Thought for the Day – ‘A Vessel of Human Courage’.

Builders,

The following story is an observation; How we as Americans, often fail to appreciate what it cost our Fathers and Grandfathers to provide the world we live in today.  Below is a simple example of how a media image, by inappropriately grouping two things together, ‘dumbs down’ a part of our history, and unconsciously dilutes our respect for a sacrifice we should still remember with profound reverence.

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Above, a photo taken at Oshkosh 2018. The image was very popular in the EAA.

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The bomber is a B-17, the very symbol of American courage, the willingness to invade in worlds most defended airspace in broad daylight to attack the most evil regime in history.  The US 8th Air Force  flew those missions, and they cost the lives of 26,000 Americans. Next time you are attending an airshow, walk up and place your bare hand on the skin of a B-17; it is just .040″ thick aluminum. This offers no resistance at all to a 20mm cannon round, none to a 13mm machine gun bullet, and effectively nothing to the fragments of an exploding 88mm flak shell. Our country once commonly produced young men who had the courage for 10 hour missions of this. Today, all that is left is a tiny fraction of them, old and withered, who you may have seen walk up to touch the skin of a B-17 once more. In 5 more years we will still have the planes, but the men will be all gone, and an element of our national courage will have left with them. We still generate good people, but its fair to say we will not have men like the 8th Air Force crews again, and this is what people at airshows should consider when they see a B-17.  It isn’t just a plane, it is a vessel of human courage, We made 12,000 B-17s, and we once had more than enough men of exceptional courage to fill them.

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The other aircraft in the picture is a Van’s RV-12, this years ‘one week wonder’. I am a person with different perspectives, and I find it being pictured with a B-17 a mistake. It may not matter to almost everyone else, but if your thinking doesn’t neatly fit in the ‘almost everyone’ box, maybe the reason will resonate with you. If you see it differently, thats fine, I present these ideas as “thought provoking, not thought providing.”

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Putting a fun plane in the picture with a B-17, draws the common idea they are both planes, and the EAA is all about planes. Good?…..I don’t think so. As I said above, a B-17 isn’t just a plane, it is a symbol of national courage, and it should alway be presented as this, if the sacrifice of the men who flew them is to be understood.  I find this particularly critical while any person who flew them in combat is still alive.  You would not present a picture of a Starbucks mug with the Holy Grail.  A proper “Salute to Veterans” isn’t the overbearing airshow announcer and the pyrotechnical ground show, it is quietly understanding, and respectfully addressing the courage these men had, and the RV-12 has no place in that presentation. To picture them together is shallow at best, and arguably disrespectful.

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I have attended 30 years of airshows since I started my work in aviation, and have seen hundreds of hours of warbird ‘airshows’.  The four hours I spent watching two films “Twelve o’clock high” and ‘The Best Years of Our Lives” provided more appreciation for the price the aircrews paid. If more Americans understood that in the fall of 1943 the loss rate on B-17 missions was so high there was less than a 10% chance of surviving 25 missions, perhaps we would have the taste not to include toys in pictures of aircraft which a best understood as vessels of human courage.

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About William Wynne
I have been continuously building, testing and flying Corvair engines since 1989. Information, parts and components that we developed and tested are now flying on several hundred Corvair powered aircraft. I earned a Bachelor of Science in Professional Aeronautics and an A&P license from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, and have a proven 20 year track record of effectively teaching homebuilders how to create and fly their own Corvair powered planes. Much of this is chronicled at www.FlyCorvair.com and in more than 50 magazine articles.

9 Responses to Thought for the Day – ‘A Vessel of Human Courage’.

  1. Bruce Culver says:

    William, I would also recommend the excellent film “Command Decision” as a companion to the two you mentioned. It shows the strains of command as does “Twelve O’Clock High”, but also shows the sacrifices that are made for strategic purposes. When Brian Donlevy says at the end of the film, “The Second Division will attack Fendelhorst”, you know he got it and understands what the deal really is, and what is at stake. Great film – it and “Twelve O’Clock High” were used for decades in War College leadership classes as examples of the stresses of leading men in battle….. My late first wife’s uncle won a DFC flying a B-17 from Foggia, Italy in WW2.

  2. Thank you for this story.

  3. Harold Bickford says:

    In 2014 Edi and I had the chance to fly from Lincoln, NE to Denver on EAA’s B-17. It was a little over three hours during which time, save the pilot and tail gunner positions, we were able to experience every crew station. Especially sitting in the nose it was impossible to not think what it would have been like to be so exposed to enemy fire. Yet young men did that. Again and again.

    Last year had the chance to sit in the tail turret position while Aluminum Overcast was in overhaul at OSH. That same feeling came back along with the feeling of being really isolated from the rest of the bomber and crew. Getting in there is for small guys like myself. Imagine trying to bail out of there. And of course there is no armor or insulation; just cold and drafty due to gaps to allow for gun movement.

    Remember that most of the crew were young, often just out of high school and being called upon to serve their country in war before they even had a chance to start on their adult lives. That contrasted to people who have already established themselves and enjoy the freedom of flying for fun or work are worlds apart.

    BTW a B-17 lightly loaded at economy cruise burns about 160gph. For our flight that meant about 500 gallons of 110LL.

    Harold

  4. Bruce Culver says:

    A note on Harold’s comment: the tail gunner in a B-17 could not wear his parachute while manning the guns – there wasn’t room enough for that. So if the order came to abandon the plane, he had to scoot back from the gun firing position, put on his chute and exit through the door in front of the starboard horizontal stabilizer. A lot of them never made it. In the case of the my late wife’s uncle, his plane was on a mission to St. Valentin, Austria when it collided with another B-17 that had taken a flak hit in the cockpit. The other plane dived through the tail section of Mort’s B-17, taking the entire port stabilizer, the rear 8 feet of the fuselage and the lower third of the rudder – and the tail gunner. After they had landed they found his chute still stowed behind the tail wheel…..

    • Harold Bickford says:

      That is true, it is very tight in there. Losses were heavy for the tail gunners. As an example the Memphis Belle had 4 gunners in those 25 missions.

  5. Glenn Swiatek says:

    I am not sure who it was that said something along the lines of ; Our entire country is a monument to the men who fought and won WWII.

  6. Dana harrison says:

    Matched only by mass infantry charges across no man’s land into german machine guns before better tactics with great losses during the first world war. Where do we keep finding such great men?

    • Dana.
      Thank you for sharing the thought. 100 years ago this week, my grandfather was in the trenches in France. He saw savage combat and came home, spent the next 35 years as a police officer. He never felt heroic nor even special, his utmost personal respect was for the common French infantryman, who he witnessed advancing into a hailstorm of lead and shell fire without hesitation. On 11/11/18 a French farmer ran up to him and yelled “C’est Fini!” The horror was over, but the nightmares remained until he passed in 1960.

      • Larry Nelson says:

        My great grandfather was also in WWI. He never once shared any experiences about the war with us. He died in 1994 at 99 years old, never once letting us know what he went thru.

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