REVIEW OF SHOT DOWN
AUTHOR: Steve Snyder
REVIEWER: William A. Glass
Shot Down by Steve Snyder is a non-fiction book about the air war over Western Europe during World War II. The story focuses on the crew of an American bomber, the Susan Ruth, piloted by the author’s father, Lieutenant Howard Snyder. In 1944 the Susan Ruth was hit by a German fighter and the crew bailed out over NAZI occupied Belgium. The flyers were trained in escape and evasion. The story tells how they put their knowledge to the test.
This is a meticulously researched, clearly written, historical work. Remarkable, in that Steve Snyder is not a trained historian. Since this book sets forth the heroic actions of his deceased father, one can surmise that Steve’s passion for telling the story motivated him to do the on-the-job training needed to master the historian’s craft.
After an informative preface, Shot Down kicks off with a jolting, attention-getting scene that got me interested enough to wade through the next hundred pages of background information. I’m glad because this section puts what happens later into context and explains how the aircrew of the Susan Roth came to be in Germany dropping bombs.
Steve’s research provides a wealth of fascinating details. I’ve read about the vast fleets of allied bombers that attacked Germany, but nowhere before did I learn how they managed to get into formation in the low-to-no visibility conditions that often prevailed over England. Now, thanks to this book, I understand the role radio beacons played in the process.
An aspiring historian would do well to note how Steve enhances Shot Down with excerpts from letters and diaries, statistics gleaned from military records, eyewitness reports, and photographs. It’s one thing to read about the frigid cold B-17 crews endured at 20,000 feet, and quite another to see pictures of airmen in action wearing bulky, arctic-proof clothing. Steve does a great job humanizing the frightful odds that made it statistically impossible for the airmen to survive. After a horrendous day of losses known to the airmen as “Black Friday,” he talks about the demoralization that ensued when crews returned to sleep in rooms containing the empty cots of comrades who didn’t make it.
This book focuses on the story of one B-17 crew that fails to return, but in doing so, the author chronicles the fate of many others. The story of the Susan Ruth is stirring, but it’s only one of many planes whose end the author describes. In dramatic fashion, Steve relates grim tales of other bombers limping home, often bedeviled by German fighters, some with an engine on fire, bomb bay doors jammed open, and horribly wounded crew members struggling to survive. A gunner has his leg shot off, and to stop the bleeding, he pokes it through a hole in the fuselage to freeze it. Incredible courage is routine in this narrative, with many instances of pilots staying at the controls and dooming themselves in order to steer their damaged plane away from populated areas and give their crew time to bail out.
The climax of the story comes when it’s the crew of the Susan Ruth whose bunks are left empty one night. Steve recounts the dramatic shoot down using excerpts from his father’s diary. As he describes what comes next for the survivors, we learn myriad historical facts about conditions in POW camps for those captured and about life on the run for ones who evade the Germans. Shot Down gives us an understanding of the resistance groups operating in NAZI occupied Belgium, the underground escape networks created to aid allied airmen, and the dangers they faced from home-grown Fascists plus the Gestapo. For the evaders lucky enough to avoid capture and summary execution, Steve describes their efforts to rejoin the war. Some flee NAZI occupied Europe by crossing into neutral Spain, hoping to rejoin their units in England. Others continues their fight against the Germans by joining resistance fighters.
I learned much from Shot Down thanks to Steve’s in-depth research and clear writing. My only quibble with the book is that early on, he occasionally gets too detailed. Do we need to know the serial number on the special orders that sent Snyder’s crew overseas, or that his mother gave his father a hickey so powerfully that it was visible weeks later? Still, I give Shot Down five out of five stars for the story’s strength and the author’s excellent rendition. The book is a must-read for anyone interested in World War II. It fills in many important details about the battle in the skies over Western Europe, even for knowledgeable readers.
William A. Glass