Normally I never begin a book review like this—but allow me to just come right out and say it: this book is excellent. Steve Snyder’s Shot Down: The True Story of Pilot Howard Snyder and the Crew of the B-17 Susan Ruth is extraordinary. When the book arrived in the mail, I was expecting another narrowly focused monograph written by an adoring son about the experience of his father in World War II. What I got was so much more. Among other things, what makes Shot Down different is the broad context woven into the story. The experience of B-17 Susan Ruth and its crew is told squarely within the larger framework of the war. Nazi aggression in Europe, the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, D-Day, and the push of General Patton’s Third Army into Germany are highlighted, providing a familiar backdrop to the unique episode of Lt. Howard Snyder and his crew. Author Steve Snyder’s grasp of history is solid and readily apparent.
The beginning of the book focuses on the training the crew received and life at base in Thurleigh, England. By highlighting recreational activities, living conditions in Nissen Huts, and interactions with English villagers, readers gain insight into the “culture” bomber crews experienced. Not surprisingly, the local pub was a key attraction. Another early chapter describes in detail the crew positions and the role of each member aboard. For example, in the event of an enemy fighter attack, the flight engineer typically manned the top turret twin .50 caliber guns. Gun placements, technologies (such as the Norden bombsight), tactics, and flying formations are also addressed. Drawing from rich eyewitness accounts, Snyder tells in horrific detail how badly damaged “forts” would drop out of formation. Many would break apart as they fell to earth. Airmen in other planes could do nothing but watch helplessly and hope for parachutes to open. Fighting Messerschmitt 109’s and Focke-Wulf 190’s outside and suffering subzero temperatures and flak bursts inside, the courage of B-17 bomber crews shines. Anecdotal account after anecdotal account stun the reader, and provide a firsthand perspective of combat inside a Flying Fortress.
Named after Steve Snyder’s oldest sister, the B-17G Susan Ruth belonged to the 369th Squadron of the 306th Bomb Group of the Eighth Air Force. On February 8th, 1944, the plane was shot down by German fighters over the Belgian/French border. Some of the crew managed to survive. Aided by members of the Belgian Resistance, these downed airmen struggled to evade capture by moving from place to place. Some were successful; some were not. Determined to carry on the fight, Howard Snyder eventually joined a Maquis unit. Drawing from his diary and letters, his son reconstructs his close calls and adventures with the French Resistance. I don’t want to give away any more. Besides, there are simply too many characters and too many stories to cover – you will just have to read it for yourself.
Shot Down is littered with a wide range of visual aids. The book contains photographs, diagrams, maps, and even scans of Howard’s diary and telegrams. Seeing photographs of the Belgian homes where crew members stayed, and of the acquaintances they made while downed, bring this story to life. The book itself is drawn from Howard’s diary, correspondence, and other first-hand accounts. It is a rich documentary. Letters written by Howard to his wife, in particular, allow readers to “get inside” the mind of a B-17 pilot.
Steve Snyder’s narrative is straightforward and compelling. It is a relatively easy read, and the short chapters make this book highly accessible. This book will be particularly enjoyable for those interested in the Eight Air Force and/or the B-17 Flying Fortress, but it is also broad enough to appeal to general history readers. Shot Down is a masterful work. It is insightful, engrossing, and succeeds on every level. Bravo.
Reviewed by Nate Sullivan for War History Online
Shot Down: The True Story of Pilot Howard Snyder and the Crew of the B-17 Susan Ruth
By Steve Snyder
Sea Breeze Publishing, LLC