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Usually as they climbed into the waiting truck outside the Operations Tent, Roy thought, How romantic all this would be if only I weren't going through it myself. Somehow that night it wasn't even abstractly romantic. There was no romance in it, none whatever.
Well, he thought, we didn't have any too good reports on this one, this job of taking supplies to the Underground in Occupied France. That was plain enough in the Operations Tent when the intelligence officer showed us the pictures. We all knew it, every one of us felt it. These night flights are invariably hot missions. And the fact is, Roy realized, this thing is beginning to get me down.
The truck jolted and bumped down the road out to the field, and across to their waiting plane. They clambered down, yanking at their flak vests and chutes, and stood round, waiting. The worst ten minutes of all, the wait before they could take off—like the last minutes before a team takes the field in a Rose Bowl game, or the final contest in a World Series. The same craving for action, the same desire to do something, to release twitching muscles and tight lips. There was no emotion, no joking, no moving picture stuff. Just four extremely tired men waiting to do the unpleasant job they had been doing as far back as they could recall, as far as time stretched.
Scotty wandered round and round the little group blowing half-audible runs and trills on his harmonica. Earl sat on his chute, checking his compass. Jim leaned over to load his automatic. The others carried 45's; but Roy, the tail gunner, had little room to move about in, so he wore a long-handled knife which he stuffed in his belt. For the same reason he had a chest-type parachute, with the harness attached to his body, and the chute on the floor under his seat when in flight.
Roy watched the mechanics readying the plane, as he had done dozens of times before. There were half a dozen of them, on top, underneath, inside, around the gas truck, all chattering in the quiet night air; all oblivious to the task awaiting the ship and the crew who flew her. Snatches of their conversation came to him.
"My wife writes, now she says eggs are sixty cents a dozen. Things keep on this-a-way, she says ..."
"Got a letter from home this morning, and wha'd'ya think the little tyke wants to know? Wants to know all about this Brooklyn boy in the squadron, this here now Roy Tucker."
Roy turned away. He had heard them like that, listened to the grease monkeys, watched them do the same things dozens of times before. Somehow that night they bothered him. All at once he wanted to yell at them as loud as he could. Hey, look, you guys; you up there in the turret, and you, Bud, out on the wing, and you, fella, you gassing her up, and you two in the truck. Look, we're taking this ship up tonight, and maybe we won't come back. Maybe we'll ditch or crash somewhere in France or something. And we've got people at home, same as you have.
Aw, what's the use? They wouldn't understand what's biting me. He turned away. Suddenly Earl rose and began climbing aboard. Jim was going up after him. O.K., here goes. But those mechanics, they're sure something, those guys.
Jim, the pilot, immediately started checking his gauges, while Roy climbed into his place in the rear of the plane and adjusted the phones over his head. "Let's have another time check, boys; let's have one more to make sure," said Jim. "In twelve seconds it'll be ten minutes to ten. Nine seconds ... eight ... seven ... six ... five ... four ... three ... O.K.! That's it."
Once again his voice came to them. "Pilot to tail gunner. Do you receive?"
Roy's tone was cracked and queer as he heard himself reply. This is no good, no good at all, he thought. I'm getting jittery. "Tail gunner to pilot. Receiving you loud and clear." Now the mechanics were scattering. They'll go back to their tents and sleep in bed tonight, while we'll be somewhere in France trying to find the headquarters of the Maquis, a pinpoint on a map.
At last the engines roared, one after the other. The plane bounced down the runway, and stopped for the final check. Then the ground rushed away underneath, there was the beautiful free movement as the ship caught the air and left the earth below, and Jim, climbing on course, swung over the airfield. Once they were airborne Roy noticed, as he invariably did, how little of their actual operations on the ground showed from above. The squadron had learned something since their debarkation at Algiers eighteen months before.
Now Casamozza vanished, and the field disappeared. Then underneath lay Bastia, a cluster of white, familiar houses with red roofs grouped about the tiny harbor, sharp and distinct in the moonlight. As they climbed, the remainder of the island with its mountain peaks came into his vision. He bent over to load his guns. When he lifted his head again, Corsica was vanishing fast astern. They were over the Tuscan sea, and slowly swinging round to point for France.
For perhaps two hours they were above water, then across the French coastline and over the moonlit countryside before Roy became worried. It was Jim's voice, stiff and tight, that confirmed suspicions which had been deepening for some minutes. Over the intercom came those familiar tones.
"Pancake Z. Pancake Z. This is Fried Spratt calling Pancake Z. Fried Spratt calling Pancake Z."
They waited, all four of them: the pilot up front, and Scotty, the turret gunner, and Earl, the bombardier in the waist, and Roy himself in the tail. They waited for nothing because nothing happened. There was no reply from their base on Corsica. Only the usual hum of the intercom.
