A good friend of mine died recently, Lt. Gen. Carl Peterson, USAF (Ret.). “General Pete” started his career as a 20-year-old B-17 pilot in World War 2. He got to England in October 1944, after the most deadly phase of the bombing campaign, so he was required to fly 35 missions to earn redeployment. (Earlier in the war, crews only had to fly 25 missions per deployment – with a 5% attrition rate, a crew was on borrowed time after 20 missions.)
General Pete lost two airplanes and 18 engines, but thankfully no crewmen on his 35 missions. At first he said very little about the missions, but as our friendship grew he talked about the risks and a few specific incidents.
Most impressive was the vast scale of the raids, hundreds or even thousands of bombers launched over strategic targets in Germany. Because of the marginal weather in England, it was common to lose several B-17′s to mid-air collisions during blind “forming up” and climbing to cruise altitude.
Approaching the target, the Norden bombsight acted as an autopilot, flying straight and level at constant speed. The German anti-aircraft defenders had years to dial in these automated flight paths, which could only vary slightly in altitude and track. General Pete and his fellow pilots were just spectators during these bomb runs, and survival was greatly determined by luck and position in the formation (the defenders often aimed for flight leaders or, if known, high ranking pilots). During the bomb runs, planes would be fine one second and gone or heavily damaged in another.
Once the bombs were away, undamaged bombers escorted stricken planes if possible, and counted parachutes if the crews of damaged planes had to bail out. General Pete managed to land his two mortally damaged planes in Belgium, which was in friendly hands by late 1944.
He watched helplessly as other planes ditched in the English Channel, unable to fly all the way back to England after bypassing airfields on the Continent. Most B-17 crews survived ditching, but the high-winged B-24 was notorious for disintegrating with heavy casualties.
The weather often was again a factor in returning to England, and many bombers groped their way to any airfield that became visible, to be rejoined with their squadrons another day.
The 8th Air Force bombing campaign was just one of many vast efforts in World War 2. Between 1940 and 1945, U.S. industry produced 32,000 B-17′s and B-24′s, a rate of 20 per day. The entire world-wide war, from Pearl Harbor to the unconditional German and Japanese surrenders, was over for the U.S. in 45 months!
General Pete returned to civilian life for a few years, but rejoined the Air Force during the Korean War. He became an attack pilot (Skyraiders in Viet Nam) and later an all-weather fighter pilot for the Air Defense Command (F-94, F-89, F-101, F-102, F-106). He commanded the Air Defense Weapons Center at Tyndall AFB, FL and retired from a field-grade liason deployment with NATO in Norway.