Customer Reviews: The Wild Blue: The Men and Boys Who Flew the B-24s Over Germany 1944-45
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on December 8, 2001
I will leave the literary criticism to others, but THE WILD BLUE faithfully tells the story of my experience. I was a member of the 301st Bomb Group, 5th Wing (B-17s),15th Air Force. I flew my "50th mission," 30th sortie, on December 26, 1944. I feel that I can speak with some authority when I say that this book gets it right-our naivete, our training, the food, the plight of the Italians, the fact that we were often scared, and the fact that we did what we were trained to do. All of my combat experience was in B-17s. I have considerable experience in B-24s also, a frightening Air craft. Major Onan A. Hill, Navigator, USAFRes Ret
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I was with the Eighth Air Force in England and flew bombing missions over Germany in a B-17 in 1943-44. I hoped that Stephen Ambrose would use his excellent command of prose to describe the horror of those missions, whether in a B-24, B-17, Fifteenth Air Force in Italy, or Eighth Air Force in England. But it didn't happen. His description of combat is like sipping a glass of milk, when actual combat is like choking down a glass of tequila. It is probably asking too much of someone who wasn't there, but I didn't get the feeling of intense cold, frozen oxygen masks, altitude sickness, planes exploding around you, boys losing arms, legs, or heads, and men driven mad by fear. In four months of missions, my ten-man crew had five killed and two, including me, wounded. I lost so many friends that I stopped making friends because it hurt too much when I saw them die.
The book is mostly a story of former Senator George McGovern, as he trained and flew a B-24 on bombing missions at the end of the war against Germany. He apparently didn't have to face German fighters coming at him, but he flew many times through the awful box barrages of antiaircraft fire above German cities. I still don't know how any of us survived those.
The book has errors, but what book doesn't? Thus, I'll point out the first one, on the first page of Chapter One and let it go at that. He says, "They were all volunteers. The U.S. Army Air Corps - after 1942 the Army Air Forces - did not force anyone to fly." That is nonsense. Four members of my crew were draftees, and many other combat crews contained draftees. I was headed for a nice, safe job as a ground-based officer, when the Air Force sneakily gave me a flight physical.
Still, it's an enjoyable book. It's low-key and will be welcome if you don't like to read about the blood and gore of combat. I particularly liked learning that, after eating canned Spam for months, a U.S. Senator and candidate for President of the United States grew to hate the stuff as much as I did.
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on August 20, 2001
This book has two central characters and is mostly a story about their shared experiences. The first subject is 2nd Lt. George McGovern, who in 1944 was just a typical US Army Air Force pilot; nothing here hints at the man, who, nearly 30 years later, would run for US president. The second is a machine, the B-24 Liberator, and one plane in particular - McGovern's "Dakota Queen", which he piloted on 35 bombing missions over Germany from his base in Cerignola, Italy, as part of the 741st Squadron, 455th Bomb Group. THE WILD BLUE then has a narrow focus and is less about the broad role of the bomber in the air war over Europe - that story about the more famous and glamorous B-17 and the 8th Air Force - has been told already in books like THE MIGHTY EIGHTH, a book which Ambrose himself read and rated highly.
The Liberator comes by it's neglected treatment in history, and it's earned reputation as an ugly duckling quite fairly, as the following description of conditions in the plane attests. "Steering the four-engined airplane was difficult and exhausting, as 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 a rain...there was no heat, despite temperatures that at 20,000 feet and higher got as low as 40 or 50 degrees below zero...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, co-pilot, or the other eight men in the crew..." Yet, as with all ugly ducklings, it had it's day and earned it's admirers. There were more B-24's built than any other US airplane and Ambrose says "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 the war without it."
The greater emphasis of the book is on McGovern and his crew's experiences and it's in the telling of these stories where Ambrose's skills always shine; allowing the personal recollections of the participants to make the events come alive for us the readers. We follow the crew from induction through training to their arrival in Italy in 1944. There was danger from the outset. The book reveals that in basic and advanced flight training over 3,500 men lost their lives, 824 in 1943 alone; survival was an issue even before entering combat.
McGovern and his crew experienced their fair share of adventures on missions. On one flight an engine quit, then another was hit by flak; on two engines he was losing altitude rapidly but McGovern managed to nurse the bomber down for an emergency landing on an airstrip less than half the length the B-24 normally required. For this feat McGovern earned the Distinguished Flying Cross. By highlighting McGovern's experiences are we to believe that the book is portraying him as exceptional? Not at all. The reality is that when he arrived in Italy in 1944, McGovern was a 21 year old pilot. His co-pilot and navigator were the same age and half his crew were teenagers. What Ambrose sees as extraordinary is that these stories of survival, skill, courage, fortitude, bravery, and duty, are all, each and every single one, the exploits of very young men - even boys. Indeed he says "in the twenty-first century, adults would hardly give such youngsters the key to the family car, but in the first half of the 1940's the adults sent them out to play a critical role in saving the world."
