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History in the Flesh

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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.

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Comments (14)

These days, it's not uncommon for me to encounter college students whose world travels already rival my own. It's truly a shrinking world, and on balance, I like to think that we're all the better for that. But one bit of enduring naivete that I encounter is older than I am: Americans tend to think that most everybody in this world is pretty much the same as we are. This expression of enlightened orthodox philosophy is unblemished by observable reality.

Our constitutional paradigm of personal freedom and resultant pluralism is so rare on this planet as to be almost unique. Ignoring for a moment the fact that our own government routinely eschews the concept of live-and-let-live, the human species is (and always has been) populated with people who are absolutely convinced that:

1. THEY know what's best for you and me and everyone else, and

2. They have no problem with enforcing their superior judgment upon everyone else - by any means necessary.

Coercion just seems to be in our DNA. I don't like that, but with more than six decades behind me, I realize that there's not much - if anything - I can do to change that. The best we can hope for is that this hard-wired proclivity for coercion does not result in the extinction of the species. Given the displayed IQs of our fearless leaders, and their ignorance of and arrogance about history, that's not a sure bet.

One key is knowing whether a threat is existential. Another is having the will to completely eliminate all such threats. Our reluctance to pursue the latter often is a prudent acknowledgement of our insufficiencies with regard to the former.

"Oh, that could never happen" is just about as deadly as "Hey - watch this!"

Posted by: Thomas Yarsley | March 5, 2014 8:07 AM    Report this comment

There's a reason it was called "The Greatest Generation".

Posted by: Jerry Plante | March 5, 2014 9:02 AM    Report this comment

"Coercion just seems to be in our DNA. I don't like that, but with more than six decades behind me, I realize that there's not much - if anything - I can do to change that."

Priceless, Thomas... unless you were going for humor. If so, it was brilliant. ;)

Sometimes I'm reminded, as with this blog, that each war and each brave fighter - on either side - are slowly fading into history, as it should be. Ed's wish for succeeding generations to not have to fight terrible wars tells the hidden truth about their valor and bravery. Thanks. Paul... and keep wearing the shirt.

Posted by: Dave Miller | March 5, 2014 12:54 PM    Report this comment

One thing many folks forget is that WWII -- for the US -- started on Dec 7, 1941 and ended, in Europe, just 3 1/2 years later. During that relatively short period of time, new land was purchased or otherwise commandeered, air bases were constructed by the dozens, 200,000 total pilots were trained, 300,000 airplanes were constructed (I guess more than one pilot had one shot out from under him but survived?), the B-29 and nuclear weapons were designed and constructed, and on and on.

Born in Chicago just after the war, I learned that about 1 in 10 WWII aviators went through Glenview NAS to learn how to operate from aircraft carriers. They'd muster in on Sunday, get classes on Monday, fly Tuesday and Wednesday, take their final exam on Thursday and ... off to war they went on Friday. Compare all of this to what's happening in aviation THESE days. Some of them had as few as five takeoffs and landings on the two training boats used on Lake Michigan.

I wound up serving 21 years in the USAF with 3/4 of that time spent supporting Flight Test at Edwards AFB. I learned that even after the War, it was common for many test pilot expanding our knowledge of aviation to lose their lives. Many streets on Edwards AFB are named for these hero's, the name of the Base included.

Good on ya for mentioning this by chance meeting with one of the dwindling survivors, Paul. And, lets hope that someone saves the A-10 for the reason you mention, too.

Posted by: Larry Stencel | March 5, 2014 1:08 PM    Report this comment

By the way, Ed Goulder would have been 20 years old, or thereabouts, in 1943.

Posted by: Jerry Fraser | March 5, 2014 2:28 PM    Report this comment

I think he told me he was 21 when shot down. A captain at the time. Rank and responsibility came quick in World War II.

I'm not really sure I buy the "greatest generation" meme. I think it was purely a confection invented by Tom Brokaw to sell books. When you see this generation of vets interviewed or when you talk to them directly, they don't seem to resonate with the greatest generation idea, either.

They were simply people confronted with a unique, global challenge for which they proved more than worthy. I have little doubt that Gen X or the Millennials would rise to the occasion if confronted with the same apparent existential. threat. People forget that before Pearl Harbor, the U.S. was strongly isolationist and opposed to any involvement in Europe, an opinion that had to be shared by many of the men who eventually fought there.

