“We were young citizen-soldiers, terribly naive and gullible about what we would be confronted with in the air war over Europe and the profound effect it would have upon every fiber of our being for the rest of our lives. We were all afraid, but it was beyond our power to quit. We volunteered for the service and, once trained and overseas, felt we had no choice but to fulfill the mission assigned. My hope is that this book honors the men with whom I served by telling the truth about what it took to climb into the cold blue and fight for our lives over and over again.”
So writes the 100-year-old World War II veteran John “Lucky” Luckadoo in the new book he co-authored with Kevin Maurer: Damn Lucky: One Man’s Courage During the Bloodiest Military Campaign in Aviation History. Kevin is my guest today, and will share Lucky’s story, and with it, the story of WWII’s famous B-17 bomber.
During the war, airmen in the 100th Bomb Group could finish their combat service and return home after flying 25 missions. Yet with a 1 in 10 chance of becoming a casualty, few were able to reach this milestone. Lucky was one of the, well, lucky few who did, and Kevin traces how he got there, from trying to join the Royal Canadian Air Force as a teenager, to learning to fly the B-17 on the job, to his harrowing daylight bombing missions over Germany, to the life he made for himself after the war. Along the way, Kevin describes the brutal conditions inside a B-17 and the bomber’s role in winning the war.
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Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art Of Manliness Podcast. We were young citizen soldiers, terribly naive and gullible about what we would be confronted with in the air war over Europe, and the profound effect it would have on every fiber of our being for the rest of our lives. We were all afraid, but was beyond our power to quit. We volunteered for the service, and once trained in overseas, felt we had no choice but to fulfill the mission assigned.
My hope is that this book honors the men with whom I served, by telling the truth about what it took to climb in the cold blue and fight for our lives over and over again. So, writes the 100-year-old World War II veteran, John “Lucky” Luckadoo, in the new book he co-authored with Kevin Maurer, Damn Lucky: One Man’s Courage During the Bloodiest Military Campaign in Aviation History. Kevin is my guest today and will share Lucky’s story. And with it, the story of World War II’s famous B-17 bomber. During the war, airmen in the 100th Bomb Group can finish their combat service and return home after flying 25 missions. Yet with a one in ten chance of becoming a casualty, if you were able to reach this milestone.
Lucky is one of the, well, lucky few who did. And Kevin traces how he got there, from trying to join the Royal Canadian Air Force as a teenager, to learning to fly the B-17 on the job, to his harrowing daylight bombing missions over Germany, to the life he made for himself after the war. Along the way, Kevin describes the brutal conditions inside a B-17, and the bombers’ role in winning the war. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at aom.is/B17.
All right, Kevin Maurer, welcome to the show.
Kevin Maurer: Hey, thanks so much for having me. I appreciation it.
Brett McKay: See our new book out, it is called Damn Lucky: One Man’s Courage During the Bloodiest Military Campaign in Aviation History. And this is a story about a World War II bomber pilot named John “Lucky” Luckadoo. Where did you learn about John Luckadoo and his story? And how did you come to meet him?
Kevin Maurer: It’s funny, I got the idea when I read a Q&A that he did for the Military Times. And when I was finished with it, I went looking on Amazon for his book. And when I didn’t find it, I tracked him down and called him up and asked him if he’d be interested if I wrote a book about him, ’cause I just found the Q&A to be fascinating, and I knew there was a really good story there. And so, it was that rare chance, you get a guy like John Luckadoo with that name, if I invented that name… Nobody would believe me. So Lucky Luckadoo, a bomber pilot who survives 25 missions, I just thought it was a really great book. Plus, he’s alive, and he was willing to sit down and do interviews with me. So it’s that rare gem, that rare gold that you find when you’re digging around looking for book ideas.
Brett McKay: Yeah, and these are becoming fewer and far between, because these World War II veterans, they’re dying. They’re not around that much longer.
Kevin Maurer: And they’re not. And also, I’m running into a little bit where some of the guys, maybe their memory isn’t as sharp as it used to be. And so, to get a guy like John Luckadoo who still drives… 100 year old guy still driving, still living on his own, in a retirement community, but living by himself. It was an amazing find, and we really started the book right when COVID hit. So, I think for both of us, it became sort of a life line. Something that we could go back to every day, knowing that we would be working on this together.
Brett McKay: All right. So, we’re gonna get to John’s story. But this story is not just a story about John, this book, it’s about the story of the B-17 and its rise to prominence in World War II. For those who aren’t familiar, what was the bomber’s origin and how did it differ from other military planes before it?
