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The Mighty 8th

Gen. Ronald R. Fogleman, U.S. Air Force chief of staff

Delivered at the 8th Air Force Historical Society Reunion Banquet, St. Louis, Sept. 9, 1995

I offer my heartiest congratulations to the award winners. They deserve the coveted honors that you've presented them. The Eaker Awards in and of themselves are special because Ira Eaker, in my view, was a very special man.

In fact, as a young officer on the faculty at the Air Force Academy, one of my initial duties was to be part of an oral history program where I was privileged to have the opportunity to interview some of the great leaders of the Second World War, including Gens. Ira Eaker, Jimmy Doolittle and Curtis LeMay. They made an indelible imprint on my mind. Over the years, I have felt that they and the units they led never received quite the recognition that they really deserved.

So, I'm particularly pleased to be here and speak at this annual reunion of the 8th Air Force Historical Society. It gets me out of Washington for a day, which isn't too bad in and of itself. But more importantly, it gives me the opportunity to meet with the veterans of the "Mighty 8th" whom I've read and heard so much about.

I feel a special kinship with the airmen who took part in the very fierce air war over Europe during World War II; with all of those who helped establish the great reputation of the "Mighty 8th": the aircrews, the ground crews, the signals specialists, the firefighters, the ordnance troops, the weather forecasters, the quartermaster corps, the military police, the munitions specialists -- officer and enlisted alike -- and their families; with the families that they left behind; with those who stayed here and made America into the arsenal of democracy and kept the home fires burning. These are the people who made up the "Mighty 8th."

Eighth Air Force was our premier fighting outfit. It took the war directly to Nazi Germany -- to Germany's heartland -- from bases across East Anglia.

As the Air Force chief of staff, I value the rich heritage you have given to our Air Force. I admire your tremendous acts of courage and self-sacrifice because they remain examples for our airmen of today.

I wholeheartedly endorse the efforts of the 8th Air Force Historical Society to preserve and to celebrate this great heritage: your quarterly publication; the 8th Air Force Museum Foundation; your air warfare symposia; and the Mighty 8th Air Force Heritage Museum of Savannah. They stand as your legacy to a thankful nation.

I am particularly honored, however, to speak to you on this, the 50th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. It's really not just a celebration of the end of that war, it's a celebration of the Allied victory in that war -- a victory in which you played such a prominent role.

I have taken part in many ceremonies this year honoring this particular anniversary, including the ceremony last weekend in Hawaii. But none were more significant than being here with you this evening.

So, with your concurrence, I would like to address some of your accomplishments from the Second World War. At least I would like to tell you what it is that we are teaching our young airmen about you. We may not have the same clarity or insight that your war stories have -- stories that the wives have listened to at more than 21 different reunions. But, we're going to capture for our people the essence of what it is that you have done.

You stepped forward from all walks of American life at a time when this country needed you. You came forward to defend America against the forces of tyranny and evil. So few people today recognize the depth of that threat to our American way of life. But you came forward, secure in the knowledge and the understanding that some things are worth fighting and dying for.

So, the first of your legacies that we are stressing in our Air Force today is the concept, the idea, the core value that service comes before self in the time of need of your country, and in the service of your country.

When I consider your patriotism, I'm reminded of a passage from the Bible -- Isaiah, as I remember. It goes something like this:

"I heard the voice of the Lord saying, 'Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?' Then, said I, 'Here I am, Lord. Send me .... send me.'"

This is captured in a painting of a family praying together in a chapel. That painting is hanging on the wall just below my office in the Pentagon. I see it every day when I come in and leave the building.

America called you. You came forward, and you were posted to England in large numbers to prosecute the combined bomber offensive against Nazi Germany. You gave a tremendous accounting of yourselves.

From the humble beginnings Aug. 17, 1942, when Ira Eaker first led 12 B-17s on a heavy bombing mission against the marshaling yards at Rouen, France, you built 8th Air Force into a massive air armada that devastated the Nazi warmaking machine.

Some 200,000 people -- 40 bomb groups, 15 fighter groups, two photo reconnaissance groups. For us today, it is mind boggling to think about the logistics, the organization and the training involved in such an effort. Our active-duty Air Force of today is roughly 400,000 people. The 8th Air Force was 200,000, and you made it work. You made it happen.

