There is certainly no shortage of books on World War II, so when you run into another book you have to wonder why it is worth your time. What makes this book on the B-17 Susan Ruth worth reading? Well, in short, the author’s connection to the subject matter makes it enjoyable, informative, and honors the sacrifice of the men of the air forces without delving into hagiography.
The core storyline of Shot Down is the story of Howard Snyder, the father of the author Steve Snyder. Howard’s letters home and accounts of his flying as an American B-17 bomber pilot provide great insight into life in WWII. Some of the charming stories of life in England for flight training and eventually combat missions over Germany make for engaging reading. Even from a close perspective, the author did a nice job of presenting Howard Snyder as a real person and not as an enigma. He wasn’t perfect, but he was an admirable man.
Throughout the book, Snyder includes considerable information about flight in WWII. There is a wonderful section explaining the role of each crew member on a B-17, for example. Snyder spends time discussing each of the crew members who were on the plane for earlier missions, then who was on the plane when it was shot down over Belgium in 1944. Snyder includes a great deal of information about different airplanes and other units involved in fighting. Sometimes it gets a bit hard to follow all of the unit affiliations, but learning about important planes like the P-51 fighter planes who protected the bombers gives great context to the larger story of America’s fighting force over Europe.
The story of the actual attack and crash is, frankly, harrowing. Even seasoned readers of military history will be moved by the story of the explosion in the plane and each crew member’s effort to get out of the plane. Obviously since Snyder made it home to tell the story, we know he survived, but if you want to know what happened to the other crew members you’ll have to read the book.
Of course the story didn’t end when the plane hit the ground. There were allies on the ground in Belgium, some of them actually French, who supported the American airmen, hiding them from the Germans, and helping to get them back to England. In fact, the stories of living in occupied Belgium could have been enough for a book itself. The stories of having the Gestapo ransacking homes, even to the extent of punishing the Belgian people for harboring the Americans, really punctuate the realities of the war quite well.
While the book is, for the most part, quite interesting in terms of source material, there is one problem with the book overall. The sources are listed in the back, but the individual accounts are not cited with footnotes or endnotes, so the reader is left to wonder which sources provided each anecdote in the book. As a work of history, it would have been nice to see full proper citations to allow others to follow the path of the researcher. Some of the sources are “one of a kind,” presumably found in the collection of the author. But for some of the additional factual information, it would have been nice to see citations included for others to use Shot Down to pursue research on other related topics.
If you are a history afficionado, you will find much to like about this book. There are scenes that come through quite vividly about the life of an airman, what it was like being up in those big planes, or even living in England in wartime. However, if you’re looking for an academic treatment, this book might miss the target a bit. The way the author recreates the story of his father’s service is a really enjoyable read for those who want to learn more about WWII pilots, bombers, and the risks that those men took.