portrayal of war in the skies from 1941 to 1945.”—Craig L. Symonds, Author of World War II at Sea

John C. McManus, author of The Dead and Those About to Die and September Hope, reveals the terror and triumph that shared the fiery skies of World War II—from the first dogfights over Europe to the last Kamikaze attacks over the Pacific.

This insightful chronicle takes readers inside the experiences of America’s fighter pilots and bomber crews, an incredible assortment of men who, in nearly four years of warfare all over the globe, suffered over 120,000 casualties with over 40,000 killed.
Their stories span the earth into every corner of the combat theaters in both Europe and the Pacific. And the aircraft explored are as varied, tough, and legendary as the men who flew them­—from the indomitable heavy-duty warhorse that was the B-17 Flying Fortress to the sleek, lethal P-51 Mustang fighter.
In Deadly Sky, master historian John C. McManus goes beyond the familiar tales of aerial heroism, capturing the sights and sounds, the toil and fear, the adrenaline and the pain of the American airmen who faced death with every mission. In this important, thoroughly-researched work, McManus uncovers the true nature of fighting—and dying—in the skies over World War II.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780698195998
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 08/02/2016
Sold by: Penguin Group
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 464
Sales rank: 131,603
File size: 17 MB
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About the Author

John C. McManus is an award-winning professor, author, and military historian, and a leading expert on the history of the American combat experience. He is the Curators' Distinguished Professor of U.S. Military History at Missouri University of Science and Technology, and is currently in residence at the U.S. Naval Academy as the Leo A. Shifrin Chair of Naval and Military History. His critically acclaimed books on World War II include GruntsSeptember Hope, and The Dead and Those About to Die. His next book, Fire and Fortitude: The US Army in the Pacific War, 1941-1943, will be published by Dutton Caliber in July 2019.

Read an Excerpt


Who Were These Combat Airmen?

Our Crew was a not so unique composite of young men brought together from scattered areas of the U.S. from Maine to California. Our Crew represented 7 states and included young men from 19 years to 33 years old. We blended into a team that was concerned about the well being of each member.

-David Redfern, waist gunner, 491st Bomb Group

They came from nearly every town, city, and state in America. They were the sons of the elite, the impoverished, and everyone in between in 1940s America. By and large, they had one thing in common, no matter their background or their region of origin: They all volunteered to fight the war in the air against America's enemies in World War II. In order to achieve that goal, they worked like demons and trained diligently to prove themselves and earn the wings that would be their passport to combat. What did it mean to be a combat airman in World War II? It meant that you either were part of a bomber crew or were a fighter pilot. That is how the U.S. military classified its combat air personnel. Undoubtedly the transport pilots who flew the Hump over the Himalayas in order to supply China, or those who flew paratroopers into combat zones, or the others who piloted glider troops to the battlefield, resented their status as noncombatants. After all, they were at times in as much danger as fighter pilots and bomber crews. But their danger was the exception rather than the rule. For every C-47 pilot braving German flak to drop paratroopers into Normandy, there were many more such pilots ferrying supplies in secure rear areas. For most transport pilots, the main danger to life and limb was accidents. For fighter pilots and bomber crews, accidents were but one of many potential hazards, ranking a distant third behind enemy fighter planes and antiaircraft fire. The vast majority of the 121,867 casualties, including 40,061 killed, the Army Air Force suffered in World War II was among fighter pilots and bomber crews. (The Air Force was part of the Army in World War II.) In the cases of the Navy and the Marines, almost all of the aviators who became casualties were fighter pilots, torpedo pilots, dive-bomber pilots, or their accompanying crewmen. Clearly, airmen from the official combat arms had the most treacherous flying duty in the war.

Most of them were highly motivated, reasonably well-educated young men whose desire for air combat bordered on eagerness. They originated from no particular locale or region in any overwhelming quantities. Instead, they hailed from everywhere. In terms of social class and status, they generally had more advantages than their ground-combat counterparts but still cannot be thought of in any way as strictly products of America's elite classes. For example, when the Army researched the educational backgrounds of its entire population of enlisted men, it found that more than half had not completed high school. In the case of enlisted combat airmen, though, more than two-thirds had completed high school. Some had even attended or graduated from college. These men were better educated than enlisted men in other branches of the service, but most still did not possess that true measure of elite status in mid-twentieth-century America-a college degree.

In the first two years of American involvement in World War II, the Army carried out a deliberate policy to channel the men it thought of as bright, capable, and motivated into the Army Air Force. Later in the war, when the Air Force had far more pilot candidates than it could ever hope to train, and the Army brass realized it would need large numbers of bright, well-trained soldiers to win the war on the ground, such men were then channeled into Army Ground Forces. Still, the Army experienced its greatest growth during the first couple of years of the war and, even late in the war, the Air Force continued to receive more than its fair share of men deemed to be intelligent and motivated and thus essential to the war effort.

