I just realized that today, 18 Sept., is the birthday of the US Air Force. Ah, yes; the princess of America’s military. As a Marine who was assigned mostly to infantry outfits, I love to hate the Air Force. They live too well in their carpeted, air-conditioned barracks and their messhalls decorated like Persian whore houses. They had a steam bath and massage parlour (in the most nudge-nudge-wink-wink sense of the word) at Gunfighter Village at Da Nang Air Base in Vietnam. Marines weren’t allowed in because we were too dirty to take a freakin’ bath. Humpf. On Okinawa, Air Force junior NCO’s were allowed accompanied tours, that is, they had their wives with them, but Marine Sergeants Major were not allowed the same privilege. They bomb from too high, and strafe from too far.
But it’s their birthday, and for today, only, I’m going to grant them dispensation and a break from the otherwise ceaseless bellyaching from the ground pounders. You see, the Air Force has left a measure of blood around the world. The 8th Air Force, in WWII, lost more men than did the Marine Corps. This was so because while the Marines had those ungodly bloodbaths every few months, the 8th was out there day after day for almost 3 years. There were a lot of days they lost six to seven hundred men in a single afternoon, and then went back the next and lost another three or four hundred. A B-17 carried 10 men, and at Schweinfurt, Berlin, Meresburg, Schweinfurt again, Regensburg, they lost 60 bombers in one day. And then went back the next day. And the next. And the next. And the next. And that’s just the 8th. There was also the 5th, 7th, 9th, 15th, and 20th Air Forces, and no end of smaller training and transportation units that lost men in training accidents, bad weather, and worn-out machinery that should have been replaced before the Germans went after Poland. I know I’ve left some units out, but it’s not from a lack of respect. Feel free to add to my list.
In the Pacific, Air Corps fighter pilots flew winged dumpsters against fire-breathing killing machines called Zekes, Oscars, and Franks. Every day they were outclassed and every day they took their lickin’, and every next day they were right back at it, until eventually they wore some of the razor edge off the Japanese, and the bean counters in DC started sending out P-38’s and P-47’s that still couldn’t dance with a Zeke, but by God, they could dive like claw hammers, fan out tons of lead per second, and stand up to the pounding they took as they flew by. And the bomber crews who flew against the Japanese were faced with not only stunning performance in the enemy machines, but the craziest, most dangerous set of little bastards who ever strapped a fighter to their butts.
In Korea, some of the fighter jocks lived in pretty rough conditions – compared to the rest of the Air Force. I’ve heard they even had to endure cheap toilet paper. (Dang it! Sorry, guys. That just slipped out.) In Korea, they almost learned about close air support, and on several occasions, got right down amongst ‘em.
Then Vietnam, and the insanity of running the same route over the same targets at the same time of day for weeks straight. Charlie knew, from the moment our bombers went after a target the first time, exactly where to place his flak and SAM’s, and those bomber guys paid a goshawful price for the honor of making MacNamara and Kissinger look like geniuses. Hell, even Jane Fonda figured it out, and you know how stupid that… woman … is. When I was on Okinawa in the summer of ’70, we’d go out in front of our shop building and watch the B-52’s coming into Kadena Air Force Base, over across Chimu Bay. They’d taken off from Guam or Clark, in the Philippines, flown over North Vietnam, and continued on to Kadena because it was closer than wherever they’d flown out of. We saw them come in to land with long, black trails of smoke coming from shattered engines. We saw holes the size of your front door blown all the way through them, with clear blue sky showing on the other side. I saw one come in with the vertical stabilizer shot away almost down to the fuselage. They staggered and stumbled, and looked for all the world like old ladies who could just barely get up the porch steps. But they made it, and the next day, they flew the same circuit back the other way, and I’d be willing to be the guys on the ground in the PI or on Guam saw the same raggedy-assed procession we did.
Did I say raggedy-assed? I guess I did. That term is very near an article of religion among Marines, especially if preceded by the word, “Gloriously.” Gloriously Raggedy-Assed. Capitalized. Okay, flyboys, I’ll let you borrow it, but just for today. Wear it well, and don’t let the waitresses in your messhalls spill the crème de Brule on it.
The men and women serving in the US Air Force today don’t face the butchery their ancestors did, and thank goodness for that! I pray they never do. But, by golly, they’re out there, every day, laying it on the line. They aren’t facing flak 88’s or SAM’s, but gravity never sleeps, and flying extremely high-performance aircraft is dangerous bordering on stupid. Not all “flyboys” are “flyboys,’ of course. (Some aren’t even boys!) It takes a huge number of mechanics, drivers, programmers, scope dopes, clerks, and every job imaginable to keep such a huge and complex organization functional. They are away from their families, working 24-hour days in terrible weather, and, in places like the ‘Stan never being truly safe. (We Nam vets can relate, eh?)
So happy birthday to the United States Air Force. In all seriousness and sincerity, y’all have done this nation proud, and I, for one, just about bust my buttons thinking about your history and present accomplishments.
For those of y’all who are readers, here is my short list of Air Force (and Air Corps) books. “Black Thursday” and “They Fought With What They Had,” both by Martin Caidin. “Masters of the Air,” by Miller. “Red Tails, Black Wings,” by John B. Holway. “Thud Ridge,” by Jack Broughton. There is a relatively new and unknown movie at Redbox called, “Fortress,” about a bomber crew flying out of Tunisia against the Axis in Italy. I heartily recommend it, though the B-17 geeks will spend a good bit of the first viewing picking on trivial errors. However, upon watching it a second time, which I also recommend, they will sit in silence, caught up in this very low-budget film that so succinctly captures the nature of war inside a B-17. They got a lot more big stuff right than they got little stuff wrong.
18 Sept., 2012