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AN EVEN ONE-HUNDRED
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All pilots ... briefing ... max effort: a damned poor joke on a night like this night. But we shuddered and stretched and grumbled a bit, fished out cigarettes, and slipped into our duds quickly and without much chatter.
Not much chatter, but we were all thinking hard and fast, and the same maggoty thoughts nibbled persistently through each of our heads: black night ... rain ... low ceiling ... zero visibility ... no flare-pots ... a blind takeoff with 3,000 pounds of high-octane aboard that tiny little Mustang. To hell with it. My fingers had developed a tremor. And on the tin roof the drizzle rattled, dripping upon our heads through the twenty-seven bullet holes we'd shot there one night (whilst endeavoring to extinguish the lights without having to leave our bunks).
Mac remarked cheerily to no one in particular that, one time on just such a night as this, he had seen an elderly seagull come spinning out of the soup. More of such whimsy, until at the blast of a horn we scrambled into our jeep and took off up the road, the headlights poking into a dismal night, windshield-wipers clicking away the drizzle, cigarettes glowing nervously.
All was quiet until we slid to a halt in the mud behind Headquarters where Frascotti leaped wildly from the jeep, waved his hands to the dripping overcast, and beseeched the gods who lurked therein to clean up the forbidding skies. Slipping into his Jimmy Durante persona, he shouted out his conviction that he was surrounded by assassins. And that he should never have said—for within a few hours he was dead. We'd laughed at the time, but later wished we hadn't.
We scampered out of the rain and into the briefing room, curious to learn just what the sadists down at Fighter Command might have been smoking when they'd dreamed up a flight for this dreary, rainswept midnight. Our eyes lost all traces of indifference when we cast them onto the great chart of the Continent: for there before us was written the climax to the relentless offensive battle we'd been waging for the past year. Tonight, to mark out our mission, the confusion of red ribbons and colored tacks extended from the coast of England south across the Channel to focus upon the beaches of France.
The significance was obvious: tonight we covered the Invasion of Normandy. Paratroopers and gliders were on their way at this very moment. At 0330 hours, Allied landing craft would hit the beaches behind the cover of a terrific naval and aerial bombardment. Our mission was to run a patrol along the west coast of Cherbourg Peninsula and prevent attack from that quarter by Jerry aircraft. Every flyable ship and pilot in the 8th Fighter Command would go out tonight, to remain in assigned zones until there was only fuel enough to return to England. We would take off on instruments four abreast in tight formation, and the flights would rendezvous over the field—so hoped the Colonel as he concluded his briefing.
The Intelligence Officer briefed us as to possible enemy opposition, and the Chaplain gave us the Word. When Stormy the meteorologist came up with his terrifying weather charts and worse theories, we laughed him off the stage and headed for our squadron dispersal area.
We milled around in the pilots' hut, emptying pockets of telltale trinkets and puttering about with our flying gear, all hands busily trying to forget about the weather in which we'd soon be flying. With minutes remaining, I headed through the rain toward my good ship, the Joker, swinging my 'chute and muttering a funny little flying tune: "... owls and nitwits fly by night ..." and I thought, "Goddam, ain't it the truth! But which am I?" I knew I wasn't an owl.
The Joker was crouched in the blackness of its revetment looking 200 mph standing still, so clean she was. I crawled from the wheel to the slippery wet wing and slipped into the narrow cockpit and my good crew chief helped strap me in place. He lit up a smoke and tucked it into my mouth and I waited while the sweat trickled, and then from the control tower a red rocket squirted up into the overcast. And now it was all business.
A fumbling of switches and levers and knobs to bring forth a comforting snarl from my engine, and the prop disk reflected the orange glare of the exhaust stacks. The field had come magically alive with a horde of dim red and green wing lights that flowed bobbing and twisting toward the takeoff funnel. In the ensuing long minutes of extremely difficult taxiing in total darkness, the entire outfit of some fifty ships became royally fouled-up, and I—an eager type—found myself, along with two other similarly confused pilots, in the lead takeoff position. By the darting flames of their engine exhausts I could make out the dim identifying letters painted on the fuselage of each ship. So Pappy Gignac and McKibben and I were together, and we three were hogging the slot reserved for the Colonel's flight. That, however, was tough titty, because it was too late now to monkey around trying to get organized. We ran up our engines and it was time to go, and I didn't want to push that throttle at all. My instruments glowered greenly at me like the winking, blinking, luminous eyes of a whole pack of pussycats racked up in a blacked-out bookcase.
