“During the summer of 1943, a fierce battle raged in the skies over Europe. Every day, hundreds of young airmen faced death as they flew bombing raids deep into enemy territory… Few and fewer were coming back.” (Credits: Memphis Belle, Motion Picture, Warner Bros., 1990)
The lives of American airmen were put into even greater danger when the US decided to conduct daytime precision strategic bombing which the British thought was suicidal. They often flew unprotected by fighters (in 1943) deep into enemy territory in broad daylight as the highly-skilled German Air Force furiously attacked in the sky while hundreds of anti-aircraft guns fired at them from the ground (flak). My brother, S/Sgt. Eugene Darter, and crew began to realize how incredibly dangerous their mission was after they arrived on base. Day after day they saw a number of B-17s carrying 10 men fly out in the morning and after being hit either crashed or vanished but never returned to the base in East Anglia, England.
The B-17 Flying Fortress and B-24 Liberator were the main heavy bombers used by the 8th Air Force (or Mighty Eighth) trying to stop the German onslaught. These young men took the war directly to the Nazis from the front line of their air bases long before D-day when no allied soldiers were on the ground in Northern Europe.
Boeing B-17: Dissecting the Flying Fortress
A four-engine heavy bomber that can travel at the maximum of 287mph at high altitude with a maximum range of 3,750 miles, that’s the Boeing B-17. It was equipped with 11 to 13 machine guns with a 9,600-pound bomb load. It flies with two pilots, a navigator, bombardier, a radio-operator and five gunners.
From its pre-conception, the Air Corps thought the aircraft as a strategic weapon. It’s a high-flying, long-range bomber that can defend itself against air attacks, and it can definitely take a beating as it demonstrated many times returning home even with extensive battle damages. With its service and reputation, the B-17 was established as an effective weapon system that dropped more bombs than any other U.S. aircraft in World War II.
Richard Williams, a reporter for the Seattle Times coined the term “Flying Fortress”. The B-17 Flying Fortress has become a symbol of the strength of America’s Air Force and an icon of American power. However, due to the strength of the German Air Force, and the fact that until the end of 1943 the US could not provide fighter escorts on long range missions into Germany, the B-17’s had to fight their way both in and out which along with flak from the ground lead to excessive losses. Sixty bombers (over 600 men) were lost on a mission to Schweinfurt on October 14, 1943.
The Air War Over Europe
The air war over Europe during the WWII involving both fighters and bombers was a significant part of the war effort. While it was devastating to so many of the airmen involved, it was also successful in causing severe damage to the German Air Force and other critical industrial and military targets so that the Allied invasion could begin in June 1944.
But US airmen paid a terrible price for the strategic daylight bombing losing over 26,000 men in 3 years of war (the UK also paid a tragic price loosing over 55,000), nearly 1/3 of which are still Missing in Action like my brother, Eugene and two crewmates. Over 7% of the entire “Mighty Eighth” (air and ground crews) who flew from the UK, like my brother’s crew, was killed in action. To put this in perspective, there was more “Mighty Eight” lost than in the US Marine Corps in all of WWII.
In Conclusion: A Tribute to All the Lives Lost In War
Men of all ages and from all walks of life joined voluntarily or were drafted in the military services during WWII. These men knew the possibility of coming back to their families, wives and children were not guaranteed. But for the sake of our country, they risked everything. Just like those heroes who flew the B-17s and B-24s to conduct air raids and drop the bombs on their target.
With a high attrition rate and extreme danger, Eugene and the others facing 25 missions ahead knew there was only a small chance that they would return home uninjured. But still, many survivors told me they boarded their aircraft day after day to carry out their critical assigned missions. That was true courage and patriotism.
So, especially to all those who were injured during the World War II, we salute you for your strength and courage to fight for our country. And for the families of those who died in the battle, we will always honor the memory and bravery of your fathers, grandfathers, sons, husbands, and friends. They preserved our freedom. These are stories that should be passed on. This story tells of one such crew of airmen who vanished.
It’s exciting to note that Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg are currently producing a third World War II miniseries for HBO. The new series is called Masters of the Air and will tell the story of the air war of the men who fought in the “Mighty Eighth.”
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