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I have a rendezvous with Death
When Spring brings back blue days and fair
Time's running out," yelled our navigator, "Germany's dead ahead. Get those goddamned guns working." The calmest of our crew, Lieutenant Brown had never been so tense. He had reason to be. Only three days earlier, we'd lost six crews on a mission to Brunswickfifteen crews overall in our first eight missions150 of our 500 men lost in just nineteen days. Each of our eight guns was key, and when we had test-fired them over the English Channel, four had malfunctioned. Keith Thompson, our First Armorer, was still working on my top-turret "twin fifties." The two fifty-caliber machine guns were in parts on the radio-room floor, just below the top turret, when Brown came by. Thompson was methodically reassembling them and I was handing him each part as he called for it. I was immediately grateful that in aerial gunnery school we had learned to break guns down and put them together again blindfolded.
By the time Thompson had reassembled and installed the guns in my turret, we were already well into Germany. I test-fired the fifties and the sharp burst of fire comforted us all. Thompson returned to his own fifty-caliber waist gun on the starboard side of the plane. Tucked once again inside the top turret, I lost no time putting it into "slow-switch" 360-degree rotation. This was per Eighth Air Force orders, and it allowed me a look at all points of the compass every fifty seconds. We had been trained to use clock positions, not compass readings, along with "high," "low" and "level," in calling out the direction of attacking fighters. "Three o'clock high" crackling over the intercom meant trouble from above, off our starboard wing. At present the skies were bright and empty.
We were at about 24,000 feet and it was getting cold. I connected my electric flight suit to the aircraft power system to warm up and continued scanning the blue spring morning. For the moment, all was well; no fighters from above, no flak from below. The one blind spot lay dead ahead in the morning sun. The Luftwaffe liked to wait high in the blinding sun for a moment's advantage and though we knew it, there was little we could do. Our best defense were our own ferocious watchdogs, the American P-51 Mustangs and the P-38 twin-boom Lightnings that patrolled the skies around us. We could not see them, but like the Luftwaffe, they were out there.
We had learned that morning at the briefing that our mission was to be a strike against a military factory near Brunswick. The names of the German cities were becoming increasingly familiar to me. Our targets were military and/or industrial and always located outside those cities, but we identified them with the closest city's name. It was my fourth mission and we were flying group lead, a coveted position despite the Luftwaffe's zest for disrupting formations by attacking the lead planes.
I had heard nothing on the intercom as to our progress. First Lt. Thaddeus Tedrowe, our pilot, couldn't have kept us informed even had he wanted tohe had to maintain coordination with the fleet of bombers and their escorts to ensure that everyone got to the target intact and on time. The first milestone was the "initial point," or "IP," the place where a bomb run actually begins. In order to keep the Germans uncertain of our final destination as long as possible, we each flew to the IP from a different direction. At the IP, we would make a sharp turn and then fly straight and true toward the target, whatever the welcome, flak or fighter. Tedrowe may have advised us that we were now approaching the IP, but if he did, I did not hear him. I strapped on my oxygen mask, knowing that once the flak started or the Luftwaffe came, there would be no time.
On my turret's back swings, looking back over our tail and twin rudders, I was amazed by the immense and disciplined migration of bombers fanned out behind us in multiple formations. Some bombers held their noses proudly and bore through the sky while others scrambled into place like stragglers at a great parade. They all shone in the morning light. It was a majestic vista, and though I was not a frequent churchgoer, it made me feel part of a cathedral congregation singing a great hymn in full voice. The Eighth Air Force, headquartered in England, had twenty-six groups of B-24s and B-17s, and each group had at least fifty crews. I wondered how the Nazis could withstand the single-minded purpose and fury of all those gleaming bombers coming at them day after day.
Our two wing planes were so close I could see the pilots through their windows. To starboard, they were busy adjusting something above their heads like a pair of mechanics flipping levers; to port, the copilot's head tilted jovially toward his pilot, as if midway through a story. I relaxed for a moment to the soothing drone of our engines. My suit was warming up nicely, my turret's full-circle rotations continuing to give me a sense of a mission going well. And then, deafening explosions rocked our plane. At the same moment, I saw both those wing planes burst into flames and drop straight away like dead birds. The sight was mesmerizing, and for a split second I was knifed through with grief. The planes, and the twenty men inside them, were gone in an instant.
We had been hit hard but were somehow still flying. As the crew's flight engineer, my job was to immediately assess the damage to our plane and its ability to stay airborne. Getting down from the turret while disconnecting oxygen, heat and intercom, I heard our tail gunner, Alfredo Orlando, yelling in his distinctive Italian accent an excited account of a dogfight in the skies behind usour fighters tangling with the dozen or more Luftwaffe pilots. They had come head-on out of the sun, riddled our three Liberators and swung under us, all in a matter of seconds.
