Read The Wild Blue: The Men and Boys Who Flew the B-24s Over Germany 1944-1945 Online

Authors: Stephen Ambrose

Tags: #General, #Political, #Military, #History, #World War II, #United States, #Biography & Autobiography, #Transportation, #20th Century, #Military - World War II, #History: American, #Modern, #Commercial, #Aviation, #Military - Aviation

The Wild Blue: The Men and Boys Who Flew the B-24s Over Germany 1944-1945

BOOK: The Wild Blue: The Men and Boys Who Flew the B-24s Over Germany 1944-1945
5.13Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub



Stephen E. Ambrose

For Eleanor






CHAPTER ONE - Where They Came





CHAPTER SIX - Learning




CHAPTER TEN - Missions





About the Author

Also by Stephen E. Ambrose




I HAVE BEEN A FRIEND and supporter of George McGovern’s for nearly three decades. I knew something about his career in the Army Air Forces, which I always felt he could have used to more effect in his 1972 presidential campaign. Politics aside, I had long been an admirer of what he had done in his B-24 bomber. He seemed to me to be a good representative of his generation, a man who had risked all not for his own benefit but to help bring about victory.  In the summer of 1999, McGovern, his wife, Eleanor, my son Hugh, and I were together for dinner. In the course of the conversation, McGovern said he had done some interviews recently with reporter Michael Takiff, who was interested in doing a book on McGovern’s World War II career. I said that was a fine idea and told McGovern to tell Takiff that he should open with the story of the bomb McGovern’s B-24 dropped on a farmhouse in Austria, and the sequel.  McGovern replied that he wished I were writing the book and asked if I would do it. I hesitated, not out of any lack of interest but because Takiff had already begun his work. McGovern urged me to talk to Takiff to see if he would yield to my being the writer and if he would provide me with copies of his interviews with him. I did and Takiff agreed. So I told McGovern and my editor, Alice Mayhew, that I would do it. Alice liked the idea - she is McGovern’s editor as well as mine - but said that it should be a book not only about McGovern but also about the men with whom he served. As always - or at least almost always - she was right.

I have long wanted to study and write about the American airmen of World War II.  Previously I had written books about the high command in the European war, then turned to the men on the front line - a British airborne company (PegasusBridge) and an American Company of the 101st Airborne, E Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment (Band of Brothers). In a book entitled D-Day and a follow-up called Citizen Soldiers, I had studied the role of junior officers and enlisted men fighting on the ground. In the course of preparing those books I had interviewed many of the men doing the actual fighting. What I wanted to do next after a book on the first transcontinental railroad was a book on the American airmen, not those at the top of the command structure but the men who flew the bombers. How did they do it? That was my question. McGovern and his crew and his squadron, the 741st of the 455th Bomb Group of the Fifteenth Air Force, seemed a good way to try to answer at least part of the question. My resolve was strengthened because of my respect for George McGovern and his men; my curiosity about how a son of South Dakota became, at age twenty-two, a bomber pilot; my interest in how American designers and workers and the industrial plants created the world’s greatest air force; my wanting to learn about the strategic air campaign and how it was planned and carried out; and my desire to tell readers the story of how the leading opponent of the Vietnam War was, in World War II, a distinguished bomber pilot. So I went to work.  I did a lot of reading, of both books and memoirs. I am in the deepest debt to all those who have written about the air war, or their own experiences, including but not limited to all those cited in the notes and bibliography. Most of all I need to thank and acknowledge my gratitude to Michael Sherry, author of The Rise of American Air Power, Wesley Frank Craven and James Lea Cate, editors of the seven-volume official history, The Army Air Forces in World War II, and Colonel Horace Lanford, USAF, who did a four-volume mimeograph work entitled “741st Bomb Squadron History.” I also deeply indebted to my college fraternity brother and lifelong friend Jim Burt, an Air Force pilot after graduation, who read the manuscript and saved me from many errors. Hugh and I did a lot of interviews, with McGovern and his surviving crew, with the pilots and men of the 741st Squadron and the 455th Bomb Group and others, each listed in the Acknowledgments. We are grateful to all of them.  On October 9, 2000, Hugh and I rode in a B-24 and a B-17. We got to sit in the co-pilot’s seat and fly the airplanes. It was an extraordinary experience. We thank the Collings Foundation (

Box 248, Stow, Massachusetts01775

), who made it possible. The foundation flies the two bombers to airports around the country so that everyone, especially children, can experience the thrill of examining and flying in a World War II airplane.

