Scholars and members of the public have long debated whether the United States could—or should—have bombed the rail lines leading to the Auschwitz-Birkenau killing center or the camp itself. In the spring of 1944, the US Air Force began flying over the area surrounding Auschwitz and, in the fall, it launched several local bombing raids aimed at damaging the Buna1 forced labor plant near the camp. These bombing raids were conducted by planes flying at high altitude without precision bombing capabilities. On at least two occasions, once in September and once in December 1944, bombs dropped during these raids hit Birkenau by accident.
On November 8, 1944, the director of the War Refugee Board, John Pehle, wrote to Assistant US Secretary of War John McCloy to advocate for the bombing of Auschwitz-Birkenau.2 Pehle, who had just read an extensive and graphic report describing the process of arrival, selection, and gassing of victims at Auschwitz, wrote, "I strongly recommend that the War Department give serious consideration to the possibility of destroying the execution chambers and crematories in Birkenau through direct bombing action."
McCloy's response, featured here, cited the necessity of precision bombing to destroy the killing facilities and stated that the planes capable of these attacks were not in range of the camp. Moreover, the War Department was unwilling to move medium or heavy bombers into range in order to target the gas chambers or crematoria: "At the present critical stage of the war in Europe, our strategic air forces are engaged in the destruction of industrial target systems vital to the dwindling war potential of the enemy, from which they should not be diverted." In part "d" of his list, McCloy reminded Pehle of the War Department's priorities: "The positive solution to this problem is the earliest possible victory over Germany, to which end we should exert our entire means."