Miserable flying conditions, but we managed to chalk up a pile of missions early in December. Cologne, Merseberg, Hamburg, Munich, Frankfurt, goddam Merseberg again, plus a couple of other towns in between that I can't recall offhand. Call them Flakenburg. I may have forgotten their names, but I damn well remember those never ending bomb runs where we flew exposed and helpless as geese over a blind. No evasive action during a bomb run. No turning away from those boxes of greasy black flak where we knew going in that we'd have less crews coming out. Just how many less, we'd find out later.
My number is down to seven now. Long overdue for the old fickle finger, and whoever or whatever is tailing me out there. You'd think I'd be able to handle this by now, but it's rougher these days than when I started. I was scared then, not knowing what I was up against. Now I know and I'm beyond scared. Somewhere between numb and dumb. Probably not even a word for it.
The weird part is carrying on as if everything is perfectly normal. I don't know how the other guys manage. I've gone through this whole deal gritting my teeth, closing my eyes, and shitting in my pants, but Cavey was around sweating it out with me. Now I'm supposed to scrub him. That's what every-body else has done, but it's not that simple for me. Nobody talks about him. No mention of his name since they rubbed it off the squadron roster blackboard, but I can still make it out through the chalky gray eraser smear. I catch myself half expecting to see him sacked out up there in his bunk. Those shirts of his that Swan missed when he cleared out his stuff still dangle from the pipe, flat sleeved in their wire hangers just as he last left them. Don't look up there now. Snap, snap. Change subject. Seven to go, and you still have Hartak to deal with, and the Hangman and Holy Cross too. Nice boys. My fellow Americans. Not back on the runway yet, buddy boy, not by a long shot.
Nothing but freezing rain, fog, sleet, and snow one dark gray day after another for the past two weeks. The damp chill gets under your skin, right down to bone. Everyone going around crabby and depressed, and it's not all due to the weather. Just when the infantry boys had fought their way to the border and were ready to advance into Germany, the krauts pulled a surprise counter attack that broke through and made a huge bulge in their line. There's even been talk that they may push them back to the Channel. If we could have got our planes up, we'd have stopped those damn Germans dead in their tracks, but they counted on us not being able to fly in all this gook, and they were right on target there. We haven't had a plane off the ground in thirteen days now.
I log as many hours as I can flat on my back, mostly staring at the walls, sweating out my chances of making it after all. Sometimes I dick around with Bishop assuring him every-thing is under control, and contrary to evidence and experience, Hartak is basically rational and knows what he's doing, and it's all going to work out fine, just wait and see. I tell him, "They're replacing our ships with the latest new bullet-proof model B-17", or "they're working night and day on a master plan that will improve the chow and also change the movies a little more often around here." He listens and smiles politely even through crap like that, then he goes back to re-reading his letters from home or curls up there in his bunk with his little Bible. Not what you'd call very stimulating, but it's O.K. with me. I'm not looking for excitement. I try to pick up Radio Bremen through the static on our radio set while flipping through Cavey's old pile of girley books.
I drag myself out of the sack only to trudge over to the mess hall, and once in a while take my bike for a spin around the countryside. The proper thing would be to go up to visit Vivian Lea. She was so decent and kind to me, but I can't bear telling her about Cavey. She's bound to ask about him, and then what can I say to the poor woman when she starts in on her son in the Jap labor camp who I'm sure is done for by now. Mostly though, I suppose what really keeps me away is facing Martha. I'm really all screwed up about that, but the way it stands, in a couple of weeks I'll either be on my way back to the States, drunk, dumb and happy, or else all that's left of me will be little pieces scattered over some- German city. Flakenburg? Drop it. Let it slide.
Today, on my way back from biking around, a small patch of blue in the late after-noon sky broke through the cloud cover. The wizards at Operations expect a strong high pres-sure system to move in, which should finally clear things up a bit before morning. Of course you can't rely too much on weather guys, but let's hope for once they could be right. I want to get this over with.