Kevin Maurer: To me, the B-17 sort of comes out of this idea. And for those of you who’ve read Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Bomber Mafia, you’ll know a lot of this. But it comes from this idea where these fledgling air forces were trying to figure out where they fit into the bigger picture of war. And one of their arguments was that precision bombing, if done correctly, could cripple an enemy. And the B-17 was an offshoot of that in creating a precision heavy bomber that could deliver a payload with the idea that you could bomb your enemy into submission and bomb them into surrendering and try to save lives that… Because they were coming out of World War I, where they saw the carnage, and I think this gave them… This was the new idea of like, we could save lives if we could do it with less men, and we don’t have to get into trench warfare.
Brett McKay: And it started developing before the US got into World War II. I guess it was in the late 30s, they started pumping these things out. Correct?
Kevin Maurer: Right, about the mid-30s. And what’s funny is, when you think about the B-17, it’s looked at as this kind of signature bomber of World War II. But when you get to the end of World War II, it’s obsolete. You got the B-29 by the end, and the B-29 is the one that drops the two atomic bombs. It’s also, larger payload can fly further and it’s pressurized. The B-17 wasn’t pressurize, so these guys were flying in the elements at 25 to 30,000 feet.
Brett McKay: Yeah, let’s talk about it. Give us an idea of what it was it like in a bomber, ’cause I don’t think people really have an idea about this, ’cause when you watch war movies about World War II, it’s usually about infantry on the ground. I think the only movie I remember about a bomber is Memphis Belle. But give us an idea, like what was it like? How strenuous was it to be up there?
Kevin Maurer: It’s kind of crazy, and I sort of learned this when I was doing the research because I sort of had the same idea. We all see Memphis Belle, those guys are chatting away. They’re sipping soup. They’re wearing their crushed uniform hats. In reality, this was 40 below zero. If your open skin touched anything, it would stick into the metal. There were gunners who had their fingers amputated or lost fingers because they got stuck to the metal. You can’t breathe because… And you need oxygen.
To me, it’s the most dangerous battlefield in the war, because unlike anywhere else, the battlefield will kill you faster than the Germans will. ‘Cause you can’t breathe, you can’t fly, and it’s too cold to survive. So these guys are bundled up in leather jackets, ballistic helmets, their faces are covered by oxygen masks. And it’s just a brutal slog for hours in negative 40 degree temperatures. So the cold takes a toll on them. And Lucky, I think does a really nice job of describing just how much the cold took it out of them and zapped them of their energy and how it impacted these crews as they fought their way to the target and then fought their way back.
Brett McKay: Yeah, there’s a couple of instances like pilots would get frostbite. I think Lucky actually had a bit of frostbite. Right?
Kevin Maurer: He did. One incident, it cracked the plexiglass on the nose of the aircraft, and for some reason the crack set a jet stream right to his feet and his feet froze to the pedals.
Brett McKay: Okay. Give us how many were on a crew on a typical B-17?
Kevin Maurer: So it’s interesting, it’s 10 guys. So you have 10 guys, four of them are officers, the two pilots are officers, the bombardier and the navigator, the radio operator, and all the gunners are all enlisted.
So it’s a crew of 10, the aircraft carrier’s, between 11 and 13 machine guns, depending on the variation, it can carry about 9,000… 8,000 to 9,000 pounds of bombs. It’s a massive aircraft, I don’t know if you haven’t seen one. It’s got a 103-foot wing span, it’s 74 inches long, and that back tail is like a giant shark fin, so it’s an impressive aircraft, there’s a great quote, I don’t remember if you recall it, there’s a great quote from one of the Luftwaffe guys talking about turning in on a whole formation of bombers, where he says, you know, “When you’re fighting against the Russians or you’re fighting against Spitfires of the British, it could be kind of fun when they’re shooting you down,” he said… But he says “When you turn in on a squadron of B-17s, all your sins flash in front of your eyes.”
Brett McKay: Well, Yeah, give us an idea. So that was an important part of the bomber, these things, they flew in formation in a squadron, how many were in a typical formation?
Kevin Maurer: So on the big missions, you’re talking about 200, 300 bombers flying, the actual formation goes for miles, and the contrails create this perfect path, so if you’re standing on the ground in Germany, when one of these [0:08:04.6] ____ flies over you, it’s gonna take several minutes to a half hour for them to fly completely over you, you’re looking at 200-300 aircraft in tight formations that are… What, the Germans called it a herd or a porcupine because of just how big they were, but also how they were… All the planes were bristling with guns. So you have overlapping fields of fire, so to try to fly through miles of B-17s, all who can shoot at you from every direction is pretty daunting.
