Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on January 28, 2017
Lucky 666 Jim Rembisz
A forty year quest wanting to know of my Uncle Joe (2nd Lt. Joseph R. Sarnoski) through phone calls, books, relatives, government sources, and members of the 43rd Bomb Group came to fruition with Lucky 666;I now feel closure. While Lucky 666 is a double biography focusing on Joe Sarnoski and his Captain Jay Zeamer, the reader will become familiar with dozens of historical personalities such as Admirals King, Halsey, Nimitz, and Generals MacArthur, Brett, and Kenney with their idiosyncrasies and behind the scene machinations, as well as a thoroughly giving each of the crew members a degree of prominence.
To understand the Pacific War, so many layers had to be inserted and referenced but not making it a history book; the focus remains of these two men, the crew, and the most fabled air mission in history. This ongoing narrative touches upon the Doolittle Raid, Battles of Guadalcanal, Coral Sea, and Midway, but always returns to Rabaul and Port Moresby. Noting events in the European Campaign keeps one attuned to the big picture of total war.
Authors Bob Drury and Tom Clavin's research is most comprehensive: eight pages of bibliography, fifteen pages of notes, and even footnotes which allows the reader to investigate further (such as the variations of the 25 mission standard for R&R, the etymology of Ken's Men, the crew's excitement “like Dodgers fans”). Further documentation was gleaned from the logs of the Japanese squadrons in Buka who flew against “Old 666” in the most exciting aerial combat imagined. Where else can one find Dr. Seuss, code breakers, Flying Tigers, and the movie King Kong integral to such a story? Joe's bombardier instruction in theater is not really documented; however, any commander would use the resources available to keep his men readied for combat, and Joe was the the best!
While many historical novels insert maps from National Geographic,
here, eight detailed maps, appropriately placed, relating to incidents peculiar to a chapter; recently drawn, and easy to interpret, allows quick reference and understanding. Knowing the events of the Buka mission, I was aware of many situations of foreshadowing: Jay's dogfight acrobatics against an enemy fighter, “dazzling evasive actions in a B-17,” and Jay's inviting any crewman who showed an interest into the cockpit to receive personal instruction . . . “none proved a more willing and adept student than Johnnie Able.”
Whether personalities or locations, the descriptive prose is often quite poetic, making for a delightful read. General Kenney: “ he supercharged any room he entered with Cagney-like energy. This aura enhanced by deep-set hush puppy eyes and a jagged scar that ran across his teardrop chin.” MacArthur: “when angry, his voice could scour a stove.” Medical tent: “not only smelled like the inside of a leper but reverberated with a weird, scrofulous coughing, as if someone was trying to claw its way out of the chests of the patients splayed across the cots.” Port Moresby: “40 species of birds-of-paradise . . . their honeyed whistles combining with the scraggly carillon cries of dazzling companies of hookbill parrots to produce a sound track melodic enough for one of Lamour's 'Sarong Girl' pictures.” Sunrise: Boothbay Harbor ME “the sun seemed to saunter over the horizon like a balloon carried on a gentle updraft” while at Bouganville “one moment the eastern vista was a ribbon of dark purple the color of a mussel shell. In the next instant the sky was ablaze at every compass point.”
Lucky 666 steadily develops with a wealth of personalities and events towards that final mission to Buka; eight chapters successfully relate the preparations and details of that singular reconnaissance mission which would develop into the longest dogfight in aerial combat. Why our country would present two Medals of Honor and seven Distinguished Services Crosses to this crew becomes self-evident.
Wanting as a reader is “what ever happened to . . . ?”; the Epilogue is a thoughtful consideration of the crewmen in 41-2666 as they, too, in time would be honored by 21 guns. The Afterword will allow no dry eyes as Punchbowl, America's Cemetery of the Pacific War is visited by Jay at the fiftieth anniversary of V-J Day in 1995.
“They had not failed,” the final words in Lucky 666, references Jay, Joe, and the Eager Beavers; however, Bob Drury and Tom Clavin also deserve this accolade, for they were most successful in the telling of heroism and brotherhood, never failing the reader, a stellar effort.