In telling the stories of war, we have a natural inclination to focus on the action, the drama of the front lines. Heroes, villains, and violence unlike most people have ever seen has a unique way of grabbing at the human attention span, luring us in with via own aspirations of heroism, or our own deep seated fears regarding the villainy of the world. The thing is, while winning a war, or even a battle, requires leveraging the strength and heroism of these men of action … sometimes, what really turns the tide in an offensive isn’t the grit in a man’s teeth, but rather the math, devised weeks or months before, in a quiet office a half a world away.

Such was the unassuming story of Abraham Wald, who not only saved countless lives throughout World War II, but helped establish “survivorship bias” as an integral aspect of operational analysis both in a military setting and beyond.

Wald was born in Austria-Hungary (present day Romania) in 1902. By 1931, he had completed his PhD in mathematics, and despite possessing a gifted analytical mind, he was unable to secure a position at any of his home nation’s universities upon his return. The problem? It was 1931, and Wald was Jewish.

When the Nazis invaded Austria in 1938, Wald and his family fled to the United States where he was offered a position with the Cowles Research Commission in Economics. However, it wasn’t long before he found himself working for Uncle Sam, using his mathematical skills to help devise better strategies in the war against the same nation he had once fled: Germany.

Ward soon made a name for himself as a member of America’s Statistical Research Group (SRG), though ironically, he was still considered a “potentially hostile immigrant” or “enemy alien.” Wald, as a result, wasn’t authorized to look at the classified calculations he was writing for the American government himself, and his secretaries often joked that their task was to remove the notebook pages from Wald’s hands immediately after he finished writing them – for the sake of national security.

Wald’s most notable contribution to the war effort, or perhaps the simplest to explain, came in the form of his work on survivorship bias in American heavy bombers flying in the campaign over Europe. Wald found himself tasked with finding a way to increase aircraft survivability without compromising its flight range or maneuverability by covering the entire aircraft in heavy armor plating.

Wald’s problem was simple: if you can only apply armor to certain parts of the aircraft, where do you apply it?

Abraham Wald (Courtesy of WikiMedia Commons)

He and the Allied forces began by gathering data. They looked at returning B-29 bombers and made note of where they had taken fire. They observed and noted as bombers continued to limp back to air bases throughout Europe, fuselages riddled with holes, with some even described as “swiss cheese.” In fact, based on the data they compiled, American bombers were taking fire in the fuselage at nearly twice the rate they had been taking rounds to the engine platforms. The rest of the plane, including wings, saw even more fire than the fuselage, and even the fuel systems were more commonly hit than the aircraft’s engines.