Book review: “Lightning Down”

The storm’s a-coming.

You can smell it in the air: rain’s on the way, maybe thunder, maybe more, but the high winds are what you hate. They make you run for shelter and pray hard. The storm’s a-coming, and in “Lightning Down” by Tom Clavin, it’s never as mild as you hope it’d be.

As a young man on the farm near Ferndale, Washington, all Joe Moser wanted to do was to fly airplanes – the P-38 Lightning, to be specific – but though it was his deepest desire, he knew that it probably wasn’t possible: as the oldest son of a widowed mother, Joe had to take care of the farm and besides, piloting a P-38 was something only for college graduates.

Joe was doing chores when he heard of the attack on Pearl Harbor and, like most young men then, he hastened to sign up to for the military. He tested for the Army Air Corps but, though the rules were relaxed, his scores were too low for pilot school and it looked like Joe was headed for the infantry until someone re-checked those scores. Suddenly, he was on his way to twenty-plus months of training before being sent to England to pilot the P-38.

That was a job he turned out to be good at. It didn’t take long for him to receive a Distinguished Flying Cross and shortly after that, a promotion to first lieutenant. Writes Clavin, “He was still only twenty-two years old.”

Surely, Joe Moser knew the danger of what he was doing, but he chose not to dwell on it. He went out every day and did his job, hoping “he would get out of this thing yet in one piece.” By early August of 1944, he’d had forty-three missions “under his belt” and he was looking forward to rotating out and going home. 

But on August 13 – his forty-fourth mission – Joe was shot down and captured…

Now, here’s the thing: if author Tom Clavin had stopped right there, you’d still have a heckuva heart-pounder in your hands with “Lightning Down.” 

But that’s not the end of this story, not by a long shot.

Clavin takes this tale beyond, not to a rugged POW camp run by the Red Cross, but into the Buchenwald Concentration Camp where Lt. Moser was sent after his capture, then along a forced march that reads like a fever-dream. Not one single thing in this narrative is softened: Clavin relentlessly plunges readers directly into the horror of the camp in passages that are almost numbing in their content and number and nightmarish detail, but that are broken up sometimes by moments of courage. We know how this ends – Moser is saved, right? Right? – but we really don’t know, not until it actually happens.

This book is an absolute winner for your Dad, your Granddad, your uncle, anyone who’s a veteran or a World War II buff or readers seeking a tale of heroism. Find it now, and let “Lightning Down” strike you.

“Lightning Down: A World War II Story of Survival” by Tom Clavin

c.2021, St. Martin’s Press $29.99 / higher in Canada 320 pages

Author Tom Clavin.