Seeing the name Robert O. Harder on the cover is sufficient reason to buy the book. Bob combines excellent writing and superb research with an almost unique advantage of having hands on-experience in the long ago era of which he writes. Further he has a talent for choosing subjects that have often been written about, but which are too often filled with errors. In “The Three Musketeers of the army Air Forces: From Hitler’s Fortress Europa to Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” Harder tells the story of true leaders in action. They include the immortal Paul Tibbets, the far less well known Tom Ferebee, and the even less written about Ted Van Kirk.
History has a funny way of choosing its heroes and both Ferebee and Van Kirk deserved as much coverage as Tibbets—but that’s not the way it worked out. This fascinating book corrects the problem, with a detailed account of their amazing partnership in war on three continents, and the manner in which they created tactics to increase accuracy and reduce casualties. Harder properly acknowledges the good research which preceded his efforts, but emphasizes the importance of his interviews with “Dutch” Van Kirk himself--who is cited as being the core of the narrative and his contributions as immeasurable. With Harder’s experience as a navigator/bombardier, he was able to ask pointed questions on technique. He was equal to direct queries about their giant size personalities, as when he asked Van Kirk “How was it the three of you got along so well.” The veteran airman gave the perfect reply: “No one ever tried to tell the other guy how to do his job.”
The bibliography is excellent, particularly with its inclusion of the reference numbers of important documents held at the North Carolina History Museum in Raleigh.
—Col. Walter Boyne, USAF (Ret.), member of the National Aviation Hall of Fame and author of The Influence of Air Power upon History
Author Robert O. Harder had the ideal background with which to write this book (from which I also have learned a great deal!). Not only had he himself flown 145 combat missions as a navigator-bombardier in the Vietnam War, but he had also been a commercial pilot and a businessman. More than that, in his retirement he had the time and the desire to make the history and careers of the Three Musketeers, as they had been called, fit the eras in which they served. Thus he starts with chapters on the road each took to their B-17 bomb group in its formation at Sarasota Field, Florida, in early 1942.
For the present-day reader who wants to know what the Great Depression was like, the lives of Tom Ferebee and Ted Van Kirk as well as the impact of Pearl Harbor and its career-changing effects, Harder paints a realistic picture of their hard-working rural lives and then follows that with details of their USAAC/USAAF training. Captain Paul Tibbets’ story provides another dimension to the trio, as his background had been “moderately well-to-do” middle-class and a pilot, not that of a farm boy.
“Three Musketeers” is both easy-reading and educational. Everything is explained not only by the author but also by the era. The iconic Boeing B17 is the epitome of the end of the second stage of the history of the USAAF/USAF before it entered the jet era, still commanded until the 1960s by the leaders of the 1941–1945 war. It was during the 1942–1943 campaign in North Africa that Tibbets, Ferebee, and Van Kirk bonded in spite of their differences in rank.
The re-creation of all the sequences as well as the human relationships are excellent. What happened over Hiroshima has been less adequately told than in the faithful retelling herein. The aftermath once again adds new insights.
Harder ties up the story nicely by following the post-1945 careers of the three, and of the atomic-bombs' subsequent controversies, following the whole with copious endnotes, bibliography, and index.
—Prof. Robin Higham is the author of Two Roads to War (1918–1940) and of Unflinching Zeal (the Battle of Britain, 1940) and is emeritus professor of military history at Kansas State University
The Three Musketeers of the Army Air Forces is unique. Robert Harder brings his knowledge and vast insights as a bomber crew navigator-combat veteran (B-52 strikes during Vietnam) to sift through the murk of the conflicting stories of those pilots on the atomic missions to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Readers interested in WWII, the climactic end of the war, the dropping of the atom bombs, airpower, and the human interest angle—all factors that make the basis of a great movie—will be thoroughly entertained.
—D. M. Giangreco, author of Hell to Pay: Operation DOWNFALL and the Invasion of Japan, 1945-1947
Robert Harder has come closer than any other writer in capturing the special relationship that existed between my grandfather, Tom Ferebee, and Dutch Van Kirk. This is an intriguing story of three gifted aviators, war-proven leaders, and a partnership that changed the world.
--Brig. Gen. Paul W. Tibbets IV, U.S. Air Force