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The Mighty Eighth: The Air War in Europe as Told by the Men Who Fought It

The Mighty Eighth: The Air War in Europe as Told by the Men Who Fought It

by Gerald Astor

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Europe has fallen. Pearl Harbor is in flames. Enter: the Eighth.

In 1941 the RAF fought a desperate battle of survival against the Luftwaffe over Britain. Then, from across the Atlantic, came a new generation of American pilots, gunners, and bombardiers, a new generation of flying machines called the B-17 Flying Fortress, the B-24 Liberator, the P-47


Europe has fallen. Pearl Harbor is in flames. Enter: the Eighth.

In 1941 the RAF fought a desperate battle of survival against the Luftwaffe over Britain. Then, from across the Atlantic, came a new generation of American pilots, gunners, and bombardiers, a new generation of flying machines called the B-17 Flying Fortress, the B-24 Liberator, the P-47 Thunderbolt, and the P-51 Mustang fighter. Soon these brave young men were hurtling themselves and their unproven planes across the Channel and into the teeth of enemy firepower, raining down bombs on the German military machine, and going up against Hitler's best fliers in the sky.

This is the dramatic oral history of the Army Air Corps and the newly created Eighth Air Force stationed in Britain, an army of hard-fighting, hard-playing flying men who suffered more fatalities than the entire U.S. Marine Corps in the Pacific campaign of World War II. Here, in their own words, are tales of survival and soul-numbing loss, of soldiers who came together to fight a kind of war that had never been fought before—and win it with their courage and their blood.

But the road to victory was paved with sacrifice. From its inaugural mission on July 4, 1942, until V-E Day, the Eighth Air Force lost more men than did the entire United States Marine Corps in all its campaigns in the Pacific. The Mighty Eighth chronicles the testimony of the pilots, bombardiers, navigators, and gunners who daily put their lives on the line. Their harrowing accounts recall the excitement and terror of dogfights against Nazi aces, maneuvering explosive-laden aircraft through deadly flak barrages, and fending off waves of enemy fighters while coping with subzero temperatures.

Beginning with the opening salvos from a mere dozen planes, crewmen describe the raids on Berlin and Dresden, the fiasco at Ploesti, Romania, and Black Thursday over Schweinfurt. They fell to the terror of seeing aircraft destroyed—helplessly watching as comrades crash and burn, or parachute over enemy territory, where they will attempt to evade enemy capture through the underground. Others tell of mourning downed airmen murdered by vengeful citizens and soldiers, and of those who endured captivity in POW camps. —>

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Great reading."
—Stephen Ambrose

"Bold, brawny, epic in scope...Astor captures the fire and passion of these tens of thousands of U.S. airmen who flew through the inferno that was the bomber war over Europe."
—Stephen Coonts

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Army Air Corps created the Eighth Air Force as a major component in the Allied defense of Europe. Based out of England, pilots of the Mighty Eighth flew hair-raising daylight missions that came under heavy attack from German forces. By the end of the war, 350,000 airmen had served with the Eighth; 26,000 died. For this expert history, Astor (June 6, 1944, etc.), himself a WWII combat veteran, has tracked down over 80 former pilots and crew members, and has incorporated their stories into a detailed chronicle of the air war in Europe. The first-person testimony of these courageous men is invaluable in terms of understanding both the process of protracted war and its effect on the human spirit. Their anecdotes are fascinating. One pilot describes his dramatic struggle to think clearly while flying under the deadly influence of oxygen deprivation. Another recounts how, as a POW, he was hauled before a firing squad, then inexplicably allowed to live. Excelling in weaving these stories into a broader analysis of the Eighth's role in the air war with Germany, Astor demonstrates once again that he's one of the most accomplished oral historians at work today. Photos not seen by PW. (June)
Library Journal
Astor, a journalist and narrator of popular World War II historical subjects, has combed the latest published memoirs and collected numerous oral interviews to assemble what will probably be the best eyewitness account of the daytime air raids over German-occupied Europe. Besides the usual recollections of bomber and fighter pilots, he also presents the viewpoints of the air gunners and mechanics, bombardiers, and navigators who fought alongside them. Best of all, Astor has the Ernie Pyle-like knack of presenting his subjects as distinct personalities who stay in the reader's mind. The book is intelligently organized, systematically following the Eighth from its hesitant beginnings to its climax as a combat juggernaut, all the while keeping its story in perspective with the larger picture of the European war. The result is a compelling document of the air war. Recommended for all public and academic collections.Raymond L. Puffer, Edwards AFB, Cal.
Kirkus Reviews
The history of the celebrated Eighth Air Force in WW II, by one of the leading chroniclers of that war

