Pearl Harbor's born legacy: The Mighty Eighth

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Apryl Hall
  • Minot Air Force Base Public Affairs
Three-thousand eight-hundred and nine headstones make perfectly-patterned lines in the grass. Over 5,000 names are inscribed on a wall to pay tribute to those whose remains were never found. The near 9,000 individuals remembered at Cambridge American Cemetery and Memorial in Madingley, England are not United Kingdom natives, but Americans. The majority of the names on display at the cemetery are of Airmen from the Eighth Air Force.

The Eighth Air Force was activated less than two months after the attack on Pearl Harbor. With its near 17,000 airplanes completing more than 1.6 million sorties throughout World War II, the Airmen of the Mighty Eighth became a critical part of America's forces.

Minot resident and World War II veteran Leo Makelky developed a fascination with flying airplanes at a young age, he said. His days in high school were spent drawing pictures of airplanes. When he witnessed barnstormers performing aerobatics at an airshow, he knew he was going to do whatever it took to have a career in aviation.

"I had to fly some way or another," said Makelky. "Even if it took everything I had to do it."

As a young man working for Douglas Aircraft in California, he heard about the attacks on Pearl Harbor and instantly knew what he had to do, hoping it would be his chance to get up in an airplane.

"When do I go," said Makelkly. "That was my first thought."

By the time Makekly enlisted, the year was 1943, and it was one of the most difficult times for aircrews in the war. The missions were almost put to a stop, as so many had been lost, said Makelky. However, the lost missions did not deter him from following his dream.

"I told them I wanted to be an aerial gunner, and they put me on the fast track," said Makelky. "Before I knew it, I was on my way overseas."

Sitting in the bottom ball turret of the B-17 Flying Fortress gave him a birds-eye view of the world few ever experience, Makelky said. Sitting precariously below the airframe enabled him to shoot at enemy aircraft, giving his crew the added safety to accomplish their mission of bombing enemy targets.

On one mission, while patrolling the skies, he saw two of his crew bail the rear of the aircraft. Not knowing what was going on, he popped out of his turret to discover the aircraft in flames. He took one step toward the open hatch, looked out and second guessed following his bombardier and navigator.

"That ain't for me," he said. "As long as the four engines were running, I was still staying on."

Instead of jumping he decided he'd take his chances with the fire, he said. After a short battle with the blaze, the plane was under control with the remaining crew, which made adjustments for the trip back to Russia.

"I was now the bombardier," said Makelky. "Instant officer!"

Makelky represented the Mighty Eighth during the crucial years of the war. Despite the constant threats and high number of lost missions, Makelky and his crew kept their heads up and continued to fight for their country.

"Every time we came back, we just told ourselves one last time," said Makelky. "And we just kept saying that until we were finally finished."

While each aircrew was required to do a total of 25 missions, usually not making it beyond 11, Makelky's crew continued on missions until finally, after their 35th successful mission, they were sent back to the safety of the United States.

"Needless to say, I was overjoyed," said Makelky.

The sacrifices of the Airmen from the Eighth Air Force are evident, as there were 26,000 casualties and 28,000 captured during the war, equating to one Eighth Air Force Airman killed and one captured every hour of every day for the three-and-a-half-year duration of World War II.

While only a fraction of the Eighth Air Force Airmen are represented in the memorials in England, their devotion to their country lives on in the theaters of the world. The Eighth Air Force was born from the attacks on Pearl Harbor and was raised by the Airmen who have served and continue to serve, using the same core values as those who fought in World War II.

"I was extremely proud to serve in the Eighth," said Makelky. "We did what we had to for our country."