Friday, June 22, 2012

eBook Review: Half a Wing, Three Engines and a Prayer

Brian O'Neill, Half a Wing, Three Engines and a Prayer

Product Details

  • File Size: 5701 KB
  • Print Length: 454 pages
  • Simultaneous Device Usage: Up to 4 simultaneous devices, per publisher limits
  • Publisher: McGraw-Hill; 1 edition (April 30, 1999)
  • Sold by: Amazon Digital Services
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B006B7LRQW
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars (43 customer reviews)
  • Price: $9.99
1. Short review: 

2. Long review:
2.1. What I liked:  Stories of the young men who flew the Big Bird early (1943-early 1944) over Germany. Follow-up on their lives after the war. The photos.
Roller-coaster or walk-in-the-park? Because it is a book about aerial combat, it should be a roller coaster. Sometimes it is. But it is a roller coaster with all the excitement of a Travel Channel travelogue. I never felt like I was there.

2.2. What I did not like:
2.2.1. The formatting. Evidently this 'eBook' was scanned from a paper version. The quality of the print runs the gamut from passable to difficult. The best that can be said for it is that it is not illegible. Brad Geyser's Amazon review has more details.
2.2.2. The time to load. Perhaps the book loads slow because of all the photos in it. I dunno. But it took 9 seconds to load. Each time. Every time. Yes, I counted.
2.2.3. The lack of excitement. I don't know how he did it, but Mr O'Neill drained all the adventure from the stories of these men. As B. Barrett said in his Amazon review, the account is "[f]actual but dry". Even when I read the story of Staff Sergeant Joseph Sawicki, one arm shot away, buckling two wounded crewmates into their 'chutes and booting them out of their flaming Fortress to save their lives, I did not feel anything. Rightfully, Sawicki's actions should have been honored with a posthumous award of the CMoH. How do you drain that heroism of feeling? I dunno. Ask Mr O'Neill. He did it.

2.3. Who I think is the audience:  The families of the airmen named in the book. If your daddy or your granddaddy is in the book, buy the trade paperback and highlight his name.

2.4. Is the book appropriate for children to read?  Yes.

2.5. On the basis of reading this book, will I buy the author's next book? No.

2.6. Other:

     This book started as a factual account of the experiences of Bob Hullar's B-17 crew. Somewhere it morphed into an aggregate personal oral history of the 303rd Bomb Group. Well, at least an aggregate personal oral history of the missions that Bob Hullar flew.
     The problem is that Mr O'Neill was not there. He interviewed these men decades after the fact. Any emotion they felt when they recalled these events -- and I am certain they felt emotion -- was lost in the translation.
     I do not have a relative who flew with the 303rd. I never felt connected to the events Mr O'Neill related. But I got something that many related to 303rd crew may have missed: A feeling of outrage at the haphazard way the Eighth Air Force threw away the lives of bomber crews on disjointed missions that contributed nothing to winning the war.
     For example, the Eighth Air Force sent unescorted bombers into Germany in 1943 to bomb industrial targets like the ball bearing factories at Schweinfurt. Evidently they had read Giulio Douhet's The Command of the Air (aka 'The Theory of Frightfulness') and bought into its tenets. These raids did not work. And the price was excessive: 25% losses on that raid.  And still the command ordered more raids like it.
     The RAF won the Battle of Britain because the Luftwaffe turned from bombing airfields to bombing London. You would think at least the Brits would learn from their own recent history: Knock out the enemy air force first. But, no, the Italian captain must be right. We can destroy the morale of the enemy from the air. We don't need no stinkin' infantry. "[Douhet] believed that 300 tons of bombs over the most important cities would end a war in less than a month. This can be compared with the fact that the allies during War War II dropped in excess of 2.5 million tons of bombs on Europe without this being directly decisive for the war."
     I can justify bombing the submarine pens at Bremen. I can justify bombing railroad centers. I can justify bombing the V-1 launch sites. But bombing ball bearing factories? Better to spend the bombs, fuel, and men bombing Luftwaffe bases. Or Wehrmacht depots.
     The best part of the book relates the lives of the B-17 crews after they had flown through Hell. It made me feel good to know that they came back to live full lives. God knows they deserved them.
     Another reviewer wrote that the book made him feel as if he flew with the crews of the 303rd on their missions, but I never felt that way.
     I wanted to like this book, but I didn't. Still, it is a flying book, so it gets three stars from me.

     Years ago, I had a friend who flew in a B-17 crew in the Eighth Air Force. I think he was a gunner, but honestly I don't recall. I heard him read a poem about his piece of the war. He wrote of his father eagerly questioning him about his experience; his father had missed service in the First World War and wanted his son to fill the hole in his life.
     All my friend could recall were the cold barracks with a single stove for heat, the thin blankets, getting the shakes when on leave at Blackpool, the terror in the air over Germany -- terror without details, and moving one cot closer to the
stove and adding one more blanket to his covers when a squadron mate did not return. That was the story of his war: One cot closer to the fire.
     I heard my friend read that story and I knew in my bowels that there was no glory in the thin air over Germany. Just fear.

Second addendum:
     My notes from the book show four typos:
     1. Location 951: VIII vice VII,
     2. Location 4281: were vice was, 
     3. Location 5233: 1966-1967 vice 1966-1977, and
     4. Location 5412: Consul vice Counsul.

     I highlighted nine passages in the book:
     1. "[Y]ou heard that sound [of B-17 engines starting], you knew for sure that today men were going to die."
     2. "[T]he high command thought we were expendable."
     3. "I always had the feel- ing (sic) that the losses were justifiable some way."
     4. "After 16 missions they were the most senior crew in the Squadron." (What does this say about the loss rate? Nothing good.)
     5. "According to the metro winds we got in our briefing flight plan, the winds were supposed to be 320 degrees at 110 knots (!) at bombing altitude of 25,000 feet. I could tell from the way the winds were drifting us on the way to the English coast that they were not as metro had forecasted and the metro winds for the balance of the trip wouldn't hold true either." (Best weather advice I ever got from a flight instructor: Treat all forecast winds as headwinds.)
     6. "There was much anger among the 41st CBW's bomber crews at debriefing. As Elmer Brown recalls, 'I was furious about them having sent us up in the dark taht way, so that those midair collisions could happen. This was one the high command really screwed up.'" (Yeah, they screwed up with radio silence, too. IMO Eaker, Doolittle, and Spaatz all should have been court-martialed for dereliction of duty and manslaughter. Pour encourager les outres.)
     7. "Two minutes of combat is a lifetime." (Amen.)
     8. "[T]he day's operations really underscored the impact that seasoned combat veterans could have on the outcome of a mission. The skill and determination that Brown and McCormick showed was what made the difference between a successful strike and a failed one . . . ."
     9. "All during these years, Bud Klint's priorities were the same as those of the other veterans and fathers of his generation -- earn an income, raise his children . . . , get ahead in his career -- but in all this time Klint's World War II experiences were 'always there. In the background.'" (This one quote summarizes the book.)

     Three stars out of five. YMMV.

2.7. Links:
Bert Stiles, Serenade to the Big Bird (If you really, really want to read a book about B-17 crew, read this one. One of the best air combat books ever written.)
B-17 Flying Fortress in Action (coffee table picture book)
B-17 in Action (No. 63) (coffee table picture book)
B-17 in Action (No. 12) (coffee table picture book)

2.8. Buy the book:  Half a Wing, Three Engines and a Prayer

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