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Flying Forts: The B-17 in World War II Paperback – October 2, 2001
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About the Author
Martin Caiden is the bestselling author of SAMURAI! and numerous classics of military history.
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The air war did not leave traces on the ground like land warfare (`Foreword'). The B-17 was considered great because it was trusted. "No single aircraft type contributed more to the defeat of the Luftwaffe, both in the air and on the ground ... for the strategic assault of Germany by day ...." It had excellent high-altitude capability, could absorb an amazing amount of battle damage, and had heavy defensive armament. This 1968 book used information from B-17 pilots, escorting fighter pilots, and their war-time enemies. The author had personal experience with B-17s. The greatest air battle ever fought was the October 14, 1943 mission against Schweinfurt Germany. The author was selective in the stories that fill 500 pages of this well-written book. Its first three parts have 27 chapters.
Part I "In the Beginning" has nine chapters about events before 1942. Chapter 2 has the history of bombers and the military. In 1934 the Air Corps developed a program for a large four-engine airplane. A modern bomber could not be stopped by the best fighters (Chapter 3). There were design considerations and trade-offs. Human error caused a crash of the test plane (Chapter 4). The need for long-range bombers had to be justified (Chapter 5). Superchargers gave a big jump in performance (Chapter 6). There was conflict over costs for each B-17. The war in Europe created a need for more and better B-17s for the Air Force. Lend-Lease sent B-17s to England (Chapter 7). The B-17E was the first to have offensive capability (Chapter 8). Hawaii was sent more B-17C's but not enough for reconnaissance (Chapter 9). There were warnings about Japanese troop movements before December 1941 (p.171).
Part II "War" covers the war in the Pacific and Europe. There were problems in the early months (Chapter 10). American forces were in retreat. The Air Force was still learning and gaining experience (Chapter 11). The Japanese invaded the Netherlands East Indies (oil). The new B-17E replaced the B-17D (Chapter 12). The Battle of the Coral Sea was a US Navy victory, so too the Battle of Midway. The longer-range B-24 replaced the B-17 (Chapter 13). B-17Es were sent to England to gain experience (Chapter 14). A B-17 could survive with a lot of damage. The newer B-17F was improved (Chapter 15). Flight crews trained in the Rockies (Chapter 16). The Air Force practiced for daylight bombing (Chapter 17). B-17s were used in the invasion of North Africa (Chapter 18). There are a number of stories about air combat in Chapter 19).
Part III tells about the bombing of Germany. Chapter 20 tells how a shot-up B-17 returned to England. Daylight bombing of Germany began in January 1943 (Chapter 21). They gained experience and learned of the need for long-range fighter escort (Chapter 22). Any bomber that dropped out of formation lost the protection of the group (Chapter 23). Bomber losses during the first months was 10% per mission. A bombing of Brussels shows the fortunes of war. Chapter 24 describes other missions over Germany. The heavy casualties of the 1943 air war are described (Chapter 25). Long range fighter escort was not yet available, it was required for air superiority (Chapter 26). Better weather in Italy allowed the Fifteenth Air Force to operate. The improved B-17G went into production. Most of the bomb damage to Germany came in the last eight months of the war. The critical target was oil production (Chapter 27). Bombers with fighter escorts would destroy oil refineries on the ground and enemy fighters in the air. The Germans increased their fighters in the last 3 months of 1944, but failed to reduce the attacks on oil refineries and rail and road targets.
Part IV covers various items. The B-17 created strategic air power (Chapter 28). For each thousand B-17 flights around 23 enemy aircraft were shot down; for B-24s it was 11 enemy aircraft. The British modified B-17s for anti-submarine search and attack. Others were used to jam enemy radio and radar, act as decoys at night, or drop agents by parachute. Some B-17F models were converted for long-range photographic reconnaissance missions. The Navy used B-17Gs for early-warning and anti-submarine duties. Captured B-17s were used by the Luftwaffe to train fighter pilots, to drop secret agents, and resupply. After the war most B-17s were scrapped for their metal. A few were kept for other uses. Some were used by other air forces (p.492). Brazil used them until the late 1960s. One was used to transport fresh cucumbers (p.498). Some were converted to spray crops by low-altitude flying (p.495).
