Now, Stephen Ambrose


Mr. Barnes is executive editor of the Weekly Standard.

In 1995, a history professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Thomas Childers, published a book about his uncle's B-24 crew in World War II. Entitled Wings of Morning: The Story of the Last American Bomber Shot Down over Germany in World War II, the book was well received by critics. Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post called it"powerful and unselfconsciously beautiful." It sold fifteen thousand copies in hardcover and remains available in paperback.

In 2001, Stephen Ambrose, perhaps America's most popular historian and one of its most prolific, also published a book that focuses on a B-24 crew in World War II. This crew's pilot was George McGovern, later a senator and Democratic presidential candidate. Entitled The Wild Blue: The Men and Boys Who Flew the B-24s over Germany, the book got mixed reviews. But it nonetheless rose quickly on the best-seller list, ranking twelfth on last week's New York Times non-fiction list. The first printing was half a million copies.

The two books are similar in more than just subject. Whole passages in The Wild Blue are barely distinguishable from those in Wings of Morning. Sentences in Ambrose's book are identical to sentences in Childers's. Key phrases from Wings of Morning, such as"glittering like mica" and"up, up, up," are repeated verbatim in The Wild Blue. None of these--the passages, sentences, phrases--is put in quotation marks and ascribed to Childers. The only attribution Childers gets in The Wild Blue is a mention in the bibliography and four footnotes. And the footnotes give no indication that an entire passage has been lifted with only a few alterations from Wings of Morning or that a Childers sentence has been copied word-for-word. So, for example, one six-paragraph passage in The Wild Blue is structured like the corresponding section of Wings of Morning, with ten sentences nearly identical to sentences in Childers's book and one completely identical. All this is dealt with in a single footnote that cites pages 21 to 27 in Wings of Morning with no further explanation or credit.

The narrative details of the two books are obviously different. Childers's Wings of Morning tells the story of a B-24 crew that flew out of England with the Eighth Air Force toward the end of the war. The radio operator was Howard Goodner, a young draftee from Cleveland, Tennessee. Childers, a specialist in German history who teaches popular courses at Penn on World War II and the Third Reich, was prompted to write the book after discovering in 1992 a cache of letters and photographs sent back home by Goodner from 1943 to 1945. The letters were in the house of Childers's grandmother in Tennessee. Childers interviewed the lone living surviving crew member, obtained letters from the family of another crew member, researched military records, and finished the book three years later.

Ambrose's The Wild Blue concentrates instead on McGovern, who served as a bomber pilot based in Italy with the Fifteenth Air Force. Ambrose--the author of more than twenty-five books, including a dazzling trilogy on D-Day and its aftermath--quotes McGovern extensively in The Wild Blue, for the two men are long-time friends."I knew something about his career in the Army Air Forces," Ambrose writes in his author's note,"which I always felt he could have used to more effect in his 1972 presidential campaign. Politics aside, I had long been an admirer of what he had done in his B-24 bomber." Ambrose says McGovern was a"good representative" of the World War II generation,"a man who had risked all not for his own benefit but to help bring about victory."

Still, compared with Ambrose's earlier, more impressive works, the book is thinly researched. Ambrose leans on Childers's Wings of Morning for one important aspect of the experience of the dozen crew members aboard a B-24: the unpleasantness of life on the plane. To make sure they could endure the cramped conditions, crew members were tested for claustrophobia. Some of the crew, notably the gunners, were faced with intense cold. Childers's description of all this is eye-opening and beautifully written.

Which is perhaps why Ambrose was drawn to it. Indeed, at one point, he appears to confuse what he read in Childers with what he heard from McGovern. According to Childers,"The ball turret . . . was the most physically uncomfortable, isolated, and terrifying position on the ship." In The Wild Blue, Ambrose writes,"The ball turret was, as McGovern said, the most physically uncomfortable, isolated, and terrifying position on the plane."

The next sentence in The Wild Blue is identical to that in Wings of Morning:"The gunner climbed into the ball, pulled the hatch closed, and was then lowered into position." And the following sentence is remarkably similar, too. Childers says the B-24 gunner"rode suspended beneath the plane, staring down between his knees at the earth five miles below." Ambrose says gunners"were suspended beneath the plane, staring down between their knees at the earth." Two sentences later, Childers writes,"Ball turret gunners had to be small, but even so very few could actually fit into the turret with a chute on, so they relied on the waist gunner to engage the hydraulic system to raise the turret and then get them out of the ball." Changing that sentence a bit, Ambrose writes,"Although all ball turret gunners were small, few of them had enough room to wear a parachute. If bailout was necessary, they relied on the waist gunner to engage the hydraulic system to raise the turret and help them out and into their parachutes."

Asked about similarities between The Wild Blue and Wings of Morning, Simon & Schuster, Ambrose's publisher, issued this statement:"Stephen Ambrose's 'The Wild Blue' is an original and important work of World War II history. All research garnered from previously published material is appropriately footnoted." The publishing firm claimed the similarities involved only about ten sentences of description of technical matters and that the debt was adequately discharged in the four footnotes.

Childers has not mounted an effort to publicize Ambrose's use of his work; I heard about the similarities from a colleague, not from Childers, who actually assigns two of Ambrose's books, Band of Brothers and D-Day, in his classes. Childers said he looked up the index when he first got The Wild Blue and flipped to the parts where his work was footnoted. His first reaction was,"this sounds awfully familiar. It didn't make me mad. It made me disappointed." Childers said he hasn't written Ambrose."What would I say?" he asked."Shame on you?" He added he"doesn't want to go after Stephen Ambrose. The man has done an awful lot of good work."

