The focus of the book is on George McGovern, the 1972 Democratic presidential candidate, who, ironically, was lambasted by the right for his anti-Vietnam stance. Here, he shines brightly as an American airborne hero, bravely piloting his huge and awkward bomber through massive German flak bombing. McGovern also comes across as a fine commanding officer, deeply caring about the men under his authority. McGovern, at the tender age of 22, wound up flying 35 missions and ultimately won the Distinguished Flying Cross.
The B-24 was not an easy machine to fly. It had a thin aluminum skin, which made it sufficiently airworthy but terribly susceptible to attack from ground-based enemy gunfire. It was a simple machine, though -- built with one purpose in mind: dropping a maximum load of 8,800 pounds of bombs. There were no windshield wipers, so a pilot like McGovern was often forced to stick his head out the window of the plane to see where he was going! Above 10,000 feet, the only way to breathe was through an oxygen mask. There was no heat, which made the bombing runs that much more arduous. And there were no bathrooms, meaning that the pilots and their crews had to use "relief tubes."
Ambrose goes into much useful detail on the origins of the pilots themselves. Interestingly, they were all volunteers -- the Army Air Corps (the precursor to the modern Air Force) did not want to make anyone take part in this difficult duty. They came from all walks of life. Some were college graduates, while others were still in high school. Many went straight from the farm to the airfield.
The pilots were treated quite well by the AAC, considering that they were part of the same armed forces that tended to dehumanize servicemen in order to get the maximum use out of them. They got to wear winged insignia on their uniforms. They got extra pay. As volunteers, they knew what they were getting into, unlike the typical draftee. Most of all, they wanted to serve -- and they wanted to fly.
Once again, Stephen Ambrose has turned his spotlight on a special and unique facet of the U.S. military and brought the heroism and courage of the American soldier back home to us. In his own way, Ambrose himself has done a great service to the American people.