Top critical review
Good story, alternative history
Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on June 3, 2021
LUCKY 666 is an informative, engaging page-turner, if a little purple in parts, but it raises an important question: however well written a nonfiction book might be, how many mistakes can it make about the history of its subject before it strays into fiction?
- The authors get the crew itself wrong, leaving an important regular crew member almost completely out of the book (flight engineer/top turret gunner "Bud" Thues), his job and expertise given incorrectly to another crew member (ass't flight engineer/belly gunner Johnnie Able), while adding a regular crew member who wasn't (Forrest Dillman, substitute belly turret gunner on the 16 June 43 mission), among other crew mistakes.
- They badly misunderstand Zeamer's and Sarnoski's actual histories in the Southwest Pacific, and confuse the chronology of events bearing directly and indirectly on the crew's story. Partly because of this, and in addition to it, elements of different personal experiences, missions, and events get blended together into a bizarre concoction. Or, going the other direction, one person becomes four, with quotes from a single friend of Zeamer’s ascribed not just to him but three other people as well. Still others are just confounding, like a mission presented as, they quote Zeamer as saying, Sarnoski's "baptism of fire" as bombardier during the Battle of the Bismarck Sea—except no such mission is found in Zeamer's own flight log or official flight record or indicated by the squadron mornings reports, and the Bismarck Sea battle occurred in March 1943, two months after Sarnoski sank a ship in Rabaul Harbor on his first mission with Zeamer. More confusion, or invention? The result is an extended uncanny valley of alternative history in which the actual origin of the crew and other formative events are missed entirely, and others flirt with fiction.
- They colorfully confuse the story of B-17 #41-2666, from which LUCKY 666 takes its title, describing it as a "hulk" resembling a "rotting skeleton" "languishing in the boneyard," the origins of its "previous" name "Lucy" "lost to the mists of time," that Zeamer's crew restores to flight status. All of which would have surprised the 8th Photo Recon Squadron—which was flying '666 for a month before Zeamer appropriated it in mid-May 1943 when it was returned to the 65th BS—and Zeamer, too, who named the previously unnamed Fortress "Lucy" shortly before his last flight in it, after an old girlfriend at Langley. What's especially puzzling about such mistakes—and a number of others, big and small—is that the documents needed to correct them can be found in LUCKY 666's list of sources.
- They repeatedly play up the decades-old but wholly untrue "screwups and misfits" characterization of the crew, even as their own biographies and portrayals of the crew members rightly disprove it.
- Based on my own conversations with his crew members, squadron mates, and conversations with his wife spanning fifteen years, they fundamentally misunderstand the character of Jay Zeamer himself.
LUCKY 666 does its best job as biography in giving a pre-war account of Zeamer. Sarnoski's is good and gives a good representation of his personality, but by my reading misses the fact that Joe dropped out of school after eighth grade, spent his teens working the family farm, joined the CCC at 21, and went straight into the Army from there. It's when the narrative shifts to the SW Pacific that the book steers almost completely into alternative history. In the end, little of the story of the crew presented in LUCKY 666 after Zeamer and Sarnoski arrive in theater is accurate except in the broadest bullet points.
It's fair to question what my own basis for all this is. That would be the almost-thirty years I've spent—and continue to spend—researching this compelling, historic crew. Besides extensive consultation with experts on every aspect of their war, I had the privilege and honor of interviewing and corresponding with members of the Eager Beavers themselves, and the squadron mates who knew them best, before they passed away, as well as with almost two dozen family members of the crew, who generously provided personal letters, diaries, photos, news articles, and personal mementos from the war from the various crew members. Due to the notoriously fickle nature of memory, though, especially in war, I did check them against squadron histories, diaries, unit morning reports, individual flight records, flight logs, and official orders.
Now obviously limited time for research and bad timing with regard to being able to interview those directly involved can't be held against the authors, and there will likely always be more information that comes to light later, requiring an abundance of caution and humility when writing about real people and events. But that's different from a failure to make use of the considerable sources that are available—or even all the source material you have—and that's the iceberg LUCKY 666 runs into. The limited list of essential official archival records in its bibliography goes far toward explaining the confusion, but ultimately much of the story it presents of the crew isn’t even supported by the sources listed.
The question for potential readers, then, is what they hope to get from a nonfiction book. Again, LUCKY 666 is a well-told tale that does admirably convey the nature of the war in the Southwest Pacific theater, especially to those new to it, and the friendship and heroism of the crew. The "impossible" 16 June 1943 mission comes off better than most accounts.
But if a reader's goal in buying a biography is to learn the real story about a subject—in this case, the actual circumstances of the formation of Jay Zeamer’s remarkable crew, and an accurate relating of their experience in the SWPA—that doesn't happen here. Readers get only the authors’ convincing but quite mistaken impression of what this historic, remarkable crew experienced, and to a significant degree, who they were.