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For the citizen soldier – a veteran:
the person who dons a uniform to do what has to be done,
then melts back into the fabric of society.
Tom MacMillan woke with a start. He couldn’t remember his dream, but the twist in his stomach put his nerves on edge. His combat tour as a replacement pilot with the Twenty-Sixth Fighter Group had begun the day before.
The metal bunk creaked as his six-foot-two frame rolled off it. Tom looked at the luminous dial of his watch. It was early. Engine start for his first mission was at oh-nine hundred.
After a hot shower, Tom sat on a wood bench watching layers of steam drift about the brick room. His eyes felt heavy.
He dressed, then maneuvered through the dark to the flight mess, which doubled as the officers’ club. It was a rugged structure of gray stone, with green-and-yellow lichen filling the gaps. Thick blackout curtains hung behind tall mullioned windows. Tom pulled on a heavy oak door. Wainscoting, dark with age, lined the walls while comfortable-looking chairs beckoned. Every wood surface glowed with a sheen that came only from routine polishing.
Elsewhere military personnel made due with powdered eggs, but the club’s manager, Graham Higgins, worked the black market to ensure that his fighter pilots feasted. The elderly British steward placed a cup with saucer before Tom.
“Good morning, Captain. Welcome to Hytheham,” he said, pouring coffee. “I’m Graham Higgins. I oversee the aircrew’s dining facilities, and if you have any problems, ask for me. How would you like your eggs, sir?”
“Over medium.” Tom expected a humorous retort, but something in the man’s tone told him the availability of fresh eggs was real. “I see most of the pilots don’t eat breakfast.”
Mr. Higgins smiled his understanding. “Rarely, sir,” he said and departed. When he returned, he brought Tom hash browns, three real eggs over medium, crisp bacon, and American-style biscuits.
The fluffy, warm goodness tasted like home, but the meal was unsettling. It seemed more like a spread for the condemned.
The balding waiter poured more coffee for Tom. “I beg your pardon, sir, but we have no orange juice. I am aware that American gentlemen enjoy orange juice with their breakfast.” He added with a hint of humor, “There is a war on, you know.”
After eating, Tom threaded a path across the base in the dark and through the freezing fog to the base theater that also served as a briefing hall. He managed to stay on improvised walkways of perforated steel planks, missing most of the muck. He already hated this place.
Other pilots began arriving. Each had a brown bandit’s mask of sunned skin surrounding the eyes, while a sickly pallor covered the rest of the face.
The session was now thirty-five minutes away. A few pilots smeared peanut butter on dark brown bread and drank coffee. One of them, who spoke German, dubbed the bread schwarze scheisse—black shit—in an unpleasant voice. Most of the pilots did not talk, while others pretended to relax. One man hunched over a waste can to whittle folksy art on a small block of wood.
Tom’s stomach whirled as he sat staring toward the front of the auditorium. He longed for a distraction, like his favorite cheesecake magazine, Beauty Parade.
An army cook brought in an urn of coffee; another carried leftover biscuits and real butter. The pilots scrambled to their feet and surged at the treats.
Slowly the room filled. Some pilots had to stand as they waited.
Suddenly, one of the double doors in the back flew open, and a stocky young man with close-cropped blond hair bounced jovially into the room. His leather flying clothes made him look like a brown Santa Claus.
“Damn, this is categorically fubar! Don’t tell me they’re gonna send us up in this shit,” Captain Hobart Bauer exclaimed. “I had to go on instruments just to get here.”
A couple of the pilots gave Bauer weak laughs.
Tom surveyed the room. In the back, a redheaded replacement pilot of about twenty years slumped in a ragged cushioned chair while engrossed in a thick paperback. A pinkish bandit’s mask encompassed Second Lieutenant Nathan “Skippy” Littrell’s green eyes, and his boyish face radiated a healthy glow. He belonged on an air corps recruiting poster.
Nearby, Tom’s squadron commander, Major Sam Schiflett, and a replacement pilot, Second Lieutenant Lloyd Lundschen, chatted quietly. The lieutenant leaned in to hear the huskier major, who made abrupt gestures. Tom eavesdropped, shocked to hear the major jabbering harshly in German.
The short, swarthy Colonel Moretti marched briskly into the room, and Major Dietz called, “Ten-hut!”
The pilots jumped to their feet.
“Greetings, gallant knights!” Moretti walked across the briefing platform. “The bombers have been airborne for two hours while you young men lounged about.”
Dietz said, “At ease or be seated.”
Feet shuffled as the mob sat down.
“Two hours? Aw, shit! Just wonderful. We’re going to Krautville again,” Bauer said.
Moretti picked up a pointer and stepped over to a blue curtain. Dietz pulled a cord, drawing the curtain aside and exposing a wall map. A crimson ribbon outlined the route from Dover, across the channel and into Belgium, then into Germany.
