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Ambrose: The Wild Blue

The Wild Blue
The Wild Blue: The Men and Boys Who Flew the B-24s Over Germany

(Stephen Ambrose)

This is an okay book. The writing isn't great, which surprised me, since for several years people have been telling me that Stephen Ambrose is the new David McCullough. To tell you the truth, I sometimes found it a bit embarrassing. A smile as wide as all outdoors? That was a cliche when the B-24 was new! (Maybe his earlier books were spellingbinding? I don't know; I haven't read any of them.)

I wasn't particularly impressed by the historical depth, either. I know, I know; Ambrose specializes in oral history, so his bibliography is going to be skinny. But I would think he would have read something more current or compelling than The Army Air Forces in World War II. (Ch. 5 is a short history of the air war in Europe. Of 26 footnotes, 10 are to the AAF history and 10 more are to Michael Sherry's The Rise of American Air Power, which is okay but certainly not the last word on the subject.) For example: Richard Ardrey's Bomber Pilot, which is about B-24s, written by a B-24 pilot and commander who flew on some of the raids mentioned by Ambrose. Or The Day We Bombed Switzerland. If he'd done some exploration, he might have concluded that the B-24 wasn't quite the wonderful plane he believes.

Then too, Ambrose is not a pilot, and it shows. People said the same thing about my first military-aviation book, so I set out to learn to fly. Looking back, there isn't much that I would change after 200 hours at the controls. (The novel Remains was written before I started flight training. When I revised it for publication, I added just one sentence, about the lovely feeling of flaring to land; the rest looked pretty good to me, though I'm sure a P-40 pilot could poke some holes into it.) Ambrose's naivete shows through when he writes about the experience of flight, and also when he sets out to explain what a B-24 is and how it differs from other aircraft. This stuff is so simple-minded that it belongs in a book for children, not a best-seller for adults.

Examples: a caption shows McGovern standing beside his primary trainer, identified as "PT 109", which was Jack Kennedy's torpedo boat. He says a pilot learned to fly and soloed in an AT-10, which is a twin-engined transition trainer for bomber pilots. He seems to think that a tent and a barrack are the same thing, confuses military basic training with basic flight training, "and more" (to use one of his favorite concluding phrase).

The book does improve starting with Ch. 6, when McGovern and the men of Dakota Queen (not a specific B-24, but any one that McGovern happened to be flying) begin to fly combat. But this is more than halfway through a rather short book, running less than 100 pages for the combat chapters. [Later: Turns out there was a good reason why Ambrose's descriptions of a B-24 in combat are more interesting than the rest of the book: he stole many of his flying sequences from another book. See Stephen Ambrose, copycat.]

My overall impression: a cut & paste job by a man who has become a military-history factory. (It's probably not a coincidence that this comparatively young man has written 23 books, 9 of them published within the past five years. History simply can't be written at the rate of two books a year.) Ambrose had the makings of a damned fine magazine article here, but he had to turn it into a book. He's a much sounder historian than that other military-aviation factory, the late Martin Caidin, but he seems to be heading in Caidin's direction. Unless you have limitless resources, you should save your money for a more worthy author than this one. (I'd suggest Bomber Pilot by Philip Ardery.)

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