Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Beyond the Book - Q & A with Robert F. Dorr, author of "Mission to Berlin"

With the release of his new book, Mission to Berlin: The American Airmen Who Struck the Heart of Hitler's Reich, author and Air Force veteran Robert F. Dorr has shed new light on the experiences of a rare breed of hero, the American bomber pilots and crews who risked their lives over Berlin.

In the following Q & A, Dorr discusses his new book, the larger-than-life heroes whose stories are housed within its pages, and the world-engulfing war that has captivated generations of readers across the globe.


ZENITH PRESS: To family members, historians and enthusiasts born long after World War II, the men who flew, maintained, supported and escorts heavy bombers pilots and crews have acquired a lofty—almost romanticized—status that spans generations. Why do you think that is?

ROBERT F. DORR: No one had ever fought at such great heights, in such terrible cold, with such fast and brutal action taking place all around them. So it was natural that American bomber pilots and crews became the stuff of legend and lore. Today, we realize that we'll never see anything like this again—thousands of aircraft and tens of thousands of men fighting many miles above the earth. These were very young men, citizen-soldiers drawn from our population, caught up in a new and different situation. We have overused the "greatest generation" label, but it is not wrong to say that these achieved nothing less than to save the world. So of course we admire them and hold them high in our thoughts.

ZENITH PRESS: High risk, short life expectancy, little chance of surviving the required number of missions … That's what we hear about the B-17 Flying Fortress and B-24 Liberator crews of World War II. How did this affect American pilots and crews who took to the skies over Europe day after day?

ROBERT F. DORR: Small wonder we're in awe of these men, who would climb aboard a plane not knowing if it, or they, would return. How did they do it? In part, it was the bond with one another that kept these men going. "I figured that if the guy in the next bunk could do this, I could do it too," said one. A handful couldn't take the cold, the trembling, the exploding flak and the firing passes by German fighters and there was no dishonor in being a dropout. But nearly every one of these bomber flyers did his job and kept doing it in the knowledge that his fellow crewmembers were relying on him. It was trust in the guy next to you that kept you going.

ZENITH PRESS: Berlin was one of the most heavily defended cities in the world during World War II, with unrivaled antiaircraft defenses, thousands of aircraft, and hundreds of thousands of troops. How effective were Allied bombing missions in softening the German defenses throughout the course of the war? 

ROBERT F. DORR: The courage of the men who flew the bombers is beyond dispute. However, experts differ as to how effective the Allied bombing missions were. The bombing campaign never stopped German aircraft production, which continued the last day of the war, but we defeated the Luftwaffe—the German air force—by killing its pilots, leaving only a handful of experienced pilots on duty toward the end. The bombing campaign had almost no effect on the flak batteries that bomber crews feared even more than fighters. A postwar bombing survey by the United States raised questions about how many bombs actually hit their intended targets and how much damage they did. We know that the American policy of precision bombing was more effective than the British campaign of city bombing but we don't know how much.

ZENITH PRESS: The B-17 Flying Fortress is as legendary an aircraft as has ever taken to the skies. Through your research and interviews, were you able to get a sense of the pilots’ and crewmembers’ feelings about the aircraft? 

ROBERT F. DORR: I can't find documentation for it, but a survey poll in the 1980s showed the B-17 to be the "most recognized" aircraft in all of aviation, more familiar to everyday people than the Wright Flyer, the DC-3, the Spitfire, or the Boeing 747. From research and interviews, I know that pilots and crewmembers almost always believed that the best aircraft was the aircraft they were assigned to fly. The B-24 Liberator was faster, could travel farther and could carry more bombs while the B-17 Flying Fortress could fly higher, was easier to fly, and was safer in a ditching. Whether it was the bombardier up in the nose or the tail gunner, I never interviewed a veteran who didn't believe that his own airplane was the best thing in the sky. 

ZENITH PRESS: You were able to interview dozens of veterans for Mission to Berlin, all of which help to provide a personal voice to these incredible stories. Were there one or two veterans, in particular, whose stories/accounts had you especially riveted? 

ROBERT F. DORR: Your heart has to go out to a young husband and father, Lt. Col. Marvin D. Lord, whose picture appears on the dust jacket cover. In his background is a great love story and family story. It was more or less an accident that he was chosen to fly in place of another experienced leader on February 3, 1945 and lost his life when his B-17 Flying Fortress was blown out of the sky. It was also touching to learn about Frank Chrastka, the tail gunner who was just 19 years of age and who flew straight into tragedy under circumstances that no one could have predicted.

ZENITH PRESS: With dozens of military aviation books to your credit, there hasn’t been much you haven’t seen, read, or written about the subject. While researching and writing Mission to Berlin, did you stumble upon any stories or facts that took even you by surprise?

ROBERT F. DORR: Sure. Many other books have been published about American crews bombing Germany. Twelve O'clock High and Command Decision, both in the immediate postwar period were both made into films, as was John Hersey's "The War Lover," which cast Steve McQueen as a cardboard cutout rogue B-17 pilot. But, yes, there is always something new because every individual veteran's experience is different and every veteran expresses himself in a different voice. The standard for a historical narrative is higher today and I tried to reach that standard. I think the biggest thing I learned in writing Mission to Berlin is that the actual fighting was secondary. The airmanship, the mere act of flying and operating an aircraft at high altitude over long distances was a bigger challenge than fighters or flak. Mission to Berlin includes personal accounts of men who faced the ultimate sacrifice without ever being touched by the enemy.

ZENITH PRESS: Your narrative approach for Mission to Berlin is unique in that you use the mission(s) to help tell the stories of the pilots, crews, and planes, as opposed to the other way around.  How did you settle upon this approach? 

ROBERT F. DORR: Curiously enough a part of this approach comes from my experience writing hundreds of articles for a type of magazine that no longer exists. From the 1940s to the 1970s, the men's pulp adventure magazines—titles like Stag, Mal, Argosy and True—staked their success on war stories that began with the event and used the event to fame and shape the person. Every one of the real men in Mission to Berlin is changed forever by his experience so it only makes sense to use that experience as the backdrop for what happened to the person.  

ZENITH PRESS: In your last book, Hell Hawks!, a history of a P-47 Thunderbolt fighter group in Europe in World War II you delved deeply to bring to light the experiences of a group of fighter pilots (365th Fighter Group). In Mission to Berlin, you use a similar approach to explore the experiences of bomber pilots and crew. What do you see as the most significant similarities and differences between the two groups? 

ROBERT F. DORR: In Hell Hawks! co-author Thomas D. Jones sought to dispel the notion that aviation is only about pilots, so we included narratives about crew chiefs, armorers and radio repairmen at Normandy and in the Battle of the Bulge. The fact remains, we were writing about fighter pilots and theirs is a world where one man and one airplane is the center of focus. One of the similarities in both histories is the bonding, the camaraderie, among those who fly and fight. One of the differences is that a bomber crew had to function as a team in the air, every second. Mission to Berlin does include material about fighters over Berlin but in the bombers there were no solo acts. It was teamwork, every second.

ZENITH PRESS: At the end of the day, what is the one message you hope readers come away with after reading Mission to Berlin? 

ROBERT F. DORR: I hope readers will like some of the men they meet in Mission to Berlin, some who lived and some who died. I hope readers will get a feel for how terribly dangerous the bombing mission was and how magnificently these very young men performed. Above all, Mission to Berlin is a reminder that the outcome of World War II was never a sure thing and that these men never knew, from one day to the next, what was going to happen and who was going to win.

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