Book Review: Screaming Eagle: Memoirs of a B-17 Group Commander – Dale O . Smith

This book was a gift from my father-in-law while he was visiting with us, and a welcome addition to my library. On the surface it’s a frank memoir of one man’s experience in taking command of a bomber group during WWII and his subsequent year service during some of the most furious months of fighting in Europe. But looking a little deeper, it’s also a case study in leadership; perhaps not intentionally like the stellar It’s Your Ship: Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy, by D. Michael Abrashoff, but the lessons are there nonetheless.

When Smith first took command of the 384th Bomber Group he faced two significant problems. The first was that the group’s previous commander was well-loved and respected by the personnel, and they weren’t too fond of his being replaced by some “un-blooded” colonel fresh from the States. The second was that the 384th was one of the worst groups in the Eighth Army Air Force. Morale was low, aborts (bombers pulling out of a mission) were high, and their effectiveness was marginal. And unlike in Abrashoff’s book, this wasn’t just as a matter of combat readiness, they were already in a shooting war.

Smith admits to making several numerous mistakes in his efforts to turn things around, but he also did many things right. He rightly felt that discipline and morale were at the heart of the problems, and knew that he’d get farther with small changes rather than large ones. One of his first efforts was to get launches running more smoothly.

Each mission’s success depended on the group’s ability to get the bombers in the air, formed up into formation, and off to the rendezvous points to join up with other groups.  To most efficiently form up, bombers needed to take off every 30 seconds. To do that, they had to be synchronized and on time at every previous step in the pre-flight procedure. Pilots were given the timing, and they synchronized their watches during the mission briefings, so technically they should have been on time. But they weren’t. The group’s launches were a mess.

Smith tackled the problem by proposing a system of flares from the control tower to alert pilots to each stage. But to implement his idea he had to tackle his resistant command staff, and one pessimistic officer in particular. He went prepared to the meeting and one by one knocked down the resistant officer’s objections until he was able to get his staff to commit to trying the idea once.

The very next mission they implemented the plan. Different colored bursts of flares would be shot off at intervals to alert the crews to the next stage, which the crews found fun to watch. When the flare went up for each bomber to start their engines every bomber fired up their first engine at the same time. The pilots got a kick out of the sudden rumble of 24 engines roaring to life. The pre-flight continued on pace, and when the signal came to start take-offs, every bomber was ready and jockeyed into queue on the flight line. Each bomber took of 30 seconds after the one before it, just like they were supposed to. The group formed up and moved off to the rendezvous as smoothly as could be.

During the next staff meeting the resistant officer conveyed the message that the crews loved the “fireworks” and wanted to continue. The boost in excitement and morale from that one simple change began working its way through the bomber group and made the entire group more open to subsequent changes. Within eight months the 384th was considered to be one of the top bomber groups in 8th AAF.

Another change Smith made was to deal with the mud problem. The airbase at Grafton Underwood had been nicknamed “Undermud” by the military personnel in England because there was never an un-muddy spot to be found. Personnel’s shoes would become caked with mud just walking to the mess hall, and they’d have to leave them outside. This, of course, resulted in mass chaos when they had to try and find their own shoes among hundreds of identical-looking pairs, and often soldiers ended up with shoes that didn’t fit. The mud got on the planes, sticking their landing gear, and into the planes, causing maintenance problems.

Yet with literally some digging on Smith’s part, he found that there was a series of concrete roads all over the base, buried under six inches of mud. He drafted every man on the base to the effort, and soon they unearthed the roads. Men could walk on clean roads instead of mud. Morale improved immediately, and maintenance problems decreased. At first.

Soon Smith noticed the roads starting to fill up with mud again, and decided to investigate. He noticed dump trucks coming through the base hauling loads of mud, and some of it would fall off the truck and onto the roads, where it would start to build up again. Further investigation revealed the trucks were there by order of the duke on whose land the airbase had been built.

Smith tried to contact the duke, but couldn’t get a response, so he finally closed the base to outside vehicles. Almost immediately he got angry memos from the high command demanding to know what he was doing and insisting he was damaging their relationship with their English hosts. His superior officer called to find out what was going on, and after Smith explained the situation he promised to look into it. His superior went to bat for him, and he never heard any more about it. The roads stayed clear, but he also never did hear from the duke.

There are numerous more examples of things Smith did, both with the entire group and with various individuals, to help turn the situation around. It may not have been his intention to write a book on leadership, but the information is in there if you’re willing to look a little. In the mean time, the book is an interesting account of what it was like during that difficult time. Smith was a hero on the front lines of a war that demanded a lot of people, and he made his share of sacrifices. If for no other reason, memoirs like this are important to remind us of how things were back then and what people were willing to do to make the world a better place.