Another paean to the “greatest generation” of young Americans, this time focusing on the B-24 bomber crews—with special attention to the crew of the Dakota Queen, piloted by future US Senator and 1972 presidential candidate George McGovern.
Ambrose (Nothing Like It in the World, 2000, etc.) took over this project from reporter Michael Takiff, who had begun work on a book about McGovern’s wartime experiences. Ambrose and his editor decided to broaden the scope, and the result is this highly anecdotal biography-cum-military history whose purpose seems more to celebrate than to scrutinize. The author acknowledges that he is a McGovern partisan, so seldom is heard a discouraging word about the young South Dakota pilot’s 35 combat missions—or about his character. Ambrose begins with a brief chapter about the B-24 (called the “Liberator”), describing its spartan design and the rigorous physical and psychological demands it placed on those who flew and maintained it. (He notes wistfully that only one of the craft is currently flying; virtually all were recycled after the war.) He then goes on to answer one of his questions: “From whence came such men?” He describes McGovern’s background (his father was a preacher), then follows him (and others) through the arduous and highly competitive training process. McGovern arrived in Naples in September 1944 and proceeded to the base at Cerignola, where the B-24s launched their assaults on the Nazi assets, principally oil refineries and manufacturing centers. (Ambrose mentions that McGovern’s group once attacked very near Auschwitz but elects to summarize FDR’s position rather than enter the should-we-or-shouldn’t-we? debate about bombing the death camp.) McGovern emerges as a skilled, courageous pilot (he earned a Distinguished Flying Cross) who made a couple of spectacular landings in perilous situations and enjoyed the respect of his colleagues. His inadvertent bombing of an Italian farmhouse troubled him for a half-century. Ambrose, as always, finds poignant details, tells powerful stories.
Much nostalgia and admiration; very little analysis; virtually no censure.