Authors: Stephen King (ed),Bev Vincent (ed)
The pride did not count for much when you were rousted out of your rack at one o’clock in the morning. Half the guys in the hut were aware of the intruder even before he clicked on his flashlight. That would be Carlisle, the C.O., so that would be Carlisle’s beam bouncing off Coggins’ bald cueball skull in the chilly darkness.
“Coggins,” Carlisle whispered. “J.J. Wakey-wakey.”
“I’m awake,” Coggins husked, rolling over.
Carlisle seated himself on the edge of the cot. “Listen, I hate to do this to you, but—”
“What time is it?” Everybody except Tewks was awake now.
“One-fifteen. Look... the mission. Can you make it?”
“Sure,” said Coggins, as if he were sure of everything.
“We’re leading the Eighth this morning, and we need the whole group to muster maximum effort.”
“What’s he saying?” said Wheatrow, rubbing his face to consciousness.
“Shh,” said Beck. “It’s a surprise.”
“It’s a big deal,” said Carlisle, louder now, for the general benefit. “Heavy flak, then fighters. An oil refinery. I know your crew isn’t quite combat-ready, but we can’t co-pilot you out with a more experienced guy because—”
combat-ready, sir,” Coggins returned, and nobody contradicted him.
There it was, then. The thing Coggins would later describe as a “massacre.”
Coggins had gotten “
” painted on his ship during his North African leg. This green crew was sleeping inside a hut that several days before had been occupied by a completely different crew, now MIA. Tomorrow, who knew? Technically, they had flown four of their 25-mission stint, but had always been recalled or otherwise aborted. They had yet to make it all the way across the Channel. Their much-vaunted first mission had decayed into a complete embarrassment when they lost a supercharger at 12,000 feet and had to turn back and dump their bombs in the North Atlantic. Their right waist gunner, a Texan named MacCardle, had been seconded out to an active combat crew on their twelfth run,
, leaving a slot that had just been filled by Wheatrow.
A belly gunner from a ship called the
had related the mission to Coggins: “I saw the
take an 88 shell right in the cockpit. It heeled over with a full load of bombs and cut
right in half. I didn’t see any chutes.” Was MacCardle alive or dead? Nobody knew, and past a certain minimal concern, it was a bad idea to care too much.
So here they were: scalding hot coffee, joints cracking in the accursed British damp, struggling into their gear, sleep dirt blurring their vision, becoming roly-poly flyboys. Electrical suits, flak vests, backpack chutes for the pilots, chest chutes for the rest, Mae Wests, helmets, goggles, oxygen masks. They all smelled like wet sheepskin and leather.
“Goddamned fog,” said Tewks on the truck to the field. “Too thin to eat and too thick to drink.”
Visibility was zilch. “We’re going to have to follow a Jeep just to find the runway,” said Stackpole. “Where are we in the formation?”
“Coffin corner,” said Coggins, trying to make it sound normal.
“Oh, outstanding,” grumbled Beck, the Guy in Back.
“What?” said Wheatrow, damp blond hair plastered to his head inside his flight cap.
Lt. Mars recited the verdict: “Outside edge of the box, rear element.”
“So the flak can kill us easier,” noted Beck.
Jorgensen boffed Wheatrow on one thickly-padded arm. “Newcomer position. For virgins.”
“We’re supposed to tag along until there’s an abort,” said Coggins. “So we can fill in.” At least they had graduated from the aborts. Coggins had pulled the wire from the brim of his garrison cap with pliers, to permit the proper “mission crush” when he donned his headphones.
Stackpole was whistling “The Way You Look Tonight.”
abruptly loomed up before them, filling their world. Dull green, bitch mother, sky lover, their womb, their fate.
The 44th Bomb Group was known as the Flying Eight-Balls, the first Liberator unit in the AAF, though not the first to Europe, which distinction went to the Ninth Air Force’s Pyramiders. The Eight-Balls flew their first sortie in support of Flying Forts in November of ’42, and as the other groups converted to night missions, the Eight-Balls were left in the unenviable position of being the sole Liberator group assigned to daylight bombing raids. There was a lot of talk about one Lib,
by name, part of the 93rd Bomb Group’s October 9th raid on Lille. She came back wearing thousands of holes, destined for scrap, but her pilot and crew chief fought for her, patched up her bullet punctures with aluminum, and she became the first B-24 in the Eighth to complete her fifty missions. Her men defended her honor, and she repaid them with their lives. Not to put too fine a point on it, snickers aside, the Lille mission was also the breaking point for command, which was compelled to incontrovertibly report that the B-24 was a better bombardment craft, hands down, than the much sexier “glamour girl” B-17—the Libs were faster, longer-range, capable of ferrying heavier bomb loads with superior armament. In essence, the history of the Eight-Balls was the saga of the Liberator in wartime; aerial conflict had birthed her, and she would be practically obsolete by VJ Day. Many of the 24s at Shipdham had arrived with the newer armor, self-sealing tanks, turbo-superchargers, and the retractable Sperry ball turret.