As Roger Freeman said in his wonderful volume, The Mighty 8th, "It was the remarkable esprit de corps, dogged bravery and supreme determination to succeed" that made you so effective in combat. Despite the numbing cold of high altitudes, vicious attacks by enemy fighters and deadly fields of flak, you persevered in taking the war to the enemy.

You were faced with nearly impossible odds in those early days. No capability for long-range fighter escort; statistically impossible to complete a tour of duty; but you and your fellow airmen, you all persevered. You would not be denied, and you established another legacy for us. You established the enviable record of never, never being turned back by enemy action.

For those early years of the Second World War, you were the shock troops sent against Hitler. It was the overwhelming combination of 8th Air Force bombers and those of RAF (Royal Air Force) Bomber Command, combined with the fighters that supported you, that truly opened a second front against the Nazis, long before the invasion of Europe.

You tied up hundreds of thousands of German troops manning more than 10,000 anti-aircraft guns, as well as thousands of Luftwaffe fighters. You prevented these forces from being sent to other theaters where the allies made their first tenuous steps on the way back to the continent. By the admission of Hitler's armaments czar, Albert Speer, the second front you opened over the skies of Europe in his own words, "was the greatest battle lost by the German side."

The post-war Strategic Bombing Survey gave credit for this victory where I think credit was due. It concluded by saying, "Success depended upon the courage, fortitude and gallant action of the officers and men, of the aircrews and the commands. It depended also on a superiority in leadership, ability and basic strength."

This report was absolutely right. It was right because, as you well know, realistic training and innovative tactics paid off in improved mission results and lives saved.

By the spring of 1944, massive attacks by 8th Air Force against the German aircraft industry, combined with aggressive fighter operations, really broke the back of the Luftwaffe. Your heroic efforts achieved the air superiority that was so crucial for the successful Allied invasion of the continent.

As we began the preparations for that invasion, the "Mighty 8th" joined the 9th, the 12th and the 15th Air Forces in a maximum effort to prepare the way for Operation Overlord -- the invasion of Europe in June 1944.

Throughout the spring of 1944, you interdicted strategic rail centers in northern France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg -- attacks designed to isolate German forces in the lodgment area where the invasion would take place. You beat down coastal defenses. You attacked V-bomb sites and naval installations. You repeatedly struck airfields within reach of the landing zones.

Through all this, you virtually eliminated the possibility of Luftwaffe opposition to the invasion. In this manner, you literally created the conditions that helped lead to the success of the D-Day landings.

On the morning of June 6, 1944, some 1,350 bombers from 8th Air Force struck beach targets in support of the invasion. Throughout the day, all operational 8th Air Force fighters provided air cover and attacked road and rail targets.

Before that invasion began, General (Dwight D.) Eisenhower stood before his troops, and he promised those American GIs that the only airplanes they would see over the beaches on D-Day would be ours. You proved him correct -- you made it happen.

In the latter days of the war you employed good old American ingenuity to enhance your operations, and as you well remember, some innovations worked better than others -- and so it is today.

One of those initiatives was to send P-51s out ahead of bomber formations to determine whether the target area weather would allow a successful mission. This initiative reduced weather cancellations, lowered accident rates and saved lives.

One of the things that didn't work that well was the concept of flying shuttle missions to the Soviet Union. They had great promise, but didn't turn out nearly as successful as they might have been because of the difficulty in turning the bombers once they landed in the Ukraine.

Miss Jane (Mrs. Fogleman) and I visited the Ukraine, and while we were there, folks who were involved in the shuttle operations presented us a commemorative album from that effort. They're very proud to have been associated with the airmen of the "Mighty 8th" during World War II.

Other experiments had begun to show how the Air Force would lead the services in technology exploitation throughout the coming decades. Radar devices such as the H2S, the H2X, the Gee-H and the Micro-H significantly enhanced the effectiveness of bombing in overcast weather.

Other efforts were not so successful. There was the effort to build a flying bomb, if you will, out of a radio controlled B-17 which we packed with 10 tons of explosives. There was only one slight deficiency in this idea. The B-17 had to be taken off from our own airfields by one of our pilots, then once airborne, the pilot would bail out and the radio control would take over. Unfortunately, we crashed a couple of these aircraft during the takeoff phase so we abandoned that effort.