The Army's most far-reaching barometer for evaluating the millions of men who entered the service in the war years was the Army General Classification Test, usually referred to as the AGCT. This test, given to all recruits, was a forty-minute written exam consisting of 150 multiple-choice questions designed to measure intelligence and general aptitude. Most recruits tried hard to score well on the test because they thought that a higher score would lead to a better Army job. In grading the tests, the Army devised five categories according to raw scores. Class I had a score of more than 130; Class II, between 110 and 129; Class III, 90 to 109; Class IV, 70 to 89; and Class V, 69 or lower. Army leaders put great stock in the results of the test and constantly battled one another to acquire as many high-scoring men as possible for their respective branches of the service. Although the AGCT could certainly be thought of as "culturally biased," and sometimes revealed more about a recruit's level of education and experience than his native intelligence, it nonetheless was still a reasonable barometer of the ability level of Army recruits.

Throughout the war, the Army Air Force received a high proportion of men who scored in Class I or Class II (those the Army evaluated as high-quality manpower). This pattern of top scorers ending up in the Air Force was especially true in 1942 and 1943. For example, 44 percent of the Air Force's replacements in 1942 had tested in Class I or II. Another 35 percent came from Class III. The numbers were roughly the same for 1943. The Air Force needed generous numbers of intelligent and skilled men to handle the rigorous challenge of operating high-performance, cutting-edge aircraft in combat. Only men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-seven were admitted for pilot, bombardier, and navigator training, and they had to be in perfect physical condition with especially keen eyesight. After that, they took rigorous physical and mental tests. Many of those who made it past those requirements were later rejected or "washed out" from pilot training. Perhaps most important, only men who had volunteered for air combat were accepted for training. No one was drafted and forced into the role of combat airman. Many of those who ended up in air combat volunteered because of the romance of flying. They had been raised on tales of flying adventures from Eddie Rickenbacker to Charles Lindbergh to Jimmy Doolittle and, if they had to fight, they wanted to join the "glamorous" branch of the service, where they would be treated like gentlemen. All of these factors combined to guarantee that combat airmen would be highly motivated warriors.

The Army confirmed this in a study of enlisted aircrew members. It found that, in relation to men from other branches of the service, combat airmen had higher AGCT scores and higher educational backgrounds. There were a higher proportion of young men (younger than twenty-five years old), a higher proportion of men in good physical condition, and a higher proportion of men who volunteered for the service. They also tended to be more content with their roles as combat airmen than were their ground-combat counterparts. In a survey, the Army asked a representative group from both branches, "How satisfied are you about being in your present Army job?" Seventy-two percent of combat airmen expressed some level of satisfaction with their jobs, while only 21 percent of infantrymen did so.

Needless to say, most of these combat airmen were white. In World War II, the U.S. military, like much of the rest of society, was segregated. In the case of the Army, most of the senior commanders, from George Marshall on down, felt that African-Americans were inferior and thus should serve in segregated units and be withheld from combat. Often poorly educated and hailing from low socioeconomic backgrounds, blacks tended to score low on the AGCT. In 1943, more than 79 percent of black recruits scored in Class IV or V. Such poor test scores only served to confirm previously held assumptions of black inferiority in the minds of senior officers, and they resolved to exclude African-Americans from a significant combat role. However, there were exceptions in the Army Air Force. Small groups of black men began to receive segregated pilot training in Tuskegee, Alabama, early in the war. These men had high AGCT scores and had passed all of the other rigorous Air Force tests. They were trained as fighter pilots and would one day make up the bulk of the 332d Fighter Group, which saw a great deal of combat in Europe and compiled a distinguished record of achievement. The Air Force created and trained one other black unit, the 477th Bomb Group, but never allowed it to go overseas.

Thus, with the exception of the 332d Fighter Group, the vast majority of American combat airmen in World War II were white and products of middle- and upper-middle-class families. By and large, they were intelligent, idealistic, highly motivated young men who yearned to serve their country and strike a blow at America's enemies. In terms of regional background, class status, and education, they were a reasonable cross-section of mainstream, upper-middle-class America.

C. L. Anderson, who flew with the 390th Bomb Group, offered a snapshot of his crew as a microcosm of the America he knew: "I was a farm boy, born and raised near the little town of Patterson, California. Our radio operator was also a farm boy, as was our waist gunner, who came from a Texas farm. The navigator was a percussion musician from New York. The tail gunner-a Golden Gloves boxer-was a nineteen-year-old kid from Pennsylvania. The engineer, also nineteen, was the son of a banker in Iowa. The bombardier was from the outskirts of Chicago. Our pilot grew up on an Oklahoma farm and had moved west with his parents to Stockton, California. I guess we were just a bunch of kids."

