History in the Flesh
I think people who have been in wars not only think about the experience differently than those who have not, but their views of it change as they grow older. I thought of this the other day when I was in the local YMCA waging my own daily war against gravity.
“You know,” came a voice from behind me, “in my day, we used to call it spin, crash and burn.” It took me a moment, but then I realized that the elderly man who had said that was referring to a bicycle jersey I often wear that says Crash and Burn, Inc. on the back and one that draws a lot of comments. I knew instantly that he was a pilot, but when he said his flying career ended in 1945, I knew what that meant, too.
Ed Goulder was a flight leader in B-17s with the 384th Bomb Group. Against terrible odds during the awful year of 1943, Goulder completed 22.5 missions, the last ending in bailout over Belgium after an attack on a non-ferrous metal plant in Solingen, Germany. He spent the remainder of the war as a POW and was released in May of 1945. We chatted for a while and I commented how lucky he must have felt to survive even that many missions.
He told me in retrospect, he was most proud of having commanded two B-17s that had to be abandoned and which all 20 crewmen survived. The odds against that are as dismally low as they were for a crew to make the requisite 25 missions during 1943. The odds are astronomical when you consider that one of the bailouts he ordered was in dense fog, at night, somewhere over what the crew hoped was East Anglia. My palms sweat just thinking about that.
Although I have more than passing historical knowledge of World War II and the 8th Air Force, it’s always sobering to grasp the kind of horrific losses sustained during that year and to touch the living face of history, which Ed Goulder and the dwindling airmen of the war certainly represent.
I found the 8th Air Force records for the Solingen mission that Ed told me about and these revealed that of 23 B-17s dispatched from his group that day, only 14 completed the mission. Three aborted, one scrubbed, one returned early, one ditched and three failed to return. Depending on how you slice the numbers, that’s a loss rate of 17 percent and that’s 30 guys missing and 10 fished out of the channel. (Maybe.)
By modern standards, that would be a disaster, but it was just another day of war in 1943, unremarkable for being low or high. The 8th Air Force lost nearly 40 percent of the bombers it sent to England, most of those early in the war before the generals finally admitted that unescorted bombers actually couldn’t survive against a determined, capable defense. What guts it took to fly those missions against such certain risks of not returning.
I asked Ed if he thinks about the experience much. “When I came home,” he said, “I went into electrical contracting and never thought about the war much,” he told me. “But about 10 years ago, after I retired, it came up more.” For a bit, he was in touch with some of his crewmates, but as they age, that contact has diminished. Ed is 91 now and gets around with the aid of a walker, but he still makes it to the gym. We should all do so well at that age.
A couple of times during our conversation, Ed observed that the U.S. has been to war 10 times since he returned from Germany. But I think the number may actually be higher than that, if you count all the brushfires and skirmishes like the Dominican Republic, Panama, the Mayaguez … it’s a long list. Often, in talking to these veterans, I’m struck by how many of them seem less interested in looking back than hoping the next generation won’t have their own war to contend with.
By happenstance, the week I ran into Ed, I was just finishing a re-read of William Shirer’s landmark The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. It was the final revision completed in 1990 before Shirer died three years later. While those of us born after World War II have grown accustomed to Pax Europa, Shirer evidently had no such sentiments. In his revised conclusion, he wasn’t so sure another major European conflict was impossible. Watching events during the past week, it’s sadly obvious that he had basis for that belief.