“True enough, Captain Bauer,” Moretti declared. “Only there’s a new clincher to this mission. We are now operational for deep penetration all the way to Stuttgart. This raid will have two fighters for each bomber all the way in. We are putting up Thunderbolts and Mustangs. The Thunderbolts will take high cover to Mainz. Regardless of flak, the Mustangs will remain with their B-17 escorts. The idea is to surprise the enemy. They won’t be expecting a swarm of P-51s waiting to attack, especially if Nazis report that the Thunderbolts broke off before the flak barrage at Mainz. This is a maximum effort for the bombers, and we will be maximum effort as well.” Moretti snap-turned to another officer. “Major Durham?”
Major Durham limped from a flak wound to the podium and addressed the room. “Gentlemen, this is going to be it! This is the big one. If you don’t get some kills on this mission, you’re not really trying.
“First, the bad news. Intelligence reports the Nazis have beefed up the antiaircraft cannon emplacements near Mainz, particularly the type 41 gun. That flak is unusually accurate up to forty thousand feet.
“Now for the good news. There’s another Focke-Wulf group deployed at Frankfurt. You can expect five enemy air groups to engage on your flight to the target. There will be kills available for everyone.”
Tom broke into a cold sweat as Durham tapped the map with the pointer.
“This is where they’ll try to wear you down. First, Messerschmitt 110s, then 109s. Both groups are from Bonn. As you close in on the target, three other air groups will converge for the coup de grâce against the bombers. Mostly Focke-Wulf 190s. This is where you Mustangs come in. You may expect more than two hundred and thirty enemy aircraft at any given time. We hope you boys will trim that number down for the relief fighters on withdrawal. Any questions?”
“Yeah,” Bauer said. “Is there any good news?”
Durham smiled. “Of course. For supper tonight the aircrew mess will have roast beef and mashed potatoes with brown gravy. Tonight’s vegetable de jour will be steamed broccoli with cheese sauce. And, for dessert, deep-dish apple pie.”
Many of the pilots applauded.
Durham’s face then looked heavy, and he sighed. “Unfortunately, ground personnel will be having Spam and cabbage. Again.” He passed the pointer to the bespectacled weather officer, Captain Merrill, who walked over to the map.
“Gentlemen. As you can see, the weather is as vile as Spam and cabbage. I have good news and bad. First the good news: I am not forecasting ice. It’s too damn cold, but visibility is down to half a mile, so you won’t see the end of the runway. Conditions should improve before you return.”
“Yeah, like last time!” Bauer piped up.
“This soup thins out at eighteen thousand feet and clears by twenty thousand. The temperature at twenty thousand is minus fifty-five degrees. At midchannel the cloud deck will taper off, and visibility will begin clearing as you progress to the target.”
“Yeah, and the Krauts will progressively see us,” Bauer said.
Moretti stood, smiled patiently, and shook his head at his pet mutineer. “All right, gentlemen,” he said. “Don’t lose sight of the flights ahead of you on takeoff or we’ll never form up. Takeoff time will be ten hundred hours. Rendezvous with the bombers at twelve o’clock sharp! That is all, gentlemen. Let’s go flame some Nazis!”
After the briefing, Tom raced for the officers’ latrine. He ducked into an empty stall and relieved himself of his breakfast. A chill laced through his veins as an icy grip twisted his stomach. His mind raced, desperate for a reason not to fly.
He tried the hot water tap. It was cold. He splashed some on his face anyway, and then drank some to relieve his raw throat. He wondered what the colonel would do if he hid somewhere until the planes left.
Probably the stockade. Court martial or death? He shook his head. Damn! Some choice. He knew he could not endure the dishonor of prison.
Tom looked outside the latrine and saw a line of pilots moving to the equipment hut. After his shakes calmed, he forced himself to follow. Walking between the Quonsets, he tried to move methodically without thinking about the mission.
Inside the equipment hut, he found open racks along one side of the half-barrel room. Each rack held a pilot’s equipment—helmet, goggles, oxygen mask, parachute, rubber dinghy, and, lastly, a life vest affectionately called a Mae West, named after the well-endowed film star. The hard, folded dinghy dangling from the parachute pack.
Before gearing up, Tom slipped a homemade tourniquet made of parachute cord into his flight jacket pocket. He made the tourniquet large enough to fit over his leather flight suit.
At a counter, a corporal slid an escape kit and pistol to Tom. He knew the canvas pack consisted of hand-colored silk maps, chocolate K-ration bars, and Nazi German and Vichy French paper money. He wondered if the money was counterfeit but did not ask.
After slipping on the pack, Tom pulled his .45 automatic from the holster while forcing his hands not to shake. He checked for a clean, unobstructed function.
