Can we ask too much of Airmen who refuse to fail?

  • Published
  • By Gary W. Boyd
  • Air Education and Training Command, Command Historian
Leadership comes with a cost to those being led, and it is incumbent upon Air Force leaders to ensure that planning, resources and military necessity are equal to the sacrifices being exacted on our people. Never was that calculus ever so strained as on Black Thursday, October 14, 1943.

Black Thursday is the popular name for the Second Schweinfurt raid by the 8th Air Force. It was a deep penetration strike into the heart of the Third Reich that was hoped would deliver a crippling blow to the German ball bearing industry--most of which was in and around the central German city of Schweinfurt. Strategically, the raid seemed like a tremendous idea--if it could work.

Unfortunately, Schweinfurt lay well beyond the range of escort fighters in October 1943. As well, the 8th AF had already hit Schweinfurt once. The Germans had thus intelligently confirmed to themselves that the clustered ball bearing industry needed to be dispersed around their occupied territories, which they had begun to do in earnest by the late autumn. Then there was the truly alarming aspect: a bombing mission into the heart of Germany would incur a substantial risk to the 8th AF and very high casualties in the bomber force. It would give the Luftwaffe hours of warning, allow the defense fighters to concentrate all along the route of the mission, and it would allow even obsolete Luftwaffe aircraft a chance to participate with no friendly fighters there to intervene. And they could land, refuel and rearm and intercept the bombers again. Thus, a second strike on Schweinfurt in October 1943 was not a great idea at all. It had a limited shelf life which passed with the first mission the previous August, or until at least the bombers could be escorted there and back by friendly fighters.

The decision to return again to Schweinfurt was therefore fraught with danger and the Airmen who participated in it, against all odds and peril, are some of the giants of our heritage. Unlike the TIDAL WAVE Ploesti attack, which had its own strategic blunders and staggering losses, there would be no Medals of Honor in Second Schweinfurt.
There were scores of Airmen who doubtless deserved the honor, but it was a day where astounding heroism was asked of every crewman, and it became almost impossible to highlight any one crew's action when 60 B-17s had been strewn all over central Europe.

During the arduous mission, perhaps no better example of living the core values was Staff Sgt. Winston Toomey, a farm boy from Porter County, South Dakota. Assigned to the 407th Bomb Squadron, 92nd Bomb Group, Toomey was a "Togglier," a newly created crew position where a highly-trained enlisted gunner could take over as a bombardier in B-17s. Since the groups released their bomb loads as a team over the target, a Togglier would follow the lead aircraft and drop the bombs and man nose gun positions.

On Black Thursday, Toomey was badly wounded by flak, but refused to leave his crew position. So many had been sacrificed for the opportunity to destroy the ball bearing factories that he felt obligated to stay to the bitter end. He dropped the bombs with the rest of the group and was later found dead still clutching his bomb release control. For his selflessness, integrity and excellence in his duties, he received the Distinguished Service Cross.

Of the 291 bombers dispatched to Schweinfurt Oct. 14, 1943, 60 were lost outright, 17 were damaged beyond repair, and a staggering 121 others required battle damage repair. An unbelievable 590 Airmen were killed and another 65 captured that day--and all who survived bore scars of war that remained almost unbearable the rest of their lives.

Andy Rooney believed that the war of almost certain death waged by the early 8th AF was the most excruciating sacrifice of World War II. Yet, on this blackest of Air Force days, the bombing accuracy of Airmen in crisis was among the very best of the war. They devastated the factories in and around Schweinfurt--though the time had passed when this would have had a telling impact. There sacrifice was not in vain, however. In fighting against the incredible odds, the bombers destroyed dozens of fighters, and had in fact the Luftwaffe had begun to lose over 15-percent of its overall strength every month, even without escort fighters. The Luftwaffe, even on a day that Americans thought a disaster at the time, had already been effectively broken.

Black Thursday was one of the mistakes which Airmen, through their valor and sacrifice made into something quite different in the longer arc of history. What a remarkable legacy they left us--a wise leader will take heed of the lessons of Black Thursday.

Airmen truly live by the creed of "I will not fail," and will follow you to Hell and back even if wisdom failed their leaders. We must never be too zealous in pursuing a strategy no longer consistent with reality.