The sea swelled, the rain came down in torrents, but the skies were clear. Sixty-five years ago, when the first men of the 29th Infantry Division waded onto Omaha Beach, they faced terrible resistance – crack German troops, mines, mortars and artillery. There was, however, one vital element that was blessedly missing. There were no German airplanes flying above them on D-Day.

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This did not happen by chance. It had been planned long before – at the very start of the war – and it came at a terrible price. Just two years earlier, the Luftwaffe was the strongest and most experienced air force in the world. If the German Air Force had been even a fraction of its former self on D-Day, it could have turned the tide of the battle. But in a fateful decision shortly after Pearl Harbor, the military command in Washington decided they would sacrifice tens of thousands of young Americans as cannon fodder to whittle down the German Air Force and give the Allies time to build up their land forces. In all, upwards of 60,000 Americans would lose their lives in the struggle for the air.

When the U.S. found itself suddenly at war on December 7, 1941, even though it had ample warning, it had no Army, no Air Force and most of its Pacific fleet lay at the bottom of Pearl Harbor. It would take two years to train the troops and build the equipment necessary to defeat the Axis powers. But with two great oceans protecting the United States, the War Department understood the nation was safe from enemy bombs and decided to put its bombers up against the Germans long before its army fired a shot.

The experience of Curtis LeMay, a little known pilot in the Army Air Force, who had been a lieutenant less than two years before, illustrates just how unprepared the United States was when it entered the war. In early 1942, LeMay was suddenly placed in charge of a about 1,000 young recruits who would make up the crews and maintenance staff for the 305th bombardment group consisting of 35 B-17 bombers. LeMay found himself on a barren landing strip in Utah that had no buildings, no cooks and no support staff. None of his pilots knew how to fly the powerful B-17s having just been trained only on small, single-engine planes. Most of them were teen agers who had been sitting in classrooms or on tractors just a couple of months earlier. To complicate matters, LeMay was given only three B-17s to train his 35 crews. There just weren’t any more to go around.

Warren Kozak

Warren Kozak is the author of LeMay: The Life And Wars of General Curtis LeMay from Regnery.