The Still Mighty Eighth

Dec. 1, 1982

May 1944: Tail gunner Harold Bailey and his crew never had a chance to name their B-17. The big Fort was brand-spanking new, and there hadn’t been a chance to adorn the fuselage with a colorful illustration and a nickname like Blazing Heat, Calamity Jane, Memphis Belle, or Virgo.

They were on their fourth combat mission over Northeast Germany. Their target: a synthetic oil refinery. “Quite a few went down that day. Even some of us no-name bombers,” Bailey remembers.

“We were getting flak north of Berlin just after we’d hit our target when a group of Focke-Wulf 190 fighters came at us from right out of the sun.”

Bailey didn’t see or hear any shots, but briefly watched the German fighters come off their kill on the limping bomber. “I was scared but my training worked and I got out of the smoking aircraft.”

The ten men in his crew survived, with only one sprained ankle among them. Except for Bailey, all were captured the first day. For three days the young American evaded German farmers alerted to watch for him. Finally, needing food and water, he slowly approached a farmhouse. “I thought it was safe, but as I got nearer the house I saw a woman with a posse of fifty German civilians with shotguns, farm tools, and the like behind her.”

Bailey tried to hide in a nearby swamp, but eventually was captured. “They had never seen an American before,” he said.

Bailey was soon in the hands of German soldiers and headed for Stalag Luft IV, a POW camp, in Grosstychow, in eastern Germany (now Poland). After six months of confinement, he went on a forced march westward across Germany. On the ninety-sixth day of the march, he was liberated by a British patrol.

One footnote: If his crew had named the B-17, they would have called her Forever Yours.

Today: The sixty-one-year-old veteran, a retired cabinetmaker, resides near Hartford, Conn.

— — —

August 1944: Bill Wisner, an eighteen-year-old B-24 waist gunner, was over Holland coming home when it happened.

“A group of fighters, Messerschmitt Me-109s, jumped us—twenty-one of them. The right side tail gunner got shot—then there were flames,” Weisner recalled. Six of the crew of ten would die that day.

As he looked around he noticed the right vertical fin of the B-24 Liberator was half gone. “On the fighters’ second pass, I caught a 20-mm round in my right side,” he continued. “It picked me up and set me down between the ball turret and the right side of the ship.”

Dazed, he got up and started shooting again, but soon passed out. “Somehow I got my parachute on, opened back hatch, and fell out.”

He landed in a potato field and lay there for some time before several Dutch farmers found him. “They told me I was done for, but carried me to a hospital anyway.”

He was soon turned over to the Germans and was allowed a brief recovery period in a German hospital before being sent to a POW camp near Frankfurt, Germany.

Nine months and three POW camps later he was released to Allied forces.

Today: Fifty-six-year-old Weisner is the Director of the Indiana Business College, Columbus, Ind.

— — —

December 1944: Charles J. Cesky was a captain assigned to the 352d Fighter Group, based in Bodney, Norfolk, England. Captain Cesky was a fighter ace.

He flew 158 sorties in the P-51 Mustang, escorting bombers and strafing land targets in Germany and France. He downed nine enemy aircraft, three on the same day.

Cesky vividly remembers the day he himself was shot down. “I knew that if it would happen this would be the day. I wanted to fly so badly that I was willing to go without a parachute, he said.

On December 31, his chute was being repacked when the alert sounded. He was flying out of Asche (Y-29), Belgium, on a radar-controlled mission when Cesky led his flight of four aircraft through an undercast. “When we came out we were directly over a German airfield. Twenty-millimeter shells were popping all around me, and four hit Diann.” Cesky had named his aircraft after his daughter.

“I was bleeding and tried to climb above the overcast when I lost power.” He made a dead-stick crash landing with the Germans still firing from both sides of a frozen field. Shaken but still alive, Cesky was crawling away from the wreckage when he remembered he had left behind the photo of his daughter.

“I had just retrieved it and was turning away from the bent cockpit when I looked up and saw several soldiers pointing their guns at me.”

They were British and had just taken the area.

Today: Cesky, a retired USAF lieutenant colonel, lives in Tampa, Fla.

— — —

Bailey, Weisner, and Cesky. All were members of the Eighth Air Force during World War II. Though it had been four decades since the Eighth played its vital role in the air war in Europe, an observer couldn’t discern that fact from their eighth annual reunion, which drew more than 2,500 members of the Mighty Eighth to Cincinnati, Ohio, in October.

Veterans like Bailey, Weisner, and Cesky are all grayer and wiser now, but they tell their war stories with such vigor and excitement that it’s as if it all happened yesterday.

