The Mighty Eighth in WWII: A Memoir

The Mighty Eighth in WWII: A Memoir

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by J. Kemp McLaughlin

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On an early morning in the fall of 1942, Kemp McLaughlin's group set out for a raid on a French target. Immediately after dropping its bombs, McLaughlin's plane was hit. A huge fire burned a four-foot hole in his wing, his waist gunner bailed out, his radio operator was wounded, the plane lost all oxygen, and his pilot put on a parachute and sat on the escape hatch

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On an early morning in the fall of 1942, Kemp McLaughlin's group set out for a raid on a French target. Immediately after dropping its bombs, McLaughlin's plane was hit. A huge fire burned a four-foot hole in his wing, his waist gunner bailed out, his radio operator was wounded, the plane lost all oxygen, and his pilot put on a parachute and sat on the escape hatch, waiting for the plane to explode. And this was only McLaughlin's first sortie. McLaughlin went on to pilot the mission command plane on the second raid against Schweinfurt, the largest air raid in history, which resulted in the destruction of 70 percent of German ball bearing production capability. McLaughlin also participated in the bombing of heavy water installations in Norway. The Mighty Eighth in WWII also includes the stories of downed pilots in France and Holland who traveled under the cover of night through the countryside, evading the Nazis who had seen their planes go down. As a group leader, McLaughlin was responsible for the planning and execution of air raids, forced to follow the directives of senior (and sometimes less informed) officers. His position as one of the managers of the massive sky trains allows him to provide unique insight into the work of maintenance and armament crews, preflight briefings, and off-duty activities of the airmen. No other memoir of World War II reveals so much about both the actual bombing runs against Nazi Germany and the management of personnel and material that made those airborne armadas possible.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Well-written, fast-paced and filled with anecdotes." — Bowling Green Daily News

"He laces tense battle scenes with humorous anecdotes about the famous people we met along the way." — Charleston Gazette

"This book should be on the shelves of all those who are interested in the Allies' massive raids over Germany. It is a standout effort by one who was there, and it's a perceptive view of the entire effort — well worth the price of admission." — Flight Journal

"Fills in several gaps in the history of the air war of Western Europe. Told by a 'been there, done that' combat commander, McLaughlin gives us precise accounts of such air battles as the devastating bombing of Schweinfurt." — Gen. Philip P. Ardery, author of Bomber Pilot: A Memoir of World War II

"This is an astounding inside look at The Mighty Eighth which we have not seen before." — Hollywood Inside Syndicate

"No other book presents such an interesting and perceptive picture of what it was like to be involved in the middle management of a bombardment group. Here is where the day-to-day and mission-by-mission decisions were made; reading McLaughlin's account is essential for understanding the true story of this air war." — Jerome Klinkowitz, author of Yanks Over Europe: American Flyers in World War II

"I had trouble putting the book down, as I am sure others will feel, especially Air Force fans." — Military

"The process of putting together an attack was dauntingly detailed, something that most memoirs don't discuss. Readers will get an excellent view of combat operations in all aspects." — Paper Wars

"Links chronological anecdotes of life in and out of combat during his stint with the Eighth, adding explanations of how the air force actually functioned and grew in experience and size to achieve victory." — Publishers Weekly

"Provides valuable insights into air combat and the intricacies of the 8th Air Force." — Register of the Kentucky Historical Society

"McLaughlin's personal record of his part in the air war reminds us once more of the astonishing courage of American pilots and crewmembers in the face of horrific combat conditions." — South Carolina Review

"An amazing account of one man's factual account of his involvement in these events." — South Carolina Review

"His crisp, clear narratives of the youthful hi-jinks of flyers in foreign lands, and of facing death in the skies, put a human face on that wave of men who fought for freedom in the skies over Europe." — WTBF Radio

"McLaughlin's account is lively and nostalgic as he recalls his training in the months before Pearl Harbor."McLaughlin provides an excellent description of both Group and Aerial operations, and the drain constant action had on the men and the aircraft." — Leo J. Daugherty III, World War II Quarterly" — Leo J. Daugherty III, World War II Quarterly

