LUCKY 666 by Drury and Clavin — a critical review: Part 1

An alternative history of the Eager Beavers.

Front cover of LUCKY 666Part 2 of this series can be found here, Part 3 here.

For those interested in a short summary of the primary issues with Lucky 666, see my former Amazon review—and the story behind that “former”—here.

Imagine reading a biography of your parents in which the major names in their lives are there, but a couple of important relations are wrong: close cousin Tom and uncle Bob are switched.  Or that it shows your parents eventually meeting and marrying, but is off by a year, mixes the circumstances of how they met up with another event, almost flips those of their engagement, and while it accurately describes the friction between your dad and his dad, it gets the source of it completely wrong because it fundamentally misunderstands your dad’s personality and accepts what was actually a family legend as fact.  On top of that it gets all manner of minor details wrong: your mom went to UCSD, not UCLA; your dad’s “baby” was a ’68 Camaro, not a ’67; her mom was allergic to cats, not dogs; his dad was a mechanical engineer, not electrical; the infamous Vegas incident was at the MGM Grand, not the Bellagio; and the famously squeaky stairs were at their second house, not the first.

You get the idea.  Yes, the basic story is there, but only in the broadest strokes, with the effect being a weird alternative history of your parents, not their actual history, to the extent that if someone wanted to know their story, you’d have extremely mixed feelings about recommending it.

That’s the sensation of, and predicament for, those of us with more intimate knowledge of the story of Zeamer’s Eager Beavers reading Bob Drury and Tom Clavin’s Lucky 666: The Impossible Mission.  We have a very strong urge to make that “biography.”  It’s a story of the Eager Beavers, and correct in the largest sense, but not the story.

I know their story as well as I do because 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 perhaps eventually in an historical novel. I did have the advantage, which Drury and Clavin did not, of interviewing members of the Eager Beavers and their closest squadron mates before they passed away, but for the most part, that wasn’t necessary for getting the story of the crew far more correct and accurate than what they do.  The many errors of Lucky 666 occur because of what Drury and Clavin didn’t get and should have, or did get and didn’t use for some reason.

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.

Continued in Part 2 of this series.

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