Stephen Ambrose’s New Book: "The Wild Blue"
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GWEN IFILL: The book is “The Wild Blue: The Men and Boys Who Flew the B-24s over Germany.” The author is World War II historian Stephen Ambrose. The book describes the men of the Army air force who flew the four-engine bombers against terrible odds, and who suffered over 50% casualties. Ambrose focuses in particular on one pilot and his crew, 22-year- old Lieutenant George McGovern from South Dakota, later Senator McGovern, and the 1972 Democratic presidential candidate. During World War II, McGovern flew 35 combat missions and received a distinguished flying cross.
GWEN IFILL: Gentlemen, thank you very much for coming. Stephen Ambrose, what compelled you to write a book about the B-24, the plane most of us have never heard a thing about?
STEPHEN AMBROSE: For that reason. Because it is unknown, although it was the most built aircraft in the Second World War and, indeed, ever from American production lines. And it was the heart of the 15th air force that nobody has ever heard of. Everybody knows the 8th air force and everybody knows the B-17. And I wanted to write about the air war, but I didn’t want to do the B-17s. It’s been done, by many others– and very well done– but nobody had written on the B-24, so I leaped at the idea that was first presented to me by Senator McGovern, who said, “gee, you ought to do this book.” I thought, “yeah, he’s right. I ought to.”
GWEN IFILL: The B-24, the way you describe it, is a cumbersome beast, a plane that can take out the best of men. What is it that was unique about the man– I guess I should say the boys, almost– who flew this vehicle?
STEPHEN AMBROSE: Well, they came from all over America. They were astonishingly young — some of them 17 when they started, many 18. Senator McGovern, when he was a pilot, he was 21 years old. He had this great big bomber, four engines and a crew of nine or ten and he was responsible for them all. Today we wouldn’t give the keys to the family car to a boy that age. (Laughter) But in World War II, we sent them out and his fellow pilots were the same age– to save western civilization.
GWEN IFILL: Senator, for those of us who follow Washington and politics, think we knew all we had to know about you in 1972, yet it turns out this is a brand new story for a lot of people. Why are we just hearing about this, or does it feel that way anyhow?
GEORGE McGOVERN: I’ve pondered that. I did frequently refer to my war record in World War II, but not in any flamboyant way. I think the average citizen that knew anything about me thought of me as the anti-war candidate. I was the guy who was constantly speaking out against the Vietnam War. I have no regrets about that. What I do regret is that we didn’t take advantage of that opportunity to draw the contrast with World War II, which I believed in. I’ve never had one minute’s regret about my involvement as a bomber pilot in that war, and we should have spent more time drawing the contrast with that war and the Vietnam War, which was just as big a mistake as anything this country has ever made.
GWEN IFILL: What was the line you drew in your mind between your, you know, heroic and enthusiastic participation– volunteering to participate in World War II– and your dislike, your distaste for Vietnam?
GEORGE McGOVERN: Well, we had no choice in the Second World War. We were up against Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo, three dictators, totalitarian leaders, who were out to destroy western civilization. I never thought there was any choice. We had to stop those people and the military machines behind them, whereas in Vietnam, it was a confusing situation — I think, basically, a revolutionary war in South Vietnam against an unpopular government. And the hero over there was Ho Chi Minh. He’d thrown the French out, he had resisted the Japanese, he had resisted the Chinese. We undertook an impossible situation in Vietnam.
GWEN IFILL: Stephen Ambrose, you tell a story in this book about George McGovern, a mild-mannered lad from South Dakota who was… Who flew 35 grueling combat missions. What was unique or what was universal about his story that made it worth telling?
STEPHEN AMBROSE: It’s both. It is unique and it does stand for the others who were in the army, air forces, in the Second World War. What’s unique about George McGovern is how good he was. I interviewed the members of his crew. Every one of them said he always got us back. We just trusted in him. We knew he was going to do it right, and he did. He was courageous, of course, but he had a level head. He could keep that plane level, too. He had a lot of muscles to do that. It was very difficult to keep that plane flying.
