“They have given their sons to the military services. They have stoked the furnaces and hurried the factory wheels. They have made the planes and welded the tanks, riveted the ships and rolled the shells.” — President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, August 19, 1942.
V-E Day. The anniversary – this year the 70th – of the day Nazi Germany surrendered to the Allied Forces, the end of World War II in Europe. I can hardly imagine what this date, May 8, 1945, meant to America, to the world at the time. Victory. My God, the blood and treasure spilled and spent to achieve that victory was unfathomable. I have read volumes and volumes about the sacrifices made by our Greatest Generation and they are literally beyond my grasp. But I am lucky to live in a place where I can honor them by taking part in a once in a lifetime celebration of this epic victory and the historic aircraft that helped make it possible.
The Arsenal of Democracy Flyover included dozens of vintage WWII aircraft. The planes gathered in holding patterns along the Potomac River west of Washington, DC, eventually lining up in 15 formations tracing the path of the river to Washington, and ending up over the World War II Memorial. I chose Great Falls Park as my vantage point to see this display of history and might, and got there well before a sizable crowd joined me. The sight and the sound — oh, the sound — of these vintage aircraft is something I will never forget. But my knowledge of them is lacking. So my friend Barry Snell, author, patriot and self-proclaimed War Nerd, very kindly offered to write a bit about the planes I captured with my camera over the river. Everything in italics from here on out, comes from Barry, and I thank him profusely for taking the time to lend his passion for history to breathe life into these planes, and into these images.
Vought F4U Corsair. The Corsair is one of the most famous fighters of the PTO. It was fast as hell—the first fighter we had to fly over 400 mph—could take a real beating, and was very distinctive with its bent wing. Did I say the Corsair was tough? A pilot once used his Corsair’s propeller to literally chop the tail off a Japanese fighter after his guns jammed. A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do, right? And yes, he flew it home and landed safety. Mostly used by the Marines, the Corsair is frequently associated with Iwo Jima and Okinawa, and they were made famous to the masses by the show Baa Baa Black Sheep, which featured the Hollywoodised true story of an actual Corsair fighter squadron. John Glenn flew Corsairs too.
North American T-6 Texan. The T-6 Texan was one of the most common, and perhaps now the most famous, fighter and aerial gunnery trainer during WW2. The yellow paint schemes of the ones on the left are typical flying school colorings, presumably preferred for visibility for cadet instructors. Many fighter pilots loved the Texan and fondly remember their time as cadets flying them. Texans also have the dubious distinction of looking somewhat like the Mitsubishi Zero, and many have been modified to look like the Japanese fighter for war movies such as Tora, Tora, Tora!
Top left: Beech AT-11 Kansan. Virtually all bomber pilots and navigators were trained in the twin-engine Kansan. The one in the photo sports Commonwealth markings and invasion stripes, and does not have the standard glass navigator’s bubble nose it probably would have had during the war, just like the big bombers.
Top right: Douglas SBD Dauntless. The Dauntless dive bomber earned its way into the history books at the Battle of Midway, when four squadrons of them sunk all four Japanese aircraft carriers at the battle, literally one right after the other, after the Japanese had held off all other American attacks throughout the day. The Dauntless was also used to good effect from the famous Henderson Field on Guadalcanal.
Bottom left: Consolidated PBY Catalina. The sub killer. The PBY was used to spot Japanese subs and is responsible for dozens of kills during the war. It was also a PBY that spotted the Japanese fleet at the Battle of Midway.
Bottom right: Lockheed P-38 Lightning. This baby is perhaps the most distinctive looking fighter plane of the war, and the only fighter plane that saw service from start to finish. The Lightning destroyed our enemies in both theaters, and was nicknamed the “Fork Tailed Devil” by the Germans. She was fast, tough, had a lot of firepower, could carry a lot of bombs for a fighter, and could fly farther than any fighter until the P-51 came along. She kicked ass all over, killed Pearl Harbor architect Admiral Yamamoto, and was flown by America’s top scoring aces.
