Given the time that has elapsed since the end of World War II, and the countless books that have been written about that conflict, one would think that little would be left to say about the subject. The Wild Blue was written as a means of correcting two errors in the collective popular memory of World War II. One concerns the prosecution of the air war by the United States and the other concerns a participant in that aspect of the war. Ironically, the book became the focus of criticism when it appeared that Ambrose had incorporated sections of other writers’ published works in his text; the data were credited to their authors in footnotes but not enclosed within quotation marks to indicate that the material was a direct quote. The cases uncovered in The Wild Blue led to analyses of other Ambrose books and revealed a similar pattern of attribution without indicating direct quotation. It is hard to regard this as a case of straightforward plagiarism, since the original authors are noted, but it does appear to indicate sloppy scholarship. Ambrose and his publisher promised to correct the lack of quotation marks in subsequent printings of the books.
It is well known that the air war in Europe was conducted simultaneously through two very different approaches by Great Britain and its former colony. England used its famous four-engine Lancaster heavy bombers against Germany only during night raids, having deemed daylight bombing too risky. Massed formation bombing is by its very nature highly inaccurate, and bombing by night even more so. Aside from the fact that it is militarily ineffective, it exacts a horrendous toll in civilian casualties. Indeed, American military planners considered nighttime bombing to be little more than terrorism. The American solution—precision daylight bombardment of German military, industrial, and transportation targets—degraded the enemy’s ability to fight even as it subjected the United States’ mighty war birds to appalling casualties. All of this is well known to the public, and such films asTwelve O’Clock High (1949) dramatized the feats of the Eighth Air Force as its B-17 bombers made daily runs from bases in England against Adolf Hitler’s war machine. There is a certain undeniable appeal in the image of waves of elegant B-17’s, beautiful in their terrible symmetry, taking flight from their numerous concrete runways throughout Britain. That, however, is only part of the story.
Much of the bombardment of Germany and its military sites elsewhere originated in Italy and was conducted under the most primitive of conditions. Runways were often dangerous, patchwork affairs, the former farmland covered with steel matting. The result was a precarious arrangement that left precious little room for error by the pilots, who were expected to sleep in tents and consume wretched food. Though the B-17 is the plane that is best remembered and preserved from this period, it was the squat, ugly “Flying Box Car”—the B-24—that was built and used in far greater numbers. Ambrose’s book is designed in part to tell the story of this all-but-forgotten plane and the men who flew it. He does this by focusing upon the life of one particular B-24 pilot and his crew: that of George S. McGovern. The latter, a long-time friend of the author, was often portrayed as a coward by conservatives during the presidential campaign of 1972, and Ambrose aims to set the record straight. This tendentiousness is not history in the usual sense of the word, and Ambrose makes it clear from the beginning that this is not a disinterested account of the air war. Nevertheless, Ambrose’s approach does have a distinct advantage. He balances the necessary facts about the war—the number of planes that took part, the cost in human life, and the effects of the bombing campaign—with a sustained account of McGovern’s experiences and those of a few other individuals. Though this is less objective a history than the usual fare, it brings a heightened sense of drama to what would otherwise be a simple tale of carnage.
In terms of structure, Ambrose prefaces the actual history with a prologue and cast of characters, and concludes with an epilogue. The remainder of the book consists of eleven numbered chapters, beginning with a description of the origins of the men who participated in McGovern’s last mission in April, 1945. Like a good dramatist—the book relies heavily upon extensive interviews with veterans—Ambrose allows the participants to tell their own stories of how they came to make war; in so doing he gives the reader a palpable sense of what it was like to be there. The participants were volunteers, they came from every conceivable place in the nation, and many were from areas so isolated they had never...
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