Above & Beyond: The Bridge that Did Not Fall
Memorable flights and other adventures
- By Darrel Whitcomb
- Air & Space magazine, July 2008
(Page 3 of 3)
Over the years, I have visited many battlefields. This was a battlefield of a different sort: one from a war that had not been fought. Had World War III erupted, what would this relatively minor action have meant? It would have been, at best, a one-line entry in an operational report, noting that because a bridge had been dropped, the advance of the Soviet 8th Guards Army in one sector had been slightly delayed. Then again, most all wars are accumulations of countless minor actions.
I tried to recall the other three pilots in my flight, then realized I had strayed into a gray area. As a historian, I could deal with the bridge. But by recalling those pilots, I was personalizing the mission. Now when I looked up and saw the circling A-10s, there were men in them, with names and faces and families.
I could see the enemy anti-aircraft guns and missile sites on the high ground. I could see crews firing long bursts of deadly rounds. I could hear the whooosh of the missiles as they streaked skyward with their warheads, seeking our maneuvering aircraft.
We would have made desperate warning calls to one another. The airplanes would have shuddered as the shells and missiles found their marks. In terms of a world war, this bridge was a minor matter. But to us, the men assigned to destroy it, the mission could have been the final event of our lives.
Back home a week later, I went down to the basement and pulled out my box of old military stuff. I opened up the unit history and looked at a photograph of the four of us in my flight. Then I opened my logbook and found the entries for the summer of 1987. I remembered the gunnery flights to the ranges at Grafenwehr, Hohenfels, and Wildflecken, and the navigational flights through Bavaria. But there was no logged mission to the bridge.
And that was the point. The bridge itself would not have been worth any of our lives. But the resolve that the mission represented—that I saw in our young faces in our unit history photos—was where the value lay. I have to agree with those deep thinkers: In being prepared to fly that mission, we prevented it from having to be carried out. And that resolve, magnified by the efforts of so many throughout the NATO alliance, prevented the conflagration that would have been World War III.