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US Technology and WWII Tipping Point (Fall 2012)

            The US entered World War II as an emerging world power with a remarkable, yet struggling at the time, economy. The economy helped the United States produce war materials at a substantial rate.  Even more important, the materials produced in the United States were of great value to the Allied forces because of their abundance of technologies they provided. The United States was almost unanimously thought of as the world leader in technology, rivaled slightly by Japan and Germany. Most people would say, “Of course the US technology impacted the war, they made the atomic bomb.” The atomic bomb was only the ending point. In fact, other fields of technology probably had a greater impact on the war because they were utilized throughout and not just at one time. The most important piece of technology was the aircraft, however. It had the most impact on every aspect of the war.

            During World War I, airplanes did not acquire an important role simply because of their technology.  They could not fly long range or high altitudes. Not to mention, they were highly unreliable mechanically. The bomber could not carry very heavy payloads during World War I because it greatly decreased the speed and range. There were also many problems mounting machine guns on aircraft. Pilots often shot their own propellers. The low speed by the airplanes also resulted in a high success rate of anti-aircraft weapons.  Airplanes were simply just too slow to fight close to the ground. The overall impact remained mainly just spotting for the ground forces. By the time World War II came around, these problems were fixed, and the airplane became a vital role in the war. The airplane had become a deadly weapon.

            The fighters had gained major roles in World War II. Germany unleashed the first ever jet fighter in 1944, called the Messerschmitt Me 262. It had faster top speed and higher altitude than any of the Allied planes. It also carried a V-1 missile, the first ever guided missile. However, these advancements in their fighter jets came in 1944, which was very close to the end of the war. At this point, the American and English bombers had destroyed most of the German war factories, so this deadly advancement was used very shortly in the war and came too late to have an impact on the war. For the most of the war, the Germans relied on the Focke-Wulf 190 and the Messerschmitt BF 109. The Focke-Wulf 190 had a range of a little less than 500 miles, max speed of about 500 mph, and an altitude of 20,000 ft. The Messerschmitt BF 109 had a range of about 525 miles, a top speed of 400 mph, and a ceiling of 12,000 feet. The BF 109 was used more by the Luftwaffe mostly because of its reliability. The 190 had frequent engine problems. Some pilots had to replace engines after just 35 hours of flight time. So even though the 190 may have better performance, the BF 109 was the go to fighter for the Luftwaffe. The Japanese army used almost exclusively the Mitsubishi A6M as their fighter plane. The A6M was a bit slower than other planes at 331 mph. It had a high ceiling of almost 30,000 feet. The effective fuel range was an astounding 1,900 miles. The range of the A6M was very important in the Pearl Harbor attack. The United States had the most advanced, mass produced fighter of all nations in World War II. The P-47 Thunderbolt was the main fighter plane of the US air force in the war. It had a max speed of 433 mph, a range of 1,800 miles, and a ceiling of 43,000 feet.  The United States took a different approach to World War II airplane design. They thought the important characteristics would be speed, ceiling, and range.  The United States sacrificed a little bit of maneuverability to maximize these three traits. Coming from the top was the best attack point for the fighters, and the P-47 Thunderbolt had the ability to go above any other fighter plane. The United States also wanted long range, because of the war over the Pacific with Japan. As the numbers show, the German airplanes had short range. The German engineers did not see an importance in range, because most of their fighting would be over Europe. Range became an issue for some German pilots in their long distance air battles against Russia and Britain. The superiority of the United States fighters allowed the pilots to be some of the most feared people in the war. They were able to take down many Japanese and German fighter planes. The air superiority in fighter planes was no doubt in the hands of the United States, and it contributed a great deal toward the victory.

