Scoring the Box Score

There is no doubt of the facts when the Army Air Forces credits a pilot or gunner with a victory.

The Army Air Forces has prepared a special memorandum showing just how American victories in the air — "destroyed," "probable" and "damaged" — are scored before public announcement. It was compiled by officers who have won such victories, as well as by others who sit at operational headquarters in the various theaters and see to it that scores comply with the most rigorous rules of accuracy and veracity.

A grizzled colonel with command wings and a captain who earned his bars and ribbons at the sticks of Warhawks, Airacobras and Lightnings, gladly answered questions about the rules. For they had heard that, even in the United States, there were those who expressed the belief that the great successes credited to American planes of all types were the result of exaggeration.

"To doubt our reports," said the colonel, "is the acme of ignorance."

"I'd like to have some of the doubters sit in on a session with the colonel and his intelligence staff," said the captain. "It's harder to convince them we got a Jerry than it was to get the enemy in the first place."

Nothing makes Air Forces officers more angry than to question the validity of their reports. Some of the questioning, it is admitted, is the result of innocent ignorance. Some of it derives from half-informed stories telling of the inferiority of this or that American type plane as compared with its enemy or British counterpart. Such stories of inferiority have been discredited by the achievements of planes concerned — achievements in actual air battle. But some of those who circulated the stories of inferiority apparently just can't believe they were wrong and even question the reports of our pilots.

On the other hand there is just enough sameness to some of these stories to lead to the belief that they have their genesis among enemy agents seeking to create distrust at home. Our war production might be seriously hindered if such stories could be blown up to the point where ignorance would demand changes in types already proven satisfactory.

So the Air Forces have made public the rules. In essence, they are:

    Only under these three circumstances is an enemy plane scored as destroyed:
  1. It must be seen descending completely enveloped in flames;
  2. It must be seen to disintegrate in the air, as when a complete wing or tail assembly is seen to be shot away from the fuselage; or
  3. If the plane is a single-seater and the pilot is seen to bail out. Just flames licking out from an engine — or a wheel, aileron or some other part shot away — those don't count. And in reckoning the reliability of those who say they saw one of the three scoring points happen to an enemy plane, a whole complicated checking procedure is followed.

There is very little solo fighting in today's battles in the air. Formation fighting, from intercepting to strafing, has supplanted the dogfight duels of other days. Hence, though there may be some confusion in a formation's account of what it did, there is every chance to check and counter-check one observer's story against another's.

Participants are questioned together and separately. Things they must answer, collectively and individually, are:

The number and types of enemy planes, the direction and angle of attack; the range at which the gunner believes he opened fire and his distance away from the enemy plane when he believes he destroyed it; the rounds fired and the results; the time, place and altitude of our planes and their position relative to other elements.

With all that data, intelligence officers say, it is comparatively easy to eliminate duplication. If a gunner in Fortress A claims hits on a Messerschmitt from the "four o'clock" position and the gunner in Fortress B, just behind him, claims hits at the same time on a Messerschmitt at "three o'clock," it is perfectly evident that they hit the same enemy and only one is scored. [Positions on a bomber are designated as are numerals on a watch. The pilot therefore would be "12 o'clock," the tail gunner "six o'clock." —Ed] Similarly if other elements lead to the conclusion that different data indicate the same plane hit, the rule against duplication is again applied.

Claims of planes "probably destroyed" must sift through the same screen. To score a "probable" the rules are relatively just as rigid as for those scored as "certain." To be considered a "probab1e," a plane must be so thoroughly afire as to make it impossible for the crew to extinguish the flames. Or it must be damaged to an extent that leads our own pilots to believe, in the light of their own experience, that a plane so damaged could not land safely.

A plane is only scored as "damaged" when parts are seen to be shot away. This cuts out the many hits that might cripple a plane internally so as to make it incapable of combat. But only if the damage results in actual shooting away of parts is damage admitted to the score.

Hence, responsible Air Forces officers believe that our score may actually be very much higher than it is recorded.

"But," says the colonel, "we stick to the rules. To go beyond them is like saying a football team 'might have won' if the half was three minutes longer. Football halves are not 'three minutes longer.' The score that pays off is the one at the end of the time set by the rules."

Sometimes, of course, it is easier to apply the rules. In the Pacific theater, for instance, it is pointed out that when our flyers hit a Zero and hit it right, it just explodes in the air. When all you can see is little pieces of Jap pilot and plane in the bright blue sky, there is little doubt but that another enemy has been destroyed. In the mist and rain over Europe, and with German and Italian planes far better constructed and armored than the Japs, there may be more doubt as to the ultimate fate of an enemy plane. But the rules are designed to cover these more difficult situations, not the easier one of the exploding Jap.

Experienced Air Forces officers are not prepared to admit that early enthusiasm of our fighting men was responsible for exaggerated claims. From the very beginning our pilots were impressed with the obvious absurdity of Japanese and German claims. As a result they submitted their own claims to an admirable self-scrutiny even before the official system of scoring was adopted.

As a final argument for the validity of our system of scoring victories in the air, it is pointed out that the Japanese, Germans and Italians would not in the least be inhibited from making their own propaganda use of any claim we made that they knew to be exaggerated.

And if you can make it stick with enemies so little regardful of the truth, it must be good. It's our story and the enemy is stuck with it, because it's true.

This article was originally published in the July, 1943, issue of Flying including Industrial Aviation magazine, vol 33, no 1, pp 39, 158, 160.
The original article includes 2 photos.
Photographs from Acme