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 (4 page)

BOOK: The Wild Blue: The Men and Boys Who Flew the B-24s Over Germany 1944-1945
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At that time there was a play on Broadway calledLife Begins at 40. The bandleader found some men who thought they could sing and put on a play he calledLife Begins at 5:30. The regimental commander came to opening night. He sat in the front row with his staff and the other high-ranking officers beside him. The play featured dancing and singing “girls.” One two three kick, one two three kick, and so on. The girls wore sarongs and their GI shoes with their hairy legs bare. They wore new white mops for hair and had a black missing tooth painted on. For bras, they used halves of grapefruits, big ones, tied around their chests. They were doing their one-two-three-kick routine when, as per plan, one of the bra strings broke and the grapefruit dropped into the commander’s lap. Corny though it was, it sent the audience into peals of laughter.

Cooper found a just-graduated West Pointer who had been middleweight boxing champion at the Point. He set him to putting together a boxing team. Cooper found a quarterback from Oklahoma and a big guy, a coal miner, from Indiana “who could catch any pass that was thrown to him.” They became the nucleus for the football team. Cooper used the fund to buy equipment. He also bought a new pool table and put the carpenter to work making writing tables so the men could write home to their parents.

Court-martial cases dropped to zero. Cooper had $300 left in the fund. In late November, the battalion commander called him in and said, “Lieutenant, we need a public address system for the training here. It’s a lot of red tape to get one through the normal channels. Use that $300 in the fund to buy a PA system for us to use in training. You can justify it by saying that you need it for the entertainment of the enlisted men.”

“Sir, I can’t do that,” Cooper replied. “The men need athletic equipment, new music for the orchestra, and more. I just can’t do it.” “Lieutenant,” the commander shot back, “I don’t believe you’re hearing me. I want you to buy a PA system.” Cooper again refused, popped him a salute, did an about-face, and got out of there. A couple of days later he got orders to go to the 2nd Filipino Infantry. That was how things were done, at least much of the time, in the prewar U.S. Army.12 Every American born before 1936 remembered exactly where he or she was when they heard the news that the Japanese had attacked the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor.  George McGovern was in his second year at Dakota Wesleyan. It was a liberal arts school that emphasized philosophy, history, English literature, foreign languages, and the arts. He was taking a required course in music appreciation taught by Robert Brown from Oberlin College. Brown was a violinist. He assigned his students to listen every Sunday to the New York Philharmonic Orchestra’s radio concert on NBC and write a critique. Nineteen-year-old McGovern was listening and writing notes, saying he thought the violins should be a bit more prominent - “Strictly BS,” he recalled, but “I don’t know how Brown thought a bunch of college sophomores were going to critique the New York Philharmonic” - when the program was interrupted with the news flash that Pearl Harbor had been bombed. “I have to confess I’d never heard of Pearl Harbor, didn’t even know where it was.” But he could tell from his father’s reaction and the way he turned the radio up that it was a serious matter. That afternoon he decided that he would have to be involved in the war.

The following day, at school, “everyone was talking about it.” The instructors had maps to show the students where Pearl Harbor was and what it meant. McGovern knew that his decision was correct, that “there was no logical alternative to this than for all of us to get involved.” Some of the Dakota Wesleyan students already were in the service. Norman Ray, who had persuaded McGovern to take the Civilian Pilot Training course the previous year, was already in the Army Air Corps, and another student, John Nowling, a star on the college’s football team, had been killed in a training accident. McGovern talked to the others who had been in the course and to a couple of faculty members, and made up his mind.  Along with ten fellow students, he decided to drive to Omaha to enlist in either the Army Air Corps or naval aviation.

They borrowed the president’s car and the dean’s car - “In a little school you can do things like that,” he recalled, and indeed the students called many of the faculty by their first names - to drive down to Omaha. Their only question was, the Army or the Navy? They debated all the way to Omaha. Being from South Dakota, they were all land lovers and had an instinct that it was better to be landing and taking off from the ground than from the water. Still, there was a sentiment that the enemy couldn’t bomb you as easily on an aircraft carrier as at an air base. But shortly after they had parked the cars and began looking for the recruiting stations, one of the young men said he had heard that if you joined the Army Air Corps you would receive a free meal ticket for the cafeteria next door. On the basis of that unsubstantiated rumor, all ten joined the Army Air Corps. The rumor turned out to be true, and they got a lunch worth about 75 cents. “It wasn’t bad,” McGovern commented. “Roast beef, gravy, and mashed potatoes.”

