These were the three most dangerous jobs in World War II

Logan Nye
Updated onMar 31, 2023
3 minute read
dangerous jobs in world war ii

Sinking of the Linda Blanche out of Liverpool by SM U-21 (Willy Stöwer)


If you were to fall asleep near the ITER Tokamak, get bombarded by exotic nuclear particles, and be transported back in time to 1942, what job would you choose? Would…

If you were to fall asleep near the ITER Tokamak, get bombarded by exotic nuclear particles, and be transported back in time to 1942, what job would you choose? Would you take part in World War II? Would you work in a factory? Join the U.S. Merchant Marine? Enlist in His Majesty's Armed Forces?

Statistically, according to a Great Courses lecture series by the University of Pennsylvania Professor Thomas Childers, three jobs were more dangerous than any others. Pick one of these three and it would be nearly certain that you wouldn't make it back to your time portal alive.

If you choose either of the first two after reading this article, I applaud your theoretical courage. But if you chose the third, I'm closing the time portal. You made your bed. You can lie in it. I'll peek in to check on you roundabouts the time of the Nuremberg Trials.

U.S. Army Air Corps Bomber Crew

A tour of duty for U.S. bomber airmen in World War II was 25 bombing missions. But the life expectancy of an 8th Air Force crew member in 1944 was just 15 missions. And that was an improvement. In its first year of combat, the 8th Air Force only saw 30% of its crew members finish their quota alive.

It's easy to understand the risks they faced. Strategic bombers initially lacked fighter support on many missions. They flew in large, defensive boxes that were easy to spot from the ground and fire at with flak. German fighters could race up to the clouds to attack them. If they could get the formation to break, the defensive box would fail and the fighters could down them relatively safely.

Meanwhile, the environment was so hostile that a crew member could die of oxygen deprivation if they took off their mask and it failed. Or they risked instant frostbite if they lost a glove.

B-17 Flying Fortresses from the 398th Bombardment Group flying a bombing mission to Neumünster, Germany, on 13 April 1945.

RAF Bomber Crew

We don't need to go too deep into this, right? Royal Air Force crew members faced very similar trials to their Yank counterparts. German fighters, flak emplacements, a hostile environment.

Crucially, they did fight alone for a few years, though, from the fall of France in 1939 to the German invasion of the USSR and the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor in 1941. And Royal Air Force crews were obligated for 30 missions, not 25.

All-in-all, the Imperial War Museum says that 51% died in combat, 12% were killed or wounded outside of combat, and only 24 percent survived.

German U-boat crew

Survivors from German submarine U-175 after being sunk by USCGC Spencer, 17 April 1943.

Now do you see why I said that I only had respect for folks who picked jobs one or two? German U-boat crews could arguably have done the whole world a favor by deserting with their boats. But those who did stand firm faced an amazingly dangerous role.

The wolfpack crews had a huge impact early in the war. But U-boats were mechanically fraught, with at least one sinking because a commander tried to flush his own toilet. British innovations in surface radar and sonar soon made the hunters the hunted. When they came under attack, crews knew that any serious damage to the boat would force them to the surface or the seafloor. 

The men who served in any of these three roles displayed amazing bravery.