We held brakes and poured on the coal until our ships quivered, released brakes and shoved throttles full forward, and we accelerated fast on a tight-formation instrument takeoff for what I sincerely hoped to be the opposite corner of the field and thence its black sky. Rolling mighty fast, Pappy's ship careened violently away to the left and he was out of the race. Mac and I held our course and when my ship felt light I sucked the wheels out from under her and hauled back on the stick and waited to find out whether or not an oak tree would try to stuff itself into the cockpit with me. Now airborne, I started breathing again, got the engine controls squared away, and slid in close on Mac's wing.
We banked into an easy turn to port and I glanced back to the field, and all of a damned sudden a horrible, billowing explosion half-blinded me, and I knew automatically what it was: a Mustang, a maximum load of high-octane, and one of the boys, all gone to glory in a puff of flame. I didn't know who'd bought it, but I did know that it was a pilot of my squadron. Mac and I circled the runway at 500 feet, just beneath the weeping overcast, and we watched the flaring mess die away to glowing redness.
With their pilots taking full advantage of the grisly beacon, Mustangs shot from the blackness of the takeoff position to gleam momentarily in the crash flames and disappear again as they became safely airborne. Radio silence had gone all to hell and my earphones were full of frantic chatter. We circled a couple of times in an effort to pick up the rest of our ships, but after barreling through a couple of flights which were at our altitude but traveling in the opposite direction, we gave up and struck out on the briefed course, with Mac flying instruments and me jockeyed in tight on his wingtip. Then up through the overcast and out into a lovely, lonely moonlit sky, and below us the clouds shone frosty and silver.
On up to twenty thousand, and as we neared the French coast the undercast began suddenly to take color. Almost like a sunrise it was, with a spreading scarlet glow diffusing through the clouds to then slowly diminish in intensity: the naval bombardment, preliminary to the landings, was under way. Moments later, our two-ship squadron attracted accurate, heavy flak—spectacular stuff bursting with a red flash and a lusty thud, with each burst followed by a chain of lesser explosions extending vertically downward: a signpost to announce our arrival over the city limits of Cherbourg.
After a lonely hour of sucking oxygen, we peeled down to thirteen thousand, whereupon I ripped off my mask and lit up a smoke and chased Mac around the sky. Now a fantastically beautiful sunrise boomed up through the jumbled cloud formations, and—half-hypnotized by the sight—I found it difficult to realize, in the midst of such splendor and absolute solitude, that I was flying six machine guns and five tons of hot airplane, with death and destruction the goal.
Nothing to shoot at up here, but I knew quite well that two or three miles below the beaches were a nightmare of bloody action, and I felt a bit guilty about sitting on top of a cloud acquiring another layer of calluses, when down below the walking army was getting knocked off about as fast as it was being dumped ashore. After a few hours of futile cloud-hopping, we rolled into a fast dive through a long, vertical tunnel in the soup and went shopping around on the deck, a scant few feet off the water.
The sea was rough and of a cold green color, and great waves crashed at the base of the jagged rock cliffs of the peninsula. We buzzed the Channel Islands and ran in and out of the harbor at St. Malo; but the only sign of life was a pair of coastal trawlers with their square, patched sails bellied tightly out by the wind. Nobody took a crack at us and we saw no Jerry aircraft so, a pack of smokes later, we set course for England and landed at the first airfield we could find, with a cupful of fuel between us and a crash-landing. Wedged for eight hours in the tiny cockpit, my legs were completely paralyzed and my back permanently kinked. A quick refueling and we clipped the treetops for two hundred miles back to our home base, where we learned that it had been friend Scotti who hadn't made it off the ground on takeoff. He'd taken off just a trifle off-course and had driven his Mustang "Umbriago" squarely through a brick control tower at 120 mph. Surrounded by assassins ...
More fuel, a cup of coffee, a pair of 500-pound bombs apiece, and we went out to seek targets of opportunity down behind the beachhead. A string of Jerry trucks on a highway outside of Paris came into our gun-sights and was destroyed. Home again, and out again twice more, and then I peeled off into the sack for a couple of hours' sleep. And that was D-Day for the 486th Fighter Squadron.