The alert list tonight shows me flying with Earl and what's left of our crew. Parsons, a new co-pilot, replaces Ted Williams who replaced the Mouse. I don't know the new guy from Adam. Someone I've seen around here without ever speaking to. He has flown nine missions, but was bounced off his old crew because he couldn't get along with his pilot. I've heard some other stuff about him, but all I want to know is whether he's good at his job. It won't take us long to find out if he can cut the mustard. Bishop is in Cavey's old spot. I have to say that the kid has handled himself fairly well up there.
Funny how I think of him as a kid, when as a matter of fact he was
twenty-one last month, two months older than me. I suppose after a while you
come to look on any-body with fewer missions as some kind of kid around here,
and he has 25 or so still to go. Makes me like old grand-pappy. I look at
each load of replacements coming in and get the willies just think--ing about
all that's happened since I was in their shoes. No way they could make me go
through that again for five thousand dollars, not even ten thousand.
I turn in early, but I keep waking to look at my watch every hour or
so. When it shows ten after four, I figure the mission has been scrubbed.
Maybe the weather has turned bad again, or maybe they're giving us a break
because it's the day before Christmas, ha ha. Fat chance. I wake again when I
hear the Hangman curse as he bumps into our chair in the dark.
He flashes his light at Bishop in the upper bunk and hollers, "O.K.,
Brighteyes. Rise and shine, alley oop. Uncle Sam wants you. Briefing at
seven. Let's go. Move it, move it, move it!"
Bishop sits up slowly, and just as slowly says, "Yes sir, thank you. I'm up now." The Hangman then prods my shoulder with his flash-light. "You too, lucky boy. Everybody flies, nobody dies. C'mon, ups-a-daisy." He yanks the mound of G.I. blankets off me. I don't even bother to swear at him anymore. I shiver when my feet hit the concrete. I peek through the black-out curtain and see lighter shades of blue low in the dark starlit sky. It's six thirty five, three hours past our usual wake up call. Wherever we're going, it's bound to be a short one. We're starting late and that doesn't give them much time or distance to get us out and back before dark. The walk paths are jammed full of guys rushing through the wintry early morning to break-fast. The K.P.'s dishing out the powdered eggs and greasy sausages are full of chatter about how this has to be a big one. No stand-downs today. All four squad-rons are up.
There are not enough benches to hold all the crews at briefing this morning. We're all squeezed in with guys stand-ing in the aisles and perched in windows. The K.P's as usual were right. Something big is definitely in the works. All four squadrons of the group are here raring to go, boisterous and unruly, like at a pep rally before the big game. I find myself caught up in it too. Two weeks of inaction and we're all a pack of eager beavers. Let's get this fuckin' war over with.
The noise builds with the guys getting restless. I take another swig
of black coffee from the thermos Odie left for me when he finished up. Our
new co-pilot, a tall blond good looking guy almost like Randolph Scott the
actor, twitches and seems more nervous and edgy than I care to see. He sits
and fidgets next to Earl who has tried talking to him, but he's too wound up
to reply. I figure it might help if I introduce him around. He's Lloyd
Parsons from Corona, California and it turns out that Lopez has had some
dealings with him back there.
Lopez doesn't seem to be any too fond of him when he asks Parsons "Do you guys still have Pinkertons patrolling around the Parsons orange groves?" Parsons ignores him and tells us "It's a dirty shame how they let all kinds in the Air Force these days."
I wonder about this guy and tell him that's way out of line. He comes back with "Oh blow it out your ass, this is the last time they catch me flying with such a bunch of sad sacks."
Lopez says "I fuckin' hope so. Maybe you'd rather fly with your Nazi pals in the Luftwaffe." Fearless lights a cigarette for Lopez and tells him to button it up. It's just as well they don't hear Parsons mutter, "Fuckin' little greaseball."
