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.

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