Chester Bennett, a U.S. Navy psychologist, had the job of studying combat airmen in his service. He recorded a dispassionate assessment of them and their various backgrounds in a letter home to a former colleague: "I met . . . a couple of ministers' sons and the son of a psychology professor, a country boy from Warrensburg [Missouri] who went to the Teacher's College, a U[niversity] of Missouri law student . . . and a San Jose, California, boy. There's a tall Texan with a Master's Degree in political science who 'comes from a family of teachers' and still plans to teach, working out his Ph.D. if and when he can. There's a 'West Virginia hillbilly' with a degree in agriculture, supporting an invalid mother-who's going back to the farm just as fast as the Navy will let him. There's a Montana forester who's heading straight back to the woods. So there you are. The fact is, they're a cross-section of American youth, as mature and as flippant, as socially sensitive and as selfish as the mythical average, but with more than average abilities."

The last part of Bennett's passage is the most significant. Combat airmen undoubtedly possessed "above-average abilities." Sometimes this was cultivated by advantageous educational opportunities and socioeconomic backgrounds but sometimes not. Samuel Hynes, a Marine torpedo bomber pilot, felt that in the Marine Corps, ability counted for more than economic background: "Those like myself who felt provincial, or common, or underbred, chose the Marine Corps, where those qualities wouldn't show. The Marines that I knew, both the officers and the enlisted men, seemed to be mainly southerners and midwesterners-country boys, rednecks, and yokels. I don't think I ever met a Marine from New York or San Francisco, or a rich one."

For those who had the necessary test scores and physical requirements to enter the air combat arms, there was a fairly well-defined classification process. Meeting the basic requirements did not guarantee that a young man would end up in the cockpit of a fighter or bomber. In fact, 39 percent of those who entered flight training in the Army Air Force did not end up becoming pilots. Understandably, the Air Force sought to test, classify, and prepare its future airmen as much as possible. Before Pearl Harbor, anyone entering the air cadet program had to have at least two years of college, but this requirement was waived in January 1942. This paved the way for expansion of the Air Force and opened doors for many bright eighteen-to-twenty-one-year-olds who simply did not have the social advantages necessary for a college education. After passing the minimum requirements (AGCT, age, good health), young men were immediately put through the extensive evaluation process known in the service as the "classification battery."

If you were one of these potential air cadets, the classification battery in practical terms meant being subjected to a battery of psychological and motor tests. You would take aptitude tests known as "stanines," designed to determine your proficiency in one of three jobs-pilot, bombardier, navigator. Each test had a scale of one through nine; the higher the score, the better. The various stanine tests measured such abilities as speed and accuracy of perception, ability to read and understand technical information, resourcefulness and judgment in problem-solving, as well as knowledge of math and mechanical principles. Other tests measured motor skills, coordination, finger dexterity, and reflexes. Scoring high in the physical tests might slate you for pilot training, while high scores on math and problem-solving tests might point you toward navigator school.

During the two weeks required for this process, you would also be given a battery of medical and psychological examinations, all designed to determine your mental and physical fitness for air combat. Needless to say, the process was dizzying and required complete mental and physical absorption for the potential air cadets. Robert Goebel, a Wisconsin native who ended up flying fighter planes with the 31st Fighter Group, recalled his experiences at the classification center: "We were a herd of nude, two-legged cattle who followed signs, arrows, lines on the floor, and pointed fingers that directed us from place to place to be struck, stuck, pinched, and peered at. Only two verbal orders were addressed to each of us . . . 'Bend over and spread your cheeks' and 'Turn your head and cough.' To this day when I hear the latter, I rise up on my toes in anticipation of that dreadful stabbing finger in the groin."

Eugene Fletcher, who piloted a B-17 in the 95th Bomb Group, had similar experiences: "Some of the cadets actually fainted at the thought and sight of needles penetrating the flesh of those ahead of them in line. For me I thought both arms would fall off. Then came the psychological, mental awareness . . . and motor skills tests. The motor skills tests were used to measure manual dexterity and reaction time. The mental tests were a little scary. After all, who wants to tell some sinister stranger what he sees in ink blobs. We all wanted to fly and we surely didn't want to lose this opportunity just because an ink blob might look like spilled ink, a naked lady, or some other screwy imagined image or hallucination. We found ourselves giving answers to questions we didn't even understand. No one knew why we had to respond to these strange people."

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments xi

Introduction 1

1 Who Were These Combat Airmen? 13

2 The Planes They Flew and the Clothes They Wore 48

3 People, Places, and Food-Europe 76

4 People, Places, and Food-The Pacific 108

5 Flying the Missions 129

6 Going Down 201

7 Thinking of the Enemy 262

8 Leadership in the Air 294

9 Morale, Deep Thoughts, and Tours of Duty 324

10 Breaking in Replacements 372

11 Brotherhood in the Skies 388

Epilogue 404

Notes 419

Selected Bibliography 455

Index 459

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