Brett McKay: And that is the other part that I learned about the B-17s, it was important that they flew in this formation for one, it allowed them to deliver their bombs and just like a carpet right, of bombs, but also it was just for their safety, it was kind of like a Greek phalanx. It protected them as well.
Kevin Maurer: That’s a perfect analogy. I actually wish you had said that when I was writing these things, that would have been perfect. Yeah, that’s exactly what it is. They survived because of mutual defense, which is why the German tactics were really around trying to break up those squadron and push them so that they were individuals and then you could attack them individually, and usually at that point, the fighters would win almost every time.
Brett McKay: When the Americans joined the war and they brought in, introduced the B-17 and they brought in this idea of precision bombing, their approach was different from what the British were doing. And then that the Americans, they did day runs, and the British, they typically bombed at night, why did the Americans decide to do day runs when that made them more visible and vulnerable to enemy fighters?
Kevin Maurer: I think the simpler… We were naive and arrogant, and I think we wanted to prove that precision daylight bombing was possible, particularly ’cause we were leading on a piece of equipment called the Norden bombsight, which I think was advertised as being much more accurate than it really was, but I think… The British… The British spent their nights bombing Germany and the Germans vowed never to let Berlin be bombed during the day, and I think American hubris got in our way and it costs us a lot of lives. It was suicidal. We win the war over Germany, not because somehow our tactics were so much better, but because we could just produce guys, we out-produced the Germans, and these guys go up there, especially in the time when Lucky is up there, and these are suicide missions, you get past 10 missions and you’re on borrowed time. So I think that initial hubris and that initial tactic of daylight precision bombing, I think was… It was folly, a lot of guys, I think their lives would have been saved if the Americans had followed the British suit and taken their B-17s and flown in the same kind of night missions.
Brett McKay: Well, give us an idea of the survival rate of men on a B-17 bomber?
Kevin Maurer: The survival rate is crazy, when you’re looking at… So the statistics are basically on a heavy bomber mission crew in Europe, you’re one in 10, so a 25 mission, that’s why the 25 mission tour duty was there, ’cause statistically you get past 10 missions and you’re on borrowed time, you’re not supposed to get past missions and the war over Europe claims 26,000 men from the Eighth Air Force alone, and that’s not total, and total fatalities. By the wars end, it’s 47,000 airmen out of 115,000 died because in the Eighth Air Force, and I think a lot of that leads back to daylight precision bombing in early 43, when the German Luftwaffe was a seasoned professional outfit who had been fighting for years, going against Americans who none of them had any combat experience, and so those heavy losses, I think come because of that, but as you see as the war progresses and as the Luftwaffe continues to get worn down, and you look at the Americans and their… For as much as the tactics are terrible for the cruise, it starts to work and they’re able to overwhelm The Luftwaffe, and overwhelm Germany and basically bomb them into submission, so that when you get into late in the wars, they up that 25 mission benchmark to 30 and beyond because the Luftwaffe just doesn’t have the ability to shoot them down like they did in 43.
Brett McKay: Alright. Okay, so being on a B-17 bomber, incredibly strenuous. You’re probably gonna get frostbite, it’s not pressurized, you had to have oxygen on, you couldn’t breathe out there, you’re doing this in the daylight, so you’re just easy pickings, and the chances are if you decided to sign up and be on a B-17 crew, you’re probably gonna die. So let’s bring Lucky into this story. John Luckadoo, the war breaks out in Europe, even before America had officially joined. Lucky and his buddy, they tried to get in the action by way of Canada, what’s the story there? Why were they so gung-ho on trying to get into the war?
Kevin Maurer: This is one of my favorite parts of the story, his relationship with his buddy Sully, they decide before America even gets into World War II, that they wanna go up to Canada and join the Royal Canadian Air Force because they’re pretty sure war is coming. I think everybody was clued in a little bit and they were clued in on… At some point, they just felt like the Americans were gonna get involved in this, and I honestly think Lucky and Sully just didn’t… They weren’t great students, they were fraternity brothers, and I think that they had a little bit of wanderlust and a little bit of adventure, and I think they saw an opportunity. Joined the Royal Canadian Air Force, get the flight training, maybe see some combat, and then when the Americans get in, they could take that transfer over to the American Air Corp, and already have all their training and get right into it. So a lot of it is that old male… See a chance to go do test yourself, prove yourself, but also do a little service and stuff. So that’s where it starts and how it ends I think is also pretty… I think people relate to going to have to tell your parents and ask them to do this.
Brett McKay: Well, yeah. ‘Cause you had to get permission from your parents. ‘Cause they were too young at the time?