The reunion was an opportunity for fellowship, and, as one B-17 aircraft technician said, “it’s a chance to go back down memory lane.”

Most said they’d join the military again. “I enlisted because I felt there was a job I could do and, yes, I would enlist again,” said Mrs. Isabella Novak, a former sergeant and administrative specialist in the Women’s Army Corps.

The four-day event was organized by the 8th Air Force Historical Society. Founded in 1975, the Society, which has more than 10,000 members, is “responsible for organizing reunions and tours and creating interest in the preservation of Eighth Air Force memorabilia and history,” said Lt. Col. John Woolnough, USAF (Ret.), the Society’s operations manager. Reunion activities included a general membership meeting, unit organizational meetings, and a nostalgic “Aero Club” dance. There were World War II movies and a Jimmy Stewart training film from 1941.

Some attendees arrived a day ahead of the reunion to attend an air war symposium on escape and evasion and prisoner-of-war-related topics. The panels included representatives from several European countries, allied commanders in various POW camps, and Col. Francis S. Gabreski, the highest scoring living USAF ace, who was captured shortly after scoring his twenty-eighth victory, but who went on to score another 6.5 victories in Korea to bring his total to 34.5.

Dayton Memorial

One of the highlights was the unveiling of the Eighth Air Force Dayton Memorial at the Air Force Museum, Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio.

The dedication speaker was Lt. Gen. Robert T. Herres, Commander of the Eighth Air Force, who said, “This monument now memorializes the men of Eighth Air Force who gave their lives in the Second World War. Out of their deaths came victory in Europe. Out of their lives came the birth of airpower as we know it today.”

The memorial, nearly twenty feet high, is a three-sided pillar constructed of Indiana limestone. A propeller is mounted near the top of the memorial stone. Bronze plaques on each of the three sides depict the history of the Eighth in World War II and provide a map of the Eighth’s bases in England during that period.

“We talk today of strategic bombing and air combat maneuvers as if they had been with us always,” General Herres said. “They have not. They were discovered the hard way by the men of the Mighty Eighth. The hard way.”

More than 2,800 people attended the ceremony, which also included the dedication of living tree memorials on the Museum ground for the persons lost in various Eighth Air Force units during the war.

A Look Back

The Eighth Air Force was born on January 28, 1942, in Savannah, Ga. In February, Brig. Gen. Ira C. Eaker and six other officers, an advance detachment of the VIII Bomber Command, arrived in England. Their task was to lay the groundwork for American combat flying units soon to be based in England, including Eighth Air Force. The Eighth would test the United States Army Air Forces’ new doctrine of high-altitude daylight precision bombing, and, within a short period of time, was spread out on more than 112 English airfields.

According to Roger A. Freeman, noted military historian and author of the book The Mighty Eighth: “The hope was that such a campaign could render massive devastation to the war industry of a highly industrialized nation like Germany, so that it would be unable to supply and support its armed forces.”

The Eighth flew various models of the B-17, B-24, and B-26 bombers, P-38, P-47, and P-51 fighters, and, for special missions, the British Spitfires and Mosquito light bombers.

By the end of the war the Eighth had achieved these impressive statistics, according to the Eighth Air Force Office of History:

• 600,000 sorties flown.

• 700,000 tons of bombs dropped.

• 5,000 enemy aircraft destroyed by fighters.

• 4,000 enemy aircraft destroyed by strafing.

• 6,000 enemy aircraft destroyed by aircrew gunners.

These figures do not include the undetermined thousands of German aircraft destroyed or damaged on the ground by bombers.

On April 25, 1945, Eighth Air Force attacked its last industrial target of World War II—an armament works in Czechoslovakia. At its peak strength, the Mighty Eighth could launch as many as 2,000 bombers and 1,000 fighters on a single mission.

The Eighth manning roster hit its peak around D-Day, with 25,000 men and women on the rolls. In all, about 35,000 served with the Eighth during the three years of aerial combat over Europe.

The statistics also show:

• 47,000 did not return from combat (estimated killed: 26,000).

• 17 Medals of Honor.

• 220 Distinguished Service Crosses.

• 850 Silver Stars.

• 7,000 Purple Hearts.

• 46,000 Distinguished Flying Crosses.

• 442,300 Air Medals.

• 261 fighter aces, thirty-one of them with more than fifteen kills.

Postwar Years

When SAC was organized in 1946, one of the first two major subordinate commands assigned to it was Eighth Air Force, initially headquartered at MacDill AFB, Fla., and then at Fort Worth Army Air Field, Tex. (later designated Carswell AFB).

