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Lost Eagles: One Man's Mission to Find Missing Airmen in Two World Wars

Lost Eagles: One Man’s Mission to Find Missing Airmen in Two World Wars by Blaine Pardoe. University of Michigan Press, 2010, 264 pp.

One of the finest traits of our Air Force is the degree to which we attempt to locate and retrieve our missing Airmen whether they are alive or dead. Blaine Pardoe’s book Lost Eagles: One Man’s Mission to Find Missing Airmen in Two World Wars reminds of a time when this principle was not so ingrained. Pardoe, a frequent writer on World War I aviation topics, presents a biography of Frederick W. Zinn, an early American aviator who took an abiding interest in locating the remains of missing aircrews from that war and continued to do so through World War II until his death in 1960. The work is interesting and often intriguing but falls somewhat short of its promise.

Pardoe traces Zinn’s life story from his childhood in Battle Creek, Michigan, through engineering studies at the University of Michigan and his 1914 voyage to Europe on a postgraduation lark, arriving as the war began. In Paris, Zinn gets caught up in the “short war” frenzy and becomes part of the initial group of Americans to enlist into the French Foreign Legion, looking for a little adventure. Finding life in the trenches a bit less glamorous—and much longer—than expected, he transferred to the newly created Lafayette Flying Corps in 1916 and then to the American Air Service in 1917 where he was Billy Mitchell’s chief of personnel. In this last capacity, Zinn found what would become his life’s work—finding missing Airmen. Pardoe’s narrative shows Zinn’s concerns for accounting for the missing even before the war ended and his efforts to find about 200 Airmen after the armistice, many of them successfully. Returning to civilian life in 1919, he remained interested in the topic—an interest that he rekindled at the outset of World War II when he urged the Army Air Corps to learn from his experiences. Pardoe shows how Zinn, though only in a civilian capacity, managed to secure approval for and design the first Missing Air Crew Report (MACR) and become a member of the Office Strategic Services (OSS) in Europe to further his agenda of finding crews. The author takes great care to use a balanced approach in portraying Zinn’s rise from French private to American major to civilian OSS operative, including the less flattering sides of his subject’s often prickly personality. This objectivity makes the narrative much more compelling and believable.

Rather than utilize a straight narrative, Pardoe presents Zinn’s life and efforts interspersed with thumbnail sketches of the missing for whom he searched in both European conflicts. These vignettes are the most intriguing parts of the book. Instead of dwelling on luminaries such as Frank Luke or even David Putnam (who, at his death, was the leading American “ace”), Pardoe uses Zinn’s efforts to illustrate the more typical American aviator. Moreover, these vignettes contain many of the same issues that vex casualty efforts today: misinformation, false hope among family members, the dignified handling of remains, and the disposition of personal effects. Additionally, each episode has the kernel of a minimystery which Zinn attempted—often with success—to solve. The author would have been better served by expanding this portion of his story, thus illuminating Zinn’s challenges and the tragedy of those lost in our first air war.

However, for all its merits, Lost Eagles does not convincingly prove the author’s thesis—that Fred Zinn pioneered and influenced the techniques and procedures for finding missing aircrews. The author cannot draw a straight line between a so-called Zinn System and the systematic efforts later used by the military. Perhaps the example of a methodical process for collecting information and searching when territory is accessible was a sufficient start for what followed. However, as is clear from Pardoe’s narrative, the Army Air Corps had completely forgotten any lessons from World War I by the time World War II had engulfed Europe. That the MACRs he designed in a Washington hotel are important documents to the process is inescapable, but beyond that contribution, Zinn’s true impact remains uncertain. Although Zinn advocated for a central clearinghouse of all aircrew information (regardless of service), Pardoe presents no evidence that his recommendations or advocacy led to the creation of either the Central Identification Lab or the Joint Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Accounting Command.

Lost Eagles is well written, well researched, and intriguing in its presentation of both Zinn and the objects of his searches. For readers deeply interested in early aviation (especially in World War I) or casualty/mortuary affairs, Lost Eagles is a compelling—if slightly flawed—bookshelf addition.

Lt Col Christopher Parrish, USAF

Pentagon, Washington, DC

"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."

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