Category Archives: WWII in the Pacific

Book Review: Lucky 666: The Impossible Mission

From Simon & Schuster: Lucky 666: The Impossible Mission

From Simon & Schuster: Lucky 666: The Impossible Mission

2016 by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin
Simon & Schuster

☆☆☆☆☆ Highly recommended

When I consider new work detailing personal wartime history, my initial concerns are: “where does this fit in context of the vast literature of the Second World War,” and “why is this story important and noteworthy?” Lucky 666: The Impossible Mission (non-fiction) by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin, authors of the #1 New York Times bestseller The Heart of Everything That Is, tells the true story of U.S. Army Air Forces pilot Lieutenant Colonel Jay Zeamer, winner of the Congressional Medal of Honor. Zeamer, along with his B-17 crew, helped clear the way for Admiral Bull Halsey and General MacArthur’s commencement of Operation Cartwheel in June 1943 in the southwestern Pacific.

On 16 June 1943, “Lucky 666,” the moniker for Zeamer’s patchwork B-17 Flying Fortress, was tasked with critical photo reconnaissance of both the Japanese airdrome on Buka Island and Bougainville’s west coast. Both locations held large numbers of Japanese aircraft—Zeros from the 251st Imperial Air Squadron (these Japanese Zeros were the newer and faster Mitsubishi A6M3). Without the security of fighter aircraft accompanying their mission, Zeamer and his crew were to complete this photo reconnaissance and return safely from their mission—a 1200 mile solo flight—itself a miracle. The authors note that their return was not without peril however: “The final flight of old 666 with Capt. Jay Zeamer at the helm commanding his crew of Eager Beavers was—and remains—the longest continuous dogfight in the annals of the United States Air Force.” (p. 287) Yes, it was one against many. I won’t spoil the story for those who have yet to read this thrilling contribution to the literature, but the ‘devil is in the details’ as the saying goes. And Old 666 was a special aircraft as you’ll discover.

The authors suggest that the heroism of Zeamer and his B-17 crew helped save countless lives among the 37,000 U.S. Marines and Army G.I.s whom would storm the beaches at Bougainville. (p. 261) Citing historians Dr. John Prados and Bruce Gamble, Drury and Clavin offer that it was the Solomon Islands Campaign which served as a turning point for the Allies in the Pacific and not the Battle of Midway. (p. 292-293) No matter which side you take in that ongoing historical debate, the true story of Zeamer and his brave crew is well worth your time.

Lucky 666: The Impossible Missions ample Bibliography is replete with primary and secondary sources. Primary sources include Zeamer Family Papers and mementos belonging to the estates of the crew. This new work will appeal to those readers fond of the stout B-17 Flying Fortress and aviation history as well as aficionados of the War in the Pacific during the Second World War.

Scott Lyons
18 Nov 2016


Posted by on November 18, 2016 in WWII in the Pacific


Book Review: Stay the Rising Sun: The True Story of USS Lexington, Her Valiant Crew, and Changing the Course of WWII by Phil Keith

Book cover: Stay the Rising Sun: The True Story of USS Lexington, Her Valiant Crew, and Changing the Course of WWII

Book cover: Stay the Rising Sun: The True Story of USS Lexington, Her Valiant Crew, and Changing the Course of WWII

Stay the Rising Sun: The True Story of USS Lexington, Her Valiant Crew, and Changing the Course of WWII
Zenith Press
234 Pp. $30.00/Hardcover
ISBN-13: 978-0760347416

The War against Japan and America’s naval war in the Pacific both enjoy a vast and deep historiography. This body of work and scholarship includes well-researched literature from authorities on the subject including, but not limited to: Walter Lord, Samuel Eliot Morison, Dan van der Vat, John Toland, and Ronald H. Spector, and most recently, Ian W. Toll and James D. Hornfischer. While these eminent historians have contributed solid research through well-respected, lauded narrative, this assembled literature has lacked in-depth history of the officers and men and their heroism aboard the USS Lexington during the Battle of the Coral Sea. To the aforementioned list we should include historian and former U.S. Navy officer Phil Keith, for his work in Stay the Rising Sun: The True Story of USS Lexington, Her Valiant Crew, and Changing the Course of WWII.

