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The earliest stages of the war against Germany involved sending long-range U.S. bombers to England.

COURTESY PHOTO: NATIONAL ARCHIVES - B-24 Liberators drop bombs over refineries in Ploesti, Romania, on Aug. 1, 1943.

Although America entered World War II after the Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, some of the most ultimately decisive U.S military decisions that were made early the next year involved Europe. They included basing long-range American bombers in Britain to attack German targets.

Many Oregonians were involved in the missions over the next few years — including some who never came back and those like Portlander and future KOIN radio/TV personality Clint Gruber who only came home after being held as a prisoner of war for 18 months.

By the time America entered the war, fighting in Europe already had been raging for more than two years. On Sept 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland, causing both France and Great Britain to declare war against it. A months-long lull, nicknamed the "Sitzkreig," ensued, and it was not until May 1940 that Nazi armies poured westward and, in but a few weeks, had overwhelmed the Allied forces.

Trapped in a pocket surrounding the French coastal city of Dunkirk, British and French armies faced total annihilation. Thanks to a heroic effort that involved both the Royal Navy and small, private craft, more than 300,000 British and French troops were evacuated safely across the English Channel to Britain. Despite the fact that these forces left all of their heavy equipment behind, the rescue allowed Prime Minister Winston Churchill to convince his nation not to consider peace terms with the marauding Nazis. Britain was thus able to fight on, alone.

COURTESY PHOTO: GRUBER FAMILY - B-24 co-pilot Clint Gruber in his flight gear before his bomber was shot down over Europe and he was held prisoner for 18 months.

Germany kept tightened its grip on the European continent, however. On June 22, 1941, Nazi armies invaded Russia in Operation Barbarossa with the intention of eliminating the country that Germany considered to be its main foe. By the end of 1941, the Nazis had pushed far eastward, had captured or killed hundreds of thousands of Soviet troops, and threatened to capture Moscow.

In the Atlantic, prowling German U-boats were sinking as many supply vessels as possible that were heading to or from Britain. Their aim was to starve the British into submission and to force either their surrender or to achieve favorable peace terms. It nearly came to that.

Hitler declares war first

When the United States promptly declared war on Japan on Dec. 8, 1941, it did not do the same against Germany. Hitler, who apparently was as surprised as anyone at the success of the dramatic air strike on Hawaii, felt that Germany, now with Japan at its side, was invincible and could not lose a war waged against any foe. Accordingly, Germany and Italy declared war on the United States on Dec. 11. Thereafter, Congress reciprocated with its own declaration of war against German and Italy.

Winston Churchill expressed great relief now that Britain had the industrially powerful Americans as its ally. His reaction is understandable. Many historians agree that had Hitler not hastily declared war, but instead made some conciliatory statement of "peace," it is very arguable that the United States would not have entered into the European conflict, at least not at that time.

The effect that this would have had on the outcome of the fighting can only be guessed. Would Britain have been forced to come to terms with Hitler? If so, would the transfer of German troops from the western front to Russia have resulted in the collapse of the Soviet Union? And all of this could have allowed the Nazis to operate undisturbed in establishing their "Aryan" state. But because of the American military decisions that followed, it did not come to this.

COURTESY PHOTO: UNITED STATES ARMY AIR FORCES - The personnel the 84th Fighter Squadron, a unit of the 8th Air Force, posing in Duxford, England, in the summer of 1944.

The Europe-First Plan

The new allies lost no time in laying out a strategy for dealing with the enemy. Only two weeks after the United States entered the war, representatives gathered in Washington, D.C., at what was to be called the Arcadia Conference. Both Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill personally attended. Arcadia was the first of several strategic meetings that were conducted between the allied leaders.

Churchill was provided immediate relief for his embattled countrymen. First, it was decided that the allies would embark on a "Europe-First" policy, meaning that the Japanese aggressor would only be "contained" in the Pacific until such time as Germany and Italy had been defeated. Initially, this resulted in the commitment of only 17% of America's growing military might to the war against Japan; 83% would be directed toward the liberation of Europe.

Tactically, the planners also determined that an invasion of North Africa should take place in 1942, thus easing the pressure placed on Britain by the German Afrika Korps in its attempts to capture Cairo and the Suez Canal. But as an immediate measure, the Americans agreed to commit a long-range bomber force to Britain to begin strategic air strikes against the industries and military installations of the Third Reich. The legendary VIII Bomber Command — later the 8th Air Force — was on its way.

COURTESY PHOTO: ROOSEVELT LIBRARY - B-17s, including this called the Big Yank, flew many raid from England over Europe.

Risky air strikes

Ultimately, the British and the Americans agreed to divide up the bombing effort. Having already flown countless missions against German targets, the Brits realized that air strikes flown at night produced the fewest aircraft losses. The trouble with this strategy was that in the dark, bombing accuracy was poor. Many times British bombs struck nowhere near their intended targets.