"McLaughlin's account is lively and nostalgic as he recalls his training in the months before Pearl Harbor."McLaughlin provides an excellent description of both Group and Aerial operations, and the drain constant action had on the men and the aircraft." — Leo J. Daugherty III, World War II Quarterly" — Leo J. Daugherty III, World War II Quarterly

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In 1942, then Lieutenant McLaughlin went to Europe as a B-17 pilot of the 92nd Bomb Group, or "Fame's Favored Few"--the first active unit of the Eighth Air Force. He returned as a lieutenant colonel in 1945, having survived 40 combat missions and serving as group operations officer; later, he led the West Virginia Air National Guard from 1947 to 1977, including a stint of active duty in Korea. McLaughlin, now retired from the U.S. Air Force Reserve, here links chronological anecdotes of life in and out of combat during his stint with the Eighth, adding explanations of how the air force actually functioned and grew in experience and size to achieve victory, along with very generous dollops of veterans' gossip. Colleagues contribute substantial commentaries on exploits or maneuvers. McLaughlin himself comes across as a jaunty bomber-jock who let little get by him. (For example, McLaughlin explains the origin of combat film collected by William Wyler and used in film classics like Twelve O'Clock High and Memphis Belle). Fans of I-was-there testimonies will find the general an amiable, well-spoken guide to his corner of the war ("To this day I remember walking up the fuselage to the belly hatch under the cockpit, where Tyre Weaver had bailed out and where Lt. Bob Campbell had died"), but the book won't generate interest outside of the genre. Illus. not seen by PW. (Oct.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.

Product Details

University Press of Kentucky
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


                         It began on a cool October morning in 1942 at Bovingdon Aerodrome, Hertfordshire, England. It seemed strangely quiet as the realization began to descend on me that I was about to embark on my first combat mission of World War II.

    Before we left the States for England in August 1942, Col. James Sutton, our group commander, had briefed us at length on his version of how the air campaign against Germany would be conducted. He told us our B-17Fs were invincible, that with their firepower and ability to fly at higher altitudes the German air force would be no match for us. And lastly, that we could expect to be back home in six to ten months. We, of course, believed him.

    While we were still in Bangor, Maine, he prepared us for what would be the first nonstop group flight to England. The 97th and 301st Bomb Groups, one of whom we had trained with at MacDill Field in Florida, had flown the route in a series of hops, from Gander, Newfoundland, to Greenland, then to Iceland, and on to Scotland, in July 1942 and had lost several of their planes. These losses were due to a lack of pilot experience and to a minimum amount of instrument-flying instruction. And, with the erratic, difficult-to-forecast weather conditions in the North Atlantic, our group commander knew that the same fate could easily befall us. B-17s were in such short supply in those days that it was almost unconscionable to lose evenone from lack of planning.

    Colonel Sutton had received permission from Gen. Henry H. "Hap" Arnold, commander of United States Army Air Forces, for our group to fly directly from Gander to Prestwick, Scotland, and avoid the precarious approaches and landings in the fjords en route. We had equipped each B-17 with an additional five hundred gallons of fuel, or about twelve hours of flying time. The distance was approximately two thousand miles, and with a cruising speed of about 185 miles per hour, we could make it with enough fuel left to get to an alternate destination if necessary. Since we had all flown lengthy cruise-control flights before this ocean-crossing flight, we knew for certain that none of our ships was a fuel hog.

    All thirty-six of our group's airplanes flew to Prestwick without mishap and with the loss of only one engine en route: Lt. Charles Austin, the only other pilot from my hometown of Charleston, West Virginia, lost an engine in mid-ocean. In order to keep up with his squadron, he began to lighten his airplane by tossing overboard nonessential supplies. After several radio exchanges with his commander, he was asked if he carried any whiskey onboard. He finally admitted he did and was ordered to toss it overboard. Reluctantly he told his crew to throw overboard nine cases of bourbon whiskey. `Twas a sad affair, for there was not a drop of bourbon to be found in all of England. After our successful attempt, all of the groups flying to the European Theater would make the direct flight.