Which is where Wheatrow was headed this morning.
“Big pot-bellied bitch,” said Mars, echoing the words of a skipper named Keith Schuyler.
“I like big women,” said Tewks. “More to grab on to.”
“She moves fast for a big’un,” said Coggins. He might have been talking about his wife back in the States, or his aircraft, thought Jorgensen. Like the difference mattered. Maybe his old lady’s wingspan was longer than her fuselage.
The flight crew had completed hoisting 500-pounders into the
bomb bay, and the ten Fifties aboard were glutted with eleven thousand rounds of ammo in disintegrating link belts. Coggins’ men began levering themselves into the underside of the plane. There they’d spend the next twelve hours in almost unbearable cramp, pissing through relief tubes, sucking artificial air, fighting not to die. God help you if you were struck with the trots in mid-mission.
Mars clambered into the co-pilot bucket to Coggins’ right, noting that the skipper, as usual, had locked his seat full-forward. You’d think shorter men would be ideal for bombers, but the jokers back in San Diego or Fort Worth always liked to rack the pedals just out of reach for an average human being.
“Could be a milk run,” Mars said, snugging in.
“Could be a nightmare, if fighters pick our group to plaster,” said Coggins, not looking at him. He mashed down his (now-wireless) cap to accommodate his headphones.
They ran through the preflight check with the flight engineer. Mars stowed the control latch overhead (so it would not slap him in the face later) and popped out the hatch to check movement on the ailerons, elevators and rudder. They were starting up from a battery cart, so he killed the ignition switches. The engineer pulled the props through by hand, six turns or “blades” each, starting with #3, inboard to outboard. The process was dull, administrative, and by rote, but even a misstep at this stage could cause an explosion, from a closed intercooler or an overlooked supercharger switch. The flight engineer placed the wheel chocks and stood by with a portable extinguisher for the actual engine startup, #3 first, to drive the hydraulics. At 1000 rpm, the dials read properly:
45-50 pounds for the oil pressure, 4-1/2 inches for the vacuum pumps, about 975 pounds pressure in the accumulators, for braking power. Coggins throttled to one-third power while Mars amplified the fuel mix to auto-lean. After taxiing out, Mars would rev all four powerhouses to “exercise” the props.
Coggins went on the air: “Checking interphone.”
“Christ, I can’t even see past the nose of the plane,” Mars returned as the crew began to check in from their positions. As usual, the fog would lift only when they broke above it.
Stackpole’s voice: “Bombardier, roger.” He was down by their feet, near Jones, at the radio station, who said, “Radioman, check.”
Behind Smith always came Jones: “Roger, left waist.”
“Rodger-dodger, you old codger.” That was Tewks, across from Smith at the right waist gun.
“Top turret, Jorgensen here.” If Mars or Coggins turned around, they’d see Jorgensen’s boots on the turret footbar.
“Wheatrow. Ball turret is okay.” The poor lad had to be dogged in and lowered away, without a chute. No room for a chute. To use one, he’d have to clamber out—with help—and strap one on, theoretically while the aircraft was plummeting earthward in a fireball. Easy peasy.
Lt. Gentry jack-in-the-boxed out from his station to give a thumbs up. Per procedure, he had to be heard, so he was.
“Heads up, Jimmy,” said Coggins.
“The tail is ready, Skipper,” said Beck from what Jorgensen had called the “back of the bus.”
In that moment, Coggins seemed to compress from the weight he imagined on his yoke. Mars’ eyebrows went up. Coggins finally cracked a half-smile and said, “This goddamned seat’s too short.”
Despite their bulky gear, armament, and sleepless disposition, when the
lofted skyward, it felt like riding in a limousine. They finally got to see some daylight and blue sky. Every little taste of reward was deeply important.
