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The Late Great Stephen Ambrose on the Boys Who Flew B-24s in WWII

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
July 21, 2023 3:00 am

The Late Great Stephen Ambrose on the Boys Who Flew B-24s in WWII

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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July 21, 2023 3:00 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, here’s Stephen Ambrose to tell us a short story from The Wild Blue: The Men and Boys who Flew the B-24s Over Germany. 

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Visit for details. This is Lee Habib and this is Our American Stories. And we tell stories about everything here on this show. And our favorite subject, American history. And by the way, all of our American history stories are brought to us by the great folks at Hillsdale College.

Go to to sign up for their terrific and free online courses. Stephen Ambrose was one of America's leading biographers and historians. And at the core of his success was his belief that history was biography.

History was about people. Ambrose passed in the year 2002, but his epic storytelling accounts can now be heard here at Our American Stories thanks to those who run his estates. Here's Stephen Ambrose to tell us the short story from the wild blue, the men and boys who flew the B-24s. And he told this story to a riveted audience.

Here's Stephen Ambrose. 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 until late 1944, 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 the rain. Breathing was possible only by wearing an oxygen mask above 10,000 feet in altitude. They were cold and clammy, smelling of rubber and sweat. 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 gunner's 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 the waist windows or through the open bomb bay doors.

Often men would write on them, take that Hitler. 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 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 catwalk running beside the bombs and over the bomb bay doors. That's what you 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 swinging out on hinges, had only a 100-pound capacity.

So if you slipped on that catwalk and fell, you were gone. The seats were not padded, could not be reclined, 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 eight other men in the crew, even though most flights lasted for eight hours, sometimes ten, very occasionally more than ten, never 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. Consolidated along with the Ford Motor Company, Douglas Aircraft Company, and North American Aviation, together the Liberator production pool made more than 18,300 Liberators. That was 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. All those B-24s were squished up by bulldozers because America needed the aluminum and we were going over to jet airplanes in any event.

There's one still flying today. 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 at any time. There were more B-24s than any other American airplane ever built. 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 it without it. The pilots and crews of the B-24s came from every state and territory in America. They were young, fit, eager. There were sons of workers, doctors, lawyers, farmers, businessmen, educators. A few were married, most were not. Some had an excellent education, others were barely, if at all, out of high school. They were all volunteers.

The U.S. Army Air Corps, after 1942, the U.S. Army Air Force did not force anyone to fly. They made the choice. Some of them were between the ages of 2 and 10 in 1927, when Charles Lindbergh flew the Spirit of St. Louis from Long Island to Paris. For many boys, this was the first outside-the-family event to influence them. It fired their imagination.

Like Lindbergh, they wanted to fly. My goodness, what a story. When we come back, more of Stephen Ambrose's story of the B-24s and the men who flew them, here on Our American Stories. Here at Our American Stories, we bring you inspiring stories of history, sports, business, faith, and love. Stories from a great and beautiful country that need to be told.

But we can't do it without you. Our stories are free to listen to, but they're not free to make. If you love our stories and America like we do, please go to and click the donate button. Give a little. Give a lot. Help us keep the great American stories coming.

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Let's continue where we last left off with Stephen Ambrose. In their teenage years, they drove Model T Ford's or perhaps Model A's if they drove at all. Many of them were farm boys.

They plowed behind mules or horses. They walked to school one, two, sometimes even more miles. Most of them, including the city kids, were poor.

If they were lucky enough to have jobs, they earned a dollar a day, sometimes less. They seldom traveled. Many had never been out of their home counties. Even most of the more fortunate had never been out of their home states. Of those who were best off, only a handful had ever been out of the country. Almost none of them had ever been up in an airplane.

A surprising number had never seen an airplane. But they all wanted to fly. Their patriotism was beyond question. They wanted to be a part of smashing Hitler, Tojo, Mussolini and their thugs.

But they wanted to choose how they did it. They wanted to get off the ground, be like a bird, see the country from up high, travel faster than anyone could do while attached to the earth. More than electric lights, more than steam engines, more than telephones, more than automobiles, more even than the printing press, the airplane separated past from future.

It had freed mankind from the earth and opened the skies. They were astonishingly young. Many joined the Army Air Forces as teens. Some never got to be 20 years old before the war ended. Anyone over 25 was considered to be and was called an old man.

