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Measures of Sacrifice

Dec 2, 2017
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In a column posted today at OpinionJournal.com, author Daniel Ford reiterates a point that we’ve often made in this blog: American casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan–while clearly distressing–pale in comparison to those from previous conflicts. While that fact may offer little consolation to the familes of military personnel killed in the War on Terror, we clearly paid a higher price in blood during wars past.

Over 50,000 Americans died during World War I, despite our late entry into that conflict. More than 300,000 perished during World War II; the Korean War claimed another 30,000 military personnel and 58,000 died during Vietnam. By comparison, the number of troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan now totals just over 4,000 (in 73 months of combat), a testament to improvements in tactics and training, better protective gear and advances in combat medicine.

As Mr. Ford reminds us, a single battle or engagement during World War II created carnage that exceeded months of fighting in the War on Terror. To illustrate that, he cites the ill-fated 1943 bombing raid at Ploesti, Romania, staged on August 1, 1943. Located just north of Bucharest, the refineries in Ploesti produced most of the petroleum used by the German war machine. Allied planners hoped that a surprise raid could knock out the refineries, and cripple the enemy war effort.

Almost from the start, the operation was vexed by poor intelligence and questionable decision-making. Located almost 1,200 miles behind enemy lines, the Ploesti refineries were believed to be lightly defended; in fact, they were ringed by scores of German fighters and more flak guns “than those defending Berlin” as historian Duane Schultz discovered. To ensure maximum damage (and ensure surprise), planners decided to send in formations of B-24 bombers at low altitude.

Enroute to the target, more problems ensued. The aircraft carrying the lead navigator crashed over the Mediterranean, leaving a poorly-prepared lieutenant in charge. As they approached the target, towering cumulus clouds obscured visibility and the formation became disorganized, with some groups pushing 30 minutes ahead of the others. Finally, one B-24 group missed the initial point (IP) and turned at the wrong location, putting them on the wrong heading. Operating under strict radio silence, there was no way for mission commanders to recall the errant formation or abort the raid; it was too late, so the attack proceeded.

The result was an aerial bloodbath. German anti-aircraft crews quickly confirmed what allied practice missions had suggested: gunners had no trouble tracking or engaging the bombers at low altitude. Dreaded 88 mm guns put up walls of flak, aided by small caliber weapons. Scores of B-24s were lost to anti-aircraft fire; German ME-109 fighters picked off other bombers as they exited the target area. Of the 178 bombers dispatched to Ploesti, 44 were shot down and seven more landed in Turkey, where their crews were interned. A total of 532 aircrew members were killed, wounded or captured in 27 minutes of hellish combat.

Results of the raid were mixed, at best. Despite the heroism and sacrifice of the B-24 crews, the Ploesti refineries quickly recovered, and within weeks, petroleum production was higher than before the attack, according to Mr. Schultz. Five aircrew members won the Medal of Honor over Ploesti, a record for any engagment by the Army Air Corps or its successor, the U.S. Air Force.

And, lest we forget, Ploesti raid wasn’t the only mission where bomber crews paid a heavy price for shoddy intelligence, operational mistakes, or overly-ambitious planning. Barely six weeks after the disaster in Romania, 59 Air Corps B-17s were shot down during the second raid on the German ball-bearing production center of Schweinfurt; 590 pilots, navigators and gunners never returned from that mission.

The staggering losses continued into 1944. Another 247 B-17s and B-24s were downed during the “Big Week” of February 20-25, aimed at smashing the Luftwaffe. In reality, those losses (along with preparations for the Normandy invasion) limited daylight bombing raids over Germany until P-51 fighters arrived in large numbers, escorting the bombers to their targets and back home again.

In his recent PBS documentary, Ken Burns featured two veterans of the air war–a former B-17 ball turret gunner and a retired P-47 pilot. Both affirmed the horrors of air combat; the gunner was wounded twice before being sent home; the fighter pilot recalled that the two men who witnessed his last will and testament died in combat, less than six months after signing the document. All told, aircrew members suffered more casualties in World War II than any other combat branch, save the infantry.

It’s a bit ironic that Mr. Ford’s column appeared on the same day as this article, detailing the hazards faced by latter-day airmen in Iraq. The Air Force Times piece details a recent study by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, which found that airmen deployed to Iraq are not only less likely to be killed (in comparison to their Army and Marine Corps counterparts), their death rate is also lower than their civilian peers here in the states.

The study, published in the September issue of the journal Population and Development Review, found that the annual death rate for airmen deployed for OIF is 0.37 deaths per thousand people, compared with 1.32 deaths per thousand for the U.S. population aged 20 to 34.

That means that young civilian adults at home are more than 3½ times more likely to die than airmen deployed for OIF.

That revelation will bring the usual jokes about the “Chair Force” and claims that the Air Force fights its war from a cockpit at 30,000 feet–beyond the reach of enemy air defenses–or from an ergonomic chair, in front of a computer screen. But that notion belies the fact that thousands of airmen are pulling dangerous duty in Iraq, serving on EOD teams, running convoys, or handling security outside airfields and other key installations.

Indeed, the relative “safety” of airmen assigned to Iraq is a measure of how far air warfare has progressed since the dark days of World War II. Our military forces in Iraq are free to focus on ground-based threats because allied airpower–led by the USAF–smashed Saddam’s air arm almost 20 years ago, and finished it off during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Sixty-plus years later, American air dominance is considered essential for any military operation, and our ability to control the skies seems almost guaranteed. But today’s Air Force was born out of the men and units that were forged in the fires of World War II, progenitors of a proud legacy shaped by Ploesti, Schweinfurt and a thousand other aerial engagements.

That’s why those battles still resonate today, and offer a useful benchmark for our current efforts in Iraq. In 30 minutes of hell over Romania, the U.S. endured casualties that equal months of fighting in Iraq. That doesn’t lessen the sacrifice of those who die in Iraq, but it does offer provide a useful counterpoint to media reports of “record” casualties. We can only wonder how today’s press corps would have reported the news from England or Egypt in 1943, when so many bomber crews failed to return.

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