Having hunted most of his life with a cheap .22-caliber revolver, Tom could take out an erratic, fast-moving rabbit with one shot. Oddly, he shot better with a pistol than a rifle. For a minute, he considered accidentally discharging the gun at his foot but could not muster the resolve.
After checking the extra magazines of ammo in his escape kit, he holstered the weapon and snapped the safety flap into place. The pistol gave him an unexpected sense of reassurance and helped settle the butterflies in his stomach.
Other pilots continued to joke and badger one another as they suited up. Tom finished by bending over to check his parachute harness to ensure the tightened straps were correct when seated. He unsnapped the parachute release so he could stand.
Outside, jeeps waited outside to take the pilots to their aircraft on the far side of the field. Tom waddled over. Schiflett sat in the front passenger seat. He would be leading the four aircraft of Blue Flight—or B Flight—from Arrow Squadron.
The jeep jerked away, trailing a thin pale-blue line of exhaust. Others converged into a line, roaring across the airfield to the awaiting fighters while splashing through the occasional ice-encrusted puddle. The pungent scent of high-octane gasoline and the sickening sweet odor of glycol coolant wafted about. The morning light appeared to have more depth, and the chilled damp air seemed to dance on Tom’s face. His senses were keener than usual. He swallowed hard.
The jeep turned in at the B flight hardstand, the engine whining in protest as the driver downshifted gears. The P-51s sat in a semicircle off a taxiway that ran the length of the single runway. Semicircle walls of sandbags protected each airplane against enemy attacks and mishaps from other aircraft. The jeep jerked to a stop between Schiflett’s and Bauer’s P-51s. Bauer’s Mustang was Blackhearted Poison. Painted on the nose was a sinister but seductive sorceress in a filmy black negligee, lying in a tempting position and toying with a silver dagger. Nine black-and-white German iron crosses beneath the canopy rail depicted his aerial victories. Martha’s Favorite was painted in yellow on Schiflett’s drab-olive machine. Lundschen’s ship, like Tom’s, was unchristened, glistening silver aluminum.
Tom stood and jumped from the jeep. The weight of the cumbersome parachute mated to the rubber dinghy nearly pulled him over backward.
Schiflett grunted, hauling himself up from the jeep’s front seat and lurching toward Martha’s Favorite with his bulky gear. Beneath the canopy rail, thirteen Nazi swastikas represented the major’s kills.
The jeep roared away. Walking up to his untried Mustang, Tom could see his wavy reflection in the polished metal. He wondered how well the Luftwaffe would see the gleaming airplane, reflecting in the higher clear sky. An elongated drop tank holding six hundred pounds of fuel hung beneath each wing. Tom remembered it was made of plastic-impregnated paper and very fragile. He could not land with it attached.
Stumpy Sergeant Tschoepke stood on the wing, waiting. He slid open the canopy as Tom walked up to the front left wheel. The sergeant extended his hand to help Tom up to the cockpit. “Good morning, sir.”
Tom nodded a greeting as he bent over to fasten the leg straps of his parachute. Sliding into the cockpit, he used his butt to push the yellow dinghy into the aluminum seat pan and leaned back into the seat against his parachute. The densely packed dinghy felt like he was sitting on a rock.
Tschoepke pulled at the shoulder straps and laid them across Tom’s shoulders. Tom looked about, plugging in his oxygen mask and radio headset, then setting the fuel-to-air ratio mixture, pitch control, and throttle. Tschoepke knelt, his thickset face peering into the cockpit. An unlit stogie resided in one side of his mouth, occasionally shifting across.
Across the airfield, the Thunderbolt pilots began starting their engines. Tom flipped the primer switch two counts to inject raw fuel into the cylinders and then reluctantly lifted the starter switch. A loud whir vibrated through the fuselage as propeller blades passed across his windscreen. The engine whistled a rising cadence from drawing air, while popping and smoke belched from exhaust ports. A second later, the aircraft shuddered as the 1700-horse Merlin engine caught with a throaty rumble.
Tom adjusted the throttle, and the engine chugged at a steady up-tempo. The vibration from the massive engine moved up his legs, sending anxiety through his body. He looked up at Tschoepke, who nodded his approval.
“An engineering bulletin mentioned that some machines are having supercharger problems!” the sergeant yelled over the engine. “She’s a new ship, but if she starts to overboost, head back right away. Stay low and hold down your power settings.”
Supercharger problems? Yes! Tom fought a grin as he looked up at Tschoepke and nodded happily in acknowledgment.
“Also remember that fuselage fuel tank is full,” Tschoepke said. “The extreme weight in the aft center of gravity will throw you outta control if you try any abrupt aerobatics, so make sure you burn it down to forty gallons before switching to your drop tanks.”
Tom waited for the sergeant to jump off the wing, but he remained. Tom watched as, to his left, Schiflett’s plane rolled out of her hardstand. Schiflett’s crew chief remained sitting on the wing’s edge as Martha’s Favorite taxied out.
