A breathless history of World War II heroism.
After conquering Guadalcanal in early 1943, American military leaders planned to invade Bougainville, several hundred miles north. Little was known about its defenses, however, so the air force required a reconnaissance mission. One crew volunteered, flying an unescorted 600-mile mission from the New Guinea base in “Old 666,” a shabby B-17 bomber that returned, crippled, with precious film but also dead and wounded soldiers. Journalists and longtime co-authors Drury and Clavin (The Heart of Everything that Is: The Untold Story of Red Cloud, an American Legend, 2013, etc.) tell a fascinating story somewhat diminished by fictionalized prose full of invented dialogue and insight into the characters’ thoughts. The mission doesn’t begin until more than 200 pages into the narrative, but most readers will not complain, as they encounter a biography of an interesting lead character: talented pilot Jay Zeamer, a brilliant nonconformist who yearned to fly the new, high-tech B-17 but whose superiors didn’t trust him. Bored by the minimal duties of a co-pilot, he often slept during missions. Frustrated with the lack of action, he and a like-minded coterie found a junkyard B-17 and spent their spare time returning it to flying condition, adding multiple machine guns to its complement. It flew several missions before photographing Bougainville while Japanese fighters attacked it for over an hour. “The final flight of Old 666 with Capt. Jay Zeamer at the helm…remains the longest continuous dogfight in the annals of the United States Air Force,” write the authors. Though crewmates thought Zeamer was dead after they landed, he and another crew member received the Medal of Honor and the remainder, the Distinguished Service Cross, making them the war’s most decorated aircrew.
Overly sentimental writing may test some readers, but the authors deliver a great war story.