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A journey into the wild blue yonder with WWII pilot George McGovern
For most Americans, the name George McGovern is inextricably linked to his 1972 presidential campaign, a race that ended in a crushing, landslide victory for Richard Nixon. But McGovern's life has other interesting chapters, and in his latest book, historian Stephen Ambrose describes one of them in vivid detail.
Thousands of young, eager volunteers lined up to be pilots during World War II, and The Wild Blue: The Men and Boys Who Flew the B-24s Over Germany 1944-45 tells their story by focusing on one bomber, the Dakota Queen, its pilot George McGovern and its crew. McGovern, a South Dakota preacher's son, was a 19-year-old college sophomore when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. He immediately volunteered for service and less than three years later was piloting one of the big, unwieldy B-24 Liberator bombers. Completing 35 missions over Europe, McGovern went on to earn a Distinguished Flying Cross for his service.
Although McGovern's war experiences may come as a jarring surprise to those who recall his opposition to the Vietnam War, Ambrose sees the former senator as "a good representative of his generation," who was willing to put his own life on the line to secure an Allied victory.
Ambrose, who has chronicled the experiences of the infantry soldier in several previous World War II books (Band of Brothers, D-Day, Citizen Soldiers), captures the air campaign with his usual skill, bringing the characters and their harrowing missions to life. He recently answered questions about the book for BookPage.
When did you first meet George McGovern?
I met George after the '72 campaign, when he was still teaching at Duke. He was kind enough to invite me there to lecture to a couple of his classes, and during the ride back to the airport, he told me some great stories about the campaign (since I was working on Nixon at this time, this was meat and potatoes), and his time in the 15th Air Force. As a result of this and other conversations, UNO [University of New Orleans] where I taught, invited him to come to our summer school in Innsbruck, Austria. Our friendship has flourished ever since.
What did you think of his anti-war stance during the '72 campaign?
I agreed with what his campaign stood for, and in my own way, worked for McGovern in 1972.
McGovern was reluctant to trumpet his war record during the campaign. Why do you think he was willing to talk about it now?
None of the press people ever seemed to be interested in bringing it up - nobody ever asked him about it, to my recollection. There are millions of veterans out there that this same thing is true of. They're not so much reluctant to recall what they experienced, but they are not going to volunteer anything if no one asks. In George's case, I just think that he felt the time had come to share his story. He told me once that he never discussed the war with anyone at any length when he was still in politics. By the same token, I don't think he was trying to effect some sort of catharsis by conducting extensive interviews with us, or that he feels he owes his grandchildren a legacy of some sort. He certainly didn't do it because he's running for office. I obviously can't speak for the man, but I think he is justifiably proud of his record of service, and he wanted George McGovern to tell George McGovern's story.
In your research for Wild Blue, what did you learn about McGovern's war experiences that surprised you?
How difficult it is to fly that plane, above all. Plus the fact that someone at the ripe old age of 23 had such heavy responsibilities. He had the lives of every one of his crew literally in his hands, which is an experience that I'll never have. I've done a bit of pretend flying in a B-24, and the experience was humbling - the amount of eye-hand coordination needed, the patience and judgment involved, and so on. The Air Force did an absolutely marvelous job at finding suitable personnel, and at turning these kids into skilled pilots in a very short period of time by today's standards.
What qualities made McGovern a successful pilot?
Number one: professionalism. He knew how to handle that plane and was always alert when he had to be - damn near whenever he had the controls. His leadership and concern for his crew was exceptional as well. He tried his best to make sure that they had dry socks, and that there was heat on in the plane, that everyone's oxygen equipment was functioning properly, and so on.
As far as physical attributes, George has excellent coordination and eyesight - he has phenomenal depth perception, which in the pre-radar age was a vital asset. He wasn't a mechanical genius; most of those pilots weren't. But he had good judgment, a confidence in himself, and a sound understanding of weather and navigation - the same set of skills that make for a good pilot in this day and age.
In what ways was he typical of the young men who flew the Liberator?
George was the same age as these guys and there were many of them, including George, who hadn't even finished college. All thrown into a situation where you're bored 95 percent of the time and terrified for the remainder. But in a lot of ways, it's impossible to come up with one definitive type of the "typical" GI. Some pilots surely drank, cursed and gambled more than George, some were probably more well read than he was at the time, some more religious - it just varies on an individual basis. But George was certainly not a run of the mill pilot - he was a pilot among his peers.
Are you hopeful that this book will give the American public a new respect for McGovern?
Of course. I felt at the time of the election that he should have pressed the issue of his war record a bit more. For whatever reasons he chose not to. But yes, I would like the American people to know more about what he did during the war. I hope this will foster, not so much McGovern's appeal or a wider audience, but the understanding that you don't necessarily have to be a hawk to be patriotic. McGovern is one of the greatest patriots I know, and his anti-war stance doesn't make him any less of one.