Tom glanced over at Schiflett’s plane. Tschoepke only gestured for Tom to follow it.
Tom realized that Tschoepke intended to remain kneeling at the cockpit until they arrived at the runway, listening to the engine for any problems that might cause Tom to lose Tschoepke’s plane. Damn perfectionist.
Tom released the brakes and applied breakaway power to move the fuel-laden fighter clear of the hardstand. Across the field, the last of the pudgy Thunderbolts were now airborne.
The four aircraft of B Flight moved slowly to the runway in a long line of P-51s turned out by a flagman. The flag officer seemed to signal continuously. Two by two, the Mustangs roared down the runway. Halfway to the end, they vanished in the fog. Immediately, two more Mustangs powered up and followed.
Following Schiflett off the taxiway and onto the runway, Tom stopped with his wingtip just behind Schiflett’s. Tschoepke slapped him on the shoulder, jumped off the plane, and ran to the side of the runway to join the other crew chiefs. After Tom closed the canopy, he glanced over to see Schiflett meet his gaze. Schiflett’s face was now taut and determined, his normal boyish expression gone; his ice-blue eyes squinting with ferocity. He dipped an abrupt nod at Tom.
At the control tower the operations officer fired a double green flare, signaling the release of the first Mustang squadron.
The flag officer signaled, and Tom watched for the first movement of Schiflett’s plane. He eased the throttle forward. Unable to see over the long nose, he settled for watching Schiflett’s plane and positioning himself accordingly.
The tires hummed as the heavy airplane roared down the runway. Vibrations shook the cockpit. The hum and resistance of tires on concrete suddenly ceased. He eased closer to Martha’s Favorite as gray fog quickly enveloped both planes. Tom labored to focus on Schiflett’s dark ship suspended in the gray soup, ready to go to instruments if he lost him. After setting climb trim, he quickly snapped on his oxygen mask.
At twenty-two thousand feet, they broke out into dazzling sunlight. Tom squinted in the glare. At least his upper chest and face felt warmer. The outside air temperature gauge read sixty below zero. His right foot felt cold, his left numb.
He scanned the sky nervously. An armada of forty-eight fighters—one-third Thunderbolts, two-thirds Mustangs—held diamond formations across the upper atmosphere. He prepared to slow and announce a supercharger malfunction just when two older Thunderbolts reported mechanical problems.
Moretti rogered them, and the two stout fighters turned back, then dropped from sight. The low-squadron Thunderbolt group adjusted their formation.
Looking out to the ten o’clock position outside his ship, he saw sixteen more Thunderbolts from another group climbing for the high-squadron position from a mile away. More P-51s arrived. Forty-eight Mustangs, twelve flights of four P-51s, now joined an equal number of arriving P-47 Thunderbolts. They continued on to the rally point while climbing to thirty thousand feet.
Tom looked around once more. The sky seemed filled with fighters. Despite his fear, he swelled with pride and confidence at the awesome sight. The radio maintained silence discipline while the fighters maneuvered to postion themselves into a fleet.
More than one hundred fighters now. Ninety-six more to rendezvous soon. To the Nazis, this must look frightening. Tom almost smiled behind his oxygen mask. Maybe today won’t be so bad.
Nearing the Belgian coast, a rising and falling squeal invaded Tom’s headphones. He quickly punched several frequency buttons and discovered the noise disrupted the entire radio band. “What’s this racket on the radio?” he finally asked.
“German radar,” a simple reply crackled. The exchange broke the dam.
“ Say, Bauer? Did you get your braunschweiger on pumpernickel this morning? I had the mess hall make one especially for you.”
“No, Ciani, but the Krauts are ordering spaghetti for you. Mussolini’s gonna personally deliver it to your reserved room at Dulag Luft.”
“Möchten Sie vielleicht lieber wurst schmaus?” an unknown voice asked.
“Y’all sound like a fatal lung disease,” a Southern drawl piped up.
Moretti broke in abruptly. “Cut the chatter, Indian Group.”
The frequency fell silent.
The aircraft droned on. Under the swarm of fighters lay a blanket of clouds. Below that, Belgium, presently Nazi–occupied territory.
“Contrails, ten o’clock high,” came a crisp radio call.
Tom looked high above into the cold far reaches of the upper atmosphere. Contrails, fluffy white threads streaming from the engines of the bombers, cast long fingers against the pale-blue sky.
“Little friends. Four o’clock, low,” a boyish voice announced.
The fighters continued climbing, and Tom followed Schiflett until they were level with the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses. Easing back power, Tom watched as the ball turret under the bomber followed him. The gunner was careful to keep the twin barrels of the machine guns pointed away from his ship. Closing up, he saw the semiprone gunner peering through the Plexiglas viewports. The gunner waved from his cramped position. Tom waved back. He eased his Mustang closer, beneath the right wing of the B-17, using the huge wingspan for concealment.