Conversely, General Ira Eaker, the American commander, was certain that daylight bombing could produce better results while suffering 'acceptable' losses. Daytime visibility, aided by the highly-touted (and top secret) Norden Bomb Sight, should allow the Americans to more accurately hit their intended targets. (The Norden Bomb Sight was said to be able to 'place a bomb into a pickle barrel from 30,000 feet') As to fighting off German attacking aircraft, the two American strategic heavy bombers, the B-17 "Flying Fortress" and the B-24 "Liberator" were designed to be able to take care of themselves thanks to their impressive defensive armament of multiple .50 caliber guns.

Accordingly, it was agreed that initially at least, the Brits would bomb the enemy by night, the Americans during the day. As it turned out, both plans had serious flaws.

American aircraft first arrived in Britain on June 9, 1942. The first bombing mission on targets in northwest Europe was conducted on July 4.

Thousands of sorties would be flown over Europe by Eighth Air Force aircraft that included the B-17, the B-24 as well as fighter escort squadrons that consisted of the P-47 Thunderbolt, the P-38 Lightning and even the legendary Supermarine Spitfire (courtesy of the British). Eventually, the iconic P-51 Mustang, fitted with famed the British Rolls-Royce V-12 Merlin engine and equipped with long-range drop fuel tanks would change everything. But those are stories yet to be told.

The Bombers

To most, the Boeing B-17 "Flying Fortress" is probably the most familiar American bomber of the Second World War. The reason for this is that it was featured in more movies, books and articles than was any other aircraft. "Memphis Belle," "The War Lover", "Twelve O'clock High" and "Command Decision" all featured the Fortress. The aircraft gained coverage because the majority of the war correspondents were situated in Britain ( London being their preferred location from which to report the war.) The B-17 served in all war theaters, including Africa, the Pacific, CBI (China Burma India), Alaska, the United States and Central America. But flying from bases in England to targets in Europe is where its legendary status was earned.

This durable, beautiful aircraft was powered by four Wright-Cyclone turbocharged engines, each producing 1200 horsepower. At a cruising speed of 182mph it could carry some 3 tons of ordnance at a range of 2000 miles (round trip). Several variants produced different performance levels. Many B-17s, shot up over the length of their missions, would still make it back to base. In some cases, wings were partially blown off, tail rudders missing or inoperative and in one case, the rear fuselage was almost severed by a collision with a damaged German Messerschmitt. Still, many made it back.

COURTESY PHOTO: NATIONAL ARCHIVES - B-17 Flying Fortresses of the 398th Bomb Group dropping bombs over Europe.Initially, the B-17 was thought to be able to protect itself with its defensive armament of multiple machine guns. However, the Boeing designers had not factored in the swift advancement of attacking fighters' performance. As a result, the bombers were forced to cluster together in very tight defensive formations to allow the arcing firepower of each Fortress to overlap that of the others, thus providing mutual protection. Even still, the German defenders learned that by flying directly at the B-17 formation from the front (ie, 12 O'clock position), they would encounter the least amount of firepower. Accordingly, the modified B-17G was fitted with a forward-pointing 'chin' turret to counter this threat. Even this was not the complete answer. It would take the efforts of accompanying fighters to provide adequate protection for the bombers.

The other long-range strategic bomber that was flown by 8th Air Force crews was the Consolidated B-24 Liberator. Also a four-engine aircraft, the B-24 was powered by the Pratt-Whitney R-1830 "Twin Wasp" engine. Each could generate 1000 hp and move the craft along (with usual bomb load, crew and fuel) at a cruising speed of 215 mph. It can easily be distinguished from the Flying Fortress due to its high-wing orientation, tricycle landing gear and twin "H" shaped vertical stabilizers.

Many airmen felt that the B-24 was superior to the B-17 in that it could fly further, faster with a larger payload. Because of its extended range, Liberators served as patrol aircraft and for the Brits, could fly far out into the Atlantic searching for U-boats. It also proved quite effective on long-distance missions over water in the Pacific. Because of its multi-use capabilities, more B-24s were produced during the war than any other bomber.

However, detractors noted its difficult handling characteristics at lower airspeeds, ie, take offs and landings. Plus, the Liberator did not enjoy the same rugged reputation as the B-17. It was reported to be more susceptible to battle damage.

Aircrews of the two bombers were in natural (today, good-natured) competition with one another about which was "the best" of World War II. Both can make a good case for their aircraft.

The American airmen

Thousands of men served in Britain with both the 8th and 9th Air Force. Hundreds of these them were Oregonians, each of whom, whether as airmen or ground personnel, had amazing experiences. Some of them were:

COURTESY PHOTO: DON BOURGEOIS  - Historian and author Don Bourgeois with 8th Air Force veteran Wally Groce at a 2006 reunion. Groce is credited with shooting down an advanced German Me 262 in his bomber Thunderbolt escort fighter.