He had an instinctive understanding of what’s going to work. Bringing back these planes that have been all shot up, 150 holes in them– shrapnel holes– and bringing them down and landing them safely, most especially of the Isle of Viz in the Adriatic, where he brought in a plane that two engines were gone, a third one was about half-gone; there was only one engine working, he was losing gas…
It was a desperate situation, and the airfield, the strip, was only 2,200 yards long. And he needed 5,000 yards to land that plane. But the alternative was we’re all going to bail out into the Adriatic, and then we’re going to get hypothermia and that’s it. So he brought it in. He told the crew, “anybody who wants to bail out, bail out.” That happened on more than one occasion. They never did. “What are you going to do?” “I’m going to bring this plane in.”
“We’re sticking with you,” was their answer. And the Isle of Viz, he came down… He and his copilot, Bill Rollins, they hit that runway right at the absolute edge of it, and they hit those brakes with everything they had. They could, ahead of them, see a mountain that came right up at the far end of the runway that had the carcasses of a number of B-24s on it that had tried the same thing.
They couldn’t get all the way back to Italy and they had tried to land there and– boom!– into the mountain and then blow up and everybody is gone. So they hit those brakes, and they’re straining and straining, and they get right to the edge of that mountain and they bring her to a stop. The crew jumped out of the plane and started kissing the ground. That’s a good pilot.
GWEN IFILL: When you hear Stephen Ambrose tell stories about you like this, does it stir up memories that you didn’t even know it had?
GEORGE McGOVERN: Well, it does. That war ended 56 years ago. That’s a long time ago. But one of the great things about this book is that Steve has talked to scores and scores of people — not just my crew; he’s talked to dozens of crews, pilots and engineers and flight operators — all kinds of people from many, many different crews. He’s also gone into the strategic decisions that were made as to how we were going to use those bombers and against what kind of targets.
We were basically going after the oil refineries of Germany, and we succeeded enough to the point where we put their fighter planes and their bombers and many of their tanks out of commission. They just didn’t have any oil.
STEPHEN AMBROSE: It got to the point– the German army was fighting in the 20th century– they had no trucks because they didn’t have any fuel. It was a horse-drawn army by 1945. They were using 19th century techniques to fight a 20th century war because of the strategic bombing campaign.
GWEN IFILL: What is it about World War II that is so fascinating to people now in the 21st century?
STEPHEN AMBROSE: Well, it was the great event of the 20th century, and it determined everything that happened in the second half of the 20th century. The democracies won. And Hitler was thrown into the ashcan of history, where he belongs, along with Tojo and Mussolini.
And it opened the future for the world that we are all living in today. We live in the freest and the richest country that ever was. How did that happen? It wasn’t that God pointed and said, “U.S.A., you’re it!” It happened because the men of the second World War, led by Roosevelt, and then Macarthur and Eisenhower and the others, but most of all, the junior officers and the enlisted men.
GWEN IFILL: George McGovern, there’s something about war which continues to haunt men long after they served, and one of the stories that’s most compelling in this book tells about what haunted you for years and years: A bomb that was dropped from a plane on one of your last missions.
GEORGE McGOVERN: We had ten 500-pound bombs on that mission in our airplane. We dropped them over the target. But as we left the target, the navigator told me that one of the bombs was dangling in the bomb rack– it hadn’t fallen. So I dropped out of formation at that point and I said, “look, you guys either have to get rid of that bomb or we’re going to have to ditch this plane and bail out. I’m not going to land a bomber with a live bomb dangling in that bomb rack.”
So they kept working on it. Finally the bomb broke loose and it fell, to my dismay, on a little farmhouse right on the border of Austria and Italy. I thought, “you know, it was probably a young family.” It was at high noon having lunch during that period of the day, and I worried about that for years afterwards.
When I got back to the base, I was told there was a cable for me. My wife had just given birth to our first child– our daughter, Ann– and I thought, “gosh, you know, here we bring a baby into the world today and I probably snuffed out the lives of some young family that thought they were safely out of the war zone.” I told that story on television in Austria 40 years later.
That night, an elderly farmer called the television studio– a studio somewhat like this one– and said, “you know, I know from what the American politician said tonight on television that was my farm that got hit. It was right at 12:00. It was in the area where he said it was. I want you to tell him that I got my family out of the house, I got them into a ditch; we’re all safe.
We hated Adolph Hitler– no matter what else you can say about my countrymen– and if ending the life of our farm, destroying that farm, ended that war even one minute earlier, it was worthwhile. So I got redemption after all these years from the most regrettable moment of my flying career.
GWEN IFILL: Well, fascinating stories. George McGovern, Stephen Ambrose, thanks for bringing it to us.
STEPHEN AMBROSE: Thank you.