Curtiss P-40 Warhawks. Even if you’re not an aviation geek, no doubt you’ve heard of the Fighting Tigers. This was their plane. The Warhawk got famous before World War Two was even a thing, during its service with the American volunteer pilots fighting the Japanese in China in 1941. Notice the Chinese symbols on the wingtips of the right plane. Used mostly in the PTO and eventually outclassed by virtually every other airplane, the P-40 still holds her place in history as the one that made it into the air during Pearl Harbor, and as our front line fighter in the first months of the war. The old girl was notable for being a very sturdy plane that could take a lot of abuse, and performed excellently in a dive.
North American B-25 Mitchells. This airplane answered the nation’s call when James Doolittle led a squadron off them off the deck of the U.S.S. Hornet, where they bombed Tokyo in response to Pearl Harbor. This baby bombed shit all over the world, but mostly in the Pacific, where it was used to great effect in all those island battles. Interestingly, they discovered that it was great as a ground attack craft too, and flew it a lot just a few dozen feet off the ground, shooting everything in sight. Deke Slayton flew B-25s.
Consolidated B-24 Liberator. Perhaps the most modern and advanced of the bombers in its class, the Liberator never quite achieved the fame the B-17 did. The Liberator was faster, could go farther, and hold more than its peers, and had advanced radar and other technologies. Yet it was a pain in the ass to fly, sometimes caught fire easily, and had other miscellaneous quirks. Still, the Liberator did a ton of heavy lifting for us in all theaters of the war, and especially earned its name in Europe, where it made history during the many ongoing raids on the Ploesti oil fields in Romania. Some of the greatest casualties of the war were suffered by the Liberator crews during the Ploesti raids. Joe Kennedy, Jr. was killed in a remote controlled Liberator, which was to be used as a drone in a secret mission, when the explosives inside the plane prematurely exploded.
(Note: Fans of Laura Hillenbrand’s brilliant book, Unbroken, about hero Louis Zamperini might recall that Zamperini crashed in “The Green Hornet,” a B-24 Liberator.)
Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress. The B-17 was the workhorse of the American bomber effort, and is easily the most famous bomber of the war. The skies would literally be filled with these things, as hundreds upon hundreds of them would fly to mainland Europe virtually daily throughout the war. In the months before D-Day, B-17s bombed Luftwaffe targets on a daily and constant basis, which accounted for the zero German air resistance during the invasion. And while not indestructible like the name suggests, the Flying Fortresses were an exceptionally tough and forgiving aircraft that easily earned the respect and profound love of her crews. See the movie Memphis Belle for some B-17 love.
Left: Grumman TBM Avenger. Seeing service in the PTO, the Avenger was a big torpedo bomber. She made her first appearance in the war at the Battle of Midway, but really made a name for herself in the Battle of the Phillippine Sea, where they just slaughtered the Japanese. A few Avengers saw some good service combatting the U-Boats in the north Atlantic too. The plane was stout enough that we kept her up through the Vietnam War. George H.W. Bush was an Avenger pilot, and was shot down.
Middle: Curtiss SB2C Helldiver. The Helldiver replaced the Douglas Dauntless, however, it was not a well-liked aircraft. Using the plane’s acronym, pilots and crew often called it the “Son-of-a-Bitch, Second Class.” Others called it “The Beast” because it was a big, unwieldy aircraft. The difficulties with the Helldiver actually contributed to the closing of the Curtiss factory. That said, it did have a fine service record and according to the numbers, appears to have done just fine.
Right: Grumman TBM Avenger
Douglas A-26 Invader. I don’t know much about these airplanes, except that they weren’t really notable during WW2. Not sure why; I do know that they were used in Korea to good effect, and we still were using them up through Vietnam. The CIA used Invaders in the Bay of Pigs too. They were fast though, and I think they were the fastest bomber we fielded in WW2. In addition to B-25s, Deke Slayton also flew a few missions in Invaders over Japan.
North American P-51D Mustang. The Mustang is an aviation legend. It is arguably the finest aircraft to come out of the war. It flew faster, higher, and farther than any other airplane within the fighter class, and even many outside. To this day, the Mustang remains one of the fastest prop planes ever made, and they are routinely raced—often to victory—in the modern era. But aside from being the sexiest thing with wings during the war, she earned her reputation beginning the moment she took to the air in combat. Before the P-51, our bomber crews frequently suffered more than 50% casualties because they had to fly to their targets without air support, as no fighters existed that could go the distance. Because of this, the 8th Army Air Force lost more men than any other unit in American military history. Look it up; the numbers are staggering. After the P-51 arrived though, we quickly achieved air dominance in Europe. The Mustang could stick with the bombers all the way to the target and back home, and they just kicked the Luftwaffe’s ass all over the sky. It wasn’t very many months after the Mustang arrived in Europe that the skies were virtually cleared of any significant German resistance. It is not an exaggeration at all to say that the P-51 is one of the most significant factors in the United States’ victory in Europe, and perhaps the most lifesaving machine of the war.
