“Lucky 666: The Impossible Mission” – Review by Mark Barnes

There are a number of World War II-themed movies around at the moment, either in production, on the drawing board or close to release date.  This highly entertaining history by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin must surely be a strong candidate for yet another. In it they tell the epic story of Medal of Honor recipients Jay Zeamer Jr and Joe Sarnoski who carried out an extraordinary photo-reconnaissance mission over Japanese-held territory in an unescorted B-17 in 1943.

The authors follow the tried and tested method of giving a snippet of things to come at the start before dealing with the back stories of both men and many of their contemporaries before getting to the climactic scenes. They acknowledge that the feats of the US 5th Air Force fighting over the Solomons and New Guinea are put very much in the shade by events thousands of miles away in Europe where the Mighty Eighth enjoys a virtual monopoly on attention to this day. Only recently I reviewed a history of US 15th Air Force fighting over Southern Europe and it would seem that even their war is better known than that of the 5th. So this book is a most welcome addition to our knowledge base.

The lead character throughout is Jay Zeamer Jr, an incredibly talented and individualistic man who longed to fly. His service was peppered with incidents where his single-minded ways did not sit well with his peers or the brass above him, but his determined style of courage impressed many and there seems little wonder that he finished the war as one of the most highly decorated Americans from the conflict. You can’t help but like him.

Zeamer’s great friend, Joe Sarnoski, was a highly regarded bombing instructor and no stranger to combat. The two men seem to have complimented each other with disparate styles of leadership and attitude that was fortuitous for the Allied cause at a time when fortunes were mixed to say the least in the war against the increasingly desperate Japanese.

It isn’t the job of a reviewer to give the plot away. These days you can read a lot of ready info on the Internet, but while that is perfectly fine, there is so much more to put together and you can only get that from a superior read like this one.

The twin author approach can often lead to issues with the final outcome, but Messrs Drury and Clavin write with one voice in authoritative and entertaining style.

There is a lot to be had from this story: Amazing people, epic combat, fascinating detail about aircraft and places and much, much more besides. The book must surely be looking to be a big hit over the festive season.

My book is an advance reading copy without images and subject to final tweaking before the presses roll. I have no difficulty in recommending it as one of the best reads of 2016. I couldn’t put it down and crashed through it a lot quicker than I have been capable in recent months. It will travel well for non-American readers and will surely be a hit at home.

All the crewmembers of Zeamer and Sarnoski’s B-17, Old 666, were decorated for valor on the mission retold here. But the book belongs to the two friends. They were remarkable men for any period, but happily for us they were placed together in 1943.  Bob Drury and Tom Clavin celebrate their lives in style and with due reverence.

There is a lot said about the Greatest Generation in print and in the ether that sometimes dilutes the effect but every now and again we meet some people for whom the epithet really was made. This excellent book brings giants to life and it will be interesting to see if I am right about a movie version. Any film will have to go some way to improve upon it. Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Mark Barnes for War History Online.


The Impossible Mission
By Bob Drury and Tom Clavin
Simon & Schuster
ISBN: 978 1 4767 7485 5

Mark Barnes

Mark Barnes is a longstanding friend of WHO, providing features, photography and reviews. He has contributed to The Times of London and other publications. He is the author of The Liberation of Europe (pub 2016) and If War Should Come due later in 2020.