The Collings Foundation Wings of Freedom Tour this year includes B-17 and B-24 bombers and also a P-51 Mustang fighter. You can visit the airplanes for a small donation and, for a substantially larger donation, you can actually take a ride! If the tour is coming to an airport near you, these planes are well worth seeing. Schedule here.
The P-51 has an interesting history. Its design was led by James “Dutch” Kindelberger, a high-school dropout who had worked as a draftsman and taken correspondence courses before gaining admission to college. Kindleberger became president of North American Aviation in 1935. When his company was approached by the British govenment to manufacture a batch of P-40 Tomahawk fighters, Kindelberger proposed instead that a new design be built. Fortunately for the world, his proposal was accepted, and the first P-51 was flown only 6 months after the order was placed.
The P-51 had considerably greater range than previous escort fighters. Hermann Goering told his interrogators that it was when he saw P-51s over Berlin that he knew the war was lost for Germany.
Aerial warfare is of course not only about machines; it is also about men. Randall Jarrell, a major American poet, served in the U.S. Army Air Force during the war, and wrote many poems centering around WWII air combat.
The best known of these is Death of the Ball Turret Gunner:
From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose
One of Jarrell’s most haunting poems is A Front (as in “cold front,” but probably also a reference to the term “front” in a military sense), which begins:
Fog over the base: the beams ranging
From the five towers pull home from the night
The crews cold in fur, the bombers banging
Like lost trucks down the levels of the ice
(One of the bombers has lost half of its radio equipment: it can transmit, but cannot receive…and thereby, has lost its navigation as well as its communications, since it cannot receive the signals from the electronic navigation stations (”the beams ranging from the five towers”) which were to guide it home. Those on the ground can hear the bomber crew, but their attempts to help are lost in the void.)
Here’s an excerpt from Losses:
In bombers named for girls, we burned
The cities we had learned about in school–
Till our lives wore out; our bodies lay among
The people we had killed and never seen.
When we lasted long enough they gave us medals;
When we died they said, “Our casualties were low.”
They said, “Here are the maps”; we burned the cities
In Siegfried, a former gunner on a bomber reflects on the mission that cost him his leg:
In the turret’s great glass dome, the apparition, death,
Framed in the glass of the gunsight, a fighter’s blinking wing,
Flares softly, a vacant fire. If the flak’s inked blurs-
Distributed, statistical-the bombs’ lost patterning
Are death, they are death under glass, a chance
For someone yesterday, someone tomorrow; and the fire
That streams from the fighter which is there, not there,
Does not warm you, has not burned them, though they die.
Under the leather and fur and wire, in the gunner’s skull,
It is a dream: and he, the watcher, guiltily
Watches the him, the actor, who is innocent.
It happens as it does because it does.
It is unnecessary to understand; if you are still
In this year of our warfare, indispensable
In general, and in particular dispensable
As a cartridge, a life-it is only to enter
So many knots in a window, so many feet;
To switch on for an instant the steel that understands.
Do as they said; as they said, there is always a reason-
Though neither for you nor for the fatal
Knower of wind, speed, pressure: the unvalued facts.
(In Nature there is neither right nor left nor wrong.)
(The phrase “the steel that understands” is a reference to a computing bombsight)