The B-24 is the only one still flying. The foundation paid $1.3 million and

required thousands of hours of volunteer labor to restore and reconstruct this

vintage plane – called Dragon and His Tail, with appropriate artwork on the nose. Thousands come to see, and a few get to ride, in the B-24 and the B-17. They can climb from fore to aft inside the planes, into the nose and tail gunner turrets.  They can sit at the bombsight, or at the radioman’s position. They can move forward or aft on the catwalk, see the bombs in their rack, or the oxygen tanks and everything else. On the B-24 the waist windows are open. In flight, wind streams flow through the planes to the tail. Although Hugh and I went up only a couple of thousand feet, on a lovely October day in central Pennsylvania, from Williamsport to Harrisburg, it was cold. The flights in the big craft were bumpy, noisy - and a perfect delight.

Hugh and I got to fly thanks to the children of the Makos family - some still in

high school, others getting started on their college educations - who have

created the magazine Ghost Wings, which is written and published by them. It is

devoted to airplanes of the past and the men and their planes of World War II,

the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Cold War. Educating our children about how

their freedoms came about is a sacred cause to me, so naturally I was drawn to

the magazine. Now my debt to Ghost Wings includes what the family did to make our

trip to Williamsport so special.

Flying the B-24 and the B-17 from the co-pilot’s seat, even in smooth weather - little wind, few clouds - made Hugh and me realize how cumbersome the bombers are, how long it takes for them to respond to the controls, how difficult they are to turn. But the flying brought smiles to our faces and joy to our hearts, smiles as big as all outdoors and joy as deep as the ocean. It was an experience with machines that could be compared only to being at the controls of a locomotive going up the Sierra Nevada. And it increased beyond measurement our respect for and admiration of the pilots and crews who flew those planes on combat missions that lasted six, eight, or ten hours. We encountered no flak.  There were no enemy fighters shooting at us. We don’t know how the airmen did it - but we appreciate what they did even more than before.  My uncle, Ty Ambrose, was a twenty-one-year-old co-pilot on a B-26 in the Eighth Air Force. In June 1944, he married Sabra Jean Starr, his girlfriend at IllinoisStateNormalUniversity. Then he went overseas. On September 16, 1944, returning from a mission over the Continent, his plane crashed on landing in England and blew up. His body was never recovered.

My wife, Moira, who helped as she always does, in the research and in being the first to read or listen to a chapter, commented that what struck her most was how young the airmen were. Georges Clemenceau put it best. In a 1944 letter to Tex McCrary, author of First of the Many, Bernard Baruch quotes Clemenceau, who wrote, “They were kittens in play but tigers in battle.”


