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With the Possum and the Eagle

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Ralph H. Nutter was the lead navigator for Eighth Air Force raids over Germany when he was assigned as Maj. Gen. Curtis "the Eagle" LeMay's group navigator. Later, as the strategic air war over Europe was winding down, the ace navigator was transferred to B-29 Superfortress duty with the Twentieth Air Force in the Pacific, where he was picked by Brigadier Gen. Haywood "Possum" Hansell to be his bomber navigator. After LeMay succeeded Hansell as bomber commander, Nutter returned to navigation duty with LeMay. Hansell and LeMay were two of our country's leading combat commanders in Europe and the Pacific. They pioneered the concepts of strategic airpower and high-altitude daylight precision bombing. With the Possum and the Eagle affords a rare insider's perspective on aviation leadership and strategic issues, melded with extraordinary accounts of courage under fire.

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1. A Second Lieutenant Meets Colonel LeMay

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1: A Second Lieutenant Meets Colonel LeMay

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t was seven o'clock on Sunday evening, 7 December 1941. I was studying in the dormitory of Perkins Hall at Harvard Law School.

I heard the sound of tramping feet in the hall and the voice of my classmate Sander Johnson, yelling in a military cadence, "hut, two, three, four; hut, two, three, four." I opened the door of my room and yelled back, "Sander, I'm trying to study!"

He kept on marching with several classmates behind him, then looked back at me and said, "Throwaway your books Ralph. The

Japanese have bombed Pearl Harbor. We'll all be in the army!"

My roommate turned on the radio. There were hysterical reports that the Japanese were going to bomb San Francisco. I decided that

Sander Johnson was right. I pushed my books off the desk into the wastebasket.

I had tried to join the navy air arm in November but was rejected because of my eyesight and a sinus condition. Perhaps physical standards would be relaxed now that we were at war.

The next morning I went to the air corps recruiting station in

 

2. Across the North Atlantic

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2: Across the North Atlantic

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en we returned to Syracuse from Harrisburg, we were informed that we should get ready for our flight to England.

We were not going to lie under palm trees and exchange visits with the Japanese in the Pacific. We were to make social calls on Nazi Germany from the air. The first stop was to be Gander Lake,

Newfoundland.

The night before we left, our group had a boisterous and raucous party at the Hotel Syracuse. We sang the air force song, "OfIWe Go into the Wild Blue Yonder," and threw our drinks and glasses into the fireplace. My guest at the party was a blind date from Syracuse

University. I didn't know what to say to her as I escorted her back to her dormitory. As I said good-bye at the door, we both kept asking,

"When will we see each other again?" Two and a half years later we were married after I returned from England.

The next morning, as we walked toward our aircraft for our takeofIfrom Syracuse, Sonny Collins turned to me and said, "This is it,

Ralph. This is where we separate the sheep from the goats."

 

3. Training for Combat

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3: Training for Combat

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n October 1942, the Eighth Air Force had seven bomber bases in the Northampton-Cambridge area of East Anglia in England.

Mter we landed at Grafton Underwood, I walked to our new barracks, a half-cylinder-shaped metal Quonset hut. The only heat was from a coal stove in the center of a room housing twenty-two first and second lieutenants. Only a few would survive combat over Germany. A year later, only two of our original group from Muroc remained. As I unpacked my gear, I thought about the immediate future. I knew we were undertrained and lacked the expertise to confront experienced Luftwaffe fighter pilots in battle. Colonel

LeMay didn't give us any time to worry, however.

The next morning he called a group meeting and told us: ''You are all confined to base until further notice. Our first combat missions will be against the German submarine bases on the French coast. It'll be on-the-job training. Every member of each crew is to study aircraft identification. We will have no fighter protection in target areas. Our fighters don't have the range to escort us to the targets. When you see a fighter turning into our formation, there will be no second chance. Shoot at it. You've got to learn to identify and distinguish German fighters from RAF and American fighters.

