Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
2021-094
10 Nov. 2021
Review by Dwight S. Mears, Portland, OR
Flying with the Fifteenth Air Force: A B-24 Pilot's Missions from Italy during World War II
By Tom Faulkner
Ed. David L. Stead. Denton: Univ. of North Texas Press, 2018. Pp. xxiv, 240. ISBN 978–1–57441–731–9.
Descriptors: Volume 2021, 20th Century, World War II, Air Warfare Print Version

Flying with the Fifteenth Air Force is the incredibly detailed World War II combat memoir of B-24 pilot Tom Faulkner, edited with clarifying details by David Snead (Liberty Univ.). The memoir centers on its author's six-month combat tour in Italy, which ended with a forced landing in Switzerland. But it goes beyond recalling combat to provide a remarkable introspective look at his upbringing and Army Air Force pilot training, as well as his postwar struggles and triumphs. The account's many cultural references, descriptions of personal relationships, and colorful stories set it apart from typical combat memoirs.


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The memoir proceeds chronologically, starting with Faulkner's childhood in Arkansas and Texas. He recalls interesting childhood experiences, such as meeting humorist Will Rogers during the Great Depression, and his adoration of racing pilot Roscoe Turner, "second only to the great Charles Lindbergh" (22). He also documents the trauma of the Depression, which "snatched [away] a life of comfort and optimism" (14), replacing it with a hardscrabble existence that uprooted the family and caused his father to contemplate suicide. The attack on Pearl Harbor during Faulkner's senior year of high school ushered in a "patriotic fervor" that "permeated every action, decision, and thought" (33).

Faulkner was called up for flight training at age eighteen, after only one year of college. This was due to a temporarily "relaxed rule" (38) that made him one of the youngest B-24 pilots in the Army Air Force. His flight training and combat tour occurred while he was still a teenager. He chose multi-engine aircraft because of an embarrassing "tendency to black out completely" during aerobatic maneuvers (48)—a fatal trait for a fighter pilot. Faulkner's age caused some friction with his crew: all nine members were older than he. His twenty-five-year-old copilot in particular resented that a younger officer outranked him.

Faulkner's description of combat billeting in Italy reveals the stark contrast between his living conditions and those enjoyed by Eighth Air Force aircrew stationed in England. He describes living in freezing conditions in tents, seldom washing clothes, almost never bathing, and receiving barely edible food. His crew stayed warm in winter by burning high-octane aviation fuel in a small stove, which would "become red-hot and glow," even producing sparks (143). They toasted cheese sandwiches fashioned from K-rations—"absolutely the best sandwiches we ever tasted" (144). Faulkner's hygiene was so poor that he acquired a "dark, dirty ring" around his neck (76) that required weeks of postwar bathing to remove. Also notable were the surrounding Italian towns, which contained "no women anywhere, only old Italian men" (91). This left him "no occasion to wear" his class A service uniform during the deployment, save for a single award ceremony held in a field (77).

Faulkner documents the process of orienting new pilots, who were normally assigned to several missions with more experienced pilots before being "turned loose" with their own crew (83). He also records the surreal experience of his first bombing run, from antiaircraft fire that "looked perfectly harmless" (4) to listening to a Hungarian radio station while "down below, people were probably being killed, sirens were blowing, and guns were blasting away" (5). Eventually he got used to being fired upon, but still found it "almost a relief to see the black bursts" of antiaircraft fire because "part of the tension is relieved" (132).

Another revealing aspect of Falkner's bomb group experience was the omnipresent risk of death, not at the enemy's hands, but due to aviation accidents. This was a result of the inherent hazards of flight operations in poor weather and poor navigation aids, as well as human error. For example, Falkner recalls the nearly disastrous effects of cases of optical illusions or vertigo that nearly incapacitated him during flight. On one mission, his aircraft was so overloaded on takeoff that it required the entire runway to become airborne, and subsequently hit an unknown object that "bounced us up a few feet" (99). On another mission, Faulkner's aircraft repeatedly "kept stalling out"—meaning it lost lift and fell out of formation (135), later attributed to a malfunctioning elevator trim tab. On a test flight, Faulkner lost control of a B-24 after a misaligned tire burst upon landing, which bent the front of the fuselage to the side "like a wounded elephant" (157) and landed him in the hospital. Such incidents vividly illustrate the dire risks of combat aviation at the time. Indeed, Faulkner lost several friends—including his best childhood friend—to aviation accidents during the war.

Faulkner's final combat mission in February 1945, the bombing of rail yards in Augsburg, Germany, left an indelible impact. He had to land in Switzerland after a series of events outside his control: the last-minute reassignment of his navigator to a different crew without replacement; the loss of an engine's turbo-supercharger due to mechanical malfunction; and the loss of a second engine and hydraulic control due to antiaircraft fire over the target. The bomber had to drop out of formation and descend to six thousand feet. This posed a critical navigational challenge for the stand-in navigator (the bombardier), who was directed to keep fifty miles north of Switzerland. The bombardier's navigation ability "completely deserted him" (163) and he unintentionally directed Faulkner to violate Swiss airspace. The lone aircraft was soon intercepted by Swiss fighters, who made "passes at us without firing" (173), while the leader pointed emphatically at the ground. The message was clear: land immediately or be shot down. Faulkner landed his crippled bomber in Zurich, underwent interrogation, and spent several days in Adelboden waiting for repatriation. The crew was released into France after a week in Switzerland, as per a preexisting exchange agreement between the United States and Germany. The agreement also forbade further combat assignment in the same theater, so for Faulkner's crew the war in Europe was over.

Faulkner was lucky to survive so many brushes with death, but he perseverated over whether he could have made it back to friendly lines—"that question haunted me for over seventy years" (172) and, he believed, branded him with the "stigma" of cowardice (193). This was the result of his guilt over failing to return "with my plane and my crew from every mission" (170); he also had an incomplete memory of the events that occurred. His doubts were exacerbated by a friend's facetious claim that Faulkner had "spent the war living it up in a Swiss ski resort" (182), as well as a false report that he had left formation "with all four fans flying" (178). Faulkner believed his anxiety over his final mission manifested as a physical illness, which persisted for many years until a researcher verified the damage to his aircraft and he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. The dishonor he felt over landing in Switzerland was widespread among US aircrews who experienced internment in neutral countries. The stigma was amplified in memoirs, works of popular history, and even fictional accounts like Joseph Heller's Catch-22.[1]

Flying with the Fifteenth Air Force is notable for its detail, keen insights, helpful editorial comments, and especially its concentration on less flattering aspects of combat as well as details of its author's life. One wishes for more clarity about internment in Switzerland; for instance, the author conflates internees with escaped POWs (not considered belligerents under international law). Nor do we learn that many US aircrews were instructed to head to Switzerland or Sweden when faced with combat damage like Faulkner experienced.[2] Or that his repatriation was a release from internment rather than an internment obligation itself; in truth he experienced one of the shortest internments of all US airmen in Switzerland.

These minor issues aside, the memoir is a thorough account of a bomber pilot's experiences. One far more concerned with accuracy than posterity. It is also an interesting case study of the psychology of wartime memory and the overcoming of the perceived stigma of dishonor.

[1] See my “The Catch-22 Effect: The Lasting Stigma of Wartime Cowardice in the U.S. Army Air Forces,” Journal of Military History 77 (2013) 1044–50.

[2] Ibid., 1027, 1037.

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