2 March 2017 | Lakeland, Florida. For those of us who have been fortunate enough to fly aboard a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, the airplanes hold a unique fascination and appeal. When ensconced within the clear Plexiglas nose, where the aircraft’s bombardier was stationed during bomb runs, one feels as if he or she is experiencing a magical carpet ride; the big bomber is essentially behind and, looking sideways aft, the occupant has an excellent view of the four Wright Cyclone engines and the whirling propellers. However, for combat crews during the Second World War missions were hardly an enjoyable fantasy. As the crew of the Susan Ruth discovered, war is a bloody hell.
Nearly always facing death or capture, the Eighth Air Force’s heavy bomber combat sorties sometimes turned horrible and tragic, as did the Susan Ruth‘s last flight. On 8 February 1944 Howard Snyder, and the crew of the Susan Ruth, a U.S. Army Air Forces B-17G flying assigned to the 306th Bombardment Group at Royal Air Force Thurleigh, which is at Bedfordshire and within the East Anglia region of England, encountered horror and paralyzing fear at 20,000 feet over the Belgium/French border. That day the Flying Fortress was riddled by 20-mm cannon fire from intercepting Luftwaffe Focke-Wulf Fw-190 Würger fighters.
Inside the aluminum bird American aircrew died horrible deaths as a result of fusillades of armor-piercing and explosive shells. The others were very severely, moderately, or lightly wounded and managed to escape the flaming coffin. Meanwhile, the two Fw-190 pilots also, as a result of defensive .50-caliber machine gun fire from the bomber, suffered similar fates.
Within mere seconds the sky filled with the parachutes of the men who were still alive and able to extricate themselves from the wreckage of their no longer airworthy mounts.
Ironically, the surviving Fw-190 pilot is quoted (page 208) as stating in hindsight the following: “It was hell! And I am still wondering how and why I survived these fights . . . They (the U.S. flyers) were beloved sons of their mothers and fathers, as we were beloved sons. . . . They thought they were fighting for the right cause and so did we. The question that we have now come to ourselves today when thinking back on those war days is: Why on earth did we have to shoot at each other???” The answer is that the German aviators were defending the legion and manifest evils of National Socialism, which had to be defeated by the Western Allied democracies at all costs.
Howard Snyder’s son Steve has, with the publication of Shot Down, provided historians and the public with a true and gripping saga of violent aerial combat, capture, evasion, imprisonment, and liberation. Shot Down also and notably records instances of compassion on the part of German soldiers, and from personal interviews with other Luftwaffe pilots, this reviewer knows that, like many Allied aviators, some of the German aircrews had joined up simply to fly in high performance aeroplanes, a dream that was difficult to realize outside of military service in prewar Germany.
Incorporating content from Howard’s personal wartime diary and with material gleaned through Steve’s research, the story of the Susan Ruth and her crew is now forever in the public realm. The award-winning Shot Down provides readers with not only the chronicles of Howard Snyder and the Susan Ruth, but Steve Snyder’s offering also contains background material related to prewar America and wartime England.
Additionally, the narrative furthermore attests to the courage and daring of Belgium, Dutch, and French resistance and underground operatives who, at the risk of their (and relatives’) lives, whenever possible rescued and aided Allied airmen.
We dare not forget the sacrifices of what has been referred to “the greatest generation.” Shot Down is recommended reading, not only for aviation history aficionados, but especially for post-‘Baby Boomer’ generations who may have received a dearth of history instruction during their public school educations. This book contributes to the accumulating record of what is, in these times of drones and distance killing, unspeakable bloodshed. Hopefully, accounts such as Shot Down will help to prevent such worldwide conflagrations from ever again coming to fruition.
Snyder, Steve. Shot Down: The True Story of Pilot Howard Snyder and the Crew of the B-17 Susan Ruth. Seal Beach: Sea Breeze Publishing, 2015. ISBN 978-0-9860760-0-8
This reviewer (John Stemple) thanks Steve Snyder for recording the saga of his father and Sea Breeze Publishing, LLC, for forwarding a copy of Shot Down for review.