Bombing America

In a time when suicide bombers were unthinkable, a young journalist analyzed America’s chances of being attacked.

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America’s Curtiss Hawk fighter
America’s Curtiss Hawk fighter, which was being used by the Allies in Europe in 1939. The Post editors proudly wrote, “Enemy bombers would have little chance to escape these fast fighters,” but Fletcher Pratt said its speed made it no match for German planes. Its only superiority was that it could stay in the air twice as long as the Messerschmitt fighter.

It’s hardly new anymore. An anonymous group angered by the release of a satirical movie, now joins the line of organizations threatening death and destruction in America.

Every day, the world feels a little more like the Wild West, with every cocky, militant group wanting to make its reputation by challenging the sheriff to a gunfight. We’re growing accustomed, if such a thing is possible, to feeling threatened with death at home, in schools, and at work.

There was a time — and not long ago — when we enjoyed a rare moment of security. Between 1989’s collapse of the Soviet empire and the end of the Cold War and 2001’s assault by religious fanatics, we enjoyed 12 years when we didn’t have to worry about atomic weapons or suicide bombers.

We might have enjoyed it more if we knew such days were limited. Or if we were more aware of how long Americans have been living in the shadow of sudden, surprise attacks. As far back as 1939, Americans were fretting that one of the Axis nations might launch a bombing raid into the United States.

In 1939, Fletcher Pratt considered America’s vulnerability to a deadly foreign attack in “Can They Bomb Us?”

Can They Bomb Us?
Read the entire article “Can They Bomb Us?” from the pages of the December 2, 1939 issue of the Post

As you probably know, the continental states were never bombed in World War II. You might think we were safe because we lay beyond the reach of German and Japanese airplanes. But commercial airlines were flying passengers across both oceans before the war. (Pan Am’s China Clipper in 1936, and the Yankee Clipper in 1939.)

These planes, Pratt wrote, were as different from bombers as Great Danes and greyhounds. Bombers were designed to fly as fast and as high as possible. Clipper planes needed to carry heavy loads for long distances. “Comparing the recent German Dornier or Heinkel bombers with the transatlantic Clippers, we find the military machines nearly 100 miles an hour faster, but with nearly 1000 miles shorter range. It would be physically possible to fit bomb racks to a Clipper and load her with death instead of passengers. But her utmost full-throttle speed of 200 miles an hour would render her virtually a stationary object to the attacks of fighters traveling at 350 miles an hour. Her climbing ability, perfectly adequate for commercial craft, is insufficient even to carry her above the range of 37-millimeter guns, the small change of antiaircraft defense … she would be about as useful in military operations as a truck in a tank battle.”

While the German bombers flew about 100 miles an hour faster than the Clippers, they fell about 1,000 miles short of the Clippers’ range. The flight radius of a World War II bomber, Pratt noted, was 750 miles. If it flew any farther, it wouldn’t have enough fuel to get home.

Anti-Aircraft Gun and Crew
America’s defenses were in pitiful shape in 1939. As Fletcher Pratt reported, the entire country east of the Rocky mountains was defended by just 24 anti-aircraft guns. The men in this postcard, who are being trained on the M3 antiaircraft gun, were part of the country’s hurried efforts to prepare for a possible air attack.

Yes, he admitted, a suicide squad could launch from an enemy aircraft carrier stationed along the U.S. coast. The bomber could travel far inland and inflict considerable damage on a major military site. But this was highly unlikely, he concluded. No air force would trade “a half-million-dollar airplane and a highly trained crew for the amount of damage the machine could do on a single flight … bombing airplanes do not carry enough explosives to do half a million dollars’ worth of damage, except by the most extraordinary good luck.”

Even if a general ordered suicide missions, Pratt reflected, men wouldn’t fly them. “There is a psychological factor ruling the whole business of such desperation raids. Men simply will not sacrifice their lives for the doubtful glory of having done some damage to the enemy. It has been proved time and again.” It was unlikely, he argued,“ that there will be any more suicidal spirits in the future than in the past. … The men who really would carry such a thing through bear a mark on their foreheads by which they can be recognized.” Pratt is referring to the Biblical mark of Cain, and implying that such suicide warriors are easily recognized as murderers and are, presumably, shunned by society.

It was a reasonable conclusion to draw in 1939, but the tide of fanaticism was rising. As the war progressed, Axis leaders began pushing their soldiers to greater acts of desperation. By 1944, Japanese aviators were flying explosive-laden planes into American naval vessels, disproving Pratt’s notions of the suicidal spirit.

Seventy years later, the fanaticism that glorifies mass murder is on the rise. Today, Americans take in the news about the latest death threats, then pick up their lunches, check for their cell phones, and head out the door to another day at work.

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