Photos That Showcase the Durability of American Aircraft During World War II

Photo Credit: 1. PhotoQuest / Getty Images 2. Samuel Goldstein / Keystone Features / Getty Images (Colorized by Palette.fm)

Given the numerous theaters American aircraft flew in throughout World War II, it’s no wonder the majority suffered extensive damage at the hands of the enemy. The following photos show the destruction sustained by various aircraft while in combat, as well as details regarding just how the Americans went about constructing and repairing their aerial vehicles, from production to secret operations.

Production of American aircraft during World War II

American assembly lines during World War II were impressive in all areas, but none more so than in the aircraft sector. Although the United States was manufacturing its own aircraft before the conflict began, it increased production to an impressive rate from 1939-45.

Two airmen staring at the damaged under-section of a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress
Members of an American Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress crew look at their damaged bomber following a raid on Debrecen, Hungary, September 1944. (Photo Credit: Mondadori / Getty Images)
Lt. Charles Easey kneeling beside the damage propeller of his Republic P-47 Thunderbolt
Lt. Charles Easey of the 12th Air Division looking at the damage sustained by his Republic P-47 Thunderbolt after action over northern Italy, October 1944. (Photo Credit: Mondadori / Getty Images)

In 1939, the US produced 3,000 aircraft, and by the end of World War II, 300,000 had left assembly lines. Over the course of just six years, the country’s aircraft industry became its most productive sector, in part because automobile manufacturers changed their day-to-day to support the war effort. They did this by producing various aircraft parts.

Lt. Quentin Aanenson and another airmen look at the damaged undercarriage of his Republic P-47 Thunderbolt
Lt. Quentin Aanenson inspects the damaged undercarriage of his Republic P-47 Thunderbolt after being hit by flak on an anti-tank mission against German forces in Normandy, August 1944. (Photo Credit: Haywood Magee / Picture Post / Hulton Archive / Getty Images)
Torpedo bomber with shrapnel damage toward the tail section
US Marine Corps torpedo bomber hit by flying shrapnel after the Japanese launched shells toward the air strips on Bougainville, March 1944. The 400 holes in the aircraft were repaired, and it was ready to fly the next morning. (Photo Credit: G.W. Circle / National Archives / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Most notably, America produced the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress and B-29 Superfortress, the Curtiss P-40 Warhawk, the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt and the North American P-51 Mustang. All were heavily used in each theater of the war.

“Keeping them flying”

Ground crews were instrumental in maintaining the many types of American aircraft flown during World War II, which involved everything from repairing damage sustained in battle to making alterations so they operated more effectively. Although their job was typically reduced to “keeping them flying,” it was much more complex.

Ground crews repairing a damaged aircraft
Ground crews working on an aircraft damaged in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, December 1941. (Photo Credit: CORBIS / Getty Images)
Lt. Louis Zamperini looking through a large hole in his damaged aircraft
Lt. Louis Zamperini examines damage to the fuselage of his Consolidated B-24 Liberator, May 1943. The large hole was caused by a cannon shell fired from a Japanese-flown Mitsubishi A6M Zero, which scored three other hits before Zamperini’s aircraft managed to fly back. (Photo Credit: PhotoQuest / Getty Images)

Mechanics underwent three steps of training: basic, technical and unit. They would select a specialty, after which they’d undergo extensive training to become either a welder, metal worker or propeller specialist. Beginning in 1943, every American airman had to wear a special patch on their uniform to indicate what their technical specialty was.

Airman examining a large hole in the wing of the Martin B-26 Marauder Idiot's Delight II
Airman with the Eighth Air Force inspects a gaping hole in the wing of the Martin B-26 Marauder Idiot’s Delight II after it returned from battle against German forces in France, September 1943. (Photo Credit: Samuel Goldstein / Keystone Features / Getty Images)

In most cases, the crewmen would be transferred to a squadron once their training was complete, and they were able to focus on repairs and maintenance. They traveled with their units to their intended operational theater, which some were able to choose. Other mechanics were sent to work at depots or in mobile repair units.

