Sunday, December 05, 2004

Steven Ambrose' book, the Wild Blue, tells the story of an Army Air Force Squadron of B-24s in WWII that, in the latter part of the war, flew from a base in Cerignola, Italy, to bomb targets in Germany and Austria. The central character of Ambrose' book is George McGovern, who commanded one of the bombers, the Dakota Queen. During the return from a bombing mission over Wiener Neustadt in Austria, McGovern's crew notified him that the last of their ten 500 pound bombs had stuck in the bomb rack. This was a dangerous situation. They could not land the plane this way.

So McGovern dropped his bomber out of the formation, went to a much lower altitude, and felt the plane jump as the crew loosed the bomb from the rack and it fell away. They were approaching the Austrian-Italian border and McGovern watched the bomb descend. "It went down and hit right on a farm in that beautiful green part of Austria", McGovern told Ambrose. "It was almost like a mushroom, a big, gigantic mushroom. It just withered the house, the barn, the chicken house, the water tank. Everything was just leveled." A crewman said "We didn't mean to do that, we certainly didn't try to do that".

"McGovern glanced as his watch", Ambrose writes. "It was high noon. He came from South Dakota. He knew what time farmers eat." McGovern said it made him sick to his stomach, and "I could not help but feel the deepest remorse and shameful guilt for the people of the village. Following the mishap, I couldn't sleep . . . "

In 1985, a director of Austrian television asked McGovern to stand for an interview for a documentary on Austria in WWII and he wanted to know how McGovern felt about bombing Austrian targets. During the interview, McGovern refused to express any regret for bombing military targets, although, he said, "I do regret the damage that was done to innocent people. And there was one bomb I've regretted all these years." When asked about that bomb, he told about the farm.

Later, when the documentary appeared on Austrian TV, the station received a call from an Austrian farmer who had seen and heard McGovern. He knew it was his farm that was hit, because it was high noon on a clear day and exactly as McGovern described the incident.

"I want you to tell him", the man went on, "that no matter what other Austrians think, I despised Adolph Hitler. We did see the bomber coming. I got my wife and children out of the house and we hid in a ditch and no one was hurt. And because of our attitude about Hitler, I thought at the time that if bombing our farm reduced the length of that war by one hour or one minute, it was well worth it."

The TV sation call McGovern and told him. Ambrose writes, "For McGovern, it was 'an enormous release and gratification. It seemed to just wipe clean a slate'."

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