I had to get to the cockpit fast. Manning the top-turret guns, I was almost right over Tedrowe. I dropped down past Dailey into the radio room. He was busy hunched over his radio but turned and pointed toward the bomb bay behind him. It was a shower of spraying gasoline. The bay's starboard bomb door was shattered and this let fresh air in, but not enough to clear the heavy vapor. Any spark would blow the plane apart. I still had no parachute on, but no time to think on that. Through the spray I could see heavy shrapnel damage to gas lines running along the top of the bomb bay to the radio-room fuel gauges. There were many things about a B-24 its flight engineers needed to know and didn't, but we had been shown how to shut down those lines. Getting a bath of gasoline, I worked my way along the bomb bay's catwalk to where the shutoff valves could be reached and closed them off. If I was afraid, I did not have time to feel it.
Back to the cockpit for engine check-out, I got into my slot between pilot and copilot. I looked out across them to our wings. It was a galvanizing moment. Both engines to port were dead, their black propellers frozen against the sky. Feathered, too, our outboard propeller to starboard. Only "Number Three"our right wing's inboard enginewas still turning over. I was thunderstruck. Out the cockpit windows I could see that we were now alone, heading away from the sun, back toward Holland, but with only one engine still alive. The engineer's job was to report all problems, but Tedrowe would now want only what was needed to manage this fast-falling plane.
That last enginehow was it doing? A look at the instruments showed right away that its fuel pressure was down to thirteen. Sixteen was standard. At eight, flight engineers were taught, the engine would fail. Had ours stabilized at thirteen, or was it still on its way down? It was still falling. The altimeter showed we had already dropped five thousand feet. Our speednormally 175 miles per hourwas down to 110, not much above our stalling speed of 90. It was time to talk with Tedrowe. He had gotten us out of the formation safely with three engines dead and headed us back toward Holland, but now looked exhausted. He was using all his strength and concentration to fly the plane. I could see the rising tendons on his wrist, and his knuckles were white as he gripped the steering column. The physical stamina needed to fly a B-24 was substantial even with all engines and other systems performing well, but under these circumstances keeping the plane on course required almost superhuman strength.
Pilots and engineers were always close and had their own shorthand language. We traded a few words. He wanted the crew prepared for a crash landing, as near the Holland border as we could get, but learning that our last engine would fail unless its pressure stabilized, he wanted the plane and men prepared for a bailout, too. I told him the damaged bomb doors had to be opened some for that.
"You and Thompson try to get those doors open," he said very calmly, almost quietly. "Then, if you can, get the bombs out. I'm going to fly this plane as far as I can. Let's try to lighten it."
I worked my way back to see what could be done about opening the bomb doors to get the bombs out and to bail through if it came to that. Thompson met me on the catwalk. Tedrowe had reached him by intercom.
"The doors are jammed!" he shouted.
"The hydraulics can't budge them," I shouted back. The wind was roaring. "We can use the crank. Get the crank." We rigged the crank, and though turning it took all our strength, we got ourselves an opening of about two feet on the starboard side. This would work for bailing, we thought, and for the bombs, which we now pushed out one-by-one over the open countryside we could see far below. It was good to see them go; neither of us liked the idea of crash-landing with a full payload. We talked for a minute before heading back to our posts. Thompson was in good shape and confirmed that Orlando and Mintz, our tail and port waist gunners, were, too.
Back to the cockpit. I checked our Number Three's fuel pressure. It had gone down further. I relayed this to Tedrowe but said it might still stabilize above the eight-pound shutdown level. There was now a growing thickness to his voice.
"Pass the word that if Number Three holds we might make it to Holland. It's a hundred miles to the border."
Lieutenant Brown must have reported that by intercom. I had no idea we were so close, but knew with our plane now at fifteen thousand feet and dropping five hundred feet a minute, we'd hit the ground well short. An east wind might get us nearer Holland, but westerlies were the rule. Even so, once on the ground we'd have to make it some distance on foot to the border.
"How're we doing?" Tedrowe asked quietly.
"Ten and a half; we're still going down but maybe it'll stabilize." Neither Tedrowe nor his copilot commented. We all understood that with Number Three's fuel pressure continuing to dropand having dropped that faronly a miracle could save the engine now. Still, the drop was gradual and slow; there was room for hope.
I knew, as Tedrowe surely did, that setting downcrash-landinga B-24 with only one engine could well be a disaster and that we would have to give all the rest of the crew the choice of bailing out rather than hanging in for a crash landing. If and when that last engine failed us, we'd have to get everyone out. With all engines gone, Tedrowe might or might not be able to maneuver the plane down to a dead-stick landing. He would have to alternately dive to develop maximum safe flying speed and then level off for a low-angle glide until just above stalling speed. Failure on either count could tear off our wings or put us into a spin from which no one could bail. If we even got positioned to land, we would have no choice of terraina grim bet and certainly a blind one. With little or nothing to gain from it, Tedrowe would be taking his crew on an engineless plane ride down to a near suicidal landing. If the bad news cameNumber Three was going to failit would be vital that I give Tedrowe, likely the last one to bail, time to get out before the engine died altogether.