Earl figures it's time to smooth things over. He cups his hands over his mouth like a cheerleader so he can be heard above all the noise as he mimics Arnhem Annie on her broadcast this morning. "Velcome und varm greedings to the men of the 91st Bomb group. Our gallant Luftwaffe and flak batt-al-ions have the complete plan of today's operation and vill be vaiting for you. Vunce more so many of your lives are to be vasted. If you ever vish to zee your loved ones again, you must turn back from zis useless effort. Your surrounded infantry forces are trapped. You are doomed. Remember, the Luftwaffe is vaiting."
Earl stops long enough to enjoy the crew's hooting and a few sieg heils. He's really into it as he goes on. "Ve haff no qvarrel mit you. Ve vant peace. You throw avay your life for the greedy profiteers and black marketers on the home front who fill their pockets and go to bed mit your vifes und sveet-hearts." Skiles throws his arm up in a Nazi salute, then lifts his leg and blows out a long fart loud enough to hear over the noise in the hut.
The crowd parts as the colonel makes his way through. He jumps up on the platform. I've never seen him smile before. He's almost beaming when he raises his arms and announces, "The order of the day -- no man, no ship, no bomb is to be spared. Maximum effort. No passes, no leaves. If a ship can leave the ground, it flies. Today, we are delivering a Christmas present to the German that he will long remember. I am proud to tell you that the 91st is putting up 63 aircraft today." Whistles and cheers as most of the boys stand and applaud. I don't know where or how they dug up all those 17's. That's almost twice the number we usually put up. I hope our crew doesn't get one of the war wearies, or worse, something put together cannibalized from the crash heap. The colonel slaps his glove in his palm and says "Remember, maximum effort. No stand downs. The 8th Air Force is sending up two thousand bombers today to thirty German targets. Target assigned to the 91st is the Luft-waffe base at Merzhausen. Those Nazi barbarians have massacred our infantry boys the past two weeks while we've been grounded. Now our group is going to give it back to them in spades. Let's see how those German bastards like it." Maybe it's all that coffee I'm drinking, but I find myself charged up, hooting and stamping my feet, full of piss and vinegar like the rest of the boys. This isn't one of our grim Merseberg or Berlin brief-ings. I've never heard of Merzhausen. It sounds like another one of those towns I can't remember. I track the red ribbon on the large map up front when they pull the curtain back. Merzhausen is on this side of the Rhine, hardly any distance at all into Germany. Looks like we have ourselves a bluebird. A milk run for Christmas.
We take it as a good sign that our ship today is DF-G, Paper Doll,
one of the newer ships in the squadron. A weak gray yellow wintery early
morning light faces us when we exit from the briefing hut, but it sure beats
emerging into the usual pre-dawn murk. Eriksen exclaims like its some sort of
miracle, "Hot diggety dog. Daylight! Takeoff and assembly in daylight."
Fearless asks me for our ETA for return to base. When I tell him it
looks like it will be around two forty, smiles break out among the whole
crew. "Short and sweet," says Skiles "a cakewalk."
It takes us much longer than usual to walk the propellers through on a bitter cold morning like this. The oil collected in the lower cylinders has frozen thick, and we have to push hard to turn those props through and loosen up the sludge before starting up the engines.
We take off right on schedule, but despite the daylight, we're having our troubles assembling into squadron and group position. With so many ships up today, we've had to set up all kinds of modifications to our standard formation in order to accommodate them all. An hour and a half after takeoff and we still don't have every ship in its assigned slot. Each group is flying four squadrons instead of the usual three, plus a dozen or so spare ships trying to latch on some-where. Most of them flying with squadrons other than their own. I look out at a dazzling blue sky loaded with hundreds of planes clear across the horizon. An impressive sight, but I'm not too keen on what I see out there. Too many ships weaving in and out, climbing on their own, with others cutting across erratically trying to catch up. I've seen one fireball and we've heard reports of two other mid-air collisions so far this morning, and if this keeps up there's going to be a lot more.
