2. Asking for Miracles
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CHAPTER TWO ASKING FOR MIRACLES In the context of considerable danger, it was natural that aircrew should turn to God as a means of saving body as well as soul. This might involve talismanic or ritualistic elements, to be discussed in the chapters ahead. The most widespread form of entreaty, though, came in the form of requests for help directed at what American fliers might euphemistically dub “the Command Pilot” or more commonly “the Man Upstairs.”1 Chaplains were employed by both the RAF and RN and by the USAAF and USN, but their role as intercessory figures differed somewhat, with American clergy often being expected to take a more active role in publicly mediating prayers for personal safety. In both navies, chaplains might be asked to say a prayer or two over the public address system on aircraft carriers and other large warships before action commenced; but as far as can be ascertained, unlike their USN counterparts, RN chaplains were not in the habit of visiting the aircrew ready room to offer fliers their services prior to a strike being launched.2 As in the USAAF, there were regular church services in the RAF; but except for Catholics, fliers were generally not given the opportunity, as they were on the more permanent American bases, to attend a denominational service of their choice either before or after being briefed for action.3 It was virtually unheard of for a chaplain to lead an assembly of British airmen in asking for divine intervention—“Almighty and everlasting Father, we humbly beseech thee to protect those of us who will be flying today,” for instance—at the beginning or end of the briefing itself, but this could and did happen in the USAAF.4 This likely reflected the diverging trajectories of religious practice and belief in Great Britain and the United States. In the former, though a strong majority still seem to have identified with a particular denomination , formal affiliation had been gently declining through the first asking for miracles : 21 half of the twentieth century, such that in 1940 only about a fifth of the population was a church member.5 “To many,” the authors of a MassObservation study compiled later in the decade concluded, “religion has come to mean little more than being kind and neighbourly, doing good when opportunity arises.”6 Within the RAF, the final report on a succession of chaplains’ conferences held through 1944 lamented, threequarters of the men and women wearing air force blue lacked even basic religious knowledge.7 By way of contrast, the number of those with a strong religious affiliation in the United States grew significantly in the first four decades of the twentieth century, reaching around 50 percent of the population during the war years, with belief in God nearly universal.8 Popular aviation culture in America was already saturated with religious metaphors and imagery; and in stark contrast to the RAF chaplains’ lament mentioned above, the religious teachings embraced by the majority of American airmen were both deep-rooted and extensive, according to the official historian of the wartime USAAF chaplaincy.9 Catholics tended to engage in religious practice with greater regularity and enthusiasm than many other denominations, and about 30 percent of the chaplains working with the USAAF in England were Catholic.10 The great majority of chaplains within the RAF, though, were from the Church of England and other Protestant denominations, and much of their effort seems to have been directed toward general welfare rather than interceding with the Almighty on behalf of those who flew operationally .11 American chaplains—Catholic, Protestant, or Jewish—who conducted short services for those who voluntarily gathered around before or, more often, after briefings on mission days were catering to a demand. Sometimes the response might be limited. “As I recall,” wrote B-24 navigator John L. Stewart of the 467th Bomb Group in his memoirs, “only a small fraction of airmen participated in this.”12 Yet much of the time “a lot of the fellas,” as B-17 tail gunner Arnold Willis of the 303rd Bomb Group put it, who “depended a lot on their religion, they would see the chaplain before [missions].”13 Richard R. Johnson, a B-17 pilot with the 303rd Bomb Group in 1944, estimated that “about half the combat crews would go to the chapel for prayers” before setting out toward their aircraft.14 Especially once it was clear that...