Growing up, I knew the basics about his father’s war history. He was a B-17 pilot and stationed at Thurleigh, England with the 306th Bomb Group. His plane was named the Susan Ruth after my oldest sister who was one year old at the time he went overseas. He flew combat bombing missions over occupied Europe and Germany and was shot down over the French/Belgium border on February 8, 1944. He was missing in action for 7 months but evaded capture. After being hidden by the Belgian underground for a few months, he got tired of hiding and joined the French Resistance sabotaging German convoys. Eventually he met up with Patton’s 3rd Army on September 2, 1944 after they came up through France after D-Day and my dad made it back to England.
However, it wasn’t until I retired in 2009 from a 40 year career in sales and sales management that I had the time to really delve into my father’s war experiences in greater detail. I had no intentions of writing a book. I just wanted to go through all the material my parents had kept from the war years to learn more. Two items were most significant. One was a diary that my father had written while he was missing in action about his plane being shot down which was absolutely riveting. The other item was all the letters my father had written to my mother while he was stationed in England. In them, he talked about flying combat missions, life on base and in the surrounding villages, trips into London, and adventures of his crew. Reading those letters was fascinating, and I became fascinated with the story of my father and his crew. In fact, it became my passion.
I went on a quest to find relatives of the crew members and asked them for information. I read book after book about the air war over Europe, spent countless hours on the internet doing research and downloading declassified military documents, and started attending reunions of various WW II organizations listening to veterans tell their stories. I am currently president of the 306th Bomb Group Historical Association. Finally in 2012, I decided to write a book. After my years of research, I came to the conclusion that the story of my father and his crew was so unique and so compelling that it just had to be told and people needed to read about it. My book, SHOT DOWN: The true story of pilot Howard Snyder and the crew of the B-17 Susan Ruth was released in August 2014 and has received over 20 national book awards since then.
Although SHOT DOWN is centered on Howard Snyder and his crew, it also contains in depth information about the B-17 Flying Fortress, the combat crews of the Eighth Air Force, and the air war over Europe. The first half of the book leads up to the day the plane was knocked out of the sky by two German Focke-Wulf 190 fighter planes. It includes following my father through pilot training, the crew’s journey to England, what life was like both on base and in England, and descriptions of perilous combat missions from take-off to landing. The second half is about what happened to each member of the crew after that harrowing day (five of the crew made it back home, and five did not) and about all the courageous Belgian people who risked their lives to help them.
Everything in the book is factual and based on first hand testimony by the people who were involved in the events that took place. To complement the story, SHOT DOWN contains many excerpts from my father’s letters, and the print book includes more than 200 time period photographs. To add background and context to the story, many historical facts and anecdotes about and surrounding the war are entwined throughout the book so that a reader has a feel for and understanding of what was occurring on a broader scale.
It was on a mission to Frankfurt, Germany that my father’s plane dropped its bombs successfully, but the bomb bay doors were hit by anti-aircraft fire (flak), and they couldn’t get them back up. That caused a drag on the plane, and it lost air speed. As a result, the B-17 Susan Ruth fell behind the formation heading back to England and was singled out by the Focke-Wulf 190s fighters who swooped in for the kill. During the ensuring air battle, the Susan Ruth was shot down. Two crew members were killed in the plane, and the other eight were able to bail out although three of them were killed a couple months later on the ground.
One day while I was doing my research, my wife Glenda asked me, “Why don’t to try to find the German pilot who shot down the plane.” which I thought was a ridiculous idea. However, like a good husband, I did what my wife told me, and lo and behold, I found Hans Berger who was shot down by the gunners on my dad’s crew. They actually shot each other down. Fortunately for me, Hans became a translator after the war so he speaks fluent English. Through email and telephone conversations I interviewed him for the book, and he provided me with some wonderful information about what it was like to go up against the 8th Air Force.
I have visited Belgian four times. In 1989, a memorial was erected in Macquenoise to the B-17 Susan Ruth crew. The first trip was with my parents in 1994, and that is when it became personal to me. On my last trip in May 2016, I filmed all the locations mentioned in the book. I then went to Munich, Germany to film an interview with Hans Berger, now 93 years old. I plan to make a documentary.
Article written by Steve Snyder. For more information, go to http://SteveSnyderAuthor.com.