Astor (Crisis in the Pacific, 1996, etc.) writes of the US/British agreement on the need for strategic bombing to destroy the war-making power of Nazi Germany as a prelude to a massive frontal assault by Allied troops on Fortress Europe. The US was to use precision bombing in daytime (to spare civilians) while the RAF would do "area bombing" at night. The Eighth, set up in England by generals Arnold, Spaatz, and Eaker had few planes and crews in place in January 1942, when Germany's enormous air power and anti- aircraft defenses were strongest. An early raid on Brest cost the loss of 10 planes and 100 men. It would get worse. As the US buildup grew, appalling losses of planes and crews from "maximum effort" raids alarmed the generals. During the bombing of Hamburg the Eighth's losses were 88 planes and 880 men. Few airmen could expect to survive their prescribed 35 missions. Generals Le May and Doolittle (who replaced Eaker) brought innovative tactics to reduce the human and materiel costs. Astor recounts the many raids with clarity and vigor, traces the evolution of tactics, and captures the hard experiences of these young men in combat, on the ground, and in enemy camps. His many interviews of American airmen turn up some fascinating anecdotes, catching the grim realities of air combat in a way that more conventional strategic histories cannot. After V-E Day, the Eighth, having played a crucial role in the Allied victory, flew humanitarian missions, bringing food and medical supplies to starving civilians and POWs.

Revealing and vivid personal sketches of the quiet heroes in a unit that suffered more lives lost than the entire Marine Corps in WW II.

Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
World War II Library Series Series
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
4.18(w) x 6.88(h) x 1.26(d)

Read an Excerpt

Within twenty-four hours after the first bombs from carrier-based Japanese airplanes exploded at Pearl Harbor, the United States entered a world-wide war in which the flying machine, largely a bit player previously, assumed an ever larger role. But, on December 7, 1941, what would become the single largest component of the American aerial arms, the Eighth Air Force, which carried the heaviest portion of war in the skies to Germany, did not even exist on paper. For that matter, the entire U.S. Air Force hardly deserved the name, so deficient was it in terms of numbers of combat aircraft performance capability and qualified airmen compared to enemy forces.

The Japanese Mitsubishi Zero or Zeke fighters in the South Pacific flew faster, higher and farther than any comparable aircraft in the American arsenal. In Europe, the German Messerschmitt 109 and 110 and the Focke Wulf 190s could outperform the P-39s and P-40s, the best U.S. Air Corps fighters. Only the biggest bombers, the four-engine B-17 Flying Fortress and the B-24 Liberator, surpassed what the enemy operated, but this reflected more the Axis powers' decision to employ smaller bombers than any deficiency of design or production on their part.

The inventory of all types of planes available to the handful of air crews was small; U.S. factories had yet to move into high gear and much of what was produced had been committed to Allies already engaged in combat. What had been accomplished during the two years and three months from the onset of the war in Europe to the entry of the United States was a series of plans that would eventually help shape the use of American military assets. During what were officially labeled United States-British Staff Conversations of March 27, 1941, and became known as ABC-1, the participants settled on a number of policies including, "U.S. Army air bombardment units [would] operate offensively in collaboration with the Royal Air Force, primarily against German Military Power at its source." In the immediate aftermath of the devastation wrought against the U.S. fleet and the rapid onslaught of the Japanese against the Asiatic outposts of the Allies, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his associates, in accord with such agreements as ABC-1 and various elaborations of the overall War Plan Orange series, had agreed that execution of the war against Germany held first priority.

In preparation for the mandates of ABC-1, before December 7, 1941, an American military mission occupied offices in London. But even before then in recognition of the ties with Great Britain and the inevitability of a confrontation with Adolf Hitler's Nazi Germany, a stream of U.S. observers made their way to England to watch the RAF fight the Battle of Britain against German fighters and bombers during the summer of 1940. They also scouted potential bases for American contingents and managed lend-lease deals that included American-built planes such as A-20 light bombers dubbed "Bostons" by the RAF.