    Our group had flown its first mission on September 6, 1942, to Meaulte, France, to bomb the Avions Potez aircraft factory. This raid took place exactly six months after the group had been activated on March 6, 1942 (making it the oldest group in the 8th Air Force). My squadron, the 407th Bomb Squadron, did not participate in this raid. Instead, we flew out into the English Channel as if we were en route to another target to the north, in an effort to lead as many German fighters as possible away from the main effort to Meaulte. (We got no combat credit for these diversionary flights.) The other three squadrons of the group, namely, the 325th Bomb Squadron, furnished fourteen B-17Es for this raid. They were heavily attacked by German fighters, and the 327th Bomb Squadron lost one ship and its crew, the first 8th Air Force loss of the air war in Europe. The 301st and the 97th Bomb Groups also participated in this raid with sixteen B-17s, losing one plane.

    With this new air war experience fresh in my mind, I went with trepidation to my first mission briefing at 6 A.M. All air crews selected to participate gathered with their respective squadrons in our group operations briefing room. On stage was a large map of Europe with a piece of white yarn marking our route to the city of Lille in northern France. Our target would be the steel mills located there. Colonel Sutton gave us a short talk stressing the fact that this was to be the first 8th Air Force maximum effort and that a hundred B-17s would participate. (This would be the first raid of the war composed of one hundred or more B-17s.) Maj. Willie Buck, group operations officer, gave us the route information with station and en-route times for the various points along the way. He stated that the 325th Squadron would lead the group and that our squadron, the 407th, would be the high squadron and fly left and above the group leader.

    We were to take off at 8 A.M., assemble over the airport at one thousand feet aboveground and then climb to twenty-five thousand feet (in formation), join the other groups at the English coast, and proceed to the target. Next, Maj. Gardiner Fiske, our chief intelligence officer, briefed us on expected enemy activity. Major Fiske was from a prominent Boston family and had been a member of the famous Lafayette Esquadrille in World War I. He had rushed back into service with little modern-day expertise for our mission. At the end of Major Fiske's briefing, someone asked him about antiaircraft guns along the French coast on our route. He looked puzzled and finally said, "Well, there weren't any there when I was there in World War I." Colonel Sutton jumped up and said, "Gordy, for God's sake, sit down?" An ironic but constrained laugh arose from the audience.

    As I look back on that scene now, I realize that, sadly, no one in the Army Air Corps knew at that time how to utilize the B-17 or how to conduct the air war against the German military forces effectively. It was a learn-as-you-go affair.

    We all arrived at our airplanes by 0800 hours and began our checks to make certain that everything was in place and ready. At 0840 hours we started our engines and began taxiing into position. I was assigned as copilot on my squadron commander (Maj. Bob Keck's) crew. We were leading our 407th Squadron. We taxied onto the take off runway with our wingmen following and the low 327th Squadron behind them. After crew checks and engine run-ups, we began our take off roll at 1000 hours. We formed up over the field and began our climb eastward along our planned route. We joined another group in trail at the coast at about fifteen thousand feet and continued our climb. It was a bright clear morning, and we were climbing directly into the sun when Major Keck decided we were closing too fast on the lead squadron.

    Without notifying his wingmen, he reduced power, and they began to overrun his lead ship. As they fought to stay in formation and began to maneuver back and forth, Lt. Eugene Wiley's numbers three and four propellers chopped the vertical stabilizer entirely off Lt. Jimmy Dempsey's airplane. Both slipped out of formation and luckily made it back to England. Wiley landed with two good engines at a Royal Air Force field and Lieutenant Dempsey made it back to our home base at Bovingdon. Five other airplanes turned back because of mechanical failures. Here we learned the hard way that you could not climb heavily loaded bombers in formation for long periods without severely damaging the engine and propeller systems.

    As we drew near the French coast at about twenty-four thousand feet, the group in front suddenly turned north, and we proceeded on alone. Inland, a thin layer of haze began to form, and though we could all clearly see the serene countryside directly below, it became very difficult to see at a forward angle, particularly with the bright sun directly in front of us. As we approached Lille, the bombardier could not see the target, so we began a right turn to our secondary target, the airfield at St. Omer. As we dropped our bombs, we ran into heavy and very accurate anti-aircraft fire from 88mm guns. We saw pink and green flak bursts as well as black ones, probably signals to the enemy fighters or antiaircraft gunners to show them where their shots were going.