Kevin Maurer: Exactly. So what’s interesting is Sully is an only child. His mother was a widow. His father died because of injuries that he had sustained in World War I, fighting the Germans. So it’s interesting that when they go to Sully’s house, his mother is willing to sign off on this adventure. And he eventually goes while, Lucky’s father who… Lucky’s father thinks he’s insane and tells him he’s not gonna sign off on it and to go back to school. And so that’s where they separate. But what’s crazy is that they end up circling back together. And I think I didn’t realize it when I started the book, but Sully becomes an interesting and important character. And I think he tells a part of the story that needs to be told, but also wouldn’t have been told if I had just stayed with Lucky the whole way.
Brett McKay: Yeah. How his dad’s objection… This kind of brought home this idea, I think typically when we think back to World War II, we think, “Oh, everyone was into it.” Like all Americans, like, “Yes, this is the good war. We’re gonna go fight it.” But at the beginning of the war, a lot of Americans were like, “Why are we getting involved in this? This is not our war. We shouldn’t, we don’t have any business.” That was kind of Lucky’s dad. He was like, “This isn’t our war. You don’t… You shouldn’t be doing this, this is dumb. Go back to college.”
Kevin Maurer: Exactly. And I think one of the things that Lucky and I talked a lot about when we were doing this book is how… To dispel some of the myths around World War II. And I think that’s one of them for sure, is that there was a universal support like we think about it now.
Brett McKay: Okay. So Lucky had to wait a bit to join up and he joins up finally in college and still he was gung-ho he wanted to be a pilot. When he signed up, what plane did he initially learn to fly on?
Kevin Maurer: He learns basically like everybody, he learns on some trainers and it’s the Vultee. And so he’s in South Carolina and he can’t seem to get it. The instructor he has is from West point who isn’t helping him and isn’t a very good instructor and he thinks he’s gonna wash out. And so he ends up meeting with one of the civilian instructors who teaches him, I think in one mission, exactly all the things he needed to know and he’s able to stay in, but it’s a tricky plane to fly and it’s one of those where he started with, in a kind of a biplane and learned the basics of flying. And this was the next step up where they had to work the radios and work the flaps and all this other stuff.
Brett McKay: Yeah, so he was about to wash out, he had to make so many landings and he wasn’t doing it. And this guy was Blackman, Blackie kind of saved the day for him.
Kevin Maurer: Right. Which it’s crazy, Blackie is this cool civilian pilot who’s got all the hours. And he seems to have that feel. And he is able to kind of teach Lucky how to be a pilot.
Brett McKay: So Lucky he had no plans of flying the B-17, but somehow he ends up with the 100th Bomb Group, which flies B-17. It’s like, how did that happen?
Kevin Maurer: Well, no one, and I think everybody… Think of how many people you know who wanted to become pilots. Nobody really wants to be a bomber pilot. They all wanna be fighter pilots. ‘Cause that’s the sexy job. But Lucky ran into what I think every veteran will relate to, which is, it’s the needs of the air force, needs of the army. And so he is sent to the 100th Bomb Group. And at that point, the 100th Bomb Group was prepared to get ready… They were getting ready to deploy over to England when they botched their final exam. And so they end up having to reorganize. And part of that reorganization is the 100th Bomb Group pulls all their co-pilots ’cause at that point, because of the training, the co-pilots had so many hours in the seat that they were as good as some of the senior pilots and other squadrons. So they pull all the co-pilots and put Lucky’s newly trained cohort of new pilots into the co-pilot seat. And what’s crazy is, Lucky had never flown a B-17. He’d never flown a plane with more than two engines. And he gets to the 100th Bomb Group and he gets to his squadron and he has got zero hours in the B-17 and learns on the job as they do their final prep before they deploy.
Brett McKay: Well, this happened to a lot of people. This wasn’t just unique to Lucky, a lot of these… Here’s another thing, how old was Lucky at this point?
Kevin Maurer: I think he was 20.
Brett McKay: Alright. I always, okay. I always forget how young these guys were. There’s 20 year olds flying B-17 bombers or in a tank. And I, it’s just, it always blows my mind ’cause you look at 20 year olds today and it’s like, I don’t know if I would trust a 20 year old to do that. But here we were, it’s like, “Alright, you never flew B-17, you’ll learn, you’ll be all right. You can do it.”
Kevin Maurer: Well, what I think if you were 24, they called you an old man in the squadron.
Brett McKay: Wow.
Kevin Maurer: Yeah.
