The U.S. Eighth Air Force launched its bombing campaign against Nazi Germany, one of the largest, most important and most devastating strategic initiatives in the annals of warfare, on this day in history, Jan. 27, 1943.
“I knew what it meant to look my own fear in the face and do my duty because the lives of my crew and the destiny of my country depended on it,” Eighth Air Force B-17 bomber pilot and future Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry wrote in his eponymous 1990 autobiography.
“War tested me. But I had survived. And the experience had given me not only a broader perspective on life, but a confidence in myself I had never known before.”
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A total of 55 bombers dropped 137 tons of bombs on warehouses, industrial plants and U-boat docks on the port of Wilhemshaven on the North Sea on Jan. 27.
It was the first American air attack on the German homeland in World War II.
The Eighth Air Force flew an incredible 440,000 bomber sorties over Germany by the end of the war in Europe in May 1945, dropping 697,000 tons of explosives.
“I remember thinking how good, how all-American the young fliers looked in their leather jackets, open shirt collars, and jaunty leather-peaked caps set on their heads in casually rakish angles,” World War II correspondent Andy Rooney — later a “60 Minutes” commentator — romanticized of the heroes in his 1995 autobiography, “My War.”
“I knew what it meant to look my own fear in the face and do my duty.” — Bomber pilot Tom Landry
Rooney and fellow legendary American newsman Walter Cronkite were among the young war reporters who cut their teeth skirting death on bombing missions over Germany in 1943.
They helped chronicle the horrific losses.
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The Eighth Air Force suffered nearly half of all U.S. Army Air Force casualties of World War II (47,483 out of 115,332). More than 26,000 of these men were killed in action, according to Air Force reports.
The U.S. Eighth Air Force was part of the U.S. Army Air Corps in World War II.
The Air Force became a separate branch of the miliary in 1947, two years after the war.
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“The United States Eighth Air Force deployed to England with a daunting mission: destroy Germany’s ability to wage war, and gain command of the European skies to pave the way for an Allied land invasion,” writes the National World War II Museum.
“In order to accomplish it, thousands of American airmen had to face the constant threat of death daily.”
The effort was intended to devastate Germany’s war-making infrastructure. More than 100 of Germany’s largest cities lay in smoldering ruins by the end of the war.
“The Eighth planned and precisely executed America’s daylight strategic bombing campaign against Nazi-occupied Europe, and in doing so the organization compiled an impressive war record,” writes the Eighth Air Force in its official online history.
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“The Eighth’s brave men earned 17 Medals of Honor, 220 Distinguished Service Crosses, and 442,000 Air Medals. The Eighth’s combat record also shows 566 aces (261 fighter pilots with 31 having 15 or more victories and 305 enlisted gunners).”
The bombing campaign came at a tragic human cost.
“The long, slow death spiral of a bomber with its crew on board is a terrible thing to see.” — Andy Rooney, “My War”
German civilians suffered through what became known as “total war” in World War II — three years after Hitler launched a bombing campaign against Great Britain.
As many as 800,000 German civilians were killed during British and American bombing raids in World War II.
Germany at the same time rained down death daily on Britain and recently liberated Belgium, France and Netherlands through its V2 rocket program. Thousands of rockets struck Allied civilian targets as technology erased traditional battlefield lines.
The men who survived bombing missions over Europe suffered incredible mental strain, as they were forced to face the likelihood of death so often.
American bombardier Joseph Heller channeled his mental anguish in the brilliant, hallucinatory, tragic-comic 1961 antiwar novel “Catch-22.”
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It tells the tale of bombardier Captain Yossarian, trying to avoid flying more missions at all costs, while entrapped by the military logic of Catch-22.
American bombardier Joseph Heller channeled his mental anguish in the tragic-comic 1961 antiwar novel “Catch-22.”
It dictated that any crewman afraid of dying on a mission was of sound mind and therefore had to fly; anyone willing to fly more missions was insane and never said anything. Either way, sane or insane, crewmen were flying in the face of death.
“That’s some catch, that Catch-22,” Yossarian tells a military doctor in one of the turning points of the novel.
“Catch-22” proved so popular that the phrase entered the English language as a synonym for a no-win situation.
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The bombing experience made Heller a “tortured, funny, deeply peculiar human being,” the New York Times wrote in 2011.
Rooney, best known later on for his work on “60 Minutes,” experienced the intense fear of flying bombing missions when he attacked Germany with the Eighth Air Force on Feb. 26, 1943.
“Several B-17s around us were hit. Three in formation went down,” he wrote in “My War,” noting that German planes would fly above the Allied bombers and drop parachute explosives between them to maximize casualties.
“The long, slow death spiral of a bomber with its crew on board is a terrible thing to see. It was worse for the crew because they knew all 30 men on board.”
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Rooney’s plane was hit by German fire but survived the trip back to England.
The reporter, just 24 years old at the time, added, “February 26 was the first time I’d seriously considered my own death.”