I have read enough books about World War II that I figured I had burned myself out on the subject. For a conflict that ended 70 years ago, you would think that every important aspect has been covered. However, writers continue to produce enough new story angles that I have been pulled back in.
The latest example is a book we have in stock that is a son’s tribute to his father, who piloted a B-17 bomber during the war. It’s called “Shot Down: The True Story of Pilot Howard Snyder and the Crew of the B-17 Susan Ruth,” written by Steve Snyder. It was clearly a labor of love by the younger Snyder and it’s amazing that no Hollywood producer discovered it. Maybe it’s because there are a lot of Howard Snyders out there, and their service and bravery during WWII was simply “routine.”
Steve Snyder spent several years researching the background and service of his father and his crew, the training and daily life of the U.S. Army Air Force, and the B-17 itself. The B-17 was also known as the “Flying Fortress” because the bomber was manned by a 10-man crew that included several gunners to stave off enemy fighter planes. Pilots were allowed to personalize their own planes so Howard named his “Susan Ruth” after his oldest daughter (the only child he and his wife Ruth had at the time).
The author provides the background of his dad and how he ended up in the Army Air Force. He describes the training his father had to go through and does the same for each member of his father’s crew. He also discusses the makeup of the B-17 and how it contributed to the war effort.
What is most striking is the amount of training each member of the crew had to go through. It took almost two years before any pilot was ready for combat. Snyder doesn’t say it but the United States must not have been at full strength pilot-wise until late 1943 since the majority of enlistments didn’t take place until after Pearl Harbor.
“Shot Down” reads like a documentary which is both intentional and a good thing. It’s fascinating to learn exactly what our soldiers went through during their time of service. Snyder mentions two movies I’ve seen about American flyers in England, “Twelve O’clock High” and “Memphis Belle,” (both excellent, by the way), but no film is going to spend time describing the monotony of everyday life. Training and boredom were constant companions to our GIs.
If those weren’t enough, the actual bombing missions were beyond stressful. The best you can say is that the crews had so much to think about they didn’t have time to be scared (although I’m sure a lot of them were). The planes had to fly in such tight formations that many deaths were caused by collisions in the usually overcast skies over England before their missions really began.
Every aspect of the flight was tension-packed because the crew had to constantly worry about weather, fuel, flak from enemy fighters, wounded crewmembers and returning safely with an aircraft that was often damaged. And all this was supposed to be done while flying in formation. As you might guess, the casualty rate was high.
Dealing with the stress, the dreary weather, the extensive loss of friends and crewmates and the fact that this was the first time many enlisted men were away from home, the GIs took advantage of their time on leave to meet British women. It was estimated that 9,000 babies were born out of wedlock in England during the war.
The story of Howard Snyder and his crew would have been notable if they had just gotten through the war unscathed. But they had the added dimension of being shot down over Belgium. Those that survived had to deal with either being captured or hidden out by the resistance movement. Howard actually joined the resistance until the American army liberated the German-occupied territories.
I can’t go on without acknowledging the bravery of the resistance movement. The Belgian and French citizens who put their lives on the line to rescue and protect American flyers were beyond belief. They had to constantly deal with neighbors who might betray them to the Nazis. Talk about courage! The resistance never knew who they could trust and often paid for it with their lives.
Beyond what was happening in Europe, can you imagine what it was like for the families back home? Ruth Snyder received a telegram telling her that her husband was missing in action. She did not know for seven months whether he was dead or alive. Some of the other crew members’ families weren’t so fortunate yet had to wait even longer to find out.
There is so much more in the book that reminds us the WWII generation was truly remarkable. Whether it was the soldiers stationed abroad, the families waiting anxiously at home, or the resistance fighters risking their lives, it was a difficult and traumatic time for all. We can only be thankful they dealt with it the way they did. “Shot Down” is definitely a book worth reading.
David Kent is the director of the Village Library of Cooperstown. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please note that all book and movie reviews are for titles that the Village Library has available to borrow.