They are now our aging parents and grandparents and all we can do is honor them and thank them for being men while they were still boys. We can only hope that written tributes such as THE WILD BLUE or the verse below are sufficient to show our appreciation to them.
"They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not grow faint." (Isaiah 40:31)
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While I enjoyed this one, it certainly was not the author's best work. It did draw attention to a group of very brave men, the B-24 crew members in the European Theater, which was good as this group and this plane is often overlooked. It did seem to me though that the author, on one side was trying to write a biography of George McGovern, or if he was trying to cover the air war during the last part of WWII. I did enjoy his trade mark technique of telling the stories of different men who participated, but he would always go back to McGovern. Perhaps if he had stuck to one or the other the book would have had more of an impact. Parts of this work did drag and were rather repetative. On the other hand, the author did not try to over dramatize McGovern's part in the war. The work was well crafted and you certainy would not waste your time in reading it. I suppose it is not quite fare to compare this work with other works by this author. After all, no one bats a thousand all the time. Overall, recommend this one with reservations. It is about very brave young men and we do need to know as much about them as possible.
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on August 20, 2001
I do not in any way want to diminish the actual bravery or skill of the personnel depicted in this book. But, as a book, this was disappointing. Ambrose's other WWII books are generally better, as books about WWII. If you want a serious look at the bomber war, go elsewhere. Finally, if you want a "popular" work on the "feel" of the bomber war, the video/DVD "Memphis Belle" (despite some Hollywoodization) is more moving. And, if you just want to read something good by Ambrose, try "Undaunted Courage" or his book on D-Day.
Summary: This is OK, but reads like a series of longish magazine articles stitched together. So -- the 3-star rating is "average" for an average book. For young teens interested in WWII, I would rate this higher; it is a good, quick read; my 11-year-old loved it.
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on September 19, 2001
If this is the first Ambrose book one would read. He or she may not want to read any of his others. It does not have the style and substance of his previous books. Too much fluff in the begining and too concentrated on one bomber crew. Poor sentence structure and jumbled story line confuse the reader. Some early chapters read like his rough notes were copied verbatim. It is still an intriguing story of the extreme dangers, fears and hardships the young men of our bomber crews had to endure.
If the facts of the story are true, and I believe they are, I gained a new respect for George McGovern and all the other men of the Bomber Command. Stephen Ambrose is a great chronicler of World War II. I have read them all and look forward to his next book.
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Having read all of Ambrose's previous books, I began to read this one with certain expectations: That the nature and extent of his coverage of the subject, for example, would be comparable with his coverage of the Lewis and Clark expeditions and the construction of the Intercontinental Railroad. In fact it is not. What we seem to have is more of a briefing on rather than a definitive analysis of "the men and boys who flew the B-24s over Germany." It is a great read, combining a lucid and lively writing style with exceptionally interesting information. I had no idea how dangerous the B-24 was to fly. (Ambrose characterizes it as "sternly unforgiving.") Nor how unpleasant it was to fly in it. (According to Ambrose, the temperature in its unheated cabin was frequently sub-zero). It was called the Liberator or "Lib" for short but also had several other nicknames which included "Flying Box Car", "New York Harbor Garbage Scows with Wings", "Spam Can in the Sky", and "The Old Agony Wagon." I had forgotten that almost all of those who flew it as well as the B-17 (the "Flying Fortress") were in their early twenties. I was reminded of that fact, portrayed so vividly in the film Memphis Belle and ignored in an otherwise flawless film, Twelve O'Clock High.
Ambrose devotes much of his attention to pilot Lt. George McGovern (age 22) and his crew as they struggle to stay alive long enough to fulfill their strategic obligations while completing the required 35 missions. (McGovern later served as a U.S. Senator and was the Democratic Party's candidate for President in 1972.) This is a brilliant narrative device, first because McGovern and those who flew with him in the Dakota Queen are obviously representative of thousands of B-24 bomber crews but also because the historical and technical information provided by Ambrose is anchored within a human context, one which is often poignant and at times tragic. I highly recommend this book to anyone who has read one or more of Ambrose's previous books; also to those who have a special interest in World War Two; and finally, to those who share my amazement and admiration when introduced to unexceptional people whose accomplishments are anything but.
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on March 15, 2002
Unlike other Ambrose WWII books which focus primarily on the European ground war, Wild Blue focuses on the bombing runs ran from Italy.
