restricted access 1. Men against Odds
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CHAPTER ONE MEN AGAINST ODDS That some of those who volunteered for aircrew duties on either side of the Atlantic in World War II brought supernatural beliefs with them into the air should come as no surprise. MassObservation surveys in Britain indicated that about half of adult males accepted at least one common superstition, while around 20 percent offered up prayers outside church, these often being of an intercessory nature .1 Meanwhile in the United States, Gallup polls revealed that nearly half of those surveyed admitted to having at least one superstition, over 40 percent of families prayed aloud in thanks before meals, and over 80 percent of people believed in the efficacy of intercessory prayer even half a century later.2 Normally, though, superstitious thought and behavior is negatively correlated with cognitive ability and educational attainment; and those young men trained as fliers in World War II were among the best and brightest of their generation.3 Surveys, indeed, suggest a much higher than average level of skepticism regarding common superstitions among a group of civilians of similar intelligence and education to those who volunteered to be USAAF and USN pilots in 1941; less than one in ten, for example, believed Fridays in general and Friday the 13th in particular to be unlucky at a time when this was perhaps the most popular superstition in the country.4 Thus the hazardous conditions under which wartime fliers operated, and more specifically the odds against survival they encountered, need to be examined in order to understand what a leading RAF physician described as “the mushroom growth of superstition among aircrew.”5 Flying in World War II was a dangerous business right from the start. The pressures to produce the maximum number of aircrews as quickly as possible to build up forces meant that training crashes were common 6 : chapter one and often fatal. The RAF lost more than 5,000 men due to training accidents , with another 3,000-odd suffering nonfatal injuries.6 In the continental United States, the USAAF lost over 3,500 budding aviators to primary, basic, and advanced flight training mishaps.7 The situation was similar in the USN and FAA. In the middle of the war, one station in Florida was reputed to be suffering one fatality for every six flights, while another in Texas was rumored to be losing on average one cadet each day.8 Carrier training added extra hazards, the two ersatz flattops used for the purpose on Lake Michigan losing over a hundred planes in the course of the war.9 Thus a great many of those who successfully completed the various stages of air training remembered men who had been killed along the way.10 As newly minted Fleet Air Arm pilot Eric Rickman put it, “We all knew of, and had seen, fatal accidents in training.”11 Acquaintances and friends would continue to be lost in aerial mishaps before and after airmen began operating from frontline airfields or carrier decks. Flying by day, the US Eighth Air Force lost over a thousand men killed in this manner between 1942 and 1945.12 Operating mostly at night, RAF Bomber Command suffered just over 2,000 such fatalities in 1943–1944 alone.13 The USN, USMC, and FAA, meanwhile, lost more aviators in crashes than they did in aerial combat.14 It was enemy action, however, that demonstrated most vividly to those concerned that war operations were a matter of life and death. In all, the USAAF suffered over 121,000 casualties in the various theaters of operation , the vast majority as a result of aerial combat, while the RAF lost approximately 55,500 men in Europe alone.15 Over 3,200 USN and USMC fliers were also killed in this way, along with over 400 FAA aircrew.16 Depending on period and place, Allied aircrew loss rates could be dauntingly high. The length of aircrew tours, designated as either a certain number of hours flown (usual for fighters) or a specified number of operations or missions (common among bombers) varied over time and from one war zone to another.17 Yet air staffs, while recognizing the need to hold out the prospect to fliers of a temporary or permanent rest from operations, sought to maximize in combat the investment made in training. In practice this meant tours in which, statistically speaking, the chances of being killed, wounded, or taken prisoner usually exceeded those of emerging unscathed. The...