 

4. Group Navigator for Colonel LeMay

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4: Group Navigator for Curtis LeMay

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he decision to send nearly half of our forces to North Mrica meant that the bombing of strategic targets in Germany would have to be put on hold. We were ordered to make the

German submarine pens our first bombing priority. The submarines were a serious threat to Allied troops on the way to North Mrica, as well as the supplies of food and war materials to the British Isles.

On 17 November 1942, our 305th Bomb Group was selected for a diversionary mission to the German submarine base at Brest on the

Brittany peninsula in northern France. LeMay told us that we were not scheduled to drop any bombs. Rather, it was planned that our group would be a decoy. We were to be bait for the Nazi fighters. The mission planners hoped that we would divert the German fighters' attention away from the main effort of the three groups bombing

Lorient, another submarine base south of Brest.

General Hansell attended the mission briefing and made a short statement. I could see that he was unhappy. Bombing German s~b­ marine bases was a far cry from bombing strategic military targets in

 

5. The Possum Becomes Our Commanding General

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5: The Possum Becomes Our Commanding General

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n the first week of January 1943, we were informed that Brig.

Gen. Heywood "Possum" Hansell, would succeed Brig. Gen.

Lawrence S. Kuter as commanding general of the 1st Bomb

Wing, which included our 305th Bomb Group. I remembered

Hansell's announcement in November that we were losing three of our groups to North Mrica. I asked J oe Preston what he knew about

Hansell and he told me that Hansell was expected to be a star in the air force. He had been an observer of the RAF operation in England prior to the war and was in General Arnold's inner circle. He had been the chief planner for Maj. Gen. Carl Spaatz, the Eighth Air

Force commander, in the summer of 1942. Arnold had picked him to command our wing for the first bombing assaults on the Nazi homeland.

Joe predicted that LeMay would try to persuade Hansell to order the other three groups to use his new staggered formations. They might be our only chance to survive.

I rode with LeMay, Preston, and Malec to our first wing operations meeting. Hansell's headquarters was in the former estate of an English lord in Brampton, a village west of Cambridge. We assembled in what had probably been the formal dining room. The commanding officers and headquarters operations people, including group navigators and bombardiers, from all four groups were present.

 

6. Casablanca—The Air Force Rejects Area Bombing

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6: Casablanca-The Air Force Rejects Area Bombing

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n December 1942, at a meeting ofthe U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff,

General Arnold said that if he could get more bombers for the

Eighth Air Force, Germany could be defeated without an invasion.

Admiral ErnestJ. King, the chief of naval operations, replied that the Eighth had nothing to show for its efforts given that it hadn't dropped so much as one bomb on Germany.

Arnold, trying to contain his temper, reminded King that half of the Eighth's groups had been sent to North Mrica. King replied that

Arnold would get a chance to explain the Eighth's failures to the president, British prime minister Winston Churchill, and the joint chiefs at a strategy conference in Casablanca in January.

The bombing directives formulated at Casablanca in January

1943 had a momentous effect on the future bombing policy of the

Allied air forces for the remainder of the war. The policy was so vague and ambiguous that, as the war progressed, the proponents of both precision and area bombing used the policy to justify any type of bombing mission against enemy urban areas.

 

7. Our First Mission over Germany

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7: Our First Mission over Germany

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n 26 January 1943, Hansell called a meeting of group leaders to phm our first bombing mission over Germany. He opened the meeting by telling us that at the Casablanca conference General Arnold had ordered General Eaker to launch immediate missions against the German homeland. He told us that we must make a maximum effort and, if possible, put as many as ninety planes over the target.

LeMay asked Hansell if we were ready to fly into Germany without fighter support.

Hansell said we had no choice. Arnold insisted on an immediate mission. LeMay made no comment. The other group commanders looked grim. Hansell terminated the meeting without further discussion.

We returned to Chelveston to plan the mission. I worked out our group flight plan with LeMay and Preston and didn't get to bed until 11:30 P.M. Wake-up call was at 3 A.M., and after a breakfast of powdered eggs and Spam at 4 A.M., our crews assembled in the briefing room.

