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Into the pickle barrel: America's pursuit of precision bombinb

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America's Pursuit of Precision Bombing, 1910-1945 by Stephen L. McFarland. Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995. 312 pp., b&w photos, $29.95 (hardbound)

The United States entered World War II believing that its airmen could "drop a bomb into a pickle barrel from 18,000 feet," as a journalist boasted in 1939. Carl Norden would make it possible. German by blood, Dutch by birth, and Swiss by education, he served the U.S. Navy, which broke the law and battled the U.S. Army to get exclusive rights to his genius. The result was the Norden bombsight, on which the nation spent almost as much as it did on developing atomic energy.

Alas for precision! Over Germany, flak and fighters drove U.S. Army bombers to 25,000 feet, from which altitude they were lucky to hit a 500-acre factory, never mind a pickle barrel. "We had dropped 422 tons of bombs," a sarcastic airman said of one such mission, "and . . . 333.4 tons had been wasted on homes, streets, public parks, zoos, department stores and air-raid shelters." Nevertheless, the raid closed the I.G. Farben synthetic rubber plant for a month--a more humane result than the "city-busting" of the Royal Air Force.

Having hogged the early production of the Norden sight, the U.S. Navy abandoned it, depending instead on brave pilots who turned themselves and their Dauntless dive bombers into primitive guided missiles.

Over Japan, precision lost all meaning. On Aug. 6, 1945, Major Thomas Ferebee froze the Aioi Bridge in his Norden sight. With perfect visibility, with no flak to trouble him, one of the army's best bombardiers missed by 800 feet. Not that it mattered: his bomb destroyed the bridge, along with the rest of Hiroshima.

More recently, the United States set out on another attempt to deliver explosives exactly on target, while sparing zoos and department stores. The result was the "smart bombs" of the Persian Gulf war, which I hope will soon receive the same intelligent scrutiny as Professor McFarland has given to the pickle-barrel era.

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