We keep circling. From here some of the squadrons look to be in pretty good shape, but all too many look like parts of a disorganized mob. I hear Hartak call in as usual that this is one piss poor assembly. This time he's not just whistling Dixie, but it's time to shove off. All ships not in formation will either catch up with us over water, or hook on to some other group as best they can. We must move on or risk missing rendez-vous with our fighter escort. We're still pretty much a rag-tag collection of aircraft as we depart the British coast at Harwich, but by the time we cross the beaches above Dunkerque most of our planes look like they're in their slots. It's hard to tell for sure, as we're flying nine-teen ships in the squadron today instead of our usual twelve. It's one freaky looking formation.
I feel better when we pick up the fighter escort for our group right on the button three minutes after crossing the French coast. They're a flight of about forty Mustangs scooting around through the thin cirrus above our group. We pass a little south of Brussels and directly over Liege where we correct 15 degrees right to head for our I.P. west of Rudesheim. If the Luft-waffe is waiting for us, they're going to be stood up. Nothing but Mustangs with us at 25800 feet, cruising over a base of 4/10ths low stratus with streaks of cirrus above, a hell of a strong cross wind out of 046 degrees at 57 knots, and it's cold as a a witch's tit up here -- minus 62 degrees Fahrenheit. I call for an oxygen check. When Earl checks in he adds, "Hey, this Parsons is a hell of a good co-pilot." Earl, as usual, trying for one nice big happy family. "Peachy," I say, "we're over Germany now." Hundreds of our bombers and fighters all around as far as the eye can see. An army of about twenty thousand men up here flying unopposed. No flak, no Luftwaffe. We're more than halfway through our bomb run before we see our first flak about nine miles ahead. The black explosions are not too heavily concentrated, and though it may be a bit too soon to tell, I begin to believe that this may turn out to be one of our few milk runs. Bishop, bundled in his flak vest and helmet, twists around toward me and lifts his arms as if asking me to account for the absence of heavy flak.
The few bursts we see are at our altitude, but they're nothing like the usual heavy box barrages we see over major targets. They're far apart, popping up at odd intervals. I point forward and down to remind the kid we're close to target. One of the small black bursts catches LL-Peter, and I stare at her dropping from formation with her No. 3 engine smoking. Not a single trace of flak in the sky when I enter time and position in the log to mark where and when LL-P went down.
Bishop is busy hitting his switches and levers preparing to release our load the instant after we see the bombs tumble out of Hartak's ship. At bombs away I mark the log: Flak - sparse to meager, though I know it was heavy and accurate enough for the poor guys in LL-P. They're the only ship lost out of our group as far as I can tell, but it's hard to know for sure in this botched up form-ation with all the extra ships we have flying around today. A gaggle of mixed 17's, too many for a squadron and less than a group, bundle together in a halfass formation less than a mile ahead and a thousand feet above us.
Earl calls in that bandits are reported in the area - jet jobs. I see thin contrails up ahead zigging and zagging, twisting and turning back across the straight broader contrails of our bomber stream. Signs of bandits. A 17 spins out of control from that loose formation above us followed by another falling with its wings on fire. Seven or eight chutes open up. I move stiffly to my gun position. My nose is pressed up to the glass as I scan for enemy German fighters that I pray won't show up near us. Bishop swings his turret back and forth scanning the sky above and below. He points downward in jerky movements to where a chute is wrapped around the tail stabilizer of one of our ships in the low squadron. I see the figure of a guy tangled in the shroud lines and dragged behind like a tow sleeve for a second or two before he is torn loose and falls down and away. Large white chunks of his chute remain behind, draped on the tail of the 17. I hope the poor bastard was nobody I know.
Bishop fires his guns at the same time as Skiles calls from his
turret, "Bandits! Two o'clock level, closing fast!" Our ship shakes and
vibrates as every gun fires at the German fighters streaking by. About a
dozen black Focke-Wulfs and five or six brown Me-262 jets. One of the F-W's
rams into a 17 in our low squadron. We bounce from the explosion of the
Skiles cries out again. "More coming! One o'clock!" I see twenty of
them with their guns blazing bullets with orange tracers straight at us. Our
ship jumps as if it has run into a wall. Blasts of frigid air tear through a
jagged gash where the bullets have ripped through the ship's aluminum skin.
