Sunday, October 4, 2009

Wild Blue

This book could have been titled “Dakota Queen” because that was the name that George McGovern applied to any B-24 he flew during WW2.

Stephen Ambrose wrote this book at McGovern’s insistence even though another writer had started it. The result was that Ambrose not only got intimate details from McGovern but also interviewed other members of his crew and other crews who flew with him in Italy.

The training of a pilot is presented in great detail from flying the simplest of aircraft to the most advanced four-engine type of WW2. McGovern was introduced to flying before he joined the Army, which was the way you got into the Army Air Corps in WW2. His initial civilian training in an Aeronca tandem stood him in good stead for his later experiences as a fledgling bomber pilot.

Ambrose shows how the war necessitated a rapid change in both aircraft construction and also in pilot training. Initially pilot training was rigorous and lengthy but as the war dragged on the time spent training pilots was lessened so that they could be sent to replace those men who had been either killed or captured. One sobering statistic was that the casualty rate for bomber crews was significantly higher than for any other branch of the armed services.

After his training in the United States was completed McGovern was sent to Italy to become a member of the 15th Air Force. Their job was to attack German targets from the south compared with the 8th Air Force’s job of attacking from the west. In both cases the flak and fighter attacks were devastating to the American effort.

Day after day with no letup except for the weather McGovern and his fellow pilots flew across the Alps to drop their bombs on rail yards, oil refineries and other strategic targets.

Periodically a bomb would hang up in the bomb rack of a plane necessitating the gunners to try to free it before the plane attempted a landing. On one mission McGovern had that happen to him after his plane had been damaged and was losing altitude. The gunners tried and tried to free the bomb but couldn’t. McGovern was extremely worried that they would have to bail out of the airplane since landing with a live bomb would be fatal. Finally the bomb was freed to fall toward a farm in Austria. McGovern was sickened because he knew as a farm boy that the people in that farm were probably eating lunch. As they watched the bomb fall and strike the farmhouse it exploded and blew the farmhouse and other buildings to pieces. McGovern carried that image in his mind for the rest of the war.

Sometime after the war McGovern was interviewed by an Austrian TV station and was asked about how he felt about bombing the people there. He said that it was necessary because of the inhumane things the Nazis were doing. He finally had to mention the incident of the hung bomb and destruction of the farmhouse, saying that he still carried that horrible image with him.

Sometime after the broadcast the farmer whose house had been bombed told the TV station that when they saw the bomber approach they immediately left the house so none of his family was hurt during the explosion. He added that if that event caused Hitler and his followers to be defeated even one minute sooner then he was happy to have had his house destroyed.

The TV station passed the news on to McGovern who said that he finally was able to remove that terrible image from his mind.

If you want to get a real sense of what B-24 bomber pilots and crews went through in WW2 this is the book to give it to you.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Public Enemies

Public Enemies details the depredation of the famous criminals during 1933-34. Without the activities of those criminals, particularly John Dillinger, the FBI would not have become the all-powerful national police force.

In the beginning J. Edgar Hoover was a minor official in the Justice Department. With a keen sense of how he could advance his position he picked the investigatory arm of the department to be his vehicle for advancement. The original investigators had no police power and didn’t carry weapons. When they were told by Hoover to go after a particular criminal they had to enlist the help of local law enforcement.

Hoover did not like the results that he saw from his operatives. From his headquarters in Washington, D.C. Hoover sent memoranda, notes and phone calls to various members of his investigatory team. They, in turn, were expected to keep Hoover informed of every turn of events in the case they were pursuing.

The critical event in the development of both Hoover and the FBI came when the Valentine’s Day massacre occurred. This was a golden opportunity for the national news coverage to be turned to his advantage. The only problem was that there were few leads and no suspects.

In the meantime, Dillinger was gearing up to become the notorious bank robber that history has recounted. Some of the other “yeggs” (a term that was used by the criminals to identify themselves) that were not as well known but almost as destructive to local banks were Machine Gun Kelly, Baby Face Nelson, the Karpis/Barker gang, and Pretty Boy Floyd.

With the use of the Thompson sub-machine gun by the criminals local law enforcement with their .38 caliber pistols and shotguns were outgunned. Hoover decided after much haranguing that his men would have to be armed as well. The only problem was that they had little training in the use of firearms and even after training they were incompetent in the use of the weapons.

As their stakeouts and shadowing’s continued the FBI men made some costly errors that resulted in innocent people being gunned down and yeggs escaping to maraud the countryside again.

One man who was getting a lot of publicity (much to Hoover’s dislike) was the man in charge of the Dillinger hunt, Melvin Purvis. Even though the newspapers thought Purvis was doing a great job the truth was that he was a sloppy and somewhat incompetent leader. If he had done all the things that the papers said he did Hoover would have been even more incensed at Purvis.

Hoover finally sent a somewhat nondescript man to be Purvis’ boss. Hoover didn’t bother to tell Purvis that he had a new boss and the relationship went on in a very murky fashion with men not knowing whether their orders were “official” or not.

The gunning down of two very petty gas station and grocery store robbers who lived in their car or camped in the rough: Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker sensationalized the hunt for the marauders of the Midwest.

Since the heat was on many of the yeggs lit out for less heated space, ending up in Reno Nevada and San Francisco.

Ultimately the call of the home territory brought the criminals back to the Midwest and ultimately to a very bloody end. Dillinger was betrayed by a girlfriend and killed near the Biograph Theater. The others died ignominious deaths from multiple gunshot wounds except for Alvin Karpis who was tried, convicted and sent to Alcatraz to spend many years for his crimes.

The book is a fascinating and thoroughly documented look at a short period in American history in which one of the most well known of Federal institutions got its start.