Sobering Stats: 15,000 U.S. Airmen Killed in Training in WW II
World War II was immense. So many numbers boggle the mind. Every day from Sept. 1, 1939-Aug. 14, 1945, 27,000 people were killed. That’s nine 9/11s every day for six years. Nearly 14 million Americans served during the war, the U.S. manufactured 300,000 airplanes. Even narrowing the focus, the numbers still amaze.
Three of every four German submariners died. The Soviets killed more of their own soldiers than total U.S. combat deaths. Even those who have studied the war for years cannot help but be stunned by such figures and many, many more.
But even more than 70 years on, there are still relatively unexplored areas of the war whose numbers are also quite astonishing. So it is with the number of Americans killed during aircrew training. The number of pilots and crew that died in training accidents in the U.S. during the war is 10 times the number of American deaths on D-Day. The heroism of those that stormed the Normandy beaches has been celebrated in countless books and movies.
Yet the fact that 15,000 young men died in aircrew training in the U.S. is virtually unknown. Aviation was still in its infancy during the 1930s. Only a tiny fraction of Americans had ever been on a plane. Even civil aviation was far from safe, military aviation even less so. In 1930, the accident rate for military aviation was 144 accidents per 100,000 flying hours. By 1940, the rate had been reduced to 51 accidents per 100,000 hours, a reduction of more than two thirds. But even this improved rate would be considered intolerably unsafe today.
As war loomed, the U.S. dramatically ramped up aircraft production and aircrew training. Many new aircraft designs were rushed into production. Even though there were dozens of aircraft manufacturers in the U.S., to meet the numbers demanded by the military, only large scale producers could hope to get contracts. So companies such as GM and Packard that had never produced planes or aircraft engines before were given huge contracts because they had the manufacturing capacity. The resulting retooling and production achievements were indeed impressive, but came at a cost. Many planes were put into use without proper testing, and in many cases even when design flaws were known, there was no time to investigate and take corrective action. Engine failures and on-board fires were common.
The crews knew what they were dealing with. The B-24 bomber was nicknamed the “flying coffin” due to its many problems. Not surprisingly, more trainees died in B-24s than any other plane. But the war took precedence over safety. The planes continued to fly. With the massive increase in aircraft production came a commensurate increase in aircrew training. From mid 1939-August 1945, the U.S. trained hundreds of thousands of new pilots. In 1939, fewer than 1,000 pilots graduated basic flight training, and in 1943 that figure had grown to 165,000. Over the course of the war 200,000 trainees flunked out or died in training accidents.
The huge increase in pilot training numbers (including many who just didn’t have what it took), coupled with the operation of tens of thousands of complex aircraft that had been hurriedly designed and produced, spelled disaster. A comparison of two years tells the story:
Year Number of Accidents Aircraft Wrecked Fatalities
1941 1304 228 199
1944 20,883 5,387 5,616
And this was just in the continental U.S. There were many thousands more wrecks and deaths overseas. Looking at totals for the entire war is even more sobering. The U.S. suffered 52,173 aircrew combat losses. But another 25,844 died in accidents. More than half of these died in the continental U.S. The U.S. lost 65,164 planes during the war, but only 22,948 in combat. There were 21,583 lost due to accidents in the U.S., and another 20,633 lost in accidents overseas.
Many more planes were lost due to pilot error or mechanical failure than were shot down by the enemy. More than 1,000 were lost while being delivered to their duty stations from the U.S. So the danger of non-combat flying did not end with the conclusion of training. The planes continued to be unreliable, and to make things worse, once overseas, many green pilots were given the controls of planes in which they had little to no flying experience.
As the figures show, non-combat flying continued to be extremely hazardous whether in training in the U.S. or after arrival overseas. The courage displayed by aircrews in combat over Germany and Japan, and the losses they sustained, is one of the most memorable stories of World War II. But it should not be forgotten that nearly 15,000 young men died in training accidents without ever leaving the United States. Although they never faced flak or Messerschmitts, their sacrifice was as real and memorable as those shot down over Germany.