/ Published April 04, 2019
Flying with the Fifteenth Air Force: A B-24 Pilot’s Missions from Italy during World War II by Tom Faulkner, edited by David L. Snead. University of North Texas Press, 2018, 336 pp.
Flying his last mission on a B-24 to the graveyard, then-1st Lt Tom Faulkner described the range of emotions he felt: “This would be the last time for decades that I would be near the plane I loved, the plane I had spent hundreds of hours inside—great times, terrifying times, joyful times, tragic times, never again to be experienced” (p. 196). While serving in Italy with the Fifteenth Air Force, Faulkner’s crew chose to emphasize the highs, bestowing the name “Lotta Laffs” on their B-24 to stress their “rallying cry,” which helped them endure what Faulkner still considers to be the “adventure of a lifetime” (p. 59). Faulkner himself coped with the challenges of combat by mentally compartmentalizing the misfortunes of other crews from his crew’s own trajectory toward completing the required 35 missions (p. 108).
An earlier version of Faulkner’s work has been published. However, editor David Snead, a professor of history at Liberty University, reorganized the work and made some unexplained changes to the content while seeking to maintain the original intent (p. xix). Furthermore, Snead provides a helpful preface to orient readers unfamiliar with the Army Air Force’s (AAF) strategic bombardment campaign in the European theater of operations. He also includes more specific background on the Fifteenth Air Force.
This account distinctively blends flight diaries written by Faulkner after each mission with more detailed sections of a memoir-style narrative influenced by the hindsight and reflection that comes with the passing of time. Of course, this raises the question of memory and the extent to which the memoir accurately reflects Faulkner’s experiences at the time. The flight diaries that Faulkner draws upon are themselves relatively typical of aviators in being terse and limited in commentary; they provide the background to the purpose and purpose of each mission as well as striking incidents before Faulkner adds more nuance and emotions with his retrospective insights.
Snead’s historical expertise compliments Faulkner’s perspective, which he sprinkles throughout footnotes on almost every page. Most of Snead’s commentary adds useful historical context that, at times, ventures into deeper historiographical discussion regarding how historians view the AAF’s participation in the Combined Bomber Offensive (CBO). Although Snead provides some competing alternatives, it is clear where he falls and what his intent is: he wants to celebrate these Airmen’s efforts (p. xviii) and provide a mostly positive interpretation of the CBO. Numerous and compelling photographs further bring Faulkner’s experience to life. Helpful maps also provide visual representation of where he flew, which help depict the range of the missions flown by the Fifteenth Air Force.
Also, Faulkner might have been the AAF’s youngest B-24 pilot, having joined at a time when the AAF had lowered its standards at the beginning of 1943 (p. 38). Moreover, he always flew in Italy as an aircraft commander at only 19 years of age, thus forcing him into a leadership role even sooner than many other World War II Airmen (p. 2). This could have humorous ramifications, as occurred when he found himself receiving an education from having to censor his older and more experienced crew members’ letters to their wives and girlfriends (p. 78).
Faulkner’s account highlights the full span of his service to include his reasons for choosing the AAF and the inner battles he continued to fight long after the war. Faulkner’s journey to military service began after Pearl Harbor for he and his closest friends immediately at Texas A&M University after graduating from high school. Expecting to be drafted, they wanted to choose how they would serve. While most of his friends selected the Marine Corps, Faulkner followed his closest friend into the AAF, where he found his initial training easier than what he had encountered at A&M (p. 42). Unable to become a fighter pilot like his best friend because he could not overcome his tendency to black out on training flights, Faulkner received an assignment as a bomber pilot (p. 48).
In retrospect, Faulkner explains how he “loved everything” about his combat experience, including flying the B-24, his crew, and their “semi-tough experience” in Italy, living in tents (p. 107). They knew that they had it better than the infantry. Comparatively, however, they did not have it better in terms of amenities than the Eighth Air Force, although they appear to have stoically accepted that reality (pp. 176, 143). Faulkner notes, for example, that he only encountered one female over the course of seven months while in Italy (p. 138). They also “considered their high-point as living on portions of K-rations.”
Faulkner ultimately only completed 28 missions before an engine failure caused an emergency landing in neutral Switzerland. Subsequent suggestions from others that he might have done so out of cowardice haunted him for decades, so much so that he experienced physical symptoms requiring surgery (pp. 180, 182). Faulkner’s identity had become so bound up with the determination to serve honorably that he developed obsessive-compulsive disorder, where his entire psyche became focused on whether he had made the right decision or not. The final pages of Faulkner’s work bring the incident to a conclusion with research that helps illuminate his last combat mission and the enormous mental and physical relief it brought him.
Heather P. Venable, PhD