Childers, whose previous books have been on German history and politics, plans to make Wings of Morning the first book in a World War II trilogy. He is now at work on a book about a B-17 pilot from Philadelphia who was shot down, hidden by the French, captured by the Gestapo, and sent to Buchenwald concentration camp. The final book will take up what Childers calls"the last battle"--the return home of American servicemen after the war.

Ambrose has written well-regarded biographies of Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard Nixon, but his fame as a historian has come from his enormously admired books on World War II. Band of Brothers, the story of an airborne company that jumps into France on D-Day and fights across Europe until the war ends, was turned into a ten-part television series on HBO last fall. What has made Ambrose's book especially appealing is his focus on the soldiers and airmen, not the generals."He really did a lot to shift the focus away from the high commands," Childers said."Veterans love him."

For his next book, Ambrose is researching the Pacific war, again dealing with the troops, not the brass. On his website, he asks any Pacific veterans to send"oral history, memoirs, diary, and/or letters home." His appeal is touching."Veterans often say that they don't need to do an oral history because they weren't in combat or they don't feel that what they did was all that important. Well that's not true. Regardless of what you did or where you were stationed, your history is important."

Though it took a while, Childers said he was sure that"one way or another, somebody would notice" the close resemblance between his book and Ambrose's. One reviewer, Sam A. Mackie in the Orlando Sentinel, didn't make that link but noted the literary superiority of the part of The Wild Blue that relied on Childers to the rest of the book."Ambrose is at his best" when writing about the harsh lifestyle on a B-24, Mackie commented."But," he went on,"all such passages are surrounded by often banal prose."

This article appears in the January 14 issue of The Weekly Standard and is used with permission.

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More Comments:

Steven Barrett - 11/14/2003

I just came across Silvano Wueschner's comments about the late Stephen Ambrose and accusations of plagiarism. Almost two years late to see Wueschner's remarks, but still I feel compelled to add my views.

Wueschner's remarks seem awfully uncharitable given the vast amount of history which Ambrose gave to the nation. Am I saying that Ambrose was infallible. Of course not. Nor should he get a pass for his mistakes. Moreover, before his death, he spent a lot of time apologizing for his errors in The Wild Blue.

When I think of all the books Ambrose produced during his long and illustrious career, I'm frankly surprised that more mistakes, given human nature, weren't made. Scholars, no matter how precise they want to be, (or give the impression they do anyway) or try to be, are fallible human beings.

When we look back at the volume of popular history produced by Ambrose for the American PUBLIC, not just a small elite, I'm surprised that his contributions to our understanding of American history wasn't also taken into context.

Perhaps intellectual snobbery and hypocrisy also had some role in the criticisms of Ambrose. Stephen Ambrose wasn't one of the nation's knee-jerk and pacifistic leftist elitists. Nor did he write for his academic choir. Although he sought a wider audience, the American public, I think it also speaks volumes about the man's genuine humility. He was proud of his academic achievements, and rightly so. But he knew that restricting his research and writings to boring treatises to please his fellow profs would be a betrayal of the historian's real calling: to make what happened known to everyone.

Well, if memory serves me correctly, author/historian Shelby Foote received the same "treatment" from his pedigreed "betters."

I'm not a professional historian, but I love the subject. And, I feel a special debt of gratitude to the Stephen Ambrose's of the nation who unselfishly dedicate themselves and sacrifice much of their personal lives to make our nation's history better known.

I fear for this nation's future if we don't put more treasure in learning about our glorious and not-so-glorious moments. By and large, I must say we have far more volumes of glory to read and for that we can thank historians like Stephen Ambrose for his efforts. Like our nation, he wasn't perfect. But given much of his competition, and what we as Americans see abroad, respectively, Ambrose and the United States are a helluvalot better than most by a long shot.

As I said before, Ambrose doesn't need a pass, nor did he ask for one. But let's allow his vast achievements and contributions to speak for themselves as well.

Steven P. Barrett
Hadley, MA

Geraald Van Cleve - 3/10/2002

The book "Band of Brothers' was a great book of WW11 heros.
My surprise came in Chapter 16 page 248 where the Author is describing the American G.I. reaction to the foreighn people he met.The sentence that bothered me is,and I quote "The Dutch were,as noted,regarded as simply wonderfull in every way,but the average G.I. never was in Holland,only the Airborne".
This is very false!
As a runner in F-Co 290th Regt. 75th Infantry Division I covered a hell of a lot of ground on foot in Holland.I remember some bad times and some good times who could forget the British troops who transported us into Holland,I can't quite remember but I believe they also transported us inside Holland alsoI sure as hell wasn't dreaming either.
Once again those of the 75th who died in combat and those wounded are treated by some author as though they never existed.After the severe combat in the"Bulge" and the "Colmar Pocket' our combat in Holland was rather light and of a short period.F-Co 290th was in combat in Holland 15 days,of course the rest of the 75th div. was also there.I personally know from the records I have(Morning Reports) that F-Co 290th lost 1 KIA,3 SWA 2 LWA and 6 sick casualties in Holland.
The 75th went also went on defense on the Rhine,later crossing the Rhine and much combat in the Ruhr Poccket of Germany.Then fighting across Gremany as far as Dortmund and then serving as Military Government.

Thanks for the chance to offer my opinion on Ambrose.

Silvano Wueschner - 1/13/2002

I am dismayed that Professor Ambrose has fallen so low! If the lifting of entire passages was not deliberate (?) but represented sloppy note taking instead it is equally shameful. After all what kind of standards did he hold his students to? Has he abandoned intellectual honesty for the remuneration offered by the promised riches of popular history? I seem to remember David Abraham and his epic battle with Henry Ashby Turner over the issue of sloppy and improper citations. Attention to detail and intellectual integrity seem to have fallen victim to Ambrose’s greed!