U.S.

December 7, 2012

Resiliency, a way of life for World War II aviators like Zamperini

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Dr. Joseph Mason & Laura Mowry
AFTC History Office/Staff Writer


There was nothing easy about life for those in the Pacific Theater during World War II, especially for B-24 Liberator crew members like Capt. Louis Zamperini.

It was risky, the quality of life was minimal at best, and crew members knew if something went wrong, there was a good chance they would never make it home.

Many Airmen nevertheless answered the nation’s call, volunteering for some of the most dangerous wartime missions ever flown. Resiliency was not an option; it was a way of life for the airmen in the Pacific, who faced unimaginable circumstances day after day.

“Their everyday life was tough, the conditions were harsh; they lived in tents, you washed out of a bucket. They ate processed Spam, dried potatoes and dry eggs if you could get them. They rarely had fresh fruit and the water was questionable at best. You accepted the conditions and you kept doing your job because you couldn’t let your country or your airmen down,” said George Welsh, Air Force Flight Test Museum director.

Not only were these four-engine bombers one of the primary Air Force strategic weapons in Europe, where they performed roles such as protecting merchant shipping from German submarines, they also served with distinction in the Pacific Theater.

“The B-24 really could do it all. Up until this point in history, no other aircraft had been modified for such a variety of missions. By 1943, all the B-17s had been phased out of the Pacific Theater and replaced with the B-24, which was designed to carry a heavier bomb load for a greater distance,” said Welsh.

Crew members of the B-24 Liberator flew a variety of missions in the Pacific Theater including high and low-level bombing, reconnaissance, delivering supplies, and attacking enemy shipping. The bombers were instrumental in defeating Japanese air and sea power on islands the Japanese had seized in the first months of the war.

Working closely with ground and naval forces, air power allowed Allied forces to by-pass large enemy bases, seizing locations suitable for naval and air bases. Heavy bombers not only led the way, but they also kept up pressure on bypassed enemy bases, leaving large garrisons cut off from resupply to wait for the end of the war in 1945.

Their unheralded victories not only turned the tide of the war in the Pacific, but improvised new doctrines of air warfare to gain air superiority over the Japanese. Aviators learned to skip bombs like stones into the sides of enemy ships, developed low-level attack weapons and tactics, and were the first to use napalm and improvised cluster munitions, wrapping barbed wire around bombs to inflict maximum damage on parked enemy aircraft.

As the U.S. mobilized to fight a global war, the requirement for aircraft was so great that the aerospace manufacturers teamed with the automotive industry to build bombers. In fact more than 19,000 B-24s were built during the war, half of which were manufactured by Ford Motor Company.

Ford built an enormous factory in Willow Run, Mich., near Detroit, which was one of five production lines supplying large numbers of B-24s to combatant commands in both the European and Pacific theaters.

“The B-24 was designed to be built quickly with greater speed and greater range than the B-17. You had to strike at the enemy from great distances both in the Pacific and European theaters. The goal was to overwhelm the enemy with great numbers. Airplanes had to be built quickly. It was saturation bombing back then; there was no precision,” said Welsh.

However, taking the fight to the enemy in the air was accomplished at enormous cost.

U.S. Army Air Forces suffered 52,173 killed in action. An additional 35,946 Airmen died of non-battle injuries, including 25,844 in aircraft accidents, while more than 18,000 Airmen were wounded in action and another 41,000 became prisoners of war.

Total USAAF aircraft losses were more than ten times the entire current U.S. Air Force inventory, with over 65,000 aircraft lost in combat and training accidents during the war.

Hundreds of aviators like Zamperini were held in Japanese prisoner of war camps, liberated only when Japan surrendered after airpower had systematically destroyed major cities through incendiary and atomic attack, while naval forces blockaded vital shipping lanes.

“Airmen like Zamperini had to be resilient. Going down in the Pacific meant fighting off sharks, drifting around in the open ocean and realizing that there’s a good chance no one is even looking for you. If you happened to find an island, you then had to worry about the Japanese finding you. The chance of survival was very slim,” said Welsh.

Team Edwards will have the opportunity to hear the inspirational story behind Zamperini’s incredible resiliency and heroism on Wingman Day, Dec. 10 at 11 a.m. in the Base Theater.

Supervisors will hand out tickets to people in their unit to attend his presentation at the Base Theater. If you would like to submit a question to be considered for the Q & A session, please send it to newsroom@edwards.af.mil by noon, Dec. 7.

Attendees are expected to show up at least 30 minutes prior and be seated 15 minutes beforehand. Those who don’t receive tickets will be able to view the event live in their unit conference room. Talk to your Wingman Day POC for more information.

The New York Times bestseller, “Unbroken,” written by Laura Hillenbrand, details Zamperini’s remarkable story and is available at the Base Exchange or at the Base Library. All are highly encouraged to familiarize themselves with his story before he speaks to Team Edwards on Wingman Day.




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