A calm voice came over the radio. “Bandits. Twelve ME 110s at ten o’clock low.”
“OK, Indian Group. Be alert. They changed tactics on us,” Moretti said. “Apache Squadron, engage.” The radio fell silent as the attacking Thunderbolts changed from bomber to fighter channel.
Tom watched as sixteen P-47 Thunderbolts dropped their single-belly tanks and peeled off toward a staffel, or flight, of ungainly twin-engine Messerschmitts. The staffel was bait to draw off the fighter support. The bombing force droned on, leaving behind an air battle in which the Thunderbolts left no doubt they would ravage the cumbersome ME-110 Zerstörers.
An hour melted away. Tom continuously looked around. South of Bonn, he spotted dark specks closing from behind to his left.
“Bandits! Bandits!” a young voice cried over the radio. “Eight o’clock high!”
“Four more at nine o’clock level,” announced another bomber gunner.
The belly-ball turret near Tom rotated away, gun barrels angling to meet the inbound threat.
“Stand by, Indians,” Moretti said. “Let’s wait until they’re up close before we surprise them. We’ll go on my mark: Tomahawk Green, take any additional 110s and then get back to the bombers. Arrow Squadron, go for the 109s. Remaining Indians: stay on the bombers until relieved. We have a gang of Focke-Wulfs waiting for us.”
The specks swelled into clearly defined airplanes, their wings twinkling with sparkles. Minutes later, machine guns spat balls of fire from the B-17.
“Indian Group, give ’em hell!” Moretti said.
Drop tanks fluttered away from the fighters as they slid from beneath the bombers. Tom toggled the manual release for both auxiliary drop tanks. His Mustang started forward as the auxiliary fuel tanks kicked free of his wings. His heart pounding, he pushed over the throttle and eased down the P-51’s nose. His plane shot out from beneath the shaded cover of the B-17. Sliding quickly over to the green rectangle of Shiflett’s right wing, he began a shallow dive to gain air speed.
Tom looked around the clear blue sky. Suddenly it filled with an insane number of black gnats zipping toward the bombers. He remained high and behind Martha’s Favorite. He followed Schiflett, entering a shallow climb to meet the bandits.
The black shapes dropped quickly, roaring in like charging locomotives. Their wings flashed orange puffs with tiny white sparkles in the center while trailing lines of gray smoke. Tom angled his ship to aim and depressed the trigger for his first war shot of his first time in combat. The thunder of his own machine guns surprised him.
Tom glanced around. Rolling, diving, and climbing fighters spitting red and yellow jagged lines filled the sky.
The Messerschmitt 109s ignored the approaching P-51s and concentrated on killing the intruding bombers. Three ME-109s settled close to Schiflett and Tom. Schiflett chose a Messerschmitt angling toward a bomber. The two remaining ME-109s strayed away. Tom glued his ship to Schiflett’s while keeping an eye on the strays.
The first German fighter zoomed in, spitting tracers at a lagging Fortress and knocking away aluminum chunks in a flurry of sparks like a grinding wheel. The top turret swiveled around as a left waist gunner opened fire. In the pandemonium, another 109 soared up from nowhere, firing his guns on the B-17’s tail, raking his bullets along the fuselage, and then training his aim on the left inside engine. Bright orange sparks flashed against the bomber’s fuselage, announcing strikes of cannon and machine gun fire.
The left waist gunner bounced a couple of times, falling against his .50-caliber machine gun. His blood-soaked torso and arm now protruded lifelessly from the window. Next, a stream of white smoke poured from the Fortress’s left inboard engine. Shortly after the outboard engine began to smoke, too, and the heavy bomber fell off to the left into a slow descent. Two gunners fired parting shots. The ball gunner and the top turret gunner fired at the same Messerschmitt, banking away. The Nazi’s engine came apart, while a wing broke free and the ME-109 tumbled toward the ground in flames. The total episode took only seconds.
Closing in quickly, Tom watched as tracers leaped from Schiflett’s wings. Diving, the remaining Messerschmitts banked hard left to escape. Schiflett rolled nearly inverted, following the fleeing Nazis, with Tom closely behind.
Confusion now filled the radio circuit, occasionally punctuated by curses or screams of terror and panic.
“Oh my God, help! I’m on fire!”
“Shit, Green Leader, you got a visitor, break hard right!”
“Yeah! I got ’em. He’s in flames!”
“Watch your tail, Red Two! Another bastard’s comin’ around!”
Tom tried listening only for his call sign of Arrow Blue Four. As Schiflett closed in on the evading 109, Tom fought to maneuver closer to Schiflett’s machine. He peered into Schiflett’s cockpit. Glancing back, he caught two more ME-109s straining to close in. For the moment they were too far away to be a threat, but in the next minute that could change.
