My first Amazon review of Bob Drury and Tom Clavin’s Lucky 666: The Impossible Mission was approved and posted the same month the book was published, October 2016. Despite that review being on a verified purchase and showing initially as such, I noticed some months later that it no longer did. So despite amassing many times more helpful votes than any other review of the book, no one visiting the book’s reviews could find it; it was now literally the last review on the last of the few pages of critical reviews. Despite annual requests on my part to fix that issue, which I was told by customer service reps could and had been done, the Amazon Reviews team responsible for doing so never would. So finally in June 2021, I deleted that review and submitted it again, with some minor updates and tweaks, on my October 2016 Kindle order to ensure, hopefully, it would show as verified.
It did, after being accepted promptly and without issue, and within a few months had become the most helpful-rated review, and the top critical review, of the book. (I have always given the book three stars.) It confirmed my suspicion that the verification issue, and Amazon’s unwillingness to fix it, had always been the reason for the original review’s lack of visibility.
Sometime this summer, 2023, after being online for two years, Amazon removed that June 2021 review with no notification or explanation. When I asked why, I was told it was for violating community guidelines. Despite repeated inquiries, I was never told which guidelines it allegedly violated so that I could address them. Knowing that the same review was approved before, I tweaked anything I thought could possibly be considered over any kind of line, and resubmitted it. That resubmission was never approved or rejected, which I’ve never had happen before on any Amazon review. Rejections have always come within the hour, approvals within a few hours to a day. When after almost a week I inquired about its status, I was told that resubmitting a review after its removal by Amazon—which I was at first bizarrely told Amazon couldn’t do for security reasons—results in a ban from being able to review a product. So now, despite being the subject matter expert on Lucky 666‘s subjects, and no reasons ever given for how my review violated any guidelines, I’m now unable to review the book on Amazon. I was told this was to preserve customer trust and avoid bias.
The text of that review follows. I’ll let you decide whether potential purchasers not being able to be made aware of the following issues with Lucky 666’s content preserves customer trust and avoids creating bias.
Lucky 666 is a brisk, well-written book, if a little purple in parts, but it raises an important question: however well written a biography might be, how many major mistakes and inventions can it contain before it stops being a work of nonfiction and loses its value as a biography?
• The authors get the crew itself wrong, leaving an important regular crew member almost completely out of the book (flight engineer/top turret Thues), his job and expertise given incorrectly to another crew member (ass’t flight engineer/belly gunner Able), while adding a regular crew member who wasn’t (Dillman, substitute belly turret gunner on the 16 June 43 mission), among other crew mistakes.
• Drury and Clavin colorfully confuse the story of the B-17, #41-2666, from which Lucky 666 takes its title, describing it as a “hulk” resembling a “rotting skeleton” “languishing in the boneyard,” the origins of its “previous” name “Lucy” “lost to the mists of time,” that Zeamer’s crew restores to flight status. All of which would have surprised the 8th Photo Recon Squadron—which was flying 41-2666 for a month before Zeamer appropriated it—and Zeamer himself, since he’s the one who named the previously unnamed Fortress “Lucy” (after an old girlfriend at Langley) shortly before his last flight in it. What’s especially puzzling about such mistakes—and a number of others, big and small—is that the documents needed to correct them can be found in Lucky 666‘s list of sources.
• They badly misunderstand Zeamer and Sarnoski’s actual histories in the Southwest Pacific, and confuse the chronology of events bearing directly and indirectly on the crew’s story. Partly because of this, and in addition to it, elements of different personal experiences, missions, and events end up getting blended together into a strange hybrid. Or, conversely, one person becomes four, with a single friend of Zeamer’s—Walt Krell—quoted as himself plus as three other people. Still others, like Zeamer’s purported mission with Sarnoski during the Battle of the Bismarck Sea—a mission which isn’t found in the squadron morning reports or Zeamer’s own flight log or official Individual Flight Record—are removed enough from the documentary record that they come off as pure invention. The overall effect is an extended uncanny valley of alternative history in which the actual origin of the crew and other formative events are missed entirely, while others, even those as important as the first mission together of the nucleus of the Eager Beavers—which occurs months and a squadron late in Lucky 666, under very different circumstances—flirt with fiction.
• They repeat the decades-old but wholly untrue “screwups and misfits” characterization of the crew throughout the book, even as their own histories and bios of the crew members don’t support it.
• Based on my own conversations with his crew members, squadron mates, and conversations with his wife spanning fifteen years, Drury and Clavin fundamentally misunderstand the character of Jay Zeamer himself.
Lucky 666 does its best job as biography in giving a pre-war account of Zeamer. Sarnoski’s is good and gives a good representation of his personality, but by my reading misses the fact that Joe dropped out of school after eighth grade, spent his teens working the family farm, joined the CCC at 21, and went straight into the Army from there. It’s at that point, when the narrative shifts to the SW Pacific, that the book steers almost completely into alternative history. In the end, little of the story of the crew, or plane, presented in Lucky 666 after Zeamer and Sarnoski arrive in theater is accurate except in the broadest strokes.
It’s fair and valid to wonder what my own sources for all this are. That would be the now thirty years I’ve spent—and continue to spend—researching this compelling, historic crew. Besides considerable personal archival research, I had the privilege and honor of interviewing and corresponding with members of the Eager Beavers themselves, and the squadron mates who knew them best, before they passed away, as well as with over twenty family members of the crew, who have generously provided personal letters, diaries, photos, news articles, and personal mementos from the war from the various crew members. Besides that I’ve consulted heavily with respected historians of and experts on that theater of the war, the bomb groups and squadrons involved, the aircraft, and a wide array of topics related to the Eager Beavers’ war experience.
Obviously bad timing with regard to being able to interview those directly involved can’t be held against the authors, and there will likely always be more information that comes to light later, requiring an abundance of caution and humility when writing about real people and events. But that’s different from a failure to make use of the considerable sources that are available—or even all the source material you have—and that’s the iceberg Lucky 666 runs into. The limited list of essential official archival records in its bibliography goes far toward explaining the confusion, but ultimately the story it presents of the crew isn’t supported even by the list of sources that were used.
The question for potential readers, then, is what they hope to get from a nonfiction book. Again, Lucky 666 is a well-told yarn that does creditably convey the heroism of the crew on the “impossible” 16 June 1943 mission. Drury and Clavin are fine writers and compelling storytellers. But if a reader’s goal in buying a biography is to learn the real story about a subject—in this case, the actual circumstances of the formation of Jay Zeamer’s remarkable crew, and an accurate relating of their experience in the SWPA—that doesn’t happen here. Readers get only the authors’ convincing but much mistaken impression of what happened, leaving most readers incapable of knowing whether what they’re reading is how it really happened or not. To an unfortunately considerable degree, it’s not.
The truth is out there
An Amazon review shouldn’t have a “history.” You publish it and there it remains until the day that Amazon or the Internet is no mas. Or so one would think. Those who know me know, sometimes to their frustration, how much I’m not a conspiracy theorist. I confess that the history this review has managed to generate, though, leaves me wondering. (But not my wife.)
(For those interested in a deeper dive into the issues described here, you can find that here.)