By Lee Davis
Dr. Donald Wilson’s resume is impressive. He served for 25 years in the United States Air Force and worked for five years teaching at the Air Force Academy. Then he spent another quarter of a century as a military history professor at Samford University.
But the Vestavia Hills resident isn’t interested in talking about himself. His passion is telling the story of the generation that he said won World War II, saving America and the world from the nightmare of Nazism.
Wilson released his book, “The Alabama Bomber Boys” in 2008, chronicling Alabamians who served during the war in the legendary Eighth Army Air Force unit, which became the greatest air armada of all time. He spent years doing research prior to the book’s publication, using the Eighth Air Force Historical Society as a major source.
Alabamian Lawson Corley was a bombardier on a B-24 Liberator over Nazi Germany and later spent time in a German POW camp. Wilson read Corley the passages of the book that told his story just days before Corley died.
“We are losing members of the World War II generation in large numbers every day,” Wilson said. “That fact was the reason I wrote the book.”
At the height of the war, the Eighth reached a peak of more than 200,000 personnel and could dispatch more than 2,000 four-engine bombers and 1,000 fighters on a single mission. The achievements came at a high price. The Eighth suffered more than 47,000 casualties, including 26,000 deaths.
Aviators from the unit received 17 Medals of Honor, 220 Distinguished Service Crosses, 7,000 Purple Hearts and 46,000 Air Medals. It also produced 261 fighter aces and 350 gunner aces.
“It was called the Mighty Eighth because of the incredible contribution it made to the war effort,” Wilson said. “The planes conducted the daytime bombing raids that brought Hitler’s Nazi Germany to its knees. The Allies could not have won the war without them.”
One of the commanders of the Eighth was the legendary Gen. Jimmy Doolittle, who was also known for leading air raids over Japan soon after America entered the war.
Part of the proceeds from Wilson’s book went to the Mighty Eighth Air Force Museum in Savannah, Ga.
Wilson said he plans to follow up his original book with an updated edition to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.
“I expanded the book to continue to tell more stories of those members of the Eighth who are no longer with us and to hopefully teach the younger generation about their heroism,” Wilson said.
The Eighth conducted its missions over Germany from rapidly-constructed airfields built on farmland in an area of Great Britain called East Anglia, just to the east and northeast of London. Locals called the air base “The New America.” After the war, the airfields reverted to agricultural land, but present-day residents of East Anglia still share the stories of the bravery that became synonymous with the unit.
“Although the airfields are long gone, the townspeople will still take American tourists out to the farmland and show them where the planes took off and landed,” Wilson said. “The people in the area had a great appreciation for what the Americans and the Eighth Air Force in particular accomplished.”
The dynamics of the alliance between the British and the Americans is one of the great untold stories of World War II, Wilson said.
“They were different cultures but had the single objective of winning the war,” he said. “There were some aspects of British life to which the American GIs never became accustomed. They didn’t care for the warm beer, and they got better food at the base’s chow halls than in the English pubs. Most important was the fact that they bonded with the British people.”
But Wilson added that for all the hospitality of their hosts, the air warriors of the Eighth and the other GIs knew the shadow of death was never far away.
“There were so many contradictions, with peace one day and war the next,” Wilson said. “They would go from being in the homes of friendly Brits to engaging in air battles with an enemy seeking to kill them.”
Wilson said the two countries had serious differences when it came to the selection of bombing targets.
“The Americans preferred daylight strategic bombing, which emphasized hitting precise military targets while attempting to avoid civilian casualties,” Wilson said. “It was also more dangerous because it was easier for anti-aircraft guns to find their targets during the day. The British preferred nighttime bombing and were less concerned about hitting specific targets. As the war went on, the Americans moved more toward the British strategy philosophy and started bombing the metropolitan areas of Germany.”
Successful military strategies were important, but Wilson said the underlying theme of his books about the Eighth Air Force is that the war was ultimately won by young men from large cities and small communities all across America who simply did their duty.
“There has been so much written and said about them, and I really do think they were the greatest generation,” Wilson said. “They grew up during the Depression and went through terrible hardships that toughened them. They came of age at exactly the right time to be the generation that won the war that saved civilization.”
The Eighth Air Force and its legacy is getting attention from other quarters as well. Hollywood titans Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks have teamed to produce a 10-part television mini-series titled “Masters of the Air” which will be shown on HBO later this year.
“I’m very excited that Spielberg and Hanks decided to tell the story of the Eighth,” Wilson said. “They did a great job with ‘Band of Brothers’ and ‘The Pacific.’ The story of the Eighth Air Force deserves the same treatment.”
Books-A-Million at Brookwood Village will host a book signing for Wilson June 13 at 2 p.m. “Alabama Bomber Boys” will be officially released on Memorial Day.