Remembering the Pilots of World War II

Although aviation in war was utilized during World War I, by WWII aviation was considered a tactical necessity for winning a war. As a result, the demand for combat pilots was high by the time the US entered the war in December of 1941. As we remember our fallen heroes this Memorial Day, we’re highlighting the different groups of aviators that courageously served the US and other Allied powers during the Second World War.


The first three members of the Eagle Squadron in 1940. From left to right: Andrew Mamedoff, Vernon Keough, and Eugene Tobin. Image by Royal Air Force photographer Mr. B.J. Daventry [public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

The first three members of the Eagle Squadron in 1940. From left to right: Andrew Mamedoff, Vernon Keough, and Eugene Tobin. Image by Royal Air Force photographer Mr. B.J. Daventry [public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.


The Defected: The Eagle Squadrons

Although the United States did not officially enter the Second World War until 1941, many men were eager to join the fight against the Axis powers long before that. As a result, thousands of American men volunteered themselves to foreign armies. Many served in the British Royal Air Force (RAF) during WWII, forming what today are known as the Eagle Squadrons. However, others had already crossed the US-Canadian border previously to volunteer to serve in the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), and had voluntarily fought for Finland during the Winter War. With the outbreak of WWII, however, the RCAF began to recruit American men for service both in Canada and overseas.


Nearly 7,000 American men were recruited to serve within the RCAF and RAF – of these 7,000, approximately 250 ventured to England, where they joined one of the three Eagle Squadrons: no.71, no.121, or no.133, all of which were formed within the course of a year following September of 1940. Joining these foreign air forces was dangerous, however, as serving in another country’s armed forces was illegal in the United States, and constituted a forfeit of American citizenship. As a result, men would need to be smuggled from the US to Canada for their service. Once there, however, they could train with the RCAF, or travel on to Britain and the Eagle Squadrons.


The Eagle Squadrons were involved in several British operations (the most notable of which was Operation Jubilee, an Allied attack on German-occupied Dieppe in France), and continued to serve the RAF even after the US formally entered the war in 1941. However, there was a push for these squadrons to be transferred back to the US military given the country’s new partnership with the Allies. Problems with this transfer arose when it was discovered that many of the pilots had failed to meet United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) standards for recruitment (many of which were simply said to be “lacking in intrinsic flying ability”). In addition, none of the pilots had ever earned US pilot’s wings, and there was a large dispute over whether the squadrons would be broken up when transferred back to USAAF leadership. Despite these various holdups, the Eagle Squadrons were ultimately transferred back to the USAAF in September of 1942, and continued to serve until the war ended. A pardon was later issued in 1944 for those who had served in a foreign nation’s military.


The US Pilots of WWII: Air Force Cadets

Stearman Kaydets being flown by naval aviation students. Reprinted from Central Coast Aviators in WWII by Jim Gregory courtesy of the U.S. Navy (pg. 32, The History Press, 2018).
Stearman Kaydets being flown by naval aviation students. Reprinted from Central Coast Aviators in WWII by Jim Gregory courtesy of the U.S. Navy (pg. 32, The History Press, 2018).


The intense demand for combat pilots did not imply, however, that just anyone could earn their pilots wings. The requirements to become a pilot in WWII were increasingly rigid due to the influence of Air Force Commander Henry “Hap” Arnold, who insisted that recruits have achieved some level of college education, previous flight experience, and either a demonstrated talent for mechanics or an ability to learn skills quickly. The last of these was measured by the Army General Classification Test (AGCT), which required that USAAF pilots scored within approximately 45% of the top competitors.


Even after recruitment, the path to a pair of USAAF flight wings was not easy – there were four phases of flight school during WWII, including preflight prep training, primary, basic, and finally advanced flight training. Bomber crews were given further advanced training specific to their duties and aircrafts. Many recruits were unable to make it past even the preflight prep training, often as a result of its physical intensity, requiring a ten-day-on, two-day-off training schedule. As a result, many aviation recruits were transferred out of the USAAF to other forms of service. Those who did make it through preflight prep training would find themselves becoming certified to fly a biplane.


Besides the physical demands of training, becoming a pilot was also dangerous. Freak accidents during training were not uncommon, and in at least one case a cadet died after his parachute failed to deploy during an uncontrolled descent. Even seasoned airmen suffered, too, and altogether 3,500 men died during training due to mechanical malfunctions or other failures. Those who survived the grueling training went on to specialize either as single-passenger fighter pilots, or as part of a bomber plane crew. Being a fighter pilot was considered more desirable, however, as the role of the flying aces from WWI (who had taken down multiple enemy targets) was romanticized by the eager would-be pilots of WWII. Unfortunately, this notion that did not speak to the inherent dangers pilots face in combat. About 40% of all recruits, however, never became pilots at all, and instead became navigators, engineers, or gunners. Those who did become pilots would go on to fight in both the European and Pacific theater, aiding the allied forces in attacks worldwide.


The Unlikely Pilots: WASPS of World War II


WASP pilots talking before towing targets for the USAAF. Reprinted from Central Coast Aviators in WWII by Jim Gregory courtesy of the Museum of the U.S. Air Force (pg. 39, The History Press, 2018).

WASP pilots talking before towing targets for the USAAF. Reprinted from Central Coast Aviators in WWII by Jim Gregory courtesy of the Museum of the U.S. Air Force (pg. 39, The History Press, 2018).


The United States WASP (or Women’s Airforce Service Pilots) program was formed in 1942 to remedy a pilot shortage. The women who were recruited (around 1,100 of the 25,000 that applied) helped to test aircraft, towed targets, and ferried aircraft on US military bases, so that male pilots could be released to duty overseas. This was a huge gamble for the time, as women were not widely considered to be suitable for pilot duty – unsurprisingly, Air Force Commander Hap Arnold outwardly questioned whether women could even handle a heavy bomber such as the B-17. However, World War II saw a large movement to increase women’s involvement in defensive work roles, led by propaganda images like Rosie the Riveter. The role of the WASPS was indicative of this campaign, as they took over in a traditionally male field when given the opportunity.


The WASP program consisted entirely of civilian volunteers, who were not recognized as formal members of the US armed forces. As a result, the program was quickly disbanded in 1944 due to a “sufficiency of manpower:” with the war winding down overseas, many men returned home expecting to resume the positions they had left when they went overseas, only to find their positions filled by the women they’d left behind. These women were subsequently removed and dismissed from their positions with little ceremony, with most WASPS returning to their normal civilian lives. The program was finally recognized by the US military in the 1970s, at which point they were granted full military status. Today, the WASPS are recognized not only as military veterans, but the program (and its participants) were awarded a collective Congressional Gold Medal for their work by former President Barack Obama in 2010.


If you want to learn more about the brave pilots of WWII, check out Central Coast Aviators in World War II by Jim Gregory.


What do you think of these incredible servicemen and women from World War II? Let us know in the comments below!

















 
Posted: 5/25/2018 12:00:00 AM| with 0 comments


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