In the 21st century, adults would hardly give sex youngsters the key to the family car. But in the first half of the 1940s, the adults sent them out to play a critical role in saving the world. Most wanted to be fighter pilots.

But only a relatively few attained that goal. Many became pilots or co-pilots on two or four engine bombers. The majority became crew members serving as gunners or radio men or bombardiers or flight engineers or navigators.

Never mind, they all wanted to fly, and they did. On the 50th anniversary of VE Day, I was with Joe Heller, who was a bombardier with the 12th Air Force, flying out of Italy. And Heller said to me in the course of the conversation, I never had a bad officer.

Astonished. I said, Kel, you're the man who created major, major, major. Colonel Cathcart, General Driedel, Lieutenant Minderbinder, and so many others.

Everybody in the world knows these people. How can you tell me you never had a bad officer? They were all inventions, he replied. Every single officer from when I went into the service to going over to Italy to flying the missions to when I got discharged, every one of them was good. In the course of interviewing George McGovern for this book, I told him what Heller had said to me.

McGovern agreed immediately. That's my experience, he said. I was impressed by the pilots, the bombardiers, the navigators right across the board, and with the operations officers, and our group commander. I thought they were a superior bunch of men, and I can honestly say I don't recall a bad officer. All through combat, I had confidence that our officers were doing the very best they knew how.

If they made mistakes, they weren't foolish mistakes. Our officers were superb. Obviously, there were some weak, some poor, some inefficient or ignorant, and some absolutely terrible officers in the U.S. Armed Services in World War II. But if such men ever got into combat positions, the AAF, the Army, the Navy, or the Marines got them out.

At once. Men's lives depended on them, after all. The combat officers knew it, and acted accordingly. Asked the Germans who opposed them how good they were.

Or the Japanese. The American officers were superb. And that is the way it was in the 741st Squadron, 455th Bomb Group in Cerignola, Italy.

Now, when men arrived in Cerignola in September of 1944, they saw tacked up in the briefing room words to the song, As Time Goes By, written by anonymous. Now, I'm not a singer, but I can't resist this one. You must remember this. The flak can't always miss. Somebody's got to die. The odds are always too damned high, as flak goes by.

It's still the same old story. The eighth gets all the glory. Well, we're the ones who die. The odds are always too damned high, as flak goes by. I want to talk for just a minute about the strategic bombing campaign. Critics have said that all of that productive power that went into it, 18,300 of those planes. All of the AAF's teaching effort would have been much better spent if they had trained these guys as infantrymen or as sailors. And we could have won the war sooner, because they never hit what they were dropping at, ever. And it was just a waste.

That's not true. They did hit what they were aiming at, far more often than not. And they paralyzed the German army. Hitting rail yards, marshalling yards, railroad bridges brought the German train traffic to a halt. Bombing the refineries, Ploesti and the others, was so successful that in April 1944, when the Germans had all the gasoline they needed, 100%, less than a year later, the late winter of 1944-45, they were down to 1%. That meant they couldn't train tank crews, they couldn't even drive tanks on the battlefield. They had to dig their tanks in, make them into fixed field fortifications.

This is Germany, the home of Mercedes and so many other manufacturers of automobiles and trucks. They had no gasoline. They were reduced to being a horse-drawn army trying to fight a 20th century war. And that was thanks to the strategic bombing campaign. At the end of my interview with McGovern, that had lasted for weeks, I asked him to sum up his war experience. With his answer, he spoke for every airman, every GI, every sailor, every marine, every Coast Guard man of World War II. Piloting a B-24 in combat with nine other guys took every ounce of physical energy I had, every bit of mental abilities I had, and literally every shred of spiritual resource that I had. I can't recall any other stage of my life unless it was the closing days of the 72 presidential campaign that so demanded everything I had. I gave that World War II effort everything, except my life itself. And I was ready to give my life.

It literally exhausted every resource of mind and body and spirit that I had. I replied, thanks for what you did to help win the victory and thus save the world. I always say something like that at the end of every interview with a veteran of the war, because it is the truth. And a special thanks to Stephen Ambrose as a state and a special thanks to Hillsdale College, where you can go to study all the things that are beautiful in life, all the things that matter in life.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2023-07-21 04:14:47 / 2023-07-21 04:22:42 / 8

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