As a kid I think we all liked war movies. There is lots of action, explosions, and really cool things like tanks, planes, and battleships. We did not realize the horror of the real thing. We were just kids and in our minds, war was glorious and fought with honor. Most of those movies went out of their way to avoid portraying the horrors of war.
Platoon came out in 1986 and was probably the closest a movie came to showing us that honor, duty, and country wasn’t always glorious. It was a huge hit and left most of us with a solid understanding of what a fucked up mess war is, and particularly a little undeclared war in a faraway Asian peninsula. It was about surviving so you could go home to your families and hope the nightmares didn’t follow you.
But the war movie that had the biggest impact on me was Memphis Belle, released in 1990.
Why you may ask.
Well it isn’t for the easy reasons you would guess. It isn’t because I was a huge fan of the B-17 bomber and the sound of its four radial engines. It wasn’t because the aerial scenes were pretty cool. It wasn’t because I am a sucker for all things aviation.
It was because that movie was about 10 men who were going to accomplish what no other bomber crew in the Eighth Army Air Force ever did before. They were going to get to go home. If you read an accurate history of the Memphis Belle after seeing the movie, you will see a lot of Hollywood drama added to the Belle’s story.
But my guess is that those ten men felt plenty of drama on that last mission and the twenty four missions before.
For those of you who don’t know the story. B-17 crews only had to fly twenty-five mission before they were rotated home. Until the Memphis Belle did it in 1943, no one before them accomplished that milestone. Basically, all they had to do was drive to work and return home twenty-five times, and then they could go home.
The Eighth Army Air Force was formed in July of 1942. That means that from July 1942 until the Memphis Belles historical flight in May of 1943, your chances of going home as a member of an Eighth Army Air Force bomber crew was zero! Tens of thousands of men and thousands of airplanes were lost in that campaign. But that war was devastating for all involved.
What made such an impact on me about that movie and the story of the Memphis Belle was the kind of men who launched themselves into the air and out over hostile territory. They went to work every day almost certain that this was going to be their last day on earth.
The vast majority of them were volunteers. They were not doing it for the pay. Could we say they were doing it for the glory? What glory is there in never going home to a parade? Every missions was their last. If they made it back, then it was going to be the next one.
If you were certain, you were going to die in one of your next twenty-five trips to your job, would you go.
Most of us are saying no. It’s just a job, it’s not that fucking important!