May 1944: Tail gunner Harold Bailey and his crew never had a chance to name their B-17. The big Fort was brand-spanking new, and there hadn’t been a chance to adorn the fuselage with a colorful illustration and a nickname like Blazing Heat, Calamity Jane, Memphis Belle, or Virgo.
“We were getting flak north of Berlin just after we’d hit our target when a group of Focke-Wulf 190 fighters came at us from right out of the sun.”
The ten men in his crew survived, with only one sprained ankle among them. Except for Bailey, all were captured the first day. For three days the young American evaded German farmers alerted to watch for him. Finally, needing food and water, he slowly approached a farmhouse. “I thought it was safe, but as I got nearer the house I saw a woman with a posse of fifty German civilians with shotguns, farm tools, and the like behind her.”
Bailey was soon in the hands of German soldiers and headed for Stalag Luft IV, a POW camp, in Grosstychow, in eastern Germany (now Poland). After six months of confinement, he went on a forced march westward across Germany. On the ninety-sixth day of the march, he was liberated by a British patrol.
Today: The sixty-one-year-old veteran, a retired cabinetmaker, resides near Hartford, Conn.
August 1944: Bill Wisner, an eighteen-year-old B-24 waist gunner, was over Holland coming home when it happened.
As he looked around he noticed the right vertical fin of the B-24 Liberator was half gone. “On the fighters’ second pass, I caught a 20-mm round in my right side,” he continued. “It picked me up and set me down between the ball turret and the right side of the ship.”
He landed in a potato field and lay there for some time before several Dutch farmers found him. “They told me I was done for, but carried me to a hospital anyway.”
Nine months and three POW camps later he was released to Allied forces.
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He flew 158 sorties in the P-51 Mustang, escorting bombers and strafing land targets in Germany and France. He downed nine enemy aircraft, three on the same day.
On December 31, his chute was being repacked when the alert sounded. He was flying out of Asche (Y-29), Belgium, on a radar-controlled mission when Cesky led his flight of four aircraft through an undercast. “When we came out we were directly over a German airfield. Twenty-millimeter shells were popping all around me, and four hit Diann.” Cesky had named his aircraft after his daughter.
“I had just retrieved it and was turning away from the bent cockpit when I looked up and saw several soldiers pointing their guns at me.”
Today: Cesky, a retired USAF lieutenant colonel, lives in Tampa, Fla.
Bailey, Weisner, and Cesky. All were members of the Eighth Air Force during World War II. Though it had been four decades since the Eighth played its vital role in the air war in Europe, an observer couldn’t discern that fact from their eighth annual reunion, which drew more than 2,500 members of the Mighty Eighth to Cincinnati, Ohio, in October.
The reunion was an opportunity for fellowship, and, as one B-17 aircraft technician said, “it’s a chance to go back down memory lane.”
The four-day event was organized by the 8th Air Force Historical Society. Founded in 1975, the Society, which has more than 10,000 members, is “responsible for organizing reunions and tours and creating interest in the preservation of Eighth Air Force memorabilia and history,” said Lt. Col. John Woolnough, USAF (Ret.), the Society’s operations manager. Reunion activities included a general membership meeting, unit organizational meetings, and a nostalgic “Aero Club” dance. There were World War II movies and a Jimmy Stewart training film from 1941.
Dayton MemorialOne of the highlights was the unveiling of the Eighth Air Force Dayton Memorial at the Air Force Museum, Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio.
The memorial, nearly twenty feet high, is a three-sided pillar constructed of Indiana limestone. A propeller is mounted near the top of the memorial stone. Bronze plaques on each of the three sides depict the history of the Eighth in World War II and provide a map of the Eighth’s bases in England during that period.
More than 2,800 people attended the ceremony, which also included the dedication of living tree memorials on the Museum ground for the persons lost in various Eighth Air Force units during the war.
According to Roger A. Freeman, noted military historian and author of the book The Mighty Eighth: “The hope was that such a campaign could render massive devastation to the war industry of a highly industrialized nation like Germany, so that it would be unable to supply and support its armed forces.”
By the end of the war the Eighth had achieved these impressive statistics, according to the Eighth Air Force Office of History:• 600,000 sorties flown.• 700,000 tons of bombs dropped.• 5,000 enemy aircraft destroyed by fighters.• 4,000 enemy aircraft destroyed by strafing.• 6,000 enemy aircraft destroyed by aircrew gunners.
On April 25, 1945, Eighth Air Force attacked its last industrial target of World War II—an armament works in Czechoslovakia. At its peak strength, the Mighty Eighth could launch as many as 2,000 bombers and 1,000 fighters on a single mission.
The statistics also show:• 47,000 did not return from combat (estimated killed: 26,000).• 17 Medals of Honor.• 220 Distinguished Service Crosses.• 850 Silver Stars.• 7,000 Purple Hearts.• 46,000 Distinguished Flying Crosses.• 442,300 Air Medals.• 261 fighter aces, thirty-one of them with more than fifteen kills.
Throughout this period and well into the 1950s, the Eighth’s combat forces were located primarily in the American southwest—Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Arizona. Eighth units operated the B-29, B-50, B-36, and B-47 bombers, and KB-29 and KC-97 tankers.
By the early 1960s, with the phaseout of B-47s and KC-97s having started, the Eighth received a new weapon—the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). Only one ICBM unit was initially under Eighth’s control—an Atlas squadron at Plattsburgh AFB, N.Y.—but the Eighth’s ICBM arm was strengthened in 1963 when it acquired the Titan I and II units and Atlas units in the Midwest and the Rocky Mountain regions from Fifteenth and Second Air Forces. An embryonic Minuteman missile force was also acquired. The mid-1960s saw the phasing out of several weapon systems, including the Atlas and Titan I missiles and b-47 and KC-97 aircraft.
Besides Andersen, Eighth units also operated from Kadena AB, Okinawa; Clark AB, Philippines; and U-Tapao Air Base, Thailand.
Linebacker IIBy July 1972 the Eighth had more than 200 B-52s flying in Southeast Asia—about sixty in Thailand, and the remainder out of Guam. As Christmas 1972 approached, the peace negotiations were deadlocked with American POWs still in captivity. The strategic bombers of Eighth were chosen as the main thrust of an operation known as “Linebacker II.”
During the eleven-day campaign (no bombs were dropped on Christmas), Eighth B-52 crews flew 729 sorties and dropped 15,237 tons of bombs on thirty-nine different targets. Fifteen B-52s were lost due to SAMs, and twenty-eight crew members were killed and/or listed as missing. The raids were instrumental in bringing about the cease-fire on January 28, 1973, and the release of American POWs.
On December 1, 1979, three missile warning squadrons in the eastern US, a missile warning group, and an air base group in Greenland transferred from the Air Defense Command to the Strategic Air Command and Eighth Air Force. During 1981, an Eighth Air Force unit, the 32d Air Refueling Squadron, 2d Bombardment Wing, at Barksdale AFB, La., began the USAF’s first operational flights with the KC-10 advanced cargo tanker aircraft.
Eighth Air Force has: forty-one operational squadrons, 170 long-range B-52s, sixty medium-range FB-111 bombers, 370 tankers, reconnaissance and command and control aircraft, and a growing squadron of KC-10s. It also possesses thirty-four Titan II missiles and 150 Minuteman II ICBMS. This month witnesses the first USAF unit to become operational with the Air-Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM)—an Eighth Air Force unit, the 416th Bomb Wing at Griffiss AFB, N.Y.
As General Herres told those meeting in Ohio: “As long as there is the slightest change that airmen will be needed to show an enemy what airpower means, the Eighth will be there.”
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