Keith’s theory and assertion that the Battle of the Coral Sea, and not the naval Battle of Midway or land battle on Guadalcanal, was the turning point in the War against Japan. Keith’s premise is not without merit, or allies; he has other historians on his side. Naval historian Dan van der Vat, in The Pacific Campaign: The U.S.-Japanese Naval War 1941-1945, writes: “Coral Sea was a tactical defeat for the Americans, because as the weaker side they lost more men, ships, and aircraft. But it was a strategic defeat for the Japanese, who felt obliged, for the first time since they had opened their Southern front, to halt a major advance and to change their plans.” van der Vat adds: “… the victors [Japan] behaved as if they had been beaten, and therefore they were beaten.” Finally: “There is thus a powerful case for arguing that the Coral Sea, not the much bigger and more dramatic clash exactly four weeks later at Midway, was the real turning point of the Pacific Campaign.”

Operation “MO,” the Imperial Japanese Navy’s plan to take Port Moresby and ultimately Australia, was reversed as a result of heroism from the officers and men aboard the USS Lexington and USS Yorktown at Coral Sea. Numerous Medals of Honor and Navy Crosses were awarded to U.S. Navy personnel (ship-duty personnel and pilots) assigned to the USS Lexington during the war’s first battle between aircraft carriers. Japanese aircraft carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku exorbitant loss of aircraft and crews at Coral Sea preempted those ships from participating in the subsequent Battle of Midway, thus tilting the intelligence-benefitted epic further in favor of the U.S. Navy. Keith strengthens his theory.

In Stay the Rising Sun, Keith superbly chronicles the ship’s pre-war history, highlighting the mid-production transformation from CC-1 battle cruiser to CV-2 flat-top, or aircraft carrier, in July of 1921. This new contribution to the literature will appeal to those interested in America’s war against Japan, history of WWII-era naval battles and U.S. Navy leadership during the War in the Pacific.

I enjoyed reading Keith’s new book…. I’m sure you will too.

Scott Lyons


A History Writer’s Greatest Reward


From the National Archives: U.S. Marines wade ashore to support the beachhead on Okinawa, 1 April 1945.

After many days of contemplation, I had decided to leave the MBA program to devote all of my free time away from IBM to begin rough drafts for my book on war in the Pacific during 1945. Although I came away with an ‘A’ in the first MBA course, I had realized mid-way through the second class that my passion is for research and writing history of the Second World War. With all due respect to, and admiration for my MBA-credentialed friends and colleagues, I found the advanced study of business dull and uninspiring.

Over the past few weeks I could “hear the voices” of Eugene Sledge, Robert Leckie, John Basilone, and my late father Ted Lyons; Roy Geiger, Chester Nimitz, and Joseph Stilwell all calling out to me—reawakening my desire to finally start the book. I had the opportunity to spend two weekends in January of 2012 and 2013 interviewing a U.S. Marine veteran of Okinawa and his wife for my graduate thesis in history. Their insights and thoughts were invaluable; they added depth and understanding to that final work which it otherwise may have lacked. I miss visiting with Mr. and Mrs. Bailey (at the time of this entry they are both still alive and well), and the research process itself. It was without question a most rewarding accomplishment. My hope is that completing this book will be an even more gratifying experience. There is much more history to tell about the war in the Pacific in 1945 … I look forward to the challenge. To give eternal voice to those whom can no longer speak is a history writer’s greatest reward.

