By STEPHEN J. SOLARZ and RAFAEL MEDOFF
PHILADELPHIA -- World leaders gathered at Auschwitz, site of the former Nazi death camp, yesterday to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Allies' liberation of the camp.
The event helped focus needed attention on the horrors of genocide, then and now. But it was haunted by the knowledge that in 1944 Allied bomber pilots had Auschwitz within their gun sights, yet were never given the order to attack.
George McGovern was one of those pilots. McGovern, the former U.S. senator and 1972 Democratic presidential nominee, recently spoke on camera for the first time about his experiences as one of the American pilots who flew over Auschwitz.
In a meeting with interviewers from Israel Television and the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, McGovern recalled his days as the pilot of a B-24 Liberator in the 455th Bomb Group, targeting German synthetic oil plants in occupied Poland -- many of them within a few miles of the Auschwitz gas chambers.
After the Allies gained control of the Foggia Air Base in Italy in December 1943, Auschwitz was for the first time within striking distance of Allied planes.
In June 1944, U.S. diplomats and Jewish leaders in Switzerland received a detailed report about Auschwitz, prepared by two escapees. They described the mass-murder facilities, and drew diagrams showing where the gas chambers and crematoria were located.
As a result, Jewish organizations repeatedly asked the Roosevelt administration to order the bombing of Auschwitz and the railroad lines leading to the camp.
The War Department rejected the proposals as "impracticable," claiming such raids would require "considerable diversion" of planes needed for the war effort. U.S. officials claimed to have conducted a "study" that found that bombing Auschwitz was not militarily feasible. But no evidence of the alleged study has ever been found.
Ironically, military resources were diverted for various other non-military reasons. Secretary of War Henry Stimson blocked the Air Force's plan to bomb the Japanese city of Kyoto, because of its artistic treasures, and his deputy, John McCloy -- who rebuffed many of the requests to bomb Auschwitz -- diverted U.S. bombers from striking the German city of Rothenburg because of its famous medieval architecture. Gen. George Patton even diverted U.S. troops to rescue 150 Lipizzaner horses in Austria.
The administration's "diversion" argument was just "a rationalization," McGovern said in the interview. How much of a "diversion" would it have been, when he and other U.S bomber-pilots already were flying over the area?
In the summer and fall of 1944, the Allies repeatedly bombed the oil refineries near Auschwitz -- at a time when hundreds of Jews were being gassed daily in the camp.
On Dec. 26, for instance, McGovern's squadron dropped 50 tons of bombs on oil facilities in Monowitz, an industrial section of Auschwitz, located less than five miles from the site where 1.6 million people were murdered from 1942 to 1944.
"There is no question we should have attempted ... to go after Auschwitz," McGovern said. "There was a pretty good chance we could have blasted those rail lines off the face of the earth, which would have interrupted the flow of people to those death chambers, and we had a pretty good chance of knocking out those gas ovens."
Even if there was a danger of accidentally harming some of the prisoners, "it was certainly worth the effort, despite all the risks," he noted, because the prisoners were already "doomed to death" and an Allied bombing attack might have slowed down the mass-murder process and saved many more lives.
"Franklin Roosevelt was a great man and he was my political hero," McGovern said. "But I think he made two great mistakes in World War II."
One was the internment of Japanese-Americans, he said, and the other was the decision "not to go after Auschwitz. ...God forgive us for that tragic miscalculation."
As McGovern emphasized, the Auschwitz experience should produce "a determination that never again will we fail to exercise the full capacity of our strength in that direction ... we should have gone all out against Auschwitz, and we must never again permit genocide."
X Stephen Solarz served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1975 to 1993 and Rafael Medoff is director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies (www.wymaninstitute.org), which focuses on issues related to America's response to the Holocaust. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services