Looking back to the front, he saw more tracers erupt from Schiflett’s Mustang. The Messerschmitt jinked up and down, rolling fast to escape and inadvertently slipping into the streams of arcing gunfire. Bullets chiseled into the 109’s fuselage. Flakes of sheet aluminum sprinkled into the slipstream of the Messerschmitt.
A plume of white smoke spewed out as Schiflett’s tracers punched holes into the engine. The ME-109 rolled once as the boxy canopy flopped open. The pouring smoke was now black.
Before the Nazi pilot could escape, a brilliant orange-and-red flash filled Tom’s vision. The force of the explosion slammed against his Mustang, and fear seized his chest. They continued flying through the black fog. He smelled burned oil and heard pieces of metal raining against his cockpit.
“I got the son of a bitch!” Schiflett sang out jubilantly.
“Arrow Blue Leader, check six. Two bandits,” Tom announced, fighting panic. He glanced up at his rearview mirror, watching the two ME-109s curving around to his backside.
“Blue Four, let’s regroup to the bombers. The bandits will come to us,” Sam responded calmly.
Increasing speed, they turned toward the other regrouping fighters. Tom maneuvered closer to Schiflett’s ship, his head jerking around, looking for more bandits. The two trailing enemy fighters found a new distraction and broke away.
Soaring across the open sky to Tom’s left, another ME-109 dove after a smoking B-17 that was fighting an ominous descent. The ME-109, ignoring Tom’s machine, passed beneath his nose. Instinctively, Tom jinked down and right, his gunsight leading the unsuspecting Messerschmitt. Crossing left to right, the aircraft entered the yellow ring of the reflector gunsight.
Tom fired. He felt the first click of the gun-camera switch in his stick trigger give, and he pressed on to the gun switch. The .50-caliber machine guns recoiled, sending violent jolts through the airframe. Yellow-white tracers floated lazily in a curve, punching into the ME-109. Metal ripped away in ragged edges like an opened food can. The airplane rolled and inverted, breaking downward and away to safety with a barely perceptible line of white smoke trailing behind it. Parts flew from the slender aircraft. The plane returned to its upright position. The canopy flipped open, and a panicked figure pulled from the cockpit.
“Hammer the bastard!” Schiflett shouted. “Kill ’em!”
Tom recoiled in shock at the order. He watched the pilot fall toward the ground and vanish in a cloud below. Now safe, the enemy pilot would open his parachute.
“ That’s OK, Blue Four,” Schiflett said. “Good shooting. First time out and you got one, but you gotta be ready to nail ’em hard. That one will be back flying tomorrow.”
Tom realized he was totally focused and breathing hard from the strain, while his arms and legs felt weighed down from fatigue. The constant, abrupt g-forces were taking a toll.
They pressed back to the formation of B-17s. Tom saw the effects of a marauding band of ME-110s and their rockets. One Fortress had taken extensive hits and was losing altitude, dropping behind: a choice sweetmeat for some Nazi pilot to chew on. One engine dead, another smoking, and her vertical stabilizer nearly gone, Tom knew she would not make it back.
More escorting P-51s came into sight, and Schiflett and Tom leveled off. No Messerschmitts gave chase, and Tom felt relieved.
Moving into a high vantage position, they watched as more P-51s returned, the pilots chattering with excitement. Tom carefully inspected the sky behind him and Schiflett.
“Bandits! Bandits!” The excited caller gave no position, so the shout was useless. Tom turned and blanched. A dark cloud dissolved into specks as Focke-Wulf 190s maneuvered to every point on the compass.
“Sweet Jesus, there must be three hundred of ’em,” another voice commented with a strange calmness about the approaching swarm.
“I got forty Focke-Wulf 190s level at twelve o’clock,” a determined voice said. “They’re heading straight in.”
“Sixteen bandits, five o’clock high.”
More calls continued. In front, behind, and to each side of Tom, stout aircraft—camouflaged dark green with powder-blue undersides—zoomed in like a swarm of angry wasps.
A Focke-Wulf crossed Tom’s flight path, blowing past him in a circular turn, wingtip to wingtip, and close enough that Tom saw the pilot look directly at him as he flew by. Another Focke-Wulf zipped ahead, and Tom had enough time to fire a quick burst. The aircraft steeply banked, then dived away.
Tom slipped behind Schiflett’s right wing as they gave chase to a damaged Nazi fighter. Schiflett held the turn until Tom reported a Focke-Wulf turning on an attack course to the bombers. The Focke-Wulf pressed a determined attack for three groups of bombers crammed in a space of two thousand feet.
Tom watched as Schiflett angled his attack to lead his shots and fired. Red dots of tracers seemed to float over to the Nazi fighter, and a few seconds later flames appeared beneath the Focke-Wulf’s wing. It slowly rolled over and headed for the overcast clouds below. Schiflett dove after it, with Tom closing up from behind.
