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Stephen Ambrose, Copycat

EXCLUSIVE from the January 14, 2002 issue: The latest work of a bestselling historian isn't all his.

10:30 PM, Jan 4, 2002 • By FRED BARNES
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Wings of Morning
The Story of the Last American Bomber Shot Down over Germany in World War II
by Thomas Childers
Perseus, 288 pp., $17.50 paper

The Wild Blue
The Men and Boys Who Flew the B-24s over Germany
by Stephen Ambrose
Simon & Schuster, 299 pp., $26

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.