The ‘Mighty Eighth’ fought at length and sacrificed much during the air war over Europe in World War II.

By Ivan F. Ingraham

What Gerald Astor did for infantrymen in the Battle of the Bulge with his book A Blood Dimmed Tide, he has now done for the Eighth Air Force in his latest work, The Mighty Eighth (Donald I. Fine Books, New York, 1997, $26.95). Enthusiasts interested in the history of the air war in Europe will find this narrative informative and insightful. Veterans of that conflict will find that the stories hit close to home. Although the book focuses on the Eighth Air Force (the longest-engaged unit of the U.S. Army Air Forces in the European Theater during World War II), it also speaks for many who fought in the greatest air struggle of this century in other units.

Astor, a World War II veteran himself, has the ability to blend first-person recollections with historical narrative. With this book, he again demonstrates why he is an award-winning journalist and considered the master of capturing oral history. The Mighty Eighth takes the reader on a nostalgic journey from the first mission on July 4, 1942, to V-E Day. The Eighth Air Force lost more men during that time span than the entire U.S. Marine Corps did during all of its campaigns in the Pacific.

Astor interviewed more than 80 veterans to compile this oral history, giving it a personal quality that cannot be obtained from official histories and after-action reports. Unlike many histories that seem to focus on aces and other heroes, The Mighty Eighth provides interesting details about more than just the pilots. People sometimes forget about the airmen who linked machine-gun belts, loaded guns and repaired damaged planes after the pilots limped home. In Astor’s book, those men are given the opportunity to tell their stories and reveal the important role they played in supporting the “Mighty Eighth.” They waited with bated breath for the planes to return home–to find out who was missing, who was wounded and who would never hear the tunes of Tommy Dorsey or Glenn Miller again.

The bulk of the book, however, is dedicated to the men in the air–the pilots, navigators, bombardiers and gunners of Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses, Consolidated B-24 Liberators and the “Little Friends” (fighter escorts) who tried to protect them. While the initial part of a mission was sometimes boring, ennui often gave way to stark terror. Readers will readily empathize with sweating aircrews who tracked elusive Messerschmitt Me-109s and Focke Wulf Fw-190s with Browning .50-caliber machine guns, hoping against hope that their guns would not jam at a crucial moment.

Astor tells us what it was like to look through a Norden bombsight and see your bombs fall, taking off the left horizontal stabilizer of another B-17–one that accidentally flew beneath you during a bomb run. His vivid account shows what it took to stay cool and collected as the pilot of the lead bomber over Berlin, when flak was bursting all around you, and you knew you must keep your pitching crate level and steady in order to accomplish your mission.

Fighter pilots describe going into combat for the first time and hearing the roar of their eight .50-caliber machine guns as they lined up a Republic P-47 behind an Fw-190. Interviews with members of the 56th Fighter Group (“Zemke’s Wolfpack”)–perhaps the most famous fighter group of the war–shed light on what it was like to serve with well-known aces such as Francis “Gabby” Gabreski or Bob Johnson.

Many members of the Eighth were shot down and parachuted into enemy territory. Those men have unique stories to tell, and Astor preserves their experiences in vivid detail. Living off of sawdust bread would make anyone wistful for the food they refused to eat as a child.

Astor’s narrative brings readers close to the men who fought the European air war in World War II. Their memories and sacrifices should not be forgotten, and Gerald Astor’s book is a perfect way to ensure that their experiences are preserved for later generations.