Air Service Command

On a much larger scale than individual squadron mechanics, the Air Service Command, as it was known during World War II, played a major role in the repair of American aircraft operated by the US Army Air Forces. Essentially, its role was to manage the storage and distribution of supplies needed to repair and maintain aircraft operating in the many theaters of the conflict.

Tom Trainer and Jim Davis standing next to the damaged Martin B-26 Marauder Miss Emily
Navigator Tom Trainer stands with pilot Jim Davis next to the Martin B-26 Marauder Miss Emily, which was damaged during a mission, 1942. (Photo Credit: Hulton-Deutsch Collection / CORBIS / Getty Images)
Boeing B-17C Flying Fortress parked on the tarmac with its back half missing
Damaged Boeing B-17C Flying Fortress on the tarmac at Hickam Field after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, December 1941. (Photo Credit: Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

While its members operated out of the US, it was also responsible for controlling the many air depots outside of the country’s continental limits. Throughout the war, however, what the Air Service Command controlled fluctuated greatly, as officials realized it was better for an individual unit commander to have control over their resources.

Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress with extensive damage to its nose
Extensive damage sustained to the nose of a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress after being shot by anti-aircraft artillery during bombing runs over Germany. (Photo Credit: USAAF / Interim Archive / Getty Images)
Two airmen inspecting a damaged Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress
Airmen checking a damaged Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress in Italy following a raid on Debrecen, Hungary, September 1944. (Photo Credit: Mondadori / Getty Images)

The Air Service Command had many bases in the US, which were used for a variety of purposes, including the training of 5,000 men to repair aircraft as part of a top-secret project. This work was done out of its base at Brookley Army Air Field, Alabama.

Operation Ivory Soap

While most aircraft were maintained by standard ground crews, there were special fleets used in the Pacific Theater to keep them in the fight. Operation Ivory Soap was a classified project, which saw six Liberty ships converted into repair vessels.

Ground crews standing below a Douglas C-47 Skytrain missing a number of parts
Douglas C-47 Skytrain being dismantled at an Air Service Command salvage depot, as sufficient parts for repair couldn’t be obtained, 1944. (Photo Credit: Photo12 / UIG / Getty Images)

These large vessels were specifically used to repair the B-29, as the aircraft was at the heart of the American forces’ island hopping strategy in the Pacific during World War II. These repair ships meant aircraft conducting long distance missions away from Allied airfields had somewhere to land for repairs, refueling and rearmament.

Lt. W.J. Hoelle staring at damage to a Lockheed P-38 Lightning
Lt. W.J. Hoelle surveying the damage to the wing of a Lockheed P-38 Lightning in North Africa, 1943. (Photo Credit: European / FPG / Getty Images)

In addition to Liberty ships, there were also 18 Aircraft Maintenance Units used to repair smaller fighter aircraft, helicopters and amphibious vehicles on auxiliary aircraft repair ships. The first Aircraft Repair Unit was deployed in October 1944, with the remainder of the fleet sent into the field by February 1945.

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Unfortunately, regardless of the attempts made to repair American aircraft, there sometimes wasn’t anything that could be done about the heavy wear they faced during aerial combat. By the end of World War II, it’s estimated the American forces lost nearly 95,000 aircraft, of which 52,951 were destroyed or severely damaged during combat or missions in the field. That being said, their engineering was such that many allowed for their pilots to safely return to base, despite their damage.

Rosemary Giles

Rosemary Giles is a history content writer with Hive Media. She received both her bachelor of arts degree in history, and her master of arts degree in history from Western University. Her research focused on military, environmental, and Canadian history with a specific focus on the Second World War. As a student, she worked in a variety of research positions, including as an archivist. She also worked as a teaching assistant in the History Department.

Since completing her degrees, she has decided to take a step back from academia to focus her career on writing and sharing history in a more accessible way. With a passion for historical learning and historical education, her writing interests include social history, and war history, especially researching obscure facts about the Second World War. In her spare time, Rosemary enjoys spending time with her partner, her cats, and her horse, or sitting down to read a good book.

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