Wednesday, August 06, 2008

George McGovern as a B-24 pilot

I just finished reading Stephen Ambrose's The Wild Blue about the 741st Squadron in the 455th Bomb Group of the 15th Air Force (whew - AAF designations are a bitch) - particularly the crew of the Dakota Queen - George McGovern's crew. It's a helluva story guaranteed to leave the reader in awe of the young men that won the war, a great companion piece to Ambrose's Band of Brothers. The following passage wasn't the only one that stuck with me, but I thought it was worth sharing. After a bomb run over the railway marshaling yards at Wiener Neustadt, Austria. One of the bombs in the plane did not drop (if you plan on reading the book anytime soon you might want to avoid the two excerpts below):


The crew left the bomb bay doors open and Sergeant McAfee and Lieutenant Cooper went to work, trying to trigger the little steel catches on each end of the bomb, hoping to pry them open so the bomb would drop. McGovern remembered: "It was scary as hell. If the plane suddenly made a lunge when the 500-pound bomb dropped..."

McAfee and Cooper were doing their work standing on the catwalk, less than a foot wide, hanging in the center of the bomb bay. McGovern looked behind him to see how they were doing, "but about all I could see was the top of their heads and their back."


As McAfee and Cooper labored, McGovern throttled back to slow down the Dakota Queen and they began to lose altitude. "I didn't want to drop a bomb in front of other airplanes," he explained. "Also, I wanted to give McAfee and Cooper undivided time. I didn't know how long it would take to get rid of the bomb..."

Dakota Queen descended to 12,000 feet, several thousand feet below the formation, which was pulling ahead in any case. Then Cooper yelled something "and all of a sudden the plane jumped and I knew the bomb had been cut loose." They were approaching the Austrian-Italian border. McGovern watched the bomb descend, "a luxury you didn't have at 25,000 feet. It went down and hit right on a farm in that beautiful, green part of Austria. It was almost like a mushroom, a big, gigantic mushroom. It just withered the house, the barn, the chicken house, the water tank. Everything was just leveled. It couldn't have come in more perfectly. If we had been trying to hit it we couldn't have hit it as square. you could see stuff flying through the air and a cloud of black smoke."

Sergeant Higgins watched the bomb descend. He commented, "It just blew that farm to smithereens. We didn't mean to do that, we certainly didn't try to do that."

McGovern glanced at his watch. It was high noon. He came from South Dakota. He knew what time farmers eat. "I got a sickening feeling. Here was this peaceful area. They thought they were safely out of the war zone. Nothing there, no city, no rail yard, nothing. Just a peaceful farmyard. Had nothing to do with the war, just a family eating a noon meal. It made me sick to my stomach."


After the bomb fell, McGovern closed the bomb bay doors and headed home. On the intercom, he and Cooper talked. McGovern asked, "What's the highest elevation between here and where we are going?"

Cooper looked at his map, did his calculations, and replied, "Eight thousand feet, George. Eight thousand feet." In an interview he admitted, "Actually, it was only 7,000 feet, but I added another 1,000 feet because I was engaged to get married." Cooper grinned, then added, "As George was expecting his first child, he added another 1,000 feet on top of that."

Back at Cerignola, it was an easy landing. There had been no flak on the milk run over Wiener Neustadt. There was not even a scratch on the
Dakota Queen. No one had been hurt. McGovern jumped into a truck and rode over to the debriefing area, where the Red Cross women 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 died. 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 baby daughter."


"I was just ecstatic," McGovern said. "Jubilant." But then he thought, Eleanor and I have brought a new child into the world today - at least I learned about it 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 officers 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. "That thing stayed with me for years and years. If I thought about the war almost invariably I would think about that farm."


Pretty rough baggage to carry for years and years and a key passage in the book. However, (again: spoiler alert) the story finds a happy resolution at the very end of the Epilogue (pages 262-3):


In 1985, McGovern was lecturing at the University of Innsbruck. A director of Austrian television's state-owned stationed contacted him to ask if he would do an interview for a documentary he was producing on Austria in World War II. He wanted McGovern to talk about what it was like bombing Austrian targets. McGovern was not inclined but finally let himself be talked into it. A woman reporter did the interview. She said that Senator McGovern was known around the world for his opposition to the war in Vietnam, and especially the bombing of South and North Vietnam. Yet he had been a bomber pilot in World War II. The reporter asked, "Senator, did you ever regret bombing beautiful cities like Vienna, Salzburg, Innsbruck, and others?"

McGovern answered, "Well, nobody thinks that war is a lovely affair. It is humanity at its worst, it's a breakdown of normal communication, and it is 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. I do regret the damage that was done to innocent people. And there was one bomb I've regretted all these years."

The reporter snapped that up. "Tell us about it."

McGovern told her about the bomb that had stuck in the bomb bay door and had to be jettisoned, on March 14, 1945. "To my sorrow it hit a peaceful little Austrian farmyard at high noon and maybe led to the death of some people in that family. I regret that all the more because it was the day I learned my wife had given birth to our first child and the thought went through my mind then and on many, many days since then, that we brought a young baby into the world and probably killed someone else's baby or children."

When the documentary appeared on Austrian TV, the station received a call from an Austrian farmer. He said he had seen and heard McGovern. he knew it was his farm that was hit, because it was high noon on a clear day and exactly as McGovern described the incident.

"I want you to tell him," the man went on, "that no matter what other Austrians think, I despised Adolf Hitler. We did see the bomber coming. I got my wife and children out of the house and we hid in a ditch and no one was hurt. And because of our attitude about Hitler, I thought at the time that if bombing our farm reduced the length of that war by one hour or one minute, it was well worth it."

The television station called McGovern and told him what the farmer had said. For McGovern, it was "an enormous release and gratification. It seemed to just wipe clean a slate."


Anonymous said...

Quite a story. I bet McGovern was relieved. Too many Austrians cheered when the Germans took over in 1938. I talked to the German pilot who was sent to Vienna as the Germans crossed the border. at the Vienna airport they were cheering. This fellow later became Lufthansa's Chief Pilot. That attitude in Austria was probably why the farmer spoke the way he did.

LittlePig said...

Wow. This was exactly the story I thinking about when I heard he had passed on. I think he told the story to Terry Gross at some point - I know I've heard it but never read it.

Thanks much!

Sharon said...

I just finished reading The Wild Blue when I read that McGovern had entered hospice. He was a very brave fellow and modest, too. He was all of 21 when he flew 35 bomber missions during the war and his crew had complete confidence in him. He had to grow up very fast -- as so many soldiers did in those times.