With the Possum and the Eagle: The Memoir of a Navigator's War over Germany and Japan.
Memoirs are usually interesting and almost always as weak on historical underpinnings as are the works of journalists. The general practice is to cite just enough sources to cover one's backside or to fill in the blanks--find a readable volume on the battle-of-anywhere to flesh out those memories of being pounded by antiaircraft fire while trying to hold the plane steady enough to drop a load of bombs into who-cares-where. Unsurprisingly, the bibliography is a scant two pages.
Author Ralph Nutter had an interesting war. He might well have had a short war because his first plane drew the backside of the B-17 formation and went down early (the crew spent the war in a German POW camp), but by then he was navigator in Col Curtis LeMay's lead bomber. Was that better? The attrition rate for bombers flying over Germany in daylight without fighter escort in 1942 and 1943 was so high that, statistically, it was nearly impossible to complete a tour without injury or death.
Nutter was lucky, extremely so, but he was also skilled at his profession, which allowed him to move into a relatively sheltered position--but not until after he had finished more than his full complement of missions as group navigator under LeMay in Eighth Air Force over Europe. His move was not really all that sheltered because he volunteered for Pacific duty with Brig Gen Haywood Hansell in Twentieth Air Force. As head navigator for Hansell's B-29s, he was adviser to the commander and head of navigator training. Although finished with combat flying, he served in a war zone rather than taking the fully safe option of heading stateside. There is a touch of patriotic sacrifice in that choice that sounds a different tone not all that common--or at least not advertised--today. Nutter pursued a career in law after the war, retiring as a presiding judge after 55 years. He began his memoir when former members of his unit began dying; by the time he finished, few were left.
Although the author uses few secondary sources, he does have the advantage of having experienced what he writes. Additionally, he took time during his research to get in touch with LeMay and the others who feature in his story. After all, With the Possum and the Eagle is a memoir--not a defining history of this or that. Although a cut above the norm, it will not win any Bancroft Prize for history.
The book might wake up a few old-timers though. At a level beyond the mere "what I did in the war," Nutter takes pains to delineate the debate over high-altitude formation bombing and addresses the controversy over firestorms generated by American incendiaries in civilian areas, particularly Tokyo. He uses as foils for this discussion two of the men he served under--Hansell and LeMay. One was unable or unwilling to abandon high-formation, target-specific bombing even as it repeatedly demonstrated its unworkability. The other made the transition and came as close as anyone to proving that bombing alone can defeat an enemy.
Nutter has either a really good memory or a really good diary. He balances discussion of missions and meetings with the telling anecdote--touching or humorous but never inappropriate. This relatively small volume is easy to read, pleasurable, and informative. It may not warrant inclusion on every warrior's bookshelf, but it does deserve at least a couple of hours of attention.
Dr. John H. Barnhill
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|Author:||Barnhill, John H.|
|Publication:||Air & Space Power Journal|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2008|
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