The place you read Stephen Ambrose's new book, The Wild Blue: The Men and Boys Who Flew The B-24s Over Germany, is on an airplane, a comfortable passenger jet, say, a Delta 737, built with care and precision by the Boeing folks in their picturesque facility in Seattle. the kind that has the little button that lets you recline your seat, and room for flight attendants to wander up and down the aisles bringing Dr Pepper and orange juice from frozen concentrate and the other wondrous beverages of the American century, and a little knob that blows cool, pressurized air in your face. You put down the bag of peanuts and the in-flight magazine (the kind that shamelessly touts Buffalo, New York, of all places, as a tourist attraction) and begin reading about the gathering of young men from across the country to remote locations like Liberal, Kansas and Carbondale, Illinois and Pampa, Texas to learn how to fly and beat Nazi Germany into a smoldering pancake.
You read the first line of the prologue; "The B-24 was built like a 1930s Mack truck, except that it had an aluminum skin that could be cut with a knife." The 737 has a stout metal hull; as you always do, you tapped nervously on it as you walked from the jetway into the cabin. And the B-24 "Liberator" was not heated, you read, and astonishingly uncomfortable enough to make even the most ambitious masochist decline a checkride, enough to make even the most dedicated Naderite consumer advocate to admit that, maybe, waiting an hour on the tarmac at the Detroit airport for a Northwestern crew to de-ice a plane is not the worst confinement since they closed Alcatraz.
Somebody (one of the New Journalists, you don't recall his name exactly, the fellow who wears the white suits) wrote that a pilot making a test flight of a new fighter plane had more chances to die in one takeoff than his wife and children could fantasize in their worst nightmares, but that doesn't tell the half of it. First off, the B-24 was a huge airplane, the biggest airplane in the Army Air Force, thirty-two thousand pounds of aluminum and wiring and guts, hard to steer, difficult enough to fly under the best of conditions, built by the lowest bidder, naturally. (One of the contractors of the B-24 is good old North American Aviation in Grand Prairie, Texas.) You take off from an airstrip in Italy that wouldn't pass muster with the FAA today, your plane loaded with tons of gasoline and bombs, not to mention the crewmen, your special responsibility. You careen down the runway, hoping that this flying boxcar, this... this beast (there's no other word for it!) can manage to rouse its shuddering engines, lift itself into the air and not end up a smoking, smoldering crater at the end of the runway. And then once aloft, you circle around the airfield, getting into a formation so closely packed that one mistake or mechanical failure in your wingman's plane could cause you to crash, through no fault of your own (although you will still be just as dead). And this may be the least dangerous thing you do all day!
Your orders are simple enough in theory but damned difficult in execution; fly across the Alps to the heart of Greater Germany (in daylight!) to a ball-bearing plant or oil refinery or other important target, open your bomb bay doors, drop your stick of bombs, and return to base. Of course, it goes without saying that there aren't so many such targets, and those that are there are well-defended, and that the Germans have good enough intelligence so that they can practically read your orders before you do, and that even a teenaged reservist can learn how to fire an 88-millimeter antiaircraft gun into the air, producing those black cotton balls with red fiery hearts that can gash the fragile skin of your plane in ways you hadn't even thought about. And even though your target this time is a German fighter plane plant, and even though such raids have been enormously successful in capturing the sky over Europe for the Allies, one up-close encounter with a Messerschmidt fighter is enough to put a serious dent in your social calendar, maybe for good.
Is your parachute operating? If one of those malevolent pieces of flak pierces the skin of your Liberator in just the right way, you may need it. (Your ball turret gunner isn't even wearing one, it won't fit in that space that's small and cramped even by B-24 standards; he'll have to get the waist gunner to help him out before he can put on his parachute.) If the plane is shot up so bad that you have to bail out, can you make it to Switzerland? Or behind the partisan lines in Yugoslavia? Or are you looking at a long vacation as a guest of the Luftwaffe? (Compare that thought, if you can, to the thought of Delta redirecting your luggage from Atlanta to Austin.)
And let's suppose you do make it to the target without freezing to death or some other ignominious end, and drop your bombs, hoping that the pattern is right and you're not dropping death and destruction on a school or POW camp, and that all the bombs do manage to make it off the rack (trying not to think of what happens if one gets stuck), and you still have to steer this... beast! home and back over the Alps, every muscle sore, every bone weary, hopefully with enough gas to make it back to base, and land the damned thing, stick it on the runway, hoping that there's enough runway and you're not coming in too heavy and that the engines will hold up and hey, that mountain's not supposed to be there!
And if, surviving all the dangers, completing the mission, landing the plane, checking to see that all your crew are safe and well, and you go back to the Spartan tent and latrines and Spam and check to see that everyone else made it back alive, that there weren't any casualties on this run, you slip off into sleep, and wake up the next morning ready and prepared to do it all again, thirty-five times (up from twenty-five!) until you can rotate home... well! Who then has the uncritical willingness to face danger! Who then is walking the sanctified precincts of (you've said it now) the Holy Ziggurat of Flight! Who then are the authentic members of the True Brotherhood!!!! If these men, the 741st Squadron of the 455th Bomb Group of the Fifteenth Air Force, are not the true heirs of Orville and Wilbur Wright, are not exemplars of heroism, are not the forbearers of what a later generation (knowing only that it existed, and that it was holy, but not knowing what to call it, exactly, because it was never spoken of) would name the Right Stuff, then nobody ever had it.
It says something (not everything, but a lot) to say that Stephen Ambrose does for the men of the B-24s in The Wild Blue: The Men and Boys Who Flew The B-24s Over Germany what Tom Wolfe did for the Mercury astronauts in The Right Stuff. In an age without heroes or battles (or, as a cynic might be tempted to say, without honor itself), it is only fitting and proper that we turn to the stories of those who came before. Ambrose has been an exemplar in telling these stories of WWII, and The Wild Blue is another stellar achievement in narrative history in a long line of such achievements.
The focus wanders a bit throughout the history, as Ambrose introduces us to auxiliary characters here and there who have stories that were too good to leave out. (Ambrose relies heavily on oral history from WWII veterans, and later generations of scholars will no doubt be grateful for his work in collecting these oral histories.) Most of the time, though, the focus is where it should be, on the crew of the Dakota Queen, a B-24 Liberator piloted by Lieutenant George McGovern. (Yes, that George McGovern, and all of my fellow conservative partisans can put your cudgels down for a few hours to read this.)
The Wild Blue manages three important tasks while preserving the characteristic clarity of Ambrose's works. First, it's a detailed story, going in-depth about the armaments of the B-24 and the nuances of Allied strategy and the hardships of bomber combat. Second, it's an analytical story, with Ambrose turning his high-powered perception on the issues of target selection and combat psychology. Most importantly, it is a deeply personal book, capturing the best and most important memories from McGovern and his crew, telling stories ranging from the comic to the heartbreaking.
On top of all of this, Ambrose seems to have taken his experience in Hollywood (with Steven Spielberg in Saving Private Ryan, among others) and used it to create a dramatic overlay for The Wild Blue; you almost get the feeling that William Goldman could turn the whole thing into a screenplay while sitting by the pool.
The only thing that could mar The Wild Blue is an overly partisan hero-worship on the part of Ambrose towards McGovern; Ambrose even admits that he wanted to write this book because of his longtime friendship and support of the South Dakota Senator and 1972 presidential candidate. And the hero-worship is there, in no small measure. The genius of the book, however, is such that one cannot finish it without the knowledge that any hero-worship of George McGovern or the crew of the Dakota Queen and those brave men, living and dead, who flew the Liberator in the skies over Europe has been permanently and irrevocably earned.
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