Boy, are we lost? It couldn't be we're lost, thought Roy. Jim'll make it somehow; he always has. He got us through on that run over Anzio and Highway 7; on that nasty job we had at the Fiat works in Turin, when we lost Elmer at Leghorn, and the time the Messerschmitt jumped us over the Mediterranean. He'll do it this time, too; he's a good chauffeur, Jim is.
"Pancake Z. Pancake Z. This is Fried Spratt calling Pancake Z."
There it was again. No use talking, we're lost this time. Yep, no fooling, we're lost. Say, isn't that something! Fifty-six missions over Italy and France, then this. We're really lost.
It was chilly, so Roy in the tail gunner's seat wore coveralls and a sweater. Suddenly he felt sweat across his forehead. Why, this is terrible, this is awful, this feeling of fear. The fact is, I'm afraid.
We're lost now; no mistake, either.CHAPTER 2
Once more they waited, listening, all of them, Scotty in the turret, and Earl in the middle, and Roy squeezed into the tail of the plane. They listened like shipwrecked men, for that was what they were, shipwrecked in the skies, adrift, uncertain. Far below, that misty streak was the Rhone or the valley of the Durance or even the valley of the Dordogne, which they had been supposed to follow. They might be right after all.
Still no response from the base.
Suddenly the answer came, loud and strong, wonderfully reassuring. All at once, the way it invariably happened, for no reason at all the base came through. The whole ship seemed to lighten at the sound of the voice on the other end.
"Hello, Fried Spratt. Hello, Fried Spratt. Give me a long signal. Hello, Fried Spratt, this is Pancake Z calling. Give me a signal."
The exultant tones in Jim's voice penetrated every heart as he began to count in firm, even tones. "One ... two ... three ... four ... five ... six ... seven ... eight ... nine ... ten ... over, Pancake Z."
They listened to the answer. And the voice of Jim again, asking for a bearing.
"Fried Spratt to Pancake Z. Fried Spratt calling Pancake Z. Can you give me a bearing now?"
Instantly, too quickly almost, the voice responded. "Pancake Z to Fried Spratt. Pancake Z calling Fried Spratt. Take up a heading of 220 degrees south, and come in at 5,000. Take a heading of 220 degrees south, and come in at 5,000."
"Fried Spratt to Pancake Z. Fried Spratt calling Pancake Z. O.K., Pancake Z, willco. Willco."
He switched off. Now there was silence save for the steady roar of the two Wright engines humming through the night. This boy Jim, he's good. I'm just getting jittery; I've had about enough, that's the trouble with me.
They had gone on for several seconds before Roy spoke up from his cubbyhole.
"Hey there, Jim! D'ja notice anything strange about that one?"
"No. Why?" The pilot, instantly suspicious, replied immediately.
"I dunno. Just the way the guy talked, the way he said the word 'degrees' He called it 'degwees,' d'ja notice?"
"I sure noticed it. Sounded kinda funny to me," Scotty came in.
"Now you mention it, believe I did, too." Earl's voice was excited.
"Well, we'd better go in at ten thousand and see what happens," the pilot said.
The plane rose slowly into the darkness. Far below an occasional light in a farm or cottage showed where the windows had been insufficiently covered, and there were dim outlines of blacked-out towns along the way. They went on for some minutes, watching carefully, all of them.
Yet although they were watching and waiting, everyone half expecting it, when it came they were astonished. Without warning, the darkness below them was suddenly filled with the bright streaks of flak. The fireworks appeared in the night air, died away, and flared up again. Every flak gun in the occupied countries seemed to be spraying the heavens, while they sailed along serenely five thousand feet above the fracas.
"Let's get out of here," said Scotty. The place was far too unhealthy, because those near- by clouds could easily shelter enemy planes, waiting just for them. Jim gave her the gun, and soon they were leaving the fireworks far behind.
Trying later on to remember exactly what happened, Roy had trouble recalling just how long it took Jim to get them back on their course. Too much took place and in far too short a space of time for anyone to have a clear picture of the events that followed. Nor could Roy remember which one of the crew it was who actually picked out the tiny landing field in the misty valley below. Was it Scotty's voice who broke in? Or Earl's?
"Say! What's that?"
"Those lights. See there!"
"Lights? What lights? I don't see any lights."
"Over there. About sixty degrees, beyond that town there. See the town?"
"I see the town, but I don't see any lights."
"Hey, I do, I do."
"Oh, sure, I do now. I didn't at first, but I see 'em now all right."
The whole crew was watching now with attention. Roy twisted in his seat to get a glimpse of those lights which could mean their objective at last or nothing more than an isolated farmhouse with windows uncovered. Also, he reflected, it could be Germans signaling from below in the hopes of trapping them. Things like that had been known to happen before.
