/ Published May 07, 2014
The Final Mission of Bottoms Up: A World War II Pilot’s Story by Dennis R. Okerstrom. University of Missouri Press, 2011, 272 pp.
Author Dennis Okerstrom has done all of us a very great favor. Lee Lamar, the primary figure in Okerstrom’s book The Final Mission of “Bottoms Up,” is now 91 years old and, like his contemporaries, will not be with us in the flesh forever. The author has caught his story before it slips away into oblivion, recording it for everyone. This is a story worth sharing, even savoring, especially because of its unique time and distance-spanning context. It is not simply a World War II story about the crew of Bottoms Up, a B-24 Liberator; rather, it paints a vivid picture of a much larger tale that includes Yugoslavian (Croatian) partisans, contemporary archaeology, and Croat veterans of their own more recent conflict.
We generally fail to appreciate the very wise and certainly enormous readiness effort that took place in the United States in the years preceding its entrance into World War II. While Congress dithered over whether or not to reinstate the draft, the executive branch—especially the War Department—made extensive preparations that proved to be prescient. Prior to the war, the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP), for example, established the basis for a real war effort, putting thousands of young men through flight training. Between 1939 and 1944, the CPTP and its successor, the War Training Service, trained a total of 435,165 pilots who recorded nearly 12 million flying hours. Lee Lamar was one of those CPTP participants who saw an opportunity to expand his world beyond the confines of his family’s farm in northwest Missouri and embark on a course that included not only flight training but also a college education.
Many veterans of World Ward II’s conflict in the air followed similar paths. A large number also experienced getting shot down, bailing out over enemy-held territory, and spending the duration of the war in a prisoner of war (POW) camp. Not many, however, visited their crash site years later, found the precise location of their parachute landing, marked the spot where they were captured, or visited with now-elderly partisans who helped some of their crewmates escape. That is what makes this book unique and a delight to read.
The incredible confluence of a modern Croat archaeologist discovering the scattered remains of a wartime B-24 and the ability and determination to track down the identity of that aircraft’s crew, ultimately arranging a visit for the copilot is nothing short of incredible—a superb example of “history detectives” at their finest. Okerstrom captures that story and masterfully weaves it into a narrative of Lieutenant Lamar’s journey from CPTP cadet to B-24 copilot to POW in Stalag Luft 1. The modern part of the story highlights the determined curiosity of Luka Bekic, Croat archaeologist and veteran of his country’s war for independence. Perhaps only a soldier could appreciate the potential story associated with the scraps of aluminum he found near Pula, Croatia. Only a skilled, determined researcher could trace their definitive origin, associate them with a specific crew, and ultimately contact the survivors. This is a case of the right person being in the right place at just the right time.
I must admit, I enjoyed this book so much that I took a little detour across the river one day just to see Lamar’s home town of Faucett, Missouri, and to visit Rosecrans Field near St. Joseph, Missouri, where he did his CPTP training. It was like a short trip through history. Thank you, Professor Okerstrom, for your book that prompted the tour.
Thomas E. Ward II, PhD
Fort Leavenworth, Kansas
"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."