Stephen Ambrose, Copycat
The latest work of a bestselling historian isn't all his.
Jan 14, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 17 • By FRED BARNES
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 stephenambrose.com, 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."
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.