Our WW II veterans came home, accepted thanks, marched in parades, and then got back to the business of living their lives. Very few of our servicemen and women ever talked about their combat experiences.
Howard Snyder was a WW II veteran, a captain and pilot of a B-17 bomber (Flying Fortress), and based in Britain during the War. Like most husbands and fathers who survived combat, Howard didn’t talk much about what he lived through, or what happened to him. Forty years later, he changed his mind.
In 1988 Howard was contacted by Dr. Paul Delahaye of the Belgian-American Foundation. Dr. Delahaye lived in Momignies, Southern Belgium, and wanted Howard and his wife, Ruth, to attend the Belgium Liberation Celebration. They went. They returned the following year for the dedication of a memorial to the crew of the B-17 Susan Ruth. Howard had a special interest in the memorial: the Susan Ruth, shot down by Germans, had been his plane. In 1989, Howard was one of four surviving crew members to attend the dedication. Once quiet about the War, when Howard returned home he began to talk; and his son, Steve, began to listen.
Shot Down is a son’s tribute to his dad’s wartime experience. But Steve Snyder is a very articulate writer and a thorough researcher. Shot Down is not confined to the B-17 Susan Ruth crashing or the Belgians hiding his father. The research into this segment of WWII is historically rich. Shot Down includes what made that era significant to everyone who lived it. It is Steve’s ability to weave our B-17 crews, the social attitudes and artistic happenings of those moments in his dad’s time, into a solid, factual documentary that makes Shot Down a remarkable, well-rounded snapshot of WW II. Shot Down should be required reading for all high school students.
Steve begins Shot Down with an excerpt from Howard Snyder’s diary, written several weeks after he was shot down on February 8, 1944, and saved from capture by Belgium farmers. The book then flashes back to the 1930s when Howard was growing into manhood in Nebraska, following him on his military path to becoming a pilot, and spanning into daily life in the USA in the 1940s. Multiple photographs are fascinating and compelling, creating a visual introduction to the real men and women of those times.
When one thinks about today’s F-15s, F-17s, and the F-22 Raptor, one is stunned at the conditions our pilots endured when they flew the B-17s. Cockpits often registered -40 degrees Fahrenheit. Sometimes, oxygen masks froze to faces. Crews had fleece-lined uniforms to cope. The engine noise was deafening. Even though the technology the pilots experienced is vastly inferior to today’s planes and piloting conditions, the level of expertise the pilots had to know about their aircraft, and their capability to fly blind, are unequivocally impressive.
On that fateful day in February over Belgium, the Susan Ruth’s oxygen tanks blew up, knocking Howard unconscious in the cockpit. He came to with his plane on fire, his copilot and crew chief gone. Everyone else was wounded. They scrambled to get out of the firestorm and parachuted into the air. Howard landed in a tree, where Belgium farmers rushed up to help him, and hide him from the searching German troops. Three of Howard’s crew were captured by the Germans, taken into the woods and executed. The succeeding chapters are a salute to people coming together to help each other…the Belgians who hid Americans from the Germans, the French Resistance – of which Harold took part – the liberation and ending of the War. They are witness to the triumphant spirit of the human being, and in spite of the cruelty of war, its humanity. The one thing Steve does not do is personalize the story. The facts are presented with objectivity and little commentary on the emotions of the men, including his dad’s. This, too, is a sign of the times after WW II. Our men and women who served did not share their emotions of what they went through. But in a son’s telling of his father, a pilot under duress and surviving, we now have a good idea. And we are awed.
To the surviving WWII veterans, thank you for your service. To the families of all past…we are grateful to you and those who served.