The beautiful planes that flew over the National Mall on the seventieth anniversary of V-E Day are rare not because few survived the war but because few survived the war’s aftermath.
When the war ended, the American government suddenly had a huge surplus of aircraft. It could have stored the planes, or auctioned them off, or just given them away to the men who had flown them. Indeed, some were sold—which is why a few are still around. The vast majority, however, were destroyed by a bureaucracy that thought all unwanted equipment was the same—a bureaucracy that couldn’t tell the difference between a file cabinet or a coffee machine and a bomber that had carried American airmen to Ploesti and back.
Great aircraft were destroyed by the thousand—chopped up or blown apart and then melted down. In some cases, brand-new planes, already paid for, were flown direct from the factories to the scrapyards, where they were stripped of engines, wheels, and instruments—the remarkable Norden bombsights smashed with hammers—and then the fuselages were torn apart. The famous Memphis Belle was rediscovered in 1945 at an airfield in Oklahoma, where it had been shipped to be scrapped. But that was in a world with 4,000 flying B-17s. Today there are 13.
On June 4, 1942, the American Navy changed the course of the Pacific War at Midway by sinking four Japanese fleet aircraft carriers. The American carrier USS Yorktown, a hero both at Midway and a month earlier at the Coral Sea, was crippled in the fight and had to be abandoned. The historian Samuel Eliot Morison records that, on the morning of June 7, when it became clear Yorktown was doomed, the surrounding ships half-masted their colors, and all hands came to attention as the gallant carrier disappeared beneath the waves. The men who had fought on her and with her respected the ship as a fallen comrade; she had been elevated from an ordinary object into something noble—something with spiritual value. That remarkable incident is a violent contrast to the postwar scrapyards where P-38s were piled on top of each other like firewood, P-40s were stacked with their noses in the ground to save space, and B-17s were neatly lined up by the hundred to be dynamited.
Of the American carriers that fought at Midway, the only one to survive the war was the USS Enterprise. “Big E” earned 20 battle stars and a Presidential Unit Citation. She became the only non-British ship in history to be honored with a British Admiralty Pennant. And when Enterprise was decommissioned in 1947, she was—and remains—the most decorated Navy ship in U.S. history. Enterprise was also the last surviving pre-World War II carrier. (The USS Saratoga survived the war, but, in another act comprehensible only to a bureaucrat, she was deliberately destroyed in a 1946 atomic bomb test.)
In 1956, the Navy announced it could no longer afford to keep Enterprise in mothballs. An act of Congress, acknowledging the historic greatness of the carrier, established her as a national memorial in Washington, D.C.—provided that $2 million to pay for the project could be raised in six months. The ship’s former crewmembers formed the Enterprise Association and fought to raise the money, setting aside any understandable annoyance at having had to buy the ship first with tax dollars when she was built, then with their own blood during the war, and now with the money they’d earned saving the world. Despite their efforts, six months was not enough, and the money was not raised.
So the government sold Enterprise for $561,000 as scrap to the Lipsett Corporation, promising at least to preserve the ship’s famous tripod mast. Even this token promise was not kept, and by 1960 the Enterprise was gone. Today, all that remains is a bell, an anchor, and the one-ton nameplate bearing the proudest and greatest name that ever adorned an American fighting ship.