Remembering The Mighty Eighth

Traveling I-95, the East Coast’s main street, you come to something seemingly out of place in Savannah, Georgia: A museum dedicated to World War II’s Eighth Air Force. Visit and you’ll see why it’s here. You can’t fly-in, but it’s only two miles from KSAV.

Why Savannah? Nearby Hunter Field was “the birthplace of the Eighth Air Force.” It also processed a prodigious number of bombers headed to England, the Eighth’s base for strategic bombardment of occupied Europe. My uncle worked on them for much of his war. The museum’s B-17 is being restored as “The City of Savannah,” which by December 1944 was the 5,000th airplane processed here en route to war.

To the general public, the meaning of the place may not be apparent. A highway sign cleverly puts “MIGHTY EIGHTH” on its first line and “Air Force Museum” on a second, considering that most wouldn’t know what an Eighth Air Force was. To we regular viewers of The Military Channel, et. al., you can skip the first galleries and their extensive prelude-to-war detail. You already know all this, even if today’s kids don’t.

What’s really valuable are the occasional intimate glimpses into the life of the World War II Eighth. One entertaining section covers the clash of cultures between two English-speaking peoples “separated by a common language.” A frank commentary on misunderstandings with a sexual connotation includes GI amusement at the English phase, “I’ll knock you up” — by which British hosts meant they’d wake you in the morning with a rap on your door. Another tale recounted how a Yank, welcomed in for a home-cooked meal, departed with a casual “see you later.” The increasingly miffed host family stayed up ‘til 3 a.m. awaiting his return.

With some careful searching (there’s an awful lot to read), the aviation-savvy will find interesting technical details. Fascinating to me was how the B-17 or B-24 waist gunner took his aim. “Don’t depend on your tracers,” a vintage poster advised. “Learn your three deflections and get that fighter!”

A training film explained the physics of aerial gunnery with how a newsboy on a bike throws a paper onto the porch. The motion of the bike (or airspeed of a bomber) is additive to the path of the newspaper (or bullet.) The resulting rule, counter-intuitive as it may be: Shoot backwards half-way between the attacking fighter and your bomber’s tail using three standard deflection angles that change as the fighter sweeps in from side approach to tail-chase. These three offsets were gauged by the three concentric rings of the gunner’s sight.

Of particular interest was how these men got into this hazardous duty in the first place. An early-war recruiting film features Jimmy Stewart in his AAF uniform, pitching college and high schools guys on how great it all will be: $200 to $400 a month, “free” technical training, and don’t forget the effect of those wings on the ladies! What a pitch! But Stewart wasn’t just a spokesman. He flew with the Eighth, commanded a squadron and was decorated for leading a particularly tough raid. He gets much attention in the museum.

There’s much more, including a large model of a typical English air station, scores of which hosted the Eighth throughout eastern England. Another find: That General (then Colonel) Frank Armstrong (of “12 O’Clock High” fame and best buddy of my mentor’s father) led the landmark raid on Rouen, France, the Eighth’s first mission. His co-pilot: Paul Tibbets, whose B-29s just three years later would end the war in Japan with two atomic bombs.

There is much pathos here. Perhaps I feel it more than some for having lived briefly in Cambridge, England, around which much of all this occurred. One can’t forget the countless crosses in the American cemetery there. The Eighth took 50% of all Army Air Force casualties in World War II — some 47,000, including 26,000 dead. I’m not big on memorial gardens, but “The Mighty Eighth’s” here seems nothing but appropriate. It is abundant with stones, monuments and tributes to these flying buddies, honoring various wings, groups, squadrons and — most touching — many an individual airplane and crew.

It’s all arrayed around a copy of the prototypical English chapel, whose stained glass depictions of flyers in war — and in fear of their lives — evoke the famous originals in England.

And nearby is a Strategic Air Command B-47 symbolizing the transformation of World War II strategic bombing into post-war global air power and deterrence. I was amused to find that this particular B-47 was an old friend, formerly the “gate guard” at the Florence, S.C., airport where I would stop for fuel en route to Florida.

A poem bids these martyred Americans of The Eighth to “Sleep peacefully, you friendly dead held in Cambridge clay. The years have covered you in shrouds of Autumn gold and anniversaries paid for with your lives.”

Stop by, pay your respects and learn, if sometime you’re on I-95 down South. Or wherever you are this Memorial Day, give a thought to “The Mighty Eighth” and the 350,000 Americans who served with it in World War II.

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Story and photos © 2012 Drew Steketee. All rights reserved

Drew Steketee was president of BE A PILOT, senior vp-communications for AOPA and executive director of the Partnership for Improved Air Travel. He also headed PR and media relations for Beech, GAMA and the Airport Operators Council International.

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