I finally had a chance to read Kurt Vonnegut’s classic book, Slaughter-House Five, based upon his experiences in World War II as a POW who survived the firebombing of Dresden in 1945.
I grew up on war stories featuring air raids by the German Luftwaffe as well as the Allied combined bombing offensive of World War II. Favorite paperbacks that I read include Cajus Bekker’s The Luftwaffe War Diaries, Adolf Galland’s The First and the Last, and Big Week by Bill Yenne (about the week in February 1944 when the Allies turned the tide of the air campaign against the Luftwaffe in the skies over Germany). All of these books had one thing in common: they were written from the perspective of the air crews, not from the perspective of those on the receiving end of bombs and bullets and fire. As such, they read like adventure stories, at least to my excitable teenage mind.
Kurt Vonnegut gave us a different perspective in Slaughter-House Five: at the ground level, during and after the firestorm that destroyed Dresden in February 1945, one year after the Allies had allegedly turned the tide and “won” the air battle during Big Week. The moon scape that Vonnegut encountered after leaving his shelter was evidence of the perfect firestorm the Allies had created in their bombing raids over Dresden, which combined area bombing at night by Britain’s Royal Air Force (using a mix of high explosive and incendiary bombs) with daylight “precision” bombing by U.S. bomber forces.
But I don’t want to speak about the horrors of that raid. No need to repeat Vonnegut’s account. What struck me in reading his book was an imaginary air raid, an air raid that runs backwards. In Vonnegut’s words:
American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France, a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen. They did the same for wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew backwards to join the formation.
The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. The containers were stored neatly in racks. The Germans below had miraculous devices of their own, which were long steel tubes. They used them to suck more fragments from the crewmen and planes. But there were still a few wounded Americans, though, and some of the bombers were in bad repair. Over France, though, German fighters came up again, made everything and everybody as good as new.
When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work. The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground, to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody ever again.
There you have it: the best air raid ever, brought to you via the imagination of a great writer who survived one of the worst air raids ever.
I’m not sure Vonnegut’s words would have resonated with my teenage mind, caught as it was in dramatic and deadly duels in the skies over Europe. As Vonnegut knew, there’s an endless supply of dumb teenagers fantasizing about war. So it goes.
4 thoughts on “The Best Air Raid Ever”
Kurt Vonnegut is good but there are other small stories that also tell very personal and devastating experiences of war. Fred Arnold, a twenty year old Jewish boy from Chicago volunteered for the Army Air Corps pilot training immediately after Pearl Harbor. Within a year he found himself in North Africa in a squadron of P-38 fighters running daily missions over Sicily. Out of his training group of sixteen only two were alive after that first year. Several died in training and several in accidents. I only found out recently that during the war there were almost as many deaths in accidents as in combat in the air corps. I did not know that when I stepped in the bombers I flew in. Fred’s story, which he recounts in his book “Doorknob 52,” is fascinating in that he found more harassment for being Jewish from a member of his own squadron than he did when shot down over Sicily by a German fighter pilot.
Another very personal story is told in a documentary by PBS called Berga, A Soldiers Story*. This one involves a personal friend of mine, also Jewish, who at the age of 18 was captured at Malmedy during the Battle of The Bulge. Like Vonnegut who was captured in that battle but because Mike was a Jew, in contravention to the Geneva Conventions, he was sent to a concentration camp, Berga where the POWS died at ten times the rate of non Jewish POW’s. My friend Mike, escaped after being tortured by the Gestapo and made his way to the American lines moving across northwest Germany.
War is not a civilized activity. It is dehumanizing for both those who suffer it in the front lines and the civilian population back home who are fed the government propaganda that sustains war. Vonnegut went on to devote much of his life to helping Americans see this. My friends Mike and Fred just tried to lead constructive lives in spite of their horrendous experiences of war.
* The documentary, Berga, may still be available for purchase from the PBS library.
From another great fictional treatment of war, Homer’s Illiad
“What cause have I to war at thy decree?
the distant Trojans never injured me.”
From the professional boxer Muhammad Ali upon refusing conscription into the U.S. Army:
“I ain’t got nothing against no Viet Cong. No Viet Cong ever called me ‘nigger.'”
Sometimes life imitates art as well as the other way around.
An excellent excerpt from Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. I also like to recall the fictional air raid in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 where U.S. 1st Lieutenant Milo Minderbinder arranges with the Germans to bomb his own airbase as part of some complex business scheme he has cooked up to make a pile of money for his international syndicate, M&M Enterprises, in which “everyone has a share.”
That recollection usually triggers another memory of overhearing a couple of Air Force officers at the USO in Saigon sitting around discussing which of them would make the weekly jewel-smuggling run to Bankok, Thailand.
That recollection, in turn, typically triggers another memory about hitching a ride on an Air Force cargo plane in Vietnam during which flight … But I think I’ll save that little tale (and a few others) for a later discussion. This one has to do with the literary imagination and not just the simply and awfully true.
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