Certainly, however, that town could be the one, that could be Bergerac, and that twisting stretch of silver could be the river Dordogne. It looked exactly like the setup that had been described to them.
Then somebody was flashing a signal from below. Obviously it was a signal, whether to them or someone else. Two green lights and a red; two green lights and a red.
"There they go. That's us, Jim!"
"Looks like it. But we'll just take things easy. Let's be sure this time. We got ourselves out of one tight spot tonight; let's not walk head first into another. Let's make it sure."
"That's right. Give 'em the signal, Jim."
The pilot turned a switch which lit up a signal lamp on the plane, and immediately a green light winked three times from below. Plain to see this was no flak-protected and well- organized German airdrome, but a small, secret landing field of the French Underground. As far as they could tell from above, the field was isolated enough to be some distance from any indiscreet neighbors.
Jim descended lower and lower, preparatory to landing. They waited. Finally he spoke.
"Landing gear's stuck."
Landing gear stuck! Hang it all, if it isn't one thing it's another, this trip. First we're plain lost. Then we get ourselves out of a slick Jerry trap. Next the landing gear has to stick. Fifty-six missions over Europe and then this.CHAPTER 3
Once again they rose in the night. Jim went to four thousand and tried to operate the hand pump to pump hydraulic pressure into the lines. Then he pulled the manual release on the floor which should have released the safety latch and dropped the wheels out of the nacelles. Nothing happened. Mechanical failure; or perhaps a stray bit of flak had broken the cables. Anyway the wheels did not budge. Jim tried every possible maneuver to shake them free. He fluttered the ship from side to side, dropped in a terrific dive, and then pulled them suddenly out of it. Next he wrenched them up and down until their stomachs were sore. The landing gear was stuck and no mistake.
Even before the orders came through from Jim, Roy realized what it meant—a belly landing. He un-hitched himself from his guns, felt for the knife at his side and the compass in his pocket. At his feet was his escape kit. It contained benzedrine, caramels, chewing gum, a small map, and forty dollars in French bills.
Here's one time it will be useful, too!
What had he been told? He tried to recall the instructions given at briefing from time to time; told until it all became an old story one heard but hardly listened to. With all his heart he wished he had paid more attention. What was it now? Lie low for twenty-four hours. If you can hide for twenty-four hours, the Germans usually stop searching the locality, and likely enough you'll be all right. Avoid all cities. Contact only poor people—farmers and workmen. Well, we'll most probably do that, judging by this countryside below.
They were lower now, lower still. After circling the field once more, Jim approached from the northern end of the small runway. Gently, under his trained hands, the ship was descending into the blackness.
Roy scrambled hastily out of the turret and caught a glimpse of Earl's tense and anxious face. Earl was stowing the lower gun, which he finally secured in its place. Then he slammed the bottom hatch door. In moments such as these one didn't really think, one acted automatically; one was a robot following directions heard dozens of times on how to prepare for a belly landing. Well, this is it. We're for it now.
Roy grabbed his flak helmet from the floor of the ship and jammed it on, signaling to Earl to do the same thing. This was protection against having one's head cracked open. Roy knew perfectly well that when the ship landed, there was no telling what they might be smashed against or where.
Next he snatched his parachute pack from the side of the plane, placed it on the floor, and lay down, his head resting on the chute as protection. Earl crawled across and placed himself on the floor between Roy's legs, with his hands bracing the back of his head against the gunner's stomach. Roy, in turn, braced his feet against the back of the turret to prevent himself from being thrown forward when the ship actually struck.
Now they were ready. Nothing to do but wait, the hardest moments of all. They lay there listening to the roar of the engines change gradually to a hum as Jim eased up on the throttles. Make it good, boy, make it good. Seconds were years for the two figures locked together in the rear of the plane, unable to help, nervously waiting. There was a strong westerly wind, and the pilot was giving the ship lots of rudder to keep it on an even keel. They were coming down now. Roy could smell trees and the sweet dampness of earth.
The plane descended, bit by bit, searching for the ground. It continued to drop; still no contact. Then there was a sudden, raucous grinding, which turned into a deafening roar. Next a spine-cracking jolt as the ship struck and plowed through the improvised landing field, sliding along on its belly, tearing up the ground with a terrific noise. With the jolt, everything went out from under Roy. A hundred, a thousand bands were playing, all together. He started falling into a bottomless abyss, down, down, away from the groaning engines and the screaming ship. He fell with no consciousness of a fall. He fell until there was silence all around.
Excerpted from The Kid Comes Back by John R. Tunis. Copyright © 1946 Lucy R. Tunis. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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