Scott Lyons

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Posted by on November 23, 2013 in WWII in the Pacific


Looking Back on HBO’s “The Pacific”


Captain Andrew “Ack Ack” Haldane, portrayed by actor Scott Gibson

After studying HBO’s “The Pacific,” and historical research on many of the Marines portrayed in this 2010 film, I’ve become an adherent to this miniseries. Let me say that I loved HBO’s “Band of Brothers.” The story behind their D-Day jump is remarkable history, as well as their push to Germany from Carentan, Operation Market Garden, and the Battle of the Bulge. Dick Winters and the other men of the 506th PIR became legends as a result of Stephen Ambrose’s book Band of Brothers and subsequent HBO series. Naturally, comparisons have been made of the two HBO miniseries–many less favorable, and unfairly so–of “The Pacific” following its premier.

Writers of “The Pacific” had to tell their war story in a different manner from “Band of Brothers.” They were challenged with intertwining the story of three main characters: John Basilone, Robert Leckie, and Eugene Sledge, all who entered and left the war at different times. All three men served in different Marine Regiments. “Band of Brothers” benefitted from a more consistent storyline; Its larger cast of characters all served together in the same unit from their time at Toccoa, Georgia through the end of the war in 1945.

Extra: For an animated tour into the history on the War in the Pacific narrated by Tom Hanks, check out HBO’s Battle Map web page from its website “The Pacific” by clicking here.

For me, “The Pacific” was deeper and more of a psychological study than “Band of Brothers.” “The Pacific” benefits from the memoirs and books written by many of its veterans and published well before the HBO miniseries 2010 debut. The miniseries’ writers based “The Pacific” on history from the book on John Basilone, I’m Staying with My Boys: The Heroic Life of Sgt. John Basilone, USMC; and memoir from Chuck Tatum’s Red Blood, Black Sand: Fighting Alongside John Basilone from Boot Camp to Iwo JimaRobert Leckie‘s Helmet for My Pillow: From Parris Island to the PacificEugene Sledge‘s With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa, and China Marine: An Infantryman’s Life after World War IIR.V. Burgin‘s Islands of the Damned: A Marine at War in the Pacific; and Sidney PhillipsYou’ll Be Sor-ree!: A Guadalcanal Marine Remembers the Pacific War.

Fairly well-read on war in the Pacific and its land and sea battles, I can appreciate the ferocity of fighting featured in “The Pacific.” I had read Leckie’s Helmet for my Pillow and Sledge’s With the Old Breed following the series premier—writers of the miniseries having referencing both books. The final episode was one of the more emotional and dramatic of the series. It was tough to hold back tears as Sgt. R.V. Burgin, Cpl. Merriell “Snafu” Shelton, and Cpl. Eugene Sledge went their separate ways from the train in the series’ finale.


Eugene Sledge, portrayed by actor Joseph Mazzello

The concluding installment focused on the end of the War in the Pacific for Sledge, Leckie, and Basilone’s widow, Lena, and what lie ahead upon their return home.

Sledge went on to become a popular biology professor at Montevallo College in his home state of Alabama. He passed away in 2001. In what is considered by many to be the greatest memoir of battle ever written, Sledge’s With the Old Breed was published in 1981 and is still in print today—proving Sledge as wonderful and engaging a writer as he was a professor. With the Old Breed is a fantastic book, available in both hard-copy and electronic format. There are few books that I have read more than once–this is one of them.


Robert Leckie, portrayed by actor James Badge Dale

Leckie, a distinguished writer after the war, became an AP correspondent and wrote 40 books before his passing in 2001. One poignant scene from “The Pacific’s” final episode is worth mentioning: Leckie, portrayed by actor James Badge Dale, is sitting in his hospital bed—seemingly abandoned after his nurse had run off at hearing the news of Japan’s surrender. For the nurse, the war was over, but for Leckie, there was no end. According to Leckie’s wife Vera in 2009, he was haunted by memories of the fighting on Guadalcanal, Cape Gloucester and Peleliu.

U.S. Marine Sergeant Lena Basilone never remarried after her husband John’s death on Iwo Jima. She passed away in 1999.

By Scott Lyons

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