The middle P-51 in the photo is painted with invasion stripes, and the one on the right appears to be painted in the colors of the Red Tails, the famed and exceptional African-American fighter squadron. A horrifically bad movie about the Red Tails was made a few years back, but one thing that is true about them is that bomber losses from missions launched from North Africa and later Italy virtually stopped when the Red Tails moved in…Those boys were that good, and yes, the bomber crews did request them as escorts on their missions. Chuck Yeager flew P-51s during the war as well.
Indeed. Another thank you to Barry Snell for his generous contribution to this blog.
I don’t have the words. Hell, maybe there are no words strong enough, respectful enough for this. But more likely, the right words have been cheapened over time, overused. Heroes don’t play football. Well, a few did. Saving the World is such an over the top concept it sounds like a video game tagline. The world sometimes seems like an awful place filled with pockets of evil always ready to flare up and get out of control. Yet it never quite does. People of my generation, of all generations since the Greatest one, go to bed at night perhaps worried about the world at large, but the sun always comes up the next morning. Families are still there. Neighbors and friends are still there. I don’t think we can truly imagine what it was like in the months leading up to June 6, 1944. I won’t speak for everyone, of course, but I can tell you that I can’t imagine, and I really try. I can’t imagine being called upon to do even the smallest fraction of what so many in this country did in the war effort. Entire industries put completely on hold, converted to factories to build planes, munitions, vehicles, to sew parachutes, to package meals, countless — truly countless — sacrifices before we even get to the biggest sacrifice of all.
Pearl Harbor lit a fire, yes. But it’s one thing to be for something, or against something. When you are called to act in the face of massive, well-equipped and well-trained evil, how do you summon the courage? I have no earthly idea. But they did. In massive numbers, young men from the United States, Great Britain and Canada summoned more courage than they even knew existed. They stormed the beaches of Normandy seventy years ago today, and many were dead before they even felt sand under foot. Many more fell dead in that sand. But enough survived to fight and crawl and run and scrape and dive and duck and make it. In ten minutes they had witnessed more hell than any man should be forced to bear, but they had work to do. So they kept coming, each landing made easier by the sacrifices of those who landed before. And they took that beach, and then they took the land behind that, and then the land behind that. And that’s how it started.
I shared recently how lucky I am to live in a place that gives me the opportunity to mark important National occasions. One of those places is the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. The Udvar-Hazy Center is the museum’s annex at Dulles Airport, and houses examples of some of the most important aircraft of World War II. They also are currently showing a fantastic film, D-Day: Normandy 1944. It is exceptionally well done, with incredible graphics blended with live action and tells the story of what happened on that day and how it unfolded in a way that’s compelling and easy to understand, but also very informative even for those who have read much on the subject. I learned quite a bit in this 43-minute long feature.
So if you can get out this month to either the Dulles Air and Space Museum or the original one in Washington, DC, I highly recommend seeing this in the Imax format. It’s absolutely appropriate for kids. While I still don’t think it’s possible to wrap your brain around what that beach was like seventy years ago, it’s good to be reminded that real, regular people did astounding, brave things, and in doing so, secured a future so bright and prosperous that those who live in it — through no fault of their own — are incapable of comprehending what it took to get here. Then enjoy the proud history on display in the museum, it is a spacious, well-designed museum you could easily spend half a day in. Flight simulators are there to try (though I haven’t been in one yet), as well as neat kiosks throughout the space where you can see the view from the cockpit of most any plane there.
I started my visit with the on screen telling of our bloody start to the war. And I ended it with the last thing I always stop and gaze upon when I’m here, the B-29 Superfortress that ended it.
God bless the Greatest Generation, and those courageous, terrified young men that took that blood soaked beach, and made everything that followed, to this day, possible.