Meanwhile our gunners scanned the sky for the predictable Luftwaffe fighter plane that would be dispatched to use us for target practiceto play with us as a cat does a mouse. Dailey's radio scanned the airwaves for messages that might warn us. Lieutenant Brown tracked our progress westward on his navigation maps. My eyes were glued to the instruments, praying we'd stabilize above that eight-pound shutdown level. We flew on alone, dropping fast but free of enemy fighters.
At nine pounds Number Three sputtered and caught again. The pressure kept falling. There would be no miracle. It was a flight engineer's high noon. We were going to have to get out of the plane. We hadn't been trained to bail and were going to have to learn on the job. At eight and a half pounds, there was no more margin. It was time.
"This is it," I said to Tedrowe. "Get the crew out." He did not hesitate: he gave the order over the intercom and hit the bailout alarm. Concentrating on his flying, staring straight ahead, he said: "Go. You and Dailey, go. Bail." Time was now our last, most dangerous, enemy.
I put on my chute.
Dailey was in the radio room. He had heard the alarm and Tedrowe's command to bail. Lieutenant Levins, our bombardier, had also come up from down in the nose of the plane. What Tedrowe had in mind was that the men in the cockpit/radio-room compartment would bail through the opening in the bomb bay doors. Down in the nose compartment, Lieutenant Brown and George Saccomanno, our nose-turret gunner, had their own escape hatch in the floor of the compartment. The two waist gunners and Orlando, our tail gunner, had three ways out: an escape hatch on the waist floor, through the waist windows or through the bomb bay opening the cockpit/radio-room crew would use. Tedrowe and his copilot would wait until they were satisfied that the time was right for themassuming that the engine hadn't cut out, which would make it essential for them to bail immediately. The bailout would proceed simultaneously from the nose, the radio room/cockpit and the waist gunnery area.
Several men were near the entrance to the bomb bay, where the backup crank had opened up the damaged bomb doors enough to let us work our way between them and the starboard side of the catwalk. Levins was closest to the bomb bay and said to Dailey and me, "Men before officers." He seemed quite cool and collected, so that was probably standard procedure for commissioned officers, though it certainly was news to me. Dailey was ahead of me, so I told him to bail. He turned and asked me to bail first. He was a tall, lanky fellow, and I could see how he would have wanted to be certain that someone could get through those mangled bomb bay doors. I got down onto the catwalk where the wrecked bomb bay doors gave me a view of the sunlit land miles below. Where were we? We had been flying for about twenty minutes at about 110 miles an hour. Not far enough, I thought. Although the opening was small and jagged, I realized we were all going to have to get through it with a jump. You couldn't work your way out a little at a time or the slipstream would cut you to ribbons. Crouching low on the catwalk, I looked one last time at my crewmates. It occurred to me with a sudden satisfaction that before my first flight into Germany I had written a "good-bye" letter to my mother and had sent it in a sealed envelope to my oldest sister in case I didn't return, and then I jumped. The slipstream struck me hard and almost knocked me out. We had had no training in bailouts, but before pulling the red-handled rip cord I did remember to count to ten as we'd been told. A little pilot chute whipped out and, following it, a billowing main. After an enormous jolt as the main chute took hold, I found myself right-side up, swinging away in the wind.
I rested for a moment, drifting through an azure spring sky with, at a distance, white billowing parachutes patterned against its infinite blue. Its beauty was overwhelming, but more so its awesome silence. For years the roar of engines had surrounded me. Twenty-four hours a day, wherever I was, their mighty chorus sang to me from hangar tarmacs and runways, from above in the sky or out on the wings of our own plane as we flew our missions. The thunder of those engines had become my tie to the love of flying and the inspiration it provided. Now all of that was gone. As I floated through spring's silent blue morning, below me a quilt of farmland with the midday sun melting streams to gold, I sensed that one kind of life had ended and a new one was coming at me, ready or not. For a moment I thought of our two wing planes and our twenty comrades who had no chance at that new life.
Suddenly I was aware that I was falling fast toward a good deal of trouble. Now a mile or so above the ground, I could see that a strong wind was moving me sideways at a good clip, carrying me right toward a large body of blue water. Having never been in a parachute before, I was finding my first jump likely to drop me in the middle of that lake. No one had trained me on how to land, much less on how to land in water. I began to probe my harness to figure out how to get unhooked fast. If I could get out of the chute before I hit the water, timing the release right before impact, I wouldn't drown in a tangle of cords and harnesses. Seaside summers had made me something of a fish, and that thought helped. The closer I got to the ground, however, the faster my chute seemed to be moving sideways. Soon enough the wind pulled me clear of the lake and toward some freshly plowed fields. They came up at me fast. At impact, I was on a backswing, so I landed more or less like an airplane, my legs sliding onto the ground before my waist and shoulders. The trouble came once I was on the ground and the chute, swelling with the strong wind, dragged me fast over the field. I knew my body couldn't take too much of that, particularly if I hit a large stone or two, so I hauled hard at the silk. After a hundred yards or so, the chute collapsed and I came to a stop, facedown on German soil.
Copyright © 2004 by Edward A. Handy and Kemp Battle