Brett McKay: All right. So 20 year old never flew a B-17. He had to learn on the job. But the squad that he was initially assigned to, they weren’t very receptive to him. I guess it was that whole shake up thing, he was just kind of thrown into this group that had already, had formed a bond. And Lucky was the kind of the third wheel, right?
Kevin Maurer: Yes, absolutely. And so it’s interesting, a lot of these guys kind of knew what they were getting into. They had no combat experience, but they were a tight crew. And I think Lucky was looked at as a jinx. It just wasn’t, for lack of better words, it wasn’t lucky to have him. And I think some crews embraced it and they got, they were able to train together and they built that cohesion again with the new pilot, but Lucky’s crew didn’t.
Brett McKay: Yeah. A lot of hazing going on. It wasn’t brutal hazing, but it was just like, oh, we’re gonna do, whether the shorten your sheets prank, you do at camp. They did that to Lucky a lot, just kind of mean to him when he wanted to play cards, it was just kind of a lot of ostracization going on.
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So the squad leader of Lucky’s squad this guy named Glen Dye, he was adamant, he was just gung-ho, he knew that his crew would fly their 25 required missions and they would get the heck out of there. And what was interesting, they did, he beat the odds, like his crew clocked 25 missions, but Lucky didn’t go home with them. Why is that?
Kevin Maurer: And we talked about this ’cause of his injury, he missed out on some missions, ’cause he got frostbite on his feet, and then he also missed out because of Glen Dye. And Glen Dye was… From reputation, a really good pilot, and when he gets to England, like you said he’s really driven to get through the 25 missions, and so he drives his crew pretty hard, they become very good though, and become… They’re a lead crew, which means that they led a lot of these missions, but when that happened, often times the operations officer or the commanding officer of the whole squadron would fly as the command pilot in the lead, in the lead ship. And so when that happened, that command pilot took Lucky’s seat, and so Lucky had a chance to either move to the tail gun or he could sit it out and the one mission… And then we covered this pretty good in the book, the one mission where he moves into the tail gun, it just doesn’t work out for him, and I think he… At that point, he set out so by sitting out those missions, he ends up not logging the 25 missions with the rest of the crew, so they finish with… He’s got three missions left when they finish.
Brett McKay: Well, what kind of missions were the running what was their typical mission that they did together?
Kevin Maurer: So they’re bombing a lot of targets, a lot of industrial targets, these are strategic bombers, so they’re not really there to bomb individual units or tanks, you’re not calling them in, if you’re in trouble, and they’re not giving you air support, these were more… You’re gonna fly to Bremen and you’re gonna bomb a factory or you’re gonna fly into France on the [0:21:42.4] ____ and you’re gonna bomb a sub-pin. The idea here is you’re bombing vital, vital targets that are part of the strategic war versus the tactical war. So you’re at 25,000 feet, you’re flying over your target in a city and you’re hitting a rail yard or a factory.
Brett McKay: Gotcha. And then for the most part, Lucky and his squad they were pretty lucky. The stuff… They saw some action, but it was never incredibly fierce. They just kinda lucked out, his crew… His initial crew goes home cause they did the 25 required missions. Lucky stays back, ’cause he has to do a couple more. This is October 1943. He was super close to notching his 25 missions, but what’s interesting, is the Germans, they started getting just more aggressive and crazy in the air, and it was just getting… The battles that the bombers faced, were just getting more and more fierce what was going on? Why were the Germans deciding to get so aggressive at this point in the war?
Kevin Maurer: Man I think the strategic bombing, despite the losses was taking a toll and I think the German leadership, Hitler understood that if they don’t stem the tide of these bombing campaign, then they’re gonna be… They’re not gonna have the ability to continue to wage war. So I think that they bore down knowing that if they didn’t stop this at some point, they’re gonna come for Berlin. And they had made this such a symbolic thing where, you’re never gonna bomb Berlin during the day that I think they understood propaganda. And so they give the order that you’re not allowed to turn back and you’re to do everything possible, the Luftwaffe is to do everything possible to keep the American bombers at bay. And that’s where we run into them in the book on October 8th 1943, when Lucky is facing three more missions and he picks up a brand new crew, and he flies out to Bremen on the first of a weeks long… Major push by the Eighth Air Force to really, really put the pressure on the Germans, and it was these kind of events collide into probably one of the most harrowing missions that Lucky has in his career, and one that we talked a lot about, and we went over, I think we must have interviewed and gone over the details of this mission, I don’t know, five or six times to make sure we got it right.
Brett McKay: Yeah, he almost didn’t make it on that one mission.