The advent of war almost instantly changed the nomenclature from the limited title of "mission" to U.S. Army Forces in the British Isles (USAFBI), and the label presaged the establishment of a significant presence of men and machines. As chief of the Army Air Forces, Lt. Gen. Henry (Hap) Arnold secured approval from the War Department to activate an air force as part of USAFBI. He chose Maj. Gen. Carl Spaatz, a World War I combat pilot, respected tactician, strategist and administrator to head the outfit and nominated Brig. Gen. Ira Eaker to run the bomber command. Even before Spaatz and Eaker could begin to mobilize the airplanes to carry out the task, they encountered fierce opposition from the brass in charge of all U.S. Army efforts in England. The traditional resistance of ground commanders to grant any autonomy to the air forces succumbed only through the intervention of Army chief of staff Gen. George C. Marshall. The vehicle tapped for Spaatz and Eaker was the Eighth Air Force, activated in January 1942.

While the newly formed outfit initially consisted of a medium bombardment group, two pursuit groups (the designations of fighters or interceptors were not yet in vogue) and auxiliary units, other priorities reduced the Eighth to a bare skeletal form as the Japanese advanced in the Pacific. The original bomber group committed to the Eighth joined Lt. Col. James H. Doolittle to train for his mission against Tokyo. Other aircraft allotted to the Eighth were siphoned away to participate in the critical antisubmarine warfare off the U.S. coast and for other responsibilities.

In February of 1942, Ira Eaker took up station in England as the head of the Eighth Bomber Command, but the parent organization was not in residence until May 11, 1942, when the first contingent of thirty-nine officers and 384 enlisted men set foot on British soil. Eaker, at the time all too aware of what little material strength he brought with him, rose to speak to an assembly of RAF guests at an early June ceremony at the newly opened High Wycombe headquarters. "We won't do much talking until we've done more fighting. We hope that when we leave you'll be glad we came. Thank you."

Eaker's twenty-three words could hardly offend the host country as they implicitly recognized that six months after the declaration of war, the American contribution to the air war effort in Europe had been only money and goods while British fliers continued to pay a bloody price. But while the British approved the gracious note, furious discord marked the opinions and policies of the two Allies even before they joined forces to fight.

With less than thirty years' presence in the fields of combat, aerial warfare had never generated a consensus on its conduct. In 1907, a scant four years after the Wright brothers successfully demonstrated a twelve-second, 120-foot flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, the U.S. Army created the Aeronautical Division as a wholly controlled subsidiary of the Signal Corps. The premise for this arrangement lay in the belief that the basic role of the airplane would be as a more mobile reconnaissance tool, an improvement on the balloon-borne observer who had appeared overhead as early as the French Revolution and later in the Civil War. In 1910, nineteen-year-old U.S. Military Academy plebe Carl Spaatz gazed skyward and saw aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss win a $10,000 prize as the first to fly all the way down the Hudson River from Albany to New York City, passing West Point en route. Spaatz instantly decided to make a career in the fledgling Aeronautical Service.

During World War I, while experts tinkered with such basic problems as reducing the fatality rate in accidents below that incurred during battle, and preventing machine guns from shooting off propeller blades, the air arm, renamed the Aviation Section, remained a Signal Corps fief until 1918 when American Expeditionary Force commander, Gen. John J. Pershing, removed Signal Corps control and President Woodrow Wilson officially proclaimed the Air Service as an organization within the Army. The military mission had slowly begun to evolve from solely scouting to a more active role in warfare. The European combatants all sought to develop aircraft that themselves served as weapons. The initial idea of inflicting damage on the foe's observation planes soon led to a battle for control of the air. Machine guns enabled fliers to strafe ground forces, and the addition of bombs provided the opportunity to hammer troop concentrations, artillery positions and even lines of transportation. The top Allied commanders had even begun to think of striking at cities or factories; although in some circles there was great reluctance to the notion of dropping high explosives on civilian areas. Occasionally, German airplanes and long range artillery did hit some populated sections, and their dirigibles struck London.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher
“Bold, brawny, epic in scope.”—Stephen Coonts, author of Pirate Alley

“Revealing and vivid personal sketches of the quiet heroes in a unit that suffered more lives lost than the entire Marine Corps in WWII.”—Kirkus Reviews

“One of the most accomplished oral historians at work today.”—Publishers Weekly

"No one does oral history better than Gerald Astor... here the men of the mightiest air force ever built tell their story in their own words.”—Stephen Ambrose, author of Band of Brothers

Meet the Author

Gerald Astor is a World War II veteran and award-winning journalist and historian whose articles have appeared in The New York Times, Playboy, and Esquire. He is also the author of A Blood-Dimmed Tide: The Battle of the Bulge by the Men Who Fought It and Operation Iceberg: The Invasion and Conquest of Okinawa in World War II. He makes his home in Scarsdale, New York.

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