My older brother Bill was born in 1920 and was the right age to be entranced by aviation. When he was seven, Lindbergh was the flying hero who had made the first solo flight across the Atlantic from Long Island to Paris and was famous worldwide. There were also many cheap books with tales of pilots fighting World War I battles in the air in open-cockpit biplanes. American pilots such as Eddie Rickenbacker and German pilots such as Manfred von Richthofen were featured in the inspiring heroic tales, as well as French and British aces.
Flying was what captured the minds of boys of that era. The aerial ballet of the fighters was flown to protect planes collecting extremely valuable photographic information of enemy positions. The invention of photography and airplanes changed warfare. Then the role of aviation changed, during the time between the wars, from observation to airborne artillery. Although the concept of aerial attack arose late in WWI, the existing aircraft were not capable of performing very effectively in that role.
Boys’ clothing was modeled after flying gear. Many wore winter clothing that looked like the cold weather gear worn in open cockpits, like winter hats that were copies of flying helmets. Building model airplanes was a main activity of most boys. The models were primarily of two types. The flying models had a structure of balsa wood strips and were covered in tissue paper, with propellers powered by rubber bands and flown with varying levels of success depending on the builder’s skill. There were also models carved from small blocks and planks of balsa, which were for display, usually hanging from threads from the ceiling of the bedroom of the builder where imaginary aerial combat took place.
My family had already been involved in aviation a few years after the Wright brothers’ first powered flights in 1903. My mother’s cousins, John and Charles Grieder, had started building airplanes in 1908. Charles had been the first licensed pilot in New Jersey, FAI (Fédération Aéronautique Internationale) license #275.
He flew as an exhibition pilot and was in the first group of instructors when naval aviation was begun at Pensacola, Florida. My mother’s brother Charlie was already flying in the early 30s, having learned in a surplus WWI trainer, a Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny.” My mother was already concerned for the safety of her brother, as flying safety was questionable at the time. She did not look upon her son’s interest in flying with favor and hoped he would not follow his uncle’s involvement in aviation. This was a problem, as her brother had actually found employment in the aviation field. The Depression ended her concern temporarily, as my uncle had to find employment as an engine room hand on a freighter hauling bananas from South America.
The Depression finally started to wear itself out by the end of the 30s. My brother Bill had graduated from high school and was working his way through engineering college. A career in aviation did not seem to be in the future for Bill, although my uncle was now again managing airports.
The Japanese changed everything. Suddenly everyone learned where the previously unknown Pearl Harbor was. I learned about it by an announcement at the only professional football game I ever attended. My father, brother, and I were there together. A draft had been started as it was apparent the raging wars in Europe and Asia could soon reluctantly involve America. The draft was then seriously increased, as a large military would now be needed. Seventy thousand pilots and additional air crew would be needed by the Army and more for the Navy and Marines. Suppressed interest in aviation now reemerged with great intensity.
Soon my father and brother were both working for the nearby Wright Aeronautical Corporation, the producers of half of America’s WWII military aircraft engines. My father, William Frost, was an architect and after a long lean time in the 30s, he was now planning the required increased production capacity in newly acquired factory space. My brother had run out of money for college tuition and was working as an apprentice tool maker. He reasoned that this would provide money to return to engineering school and increase his knowledge of manufacturing, valuable for an engineer.
It was not long before draft notices arrived in the mail of all young men. It was not a question of if you would receive one, but of when. Many decided to enlist and hope for the choice of which branch they would serve in, instead of waiting to see where they would be placed. For my brother there was never a question: if he was going to serve, his choice would be as a pilot. I do not know how this was presented to my mother. Her choice, like all mothers, would have been for none of them to serve. That of course was not possible—political leaders across the Atlantic and Pacific had already decided that. My brother decided to visit the recruiting office and take the various physical and intelligence tests for the aviation cadet program.
He waited for the results and soon was informed he had passed with traditional flying colors, appropriate for pilot training. He decided if he was going to serve (and it was very likely he would), he hoped it would be as a pilot, which had to be determined by his progress through the aviation cadet program.
The Army Air Corps, as it was then known, advertised for volunteers, mostly in the form of posters. The posters usually had the slogan “Keep ‘em Flying” and featured aircraft and occasionally implying that air crew uniforms and silver wings would be admired by attractive young ladies (who were also depicted in the background on some of the posters). They knew what they were doing, as this turned out to be true and a strong additional incentive.
My brother enlisted and was sworn in but was told he would have to wait until there was room in the expanding program, already full of aviation enthusiasts like himself. In two months, they told him to report in March of 1942 at Maxwell Field in Montgomery, Alabama. He went through pre-flight at Maxwell, primary flight training in Ocala, Florida (flying PT-17s), basic flight training in Sumter, South Carolina (flying BT-13s), advanced flight training in Moultrie, Georgia, (in AT-6s), with progressively more powerful aircraft and diminishing class sizes. He graduated first in his fighter pilot class, was issued pilot wings and commissioned as a Second Lieutenant.