They were not sworn in, but they did sign a statement that it was their intention to be in the Army Air Corps and agreed to report when called. The statement made them exempt from the draft. The Army did not have the airfields and training planes or instructors to take them in as yet, but they were Air Corps property. They returned to Mitchell and school, thinking they would be called up in two or three months.

On December 7, 1941, Bill Barnes and his twin brother, Robert, were on parade with their ROTC unit for parents day. The news from Pearl Harbor was broadcast over the loudspeakers. “We have vivid memories of the moment,” Barnes said.13 As soon as they were eighteen they signed up for the Army Air Corps, but were not called into active duty for a year. Neither twin had a driver’s license because their parents were too poor to own a car.

Seventeen-year-old Bob Hammer, who had been unable to persuade his father to sign a permission form to let him join the Navy, Coast Guard, or Army because he was too young, found that Pearl Harbor changed all that. On December 8, with his father’s approval, he enlisted in the Army. Hammer never forgot his dad’s parting words: “I hate to see you go, Bob, but I wouldn’t give 2 cents for you if you didn’t.”14 Seventeen-year-old Roland Pepin was a junior in high school. On December 7, 1941, he and his parents were reading the newspaper and listening to the radio when a news flash reported what had happened at Pearl Harbor. He decided at that moment to get into the armed services. “All of my classmates,” he found out the next day, “including myself, could not wait to turn eighteen and graduate so that we could enlist and do our share to fight the war.” There was a government program that allowed seventeen-year-olds to sign up and pick their branch of service, but they would not be inducted until they graduated. Shortly after Pearl Harbor, Pepin signed with the Army Air Corps. In mid-June 1943, he graduated from high school at La Salle Academy. On July 4 he celebrated his eighteenth birthday. On July 17 he was sworn into the military.15 Nearly all those who signed up with a promise to the Army Air Corps, and those who enlisted in the other services, wanted to fight. Now. At once. But the armed forces were not ready for them. C. W. Cooper remembered Lt. Galil Hannah, who came to Camp Walters shortly after Pearl Harbor. Hannah had been born in Egypt and came to the United States when he was eleven years old. When he was seventeen his father gave his permission for him to join the Army. He went to Panama, in the infantry, where he learned jungle warfare. Then it was back to the States to officer candidate school, where he earned his commission and was sent to Camp Walters.

As Cooper recalled it, when Hannah reported, he didn’t say, “When do we eat?” or “Where do I sleep” or “When do we get paid?” Instead he pounded on Cooper’s desk and asked, “When can I go into combat?” Every day he came in to demand,”When can I go into combat?” Cooper reported each request to his commanding officer, who soon had enough. He told Hannah, “The next orders that come in, you’re going to be on.” The next orders were for a lieutenant to report to Attu, Alaska. As Cooper later put it, “Here this guy’s trained in jungle warfare. He spoke Arabic fluently. He was perfect for North Africa or, failing that, Guadalcanal. And the Army sent him to Attu.”16 Nearly all the young men who had signed up to join the Army Air Corps had to wait, often for a year or more, for the Air Corps to have enough airfields, airplanes, instructors, and barracks to start training them.  McGovern continued his education at Dakota Wesleyan. There he met and fell in love with Eleanor Stegeberg from Woonsocket, South Dakota. Among other attributes, including good looks, she had beat him in a debate in high school and outscored him in a test on current events at Wesleyan. In the first year of the war they got engaged, agreeing that they would not marry until the war ended. Stegeberg’s family was poor, so after her first year in college she dropped out to work as a secretary for a lawyer.  A friend of McGovern’s, Robert “Bob” Pennington, had joined the Army and was in training. He was dating Ila, Eleanor’s twin sister, and wrote McGovern to ask about their father. In reply, McGovern wrote that “he is a very different sort of person. His life was practically ruined when their mother died as he loved her more seemingly than life itself. He is consequently a little inclined to be brusque and a little unfriendly when you are first introduced to him. If you can just dig beneath that reserve and aloofness, you’ll find a heart there as big as your head. I think that the twins get that everlasting reserve of theirs from this same trait in their dad. Mr. Stegeberg, though, is one of the deepest men I’ve ever known.” McGovern added that one night “I talked with him from ten o’clock to 2:30 the next morning. That experience did me a lot of good. From that day to this I haven’t had a closer friend than Mr. Stegeberg.”17 McGovern was no athlete but he became a star pupil and was elected president of his class. His chief extracurricular activity was debate. His partner was Matthew Smith, son of the dean at Wesleyan. In early 1943 the two of them went to the national debate tournament at North Dakota State University. There were over a hundred schools represented. McGovern and Smith won the contest. Driving the dean’s car back to Mitchell, they were singing and carousing - or at least as much carousing as students at Wesleyan would do. They pulled up on the Wesleyan campus. It was February 12, 1943, and snowing hard. As McGovern remembered it, “There was Dean Smith standing there and when he saw Matt and me he just broke into sobs.” In his hand he had a big envelope. It was orders from the Army Air Forces. McGovern and Walter Kriman, the student body president, were to report to Jefferson Barracks, St. Louis, in seventy-two hours. Smith said he would write a letter to the Army Air Forces asking that George and Walter be allowed to stay at Wesleyan at least until the end of the semester.  “No, Dean Smith,” McGovern replied. “The time has come to go.” “Oh no, no, no, no . . .” the dean replied. Then he asked, “What will Eleanor say?” McGovern said he could handle that. He didn’t mention his mother. Although not a pacifist, and very much opposed to Hitler and the Nazis, she hated to read of the losses. When the local paper reported that the Red Army had killed 60,000 Germans at Leningrad, or more than at Stalingrad, she read it and moaned. “Oh, dear,” she would say, “isn’t that awful. There must be so many sad homes in Germany tonight.” When the report noted so many thousand Russians killed, she would cry out, “How do those Russian fathers and mothers stand it. . . . All those young boys. Isn’t there some way that the heads of governments can get together and stop this slaughter?”