THE B-24 WAS BUILT LIKE A 1930s MACK TRUCK, except that it had an aluminum skin that could be cut with a knife. It could carry a heavy load far and fast but it had no refinements. Steering the four-engine airplane was difficult and exhausting, as there was no power except the pilot’s muscles. It had no windshield wipers, so the pilot had to stick his head out the side window to see during a rain. Breathing was possible only by wearing an oxygen mask - cold and clammy, smelling of rubber and sweat - above 10,000 feet in altitude. There was no heat, despite temperatures that at 20,000 feet and higher got as low as 40 or even 50 degrees below zero. The wind blew through the airplane like fury, especially from the waist gunners’ windows and whenever the bomb bay doors were open. The oxygen mask often froze to the wearer’s face. If the men at the waist touched their machine guns with bare hands, the skin froze to the metal.  There were no bathrooms. To urinate there were two small relief tubes, one forward and one aft, which were almost impossible to use without spilling because of the heavy layers of clothing the men wore. Plus which the tubes were often clogged with frozen urine. Defecating could be done only in a receptacle lined with a wax paper bag. A man had to be desperate to use it because of the difficulty of removing enough clothing and exposing bare skin to the arctic cold. The bags were dropped out of the waist windows or through the open bomb bay doors. There were no kitchen facilities, no way to warm up food or coffee, but anyway there was no food unless a crew member had packed in a C ration or a sandwich. With no pressurization, pockets of gas in a man’s intestinal tract could swell like balloons and cause him to double over in pain.  There was no aisle to walk down, only the eight-inch-wide cat-walk running beside the bombs and over the bomb bay doors used to move forward and aft. It had to be done with care, as the aluminum doors, which rolled up into the fuselage instead of opening outward on a hinge, had only a 100-pound capacity, so if a man slipped he would break through. The seats were not padded, could not be reclined,1 and were cramped into so small a space that a man had almost no chance to stretch and none whatsoever to relax. Absolutely nothing was done to make it comfortable for the pilot, the co-pilot, or the other eight men in the crew, even though most flights lasted for eight hours, sometimes ten or more, seldom less than six. The plane existed and was flown for one purpose only, to carry 500 or 1,000 pound bombs and drop them accurately over enemy targets.  It was called a Liberator. That was a perhaps unusual name for a plane designed to drop high explosives on the enemy well behind the front lines, but it was nevertheless the perfect name. Consolidated Aircraft Corporation first made it, with the initial flight in 1939. When a few went over to England in 1940, the British Air Ministry wanted to know what it was called. Reuben Fleet of Consolidated answered, “Liberator.” He added, “We chose the name Liberator because this airplane can carry destruction to the heart of the Hun, and thus help you and us to liberate those millions temporarily finding themselves under Hitler’s yoke.”

Consolidated, along with the Ford Motor Company, Douglas Aircraft Company, and North American Aviation - together called the Liberator Production Pool - made more than 18,300 Liberators, about 5,000 more than the total number of B-17s.* The Liberator was not operational before World War II and was not operational after the war (nearly every B-24 was cut up into pieces of scrap in 1945 and 1946, or left to rot on Pacific islands). The number of people involved in making it, in servicing it, and in flying the B-24 outnumbered those involved with any other airplane, in any country, in any time. There were more B-24s than any other American airplane ever built.2 It would be an exaggeration to say that the B-24 won the war for the Allies. But don’t ask how they could have won the war without it.  The Army Air Forces needed thousands of pilots, and tens of thousands of crew members, to fly the B-24s. It needed to gather them and train them and supply them and service the planes from a country in which only a relatively small number of men knew anything at all about how to fly even a single-engine airplane, or fix it. From whence came such men?  *The United States utilized primarily five bombers during the war. The B-17 was a four-engine bomber that could carry three tons of bombs a distance of 2,000 miles at a cruising speed of 187 miles per hour. Top speed was 287 miles per hour. It had a single tail and a tail wheel. It was armed with thirteen .50 caliber machine guns.

The B-24 was a four-engine bomber with twin tails and a nose wheel. It could attain a speed of 303 miles per hour; cruising speed was 200 miles per hour. It had ten .50 caliber machine guns and could carry 8,800 pounds of bombs.  The B-25 was a twin-engine, twin-tail medium bomber with tricycle landing gear.  It was the bomber used on the famous Doolittle raid on Tokyo. It could carry 3,000 pounds of bombs. It had six machine guns, and some models carried a 75 mm cannon in the nose. Its top speed was 275 miles per hour.  The B-26 was a twin-engine, single-tail bomber and had a top speed of 317 miles per hour. It had a dozen machine guns and could carry 5,000 pounds of bombs.  The B-29, which came into action in 1944, was the largest combat aircraft of the war. It had eight .50 caliber machine guns in remotely controlled turrets and a 20 mm cannon in a manned tail turret. It could carry 10 tons of bombs. It was pressurized and could fly in excess of 30,000 feet at a top speed of 365 miles per hour. Its maximum range was 5,830 miles.

BOOK: The Wild Blue: The Men and Boys Who Flew the B-24s Over Germany 1944-1945
5.13Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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