The Barnes & Noble Review
Master WWII military historian Stephen Ambrose, bestselling author of such classic works as Band of Brothers and D-Day, hits the front lines again with this exciting and compelling look at the courageous young men who flew the massive B-24 bombers over Germany during the last two years of World War II.
The focus of the book is on George McGovern, the 1972 Democratic presidential candidate, who, ironically, was lambasted by the right for his anti-Vietnam stance. Here, he shines brightly as an American airborne hero, bravely piloting his huge and awkward bomber through massive German flak bombing. McGovern also comes across as a fine commanding officer, deeply caring about the men under his authority. McGovern, at the tender age of 22, wound up flying 35 missions and ultimately won the Distinguished Flying Cross.
The B-24 was not an easy machine to fly. It had a thin aluminum skin, which made it sufficiently airworthy but terribly susceptible to attack from ground-based enemy gunfire. It was a simple machine, though -- built with one purpose in mind: dropping a maximum load of 8,800 pounds of bombs. There were no windshield wipers, so a pilot like McGovern was often forced to stick his head out the window of the plane to see where he was going! Above 10,000 feet, the only way to breathe was through an oxygen mask. There was no heat, which made the bombing runs that much more arduous. And there were no bathrooms, meaning that the pilots and their crews had to use "relief tubes."
Ambrose goes into much useful detail on the origins of the pilots themselves. Interestingly, they were all volunteers -- the Army Air Corps (the precursor to the modern Air Force) did not want to make anyone take part in this difficult duty. They came from all walks of life. Some were college graduates, while others were still in high school. Many went straight from the farm to the airfield.
The pilots were treated quite well by the AAC, considering that they were part of the same armed forces that tended to dehumanize servicemen in order to get the maximum use out of them. They got to wear winged insignia on their uniforms. They got extra pay. As volunteers, they knew what they were getting into, unlike the typical draftee. Most of all, they wanted to serve -- and they wanted to fly.
Once again, Stephen Ambrose has turned his spotlight on a special and unique facet of the U.S. military and brought the heroism and courage of the American soldier back home to us. In his own way, Ambrose himself has done a great service to the American people. (Nicholas Sinisi)
Nicholas Sinisi is the Barnes&Noble.com History editor.
Read an Excerpt
The pilots and crews of the B-24s came from every state and territory in America. They were young, fit, eager. They were sons of workers, doctors, lawyers, farmers, businessmen, educators. A few were married, most were not. Some had an excellent education, including college, where they majored in history, literature, physics, engineering, chemistry, and more. Others were barely, if at all, out of high school.
They were all volunteers. The U.S. Army Air Corps -- after 1942 the Army Air Forces -- did not force anyone to fly. They made the choice. Most of them were between the ages of two and ten in 1927, when Charles Lindbergh flew the Spirit of St. Louis from Long Island to Paris. For many boys, this was the first outside-the-family event to influence them. It fired their imagination. Like Lindbergh, they too wanted to fly.
In their teenage years, they drove Model T Fords, or perhaps Model A's -- if they drove at all. Many of them were farm boys. They plowed behind mules or horses. They relieved themselves in outdoor privies. They walked to school, one, two, or sometimes more miles. Most of them, including the city kids, were poor. If they were lucky enough to have jobs they earned a dollar a day, sometimes less. If they were younger sons, they wore hand-me-down clothes. In the summertime, many of them went barefoot. They seldom traveled. Many had never been out of their home counties. Even most of the more fortunate had never been out of their home states or regions. Of those who were best off, only a handful had ever been out of the country. Almost none of them had ever been up in an airplane. A surprising number had never even seen a plane. But they all wanted to fly.
There were inducements beyond the adventure of the thing. Glamour. Extra pay. The right to wear wings. Quick promotions. You got to pick your service -- no sleeping in a Navy bunk in a heaving ship or in a foxhole with someone shooting at you. They knew they would have to serve, indeed most of them wanted to serve. Their patriotism was beyond question. They wanted to be a part of smashing Hitler, Tojo, Mussolini, and their thugs. But they wanted to choose how they did it. Overwhelmingly they wanted to fly.
They wanted to get off the ground, be like a bird, see the country from up high, travel faster than anyone could do while attached to the earth. More than electric lights, more than steam engines, more than telephones, more than automobiles, more even than the printing press, the airplane separated past from future. It had freed mankind from the earth and opened the skies.
They were astonishingly young. Many joined the Army Air Forces as teens. Some never got to be twenty years old before the war ended. Anyone over twenty-five was considered to be, and was called, an "old man." In the twenty-first century, adults would hardly give such youngsters the key to the family car, but in the first half of the 1940s the adults sent them out to play a critical role in saving the world.
Most wanted to be fighter pilots, but only a relatively few attained that goal. Many became pilots or co-pilots on two- or four-engine bombers. The majority became crew members, serving as gunners or radiomen or bombardiers or flight engineers or navigators. Never mind. They wanted to fly and they did.
Copyright © 2001 by Ambrose-Tubbs, Inc.