He then went to a fighter Replacement Training Unit (RTU) at Venice, Florida, flying P-39s, where he was selected from his group and made an instructor in fighter transition and tactics in June of 1943. During that time, he was one of very few who had recovered a P-39 from a flat spin. Only three were recorded in Air Force history. Earlier, while waiting for assignment to RTU, he also soloed a twin with one and a half hours of twin dual time. The aircraft he soloed was a Curtiss AT-9, considered the Air Force’s most difficult aircraft to fly (it was withdrawn from training as too dangerous). He remained at Venice until transferred to Fort Myers to instruct there while first flying P-40s and then P-47s.
He remained there as an instructor, which was a relief to my mother, but the war intervened again and there was a sudden need for experienced fighter pilots to form two new groups to aid in the Normandy invasion and the following support of the army in the European Theatre. The two new fighter groups of instructors and former combat veterans were formed, the 404th at Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and the 405th at Walterboro, where they trained in ground attack to be ready in time for the invasion. I believe this could have been a similar history of almost everyone who flew in WWII up to the point they went off to combat. There it would break down into two almost equal major groups: there were those who came back and those who didn’t. The air war was dangerous.
It took most of the war to learn the most effective way to use air power. The initial use of heavy bombing was to destroy the manufacturing capability and resources of the enemy, as well as attacking the ground and seaborne forces themselves. Bombing of factories lost much of its effectiveness when manufacturing was dispersed to many locations and parts of weapons later assembled at other locations. Finally it was determined that the crucial, most effective approach was to prevent the enemy access to transportation. If resources, weapons, and forces could not be moved to where they were needed they were useless.
Strategic bombing was then intensely switched to roads, railroads, shipping, and river and canal traffic. Rail centers were prime targets. The heavy bomber task did not change very much. It still remained just as dangerous until the enemy had fewer opposing fighter aircraft. Then the danger diminished only to a degree, as there was still heavy anti-aircraft fire. Only the targets changed. The heavy bombers, B-17s and B-24s, served to draw in enemy fighters to be destroyed by long range, escorting P-51 fighters. This reduced enemy fighter opposition to the vulnerable, low flying US P-47 Thunderbolt and RAF Hawker Typhoon fighter-bomber groups.
Tactical fighter-bomber groups prevented the use of locomotives, rail lines, bridges, and roads. Nothing moved except at night, unless night movement was also made difficult by bombing bridges and other crucial points that could not quickly be repaired. Since the fighter-bombers flew close to the ground, they were subject to heavy ground fire. As the enemy pulled back with most of their anti-aircraft guns into diminishing territory, this increased the danger. The task of the fighter-bomber groups became even more dangerous at the end. However they were the most effective force to disrupt or prevent transportation, as they were in direct contact with their targets.
The aircrew were those same young men who had been inspired by Lindbergh and the thrill of flying. I am not sure that any of them really thought of the reality of the grubbiness that came with the use of aircraft in war until they encountered it. This was especially true of the fighter-bomber pilots who were close enough to the ground to see the effect of their weapons on the people they were killing.
Those like my brother who had direct contact with pilots returning from combat, with whom they were serving as instructors, had a better idea of what they would be facing and inflicting on the enemy. I know it deeply concerned my brother. He had grown up conversing in fluent German with our paternal, much loved, grandparents. He knew those now called enemy that he would be facing were humans like himself. He still loved flying and fully enjoyed the time and opportunity to do that as an instructor, but dreaded what was coming when they reached combat. He did not convey this to others in my family. He did tell my older sister that it was unlikely he would return and how she should prepare for that.
Very soon after his group reached England, we were informed my brother had died while landing. Much later I learned it was because he was flying an older, mechanically defective former Eighth Air Force bomber escort, a P-47 aircraft that his group had just received. The cause was a fuel leak and a faulty carburetor. He died because of action he took to keep his aircraft from blowing up over the small nearby English town of Winkton. It was just before the group was to go into combat. I only learned of the aircraft problems by years of tracing official information and meeting with former group members at reunions of those who returned. My sister and I often discussed whether it was better if he was not to return that he died before he encountered what he was dreading. I often wonder what the war experience of a fighter-bomber pilot would have done to him if he had returned. Would he be the same person? It seems not. This is something I will never know.
A conversation years later with a university colleague did reflect on that. I had asked for information from the newly hired computer expert who would assist with the use of computers in graphic and industrial design in our art department. By chance I learned his father had been a replacement P-47 fighter-bomber pilot in the 368th, a group that occasionally shared the same bases in France and Belgium with the 404th as they closely followed the moving front into Germany.
He mentioned attending one of his father’s fighter group reunions as a teenage boy. He said he did not remember many details but he said he did remember that toward the end of the reunion a smaller group of his father’s closest pilot friends from the group got together in one of their hotel rooms. They were discussing how intense things became at the closing days of the war when they were tasked with making sure absolutely nothing moved on the roads. He recalled how they talked of the group’s high loss rate and what the targets of their eight 50-caliber machine guns, or 500 pound bombs, had become.
One of them then said very quietly, “Yeah… old men with push carts,” followed by prolonged silence… until someone changed the subject entirely.