28 January 2009

Tuskegee to Auschwitz

I think there must be a clipping gene, passed down to me from my father. At 88, he's still sending regular care packages of articles from US newpapers and magazines on subjects he thinks might have been overlooked here in London. It was he who introduced me to my favorite political columnist, Trudy Rubin (see link under MY BLOG LIST), and he's right: I discover all sorts of things I didn't know in his clippings.

This week's packet contained an article from the Philadelphia Inquirer by Rafael Medoff, director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, subtitled "Tuskegee Airmen witnessed Allies' moral failure." Dad had told me on the phone that he had recently read a piece that really depressed him. I immediately knew this was it.

On my last visit to the States, my parents and I had watched a DVD about the Tuskegee Airmen's accomplishments, so I was familiar with the background story of highly skilled black squadrons fighting the entrenched racism of the War Department as well as the enemy. This article, however, dealt with an issue not covered in the film: a raid over Auschwitz on the morning of 20 August 1944. I'll let Medoff take over here:

On the morning of Aug. 20, 1944, a group of 127 American B-17 bombers, known as Flying Fortresses, approached Auschwitz. They were escorted by 100 Mustang fighter planes. Most of the Mustangs were piloted by Tuskegee Airmen of the 332d Fighter Group.

The attacking force dropped more than 1,000 500-pound bombs on German oil factories less than five miles from the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Despite German antiaircraft fire and a squadron of German fighter planes, none of the Mustangs was hit, and only one of the U.S. planes was shot down. All of the units reported successfully hitting their targets.

On the ground below, Jewish slave laborers, including 15-year-old Elie Wiesel, cheered the bombing. In his bestselling memoir, Night, Wiesel described the prisoners' reactions:

"We were not afraid. And yet, if a bomb had fallen on the blocks [the prisoners' barracks], it alone would have claimed hundreds of victims on the spot. But we were no longer afraid of death; at any rate, not of that death. Every bomb that exploded filled us with joy and gave us new confidence in life. The raid lasted over an hour. If it could only have lasted ten times ten hours!"

But it did not. Even though there were additional U.S. bombing raids on German industrial sites in the Auschwitz region in the weeks and months to follow, the gas chambers and crematoria were never targeted.

The Roosevelt administration knew about the mass murder going on in Auschwitz, and it even possessed diagrams of the camp prepared by two escapees.

But when Jewish organizations asked the Roosevelt administration to order bombing of the camp and the railways leading to it, the requests were rejected. U.S. officials claimed such raids were "impracticable," because they would require "considerable diversion" of planes needed for the war effort.

But the Tuskegee veterans know that claim was false. They were right there in the skies above Auschwitz. No "diversion" was necessary to drop a few bombs on the mass-murder machinery or the railways leading into the camp. Sadly, though, such orders were never given.

The decision to refrain from bombing Auschwitz was part of a broader Roosevelt administration policy of refraining from taking action to rescue Jews from the Nazis or provide havens for them. The United States did not want to deal with the burden of caring for large numbers of refugees. And its ally, Great Britain, would not open the doors of Palestine to the Jews, for fear of inflaming Arab opinion.

The result was that the Allies failed to confront one of history's most urgent moral challenges.

Depressing indeed. In fairness, though, I'll also copy a letter to the editor printed the next day:

Bombing aims

Rafael Medoff ("Obama would do well to learn from WWII," yesterday) is badly off the mark. He contends the Allies refused to divert "a few bombs" from military targets to shut down the Nazi extermination camps because of sinister motives on the part of Roosevelt and Churchill.

Medoff obviously knows little about the Allies' strategic bombing program. This was not an era of "smart bombs." It would have taken not a few, but thousands of bombs to cause even a small disruption to the Nazis' vast system of death camps. Diverting those bombs away from military targets would have lengthened the war, allowed the camps to remain running longer, and actually increased the number of people killed in the death camps.

Scott Washburn

The reasons behind Allied bombing strategy may be debatable, but the reluctance of the US and UK to accept Jewish refugees at many points during the war is well documented. So many sad and shaming facts that never made it into the history books we were issued when I was at school. The place name Tuskegee itself, of course, conjures up the infamous Experiment, where for forty years black men suffering from syphilis were observed rather than treated.


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