On this Memorial Day, thousands of small American flags will fly in cemeteries near your home, next to the headstones of men and women who defended this country. Flags also will decorate the thousands of graves at Arlington National Cemetery as well as sacred ground throughout Europe and the Pacific that bears long, straight rows of ivory-white crosses and stars. Many of the young Americans who rest under these simple markers did not live past the age of 19 or 20.
There also are tens of thousands of equally young men who fought gallantly for this country during World War II, who helped turn the tide at a critical moment and will never have a flag placed on their graves. That's because they never had graves in the first place. These are the men of Army Air Forces, who were the first Americans to fight the Germans in Europe, long before any ground troops went into action.
When our nation was struggling to build an Army, Navy and Air Force right after Pearl Harbor, these initial bomber crews were sent to Europe in 1942. The Axis reached its strength at that time. The Germans had an iron lock on the European Continent and were halfway through Russia. They controlled the skies and had the most powerful army and air force on the planet.
The War Department in Washington made a calculated decision to use these early crews as cannon fodder. In a deadly war of attrition, the B-17 crews were sent out to face the murderous flak and more experienced German fighters in order to whittle down the Luftwaffe. The American high command understood that the United States had a much greater industrial capacity and could replenish its bombers and crews faster than the Germans. That was correct, and by the time of the D-Day landings, the United States owned the skies over Europe.
But it came at a terrible price. The U.S. Army Air Forces in England suffered a higher casualty rate than the Marines in the Pacific. Retired Judge Ralph Nutter, now 90 years old and living in California, was a navigator and part of the original group that arrived with 36-year-old Col. Curtis LeMay (soon to be the youngest general in modern U.S. history). Of the 35 original navigators, just two would survive.
The crews were so green and untrained that Gen. LeMay worried they might not even make it across the Atlantic. Most of the pilots had to wait for weeks at factories for their planes to come off the assembly line before they left. The German pilots had trained for years and had been fighting the war since 1939, when many of these American kids were still in high school.
"The worst thing was coming back to the barracks in England after a mission and seeing the empty bunks," Judge Nutter remembers. "[Bomber Command] filled up the bunks with new crews as fast as they could, but these were our friends." On some missions, upward of 60 bombers were shot down. With 10 men in a crew, that meant 600 men were lost in one day.
It wasn't just the B-17 crews that were affected. A 19-year-old kid from Brooklyn, Bill Teitelbaum, worked on the maintenance crew. His job was filling the planes with bombs. One bomber happened to have an entire crew from Brooklyn. Mr. Teitelbaum, who was away from home for the first time, attached himself to the hometown crew. They did everything together - they went to the pub, they went to London on leave. One day, the bomber just didn't come back. Mr. Teitelbaum survived the war, but his daughter, Linda Kasten, says her father never made another friend for the rest of his life.
All the families back home received was a telegram from the War Department notifying them that their sons had been killed or were missing. Months later, a footlocker with personal effects would be delivered along with a folded American flag on the top of the neatly packed container.
In the European air war, about 60,000 Americans died. In some cases, civilians who found their bodies buried them with a temporary marker, which later disappeared. Most of the time, the bodies were never recovered from the fiery explosions. Judge Nutter says the only remembrance for the lost airmen was a wall in the barracks where the name, rank and hometown were written in a long, neat row.
Sometime after the war, the barracks were torn down.
Warren Kozak is the author of the recently published "LeMay: The Life and Wars of General Curtis LeMay," from Regnery.