George McGovern, pilot

26 Jul


I just finished The Wild Blue: The Men and Boys who Flew the B-24s  over Germany, a book by Stephen E. Ambrose about the experiences of the 741st Squadron, 455th Bomb Group that uses Senator George McGovern and his crew as its centerpiece.  A high school friend asked her Facebook friends for examples of good fiction she could read this summer, and I’m recommending it despite the fact that it’s non-fiction.

Ambrose starts out by describing McGovern’s identity as a p.k. or preacher’s kid, and the fact that he was one of four children from his father’s second marriage.  In many ways, he appears to have been fairly average, or at least that’s how he comes across in the book’s first chapter.  He was not a stellar student–that he would change later on–and he was not a gifted athlete like his father, who had been a professional baseball player.  Ambrose seizes on his embarrassment at not being able to perform a somersault after diving over a sawhorse as partial motivation for wanting to prove that he was courageous: “McGovern had never before been up in a plane but he agreed to be one of the students because he felt, ‘If I can fly an airplane that will show Joe Quintal [his gym teacher in high school]that it isn’t heights that I’m worried about, that I’m not too cowardly to fly a plane'” (32).

Most of the WW II men were very young, but as Ambrose illustrates, they grew up quickly.  McGovern was twenty-one and had been trained in several places across the country when he was assigned his crew in Lincoln, Nebraska.  The life of a WW II pilot was extremely dangerous as Ambrose indicates by citing the following statistics: “Because the formation flying was so demanding and led to so many accidents, Eleanor worried about her husband.   She was right to.  Twice as many air officers died in battle, than in all the rest of the Army, despite the ground force’s larger size.   In addition, in the course of the war, 35, 946 airmen died on accidents” (100).


I regret to say that I voted for Nixon, not knowing that he had been obstructing justice, but I have become more impressed with McGovern over time.  He made his name as a war hero and pilot of the B-24.  He received the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal.  Stationed in Italy, he and his crew made 35 forays into parts of Nazi-occupied Europe, Austria, and Germany.  Every pilot had to complete 35 missions before returning home.  Because his group used more than one airplane, McGovern called every plane the Dakota Queen after his wife, Eleanor.  He took her picture on every flight he made.

Some think that his biggest mistake in the 1972 Presidential Campaign was not running as a war hero, especially given his exemplary service. A group of conservatives said he was a coward, because he was against the Vietnam War, but his record proved otherwise.  He was not a pacifist.  The comments made against him are reminiscent of comments made recently in the political realm, but I don’t want to sully my review by mentioning them.  He received the Distinguished Flying Cross for making a successful emergency landing  on an island called Vis in the Adriatic.  One engine was flaming and leaking fuel.  All the other B-24 pilots who had attempted to land on this island had crashed,  due to the short runway.  He had many close calls, including the time a piece of shrapnel landed between him and his co-pilot.  The B-24 was considered to be a very difficult plane to fly, partly because of its weight.



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