            The fighter plane was very important to the war, but the bombers plane an even bigger role. Generals from each country saw the opportunity and importance of bombers in World War II. During World War I, most of the fighting was long battles in trenches. No country wanted to repeat that, so they looked into bomber planes. The thought was it takes months or years to take over an army by ground, but it can take just days to wipe out an enemy through coordinated, well placed bombing missions. The bombing of London and the bombing of Berlin displayed the power of bombers. Factories and buildings throughout each city were completely destroyed in just a few days. The British victory in the Battle of Britain, a battle of almost exclusively aircraft, showed that Germany had very little chance of another offensive against the main island of Britain. Bombers also gave the countries a unique chance of destroying the enemy’s capability to produce new materials by attacking the factories. They could end the war by attacking the enemy’s production and economy instead of fighting the soldiers. The United States most popular bomber was the B-24, although many other models were built that were very similar, such as the B-34, B-25, and B-29. The United States Army Air Force (later changed to United States Air Force) interchanged these planes depending on the mission.  It has a range of 3,700 miles and a ceiling of about 30,000 feet. The most important characteristic is the carrying load, which was roughly 20,000 pounds. The Luftwaffe used the Heinkel He 177. This bomber was considerably smaller than the B-24, but carried about 16,000 pounds. It had a range of 3,500 miles and a ceiling of 26,000 feet. The Japanese used the Mitsubishi G3M. It had a ceiling and range of 30,000 feet and 2,700 miles, respectively. The carrying load was about 7,000 pounds. As these statistics show, the B-24 bomber was far superior to the other countries bombers. The most important thing about the bombers, though, was the production. The United States economy was able to vastly out-produce the enemies. Japan and Germany each produced about 1,000 each of their top bombers. The United States produced 18,000 B-24 bombers. Production of bombers was a huge advantage to the United States, because if one fleet was down with mechanical issues, there was another fleet waiting. The range of the United States bombers was also incredible. The bombers were able to take off from far away from Japan and drop payloads from about 30,000 feet. This was a huge advantage to the United States. Another advantage the United States had in their bombers was the bomb sights. The United States had by far the most accurate bomb sights, which were needed when dropping from maximum altitude. The United States used the range and ceiling of the bombers to knock Japan out of the war. It also saved many American lives, and some experts argue it saved Japan lives in the long run.

            Another important aspect of the airplanes in World War II was transportation. The increased loads and ranges of the planes allowed the United States to quickly and efficiently transport soldiers and materials to the war in Europe and in the Pacific. In fact, a division was created that was called Naval Air Transport Service by the United States that was purely for coordinated transportation. It transported soldiers, equipment, food, medical supplies, and returned wounded soldiers. This was much faster than transportation by sea. It allowed the Navy to spend more time fighting on the Pacific than transporting goods.

            Aside from the particular performance of the planes, there were a few key battles and moments courtesy of the planes that greatly affected the outcome of the war. One of the moments was Pearl Harbor. The planes were loaded up with explosives to suicide attack the ships and planes at the base. Before World War II, this was highly unlikely because the planes would be too weighed down and slow; they could be shot down too easily. During World War II, however, engineers improved carrying load without sacrificing speed, thanks to the new science of aerodynamics. The Japanese utilized a new technique learned with the new planes, which was dive bombing. Pilots would fly up high and sweep down onto the target and drop the bomb. The maneuverability of the new planes allowed the pilots to create the new method of dive bombing. It allowed the pilots to stay out of danger up high until they were ordered to attack. With the new A6M planes Japan was using, the planes were both very explosive and quick, something the United States was clearly unprepared for at the moment. The ability of the A6M planes provided an efficient attack that knocked out many of the US planes and battleships. In fact, the Japanese military considered the Pearl Harbor attack a great success. It’s crazy to think how history would be different if he Japanese did not have sufficient technology to carry out this attack, which was a major point in the war. Luckily, the entire US fleet was not at the base, or else the course of the war would have been quite different.

            No doubt, one of the biggest technology advances in World War II was the atomic bomb. The only problem without the planes is how to deliver the bomb. There were no intercontinental ballistic missiles at the time, so without a plane that could drop it, it would be difficult to use the atomic bomb. The ceiling and speed of the bombers allowed the pilots to deliver the bomb without any danger to them. The plane that dropped the bomb was a B-29 Superfortress heavy bomber. It had been specially modified to carry a nuclear bomb. With a ceiling of more than 30,000 feet, a range of 5,800 miles, and a speed of 365 miles per hour, it was the best option for the mission. It was called the Superfortress because of the extensive amount of damage it can withstand- a nice thing to have when dropping an atomic bomb. Many experts guess that the dropping of the atomic bomb actually saved many lives. If the atomic bomb was not dropped, there would have almost certainly been a full fledge land invasion of the main island of Japan. Japan was known for their relentlessness and unwillingness to surrender. Millions of American and Japanese soldiers and citizens would have perished. In this instance, the airplane saved many lives and helped bring the war to an earlier end.

            All these are reasons why the airplane technology made such a big impact. Without the improvement of airplane technology, the Japanese may have not been able to carry out the attack on Pearl Harbor. The United States had superior technology in bomber technology and fighter plane technology compared to their enemies, Japan and Germany. Their superiority was held in the fields of ceiling, range, max speed, carrying capacity, and maneuverability. The bombers were able to go on very important missions to Japan that would not have been possible without the improved technology. One of the most important missions, the atomic bomb delivery, may not have been possible without the ceiling and range of the United States bombers. Had the United States not supplied the war and allies with this crucial technology, the course of the war would have been substantially different. There is no doubt that the technology of the airplanes in World War II had a major impact on the history of not only the war, but the way the world ended up after.

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