Kevin Maurer: It’s funny, it’s the one mission when I first started talking to him that he said, “Look, this was the only mission that I didn’t… I was pretty sure I wasn’t gonna make it.” He said, “I felt pretty confident on every other mission that we were gonna get back,” he said, “But on this one, I was pretty sure I was either gonna die or become a POW.” And so that’s why the book really leans in on this one, to give… Just slows things down and really digs in, just because it is one of the more harrowing missions.
Brett McKay: I mean… Yeah, give us an idea, so we… Okay, it’s up… You’re up there, it’s cold, you can’t breathe, but also you’re just… You’re facing just gun fire all the time, right.
Kevin Maurer: Well, it’s not a matter of if you’re gonna see the Luftwaffe, it’s a matter of when. So they know you’re coming and so you get… You get to your target and then you face fighters to start, and the idea of 12 o’clock high, we talk a lot about this because the way they would attack the B-17F, which just doesn’t have the [0:25:00.4] ____ underneath the nose, was to attack it straight ahead, and so that’s why you get 12 o’clock high, these German fighters coming screaming at you at hundreds of miles an hour, right at your nose in your cockpit, and they go blasting past, so you’re fighting through the fighters to start and then when you start to approach your target, you get to what they call the IP, the initial point. And at that point, you’re ordered to fly completely flat and straight all the way to the target, and so that’s where you start to encounter your Flak, and this is a big deal because Flak really was… The fighters are part of the defense, but the Flak really was the defense, and the Flak’s job was to either drive you so that you had to climb higher so that your accuracy was off or damage the planes enough to break up those squadrons.
And so what the Germans would do is they’d put huge batteries of Flak on rail cars and they would roll them out to where they knew the Americans were gonna fly over, and they would pick a box in the air like an imaginary box, and they would throw as much Flak into that box as they could and the Americans would have to fly straight through it, and Curtis LeMay, early in the war decides the best way to get through the Flak Barrage is to not try to dodge it, ’cause you just don’t know where it’s gonna explode and dodging it breaks up the squadrons, and it makes bombing really inaccurate.
He orders them, and the order is to fly straight through it like it’s turbulence, and so for the pilots, they had to stay in these tight formations, and these aircraft were not like modern aircraft being, they’re wrestling with these aircraft to stay in these really tight formations through this maelstrom of Shrapnel and Flak to get to the target, and when they get to the target, the bombardier ends up flying the plane. So that’s the other nerve-racking thing and Lucky talks a lot about is where when they get to the initial point, the bombardier turns on the autopilot so that he can line up the target. And so the pilots just sit there with their hands folded and watching the rest of the plane to make sure they don’t get too close to a plane and crash into it.
Brett McKay: And this last run, the way Lucky that describes it, he’d look out the window and there’s just… Seems like every bomber in his formation had smoke coming out of it, or they were about to collide into each other, it was just… I can’t imagine how nerve-wracking it was.
Kevin Maurer: Man they joked that the Flak was so thick they could put their landing gear out and land on it, and then these aren’t armored aircraft, so the Flak is cutting through the wings. It’s cutting through the fuselage. The Flak that doesn’t cut through is rattling off the side, so it’s like flying through a hailstorm.
Brett McKay: So he survives that. It was just intense. And what happened after this mission, how did the Germans change tactics? How did the Americans change tactics? Did anything change after this battle?
Kevin Maurer: Well, what had happened is that the Americans had figured out that the Germans were attacking them head-on, which is why you get the G model and for those of you guys who can imagine what a B17 looks like. The G model is the one that has the chin turret. The two machine guns right on the bottom underneath the cockpit, and that was built specifically to stop the Germans from attacking them from 12 o’clock high straight on. So that was one of the big, big changes, is once LeMay gets them to fly straight, and they get to get it, so they’ve got some guns pointing forward to discourage the attacks from the front, the Americans really lean in. They’re able to train their crews faster, they’re able to produce bombers, I think there are 8,000 G models made. Once they got that one into production and now it got into production I think in ’43. But when that happens, the Americans also take the bombardiers out, and so they started doing where the lead aircraft had a bombardier, and when that bombardier hit the button to drop bombs, everybody dropped their bombs, and so their accuracy was starting to improve a little bit, just by sheer volume, and then they were able to put a gunner in the front to help defend the front of the bombers, but those are the clear tactical changes, I think Americans made.
The Germans continued to try to do the best they could, but they had limited resources, they had limited aircraft, and they had a hard time training pilots because it’s hard to train when every day you’ve got American bombers over you during the day and then at night you’ve got the British bombers.
