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The Unlikely WWII B-24 Combat Pilot-Hero

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
June 13, 2023 3:03 am

The Unlikely WWII B-24 Combat Pilot-Hero

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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June 13, 2023 3:03 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, historian Stephen Ambrose tells us the unlikely World War II story of George McGovern, the antiwar Democratic presidential candidate who was defeated by President Nixon in 1972.

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Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there. And we continue here with our American stories. And up next, Greg Hengler has an unlikely World War II story about George McGovern, the liberal anti-war Democratic presidential candidate from South Dakota, who was soundly defeated by President Nixon in the 1972 election. Stephen Ambrose is one of America's leading biographers and historians. Ambrose's works have inspired Americans to regard its war veterans with newfound reverence. His best sellers chronicle our nation's critical battles and achievements, from his seminal war works D-Day and Band of Brothers to Undaunted Courage and Nothing Like It in the World, The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad.

Stephen Ambrose passed in 2002, but his epic storytelling accounts can now be heard here at Our American Stories, thanks to the permission from those who run his estate. Here's Stephen Ambrose to tell us a short story from his book, The Wild Blue, the men and boys who flew the B-24s over Germany. My next book is a story of the B-24 in the Second World War. And it's not exclusively about, it's about a squadron and then about the bomb group. But one of the members of the squadron was George McGovern, who was a pilot of a B-24, 35 missions, got the Distinguished Flying Cross. He flew bombers in the Second World War, and he did. And I thought, how do you open a story?

I opened with George. He had come back from a raid over Vienna. He was all shot up with shrapnel and everything, and the plane just barely limping along.

And it's a good story in itself. And the crew called up to him, Lieutenant, we got a bomb stuck in the bomb bay, half in and half out. And so they're either going to have to bail out, or they're going to have to get rid of that bomb. And George told them, go to work on that bomb so you can get it loose. And they finally called up, and they were now over a part of Western Austria, rural. And they called up, Lieutenant, we got it, we're ready, drop it, says George. And they were by this time, because they were so badly shot up, down to about 10,000 feet, it was a clear day, and he could see that bomb going down, and he watched and watched and watched. Boom, it hit a farmhouse. And George looked at his watch, and he said, oh, s***. I'm a farmer. I come from South Dakota.

I know what time farmers eat. After the bomb fell, McGovern closed the bomb bay doors and headed home. On the intercom, he and Cooper, the navigator, talked. McGovern asked, what's the highest elevation we're going to go past? Cooper looked at his map, did his calculations, and replied, 8,000 feet, George, 8,000 feet. In an interview, Cooper told me, actually, it was only 7,000 feet, but I added another 1,000 feet because I was engaged to get married. Cooper grinned and then added, as George was expecting his first child, he added another 1,000 feet on top of that. Back at Sherignola, it was an easy landing.

No one had been hurt. McGovern jumped into a truck and rode over to the debriefing area, where the Red Cross woman gave him coffee and a doughnut. An intelligence officer came running up to him, the same officer who had handed him a cable back in December that told him his father had had a heart attack and died. And the bomb group commander told George, you can take tomorrow off. And George said, no, I'm not going to take that excuse.

I'm here for a job. This time, however, the officer was grinning from ear to ear. As he handed a cable to McGovern, he said, congratulations, Daddy, you now have a daughter. The cable was from Eleanor. Their first baby, whom she named Ann, had been born on March 10 in the Mitchell Methodist Hospital. Eleanor concluded the cable, child doing well, love, Eleanor.

I was just as static, McGovern said, jubilant. But then he thought, Eleanor and I have brought a new child into the world today, and I probably killed somebody else's kids right at lunchtime. Hell, why did that bomb have to hit there? He went over to the officer's club and had a drink, cheap red wine. He was toasted and cheered. But he later said, it really did make me feel different for the rest of the war. Now, I was a father. I had not only a wife back home, but a little girl, all the more reason why I wanted to get home and see that child. He returned to his tent and wrote Eleanor a long letter. He did not mention the farmhouse, but he couldn't get it out of his mind.

In an interview last year, he said to me, that thing stayed with me for years and years, decades. If I thought about the war almost invariably, I would think about that farm. There's been much criticism of the American air effort in the Second World War. People have said, geez, all that production that went into making those bombers, all of the expense of training those pilots and the crews, that would have been better spent on the Army or on the Navy instead of on those big bombers, plus which what they did was just awful. They killed women and killed them. And they never hit any of their targets, according to the critics. We shouldn't have done it.

Well, we don't know. What we do know is the Allies won the war. What McGovern did, what the 741st Squadron did, along with the rest of the 455th Bomb Group and all of the 15th Air Force and the 8th Air Force, most especially in their attacks against oil refineries and marshalling yards, was critical to the victory. They paralyzed the German Army. In April 1944, the Germans were producing oil at a rate of 100%. They had plenty of it.

This was down a year later to 1%. Hitler could not get gasoline for his Mercedes. German tanks couldn't move. They became fixed fortifications.

The Germans, this is the country of Mercedes, the Germans had no trucks. They had become a horse-drawn army fighting a 20th century war. McGovern, his crew and all the airmen had spent the war years not in vain, but in doing good work.

Along with all the peoples of the Allied nations, they saved Western civilization. George Clemenceau, the French Prime Minister of the First World War, was living in London in the Second World War and he watched these air crews in action and he had this to say, they were kittens in play, but tigers in battle. In 1985, McGovern was lecturing at the University of Innsbruck, a director of Austria's television, the state-owned station, contacted him to ask him to do a documentary, to do an interview for a documentary. He was producing an Austrian World War II. McGovern reluctantly agreed.

It was a woman reporter doing the interview. She said, Senator McGovern, you're known around the world for your opposition to war, but you were a bomber pilot in the Second World War. You hit our beautiful cities, Innsbruck, Vienna. You killed women and children. Don't you regret that? McGovern's answer, well, nobody thinks that war is a lovely affair. It's humanity at its worst. It's a breakdown of normal communication and it's a very savage enterprise. But on the other hand, there are issues that sometimes must be decided by warfare after all else fails. I thought Adolf Hitler was a madman who had to be stopped.

So my answer to your question is no. I don't regret bombing strategic targets in Austria. And her face just dropped. She was terribly disappointed. And George being George saw that, and he said, well, there was one bomb that I do regret. What was that?

McGovern told her about the bomb that had stuck in the bomb bay door and had to be jettisoned on March 14, 1945. And what happened? Cut. End of interview. And the documentary was shown a couple months later on Austrian TV. And there's a call at the station.

It's an old man. He said, I'm a farmer. And that was my farm that he had. It was exactly the way he described it. And I want you to tell Senator McGovern that I saw that bomb come out.

And I got my wife and our two little girls and we went into the ditch and nobody got hurt. And I further want to tell you to tell Senator McGovern that I don't care about the bomb. I don't care about the bomb.

I don't care what other Austrians say. I hated Hitler. I hated him so much that the instant I saw my little farmhouse and my barn go up, I thought to myself, if this shortens the war by one second, it was worth it. The television station called McGovern and told him what the farmer had said. For McGovern, it was, quote, an enormous release and gratification. It seemed to just wipe clean a slate. And what great storytelling by one of the great storytellers of all time, particularly all things surrounding World War II. And thanks to the Stephen Ambrose estate for allowing us to use that story. The story of George McGovern. And, of course, the story of the conscience of a soldier here on Our American Stories. Done.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2023-06-13 04:54:55 / 2023-06-13 05:00:26 / 6

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