I pulled back a large curtain covering a map of Germany. I had placed a red string on the map indicating the route from our base at Chelveston in East Anglia, across the North Sea and the German

 

8. Prelude to a Bloody Summer

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8: Prelude to a Bloody Summer

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ontrary to his glowing public relations statements to the

American people, General Arnold was privately dissatisfied with our bombing results in the winter and spring of 1943.

He criticized General Eaker's senior command personnel and told him that he was overly protective of his combat crews. The Eighth

Air Force was not flying enough missions; Eaker had not made adequate use of our available bombers or the short-range P-47 Thunderbolt fighters.

The assistant secretary of war for air, Robert Lovett, defended

Eaker. He informed Arnold that we were fighting against the toughest odds in the world. Even when our bombers returned from missions without personnel casualties, many of our planes were often so badly damaged that they could not return to combat for several weeks.

Each month during the spring of 1943, our losses increased. We lost seventy-five crews and less than a third of them were replaced.

Our increasing losses had to have become apparent to the Germans.

 

9. The Politics of High Command

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9: The Politics of High Command

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s the summer of 1943 approached, our situation was getting worse rather than better. We still had no fighter support, and the Germans kept attempting new techniques to break up our formations. Fighters flew above our planes and dropped parachute bombs timed to explode in the middle of our groups. Twinengine fighters launched rockets from beyond the range of our guns.

The Nazis even repaired a crashed B-17 and flew it alongside ours.

We lost two aircraft before we realized it was an enemy plane and shot it down.

Eaker was under pressure from General Arnold to step up the pace of our missions deep into Germany. We didn't know that

Arnold had been criticizing Eaker's bomber, fighter, and maintenance commanders. Except for LeMay's 305th Group, bombing results were less than satisfactory. Eaker believed that Hansell was an excellent long-range planner but ineffective as a combat commander. He was nervous, high-strung, overly sensitive to criticism, and seemed to have difficulty exercising the leadership required of a combat commander. Eaker thought it was doubtful that Hansell could physically withstand the trials and responsibilities of the approaching bloody summer.

 

10. Bloody Summer

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10: Bloody Summer

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n]une 1943, Eaker instructed his staff to plan a summer offensive. He told Hansell to meet with his RAF counterpart on the combined planning committee and plan a coordinated attack on

Hamburg. The missions, scheduled for the last week of]uly, called for the RAF and Eighth Air Force to bomb German industrial cities around the clock for six of the last seven days of the month. The RAF called it "Blitz Week." During the planning meetings, Hansell listened with quiet disapproval as the RAF members of his committee orchestrated a massive firebomb attack on the center of Hamburg.

He reluctantly agreed to recommend to Eaker that the Eighth join in a combined effort and carry bomb loads that included 40 percent incendiary bombs. The British would fly the initial mission at night and we would follow in daylight.

Hansell did his best to conceal his feelings about the massive use of incendiaries. This was area bombing at its worst. Hansell thought that Gomorrah, the code name for the attack on Hamburg, was most appropriate. If the Eighth Air Force dropped its bombs on fires started by the RAF, it would be engaged in de facto area bombing.

 

11. Munich by Night, Schweinfurt by Day

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11: Munich by Night, Schweinfurt by Day

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ur losses during the bloody summer of 1943 made it clear that daylight bombing without fighter support was in serious trouble. The doctrine that fighter support was unnecessary had been proved to be tragically incorrect. In early September our group commander, Lt. Col. Don Fargo, called me to a meeting in his office. I was surprised to see the VIII Bomber Command's top brass there: Generals Anderson, Hansell, Williams, and

LeMay. In addition to Fargo and me, our group bombardier and Maj.

Jerry Price of the 422d Squadron represented the 305th.

Anderson spoke first and warned us that the meeting was a matter of the highest security. He then summarized our losses for the summer. We had lost nearly three hundred planes and more than three thousand crewmen. Our losses on the Schweinfurt-Regensburg and Stuttgart missions alone made it clear that until we obtained long-range fighter support we would have similar losses every time we sent our crews deep inside Germany. During the previous three months we'd flown only fifteen missions to inland targets, and with the exception of Kassel and Regensburg, our bombing results had been less than satisfactory. The Germans still had air superiority over us in daylight, and in spite of our bombing they appeared to be increasing their aircraft production.

