How did combat affect the capability of aircrews during World War II?

“Your assignment to the B-17 airplane means that you are no longer just a pilot. You are now an airplane commander, charged with all the duties and responsibilities of a command post.

You are now flying a 10-man weapon. It is your airplane, and your crew. You are responsible for the safety and efficiency of the crew at all times–not just when you are flying and fighting, but for the full 24 hours of every day while you are in command.

Your crew is made up of specialists. Each man — whether he is the navigator, bombardier, engineer, radio operator, or one of the gunners — is an expert in his line. But how well he does his job, and how efficiently he plays his part as a member of your combat team, will depend to a great extent on how well you play your own part as the airplane commander.

Get to know each member of your crew as an individual. Know his personal idiosyncrasies, his capabilities, his shortcomings. Take a personal interest in his problems, his ambitions, his need for specific training.”

B-17 training manual

Flying in a war is both physically and mentally exhausting. Even before a pilot climbs into his plane, he has a tremendous weight on his shoulders to make sure that he and his crew are in good shape to fly. During each mission, these men faced a slew of dangers that ranged from enemy fire to weather to mechanical problems. It’s not something that pilots or their crews could ever adapt to. After missions in the Pacific, men were given a 2 oz. ration of whiskey by the flight surgeon to help calm their nerves. Facing this danger day after day was a great strain on the pilots. Whether or not a pilot was capable of flying was not openly discussed, as pilots didn’t want to face the possibility of being grounded. They kept an eye on each other though and some would bring up the uncomfortable topic amongst a group of pilots if they felt like one pilot had been making too many mistakes and putting the lives of his crew in danger as well as the lives of the men flying around him.

Second Lieutenant Samuel W. Bennett's B-25 pulling away from its attack on the destroyer Amatsukaze. Photo from Warpath Across the Pacific.

This photo, meant only to illustrate one of the many dangerous situations faced by aircrews, shows Second Lieutenant Samuel W. Bennett’s B-25 pulling away from its attack on the destroyer Amatsukaze on April 6, 1945.

Bringing up questions about a pilot’s flight ability with the C.O. was a matter of delicate maneuvering. The men didn’t want to criticize a fellow pilot, but felt that it was a matter of safety. If this man continued flying missions, there was a good chance that his actions could get others hurt or killed. In at least one instance, hushed discussions with a group of pilots and a few select individuals took place to make sure everyone was on the same page before taking it up with the C.O., who would also quietly reassign the pilot to a ground crew.

These days, the effects of war on ground troops is fairly well known. The same effects on the aircrews is not talked about as often, although stories written and told by veterans have been able to give us more perspective on how they were impacted. Below is a portion of the reflections on the war from the air written by one pilot after he rotated home in 1943.

“It may be that I am merely not so well able to ‘take it’ as are many other men, both of allies and of enemies, who must have seen far longer periods of hazard than I and carried on; for while I would have continued flying combat had it been ordered, it would have been with the sense that a trap was closing about me and that escape was hopeless. The technique of my flying might have been hurt little, but my judgment with regard to weather, mechanical difficulties, enemy opposition, etc, was already deteriorating and would surely soon have become faulty, dangerously faulty, with danger for me and my crew and my colleagues—and for my self respect: for my mind must have been nearly ready to give up on the problem of reconciling life and duty, the simple but urgent desire to keep living, and the hundred loves and prides that the sense of duty is. And this feeling was not mine alone but was common to all the ‘old ones,’ the originals of the squadron, and the terror of some was so great that they refused to fly—but though their own shame tore at them there was no harshness from the rest, for we all had the same feeling but were trying to hold out a little longer, if we could make it.”

—1/Lt. John M. Donegan


Visit this site for more information on the history of PTSD in veterans.

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10 thoughts on “How did combat affect the capability of aircrews during World War II?

  1. As a captain of a crew you are certainly under great pressure to get not only your bomb load to the target, but your crew home safely too. No wonder pilots (and crew men) cracked under this pressure. We talk about pressured jobs today, but this is the real deal.

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  2. In Bomber Command the problem was the amazing rate of deaths, worse than WW1, but set against that, the terror of being labelled a coward, as having. LMF, Lack of Moral Fibre. My Dad was clearly very much affected by his war experiences, even well into the 1960s

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