By Dale Martin
May 27, 2022
As we reach another Memorial Day, it is again time to pay tribute to the soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines that not only served this nation but also offered the greatest sacrifice to protect and preserve its glorious ideals and freedoms.
Throughout my life, I have had a deep interest in American military history. As a middle and high school student I’d read several books each week regarding the political and military operations during the American Revolution, the War of 1812, the Civil War, World War II, and Korea. I collected and played scores of games depicting the military actions of units ranging from individual men to the entire armies of vast nations. Nothing, though, is as insightfully moving as to explore and visit the equipment and battlefields of those conflicts.
As a mechanized infantry officer, I am intimately familiar with the cramped quarters of a modern armored vehicle. The operational space, the turret, which I shared with my gunner was crowded with gun controls, radios, ammunition, and batteries. It was about the size of a standard office desk, and with significantly more hard, sharp edges.
Fortunately, I never engaged in combat in my armored vehicle, but it is quite easy to imagine the fear and chaos of a World War II tank crew on a loud, smoke-filled, explosion-rocked battlefield. We fielded thousands of tanks and hundreds of thousands of crewmen and other soldiers during that global war. The people of this nation, abroad and at home, are often referred to as the Greatest Generation (as coined by journalist author Tom Brokaw, The Greatest Generation; 1998). Those are a few of those we honor this weekend.
Several years ago, I had the opportunity to experience a flight on a World War II B-17 bomber. The B-17 bomber was the workhorse of the 8th Air Force’s strategic bombing campaign in Europe. The aircraft had a typical crew of ten men, four engines, a dozen machine guns, and a bomb capacity of 6,000 pounds. It was referred to as the Flying Fortress for the amount of damage it could dish out as well as the amount of damage it could sustain.
My chance to view and ride a B-17 was during a visit of several historic aircraft to Herlong Field on the west side of Jacksonville. After exploring the aircraft on the ground, my fellow passengers and I received a safety briefing and boarded the plane. Although we strapped in along the side of the fuselage, we were told that once airborne, we were free to move around the plane to the different crew stations.
It was an impressive flight. Unlike the protective armor of a tank, the protection on the B-17 was simply sheet metal: it felt like I was in one of those cardboard tubes around which paper towels are wrapped. The simulated 6,000-pound bomb load was twelve overwhelmingly small 500-pound bombs.
Really? The airmen that boarded these unpressurized, unheated planes to fly at 20,000 feet or higher, dodging antiaircraft artillery and fending off hundreds of fighters to drop twelve unguided bombs on a “routine” mission had the goal of completing twenty-five missions for their tour. It was an incredible feat to complete those twenty-five missions over Europe in 1942-1943.
Ironically, my Army service had me stationed in Schweinfurt, Bavaria, the bombing target for hundreds of B-17s on October 14, 1943, what has become known as Black Thursday. A first raid on Schweinfurt, strategically notable for its ball-bearing factories in August 1943, was not as successful as hoped, so a second raid was undertaken. Nearly 300 bombers left their bases in England that morning, and when their fighter escorts, due to lack of range, turned back, the German fighters attacked. Schweinfurt was deep enough into Germany that many of the first waves of German fighters were able to attack and then land to refuel and rearm and hit the American bombers again on their return flight.
The mission was a catastrophic failure: sixty bombers, with 600 crewmen, were shot down. The incredible losses, not only of this one raid but during other raids over the past month, led American commanders to suspend future long-range operations without adequate fighter escorts. Imagine doing that twenty-five times. Perhaps “greatest” generation is actually an understatement.
My other notable visit (2010) was to the beaches of Normandy. As an American soldier, it is a grippingly moving battlefield memorial. I don’t think it is possible to fully comprehend what it was like to be wading ashore to those beaches (or parachuting behind enemy lines) on Jun 6, 1944, and then fighting across Europe for another year. The beaches of the Pacific War (which were contested for four years) were similarly deadly.
Let us celebrate the land of the free and the home of the brave, but let us also not forget the cost of that celebration. Please commemorate those who paid that cost.