In attempts to crush the supply and manufacturing capabilities of German petroleum, Allied leadership called upon the young men of America to fly B-24s and bomb the German industries. It was the shortage of fuel that crippled the German Army and the Luftwaffe. Another advantage of the German fuel crisis was their inability to use their new jet technology which could have devastated the Allied offensive.
While the book was very interesting to read, some aspects of the book have left me slightly dissatisfied. From accounts of a B-24 pilot I know there were gross exaggerations of the difficulty of flying the B-24. I also noticed that this book is essentially a wartime biography of George McGovern, and as a result does not mention the air fought from England.
Another criticism of this book is the way it was written. This book does not seem to even be written by the same author of "Citizen Soldiers" and "Band of Brothers". This book seems to be less thoroughly researched and written more hastily than this other works.
Whereas this is not a great book about WWII itself, I reccommend this book for anyone who is intensely interested in WWII bombing missions, or the B-24 craft itself.
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on October 26, 2001
With due respect to the author(s), this book is a mediocre representation of the WWII Air War. To the generations that are curious about that Air War, this might be worth reading. But for those who were in the 8th AF, this book isn't worth the time.
I was a ROG in a B-24 crew in the 8th Air Force. I found this book contradicts itself as well as my experiences in 15 missions over Nazi occupied Europe -- 2 missions over Berlin and one over Bordeaux about a week after the war ended.

We never flew combat with a bombadier. We took turns toggling the bombs, taking cue from the lead plane and using our outstretched leg to sight over our toes to where our bombs would hit. It was eerie to see the devastation the bombs wrought.
In one chapter, this book claims that the B-24 had no enclosed plexiglass waist windows, and another chapter tells B-24s did indeed have enclosed windows. I never saw a B-24 without them.
We flew combat missions every 3rd day, weather permitting, and we flew a few of the missions along with the 9th AF that were recorded in the book and experienced none of the extreme flak mentioned and only rare encounters with Me-262 jet fighters. Never on our combat missions was it necessary to open and close the bomb bay doors to keep them from freezing shut.
Although the 8th AF formation flew well above the 9th's, our electric-heated union suits kept us comfortable in sub-zero temperatures. It's difficult for me to believe that the airmen in the book flew missions as frequently as recorded, almost day after day in freezing discomfort.
I could sight a number more misrepresentations, but they may be due to the fact that when WWII airmen talk about the war, often their memories tend to stretch the truth. It's easier to recall the good and the bad rather than the boring times, and most days and missions were indeed boring.
No doubt the 9th did not live in conditions as good as the 8th AF in England, where we spoke the same language and had decent food and quarters and the Brits treated us royally.
Perhaps our B-24 crew was the last to leave Europe for home. We flew out in 2 old warbirds but had to turn back each time. In late July, 1945, we returned in a B-24J, a new one, never flown in combat, with the radio compartment over the bomb bays. This war bird was so cozy, I almost re-enlisted, almost, that is.
Overall, I judge Senator McGovern would have been better served if this had been published as a magazine article rather than a so-so book which is badly edited. I'm disappointed in Ambrose as a historian in this shabby case.
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on September 30, 2001
While several of his previous books are interesting military histories, Prof. Stephen Ambrose has morphed into PROFESSOR STEPHEN AMBROSE, INC. For several years, Ambrose's books have become increasingly tired and formulaic, often rehashing his earlier works. In this book, Ambrose hardly seems to make much of an effort to demonstrate his central premise: that the U.S. strategic bombing of Germany was crucial to the Allied victory in World War II. Ambrose may well be right, but this is a complex topic raising numerous empirical and philosophical questions. But Ambrose is not one to be bothered by nuance or evidence. For a far better treatment of this subject, see the relevant chapter in Richard Overy's Why the Allies Won.
Ambrose would certainly argue that he's writing for a popular audience and not for professional historians. Fair enough, but even non-specialists deserve a better written (the narrative is choppy and the prose substitutes bombast for eloquence) and more informative treatment. Perhaps taking a page from American arms production in World War II, Ambrose and Simon and Schuster have clearly decided that quantity is priority number one, pushing books off the assembly line as fast as possible, regardless of their quality.
The book's only saving grace is it's focus on the wartime experiences of George McGovern, former U.S. Senator from South Dakota and Democratic presidential candidate in 1972. Unlike most of the vets interviewed for Ambrose's books, his career in politics provides him with a broader perspective with which to analyze his wartime experiences. But Ambrose doesn't do his subject justice, constantly shifting the narrative from McGovern to other, less well-known, vets. Furthermore, the book offers little by which to better understand how McGovern went from a distinguished bomber pilot in WWII to become one of the most notable doves in recent U.S. history. Both McGovern and the readers deserve better than this feeble effort.
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