Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1947
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.
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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 traveled from home or seen an airplane. What they all had in common was the desire to fly and their youth, and it is daunting to think that many of those massive bombers were flown by pilots who had not even reached the age of twenty. Ambrose seems especially surprised by this, but traditionally wars have been fought by the very young. Even the word “infantry,”which many associate with the image of an older, battle-hardened soldier, alludes to the youth of participants in war.
Before these children could face the prospect of battle, they had to be trained, and one of the highlights of The Wild Blue is the emphasis it places on the preparation for war. As Ambrose correctly observes, the Army Air Force became the world’s largest educational institution. It was forced to do this because the United States lacked an effective air force at the beginning of the war: In order to send the bombers against Germany, it needed to train pilots, gunners, navigators, bombardiers, radiomen, and mechanics. In terms of numbers, the Army Air Force progressed from a minuscule 20,000 personnel at the time the United States entered the war to 2.4 million by 1944. For George McGovern, the training began with a typical army boot camp and progressed to a physically and academically rigorous ground school, where education ranged from push-ups to navigation. After months of this conditioning, he was allowed to begin his flight instruction on a single-engine trainer, then trained on twin-engine aircraft, where he learned the finer points of flying a multiengine aircraft at night. It was only after completing this segment of his training that he received his wings and went on to learn how to fly B-24’s.
The Army failed many of its would-be bomber pilots in training due to the unforgiving nature of aerial bombardment. The B-24, by almost every account, was far more difficult to pilot than any other allied aircraft in World War II. Ambrose gives an excellent description of the cockpit: “There were twenty-seven gauges on the panel, twelve levers for the throttle, turbocharger, and fuel mixture, four on the pilot’s side on his right, four on the copilot’s side on his left. The wheel, or yoke’ as it was called, was as big as that on a large truck. There were over a dozen switches, plus brake pedals, rudders, and more.” This is a vivid characterization of the B-24’s instrumentation, and with a bit of imagination, the reader can picture what a challenge a young pilot would face. However, it would have been far more effective had Ambrose enhanced his text with additional photographs or simplified technical drawings.
What Ambrose does convey well is the very special character of life as it was lived on this nearly forgotten plane. Unlike the other branches of the service or even the Army’s ground forces, Army Air Force personnel did not salute on the airfield, freely fraternized in clubs that were nominally restricted to either officers or enlisted men, and generally placed less emphasis upon distinctions in rank. This was a discrete culture within the armed forces, and the reason for the difference had to do with the nature of their mission. Although bombers flew in massed formations, the men on board had to function as a cohesive unit: The pilot had the most responsibility in guiding his plane safely to the target, often through heavy antiaircraft fire, and back; he in turn relied upon the flight engineer, the navigator, the gunners, and the bombardier. A mistake by a single crew member could mean disaster for his plane and the nearby planes.
Though some may wish to romanticize the image of American war birds preying upon a ruthless foe, the actual air campaign against Germany was both far more mundane and more dangerous. It is here that Ambrose’s extensive interviews with surviving veterans bear fruit. Every aspect of a typical bombing mission was fraught with danger. This was not the usual takeoff that one associates with a modern airport. A B-24 pilot pushed his1,200-horsepower Pratt & Whitney engines to full throttle and held the brakes down until it was his turn to go. He was required to follow the plane in front of him closely as it took off, and he had to apply the brakes to the wheels again after the plane left the ground and before the landing gear retracted. If he hit the brakes too soon, the bomber—laden with explosives and high-octane aviation fuel—would crash and explode on impact. McGovern’s own plane, which he called the Dakota Queen, once rolled into a ditch because his flight engineer was not paying attention to the runway.
Once airborne, the pilot was expected to bring his plane into a tight formation as it passed over a bombing target. Flying in clumped groups was vital for two reasons: first, it concentrated the area of bombardment and thus increased the chances of hitting the target. Second, such close formation flying allowed the heavy bombers to ward off fighter attacks with their 50-caliber machine guns. Death came suddenly, violently, arbitrarily. Ambrose reveals the truly shocking nature of aerial bombardment. Some planes failed to hold their place in formation and collided with their fellow bombers; others drifted slightly and dropped their bomb loads on other B-24’s; and some just exploded for no apparent reason, with the 8,000-pound load all but vaporizing the plane. Most dangerous of all was the enemy’s response to the bombers: flak. Since bombers flew in massed formations, Germany’s antiaircraft guns had ample time to fire exploding shells at the oncoming planes. To the pilot approaching his target, a heavily defended area could very well shower a plane with shards of jagged metal. On one of his early bombing missions, McGovern narrowly escaped death as a piece of metal flew through the windshield and swept over his right shoulder. The only real armor on the bomber was the cast iron in the seats of the pilot and copilot; the crew relied upon flak jackets. Mission after mission, pilots were expected to follow the lead plane, stay on course, and fly through an atmosphere thick with detonations. In effect, the bombers themselves became targets.
McGovern did not take the easy way out in the war. The young officer deliberately chose a dangerous but vitally important target for his thirty-fifth and final mission rather than select an easier route on the “milk run.” Despite the loss of an engine and hydraulics (the landing gear had to be cranked down) McGovern brought both plane and crew safely home. If anyone ever had doubts about George McGovern’s deeds in war, Ambrose’s book dispels them for all time.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist 97 (May 1, 2001): 1594.
Library Journal 126 (May 15, 2001): 138.
Publishers Weekly 248 (August 27, 2001): 17.
The New York Times Book Review 106 (September 9, 2001): 12.