Few authors have done more than Stephen Ambrose to help us understand the personal sacrifice and courage that won World War II.
To the author's chronicles of life on the European front, this volume adds the bomber pilots who flew bulky B-24 "Liberators." "The Wild Blue" has the same dense fabric of first-hand experience as "Citizen Soldiers," Ambrose's 1997 bestseller about the infantrymen who landed at Normandy. The memories of the men who were there - heart-stopping and heartwarming - enliven nearly every page.
The storyline here gets a special lift from Ambrose's focus on a particular pilot - a lanky, rather serious kid in his early 20s from South Dakota named George McGovern, later US senator and presidential candidate.
McGovern's experiences, enduring hair-raising training in the States before getting used to the terrors of air combat, were fairly typical. His marriage to his college sweetheart just before going overseas - a not uncommon decision - brings an added touch of emotion to the story. McGovern's first child is born near the end of his combat tour.
The crew members of the "Dakota Queen," as McGovern dubbed his B-24, are mostly younger than he is. They fly through flak so thick it turns day into night, crash-land on an Adriatic island, and live through an harrowing episode when a bomb gets stuck in the open bomb bay. A couple of guys, virtually hanging out of the plane, finally manage to jar the 500-pound explosive loose. Pilot and crew watch it hurtle to the earth - and vaporize a picturesque Austrian farm. McGovern is horrified. All he can think about is his parents' farm back home on the plains.
Ambrose brings this particular thread of his story full circle in a touching ending to the book.
But perhaps the strongest impression from this volume is its reminder, again, of how very young people were given life-and-death responsibilities, and how remarkably well they performed. It makes you ponder how current and future generations will discover the depths of courage and team effort that the young men profiled here gained through the agony of war.
Keith Henderson is on the Monitor staff.
The Wild Blue: The Men and Boys Who Flew the B-24s Over Germany
By Stephen Ambrose Simon & Schuster 299 pp., $26