 

12. Hansell and LeMay in Washington

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12: Hansell and LeMay in Washington

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ansell was up at 5 A.M. on 15 October 1943. He was scheduled to fly back to Washington and resume his former position as General Arnold's chief plans officer. Mter an early breakfast he decided to stop and say good-bye to General Eaker. As he entered Eaker's office he saw that the Eighth Air Force commander was studying the previous day's strike photographs and casualty figures and was visibly upset.

Eaker told Hansell that the bombing results were slightly better than in August, but the ball-bearing factories still had not been destroyed. Hansell asked if the final reports had come in from

Williams's and LeMay's divisions. Eaker said that LeMay's division had achieved better bombing results and suffered only a third as many losses as the 1st Division. He said he thought it was time the

1st Division adopted LeMay's tactics and procedures. He added that preliminary reports indicated that so many had been badly damaged that it would be weeks before they could mount a force large enough to risk another mission over Germany without fighter support.

 

13. Reflections at Sea

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13: Reflections at Sea

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left England shordy after the massive Big Week attacks on Germany in late February 1944. I felt confident that the tide of the air war was at last turning. I was told that I would probably be assigned as an instructor for radar navigator-bombardiers in the B-29 program. As I said good-bye to Hansell in October, I didn't know that

I would again be working for both him and LeMay in the Pacific.

Combat troops returning to the States for reassignment were given the option of flying home or going on a troopship sailing to

New York to pick up ground troops for the forthcoming invasion.

Never having been on an ocean liner, I chose to go by sea. I boarded the Mauritania, a pre-World War I ocean liner and sister ship of the famed Lusitania, which had been sunk by submarines off the coast ofIreland in 1916, an act that helped draw America into that conflict. The ship had no real defense against German submarines, and we had no naval escort.

In an effort to avoid submarines, the captain planned a route that would take us north of England to the coast of Iceland and Greenland, and then south and east of Newfoundland. We sailed north in an arctic snowstorm, with huge waves breaking over the bow. Visibility was limited. As we plowed through the heavy winter seas at full speed, I asked the British captain if we were in any danger of a collision with an iceberg. We were traveling at a speed of twenty knots, and I thought about the Titanic and its collision with an iceberg off the Grand Banks of Newfoundland while traveling at a similar speed.

 

14. General Arnold's $3 Billion Gamble

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14: General Arnold's $3 Billion Gamble

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he B-29 was designed in 1940 by the Boeing Company as a larger and much improved version of their B-17. Boeing called it the "Superfortress. It weighed 140,000 pounds and was considered to be the Cadillac of World War II heavy bombers.

Its many innovations included pressurized crew areas, improved radar, and a centralized, remotely controlled gun turret system. It could carry seventeen thousand pounds of bombs, almost three times the capacity of the B-17, and its ability to fly much longer distances at higher speeds and altitudes was thought to make it invulnerable to enemy fighters. It was never used against the Germans.

Its complex innovations caused substantial production delays, and by the time it became available the air war in Europe was well in hand. The decision was made to send all B-29s to the Pacific, where its great range could be exploited. In its first operations against the

Japanese it proved to be a design engineer's dream and a combat crew's nightmare.

 

15. Hansell and LeMay Lead the B-29s

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15: Hansell and LeMay Lead the B-29s

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rnold evaded the Truman Committee hearings throughout the summer of 1943. He was anxious to avoid questions about the deficiencies of the B-29s and possible misconduct by air force inspectors. He knew that the president and General Marshall could not have been pleased about the testimony and unfavorable publicity coming from the hearings, and he was concerned that they would blame him for the mismanagement of the B-29 production program. They had both supported the multibillion-dollar

B-29 budget over the strong opposition of the army and navy. They had relied on his representation that the B-29s could achieve victory over Japan without the necessity of invasion.

