Frank Murphy was born in 1921, and that was the luck he drew. Babies born that year stood a very good chance of having their lives ended or forever altered by the Second World War.
Young Frank had a solidly middle-class upbringing in Cleveland and Atlanta, despite the Great Depression that began when he was eight. He was a drummer in the Boy Scouts, attended a Catholic military school, and enrolled as a freshman at Emory University. Hooked on the stories of aces on the Western Front during World War I, he even took flying lessons and soloed in a Piper Cub. "If we were missing anything in life, we were not aware of it," Murphy said of himself and his brother in Luck of the Draw: My Story of the Air War in Europe.
Murphy was 20 when the attack on Pearl Harbor catapulted the US into the world-wide conflagration. He promptly dropped out of Emory and applied for Army flight training. He wanted to be a pilot, of course, but faulty depth perception and a knack for numbers shuttled him into navigator school instead, and from there to the crew of a Boeing B-17F -- the "Flying Fortress." Its name stemmed from a prewar delusion that afflicted air forces around the world. In the words of the Saturday Evening Post, it could "drop a bomb into a pickle barrel from 18,000 feet" while flying so high and fast that it had little to fear from enemy interceptors or antiaircraft guns. By 1942 most air forces had learned better.
The B-17 was indeed a magnificent aircraft -- beautiful, tough, and bristling with half-inch machine guns, one of them manned by the navigator from his perch in the bomber's plexiglass nose. After training for more than a year, Crew 31 -- six sergeants and four officers, including Lt. Murphy -- was deemed ready for combat in the spring of 1943. For Murphy, flying to the war was his first serious test. He had to navigate their B-17 across the North Atlantic, from Labrador in Canada to Cape Farewell at the southern tip of Greenland, thence to Iceland, Scotland, and down the English coast to the concrete runways of Thorpe Abbotts in Norfolk, north of London.
Murphy and his crew received their baptism by fire on June 28. It began with another challenge for the young navigator: west to England's Land's End, south-southwest to the Bay of Biscay, and east again the German submarine base at Saint-Nazaire. The US Eighth Air Force called the target "Flak City" for its black clouds of shrapnel-filled smoke from batteries of 88mm and 105mm guns -- Flak being the German acronym for antiaircraft cannon.
"It horrified me," Murphy admits. "When we entered the flak, it was an almost uninterrupted cloud of swirling black smoke filled with angry red explosions. Plainly, any one of those exploding shells could obliterate an aircraft and its crew.... My heart felt as if it would stop. It did not appear possible that anyone or anything could fly into that hell and come out alive on the other side. But somehow, despite being buffeted by thunderous explosions and the incessant clinking, clanging, and pinging of shell fragments striking our airplane, we made it through."
Perhaps the worst part was that there was nothing for Murphy to do on his way through the flak. There was nothing anyone could do, for Crew 31 was part of a tight formation, held together by the supersecret Norden bombsight that controlled the planes' autopilot and kept them on the straight and level until their bombs were away.
Happily, Crew 31 met no German fighters during that mission to Flak City. In the war's early years, the single-engine Messerschmitt and Focke-Wulf interceptors were among the best in the world, as were their pilots. They usually attacked head-on, Murphy recalls, "the muzzle flashes of the guns in the leading edges of their wings twinkling like Fourth of July sparklers, gray-white puffs from exploding time-fused 20mm cannon shells into and through our formation. The German pilots were highly determined, skilled, and courageous; their fighters seemed to slip and slide through openings and cracks in the sky between our aircraft, or half-rolling and snapping into a power dive straight down." At such moments, the navigator was just another machine gunner, like the sergeants crouching in the B-17's tail, topside, and belly turrets or manning the waist guns.
In most air forces, an airman flew until he died or was promoted to a staff job. The Americans, however, usually did a "tour" of 25 missions before going home to train a new crop of airmen. By the end of July 1943, the Eighth Air Force was suffering a loss rate of 4% per mission. "This meant that a crew member's chance of completing his combat tour was statistically zero," Murphy writes.*
On Sunday, Oct. 10, 1943, Murphy enjoyed a precombat breakfast -- real eggs! -- and was briefed for his 21st mission, an attack on the railyards of Münster in northern Germany. Given the limited range of fighter planes in those days, the formation's escort had to turn back before it reached the target. In Murphy's words, the misstion then turned into "one of the greatest air battles in history" in the number of aircraft deployed and the ferocity of the engagement. Crew 31 was among the victims, shot down by one of those 20mm cannon on a German fighter plane.
A month later, while Murphy sat in the POW camp at Stalag Luft III, the first long-range North American P-51B fighters joined the Eighth Air Force. For the rest of the war the B-17 heavy bombers enjoyed fighter escorts all the way to the target and back. That, too, was the luck of the draw.
*In different form, this review appeared in the March 9, 2023, issue of the Wall Street Journal. Several readers objected that Mr Murphy didn't understand probability, and that his odds of completing 25 missions were actually 36 percent. I'm sure that information would have comforted him over Saint-Nazaire, Regensburg, and Münster.
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