Savage Sky: Life and Death on a Bomber over Germany in 1944 (Stackpole Military History Series) - George Webster When reviewing a book, I like to compare it against my expectations for that genre: they vary. For a memoir I would expect to learn something about the author who must also have something to say and/or reveal something about the time and place of the memoir. Does it add anything to our knowledge is another question I might ask. Finally, do I give a shit about either the author or the time and place? Sometimes I begin a memoir knowing I'll learn something of the time and place only to discover I've begun to like the author and so actually do care about what happens to him or her.

Webster captures better than most the harrowing, terrifying, and just downright uncomfortable experience flying missions in a B-17 over Europe. Almost not making it, when the plane they were ferrying nonstop ran into headwinds, (the engines ran out of fuel while taxing after they managed to find an airbase in Ireland) his life thereafter was awful. His intent was never to be in the Air Corps but enlistees had little choice and went where assigned and because he had an aptitude for Morse Code was trained as a radio operator. The planes were unheated and the slipstream would come through the plane at 20,000 plus feet at 20 degrees below zero at 170 mph making for a wind chill of, well I have no idea. (The Plexiglas top over the radio operators station didn't appear until the G model.) On one occasion his oxygen mask froze and it was only fortuitous that he recognized the feelings of well-being and warmth as symptoms of CO2 poisoning.

The reality of flying was the opposite of what they had been led to believe. The idea that their guns would provide an impenetrable barrier was "horseshit" according to his British instructor. "They shoot down our guys on almost every mission." And a pilot stunned Webster when he revealed he was to only one of his group to make twenty-five missions. Their instructor cautions, "you got no training in the U.S., for practical purposes. . .even with training half of new crews don’t survive the first six missions." (The Memphis Belle crew was the first in May of 1943. In the previous eight months not one crew survived to make twenty-five missions.

There were no facilities on a B-17 and it was too cold to just whip it out and relieve oneself so voiding before they left was imperative. (I would have peed my pants although whether that would have shorted out the electric heating wires in the suits might have been a problem.) To avoid problems at the other end, crews were dosed with paregoric (containing opium) before leaving which bound them up tight, and then dosed with castor oil to unbind things if they returned. Medics issued amphetamines to keep them awake and sleeping pills to help them sleep.

To make things worse, it was revealed that German civilians were lynching bomber crews who had parachuted safely. If found by the German Army they were safe - unless they had killed a German civilian while defending themselves against lynching, in which case they were executed. Catch-22.
Assuming a successful bombing run escaping flak and enemy fighters there was always danger from friendly aircraft. Webster watched in horror as one returning B-17 trying to regain some altitude slammed into the plane above him sending both to a fiery grave below.

"I have flown only four missions, but I have learned a lot from talking with veteran crews that have survived twelve or even twenty missions. They say that the air force and news media in the United States misled us. The B-17 Flying Fortress is no fortress. It’s a first-rate airplane and can survive much punishment, but German fighters can shoot it down easily, and its eleven machine guns are little protection. The gunners try hard and frequently destroy a fighter, but our pilots take violent, evasive action by throwing the bombers all over the sky to avoid the fighters’ gunfire. This spoils the gunners’ aim, and their bullets fly in all directions. I guess our commanders, being pilots, don’t trust the gunners, so they decree this wild, evasive action. Real protection for us comes from an escort of our fighter planes. When we are beyond the range of our escort, we lose lots of bombers. Thus, we don’t fly unscathed to a target and return in the best Hollywood tradition. We die from freezing, anoxia (lack of oxygen), altitude sickness, gunshots, shrapnel, being trapped in a burning plane, and explosion. . .I can't get it out of my mind that my chance of surviving twenty-five missions is so small, but if I refuse to fly, I face execution for desertion. What a dilemma to face: death if you do and death if you don’t. No wonder fellows go insane. Most of us are depressed. I see it in pale faces and trembling bodies at briefings. I see men praying. A few try to joke, but I note that they are pale and fidget at the same time. As for me, I’m frightened out of my wits. I wish my headache would go away. I've had it for three days, and it’s killing me."

By the time he reaches his seventeenth mission, only four of the original ten original crew members. On that mission his Group lost 40% of its aircraft and two of the planes in his squadron that managed to make it back will have to be junked they are so shot up. Exhaustion is a constant, fear is constant, the stress headaches have become almost unbearable and he's living on sleeping pills and amphetamines (all Army approved and prescribed, of course.) No one believes they can survive the next mission, let alone thirty.

One flyer, Charles , had enough and refused to fly any more missions. He could have been executed, but his superiors having faced similar terrors, demoted him to private and gave him the job of sweeping floors. The punishment was harsher than one could imagine, having to face his friends as they left on missions and then counting the number who didn’t return. He finally decided to return to combat flying and filled in on a crew for a member who was sick. On April 11, 1944, in the B-17 just behind Webster's, Charles's plane exploded during an attack by FW-190s and Charles died.

Obviously, Webster survived the war. Just how, you will have to read the book to find out. He had to be one of the luckiest men around. Webster conveys a nice mix of naiveté that is often lacking from more polished memoirs. For example, the time he visits Cambridge and is just awe-struck by the sense of history and learning. Or his visit to a prostitute in London and the friendship that develops between him and a stripper he met on a bet. We genuinely see a nineteen-year-old terrified and the hopelessness of his situation.

Update 8/9/13 Just ran across this official Army video celebrating the Memphis Belle. . Interestingly, I recently had a tour of the last flying B-29, the bomber, slightly larger than a B-17, that was assigned mostly to the Pacific. There was also a B-24 where I toured the B-29, and what struck me the most about all the planes was how very small they were. It must have been claustrophobic in those things.