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‘Last Raid,’ by Robert A. Hand, Sr., Hand Enterprises, Boynton Beach, Fla., 1995, $19.95 softcover.

Many books have been written by former pilots and crewmen about their World War II combat experiences. Perhaps it’s understandable in light of the fact that many of us who served are well aware that there are many more years behind us than ahead. Most of the self-published books that are written without profit in mind are of interest only to the author’s family. Only a few may enjoy readership beyond one’s home, except perhaps by friends who shared the experiences. But this reviewer received one recently that deserves more than passing attention because it is well-written and is illustrated with the author’s sketches and photographs. Robert A. Hand is a retired U.S. Air Force reserve captain who was a bombardier on “Old 517,” a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress of the 303rd Bomb Group at Molesworth, England.

A former art director for an advertising agency in New England, Hand begins with a description of the morning after he had flown his 35th and last bombing mission. After watching his buddies take off on their missions that day, he found a typewriter and recounted all the events that had taken place the day before. After several hours of typing, he added some drawings and put the manuscript and artwork away in a folder titled “Last Raid,” along with photos and his log book. For more than 50 years, he moved that original account “from apartment to home, from box to suitcase to safe-deposit box, through marriage and divorce, pausing now and then to reread its timeworn passages, adding new recollections and details and promising someday I’d put it all into print.”

Hand did put it into print, and what follows is a down-to-earth description of his innermost thoughts when he learned that the target for his final mission was Berlin. As he goes through the routine of briefing, preflight checks, taxi out and takeoff, we learn what every crew member of the Flying Forts had to do to prepare for the ultimate moment of bombs away. As the plane plods on in formation, Hand gives the reader the intimate details of the flight, which flak threatened to put an end to before the B-17 could “leap for joy” at being relieved of its bomb burden. It was after the drop that enemy flak bursts caught Hand’s Fort and mangled its chin turret. However, no one was hurt, and the crew, in a traditional last mission ceremony, had their pants painted with a red “35” and posed for photos with their posteriors toward the camera.

Hand also reflects on his thoughts in battle during previous missions, his frustrations, the humor (such as the secret dismantling of the Molesworth skeet shooting high tower for firewood), curfews in London, VD lectures, “cloud pies,” singing on a bombing raid, and the album of sketches he made during his tour. It’s a refreshingly different autobiography of a “Bomb-Navi-Gunner” who flew 241 combat hours with the 360th Squadron. He says it’s also a tribute to “my comrades-in-arms, to my instructors, crew chief, commanders, folks at home, ladies off base,” and family members.

Hand hopes that some of his long-lost crewmen and friends “will come across this volume and briefly be taken back to a time when the spirit of patriotism soared high and we knew the resiliency and adventure of youth.” It’s written in the language of a 20-year-old about to become a man, we think they and others will like it.

C.V. Glines