Shot Down: A Son Honors The Greatest Generation


2017-06-13 By Robbin Laird

I had the opportunity to participate in a ceremony in France honoring B-17 crew members.

The families of the 10-crew members who crash-landed onto the waters of Noirmoutier Island, France on July 4, 1943 were invited to attend the unveiling ceremony honoring their World War II combat crew members.

Thousands of French joined the ceremonies on Sunday June 30, 2013.  It was indeed a festive occasion.

For the families and the participants in the ceremony, the event was a two-day experience.

The first day focused on visiting various parts of the American presence in France story and notably, the areas targeted by the B-17 raid on July 4, 1943.  It was a chance to come into contact with the reality of the physical quality of the terrain and location of the B-17 bombing effort.

To a person, the members of the families were clearly moved by the level of attention provided to the B-17 memory and to Americans more generally.

As Colin Clark, editor of Breaking Defense entitled my piece on the event: “French Gather by the Thousands to Honor US Pilots Downed on July 4 – 1943.”

Indeed, that aspect of the event came through in wandering through the village and experiencing the vintage cars, the World War II vehicles, the many French dressed in World War II uniforms or outfits and the re-enactment on the beach of the return of the allies to France.

I prepared background materials for the event and spent a good deal of time doing research on the B-17 story.

And ended up producing several articles and a Special Report on the B-17 and its crews.

It was with significant interest that I read a recent book by Steve Snyder entitled Shot Down: The True Story of Pilot Howard Snyder and the Crew of the B-17 Susan Ruth.

Howard Snyder is the father of the author.

The book is written as a remembrance of his father in the broader context of the B-17 crews and their European combat and war experiences.

What is striking about the stories about the B-17 crews is how diverse and simply regular guys these folks are.

They are not born as unique heroes and born to destiny kinds of folks.

They are regular Americans who served the cause of freedom; did their duty and fought against the tyranny of one of the nastiest regimes in the history of the world.

It is the way they did it as well as what they accomplished which make them the “greatest generation.”

But what can be forgotten is that the current generation of warriors carry the same attitude and perform at significant levels of courage for their country, and remain the bedrock of freedom against the rising influence of the illiberal powers.

In other words, Howard Snyder and his generation are an inspiration but not the end of the story of American courage and contribution to making the world safer for democracy.

Steve Snyder walks us through the training of his father and his deployment to England.

He provides the historical context for the Mighty 8th and its operations from the United Kingdom.

I have visited many of the sites from which the Mighty 8th operated and have had lunch in the dining room near where one can find “Bomber” Harris’s bust and his office.

Notably, it has only been in the past few years that the UK finally erected a memorial to the crews and their contribution in London and it is located not far form the RAF Club in London.

The author then takes us on the missions his father flew, notably arriving after the costly raids on ball bearing plants deep inside Germany.

His father’s own missions are described vividly and we can fly with him on those missions.

During his last mission, his plane was shot down over enemy territory and the narrative now shifts to the fate of the crew and their efforts to remain uncultured and alive.

Unfortunately, three members were captured and executed with little regard to the Geneva Convention or any other rules of civilized behavior.

His father was hidden by brave resistance fighters and the author does an especially nice job of talking about those resistance fighters and the high cost they paid for aiding the downed American pilots.

Those fighters had a choice to make; they could have done nothing and focused on survival.

But they did not – they aided those fighting the Nazis with their own support and active efforts. Civilian courage combined with military efforts were certainly a powerful combination that would eventually put the Nazis where they belonged – on the dust heap of history.

I would highly recommend reading this book and enjoying this tribute by Steve Snyder to his father and the greatest generation.

He put the challenge for the B-17 crews rather well in these words:

The men who made up the crew of a B-17 Flying Fortress were each specially trained for their position.

Nonetheless, on every combat mission they faced possible death and destruction.

The challenges each crew member faced on every mission was formidable: enduring the physical strain of using oxygen in an unpressurized aircraft at an altitude where the temperature dropped to minus 60 degrees; suffering the heartache of watching a buddy’s aircraft suddenly blow up and instantly disappear in a cloud of grey smoke; seeing the tail, wing, or engines break off and the plane then drop like a stone; witnessing a bomber slowly rolling over and begin its slow plunge to the earth below; and watching for parachutes to see how many men got out, if any.

If a plane went down too fast, the crew would be sealed into what would become their coffin. Worse yet was the sudden horror when a crew’s aircraft was hit by flak or enemy fighters five miles above the earth. Many men would be reported missing or killed after only one or two missions, while others might survive only to be killed on their final mission.[1]

[1] Synder, Steve (2014-08-29). SHOT DOWN: The true story of pilot Howard Snyder and the crew of the B-17 Susan Ruth (Kindle Locations 1254-1262). Sea Breeze Publishing. Kindle Edition.