Arnold believed that the B-29 was his last opportunity to prove that victory could be achieved through strategic airpower, without an invasion by ground troops. If it should fail, Arnold knew he would be forced into early retirement.

General Marshall agreed to support Hansell's plan to put B-29 operations under the operational control of the joint chiefs with

 

16. The Battle of Culver City

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16: The Battle of Culver City

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n the second week of September 1944 1 was ordered to report to General Hansell's headquarters.

"I have an unusual assignment for you, Ralph," he said.

"You're going to a movie studio in Hollywood. The army motion picture unit has taken over the Hal Roach studios in Culver City. The air force calls the motion-picture unit Fort Roach, and the personnel there are' celluloid commandos.' They've been making training films, and General Arnold believes they may be able to assist us in making a film to brief the crews for our first mission to Tokyo."

Hansell suggested that we call the film "Target Tokyo."

He said the maps and photos we had of the Tokyo area were out of date and that we had very little intelligence about Japanese industry and other military targets there. The first mission from Saipan would be to hit an important fighter and aircraft factory at Ota, a few miles from Tokyo. The planes would fly at an altitude of approximately thirty thousand feet and avoid the center of Tokyo, where the antiaircraft defenses were expected to be the heaviest. He added that we would not have any accurate weather data.

 

17. A Different War, a Different Enemy

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17: A Different War, A Different Enemy

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s we approached the Marianas in a bright, cloudless sky, I moved up from my navigator's table to a position between the pilot and copilot for a better look. I was anxious to see my new home.

The campaign to capture the Marianas in the summer of 1944 featured the largest amphibious assaults of the war in the Pacific up to that time. Organized resistance on Saipan, Tinian, and Guam had ended on all three islands by mid-August. A few scattered Japanese remained to harass us until the end of the war. Only the island of Rota north of

Guam was still in Japanese hands; our forces had bypassed it. It became a favorite practice bombing area for our aircrews. On several occasions we threw empty beer cans out of the bomb bay after dropping our bombs, certain that the cans would whistle like real bombs and the

Japanese would wait for an explosion that never materialized.

The Marianas are a series of volcanic islands several hundred miles long in the central Pacific, thirty-five hundred miles from Hawaii, fifteen hundred miles east of the Philippines, and fifteen hundred miles south ofJapan. Saipan is seventeen miles long and about fiveand one half miles across at its widest point. It is the most northerly of the inhabited islands closest to Japan and one hundred and twenty miles from Guam. Guam is the largest island in the Marianas chain.

 

18. The Divine Winds of Heaven

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18: The Divine Winds of Heaven

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he kamikaze suicide attacks against our facilities and personnel on Saipan brought new dimensions to our preparations to bomb Japan. We were almost never confronted with suicide attacks by German fighter pilots. The Nazis were brutal fanatics, but I had never encountered German fighter pilots who would sacrifice their lives for religious or cultural reasons, or for devotion to an emperor.

The marines told me about the suicides of the Japanese defenders of Saipan and their cries of "Banzai!" as they jumped to their deaths rather than be captured. We were fighting against a foe who gloried in death as "a divine wind of heaven."

Japanese history is culturally different from that of any Western nation. During World War II,Japan's military elite was aided by the nation's ancient samurai tradition. The military aristocracy used japan's warrior tradition to inspire the Japanese people to fight

Americans to the death. The Bushido and samurai codes were used to inspire their soldiers, sailors, and pilots to make reckless suicide attacks on our troops, warships, and air bases. Saipan was relatively close to the Japanese home islands, and Prime Minister Hideki Tojo resigned in disgrace after its capture, which was a crushing defeat for the military elite and warrior class that ruled Japan. Saipan was an ideal target for the samurai tradition. The militarists could send kamikazes there to attack the B-29 bombers and crews threatening their homeland. The young pilots were told their sacrifices had been divinely inspired by the emperor, and they believed they were about to ride the winds of heaven to eternal glory.

 

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