George McGovern

Sen. George McGovern sits in the cockpit of a training plane in an undated photo.

He ran for president 47 years ago, the first election in which I was old enough to cast a ballot. I did not vote for him then, and I would not vote for him were he alive and running for office today. His views were way too liberal for me, countering my strongly held conservative convictions at almost every turn.

Of paramount concern was the fact that he seemed to embrace a certain naïveté about the threat of communism to democracy and freedom worldwide. He was a staunch and very vocal opponent of the Vietnam War. Eight times from 1975 to 2011 he traveled to the communist stronghold of Cuba, lending his support to efforts that would bring about U.S. recognition of that government and visiting a man he considered his friend, the ruthless dictator Fidel Castro.

While I have a strong aversion to many of his political views, I, nevertheless, have a great deal of respect and admiration for George McGovern and his service to this country. From 1957 to 1981, except for two years in which he was out of elected office and directed the U.S. Food for Peace program, he served his native South Dakota in Washington as both a congressman and a senator. Throughout his long career of public service he championed the causes of agricultural production and hunger relief worldwide. As the Democratic nominee for president in 1972, he lost to Richard Nixon in a landslide.

What most people, liberal and conservative alike, do not know about George McGovern is that he was a highly decorated World War II bomber pilot. His pacifist views, for which he is widely remembered during his political career, were unquestionably influenced by the savagery of war that he witnessed firsthand.

McGovern was a 19-year-old sophomore at Dakota Wesleyan College when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and America was catapulted into World War II. Days later he and nine other fellow students drove to Omaha, Nebraska, and volunteered for service in the United States Army Air Forces. Because there were not enough aircraft for war needs at the time, McGovern’s entry into active duty was delayed for just over a year. In February of 1943, however, during his junior year in college, the Army called.

Training to gain his officer’s commission and to earn his pilot’s wings stretched over some 16 months. McGovern recalled it as being tough, both academically and physically. His excellent depth perception aided him in gaining the reputation of a highly skilled pilot, and his final aircraft assignment was the large, lumbering B-24 bomber.

In June of 1944 he and his crew shipped out of the U.S. on a slow troopship headed for Italy. There they would become part of the huge 15th Air Force, where they would participate in dangerous strategic bombing missions over enemy targets in places like Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, Nazi locations in northern Italy, and the German homeland itself. Many of these exhausting runs were eight to nine hours in length. Loss of aircraft and death among the crew members were sadly commonplace.

McGovern flew in his first bombing run over Linz, Austria, on Nov. 11, 1944, 75 years ago this month. He would go on to fly in a total of 35 missions, the maximum allowed. Although he served as the co-pilot with an experienced crew on his first five sorties, he would pilot his own aircraft, with his own crew, for the final 30. Their plane was known as the DAKOTA QUEEN, named for McGovern’s wife Eleanor. George and Eleanor had married only months before he left for overseas.

On a Dec. 15 mission a piece of anti-aircraft shrapnel entered the windshield of his aircraft, only inches away from taking his life. Two days later he guided the DAKOTA QUEEN on a long mission to Germany and back, despite experiencing mechanical problems on take-off. For his skill and courage, he was recommended for a medal.

On Dec. 20, with one engine out and another in flames, he managed to safely land his badly mauled aircraft on a tiny airstrip in the Adriatic Sea. Many crews trying to make emergency landings there in the past had perished. For this heroic feat, McGovern was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

March 14, 1945, found McGovern and his crew returning to their base in Italy. Though headed home, they were feverishly working to manually dislodge one of their bombs that had failed to release over its target on the just completed mission. Their joy in seeing the projectile finally break free and plummet toward the Austrian countryside quickly turned to horror. The unexploded bomb was headed straight for an Austrian farmhouse, and it was around noon. As it struck the dwelling, their gnawing fear was that an entire family may have perished while at their kitchen table eating their midday meal.

For 40 years, George McGovern and the DAKOTA QUEEN crew lived under the haunting shadow of that day. In 1985, while lecturing at the University of Innsbruck in Austria, McGovern was invited to do an interview on local television. During the course of the interview, McGovern shared the sad story of the accidental bombing of the Austrian farmhouse four decades earlier.

In no time, the phone at the TV station rang. The voice on the other end identified himself as the father of the family that had inhabited the farmhouse in question on that infamous day. All had survived. None were even hurt. They had spotted the bomber overhead and sought cover in a nearby ditch. As far as losing their house was concerned, he said it was well worth it if it contributed to the downfall of Adolf Hitler and the end of the war. For George McGovern, that moment represented “an enormous release ... gratification. It seemed to just wipe clean a slate.”

The last mission of the DAKOTA QUEEN, on April 25, was maybe its most difficult and dangerous. German flak filled the fuselage and wings of the aircraft with some 110 holes, and, most significantly, knocked out its hydraulic system. With no brakes, and relying on parachutes hastily rigged to the body of the plane to slow it down once on the ground, McGovern brought his crew safely home one last time.

Following the war, during May and June of 1945, McGovern participated in relief flights over northeastern Italy, bringing food and supplies to that war-torn and starving part of Europe.

This writer has never been a proponent of much of George McGovern’s political agenda, with the obvious exception of his lifelong efforts to boost agricultural production and bring relief to the hungry worldwide. But I am so grateful for his dedicated service to this nation and to the world 75 years ago, service exemplified in the lives of millions of other Americans in uniform during the dark and dangerous days of the second World War.

“If we forget what we did, we won’t know who we are.” — Ronald Reagan

By community columnist Donnie Hudgens.

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