The Arsenal Of Democracy Fly-Over of Washington, D.C., to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the end of World World II, is an impressive display in so many ways. It shows the brilliance of the aviation hardware that America brought to bear on the Axis powers during the war, a fight that took place many thousands of miles away from home. Aircraft, and the people who designed, built, flew, and supported them, got us there, both literally and otherwise. And the existence of pristine, flyable examples of this hardware, is a testament to those who restore, fly and support them today, and to those who contribute to the cause, which is an expensive one.
World War II was the crucible for modern aviation. Before it, aircraft were still fundamentally primitive machines. And they were few in number. Over the course of the war, which lasted roughly six years, the United States, which had around 3,000 aircraft in its fleets before Pearl Harbor, manufactured approximately 300,000 aircraft, everything from small liaison aircraft to the biggest bombers, for bringing the battle to the farthest corners of the world. Without the involvement of the United States and its ability to mobilize such military might, there’s no telling how much more terrible the war could have been and what long-lasting damage the efforts of Hitler’s war on Europe and Japan’s war on the United States, China, and the Pacific would have brought. The sacrifice of the nation at a time of national crisis continues to inspire.
At the beginning of the war, the role of aircraft in battle was not well understood, in part because their impact on the outcome of World War I was negligible. But advances in design in both aircraft and armament changed that, as was made clear by the German Luftwaffe’s success at bringing the war to the victims of its aggression at lightning speed.
The United States’ challenge was different and more critical. American had to bring its forces to bear from thousands of miles away, places that were untouchable by any hardware the nation had at the outset of the war, even at the outset of American’s official involvement in it, after it declared war against Japan in December of 1941, shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
Perhaps the single best piece of advice that U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt heard was that while air power alone won’t win the war, without it, there can be no victory.
But that meant not only increasing production of the ships and aircraft already in the U.S. arsenal but developing new technologies. While the attack by Japan pushed the very limits of its power, the United States Navy lacked even those capabilities. Its aircraft carriers were already outmoded by the start of the war, and its aircraft fleet was small and underpowered. By Pearl Harbor, the United States had fewer than 200 heavy bombers, and even those were gotten only over stiff opposition by isolationists. The existence of the program, however, allowed the U.S. to ramp up its production. B-17s were crucial in the Allied push to attack Germany, and the development of the North American P-51 Mustang as an escort to the B-17, allowed the Army Air Forces eventually to take the war all the way to Berlin.
The development of the B-29 and the forward air bases in the Pacific that gave it access to the Japanese Islands turned the tide of the war in the Pacific. Without the advances in technology that Americans developed, there’s no telling how differently and how horribly things might have gone instead.
But none of this could have happened without the nation’s commitment to democracy. And that commitment meant personal sacrifice, with more than 400,000 Americans killed in action in all theaters, with more than 670,000 wounded. The sacrifice of those at home was beyond measure. And the impact of the war on the United States was small compared to European countries…as many as 10 million Soviet troops and civilians were killed in the war.
The fly-over on September 25, 2020, by nearly 100 American World War II-era warbirds is touching, but for many of us, 75 years down the line, especially to people younger than the mid-50s average age of active pilots, the display might seem nostalgic and ceremonial, maybe even clichéd.
It is not. The reality of World War II, which I did not know from personal experience, was devastating on so many different levels. The fly-over represents not a hackneyed nod to things forgotten but as a real, human tribute to real, human sacrifice in the face of unthinkable evil, as a real, human tribute to the resolve of a nation and a free world in the face of the tyranny of murderous nations.
Those sacrifices can never be anything but real, and the fly-over is a small way of saying two things, “Thank you,” and “We remember.” In fact, we shall never forget.