Chapter 16
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Opening Moves

How an American pilot witnessed the beginning of the Cold War

Statistics suggest that about 900 veterans of World War II die every day. Once numbering over 16 million, there are now fewer than 2.2 million left, and by the year 2020 they—along with their stories—may all be gone. In The Wars of Myron King: A B-17 Pilot Faces WWII and U.S.-Soviet Intrigue, James Lee McDonough, professor emeritus of history at Auburn University and a noted chronicler of the Civil War, records what is surely one of the more bizarre war stories: the tale of Nashvillian Myron King, the bomber crew he commanded, and the part they played in the drama not only of World War II but also in the opening moves of the Cold War.

The Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin was quite possibly the worst of human history’s evil empires. But for the U.S., Britain, and the other Allies, doing business with Stalin was the necessary price of destroying the expansionist regimes of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. In fact, President Franklin Roosevelt and his aides were so determined to work with “Uncle Joe” that they often ignored or refused to acknowledge the fact that Stalin did only what favored Stalin, Allies be damned. So eager were American officials to mollify the Soviets that some U.S. soldiers got caught in the resulting political crossfire.

First Lieutenant Myron King and his crew took part in a thousand-plane bombing raid on Berlin in February 1945. Over the city their B-17 was struck by anti-aircraft fire. Knowing they couldn’t make it back to England, Lt. King decided to fly east into Soviet-controlled territory. McDonough writes, “King said four P-51 Mustangs quickly came up alongside as an escort and accompanied him as far as their fuel would allow. When they had to leave, the fighters came in close, one at a time, waggled their wings and waved good bye.” The men were left alone in hostile skies to begin a three-month ordeal involving Soviet generals, a would-be stowaway, and craven American officers and diplomats. In the end, in an Alice-in-Wonderland-style court-martial, King was convicted of bringing discredit on the armed forces.

That Lt. King was a pawn in a geopolitical chess game is not debatable. That his story has not been more widely known is unfortunate. But with McDonough’s able help, this is one episode that will not be forgotten. The Wars of Myron King is filled with detail about air combat and wartime politics, and is colored by the firsthand memories of those who were there. The King affair exemplified the attitudes and actions of Soviets and Americans who fought as comrades of necessity in the hottest of wars even as they planned for the future—a future that, as Lt. King and his crew learned, was to be a long, cold war.