Then there's Vietnam. It was fought by the Baby Boom generation, but was a creature of the World War II generation...Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, McNamara, Rusk, Bundy were all "greatest generation" vets who applied their experience in ways that turned out not so great.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | March 6, 2014 7:47 AM    Report this comment

Experience of war, either by personal military service, or the service of an immediate family member was ubiquitous 50 years ago. Virtually every elected government official had served with many having the physical and emotional scars to prove it. Now elected big mouth chicken hawks showboat for the TV trying to prove how tough they are, but have no problem voting to cut back benefits for service members or pork barreling their militarily useless per project. I sure hope we will never need another "greatest generation" because I just don't see us, as a society, pulling together to defeat great evil the way our grand parents did......

Posted by: David Gagliardi | March 6, 2014 11:17 AM    Report this comment

"I sure hope we will never need another "greatest generation" because I just don't see us, as a society, pulling together to defeat great evil the way our grand parents did......"

Many of us have a tendency to shock when considering politicians, reality tv enthusiasts, heads-down, young texters and self-absorbed entertainers who grab headlines today for their pitiful 15 minutes, to think these characters are the only ones left in a national candidate pool to maintain and fight for our way of life. It's particularly disquieting when watching growing indifference to personal flight today and tying that in with these groups.

Not to worry. Just look at the water rescue in Daytona the other day and countless other selfless actions by average people and know all hope is never lost. Or sit with our young (and old!) vets at your local VA hospital for a spell, you'll see the intrinsic values we all share that made a nation "so rare on this planet as to be almost unique" are the bedrock to make these assumptions upon and are alive and well in all of us.

I hope it doesn't take a major war to bring this out, more likely a country like China will deftly start buying up the important assets... huh, they already have started?

Posted by: Dave Miller | March 6, 2014 2:51 PM    Report this comment

Anytime a generation is called to rise to the occasion it becomes the "greatest generation". We have witnessed this during any conflict. Brave men and women die or are wounded for the concept, patriotism. The dissimilarity between eras is a societal distrust of the value of the sacrifice.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | March 6, 2014 3:38 PM    Report this comment

As a child of the "Greatest Generation" I would agree that they stepped up in a difficult time, but the title might be disputed by the black servicemen who returned to discrimination and segregation, as well as the women who were exiled back to the kitchen, even though they stepped up as well as anyone to help win the war.

Posted by: John Worsley | March 7, 2014 9:21 AM    Report this comment

Paul, if you haven't visited, you HAVE to go visit the National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force located just outside of Savannah, Georgia on I-95. If you ever have seen a B-47 next to the highway on the way to Florida, that is it. This is a magnificent interactive museum to the servicemen and women that operated B-17 and B-24 forces in the European theatre. I have spent hours and hours and hours in there reading all the history and looking at artifacts; can't get enough of it. They have a very good tour that introduces the public to what it was like to train, receive a mission briefing, and actually fly a mission in a darkened room "simulator". Fantastic artwork, artifacts, and of course a B-17 under restoration are part of the material on display. A couple of the guides are 8th AF vets (at least one pilot I met there) but of course they are getting up in years and only work part time. Young people can really get a grasp of what happened back then if they pay attention. By the way, I don't work for the museum, I just really love it and hope everyone gets a chance to see it.

Posted by: A Richie | March 7, 2014 3:41 PM    Report this comment

I am less impressed with IQ these days, and more impressed with character. I guess I am officially and old fart.

Posted by: Matthew Lee | March 9, 2014 1:46 AM    Report this comment

I'll note that Shirer's book is still, IMHO, the definitive work on Nazi Germany.

Yup, the actual loss rate was unremarkable for 1943. The suits probably had a fit over the abort rate, though.

I actually like Admiral Halsey's words ... "There are no great men. Just great challenges which ordinary men,out of necessity, are forced by circumstance to meet."

Posted by: Mike Massimini | March 9, 2014 5:48 AM    Report this comment

As "old fartz" we will be even "less impressed"? I guess it is part of growing old. LOL. By the way Paul, I read the book in 1961 and since you brought it to mind I bought the audio app book just a few days ago. Thanks.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | March 9, 2014 9:23 AM    Report this comment

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