World War II Documentary Video - The Mighty Eighth - Airplane Videos and Airplane Pictures

World War II Documentary - The Mighty Eighth - Part 1

World War II Documentary - The Mighty Eighth - Part 2

World War II Documentary - The Mighty Eighth - Part 3

The "Mighty Eighth" began operations in England on Feb. 20, 1942, when Brig. Gen. Ira C. Eaker led a seven-man advance team to scout the country and prepare for the arrival of American combat flying units.

For the next four years, England became the USAAF's "unsinkable aircraft carrier" as they fought the Luftwaffe and Hitler's Axis forces. By D-Day on June 6, 1944, the USAAF had two-thirds of its operational forces in England and by the end of the war, almost 350,000 airmen had passed through the 8th Air Force. Weaved into the green patchwork of East Anglia were more than 130 American bases, about 75 of them airfields. East Anglia appears as the bulge on the map north of London, and it's about the size of Vermont.

The Eighth flew from bases with names the GIs said sounded like they came from nursery rhymes -- Bury St. Edmunds, Bassingbourn, Eye, Kingscliffe, Podington, Bungay, Martlesham Heath, Little Walden, Molesworth and Duxford, to name a few. During the war years, U.S. servicemen outnumbered local nationals 50 to one in some villages. A normal station was home to about 50 heavy bombers -- Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses and Consolidated B-24 Liberators -- and 2,500 men who flew, serviced and repaired the planes or supported air operations.

Each morning bombers took off at 30- to 45-second intervals and would gather 20,000 feet above England in a slow revolving spiral before crossing the North Sea and blasting the Third Reich's war-machinery plants, fuel supplies and airfields. "The spectacle of seeing hundreds of aircraft trailing formations was an extraordinary sight," said Freeman, who was a base rat at Boxted near Colchester. "On one cold and freezing day, early in 1945, when I was 15, I saw the contrails of a thousand bombers forming in the sky at one time. I didn't count a thousand, but there were 28 groups, and I knew that each group had 30 to 40 in each formation. "At the time I didn't quite appreciate it," Freeman said. "But there were 25,000 young airmen up there going to war. A lot of times people talk about the number of aircraft going to war, and they don't quite appreciate the cost in human lives."

Although the average age of a bomber crew member was 22, flying still took a physical and mental toll on them. A combination of extreme cold, fluctuating air pressure, constant noise and vibration, 10-hour missions and stress caused by the fear of being shot down by fighters or flak exhausted the crews, and, as a result, most of them literally slept when not flying. A standard tour for a heavy bomber crew was 25 combat missions; however, most didn't make it half way. After the U.S. Army Air Forces gained air superiority, the magic number was raised to 30 and then 35 missions. Aircrew members completing their tour were inducted into the "Lucky Bastards Club."

On May 17, 1943, Maj. Robert K. Morgan and his crew joined this exclusive club first, and were sent home. "We were all very young guys, and the odds of surviving weren't very good. This was before we started receiving fighter escorts, so the chances of buying the farm were high," said Morgan. "I lost my right and left wingmen a couple of times," said the retired colonel who now lives in North Carolina. "After that you start asking yourself 'Why me? Why did I come back and not them?' There has to be some reason or you were just damn lucky." During the latter years of the war, luck had little to do with the bomber crew's increased survival rate. The 8th Air Force owned the skies over occupied Germany thanks to fighter pilots like Francis "Gabby" Gabreski, the 8th Air Force's most successful fighter ace with 28 kills in the air and three on the ground during the war. Gabreski, an Oil City, Pa., native, flew the P-47 Thunderbolt with the 56th Fighter Group, nicknamed Zemke's Wolfpack after its commander Hub Zemke. Gabreski scored one triple and eight double kills while with the group, and he credits his success to training, equipment, leadership and faith.

"Back then, we didn't have time to mourn. Sure, we were sorry and a bit depressed for a short period, but tomorrow was another day and another mission. "The mission was always No. 1," he said. "And it was a very simple job-to give escort to B-17s and B-24s at high altitude. You wanted to make sure the bombers you were escorting weren't shot down. Secondly, you thought about survival. You wanted to come back, so you could fight again tomorrow. We knew it was going to be a one-day war." According to Freeman, the greatest achievement of the 8th Air Force during the second world war was gaining air superiority over enemy territory, which had been thought impossible. "Without an air force to attack or protect, the Germans were finished," Freeman said. "When D-Day came, Eisenhower could say to his forces, 'If you see any aircraft overhead, they will be allied.'"

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