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


Why Do You Love History? One Not-So-Easy Question to Answer

Movie poster to Clint Eastwood's "Flags of our Fathers."

Film poster to Clint Eastwood’s 2006 “Flags of our Fathers”

In a recent interview, I was asked the following question: “why do you love history?” More specifically, I had heard: “why do you love World War II history?” My mind went blank. Nothing. I stared at the Skype interface terrified I’d just missed out on my dream job working in historical research. I babbled something about “not being sure, but always loving history.” The hard drive inside my brain had crashed. I ‘blue-screened’.

I could have answered questions about so many aspects of that period: cultural, diplomatic, economic, military, or political histories of the War. Questions of the War’s history by theater, by year, or about the Allied and Axis Powers…. reasons for the War. How the First World War laid groundwork for the Second. Why Germany’s ‘Blitzkreig’ was a false narrative. Ask me about the Italian Campaign or the Siege of Leningrad or the Battle of Okinawa. And what those battles meant in context of the War. Let me tell you how Germany lost the War on the Eastern Front and how that ultimately caused their downfall. Ask me how the term ‘Total War’ applies to the Second World War (and First World War), and how that enabled Allied Victory.

As a child in the 1960s, I watched the television show Combat each week riveted by Sergeant Saunders’ (Vic Morrow) bravado and Lieutenant Hanley’s (Rick Jason) leadership. My Matchbox collection was dominated by tanks, jeeps, and personnel carriers. I was even G.I. Joe for Halloween one year. Our backyard in Illinois abutted acres of farmland. After school, me with my plastic M1 Garand were often found scanning that farmer’s field for enemy movement.

As an undergraduate, I worked part-time in the university library. I’d routinely lose myself on the floor that held the library’s history books, collections, and archives. It was on that floor, between those rows, where I’d read Richard Tregaskis’ Guadalcanal Diary and William Manchester’s Goodbye Darkness: A Memoir of the Pacific War. After college, I was selected for U.S. Marine Corps’ Officer Candidates School in Quantico, Virginia. I got to see, feel, and touch history first hand. Later in life I completed a Master’s in Military History with a Concentration in World War II—simply for love of the history.

My Father's Gravesite

My Father’s Gravesite

By the numbers, I’m considered a ‘baby boomer’. My father and uncle both fought in the Second World War. My father, a decorated Army sergeant by war’s end, brought the war home with him—the good and the bad. He passed away at 53—far too young—while I was in college. I’m convinced his spirit moves with me in continuing his fighting that war. With every book read and every hour of research, I continue that fight in search of my father’s war.

As a historian I research and question what has been posed as fact. Richard Marius and Melvin E. Page in A Short Guide to Writing About History submit that: “Historians are curious and relentless questioners, and the questions they ponder arise from any number of sources. All historical writing begins as an effort to answer questions about origins, happenings, and consequences. Historians find a puzzle and try to solve it…. Historians believe it is important to distinguish between the true and the false.” (Marius and Page, 2-3)

Why do I love history? I can’t put it into words.


Posted by on April 4, 2016 in Nostalgia and Humor

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