At three a.m. on the 7th, the orderly again caught up with me for briefing. Now the weather was completely fouled up: zero ceiling and half-mile visibility made the whole lousy mess a flier's nightmare. Only it wasn't a nightmare: it was there. We were obliged to fly. At half-past four in the morning we got into the air, with Pappy Gignac leading eight ships. That old renegade, sharing our hatred of instrument flying, led us well: winding us up through many narrow, dark corridors in the fog and up through a dozen evil little cloud decks, and we headed for France on-top, on-course and on-time, and at our estimated time of arrival peeled off through a hole and went hunting. Unable to spot any live game, we vented our rage on a small-town railroad yard and on a highway bridge—in the center of which Pappy laid a 500-pounder with neatness and precision. We clobbered a couple of lone trucks and went home for breakfast.
Not being slated for the next flight, I slept in a chair in the pilots' hut, and as I snoozed Pappy led his last squadron to France—or to anywhere, for that matter. Somewhere down around Paris, he took the boys in on a long truck convoy. They dive-bombed and then went in to deliver the coup de grace with 50-caliber guns, and Pappy strafed an ammo truck that exploded as he zoomed over it. He pulled up into a steep, climbing turn and told his lads that his ship was afire and that he was going to jump. But at the top of his chandelle, Pappy's Mustang blew to smithereens and no 'chute was observed. It was hard news to take, for Pappy was indestructible. He'd been shot down twice into the jungles of New Guinea while flying rickety old P-39s against the Japs. But there is a bottom to one's bag of luck.
June 8th. D-plus-2. The weather still foul, but most of us had by now run out of sweat. A briefing at two a.m. to which no one paid much attention, as the mission was to be just another freelance hunt south of the beachhead. We'd revised our tactics to match the Jerries' change of pace. Constant fighter attacks had forced him from the highways during daylight hours, so he now moved his convoys by night, masterfully camouflaging his equipment at the crack of dawn. So our plan was to get into Jerry territory at night and to nail his trucks and tanks just at sunrise, before they could be concealed. We'd outfox and clobber 'em, but good.
Briefing at two in the morning and takeoff at three: so with an hour to goof around, somebody built a cheery, snapping fire and brewed up a pot of strong coffee, which lowered the goose-bumps a bit. Sipping on a bottle of good ale, I wandered about the pilots' hut and chanced to observe on the mission scoreboard that I'd flown 99 missions to date, and that this night's flight would make it an even 100.
A certain uneasiness is developed around that 100th trip. A jinxy sort of thing. But I told myself that such superstitions were a lot of crap. You bet! But then again ...
So I shuffled past the flight surgeon and sniffed and dragged a leg, but he wouldn't take notice at all.
"Hey Doc," I squeaked, "I got a terrible cold, as any fool kin plainly see, and why not ground me until a later date?"
To which plea he remarked coolly that I was, no doubt, the healthiest peashooter in the whole damned squadron.
"Tonight I don't want to fly any more," said I, "and if you make me go you'll be sorry."
But all I got was a nasty laugh. My pal, the Doc. Finally I told him that if it was all the same to him, I'd settle right now for that after-mission likker ration. And my fellow pilots cheered me on with wild stories and vicious propaganda about various jinxed and fateful 100th missions they'd known. As a matter of record, one of our finest pilots, Bobby MacKean, had simultaneously acquired a Silver Star and a tombstone while strafing an airdrome in southern France—on his 100th mission.
So I drifted over to the booze locker to refuel my silver flask with a full charge of Channel Oil, and while I was at it, I took a quick nip. I stuffed a half-carton of cigarettes into my flying suit and announced to the motley crew that nothing mattered now: I was ready for whatever cards I might be dealt. Despite the gay line of chatter, I still thought it to be a helluva night for getting over the hump.
I wandered toward my ship, feeling the rain on my face and sniffing the soggy night wind and not giving much of a damn for anything. Good Sergeant German was slumped in the cockpit, snoring lustily. I pounded on the canopy until he came crawling out guiltily, and I swapped places with him. Came the time and I wound 'er up, but that Merlin engine wouldn't kick over: the prop ground around and around and I thought, while mentally rubbing my hands together: "Ahhhh ... Kismet! Maybe the bastard will never start, I hope!" But my overly expert crew chief, blast his eyes, coaxed fire into the engine with a hot-shot from a handy battery cart, and the flames boiled back from the stacks. I taxied fast to catch up with the squadron and slid into position. And we poured on the coal and were airborne, four abreast in nice tight formation.
