- Written by Duane Buholz
In many of the squadrons and groups serving in the United States Army Air Forces in the European Theater during World War II there was an understood or prescribed number of combat missions that had to be flown by each fighter pilot or each bomb crew before the airmen had earned the privilege of "going home" for reassignment. Bombardment crews flying from the United Kingdom or from Italy, were usually relieved after twenty-five missions, a great feat not easily accomplished as shown very graphically in the US movie of the history of the "Memphis Belle". So the crews had a goal.
Fighter pilots in most units, if indeed they wanted to go home for reassignment, and many did not, could not readily anticipate this reward through sheer numbers of missions.
In the 509th Squadron of the 405th Fighter Group, Ninth Air Force ETO the duty was relentless pounding of ground targets on the continent ahead of the advancing armor and infantry Missions were short, frequent, and exhausting.
During the last year of the war, few Luftwaffe fighters were encountered by our pilots, since their fuel supply had been exhausted, but occasionally there was a confrontation, usually below ten thousand feet, and, although we lost some pilots, our record in these instances was one to be proud of.
A typical mission intent upon destroying military trains, marshaling yards, tank or troop concentrations, occasional German Command Posts, as well as fuelless aircraft on aerodromes, met with intense defensive ground fire, and so it was our guns against theirs. Under these circumstances, our record was also one to be proud of.
But even in highly trained, well disciplined, and motivated young men, exposed to incessant and constant danger, fatigue occurs. Available then was the Flight Surgeon, usually an M.D. with further military training relative to the psychological and psychiatric problems encountered by combat airmen.
Ours lived right with us, in our tents, in the mess hall, and spent a lot of time with each of us, monitoring our well-being constantly.
Upon reccomendation of the Flight Surgeon alone, pilots were taken off flying status and sent home. Responding to my question as to how he could determine if a pilot was "ready to go home", the Flight Surgeon replied, "Well, one can usually tell. I am going to send Lt. Doe home next week."
But three days later, returning from a short mission, Lt. Doe made a taxiing error and was killed in a ground accident...