Brett McKay: That was interesting, the two different approaches. So the Germans, like the fighter pilots on the German side, that required a lot of skill and they were just getting decimated. The crew on a Bomber, it requires skill, but not as much like you could learn on the job how to fly a B-17, so you could just… It was basically, you can just throw bodies up there and just pump out B-17s and just beat them with… It is almost like a war of attrition just throw as much people and machines at the thing as possible.
Kevin Maurer: It’s absolutely a war of attrition and yes. Well, Sully jokes to Lucky when he goes to visit him, remember that he says, “Lucky you’re just a bus driver”, and Lucky’s response is, “Well we need bus drivers too.” So it’s not the same as a fighter, and it’s interesting is when Jimmy Doolittle takes over the Eighth Air Force in 44, he switches the fighter tactics, so the fighters used to escort the bombers into the target. He scraps that, instead he lets the fighters go after the German Luftwaffe are on the ground. So they would come in and ground attack these airfields and catch the Germans on the ground, and that really starts to make it so that the Americans and the allies control the sky completely, because the Luftwaffe doesn’t even get off the ground at that point.
Brett McKay: Well it was interesting, as you read the book, you see Lucky’s attitude towards the war changed. I think when he first signed up, he had that sort of romantic, young, idealistic view of war, “I’m gonna get out there, see some action, I’m gonna fight for a good cause.” But as the war goes on, it’s basically… He kinda becomes this… I wouldn’t blame him, you become cynical and you’re just like, “Well, I’m just trying to survive and trying to make it home. That’s it, that’s all I’m trying to do.”
Kevin Maurer: This is, I think the part that I was most surprised and I really, really have the most respect for. And that he… He says it in his afterward, he calls war folly that nobody wins a war, and I think this kind of sentiment and the trauma that he took away from World War II, I just applaud him for actually being that honest and forthcoming about his feelings and how he overcame sort of what he experienced in World War II. And I just don’t think we get that a lot. World War II isn’t a war that we often think of when it’s written about, having that sort of in-depth handling of sort of what war does to a human being.
Brett McKay: So looking back, big picture, how pivotal was the 100th Bomb Group in the European theater?
Kevin Maurer: I think they were essential. I think without that campaign and without the sacrifices made by the airmen of the Eighth Air Force to achieve the goals that they achieved, I’m not sure everything else works out as it does, because you needed that constant pressure on Nazi Germany that the air campaign did. And then having air superiority, ask any American soldier now about the importance of air superiority. Ask the Ukrainians, about the importance of air superiority, and they’re gonna tell you, “If you control the skies, you’ve got freedom of movement, but if every time you move and you’re afraid that you’re gonna get attacked from the air, it just makes everything else harder. It seems impossible for me, for the American and allies to land on the Normandy beaches during D-Day and be able to break out if they were under constant harassment from the air, because they weren’t, I think that lends itself to the success of that mission.
Brett McKay: Alright, so while Lucky, we find his last mission, they upped the required missions from 25 to 30, but they grandfathered Lucky in. So all he had to do was 25. He did his 25 missions. Last one was kind of like a milk run, basically, he goes home. What happened to… One of my favorite things when I read these books about soldiers in World War II is I like to know what happened to them after the war. I think it’s really interesting. What happened to Lucky, after the war?
Kevin Maurer: So he… What I love about the milk run, going back to that real quick, is he’s the operations officer at that point, and he’s waiting, he’s got one more mission left and he’s gonna hand-pick that mission, ’cause there’s no way he’s going to like Berlin or anywhere where he’s gotta fly a long mission. He’s looking for something he can hit the coast of France with and get out of there, and he and DeSanders, who was another pilot who had 25 missions, they picked… They hand-picked this one, and that mission’s kind of fun, the way they do that, and they’re pretty pumped getting out of there pretty quickly, but he goes home, he has some opportunities. They offered him a chance to command one of the squadrons, but he turned that down and he turned that down… And this is another thing that you learn a little bit about Lucky here, is he turned it down because he knew if he became the commander of the squadron, there’s no way he could not fly again.
They’re gonna get hard missions and he’s gonna have to fly again, and for folks who read the book, remember when he turns down this squadron, he turns it down with his… Probably his head thinking about that first Berlin mission that he ends up getting assigned to, and the way that the commander had treated him on that mission, so he passes on all that and decides he’s just gonna go home. And he’s gonna train crews, replacement crews headed over, so he’s gonna be able to provide them with the hard won lessons that he got. And so he goes back to Tennessee. There’s a good scene there where he’s at church with his parents and the pastor asked him if he wants to stand up and tell ’em, tell the congregation what’s going on over overseas, and he declines. And he basically sits on his war experience for a long time, he bounces around, does some schooling, and eventually resigns his commission in the new fledgling Air Force to go to college. He wanted to finish his college and he gets into the University of Denver and becomes a real estate developer down in Texas.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I like his story. He got married. He had a girl… That was interesting. He had a girl going into the war, they wrote each other, didn’t work out. He did the dear John on her. It wasn’t her doing the dear John on him.
