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Mighty By Sacrifice: The Destruction of an American Bomber Squadron, August 29, 1944

By: James L. Noles and James L. Noles Jr.
Reviewed by: Bill Plott
The University of Alabama Press, 2009
$34.95, Hardcover

Last Spring, a writer in Smithsonian magazine noted that “even after half a century, there are little nuggets of stories about World War II that have just not been told or have not been understood very well.” This fascinating book by James L. Noles and James L. Noles Jr. is proof positive of that observation. The Noleses have penned a narrative of a United States bomber squadron’s mission to destroy an oil refinery and railroad yards in Moravska Ostrava, Czechoslovakia, in August 1944.

The mission, termed a “milk run” because no serious resistance was expected, turned into a disaster. Of the twenty-eight planes that took off on the morning of August 29, only nineteen returned. Forty airmen were killed and forty-six became prisoners of war. Only four downed flyers, through the efforts of Allied sympathizers, returned to home base relatively unharmed. The entire 20th Squadron of B-17 Flying Fortress bombers (seven planes with crews of ten men) was destroyed.

The book begins with perfunctory biographies of airmen from varied states and occupations and continues through fascinating detail of the logistics of warfare and the equal importance of commercial and industrial targets to those combatants. They provide detail on not only training but also the evolution of the B-17 Flying Fortress and other military aircraft. If the pre-war biographical sketches tend to be a bit clichéd at times, it is a small flaw which evaporates quickly in Chapter 9, “All Hell Broke Loose.”

The Noleses’ recounting, plane by plane, of the destruction of the 20th Squadron, is as gripping as any fiction. The tension they establish, when swarms of German fighters swoop in the for the kill, continues as one surviving airman after another is captured and delivered to the now often-documented horrors of Nazi POW camps. Some were captured by angry civilians, whose towns had suffered from Allied bombing. The flyers soon realize “that they were not so much prisoners of war as pieces of human flotsam in an increasingly dangerous political maelstrom.”

Mighty By Sacrifice is a monumental piece of research. In addition to obviously spending countless hours assimilating scores of government documents, the authors were able to track down more than a dozen survivors, including one from Carbon Hill in Walker County. The interviews with the survivors put an often poignant personal perspective on what could have been only an academic exercise. Dec 2009

Bill Plott is a freelance journalist in Montevallo.

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