A figure fell from the inverted Focke-Wulf.
“Blue Four, did you see him jump?”
Tom acknowledged Schiflett.
“Great! And I know I didn’t keep a good camera angle on him.” Schiflett then firmly warned him, “Don’t you get shot down today. I need you to confirm that kill.”
Tom said nothing. Being shot down was not in his plans, today or any other day.
Looking around, he now realized the radio was quiet. Below, the scattered clouds were thinning, and he could see an unbroken patchwork of earth.
Martha’s Favorite set her nose toward the bombers, and Tom followed. He jerked his head about, scanning the sky for more Nazi fighters. Two Mustangs soared up from behind at eight o’clock low. Another solitary Mustang climbed steeply toward the pair of fighters.
Three ships. One missing.
The bombers’ radio silence was, however, disconcerting. In the short, wild melee, seven bombers had died along with their crews. Seventy young men, most much younger than Tom, had fallen to their deaths in flaming wreckage. Though he would have to revisit these details during mission debriefing, Tom pushed the thought from his mind.
The three fighters slipped into formation.
"Skippy got chopped, Colonel,” Captain Joe Ciani, Tomahawk Green Three, reported. “We got bounced by two Krauts while I was bagging one. His canopy came free as he spun in, but no chute. He might have made it, but they chewed him up pretty good.”
“Then you write the letter home to his mama,” Moretti somberly replied.
A long silence ensued.
Tom thought about the green-eyed, boyish-faced pilot with red hair sitting in a chair appreciating some paperback entertainment—now mangled in burning wreckage on the ground or, if fortune smiled upon him, a prisoner on his sixth mission.
Tom jerked his head forward. Flak barrages defaced their flight path like violent smudges of ink. Angry red blotches erupted into blossoming black cotton as flak slowly bracketed the raiders. Jagged smoke exploded left, then right and at last, the tail of a bomber. Yellow-orange flashes belched from within, and the bomber abruptly folded a wing, plummeting toward the ground. There were no parachutes.
Two more Flying Fortresses, Paddy’s Wagon and Still Rollin’, suffered from extensive antiaircraft fire. Slowly they lost altitude and eased back from the formation. Paddy’s Wagon tucked in closer to Still Rollin’. The nose art for Paddy’s Wagon featured a 1917 Keystone Kops police van with caricatures of the crew hanging off the van in their respective bomber positions. Still Rollin’s nose art displayed a simple pair of dice with four and six showing—four flight officers and six enlisted gunners.
The fighters climbed above the flak trap, and Tom looked down. Still Rollin’ feathered another smoking engine and slipped toward the lower formation. A direct hit had opened the nose of the bomber, and most of the vertical stabilizer and a third of the right wing were missing. The low-box Fortresses began maneuvering to avoid the falling cripple. With somber reverence, crisp radio calls reported her collapse.
“Damn, nothing that bad can stay in the air.”
“The bombardier and navigator are hamburger.”
“There goes the first one!” someone called as a black dot dropped from the bomber.
A second later, far below, the dot streamed a thin gray line that burst into a white blossom.
“I count three going out.”
“I got six now.”
The B-17—with two engines gone, a third of its left wing and most of its rear stabilizer shot away—banked very slowly. The bomber pitched up, then rolled slowly over into a spin from which no Flying Fortress could recover. Still Rollin’ had cast her lot for the last time, leaving seven living crewmen behind in the sky, hanging from their parachutes.
Tom shuddered. He realized the centrifugal force of the spinning aircraft pinned the pilot inside, now alone with frantic thoughts in his last minutes of life. It was a terrifying reality, but it fell to the command pilot to control the bomber as the crew bailed out.
Salvo after salvo of puffy black scars filled the sky with deadly hot metal, seeking engines, fuel tanks, bombs, or men. The flak worsened as the heavy bombers changed their flight pattern with slow, stately precision. Each group of bombers aligned behind their flight leader for a stream to feed a steady line of bombs into a central target below.
The lead ship’s bomb bay opened slowly. Tom saw the tiny black cylinders flow from beneath the remaining bombers. Again, fire belched within the formation, and another bomber snap-rolled, plummeting toward the ground while tossing off chunks of metal and streaming smoke. Impulsively Tom shoved his control stick right for a steep bank and watched for parachutes. None followed.
He glanced farther below at the patchwork of earth, fields, and a town with a river. Suddenly, points of lights strobed across the city. Around the glittery dots, rings of shock waves expanded while the landscape wobbled. Black smoke boiled over the municipality.
Tom rolled level and looked at his watch. Two-twenty. Time to return to base.
He looked down at his fuel gauges, then to the northwest for the relief fighters. He felt drained. At fighter speeds, they were only an hour and a half from the base and would arrive around sunset. On the other hand, the bombers had four long hours ahead of them, menaced by more flak and enemy fighters. They would not be back until after dark, severely complicating the landings of the damaged bombers.