A few days after returning from the debate tournament, McGovern and Kriman

packed a bag each and went to the Milwaukee depot to board the 6:00 P.M. train

to Minneapolis. At the station, the student body from Wesleyan was gathered,

along with the entire faculty. The cheerleaders were there, in their uniforms,

along with the school band. “It was really an uproarious send-off,” McGovern

remembered. He felt it was a “joyful occasion,” but only “if I could keep my

eyes off my mother, who looked as though she were at my funeral. She could not

believe that they were going to take her son off to this miserable war.”18


McGOVERN RODE THE TRAIN DOWN to Fort Snelling, Minnesota, where the following morning he was sworn into the Army. He took the oath and became a buck private.  After a couple of days of just waiting around, it was south to Jefferson Barracks just outside St. Louis. The men called it JB. It was located in a series of ravines and hills. It was cold. When it wasn’t snowing, it was raining. Mud was everywhere. JB, like most other AAF bases built during the war, was constructed according to Army Air Forces Chief of Staff General H. H. “Hap” Arnold’s insistence that the bases be models of “Spartan simplicity.” There were two dozen want-to-be air cadets in each tar-paper barracks. Their average age was nineteen.1 They were issued their uniforms, shoes, mess kits. For many of them it was their first time away from home, which made them susceptible to diseases. Illness became so prevalent that the cadets took to calling one street Influenza Valley, another Pneumonia Gulch. Nevertheless they were there to learn the difference between the right way, the wrong way, and the Army way of doing things, so they had little time to get acquainted. Instead they drilled.  The old sergeants were there to teach them how to keep their barracks clean, their uniforms ready for inspection at any time, how to march, shoot a rifle and a pistol, march some more, obey verbal commands. To the sergeants they were just another bunch of buck privates that needed to be shaped up. “And so the yelling and hollering began,” McGovern said, “and the nonstop four-letter words.” The drilling was nearly continuous. If a man reported for sick call, and many did at first, the sergeants regarded him as - and called him - “a f - k off.” McGovern was lucky. He was in good health, and his sergeant, named Trumbo, although he enjoyed drilling all the men - he called them “you smart college guys” - still had a streak of kindness in him. Sergeant Trumbo taught them close-order drill. He taught them to run as fast as they could, then throw themselves down behind a fence, a rise in the ground, or into a hole. How to put on a gas mask. And more. From dawn to dusk and into the night. They ate, then collapsed on their bunks. They woke up to reveille and started over again.  One Saturday night McGovern had the only experience he enjoyed at JB. He hopped a bus for the thirty-minute drive into St. Louis. Walking around alone, he found himself in front of the St. Louis Opera House. A uniformed attendant grabbed his arm and said, “Soldier, how would you like to hear a great American sing?” “Who?” McGovern asked.

BOOK: The Wild Blue: The Men and Boys Who Flew the B-24s Over Germany 1944-1945
7.96Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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