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The Wild Blue: The Men and Boys Who Flew the B-24s Over Germany

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The B-24 was built like a 1930s Mack truck, except that it had an
aluminum skin that could be cut with a knife. It could carry a
heavy load far and fast but it had no refinements. Steering the
four-engine airplane was difficult and exhausting, as there was no
power except the pilot's muscles. It had no windshield wipers, so
the pilot had to stick his head out the side window to see during a
rain. Breathing was possible only by wearing an oxygen mask -- cold
and clammy, smelling of rubber and sweat -- above 10,000 feet in
altitude. There was no heat, despite temperatures that at 20,000
feet and higher got as low as 40 or even 50 degrees below zero. The
wind blew through the airplane like fury, especially from the waist
gunners' windows and whenever the bomb bay doors were open. The
oxygen mask often froze to the wearer's face. If the men at the
waist touched their machine guns with bare hands, the skin froze to
the metal.

There were no bathrooms. To urinate there were two small relief
tubes, one forward and one aft, which were almost impossible to use
without spilling because of the heavy layers of clothing the men
wore. Plus which the tubes were often clogged with frozen urine.
Defecating could be done only in a receptacle lined with a wax
paper bag. A man had to be desperate to use it because of the
difficulty of removing enough clothing and exposing bare skin to
the arctic cold. The bags were dropped out of the waist windows or
through the open bomb bay doors. There were no kitchen facilities,
no way to warm up food or coffee, but anyway there was no food
unless a crew member had packed in a C ration or a sandwich. With
no pressurization, pockets of gas in a man's intestinal tract could
swell like balloons and cause him to double over in pain.

There was no aisle to walk down, only the eight-inch-wide catwalk
running beside the bombs and over the bomb bay doors used to move
forward and aft. It had to be done with care, as the aluminum
doors, which rolled up into the fuselage instead of opening outward
on a hinge, had only a 100-pound capacity, so if a man slipped he
would break through. The seats were not padded, could not be
reclined, and were cramped into so small a space that a man had
almost no chance to stretch and none whatsoever to relax.
Absolutely nothing was done to make it comfortable for the pilot,
the co-pilot, or the other eight men in the crew, even though most
flights lasted for eight hours, sometimes ten or more, seldom less
than six. The plane existed and was flown for one purpose only, to
carry 500 or 1,000 pound bombs and drop them accurately over enemy

It was called a Liberator. That was a perhaps unusual name for a
plane designed to drop high explosives on the enemy well behind the
front lines, but it was nevertheless the perfect name. Consolidated
Aircraft Corporation first made it, with the initial flight in
1939. When a few went over to England in 1940, the British Air
Ministry wanted to know what it was called. Reuben Fleet of
Consolidated answered, "Liberator." He added, "We chose the name
Liberator because this airplane can carry destruction to the heart
of the Hun, and thus help you and us to liberate those millions
temporarily finding themselves under Hitler's yoke."

Consolidated, along with the Ford Motor Company, Douglas Aircraft
Company, and North American Aviation -- together called the
Liberator Production Pool -- made more than 18,300 Liberators,
about 5,000 more than the total number of B-17s. The Liberator was
not operational before World War II and was not operational after
the war (nearly every B-24 was cut up into pieces of scrap in 1945
and 1946, or left to rot on Pacific islands). The number of people
involved in making it, in servicing it, and in flying the B-24
outnumbered those involved with any other airplane, in any country,
in any time. There were more B-24s than any other American airplane
ever built.

It would be an exaggeration to say that the B-24 won the war for
the Allies. But don't ask how they could have won the war without

The Army Air Forces needed thousands of pilots, and tens of
thousands of crew members, to fly the B-24s. It needed to gather
them and train them and supply them and service the planes from a
country in which only a relatively small number of men knew
anything at all about how to fly even a single-engine airplane, or
fix it. From whence came such men?

Excerpted from WILD BLUE © Copyright 2001 by Stephen E.
Ambrose. Reprinted with permission by Touchstone Books. All rights

The Wild Blue: The Men and Boys Who Flew the B-24s Over Germany
by by Stephen E. Ambrose

  • Genres: Nonfiction
  • paperback: 299 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • ISBN-10: 0743223098
  • ISBN-13: 9780743223096