Sunday, December 11, 2016

'Lucky 666' tells story of overlooked WWII

Imagine flying a plane the size of a tractor-trailer, carrying cameras instead of bombs, slow and straight to photograph an island coastline while fast-moving fighters are shooting your aircraft to pieces.

That’s the overlooked World War II story brought to life in "Lucky 666: The Impossible Mission" (Simon & Schuster, ***½ out of four stars) by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin, best-selling authors of "The Heart of Everything That Is." It’s a fast-paced, well-researched account of a B-17 bomber — known as Old 666 — its crew and a courageous flight to shoot pre-invasion photos of Bougainville, a Japanese-held island near Australia.

Bougainville was a crucial link in Allied strategy to retake the Pacific from Japan. The invading force, 37,000 Marines and soldiers, depended on those photos.

The June 16, 1943, flight was considered a suicide mission and ended with the longest continuous dogfight in Air Force history. Those aboard became the most highly decorated combat aircrew of the U.S. military, but not without paying a heavy price.

"Lucky 666" focuses on pilot Jay Zeamer, an Eagle Scout from New Jersey with a passion for flying and a penchant for not following the rules, and bombardier Joe Sarnoski, a Pennsylvania kid who enlisted in the Air Corps straight off the farm at age 21. They meet and become friends at Langley Field near Newport News, Va., and later transfer to different units.

Zeamer emerges as the more fascinating of the two, if only for his surprisingly casual attitude toward military authority and his unorthodox piloting skills.

Not long after being sent to the Pacific, Zeamer is co-piloting one of several B-26 Marauders on an uneventful bomb run on northern New Guinea. He takes a nap in his seat. While approaching a Japanese base, the Americans are caught in heavy anti-aircraft fire and the B-26 pilot has to shake Zeamer awake.

The distracted pilot falls behind the other planes, a serious breach of flight rules, and Zeamer is transferred to another group at Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea.

His new group has hardy B-17 Flying Fortress bombers, and Zeamer distinguishes himself on daring missions. He learns to fly the big B-17 like a fighter plane and begins attracting airmen who want to fly with him. One of them is Sarnoski, who’s transferred from the States.

The Allies need clear aerial photographs to decide when and how to make amphibious attacks. Large planes, like the B-17, provide the best platforms for photography. The Japanese use anti-aircraft fire and fighters to make reconnaissance flights among the most deadly of the war.

Zeamer and his crew find a nearly scrapped B-17 on base and painstakingly refurbish it. To shed weight and gain speed, they remove all non-essentials but equip the plane with extra machine guns. They keep the plane’s original serial number, 41-2666, and call it Old 666. When the Allies need photos of Bougainville, both plane and crew are ready.

Drury and Clavin skillfully blend Old 666’s flight into the larger picture of Pacific Theater warfare and give gripping accounts of combat flights. The result is a story that history aficionados will find irresistible.


No comments:

Post a Comment