Monday marks the beginning of a 4-month sabbatical from my job in the Survey Research and Analytics Center at Deloitte to chase a story that began 75 years ago.
Before I dig deeply into how I pieced together the story of my grandfather’s fight against the Third Reich in the skies of Europe and the research I’m chasing during sabbatical, I want to lay the foundation of the strategic daylight bombing offensive in Europe and formally introduce you to the protagonist of this research.
The Mighty Eighth Air Force Bomber Command
During WWII, the bomber boys of the Mighty 8th Air Force were the pioneers of the air war. Flying primitive technology into Fortress Europe, they struck enemy occupied Europe and Germany two years before troops landed in Normandy on D-Day. Daylight strategic bombing carried out by the 8th Air Force proved to be among the deadliest battlefields; 26,000 airmen from the 8th Air Force were killed, more than the Marines lost in every theater of the war.
The groundbreaking B-17 Flying Fortress and B-24 Liberator were the bread and butter of the 8th Air Force Bomber Command. Crews of 10 men, including a Pilot, Co-Pilot, Bombardier, Engineer, Radio Operator, and six gunners flew at 20,000 feet carrying 8,000 pounds of bombs they dropped on myriad strategic targets. The bomb bay racks gave the B-24 its notoriously bulky shape and nickname as the “flying boxcar.” The sleek shape of the B-17 “Flying Fortress” alluded to its efficacy: the B-24 could carry a payload two times the weight of a B-17 (3,000 pounds). The revelatory Norden Bombsight technology purportedly made dropping a dime in a pickle jar at 20,000 feet a possibility; the technology was top secret and airmen to protect it with their lives. Mounted above the plexiglass nose of a B-24, the Norden enabled the Bombardier to drop the payload squarely on a pre-identified target. There was one catch: it only worked on a clear day.
The Hell of Flying a B-24 Bomber
Flying in a B-24 was hell: open waist gun windows let in a continuous stream of outside air as the B-24 chugged along at 200 MPH. At altitude (typically 18,000-20,000 feet), it was -50 degrees inside the bomber, necessitating the faulty heated suits and sheepskin coveralls every airman wore. Touching one of the six .50 cal guns with a bare hand would immediately cause skin to freeze to the metal. Oxygen masks were essential on the 6-10 hour missions. Sweat and bile would cause an oxygen mask to freeze; an airman had two to three minutes to clear his mask before he died.
Weather, flak, and fighters were the preeminent enemies of a B-24 crew. Flying in formation just feet behind, above, below, and in front of other B-24s of a bomb group was no small task; propwash, or turbulence from the preceding bomber, could send a B-24 spiraling out of control. German fighters picked off B-24s with ease, sending a spiraling inferno descending to earth. Germans fighter techniques to pick off bombers devolved as the Luftwaffe’s (German Air Force) strength diminished: targeting a bomber’s fuel tanks (located in the wings) full of high-octane gas to instantly engulf a bomber in flames, dropping rockets on top of the bombers causing a massive explosion at 20,000, and eventually launching suicide missions by ramming the bombers head on.
The greatest fiend late in the war was flak, or anti-aircraft fire. When I began this research, I had not yet been acquainted with flak. At first read, I learned flak was an .88 mil shell shot from a large, narrow gun on the ground that could be programmed to hit the specific high-altitude of a bomber formation. Moreover, German flak guns could target one specific bomber in a formation using sophisticated sighting devices to get a reading on the B-24’s altitude and speed. Furthermore, the Germans were acutely aware that once a bomber began its bomb run on the target, it was no longer permitted to take any evasive action; as a result, German flak guns were strategically located around key strategic targets to create “flak fields” at 20,000-30,000 feet spanning hundreds of feet deep and wide in the direct path of a B-24 formation on a target run. Flak shells materialized as puffs of black smoke filling the sky around a bomber formation. If a flak burst came within a few feet of a bomber, crews described their plane shaking and jolting.
A direct hit would rip into the thin aluminum of a bomber, sending shrapnel flying and ricocheting through the flesh of airmen. Flak wounds were invariably of the most gruesome nature.
If a crew dropped their 8,000 pound payload and successfully navigated the weather, fighters, flak, and treacherous flying conditions to make a safe return to their base in the East Anglian (SE England) countryside, he steeled himself to do it again.
Slim Odds of Survival
By mid-1944, an airman had to fly 35 missions to complete a tour. The odds of survival were slim, by some estimations less than 50%.
My paternal grandfather, Wallace B Truslow was one of these airmen in the Mighty 8th Air Force. He flew 42 missions with the 44th Bomb Group from Shipdham Air Base in East Anglia. Serving on a replacement crew, he filled the gaps left by heavy casualties in the spring and summer of 1944.
