Did George McGovern Misremember His Past as a Bomber Pilot?


Robert Huddleston, a freelance writer, is the author of "Edmundo: From Chiapas, Mexico to Park Avenue," the story of a Mexican-American spy in Spain in World War II.

Credit: Wiki Commons/HNN staff.

Mark Twain once observed, "As we grow older, we remember things that never happened." All who presume to publish a memoir need to be reminded of this reality -- as should editors and publishers.

The late Senator George McGovern was rightly honored for his many years of public service, but also for his exceptional military service in the Second World War as a pilot pf a B-24 Liberator bomber.

In his 1977 autobiography Grassroots, McGovern covers his early life and years of public service in considerable detail, but only briefly his wartime service. He had intended to write a wartime memoir to correct that omission but never got around to it. He did, however, convey his notes and early drafts to the late historian Stephen Ambrose, declaring “I thought it best to place my story in the hands of Stephen Ambrose, a prominent historian.” That “story” was incorporated in The Wild Blue: The Men and Boys Who Flew the B-24s Over Germany 1944-45 (2002).

The Wild Blue featured George McGovern’s unpublished wartime memoir, expanded by Ambrose to include stories of other veterans of the European air war. Unfortunately, the book was found to have embodied extensive plagiarism and sloppy scholarship.

This is not about historian Ambrose’s failures, however. Anyone interested in that tawdry business can find the details in two excellent books by professional historians: Scandals and Scoundrels by Ron Robin, and Past Imperfect by Peter Charles Hoffer, both published in 2004 (also, Historians in Trouble by Jon Wiener, 2005). It is about Senator George McGovern’s failure of memory in recounting his wartime experiences, a not uncommon element of many memoirs of events long past.

Prior to the United States entering the Second World War, Army Air Corps flight training required candidates to have completed at least two years of college. The head of the Army Air Force held to this standard until it was pointed out that physically qualified young men were in demand by the Navy as well as the Army’s ground and service forces and the pool of qualified candidates were well below the numbers required,

As McGovern rightly recalled, “Chief of Staff (Hap) Arnold dropped the requirement that all cadets had to have completed two years of college (and) substituted a qualifying test...” Not wanted to lose young men capable of becoming flying officers, those who met the new qualifications went into the army as enlisted reservists, thus freed from being drafted.

George McGovern’s version of this is at odds with the official record. As he recalls his enlistment in the Army, when he qualified for the flying cadet program he “was not sworn in” but “did sign a statement that it was (his) intention to be in the Army Air Corps and agreed to report when called.” His “intention” notwithstanding, would not have deterred his local draft board had he been called up for induction.

In February of 1943, reservist McGovern was ordered into active duty and directed to report to Jefferson Barracks, Missouri for basic army training. The flight schools at that time could not handle the volume therefore a program was established for candidates to be “stockpiled” in colleges throughout the country. While a few candidates were sent direct to the first stage of training, most went to one of 152 colleges and universities for a stay of one to five months. McGovern mistakenly recalled that all were posted to colleges for the full five months. In fact, some departed as space for new trainees became available.

McGovern was sent to Southern Illinois Normal University for the five-month program. I also served in the Army Air Force, and I also reported to Jefferson Barracks in February 1943, and afterward I was posted to Ouachita Baptist College in Arkansas for three months. (A fellow private/student was George Corley Wallace, like McGovern, a future presidential candidate.)

My details of the recruiting and training of future flying cadets are based not only on my personal experiences, but from extensive research at the Air Forces Research Center at Maxwell Field, Alabama and published as “College in Quick Step” in the Fall 2001 issue of the Daedalus Flyer.

One story of McGovern's that was included in The Wild Blue, and went unchallenged by Ambrose, involved his aircraft returning from a bombing mission with the release mechanism of a 500-pound bomb having failed. Returning to base with a live bomb was unacceptable and fortunately the crew managed to get it released when, as McGovern tells, “it dropped on a farmhouse ... an event that troubled him long after the war.”

While his crew worked on the faulty bomb release, pilot McGovern dropped his bomber from twenty-five to twelve thousand feet below the formation of B-24s, then “watched the bomb descent ... It went down and hit right on a farm ... It just withered the house, the barn, the chicken house, the water tank. Everything was just leveled. You could see stuff flying through the air and a cloud of black smoke.” In recent years, Senator McGovern repeated the story on television and radio.

This could not have happened as told by McGovern. Any photograph, or actual viewing, of a B-24 bomber, manifests: there was no way the pilot could have viewed what was occurring below and behind the aircraft.

To confirm what I already knew, I described the event to a wartime bomber pilot.

If he were seated on the flight deck at the time -- and where else would he be -- it would have been impossible for him to do it. That is, unless the aircraft was in inverted flight.”

He went on to declare, “I personally have spent some time on the flight deck of a B-24. But I never entertained any thought of inverting the aircraft ... never, never, never!”

He also added that eighteen thousand feet is “a long way to eyeball a bomb with the naked eye.”

Other pilots of heavy bombers have commented on not being able to see where their bombs hit thus being spared knowing they had, perhaps, killed the innocent. Another pilot, an engineer, pointed out that the altitude, speed, and the weight of the bomb meant it would have had to be released two miles short of the farmhouse to experience a direct hit.

It is a rare, exceedingly rare, to be blessed with total recall. Most of us suffer memory loss throughout life. Every journalist, historian, and criminal investigator knows, or should know, that eyewitness testimony of key events must be corroborated. His exemplary wartime service notwithstanding, this was George McGovern’s failing: he trusted his memory when checking the official record was necessary, as it should be for all veterans, especially when recalling experiences of decades past.

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