What was it like to be a bomber pilot during WWII? The firsthand accounts of Allied pilots offer a glimpse into life in the sky during the most cataclysmic conflict in modern history. Though their individual experiences varied, one thing is clear: Air raids were full of danger.
The airmen who participated in the effort came from all walks of life. Each Allied country had its own air force, such as the United States Army Air Forces, Britain's Royal Air Force (RAF), and Russia's Soviet Air Force. Colonies and dominions like India and Australia even had their own air forces that played a crucial part in the effort. Pilots from occupied or neutral countries like Poland, France, and Argentina volunteered with Allied groups to fight Germany, Italy, and Japan.
Pilots and their crews deployed efficient incendiary devices. The devices they dropped in Europe and the Pacific sometimes wiped out entire cities. A single raid could take tens of thousands of lives. This undoubtedly took a psychological toll on pilots. Many of them detached themselves from their actions and chose not to dwell on the human cost of their work. Others justified their actions by dehumanizing the enemy.
Pilots may have gotten a lot of glory for their service, but their service came at a great cost.
When the German Luftwaffe launched a relentless campaign against major British cities in 1940, tales of mass destruction shocked men and women around the world. The so-called London Blitz in particular became a rallying cry for a number of young men and women who enlisted in the WWII effort, especially those in the British Empire.
Among them was Laurie Woods, a pilot with the Royal Australian Air Force. He saw the Blitz's devastation firsthand when he traveled to his airbase in England. As Woods explained in an interview with Australia's ABC News, "When we landed here in England we came from Greenock in Scotland down to Brighton by train. As we passed through London, the destruction of housing and the damage that the raids had caused was enough to make our blood boil. So we were quite happy to go and do the same to the Germans. But it ended up being a little more than that because we were a stronger force."
American airman Paul Tibbets piloted history's most controversial plane: the Enola Gay, which he named for his mother. On August 6, 1945, Tibbets flew the Enola Gay when it dropped an atomic device on Hiroshima, Japan. The lone armament instantly ended more than 60,000 people, and the toll continued to climb in the days and years that followed.
Tibbets recalled in an interview with NPR what happened after the enormous device dropped out of the Enola Gay:
The [plane's] nose lurched up - I mean it lurched dramatically - because if you immediately let 10,000 pounds out of the front, the nose has got to fly up. We made our turn, we leveled out, and at the time that that happened I saw the sky in front of me light up brilliantly with all kinds of colors. At the same time I felt the taste of lead in my mouth. And where we had seen the city on the way in, I (now) saw nothing but a bunch of boiling debris with fire and smoke and all that kind of stuff. It was devastating to take a look at it.
American pilot Philip Ardery relied on his bombardier McSween to locate targets. McSween would confirm them by saying, "Bombs away."
However, it wasn't always easy to locate a target. As Ardery wrote in his memoir, "In those days we didn't have any real method of bombing on instruments, and so smoke constituted quite a problem. Sometimes when you make a run into a target directly up- or downwind the streamers of smoke from smoke pots function less effectively, and it is possible to see parts of a target through channels in the smoke."
In order to do their jobs, pilots usually detached themselves from what they were doing. They couldn't think about the people whose lives they were ending. Instead, they dehumanized the enemy.
When American pilot Jerry Yellin raided Japan in April 1945, he observed, "Little fires became big fires, and it never occurred to me, ever, that there were human beings on the ground [...] They were Japanese. They were terrible people. They did horrific things in China, and I saw horrific things done in Iwo Jima to [deceased] Marines - faces bashed in to get gold out of their teeth. They just were not human beings to me then."