Contributor: David Stubblebine
Review Date: 22 Sep 2017
Full Title: Lucky's Life: Letters Home from Lt. William R Larson, USNR, a Beloved Son, Brother, and WWII Torpedo Bomber Fighter Pilot - Squadron VC 38
In the interest of full disclosure, I should state that this book came to me as a gift from the author with a request to read and review it. This did not influence how much I enjoyed this book, however; although I may have been attracted to it for reasons not shared by many.
Lucky's Life is first and foremost a family memorial to a lost son, brother, uncle, shipmate, and friend. The author, Don Larson, is the nephew of William R. Larson who, early in his naval aviation career, earned the nickname "Lucky." Don Larson undertook this book to commemorate the uncle he never met and to create a lasting historical account of his uncle's life and death for all of the Larson family or anyone else who might be interested (like me). This places the book squarely in the category of a reminiscence but it has historical value beyond that. Just as Saving Private Ryan and Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo use the literary device of telling an historical tale through the eyes of specific individuals, Lucky's Life tells an important historical account of early World War II naval aviation through the eyes of Lucky Larson. The larger story includes leaving the farm to join the Navy, flight school, cruiser assignments that included Atlantic Neutrality Patrols, escorting the Doolittle Raid, and the Aleutian Campaign, plus the Solomon Offensive from shore bases. Pretty impressive.
The part of telling this tale that most attracted me was the way the author chose to present it. The book is almost entirely transcriptions of original documents from the time the events occurred. Don Larson's quest began with the discovery of a trunk in an upstairs bedroom of the family home in rural North Dakota. The trunk contained every one of his uncle's letters home and, most astonishingly, Lucky's flight log book. From there, Don Larson started getting to know the uncle who was killed well before he was born. The author added letters kept by other family members and friends, Navy records and photographs (some not declassified until after the author was already on the hunt), papers kept by the family of one of Lucky's crewmen, and ultimately personal visits to the far away places where Lucky's Navy life took place - and ended. All of this was packed into this book and nearly all of it in their original forms.
When I first saw this book, I was a little daunted by its size; 600 pages, but I was quickly relieved to find that it was an easy read. I was becoming increasingly interested in the daily activities of Lucky Larson but then an odd thing happened: just under half way through the book, I turned the page to see that the next chapter was titled "Epilogue." With over half of the book left to go, the story was over. It took me a minute to get it but this was also very of symbolic of Lucky's life. The book up to that point had been a collection of Lucky's original letters home, some letters to him from his mother or father, some squadron records, and mission reports that all told the story of Lucky's Navy days; but the second half of the book was appendix after appendix of even more original documents that the author had amassed from all quarters as he researched the book. All in all, a very impressive collection of material.
I said before that I may have been attracted to this book for reasons that are shared by few. What I meant was that I would prefer to study historical events through the original documents created at the time: the ships' logs, squadron action reports, individual servicemen's service records, and the like. Getting the story right from the horse's mouth appeals to me more than reading someone else's account. I would rather read in one of Lucky's letters to his mother that the heat and perpetual moisture of the Solomons covered a pair of his shoes with green mold than have some historian tell me that the tropical conditions were hard on the equipment.
But Lucky's life was not all about keeping his shoes dry. He had a remarkable aviation career. He earned the nickname "Lucky" because he came through several incidents that usually only lucky people get through, but in his case it was not due to luck, it was because he was an exceptional aviator. And I don't think that because Don Larson said so but because the records said so. The book also appealed to me, I must confess, because it deals with World War II Naval Aviation and a TBF Avenger pilot, same as my Dad. But there is more to this book than its parallels with my father's career.
I believe this book is chiefly meant for the Larson family and therefore might not be for everyone, but for readers who like stories seen through their finer details, I would recommend this book.
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