The tight sixteen-ship squadron arrowed up through low scud clouds into a dense and turbulent overcast. On top at ten thousand in the predawn light, the cloud scenery was desolate and bleak and as cold-looking as Little America. We slid out into a loose, line-abreast formation. Sixteen ships, and each little Mustang looked sleek and dangerous and mean, and we were doing a thousand miles an hour as we streaked along through jagged cloud valleys, clipping hummocks and tufts and pulling up and over turbulent cloud hills.
Somewhere west of Paris we let down through the stuff and throttled back, cruising at a thousand feet, and our morning hunt was on. A loose formation, with every pilot straining his eyes in the faint dawn light, searching for targets along the roads and in the forests: Mustangs weaving and rolling and occasionally skidding gently away from the showers of tracers that would lob up from hidden gun emplacements.
The weather in France was excellent, with a thin overcast at 4,000 feet, and when the brilliant edge of the sun peeped up, the countryside was rosy and objects on the ground cast long, clean shadows. And it was just a moment after sunrise when we hit the jackpot: a long column of thirty or forty trucks crawling around the right-angle turn of a gravel road, quite obviously headed for the safety of a large patch of forest a mile from their present position.
Spaced evenly, rolling slowly, this was a target of rare quality. One of the boys, whooping bloodthirstily into his microphone, peeled off to lay a pair of bombs directly in front of the lead truck, which obligingly burst into flames. The column was stopped dead.
Excerpted from Bailout Over Normandy by Ted Fahrenwald. Copyright © 2012 Madelaine Fahrenwald. Excerpted by permission of Casemate Publishing.
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Posted September 2, 2012
I love this book. It will no doubt be received as the finest example of the classic World War II evade and escape story. Only recently discovered, "Bailout over Normandy" is a 1940s masterpiece with a heart and soul unlike anything that's been published.
Ted Fahrenwald's style is immediately engaging and suggests influences by Samuel Clemens and Will Rogers. The 1940s vernacular that runs through the narrative gives it a real and appealing credibility. It reads so true to the time because it came from that time; Fahrenwald wrote it as the war ended. Consequently it is unpolluted by hindsight or any of the nonsense so often imposed by modern sensitivities. Casemate's editors--who were presented with the manuscript nearly seventy years after it was written--are to be commended for preserving it as Fahrenwald created it.
It takes only a couple of pages for the reader's internal narrator to synchronize with the colorful timing and tempo of Fahrenwald's voice. From that point the book reaches full speed and never lets up. Although the story is laced through-and-through with death and danger, Fahrenwald finds humor and irony at every turn. A loveable rapscallion, he makes fun of the Germans, the Maquis, his own countrymen and himself. This reader guffawed out loud at several points. Nevertheless, Fahrenwald understands the tragedy that is the war. His observations--often quite sensitive--underscore that point.
Exercising a charisma that borders on genius, Fahrenwald charms friend and foe alike through his dramatic adventure. But the story is more than entertainment. It is also a unique contemporaneous treasure that historians, linguists and social experts will study for years to come.
The actual (physical) book is very well made. The paper stock is weighty and the print is very readable. The photos, although they are hardly high resolution, do a nice job of putting faces to many of the names in the book.
I very highly recommend Bailout over Normandy.
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Posted November 24, 2014
Posted October 11, 2014
I'm an avid WWII history buff focused mainly on the Euopean Theater.
I became friends with an ACE that flew P-51's based in England toward the end of the war. We had met at the local "Y" when he was in his mid eighties, and he would tell me all kinds of stories related to the every day life of a fighter pilot in this time era when the "Greatest Generation" was in charge.
This book gave me an insight of what my friend expierenced over there.
Posted May 29, 2014
Although I am an avid history reader and the topic holds interest for me, I found this book to be trivial and wordy. The author recounts endless evenings spent drinking wine with the partisans, making the European liberation seem more like a fraternity game than a life-and-death situation. To be honest, I only made it halfway through the book...
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Posted May 21, 2014
Thanks to the author for sharing her father's story. Incredible story of survival and determination. I will be thinking of him, his buddies, and the brave people who helped him this Memorial Day.
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Posted June 19, 2014
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Posted January 29, 2015
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