In Their Own Voices: B-17s in IFR
Last spring, I bought a Kindle e-reader from Amazon. It is a cursed thing. Why, at the mere push of a button and for $10, you can instantly have any of hundreds of thousands of titles in about 30 seconds. I've been pushing the button. A lot. I was once a voracious reader of books and now I am again—and also out about $50 a month.
One effect of owning a Kindle is that you are very likely to read books you would otherwise not have sought out. Two examples for me are Half A Wing, Three Engines and a Prayer by Brian O'Neill and First Light: The True Story of the Boy Who Became a Man in the War Torn Skies Above Britain by Geoffrey Wellum. Now if I had seen either of these titles in a print ad on the remainder shelf, I'd have immediately dismissed them as poorly written remembrances of which there are hundreds. The titles alone are wordy, amateurish and off-putting. But the books certainly aren't.
The thing about a Kindle is that you can download a sample chapter and take a test drive. Both of these titles proved more than worthy of buying. O'Neill's Three Engines deals in detail with the 8th Air Force's European bombing campaign beginning in late 1942. It's a riveting story, but while reading it, I found myself wondering how these pilots—most of them with fewer than 300 hours—managed to navigate four-engine bombers through the notoriously bad East Anglian weather. They were routinely dispatched and recovered in weather most of wouldn't dream of flying in, with only rudimentary navaids, crude radar and minimal instruments.
Wouldn't it be fascinating to hear some of these pilots tell the tale in their own words? That's what my colleague Jeff Van West did in this week's podcast, which is worth a listen. His interview with B-17 pilot Jim Nolan fills in these blanks, as does an additional interview with an airline pilot who flew the line during the immediate post-war years. It's a privilege to hear these guys tell their stories in their own voices.
Of the two books mentioned here, the one I found utterly gripping was Wellum's First Light. The product of a proper British education, Wellum is a good writer, witty and commanding of detail. Further, the period between May and September 1940 is considered by many to be the zenith of fighter-on-fighter aerial combat. Wellum got through that and another year of war over Europe before he was 19. How could it not make a compelling story?