At 3000 feet, they all lit up cigarettes, because at 10,000 feet, they’d have to go on ship oxygen. Then sheer ball-sweat would have to carry them until they turned around, empty, and showed the Continent their tail.
“We got swamped by Focke-Wulfs,” said Jorgensen. “One-nineties everywhere. After flak always comes fighters. And the next thing I know, Mars is screaming into his intercom that
was on fire, just off our left wing. I couldn’t
see it from my turret. Flak hit an oxygen bottle near ole Jonesy’s head and blew his radio apart. Wheatrow’s electrical suit shorted out and burned him. Everybody’s yelling, the guns are all blazing, Focke-Wulfs zipping past close enough to spit on. Tewks snapped his gun tether and accidentally shot up our right stabilizer trying to nail one of the sonsabitches, and we started to shake like a drunk old whore. And that’s when I saw it, first time.”
“The Warbird,” I said. Katie had dutifully refreshed our coffee. Jorgensen’s older sister was also in her eighties. The last Mrs. Jorgensen had died a decade ago.
“At first, I thought it was one of them Stukas,” said Jorgensen. “When they dived, they made this weird whine. Then I saw its wings flap and I thought,
This ain’t no airplane
. It was nearly as
as a fighter. Wings like a bat, snout like one of them needle-bills. Eyes like onyx and pewter.” He cleared his throat. “About now you’re thinking to yourself, gee, this old coot has lost his marbles, right?” His feathery brows arched, to indict me.
“Actually, no sir. I could never get my father to talk about the war, but some of the
other crew had a few tales to tell, over the years it took me to find them. I’ve heard weirder.”
He seemed to arrive at some momentous inner decision. “Well, okay, then, as long as Katie’s in the kitchen or watching soaps or whatever it is she does with her free time.” No protest came from the back of the house, so Jorgensen was satisfied we were in confidence, here.
“I thought the same thing you just probably thought,” he went on. “That it was a hallucination. I don’t think so. I just saw this big, impossible thing coming straight for me, claws out. Next thing I know, all my plexi is gone and I’m laid out on the deck with my head tore open. Still got the scar.” He smoothed his hair back to favor a white line that zigged from his left eyebrow up into his scalp. It resembled a knife wound. “Damned near lost my eye. By the time we were back to base, I was in shock from loss of blood. I barely remember the haul back home. They told me later that the belly turret was gone when we landed, and so was Wheatrow, the new guy.”
“The whole turret was just gone from the plane?”
“Yeah—pretty tough to do with just cannon fire or machine guns. And all of us would have felt a direct flak hit. Jerry was using 128-millimeter guns for flak, so if Wheatrow had been blown out of the ball by a burst, we would have known about it because half the plane would have been on fire. We had seven thousand pounds of incendiaries and our wings were full of high-test gasoline.”
“You think that—”
He overrode me. “I don’t think. I suspect. Some things I know. Now, I suspect what happened to poor ole Wheatrow, but I’ll tell you what I think: I think that a war that big doesn’t just go away because you shake hands and sign some paper.”
“Or nuke a couple of cities into Japanese-flavored vapor.” I didn’t mean it to sound that flip, but Jorgensen stayed on track, either ignoring it or being polite.
“Think of it: the whole world at war. Years of war. Every birthday, every Christmas, the war is still there. Then we suddenly get all civilized and agree to pretend there ain’t no war. Sometimes I think... sometimes...” He petered out. Why bother? He barely knew me, and I was just the callow spawn of one of his old crewmates, Jimmy Beck, who’d died five years ago and never sent a holiday card, ever.
“It ain’t about heroics or glory,” he said, starting up a different avenue of attack. “Where you’re up there in the air, shooting all around, guys bleeding and guys hollering, explosions, it’s about keeping your skin on. Sheer survival. If you believe in God, you pray constantly to yourself, silently:
God, please don’t let me die on this mission
. If you believe in good luck charms, you tote ’em. Stackpole had a little Kilroy sock doll his wife made for him, and you better believe we all treated Kilroy like one of our crew, made sure he was accounted for on every mission. Gentry had a St. Christopher’s medal. Wheatrow came with his rabbit’s foot, even though that wasn’t very lucky for him or the rabbit. And your Daddy had this ritual. Before he checked his guns, he’d pull the first slug out of the chain belt and write the date on it and put it in his pocket next to his heart.”