In watching an old Gregory Peck movie, “12 O’Clock High,” about a U.S. Army Air Force bomb squadron from WWII that flew daylight missions over Germany, I was reminded at the end of the many young heroes who flew those very real missions.
One of them was the late Senator George McGovern of South Dakota. He won the Distinguished Flying Cross for the 35 missions he piloted during WWII. This honor was mentioned at the end of 12 O’Clock High by Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz.
But Bruce and I first learned about the honor from a visit to the McGovern Legacy Museum in his hometown of Mitchell South Dakota. This is an excerpt from a story that I wrote for another publication that ran in 2012, just before McGovern passed away:
The coffee shop in the library of Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell is your typical hang-out for college students. Backpacks flung here and there. Lattes and espressos sharing table space with laptops and text books. Hoodies, jeans and tennis shoes the unwritten dress code.
It’s not a place where you would expect to find world leaders discussing the 2012 election season, but look closely. The elderly gentleman sitting there. You might mistake him for a political science professor taking a break between classes.
That’s former U.S. Senator George McGovern, the Democratic nominee for president in 1972.
Yes, the hometown boy who represented South Dakota in Washington, DC as both representative and senator for almost three decades is alive and well, just celebrating his 90th birthday this past July. He maintains a home in Mitchell and an office in the library that bears his name. About six months out of the year, you could just walk into the campus library and share of cup of coffee with one of the nation’s leading political figures of the 20thcentury.
McGovern and his wife, Eleanor, earned degrees here and he was active on the debate team, one reason that incumbent Richard Nixon refused to debate him in the 1972 election season.
McGovern lost that election in part because of his outspoken opposition to the Vietnam War. As a result, many voters perceived him as weak on foreign policy and defense. Surprisingly, the exhibit at the museum that gets the most attention is that featuring McGovern’s service in the Air Force during World War II, including his Distinguished Flying Cross.