But as the war wore on, you escalated your attacks on vital targets deep in enemy territory, mortally wounding the Germans. You devastated their key war industries -- aircraft, petroleum, armaments and steel. You decimated the enemy's transportation network, completely derailing the Nazi economy and taking away from the Germans the internal lines of communications that had always been their strength in battles on the continent of Europe. You gutted the German military's ability to resist the onslaught of Allied ground forces.

By the close of the war, the "Mighty 8th" had struck where no other forces could go in enemy-held territory. You had either damaged or destroyed 19,000 German fighters, and within your ranks, you could boast of 261 recognized aces and 14 Medal of Honor winners. And as confirmed by the Strategic Bombing Survey, your efforts proved that air power could have a decisive impact on the outcome of a battle, a campaign, or a world war.

Your exploits added a glowing volume to the annals of military history, but it came at a terrible cost. There are those today who think that war is a bloodless endeavor. It never has been, and it never will be. We kid ourselves when we think that it will be. I would hope that it never becomes quite so terrible as what you had to endure, but what you endured saved thousands and thousands of lives in the ground forces, and it made the invasion of Europe possible.

But there were tremendous sacrifices. More than 26,000 airmen were killed in action, 18,000 wounded and 28,000 captured and held as prisoners of war. After World War II, Gen. Hap Arnold said it best in the forward to his book, Global Mission: "Your efforts and sacrifices built American air power into one of the determining facts in maintaining world peace today."

In the end, your courageous performance during World War II led to the birth of today's United States Air Force in September 1947.

Today's Air Force looks to you with great pride. You are the example that we attempt to live up to. We have tried to show the same kind of innovation and adaptability that you did in the early days.

As we came out of the Cold War, we rebuilt and restructured our Air Force. It is no longer a Cold War Air Force. It is an Air Force capable of supporting our national objectives in this very changed world.

We do that in five ways. First, we still provide the backbone of deterrence for the country -- not only nuclear, but also conventional. We have combined our bomber forces with our fighter forces to help deter conventional conflicts.

As you heard earlier, 8th Air Force is now a general purpose air force. This numbered air force gives our country the ability to project long range, sustainable, lethal combat power from the continental United States with the combination of fighters and bombers. Bombers can be employing weapons while we are mobilizing and deploying other forces and capabilities to a theater of war.

The third thing your Air Force provides for the nation today is global mobility. We're the only nation on the face of the Earth that can project power and influence anywhere in the world. Because we have combined our tanker forces and airlift forces, we can build these giant tanker-airlift bridges that allow us to go anywhere. We can go there with a helping hand as we did in Central Africa last year. Or we can go there with a gloved fist and provide lethal combat power as we are doing in Bosnia tonight.

The fourth thing that we provide this country is global situation awareness through our satellites and our air-breathing reconnaissance assets.

And finally, through this combination of capabilities, your Air Force of today, just like the "Mighty 8th" of yesterday, projects U.S. influence and helps enlarge the democratic societies of the world.

Tonight, I want to thank you for what you did during that terrible period of World War II. It was a war that began with a swift, devastating and dastardly strike from the air Dec. 7, 1941; and it was a war ended by an equally decisive strike from the air delivered by Army Air Forces B-29s to the enemy's homeland in August 1945. The intervening years saw some of the most savage air, land and sea battles ever fought on the face of the earth -- and you were part of that.

But on a personal note, I thank you not only for what you did during the war, but what your generation has done since the war. Unlike any other generation in the history of this nation, at the end of that war you made America the great country that it is today.

More than 12.1 million men and women under arms were demobilized in 1945. When you came home, you helped convert our economy from wartime production to one that could provide the domestic goods to help furnish the homes that you would build. You established the businesses. You became the civic leaders. You gave my generation the values that we cherish and that we have lived by. You were the Little League coaches and your wives conducted the bake sales that bought us the uniforms. You were the Sunday School teachers. You were our role models.

You gave much in war, but you have given equally in peace. That's the heritage of the "Mighty 8th."