An Unlikely War Hero

RL09-22-2015Recently, I read about the exploits of a man who served during World War II who may well have had more to do with the allied victory than any other single person. Abraham Wald used his talents, abilities, and gifts to save countless lives and turn the tide of the war. He did not serve in the European Theater, nor in the Pacific. He never confronted the Nazis or the Japanese. He never held a gun, dropped a bomb, or drove a tank. Abraham Wald never even went through basic training and instead served out the war in an apartment in New York City.

Abraham Wald was arguably the most gifted mathematician of his generation. He was not only adept at coming up with the right answers to complex problems, Abraham Wald also had a skill for identifying the right questions.

The allied air command faced a logistical dilemma throughout the war. Air superiority was the key to victory in both the conflict against Germany as well as Japan. Each pilot and plane was worth their weight in gold to the war effort. The difficult decision was where and how much armor should be put on each plane. The armor they used was very thick and heavy sheets of metal that were placed at strategic locations on each aircraft. If there was too much armor, the planes could not take off or would waste precious fuel. If there was not enough armor, the planes were shot down.

The generals made diagrams of the bullet holes in each plane as they returned from their missions. They found that the bullet holes were concentrated along the wings and fuselage of the planes with very little damage done to the cockpit area or the engine compartment. Previous to the study, all of the armor had been positioned around the cockpit and engine to protect the pilot and the motor that flew the plane.

The generals enlisted the help of Abraham Wald to determine how the armor could be moved to protect the fuselage and wings since the other more vital areas were rarely being hit anyway. It was at that point that the wisdom and genius of Abraham Wald won the war. Wald accurately informed the aviation experts that they needed to keep protecting the areas of the returning planes that weren’t being hit because they weren’t studying the planes that would tell the whole story. Abraham Wald went on to explain that the planes that were shot down had been hit in the cockpit or engine, and they never returned to be studied.

In-depth research after the war estimated that without Wald’s wisdom and intervention, the armor in our aircraft would have been moved to the wings and fuselage, and our superior air power would have been decimated within a few short months—quite possibly changing the outcome of the war. Wald understood that the right answer to the wrong question can be misleading and sometimes deadly.

As you go through your day today, seek the right answers to the right questions.

Today’s the day!

Jim Stovall is the president of Narrative Television Network, as well as a published author of many books including The Ultimate Gift.  He is also a columnist and motivational speaker.  He may be reached at 5840 South Memorial Drive, Suite 312, Tulsa, OK  74145-9082; by email at; on Twitter at; or on Facebook at

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