Author builds book around old friend
By Bob Minzesheimer
After writing 32 books, historian Stephen Ambrose found his latest subject at a dinner party.
Ambrose and his son and researcher, Hugh, were dining near Ambrose's summer home in Helena, Mont., two years ago with an old friend, former Sen. George McGovern, and his wife, Eleanor.
McGovern, defeated for president by Richard Nixon in 1972, mentioned that a young reporter, Michael Takiff, was interviewing him for a book on his experiences as a World War II bomber pilot.
Ambrose, whose 1994 book, "D-Day," helped inspire Stephen Spielberg's movie "Saving Private Ryan," offered advice. McGovern said he wished Ambrose were writing the book.
Ambrose hesitated, McGovern pushed him and ultimately Takiff ceded the project.
That's when Ambrose's editor, Alice Mayhew, suggested broadening the book to McGovern's entire crew.
"That made all the difference," Ambrose says. "The plane became the star of the book," "The Wild Blue: The Men and Boys Who Flew the B-24s over Germany" (Simon & Schuster, $26).
It tells how, at the age of 22, McGovern began the first of 35 combat missions over Germany in the "Dakota Queen," "built like a 1930s Mack truck, except that it had an aluminum skin that could be cut with a knife." It had no heat, bathrooms or pressurization.
Ambrose also describes what he calls "the largest single education organization then or since," the training program that boosted the Army Air Corps from a strength of 20,000 when the war began to 2.4 million when it ended and taught young men like McGovern to fly.
Author and subject have been friends since 1982 when McGovern had Ambrose talk to a class on the Cold War. McGovern was teaching at Duke. They share a passion for history and a mutual interest in Nixon, the subject of a three-volume biography by Ambrose. Ambrose says he grew to admire Nixon, "but not to like him; Dick Nixon never wanted to be liked."
He says he voted for McGovern in 1972, knowing it was a hopeless cause, and says one of the mistakes of the campaign, aimed at the Vietnam War, was neglecting McGovern as a war hero. "Nixon was a supply officer who never heard a shot fired in anger, never saw a dead body."
But McGovern, whose co-pilot was killed in action and who once landed the a plane with 110 holes in it, says, "I didn't want to boast about what I did in the past; I wanted to talk about what I would do in the future."
At 65, Ambrose is working on his next book, a Pacific counterpart to his book "Citizen Soldiers."
At 79, McGovern is preparing to retire as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome, and has his own book project: an account of 1972, "how we won the nomination and lost the general election. It will be very biased."