The Protagonist of this Story: Wallace B. Truslow
Wally flew pivotal strategic and tactical missions, including a low-level resupply to the 101st Airborne during Operation Market Garden, 7 tactical support missions during the Battle of the Bulge, and a low-level resupply during Operation Varsity, the largest airborne operation of the war.
By the spring of 1945, Wally’s crew had been named a Lead Crew for the 506th Squadron of the 44th Bomb Group after five of his crew (him included), chose to extend their tours and continue flying missions. Wally felt that because he didn’t have a wife or children back home, coupled with his invaluable experience from the preceding 35 missions, it was his duty to continue flying until the war ended. His willingness to sacrifice his own life, even after he flew a tour of 35 missions, is a testament to his moral fiber.
On March 24, 1945, Wally’s crew led the 506th squadron on the low-level mission to drop supplies for the 17th Airborne division on the east side of the Rhine as the Allies finally invaded Germany. They flew at 150 feet dropping 2,500 pounds of supplies for the troops below. Small arms fire abounded. Two bombers from Wally’s 9-plane squadron were shot down. Simultaneously, Wally was hit by small arms fire that ricocheted through the bottom of his bomber and ripped into his right thigh. After witnessing the death of 19 of his comrades, he faced the hellacious two hour flight back to Shipdham in excruciating pain. He was later awarded the Purple Heart, in addition to the Air Medal with 5 Oak Leaf Clusters.
Wally and the four men who he stayed with to continue the fight against Germany flew more missions than 99.5% of the 5,000 men in the 44th Bomb Group.
Some combination of luck, skill, timing, and teamwork kept Wally alive and flying through the end of the war, which could not be said for nearly 30% of the 5,000 men who served in the group and were either killed in action or in a POW camp.
Scars from the War
Yet, Wally was not unscathed by the war. In the wake of WWII, PTSD remained a diagnosis of moral weakness. Wally’s PTSD intensified as the years passed. He mentioned the war only a handful of times over the subsequent 50 years. Guilt over the women and children killed who were collateral damage of the strategic bombing offensive plagued him. Wally bled shrapnel from him right leg his entire life, a result of the wounds he sustained over Wesel, Germany. After suffering several strokes, his nightmares about the war intensified. He once tried to throw his medals in the trash; when my grandmother confronted him, he simply said, “I can’t escape the war.” He passed away when I was eight years old.
The information my family was privy to about Wally’s service during the war could be counted on two hands. He never talked about it; they never asked. Silence on the matter was an all too common theme of the Greatest Generation who saw truly unspeakable combat. A common refrain I’ve heard over the last year is that the men who were truly heroic, who fought on the front lines, are the very men who are least likely to discuss them. After unearthing Wally’s service, it’s all too clear why: what man must do to be heroic often requires more than a human body or mind can handle. If great events leave great scars, 42 missions leaves cavernous wounds.
My relationship with Wally lasted eight years in this life. By the time I was born, he’d suffered numerous strokes and lost the ability to speak clearly. I have one distinct memory of him sitting on the couch in my parents’ Idaho home sporting slacks, a long-sleeve button down, and a sweater vest, his standard uniform that always included long sleeves. A slender man not more than five foot six, he sat stoically on that couch as the day passed, notably distant from his grandkids. I sensed something different about Wally in my earliest years that made me hesitant around him. In retrospect, it was likely a result of his PTSD, which my grandmother described as an impenetrable shield he put up that became thicker as the years passed.
Wally died almost 20 years ago. WWII ended almost almost three-quarters of a century ago. Over the last year, I’ve begun piecing together a story that did not want to be told: the 42 missions Wally flew during his 10 months and 6 days at Shipdham. The 10 months and 6 days Wally spent at Shipdham flying 42 combat missions charted the course for the remainder of his life. Yet, Wally first buried his memory of the war in himself, then he took it to the grave.
Meeting the Grandfather I Never Knew
When I began this research, Wally was in many ways a stranger to me. I’d never heard of the esteemed Eighth Air Force. Naively, I assumed flying in a bomber was comfortable, relatively safe, and kept him out of the action below. With each revelation about the nature of the air war and Wally’s role in it, the sheer horror of the war he fought kept me furiously digging for more information.
Over the last year, I wrote a book about Wally’s service for my family. On sabbatical, I’m undertaking a new writing project about the 44th more broadly, as well as building a data dashboard to include over 100,000 mission records for all 5,000 men in the group.
This journey began serendipitously, which I’ll discuss more in my next blog. The last year of obsessive research has not been unlike the dog leg’s course a bomber formation would fly on the way to a target. With the critical voice of the veteran missing, telling this story requires finding a need in a haystack 100 times over. The men I’ve come to know over the last year are what makes me relentless in this chase. Seeing the war Wally fought has formed a posthumous connection with him that I never had in this life, and it also introduced me to the remarkable men he served alongside on his crew, as well as the other 5,000 men who served in his group.