An alternative history of the Eager Beavers.
For those interested in a short summary of the primary issues with Lucky 666, see my Amazon review here. If you find it helpful, I’d appreciate clicking the appropriate button at the end of the review.
Lucky 666 raises an interesting question: However well written a nonfiction book might be—and Lucky 666 is a brisk, well-written book, if a little overearnest in parts—how many mistakes, large and small, and outright inventions, can it make before it loses its value as a work of nonfiction? How different can a biography of a subject be from the actual life story before it loses its value as a biography?
The book purports to tell the genuinely incredible true story of Jay Zeamer and his crew, the Eager Beavers. I happen to know something about this story. I’ve been researching and writing about the crew since 1993, first as a feature screenplay, followed by this website, most recently in a miniseries adaptation, and eventually in an historical novel. I had the decided advantage, which Clavin and Drury did not have, of interviewing members of the Eager Beavers and their closest squadron mates before they passed away. Now obviously bad timing can’t be held against the authors, but a failure to make use of available research—or even all the research material you have—can, and that’s where ultimately the failures of Lucky 666 occur.
The book does do a nice job of giving a pre-war account of Zeamer and Joe Sarnoski, his bombardier (though it does miss the fact the fact that Sarnoski dropped out of school after eighth grade). Having interviewed some of the same family members for both men, we share much of the same research on that score. It’s when their narrative shifts to the war that it ventures into alternative history.
Consider: The authors get the crew itself wrong, leaving an important regular crew member almost completely out of the book and adding a regular crew member who wasn’t one (among other mistakes). They badly mangle Zeamer’s and Sarnoski’s timelines and connections in the Southwest Pacific, in the process totally missing the defining event in their teaming up as well as other significant events in the story of the crew. They seem to invent a mission they claim marked a pivotal moment in the men’s combat history; confuse and exaggerate the story of the plane which gives the book its name; continue the false “screwups, misfits, and renegades” narrative about the crew despite evidence they present in the book itself; and finally—based on my own conversations with his crew members, squadron mates, and conversations with his wife spanning fifteen years—misunderstand the character of Jay Zeamer himself.
That’s the version for the “too long, didn’t read” folks. For those wanting a fuller explanation of the above and more, read on. I admit it’s long, but only because there’s so much ground to cover.
Who Were the Eager Beavers?
Starting with the first, yes, the Drury and Clavin fundamentally misunderstand who comprised the regular Eager Beavers crew. Forrest Dillman, the 65th armaments chief (a fact the authors don’t indicate they’re aware of), is elevated to a full-fledged regular crew member, complete with a description of how and why he was brought onto the crew. Except he never was a regular crew member. He flew only once with the crew, on the historic 16 June 1943 mission, as a substitute for assistant flight engineer and belly turret gunner Johnnie Able, Jr. “Old 666 needed a belly turret gunner,” we’re told. No it didn’t. Johnnie Able, Jr., was the belly turret gunner.
Also note that “assistant” flight engineer. The far more egregious mistake where the crew is concerned is the promotion of Johnnie Able to flight engineer at the expense of the crew’s actual flight engineer, Emil F. “Bud” Thues, whose name is mentioned exactly once in the book (with his first name misspelled), and is described as the crew navigator. A good friend of Kendrick and Able, having been in the 8th Photo Recon Squadron with them since the States and transferring into Zeamer’s 403rd Bombardment Squadron together with them, it was Thues, not Able, whose engineering acumen went into swapping and souping up the engines on “Old 666” (a name the crew itself never used at the time; “Lucky 666” is the authors’ invention). Zeamer had a close relationship with Thues, who shared his reserved demeanor and thoughtful personality—Zeamer recommended him for officer training more than once—as well as, in fact, Zeamer’s flying experience: Thues was also, like Zeamer, a licensed pilot before the war. This not only increased their camaraderie, it made Thues, not Able, as the authors conclude, the most likely candidate for flying the plane when relief was needed.
Because of this confusion, Drury and Clavin mistakenly have Ruby Johnston acting as merely a substitute for “navigator” Thues on the Medal of Honor mission after Thues contracts malaria. In fact Johnston was the crew’s second (and last) regular navigator, having joined the crew just two months before that mission. The crew’s actual original navigator was Charles “Rocky” Stone, also rendered a virtual asterisk in Lucky 666. This is surprising considering Stone was a legend in his own right in the 403rd and a good friend of Sarnoski’s, what with both being founding members of the squadron (under its original 13th Reconnaissance banner) and members of the squadron commander’s crew. The latter point is hugely significant, as it was the disappearance of their pilot and commander, Major Thomas “Nick” Charles, on November 29, 1942, as an observer on a mission with another crew, that left Sarnoski and Stone available for the picking.
Such important and basic oversights are dismaying in a book about a specific aircrew, but curiously and incredibly, the authors not only place Charles’ disappearance two months later in late January 1943, but write that he was lost “with his entire B-17 crew”—clearly not realizing that that would have included Sarnoski and Stone. As best I can tell, the authors were unaware that Sarnoski was a member of the squadron commander’s crew.
A Broken Record
This compounded mistake explains why Drury and Clavin completely miss a defining event in the origin of the Eager Beavers: the orphaning of Charles’ crew. Without the loss of Major Charles, Jay Zeamer likely never would have flown with Joe Sarnoski, and we may or may not now be telling the story of Zeamer’s Eager Beavers seventy years on. What makes this mistake so surprising is that Zeamer himself mentions this necessary event in numerous versions of his story over the years, in documents the authors list in their source materials. Unfortunately it’s not the only case of Zeamer’s own words contradicting the story told in Lucky 666 in serious ways.
Neither is it the only time an event gets misplaced. Drury and Clavin weave a compelling tale of Sarnoski’s impatient waiting to get into combat, which he is finally able to do after joining Zeamer’s crew, during the Battle of the Bismarck Sea in early March 1943. It’s a plausible enough story, but it would be hard to get the actual record more incorrect. Sarnoski was certainly impatient to get into combat, as the authors point out, but as the 403rd diary—another source notable for its absence—and morning reports show, his wait ended in October 1942, three months before his first flight with Zeamer, five months prior to the Bismarck Sea. (More on that Bismarck Sea “mission” later.)
Indeed, whether out of a desire to weave a narrative of their own or simply out of a misunderstanding of the real chain of events, the Drury and Clavin timeline is all over the place, with events moved forward in time, backward, or not really placed at all. In some cases, as with the Charles error—arguably the most egregious where the true story of the crew is concerned—the real events are missed entirely, either to be replaced with some other event convenient to the plot, or, according to the most pertinent documents, simply invented. This accumulates into a funhouse-mirror version of the crew’s individual experiences and as a whole, missing significant causal and motivating events across the board, resulting in a narrative fundamentally divorced from the reality in all but the most basic elements.