In the hospital’s small dining room, the tables were set with cutlery on linen tablecloths, and a few hardy flowers stood in cut-glass vases. A petite redhead sat with her plate at a corner table near a tall, multipaned window. Exhausted, Nurse Molly Masterson would rather have slipped off for a nap than eat. In the past week, she had been falling asleep across her bed fully clothed.
Equipment-wise, things were worse than her previous assignment at a military hospital. The county hospital was terribly shorthanded and poorly equipped. Though endless menial tasks made it seem much like Victorian times, she felt better when the patients did not agonize like the shattered flight crews of the Royal Air Force.
Two nurses, Violet Fox-Pitt and Peggy Norton, stepped over to Molly’s table. “Care for some company, luv?” the tall, willowy Violet asked.
Molly tended to convey a confidence she rarely felt, and this, coupled with her natural shyness, made her seem aloof and unfriendly. Aware of the impression she left on people, Molly said, “That’s a glorious idea. Perhaps you could spoon-feed me.”
“You do look rather weary,” Violet said. “You should rely more on your ward maids. What hospital are you from?”
“Chapel Allerton in Leeds.”
“Oh, lovely!” Peggy exclaimed. “Why are you here?”
“Why would you do that?” Peggy asked in genuine shock.
“I couldn’t endure it any longer.”
“Unpleasant?” Violet asked.
“Most disagreeable. I’d rather work with traditional illnesses and injuries.”
Molly looked at her mincemeat, potato, and cheese casserole with sides of steamed cauliflower and sliced carrots. She only pushed at the meager portions of food, then set down her fork.
“Oh, that we have,” Peggy quipped. “The usual sort. Unsightly blackleg from assorted infected lesions and rashes, patients with no patience. Quite ordinary. Frankly, I wished I knew you while you were at Chapel Allerton. It would be heaven to transfer and indulge young military men instead of sexagenarians.”
“We had a young admission today,” Violet announced casually.
“Oh, yes! The train guard,” Peggy said. “A bit young, but he is a doll. The doctor said his pelvis was broken when the buffers of a jolted carriage crushed him. Not a Yank or a pilot, but perhaps Karen will assign him to me.”
“If he doesn’t pass water,” Violet said with a knowing tone, “there’s no help for him. It will hurt terribly.”
The memory of an incinerated pilot’s slow death flashed through Molly’s mind.
“Peggy lives for flights of fancy,” Violet declared. “She wants to meet a rich Yank and fall madly in love.”
Molly rolled her eyes. “Bloody Yanks.”
“Oh, have you met many?” Peggy asked as she ate ravenously.
“You don’t like Yanks?” Violet asked.
“I detest Americans.”
“Oh, but why?” asked Peggy.
“They are quite the limit. As Tommy Trinder declares, ‘They are overpaid, overfed, oversexed, and over here.’ Believe everything you’ve heard about Americans. I have met enough to know. I wish the bloody lot would go fight in the Orient and let our boys come home to battle Jerrie. After Pearl Harbor the Japanese are more the Americans’ concern than ours.”
“I would like very much to meet an American,” Peggy announced.
“And marry him,” Violet added.
“This is absurd!” Peggy said. “Everything I want, you’ve had.”
“Be careful what you ask for, luv. You may get it,” Violet said, pushing away her empty plate and lighting a cigarette. “It seems Molly here has been through it all.”
“Quite true,” Molly acknowledged softly. “You wouldn’t believe anything so wretched. The worst were our lads from the RAF. An endless ward, bed after bed, and the Royal Air Force filling them with every form of nauseating injury known to man. Shattered extremities. Burned, rancid flesh. Men dying in horrible agony. Oh, God forbid that I ever see its like again.” She shook her head in despair. “I shouldn’t waste food, but I can’t eat.” Molly pushed away her plate and bowed her head, putting it in her hands.
Peggy cast a salivating gaze over Molly’s plate. Like some dining rooms and restaurants in Britain, the hospital had retired dinner plates, using the matched salad plates instead to make portions look larger. It deceived no one. Soon after a meal, their stomachs craved more. The staff made no complaints, as the meals were free of charge and, more importantly, they didn’t have to expend coupons from their ration books.
Molly looked up. She pushed her plate to Peggy and stood abruptly to leave. Her features, although angular, were elfin, lending her a youthfulness that suggested a few years less than twenty-five. Her high cheekbones shed warm shadows below glowing cheeks. Her full lips curled almost imperceptibly at the corners and this, along with a sparkle in her gray-green eyes, gave her a permanent look of wry awareness.
Molly held herself erect, compensating for her diminutive frame and making herself appear taller than her mere five feet.
“Thank you for your visit,” she said, “but I should return to the ward.”
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