• 8th Air Force P-47 pilot Del Harris, later of Grants Pass, flew his first fighter mission on D-Day, June 6, 1944. On a later ground-attack sortie, his aircraft was struck by anti-aircraft fire. He bailed out over Belgium and was captured. After the "usual" German interrogation in Frankfurt, he was transported to Stalag Luft III near Sagan in Eastern Germany, the prison camp made famous by the book and film, "The Great Escape."

After months as a prisoner there, Harris and his mates were force-marched to Nuremberg and put to work as slave laborers clearing the marshalling yards that were bombed daily by the 8th Air Force and the RAF. He and a companion managed to escape and made their way back to American lines and freedom, but not before they were picked up by a company of SS.

• Portlander Joe Conroy earned three battle stars for his gunner's wings while flying multiple missions as a B-17 "ball turret gunner." While nearly flat on his back in a perch that hung below the fuselage of the Flying Fortress and surrounded by only Plexiglas, his position was by far the most vulnerable in the bomber. But in retrospect, Conroy — later the president of the Oregon Chapter of the Eighth Air Force Historical Society — told of his combat missions as calmly as one might speak of a day spent in the office.

COURTESY PHOTO - Oregonian Charles Gallagher served as a gunner aboard a B-17 with the 95th Bomb Group stationed at Horham, England, during WWII.

• Oregonian Charles "Charlie" Gallagher served as a gunner aboard a B-17 with the 95th Bomb Group stationed at Horham, England. Today, his valiant wartime service is depicted in a display located in the original NCO Club — the famous "Red Feather Club" — on the grounds of the former airbase.

• Walter "Wally" Groce was a resident of Portland and P-47 pilot with the 8th Air Force. On a memorable mission while Groce was escorting B-17s to their target, his group was attacked by Luftwaffe Me 262 jet fighters. The Messerschmitt jets were some 100 mph faster than the P-47 and could easily pull away from it. They flashed through the bomber formation; no gunner on a bomber could train his weapon to hit them. However, Groce got the angle on one Me 262 and hit it directly with his eight machine guns. If this seems improbable to impossible, Groce has the gun camera footage that verifies the kill.

• Portlander and noted KOIN radio/TV personality Clint Gruber flew for the 8th Air Force as a B-24 co-pilot. While flying a bombing mission in December 1943, his Liberator was mortally struck by heavy anti-aircraft fire. The crew bailed out and Gruber was taken prisoner "by an old man with a heavy white mustache and toting a shotgun."

Gruber eventually was transported to Stalag Luft I, a POW facility for captured air crews that was situated along the Baltic Sea. As he later reported it, the men could watch as the Germans launched top-secret V-2 rockets from Peenemunde, a nearby test facility.

COURTESY PHOTO: DON BOURGEOIS - Historian and author Don Bourgeois with 8th Air Force veteran Clint Gruber, who was held as a prisoner of war for 18 months at Stalag Luft I after his B-24 was shot down over Europe.

Gruber and the other airmen spent 18 long months as prisoners, during which time they were starved by their German captors. In early 1945, as the Russian army approached from the east, a rumor spread amongst the prisoners that the Nazis planned to execute them. Instead, one night the guards silently pulled out, leaving the men to themselves, with nothing except their freedom. In time, American aircraft evacuated the famished men.

• Marvin "Marv" Rasmussen was a Portlander, an Oregon Duck star basketball player and later principal of Franklin High School. He served in the 8th Air Force as an aircraft commander of a B-17. He was only 19 years old. After flying 20 combat missions, the war in Europe came to an end. He joked that "the Germans gave up after I flew 20 against them!"

When he met Gruber at an 8th Air Force Historical Society quarterly meeting, they both realized that Rasmussen's last mission, the evacuation of POWs from Stalag Luft I, could have been the one that provided Gruber with his transportation out. But they could not quite determine which B-17 flew Gruber to freedom.

Winning the Air War

Based in Britain and alongside the RAF, the American 8th and 9th Air Forces flew continuous sorties against German targets of all sorts — aircraft manufacturing facilities, rail yards, military installations, U-boat pens and even cities. The 15th Air Force flying from bases in Italy and North Africa (Mediterranean Command) attacked targets in southern Europe such as the infamous Ploesti Oil Fields.

In the end the massive effort would go far to help win the war in Europe. But it was not without a huge sacrifice. During World War II, the Air Forces would suffer the most casualties of any military branch.

This story is part of an ongoing series on the 80th Anniversary of the start of WWII by historian Don Bourgeois. They include stories on the roles Oregonians played in the attack on Pearl Harbor, the internment of Japanese-Americans, the Battle of Midway, Oregon under attack, and the Battle of Guadalcanal.

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