Kevin Maurer: Oh yeah.
Brett McKay: Yeah. But where did he meet his wife? Where did they meet?
Kevin Maurer: They met on a double date when he was down doing some training in Texas, and then he stayed after. I think she was very popular too, so he had to kind of fight his way through the crowd, but she becomes the love of his life, and I think you can trace a lot of the way he adjusted to what he had experienced, I think speaks to her and that marriage.
Brett McKay: And so you said he comes home he’s a real estate developer. I guess he doesn’t really talk much about the war, like when did Lucky… And this is like… This is common for a lot of these World War II vets, they didn’t really talk about it. And until there’s something, always something that causes them to come out of their shell, like start telling these stories. Was there something that kind of nudged Lucky to start telling his story.
Kevin Maurer: He was asked by a school group to talk about his experience and his service over in World War II, and I think that was the first time. And I think he… Forgive me, I wanna say he was six 70 or so. He was older, but he’s asked to talk, kind of recount some of his experiences, and that’s sort of what broke it open for him. And he started talking more about his experiences. He also was a volunteer at the Frontiers of Flight Museum in Dallas, and I think he shared some of his aviation experience there. And I think that’s what led him to me. I mean I think had he not had that experience and sort of had the opportunity to talk a little bit about this, I don’t know if he would have taken part in the book.
Brett McKay: So what have you taken away personally from Lucky’s story you know after spending so much time with him and then also researching about his story?
Kevin Maurer: Well, I learned a ton about the daily grind of the air war, I… Much like everyone, I had sort of a romantic idea of it, and I didn’t really truly understand the conditions they were fighting in. I also just took away… I think I got a friend out of it, I mean I really… We met during COVID and he became very much something that in a time when we were all sort of trying to grapple with what our reality was, I knew I had a conversation with Lucky and I knew what we were gonna talk about. And so that sort of friendship over the phone actually for that, we spent a year on the phone doing this. I think it was a touch point for me, so I feel like I got a really good friend and we sort of have a common experience that we’ll always have. And so that, to me, that’s the most valuable part is I got a chance to meet this… Meet Lucky, but more importantly, I got a chance to tell the story. And this is one of those rare stories you’re always looking for that is bigger than you and has such this great soul at the core of it. So yeah, no, I’m just lucky to have met him.
Brett McKay: I don’t know about you, maybe I think this might have happened to you. Whenever, I talk or interact with these World War II veterans, I always… Somehow just being in their presence and rubbing shoulders with them, it motivates me to be more decent. I don’t know, I think that’s the best way I can describe. It’s like not… It’s like, be a decent human being. I don’t know if that happened… Did that happen to you with your interactions with Lucky.
Kevin Maurer: Absolutely. I mean these guys are an amazing generation. They have a different mindset, they come from a different place than us, and I think there is a level of decency there, and there is a level of unity. And while maybe there were some differences at the smallest level. Overall, this was… We were a nation that united over every… Over a common goal, and that there’s something powerful about that and there’s something makes you wanna be better. It makes you wanna be more decent, and it makes you wanna find that common ground and so… Yeah, no, I absolutely, I know exactly what you’re… That feeling, ’cause I had that same feeling.
Brett McKay: Yeah, well, Kevin it’s been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
Kevin Maurer: I mean, obviously, you can buy it anywhere you buy books. I’ve got a website, KevinMaurer.net that I’m quickly trying to update, [chuckle] but you can get information there. I’m on Twitter at ScribblerSix, is the handle, and obviously we’re gonna be out and about. I’ll be for folks, we’re in Dallas with Lucky he’ll be at the Frontiers of Flight at the end of April for an event around the book, but also a chance to really sit down and talk with Lucky, so we’ll be out and about, and you can find me on Twitter and online.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Will Kevin Maurer. Thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Kevin Maurer: My pleasure, thanks so much for having me.
Brett McKay: My guest was Kevin Maurer. He is the author of the book Damn Lucky: One Man’s Courage During the Bloodiest Military Campaign in Aviation History. It’s available on Amazon.com and in book stores everywhere. You can find more information about his work at his website, KevinMaurer.net. Also check out our show notes at aom.is/B17 where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
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