TAILSPIN

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Gene Moran grew up in Soldiers Grove, a small farm town in Wisconsin with a population of 624. After the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, he was eager to join the war, and just after he turned 18 years old, he managed to convince his begrudging parents to grant him permission. He enlisted in the Air Corps and became trained to become a tail gunner on a B-17 Flying Fortress, joining the crew of the Rikki Tikki Tavi. On a dangerous bombing mission conducted above Bremen, Germany, Moran’s plane came under heavy fire—the tail split from the rest of the plane, and he plummeted to the Earth four miles without a parachute. Miraculously, Moran survived, though badly injured—both of his arms were shattered by bullets; some of his ribs were broken; and his skull was fractured. This marked only the beginning of what Moran was to endure, a harrowing experience deftly described by Armbruster. After multiple surgeries, Moran spent 17 months in a German prisoner-of-war camp and suffered “starvation, deprivation, sickness, despair.” The author aims for what he calls “narrative nonfiction”—a true, novelistic account free of embellishment and as accurate as Moran’s memory and willingness to share allowed. At one point, Moran declared: “There are some things that are NEVER going to go into any book!” Armbruster includes an account of Moran’s liberation from captivity and his return home, a touching story of personal triumph that defies belief. In addition, the author depicts his chance meeting with Moran and the context of the period, including the poignantly related tale of Armbruster’s wife’s struggle with brain cancer, one to which she ultimately succumbed. Moran’s survival is a cinematically grand story, bigger than life but not fantastical, dramatically gripping as well as emotionally stirring.

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