Hell Above Earth

The Incredible True Story of an American WWII Bomber Commander and the Copilot Ordered to Kill Him

Stephen Frater

St. Martin's Press


The thundering ships took off one behind the other. At 5,000 feet they made their formation. The men sat quietly at their stations, their eyes fixed. And the deep growl of the engines shook the air, shook the world and shook the future.
—John Steinbeck, 1942

Perhaps it was the scale, as well as the horror of it all, that still boggles the mind. Before WWII no one had seen anything like the terrifying spectacle of hundred-mile-long armadas of 2,000-plus bombers and fighters regularly and methodically razing the continent. Day after day, night after night, airmen took flight over Europe, bombing and strafing factories, ports, and cities, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians in the process.

  Between 1940 and 1945, the United States, with the help of more than 3 million workers hustled onto assembly lines, produced 296,000 airplanes at a cost of $44 billion—more than a quarter of the war’s $180 billion munitions bill. The gross national product soared 60 percent from 1938 to 1942. Five million new jobs were created. GM employed half a million persons and accounted for a tenth of all wartime production. At the peak, Boeing was making sixteen new Flying Fortresses a day, and its 40,000 employees literally worked around the clock. Boeing lost $3 million in the five years before 1941 but enjoyed net wartime profits of $27.6 million. “Ford alone produced more military equipment … than Italy.”

  Across Nazi-occupied Europe, a calculated mixture of incendiary and high-explosive bombs obliterated buildings that had stood for centuries. Fire-driven, oxygen-sucking winds whipped flames into pyres of biblical proportions; some were hundreds of feet high and as wide as city blocks—convenient homing beacons for subsequent waves of bombers. Automobiles and streetcars melted in temperatures above 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Asphalt ignited and flowed like lava. People who sought safety in water towers, ponds, and fountains were trapped and “boiled alive.” Others, who sought safety belowground, suffocated from a lack of oxygen.

  In 1945, Newsweek, referring to civilian bombing, published an article entitled “Now Terror, Truly.” Dresden historian Marshall De Bruhl wrote that “in less than fourteen hours, the work of centuries had been undone.” The scene was similar in all major German cities. Most of Berlin was demolished. Toward the end, it was ceaseless: almost three-quarters of all the Allied bombs dropped on Europe fell during the final twelve months of the war. By May 1945, up to 80 percent of most of Germany’s urban centers were wiped out and up to 650,000 civilians lay dead, 16 percent of them children. Another 800,000 were wounded. In France, 70,000 civilians died, in Italy another 50,000. England, by comparison, suffered 60,000 civilian deaths at the hands of the Luftwaffe. During the war, the Allies killed “two or three German civilians by bombing for every German soldier they killed on the battlefield.” It was literally hell on earth.

  The air battle over Nazi-occupied Europe was a different kind of fresh hell. It lasted about three years for the Americans and about double that for the English. It was the longest battle of the war, during which an average of about 115 Allied airmen died daily, as did about 650 civilians, including women, children, pensioners, and slave laborers, most of who died following the United States’ entry into the war.

  In his 1942 book, Bombs Away, Stanford University dropout John Steinbeck neatly summed up the challenge facing bomber crews and their commanders.

  Of all branches … the Air Force must act with the least precedent, the least tradition. Nearly all tactics and formations of infantry have been tested over ten thousand years.… But the Air Force has no centuries of trial and error to study; it must feel its way, making its errors and correcting them.
The errors and corrections were recorded in blood. About 26,000 men and women died in aircraft accidents during the war. In the British-based U.S. Army’s Eighth Air Force alone, another 26,000 Americans, or 12.3 percent of the third of a million men who flew, were killed in action—more than the total U.S. Marines death count for the entire war. Only the United States’ Pacific submariners suffered higher fatality rates—more than 20 percent. Yet in total numbers, the Eighth Air Force alone lost more than seven times the global number of U.S. submariner fatalities. The Mighty Eighth suffered 26,000 combat deaths out of its 350,000 officers and men who flew. By comparison, the U.S. Navy suffered 37,000 deaths out of the 4.1 million who served in the WWII Navy. The battle also cost the British Royal Air Force 56,000 dead. If wounded and captured airmen totals are included, the Eighth Air Force had “the highest casualty rate in the American Armed Forces in WWII.”

  Allied saturation bombing shattered not only Nazi Germany’s industrial spine but also American notions of isolationalism in a rabid war. It washed away all naivety regarding the human and moral costs of industrial war in which the cogs of the machine are not only soldiers but also the civilians supplying their material needs. Air war was, in large part, about the substitution of capital for labor—of machinery for men. A single crew of trained fliers could hope to kill a very large number of Germans even if they flew only twenty successful missions before being killed or captured themselves.
The men who devastated Nazi Germany from the air are dying daily. With them dies the personal experience of setting a continent aflame. Few other men in history have deployed such devastating force for as long as the crews of the U.S. Army Air Force did over Europe: 1,042 days, from 1942 to 1945. The air battle over Europe, one of the longest and costliest of any war, heralded not only the nearly complete devastation of the world’s cultural cradle but also the controversial decision by Western democracies to engage in industrial-scale terror bombing on civilian populations. It neatly ushered in atomic-age rationale for a new corps of battle planners, such as Maj. Curtis E. “Old Iron Ass” LeMay, to whom the wholesale destruction of cities was a near-daily personal routine.

  The men and boys, like Werner and Jack, who carried out these attacks, almost on a daily basis, weather permitting, were truly a unique breed of highly trained specialists utilizing the world’s most sophisticated weapons platforms of the era. To combat the terror in the skies they faced, and Nazi terror on the ground, they were ordered to create a literal hell on earth for enemy military, industrial and, ultimately, civilian targets.

  Although they slept in clean sheets and ate hot meals every day bomber crews flew, even while training, was like D-day, exacting tremendous amounts of emotional uncertainty and trauma. Some men, like Werner, accepted this, even thrived on and welcomed the adrenaline rush. Werner knew death could come in a variety of ways: an unlucky flak burst, Luftwaffe fighters that could appear anywhere at any time, pilot error while flying less than fifteen feet apart. Even the air they breathed four miles above the earth was deadly. Others suffered more as their mission totals mounted; the risks of air combat harrowed them fiercely as they neared the magic number that would allow them to return home, duty done.

  Werner was an exceptional pilot. Gifted. His nerves of steel, combined with his unwavering ability to make split-second decisions, saw his crew safely home, mission after grueling mission. But for Werner, there was an added danger: he didn’t realize that at any moment his family name could cost him his life.

Copyright © 2012 by Stephen Frater