Earl yells, "Fuck! I'm hit!"
We drop away from the formation. I feel immersed in the paralysis of fear, but I plug in an oxygen bottle and drag myself up to the passage where I can see Earl. Skiles and I reach him at the same time. Earl is holding the wheel in his left hand. His right arm droops loose from his shoulder where blood is spreading down a torn leather sleeve. Parsons is slumped over, bent and twisted in a pool of blood coursing from an open gap of organs and shattered bone where his chest used to be. I go blank, lose complete track of what's going on, until I see Earl struggling to keep the ship level, flying with one arm. I snatch at the medical kit while the plane bobs and weaves all over the sky.
We're still being hit by fighters as I hear our gunners firing away. My trembling hands can hardly tear open the envelopes of sulfa powder and bandages in the medical kit. I manage to scatter the sulfa around and into the hole below Earl's collar bone, and press the patch bandages over it while Earl screams with pain under his oxygen mask. Skiles and I struggle to heave and tug Parsons' body out of his seat. I'm soaked in his blood and he keeps slipping from our grasp until we drop him in the passageway behind his seat. I can't catch my breath and feel like I'm blacking out until I remember to replace my empty oxygen bottle. I call Fearless to come up from the waist quick to take over Skiles' position in the top turret, and to also bring up some blankets. Skiles climbs into the co-pilot seat and tries to wipe away Parsons' blood spread on the spattered wind-shield. He stops when it becomes mostly frozen smears.
Fear and panic spread through me as real as pain. Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. I must get away from here. I clip on my chest pack to bail out. I'm about to kick the door open to jump when I look up at Earl. The patch bandages have fallen off, but the freezing air has helped staunch the flow of blood from his wound. His teeth chatter out of control, his body quivers and his right arm still hangs use-less, but he's conscious enough to coach Skiles who is gripping the wheel for all he's worth. I jam more patch bandages with sulfa to Earl's wound. I unclip my chute. We're alone over Germany, down to 16,000 feet. Our gunners have stopped firing for now. It's a break, but it won't last long. We haven't seen the last of those German bastards. We're alone up here and they'll be picking us up as a straggler as soon as they've finished with their attack on the group. I drape one blanket over Earl's shoulders, and cover Parsons with the other. "Can you make it, Earl?" I ask. He nods slowly. I turn to Skiles in the co-pilot seat. "You O.K., ?" He nods slowly. I won't bail out.
I ease my way past Parsons' body when I crawl back to my position. The freezing wind whizzes and whistles through the bullet torn gash in the ship's skin. My chart and maps have been blown around and stomped on. I go through the motions of scanning dials but it's all a blur. I look again for my chute but can't find it. I tell Earl to maintain our present heading until I can figure just where the hell we are. I look out the window for possible landmarks and all I see through holes in the heavy undercast are snow covered empty fields and trees. My watch shows only six minutes since Earl called out that he was hit. I've no idea how the guys in back made out. I force myself to call for a long overdue oxygen check. There's a long pause when it is Parsons' turn to answer until Skiles calls in "Co-pilot, O.K. check." I go numb again when Bishop points at a pair of fighters closing in on us fast. I hold up my hands to shield the sun from my eyes and a red smear of Parsons' blood spreads across my goggles. The bitter acrid taste of bile rises in back of my throat. I stumble over my chute which has slid from where I stowed it behind the cartridge links. The two fighters are almost in range now. My stomach knots and retches as I drag myself over to my gun position. I pull my oxygen mask aside to shake out the puke. Lopez hollers, "Little friends! Two Mustangs coming our way." They pull up beside us and wag their wings. I crumple to my knees with relief. My hand quivers on the call button. I speak in a voice I don't recognize, "Hey Earl, follow them babies home." Bishop holds and steadies me when I start to shake.