But then there's the matter of its accuracy. Consider this a public service announcement.
I've just read the first chapter of Flying Forts for the first time in many years. That chapter is notable for being the most extensive account, at least up to that point in time, of the incredible mission of 16 June 1943 for which Jay Zeamer and Joe Sarnoski were each awarded the Medal of Honor, and the rest of the crew the Distinguished Service Cross. Caidin's account is vivid and breathtaking. It's also inexcusably inaccurate, more than I remembered, or at least realized since I last read it.
I had the honor and privilege to get to know the surviving members of Zeamer's crew in the 1990s before they all passed away, and have done extensive personal research over the years into their story, including their personal records, interviews of their peers and family, and military records, not to mention vast research of the theater in which they served. I consider it a responsibility of mine to the crew members and their families, as well as to all those interested in their story, to get on the public record the incredible inaccuracies of Caidin's account of that mission. It is so rife with errors major and minor that it can't help but raise questions in my mind about the quality of research on the rest of the book. In Caidin's defense, he illustrates well the heroism of Zeamer's crew that day, and the harrowing nature of that mission. He does so, however, by mischaracterizing the men who were his crew--I interviewed personally the Walt Krell quoted in the text; the crew were decidedly not the "misfits" and "screw-offs" they are described as in the chapter--and embellishing to the point of fiction. I don't believe either does the crew or the mission justice.
Some day when I have the time I'd like to go through and catalog all the mistakes large and small of Caidin's account, but it would take longer than I have at the present time. For the moment, though, since such accusations do obligate some evidence, I'll point out the following:
Caidin gets the mission itself wrong. The very title of the chapter, "Mission Over Buka," is wrong. It should have been "Mission Over Bougainville." Zeamer's mission that day was indeed a mapping mission, but over Bougainville, snapping the west coast for a future marine assault. It was not, as Caidin reports, "a long run" over Buka "over known air bases, attempting to ferret out suspected airfields." The crew did perform a recon over Buka that morning, but that was a last-minute addition based on Buka's proximity to Bougainville. (Buka sits at the northern tip of Bougainville Island.) Zeamer initially refused the request due to the heightened danger it would create for the mapping mission, but he and the crew decided to perform it when they arrived at their start point half an hour early. It was a fateful decision. None of this is explained in the text. Quite the opposite: Caidin spends two pages explaining the rationale behind the incorrect mapping mission. So the most basic element of the story--the very purpose of the mission--Caidin not only gets wrong, but creates a strategic rationale for it that never existed. Bougainville only gets mentioned once, for its proximity to Buka Island.
That's something big. Something small but easily checkable: Caidin states that the headquarters for the 43rd BG at the time was Dobodura, New Guinea, and that this is the base from which Zeamer and his crew operated. Wrong again, on both counts. The 43rd was still based in Port Moresby, on the opposite coast of New Guinea, where Zeamer's crew had been stationed for months. The crew made their emergency landing that day at Dobodura. That's the only significance it had to the story. This is information easily verifiable to someone with Caidin's obvious access, and yet he still gets it wrong.
One last example to get the point over: Caidin reports that both Zeamer and his co-pilot that day, J.T. Britton (who was not Zeamer's regular copilot, as Britton implies), were both severely wounded and rendered unconscious by the end of the battle. Except Britton wasn't wounded at all. (A minor miracle, considering the 20 mm shell that exploded in the cockpit and shredded Zeamer's legs and arms.) Indeed, Britton did a heroic job servicing those who were wounded, and in the end landed the plane expertly with no flaps and no brakes, ground-looping it to a soft stop.
Oh, wait, I have to add one more: Caidin reports that Zeamer had part of his leg amputated as a result of his wounds. That would have been news to Colonel Zeamer.
There are more, but those should suffice in terms of illustrating the basic failures of research in the account. I loved this book when I first read it. I still love it for its general history of and obvious affection for my favorite bomber of all time. But from my own research, caveat emptor to anyone purchasing the book for anything more than that. It's simply hard to know how much one can trust Caidin's text.
UPDATE: See my response to Steve below for a slight amendment to this review.