Senator George McGovern is well-loved and respected by the majority of South Dakotans. As his final hours draw to a close, let’s take a look at the influence one man has had not only on American Politics, but also on individuals world wide. This is the first of a multi-part series on the life and events that shaped George McGovern.
Though many on a national scale reflect on McGovern’s political legacy, South Dakotans across the political spectrum are reflecting on the life of a great statesman and their fond memories of the quiet strength held by their neighbor, friend, and admired representative. This is the man they know.
McGovern was born on July 19, 1922 in a tiny farming community, Avon S.D. His parents, Rev. Joseph C. and Frances McGovern, were Republican yet were not rigid to the platform nor were they politically active. As a small child, his family briefly lived in Canada before returning to South Dakota and settling in Mitchell, SD, the home of the famed Corn Palace.
Even though McGovern was shy (he almost flunked 1st grade because he was afraid to speak in class) and sports challenged (with the exception of track), he found his niche, confidence, and voice when he joined his high school debate team and graduated in the top 10% of his class.
McGovern then attended Dakota Wesleyan (DWU) on a forensic scholarship and supplemented his tuition by working odd jobs around the area. DWU gave him his first political experience when he ran for class president and won – twice.
During his free time, McGovern took flying lessons and earned his pilot’s license through the Civilian Pilot Training Program. In an interview with S. Clayton Moore, McGovern shared his feelings before and after his first flight, "Frankly, I was scared to death on that first solo flight. But when I walked away from it, I had an enormous feeling of satisfaction that I had taken the thing off the ground and landed it without tearing the wings off."
In 1941, he began dating fellow student, and former high school debate competitor, Eleanor Stageberg, who beat McGovern in one of their high school debate competitions. In 1943, while McGovern was on a three-day leave from the Air Force, he and Eleanor married. The two enjoyed 60 years of marriage until her death in 2007.
On December 7, 1941, while listening to a radio broadcast of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra for his music appreciation class, McGovern heard that Pearl Harbor had been bombed. Like many men in the living in South Eastern South Dakota, he drove to Omaha, NE and signed up for the United States Army Air Forces. At the time, the military did not have the resources to start training the new recruits so McGovern continued his studies until he received his orders.
McGovern fine-tuned his debate skills and won the South Dakota Peace Oratory Contest with his speech, “My Brother’s Keeper.” “My Brother’s Keeper” was also named one of the 12 best orations of 1942 by the National Council of Churches. In February 1943, he and debate partner won a national debate tournament hosted by North Dakota State University. His joy over the win lasted until he returned to campus where his military orders were waiting.
He traveled to Fort Snelling in Minnesota and was sworn in as a private. From there, he moved from base to base for his flight training. His wife followed him during the multiple stops and saw her husband earn his wings at Pampa Airfield in Texas.
Second Lieutenant McGovern was then assigned to Liberal Army Airfield in Kansas where he learned to fly the B-24. He met his crew at Lincoln Army Airfield in Nebraska. Because bombers over Europe were experiencing enormous action, the McGovern’s decided to start their family before his first deployment knowing that McGovern may not return from a mission.
After final training in Idaho, McGovern’s crew shipped out to Camp Patrick Henry in Virginia. While waiting for his squadron assignment, McGovern immersed himself in history books. McGovern was finally assigned to the 741st Squadron of the 455th Bombardment group of the Fifteenth Air Force stationed in the Apulia region of Italy.
Upon his arrival in Italy, he discovered that the local population had been ravaged by war. They were starving and suffering from diseases that were worse than the ills of the Great Depression. This experience would later become another catalyst in McGovern’s passion to fight hunger.
McGovern survived 35 missions in Europe. After serving as a co-pilot for five flights, he got his own plane and named it the Dakota Queen in honor of his wife, Eleanor.
Bombers faced heavy anti-aircraft fire during their eight plus hour missions. McGovern was almost killed on his second mission as a pilot when shrapnel from flak came bursting through his windshield and missed him by a few inches. He nearly collided with another bomber during a close-formation mission in cloud cover. He was recommended for a medal when he survived a blown wheel during a B-24 take-off, completing the mission, and landing the plane safely without additional damage to the plane.
He earned the Distinguished Flying Cross after completing a mission with a blown engine and a second in flames that forced an emergency landing on a small British airfield on a small island off Yugoslavia’s coast. Few bomber pilots survived emergency landings on the small landing strip.
When winter missions were cancelled, McGovern filled the time by reading history books and talking about the causes of the war. He was also promoted to second lieutenant during the winter months.
He learned of the birth of his first child, Ann, during his return flight after accidentally bombing a family farmhouse in Austria. Years after the bombing, McGovern talked about his guilt over the bombing during a public appearance in Austria. The farmer heard of this and asked the media to let McGovern know no one was hurt and the defeat of Nazi Germany was worth the price.
He flew his final mission to fulfill the requirement for a combat tour and barely made it back. Anti-aircraft fire painted the sky red and black. The Dakota Queen was hit 110 times. Her hydraulics were knocked out, McGovern’s waist gunner was injured, and his flight engineer was terrified. Yet, McGovern managed to bring the plane and his crew back safely. The flight was so horrific that his engineer was hospitalized with battle fatigue. When speaking of the flight, McGovern commented, “Hell can’t be any worse than that.”
First Lieutenant McGovern was officially discharged in July 1945 with the Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters, one awarded for bringing his crew back safely on his final mission.