Throughout this period and well into the 1950s, the Eighth’s combat forces were located primarily in the American southwest—Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Arizona. Eighth units operated the B-29, B-50, B-36, and B-47 bombers, and KB-29 and KC-97 tankers.

In June 1955, the Eighth moved to Westover AFB, Mass., and a year later received its first B-52 heavy bomber with a new tanker aircraft, the KC-135, brought on board the following year.

By the early 1960s, with the phaseout of B-47s and KC-97s having started, the Eighth received a new weapon—the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). Only one ICBM unit was initially under Eighth’s control—an Atlas squadron at Plattsburgh AFB, N.Y.—but the Eighth’s ICBM arm was strengthened in 1963 when it acquired the Titan I and II units and Atlas units in the Midwest and the Rocky Mountain regions from Fifteenth and Second Air Forces. An embryonic Minuteman missile force was also acquired. The mid-1960s saw the phasing out of several weapon systems, including the Atlas and Titan I missiles and b-47 and KC-97 aircraft.

On April 1, 1970, the Eighth moved personnel and equipment from Westover to Andersen AFB, Guam. There it absorbed the personnel and functions of Hq. Third Air Division, which was inactivated at the time and took over direction of bombing and tanker missions in Southeast Asia.

Besides Andersen, Eighth units also operated from Kadena AB, Okinawa; Clark AB, Philippines; and U-Tapao Air Base, Thailand.

Eighth bombers and personnel were heavily involved in the air campaigns that were aimed at slowing down or preventing the enemy from continuing the war in Southeast Asia. The enemy’s supply routes, lines of communication, and suspected storage compounds were bombed.

Linebacker II

By July 1972 the Eighth had more than 200 B-52s flying in Southeast Asia—about sixty in Thailand, and the remainder out of Guam. As Christmas 1972 approached, the peace negotiations were deadlocked with American POWs still in captivity. The strategic bombers of Eighth were chosen as the main thrust of an operation known as “Linebacker II.”

The carefully planned operation was designed to bring the North Vietnamese back to Paris for serious negotiations to halt the war. Targets included North Vietnamese airfields, railroad yards, repair and storage depots, Radio Hanoi, power plants, and surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites. Since the objective was to destroy military targets, not people, pinpoint bombing accuracy was essential.

During the eleven-day campaign (no bombs were dropped on Christmas), Eighth B-52 crews flew 729 sorties and dropped 15,237 tons of bombs on thirty-nine different targets. Fifteen B-52s were lost due to SAMs, and twenty-eight crew members were killed and/or listed as missing. The raids were instrumental in bringing about the cease-fire on January 28, 1973, and the release of American POWs.

On January 1, 1975, Eighth’s headquarters moved without personnel and equipment from Andersen to Barksdale AFB, La., where it assumed control over units that had been under the inactivated Second Air Force. Besides B-52s and KC-135s, Eighth now had jurisdiction over FB-111 medium bombers and Titan II and Minuteman II missiles.

On December 1, 1979, three missile warning squadrons in the eastern US, a missile warning group, and an air base group in Greenland transferred from the Air Defense Command to the Strategic Air Command and Eighth Air Force. During 1981, an Eighth Air Force unit, the 32d Air Refueling Squadron, 2d Bombardment Wing, at Barksdale AFB, La., began the USAF’s first operational flights with the KC-10 advanced cargo tanker aircraft.

The Eighth Today

Today there are about 50,000 people in the Eighth, which is organized into five air divisions that supervise eleven bombardment wings, two air refueling wings, two air refueling groups, three strategic missile wings, and three missile warning squadrons. Eighth’s bases span the eastern half of the US with activities extending eastward to Greenland and Europe.

Eighth Air Force has: forty-one operational squadrons, 170 long-range B-52s, sixty medium-range FB-111 bombers, 370 tankers, reconnaissance and command and control aircraft, and a growing squadron of KC-10s. It also possesses thirty-four Titan II missiles and 150 Minuteman II ICBMS. This month witnesses the first USAF unit to become operational with the Air-Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM)—an Eighth Air Force unit, the 416th Bomb Wing at Griffiss AFB, N.Y.

At the Cincinnati reunion the membership voted to permit all Eighth Air Force members, former and present, to join the Society. “This will help preserve the traditions and activities of Eighth Air Force for future generations,” said Colonel Woolnough.

As General Herres told those meeting in Ohio: “As long as there is the slightest change that airmen will be needed to show an enemy what airpower means, the Eighth will be there.”