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In Memoriam: Stephen Ambrose

October 14, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, remembering a frequent guest on the NewsHour, historian Stephen Ambrose. He wrote several best-selling books, and spoke and lectured. Last year he was criticized for some of his writing and research methods, and was accused of plagiarism, which he denied. He died Sunday of lung cancer. Spencer Michels guides us through excerpts from Ambrose’s appearances on this program over the years.

SPENCER MICHELS: Ambrose was a story teller, and he was best known for his tales about World War II. He talked to David Gergen about his book Citizen Soldiers and about the Battle of the Bulge toward the end of the war.

STEPHEN AMBROSE: The real story of the Bulge is the one that captures everybody’s imagination is Bastogne and the 101st Airborne being surrounded there, and rightly so, but it’s a bigger story than that. It’s an American lieutenant with a platoon over here, and an American corporal with a squad over here saying, I ain’t gonna retreat no more. We’re going to stand and fight here. And they held up German columns all across the front and threw the German timetable completely out of kilter, and eventually some clear weather arrived, and with clear weather trucks could move on the road, planes could fly and hit at the Germans, and it was done, and the Germans were hurled back from the Battle of the Bulge, so that by January of 1945, the end of January, the lines were back to where they had been in September.

Then they get to the Rhine River in March of 1945, the greatest river in Europe, and it looked like it was going to be a very, very tough proposition to get across this river and any bridgehead over it was going to be pure gold. An American lieutenant named Carl Timmerman spotted the biggest bridge over the Rhine River. It was a railroad bridge–the Ludendorff Bridge–and Timmerman saw it, and without hesitating, he took a squad that was a really wonderfully American squad. There was a Polish sergeant and an Irish corporal and a couple of Germans and an Indian in it, and–American. And Karl Timmerman, a German, of course, German-American, saw that bridge, and he said, “Let’s go.” And he led his men across that bridge in one of the greatest actions of the Second World War, machine gun fire cutting everywhere. They knew the bridge was scheduled to be blown up; they expected it to be blown in their faces. What apparently happened, David, was a stray bullet cut the wire leading out to the demolition charges. Timmerman got across, took the bridge. Now we were over the Rhine, and then it was the time for the exploitation and rolling across Germany till we met with the Red Army at the Elbe River in April of 1945.

SPENCER MICHELS: In 1998 Ambrose described the landing on Omaha Beach to Phil Ponce, the scene depicted in the movie “Saving Private Ryan.”

STEPHEN AMBROSE: The ramp goes down for Company A, the 116th regiment of the 29th infantry division, with the second Rangers right beside him, and they’re all wiped out. They’re just hit with a wall of steel that just blows men away. And you’re not ready for this because you had a calm scene that proceeds and you just jump out of your seat and people say what-you know, it couldn’t have been that bad.

I’ll tell you how bad it was-that company A of the 116th took 95 percent casualties in the first minute. They never got a shot off. They were most of them just wiped out right inside their Higgins boats, and he shows you this. A lot of guys drowned because the Coxswain dropped the ramps in too deep a water, because the Coxswains didn’t want to go in any closer or they hit obstacles, and these guys come into water that’s over their head, and a lot of them drowned. They were way overweight with equipment. And Spielberg goes underwater to show you these guys drowning, and I tell you, it’s just terrifying to look at!

SPENCER MICHELS: The Wild Blue told of the men who flew B-24s over Germany in World War II. Among the pilots was George McGovern. He and Ambrose talked to Gwen Ifill.

STEPHEN AMBROSE: 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. And 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.

SPENCER MICHELS: Six years ago he penned Undaunted Courage, the tale of the 1804-1806 Lewis and Clark expedition across North America.

STEPHEN AMBROSE: Sacagawea, the most famous American Indian woman in our history, saved them on a lot of occasions. She was a 15-year-old girl with a baby on her back who made the whole expedition and on a number of occasions when they were close to starvation using her native skills she dug up roots with a stick and was able to feed them.

She did something, David–I interrupt to get into this–that you and I and all Americans will never ever be able to repay her for. One day on the Missouri, they had a sail up on the, on the dugout, the wind switched, caught the sail, the dugout went over. There were six men in it, four of ‘em started swimming frantically toward shore. The other two were yelling at each other. And meanwhile, the journals of Lewis & Clark, our greatest national literary treasury, our odyssey, were floating away down the Missouri River, and this 15-year-old girl was the only one with presence enough of mind to swim back there and grab those journals and save them for us.

SPENCER MICHELS: Last summer David Gergen sat down with Ambrose in his Louisiana home for what both acknowledged was a final interview.

DAVID GERGEN: I meet veterans from World War II around the country, and they so frequently say, in effect, “Stephen Ambrose gave us our voice.” Is that one of your greatest satisfactions as an historian?

STEPHEN AMBROSE: I didn’t give them their voice. They have their own voices, and they speak out with them. I listen. I’ll tell you what my greatest satisfaction is: I know how to listen and I know how to pick up good lines, and then I know how to weave them into a story. It’s very nice that they say that, but it’s not true.

SPENCER MICHELS: Ambrose has written a final book called To America: Personal Reflections of an Historian which will be released next month.

DAVID GERGEN: So this… this is really a love song to America.

STEPHEN AMBROSE: Oh, yeah.

DAVID GERGEN: It’s the realization you’ve had over the years, some 30-plus years as an historian, that it’s basically a very positive epic, what this country is all about.

STEPHEN AMBROSE: The best in the world. There are many reasons for it, and I write about them in this book: The Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, what they did and the government they set up and how they did it. And I don’t want to get into details on this, but they created a nation that had many sins, slavery being number one; the discrimination against minorities and women and so on. There’s quite a lot. They haven’t all been solved, but many of them have been.

This is a country that can change faster and quicker in the right direction than anybody else in the world. We are the world’s leaders because we live in the best country that ever was.