Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Today's World War II Statistic

During the war, the US Army Air Corps suffered 33,000 serious accidents in training, in which more than 14,000 men were killed. In August, 1943, the Air Corps lost 19 men every day to accidents.

This is from Unbroken by Lauren Hillenbrand, which I have so far enjoyed very much


G. Verloren said...

The Air Corps? What were they doing in training that they killed 19 people a day? Surely they weren't lethally crashing 19 planes a day?

Obviously they were training a lot of troops all at once, so 19 accidents a day across the entire corps isn't an unreasonable number, but 19 LETHAL accidents a day?

Seriously, what were the primary causes? Were corners being cut on safety? Was the training itself just inherently dangerous for some reason, like practicing loading up bombers with actual live bombs or something? Were the paratroopers maybe rushing a bit too quickly through the lectures on packing a parachute? Or were there just a lot of subpar pilot trainees that month who couldn't get the knack of keeping their planes airborn?

Shadow Flutter said...

Here's a chart listing AAF WWII training crashes and fatalities in continental U.S. The number in chart is 13,600+ but the footnote lists 15,500. None of this adds up, that I can see, to 19 per day, but this is in the continental U.S., and a lot depends on the definition of training. I assume it means more than initial training, and if so, some of it probably occurred outside U.S.

Shadow Flutter said...

Of course, it doesn't give a number for 8/1943. But the numbers are still interesting.

John said...

My understanding is that they were just forcing air crews into training at a very rapid pace. They took guys who had never flown anything bigger than a two-seat trainer and put them in a B-17 or a B-24 with a full crew and told them to have a nice flight. (I think it was the bombers with big crews that ran the numbers up; typically if one died they all died.) They were also rushing planes into production very quickly and quite likely a lot of them had flaws; the combination of raw pilots and planes that were being raced off the assembly line was deadly.

One thing about this is that it worked. The aerial dominance the US achieved over both Germany and Japan wasn't just about having more planes, it was about having more pilots. Both Germany and Japan often had more planes on hand than they had trained pilots to fly them, which is one reason why the Japanese went to kamikaze attacks. So whatever the Army Air Corps was doing, they were churning out capable pilots at a fearsome rate. They must have decided slowing down the training to improve safety would slow down the flow of new pilots too much. So they took the risk, and 14,000 or so Americans paid the price.

G. Verloren said...

The bombers angle would help things, as both the B-17 and B-24 carried up to ten crewmembers, but that still means they were losing the equivalent of two bombers per day in training.

For the entire month of August that'd be 62 bombers each costing a quarter of a million dollars, or around $4.5 billion dollars each in today's money.

Then again, both airframes had huge production runs - over 12,500 B-17s and over 19,000 B-24s were built in their lifetimes, with production for both ceasing in 1945. Losing two a day when they probably shipping out hundreds in the same time period actually isn't terrible, relatively speaking.

Somehow, though, the fact that these were accidents that occured while in training makes it hard to swallow the notion wholesale.

I guess there's just a ton of context I don't have that would give me a better perspective on things. After all, it's utterly staggering to see a visual representation of the Soviet casualties compared to all the other nations. We may have churned through planes and inexperienced pilots at a rate that's difficult to graps the finer points of, but Stalin arguably won the war for the Allies by throwing completely unfathomable numbers of corpses at the German lines. The reality of their war dead exceeds the scope of my mind to envision, even when depicted visually.

John said...

Wikipedia, summarizing the official government statistics:

"88,119 airmen died in service. 52,173 were battle casualty deaths: 45,520 killed in action, 1,140 died of wounds, 3,603 were missing in action and declared dead, and 1,910 were non-hostile battle deaths. The 35,946 non-battle deaths included 25,844 in aircraft accidents, more than half of which occurred within the Continental United States."

In total, about 410,000 Americans died in the war, so by the numbers above "deaths in aircraft accidents" were more than 5% of total military deaths.

According to Hillenbrand, the Air Corps surgeon general released a report that says 70% of the battle deaths were also due to accidents, but these were counted as battle deaths because the accidents happened on combat missions.