    As we made a turn off the target, heading west toward the coast, we took a direct hit in the left wing, in the number two gas tank. A huge fire ensued, streaming well beyond the tail of our airplane. Simultaneously another near burst threw shrapnel through the center of the airplane, wounding the radio operator, who began screaming over the interphone, blocking all other communication. Our waist gunner, S/Sgt. Archie Cothren, expecting the ship to explode or go down, bailed out. Major Keck signaled me to take over and went below, I assumed to fight the fire. Our top turret gunner, who doubled as flight engineer, had gotten out of his turret to try to extinguish the fire. The rest of the group formation was pulling away from us because we had lost our number two engine and could not feather the propeller. Knowing that we could not survive the German fighters alone and crippled, I lowered the nose of the airplane to gain enough speed to stay under the group until we could reach the coast. The fighters were attacking from the rear, and the puffs of exploding 20mm shells were all around us. Suddenly the tail gunner came into the cockpit saying the fire was so hot he couldn't stay in his turret.

    The next moment I looked out my right window and found myself face to face with a German fighter pilot in a Focke-Wulf 190. I'm sure he saw our fire and our waist gunner bail out, and with no one shooting back at him, he must have wondered why we didn't go down, so he came up to look in our cockpit. He then rolled out to the right and swung back to his left and began firing at us, but he hadn't allowed himself enough room, and I could see his tracers well ahead of the nose of our airplane. As he passed under us at a very close range our ball turret gunner nailed him. He pulled up into a steep left roll, his plane smoking heavily, and disappeared in a dive.

    The fighter attacks ceased, and our wing fire had about burnt itself out. Soon we were crossing the French coast, homeward bound. The English Channel never looked so good. I had descended to nineteen thousand feet when one of the two navigators came into the cockpit and said, "For heaven's sake get down—we have no oxygen up front." (As lead ship, we carried two navigators to make certain we'd find our target.) I looked at my oxygen gauge, and it read empty. We had lost all of our oxygen when we were first hit, but my juices were doing double time and I'd never realized that we had no oxygen. I then descended to ten thousand feet and could see the English coast ahead when suddenly Major Keck climbed back up into the cockpit and sat down in the first-pilot's seat. I learned later from our navigators that when the aircraft caught fire he had climbed below, buckled up his chute, and sat on the lower escape hatch, thinking the airplane would blow up. Though it would take a year to catch up with him, that incident eventually ended his military career.

    We successfully made it back to our base, always turning away from our bad engine, and landed safely—all of us totally wrung out from our first combat experience. The fire in our left wing left a hole about four feet by four feet completely through the wing, and the paint on the left side of the plane was burnt all the way back to the tail. We parked near Jimmy Dempsey's rudderless airplane and climbed out to a speechless group. Our radio operator was taken directly to the hospital and survived to fly another day.

    After a brief interrogation by our intelligence section, I rode my bike back to my quarters and en route passed one of my flying school classmates headed toward group head quarters. He was staring straight ahead and never acknowledged me when I spoke. I later learned that he, too, had been on the Lille mission and was on his way to turn in his wings. He'd had enough and refused to fly again.

    It had been a rough day. In addition to the loss of Archie Cothren, our waist gunner, the group had also lost Lt. Francis Chorak and his entire crew. They were shot down in flames five miles northwest of St. Omer. His copilot that day was Lt. Joe Fracchia, another flying school classmate, whom I would not see again until VJ Day in the Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans. As a lieutenant colonel, I felt regret that my classmate had only been promoted to the grade of first lieutenant after spending two and a half years as a prisoner of war. S/Sgt. Archie Cothren became a prisoner of war, held in Germany until May 1945.

    Group morale among the air crews began to hit an all-time low. We'd lost two crews and half a dozen airplanes were damaged, some beyond repair. These two raids began to separate the men from the boys, as several officers began to find positions that would take them out of combat. One became the 8th Air Force oxygen officer (I never knew what his duties were). Another went to the 8th Air Force Headquarters, and several became instructors or staff at the newly formed 1/11th Combat Crew Replacement Center, which Gen. Ira C. Eaker, commander of the 8th Air Force, had ordered our group to establish.

    I'd had my initiation into World War II air combat and now began to realize that, with future sorties ranging deeper into the continent, our chances of survival were pretty slim. In fact it would take miracles to make it safely through the war.

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