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Determined to do his duty for his country, Hal enlists in the Air Force, is trained as a ...
Determined to do his duty for his country, Hal enlists in the Air Force, is trained as a bombardier, and finds himself assigned to his brother's command in Thorpewood, England, base of the 300th Bomb Group. Luke, worried that Hal will somehow diminish his rise to the top, takes a tough stance with Hal and places him at the mercy of not only the German war machine, but also at the mercy of his comrades-in-arms.
As Hal observes, "Apparently here when you gambled you had to do it with an intensity that was life or death; when you danced, you had to perform a ritual to living; and if you drank, you had to pour the liquor down as though there would never be any more."
Whump! With a muffled report, a huge puff of black smoke blossomed near the lumbering bomber, already buffeted by near misses. This time the burst of flak was so close that a flash of red blazed at its center and the B-17 bucked like a wounded giant and oily black smoke and flames erupted from the number 4 engine. The big bomber shuddered as the engine's propeller flailed helplessly at the thin air five miles above Germany.
In the ship's nose, Lieutenant Hal Bailey's eyes jerked from the crosshairs of the Norden bombsight, his heart pounding as wildly as the wind-milling propeller. Fire! He stared out the side window, mesmerized by the flames licking back across the bomber's fuel-laden wing like an angry dragon's tongue. Oh God! It was going to happen! At any second the whole ship would erupt in a gigantic explosion!
He had to get out! Frantically, he ripped at his seat belt. Fighting panic, he clawing for his chest-pack parachute that he kept beside his chair. It was gone! Oh, God! He was going to die!
Hal's eyes snapped open! He focused on a face, inches from his own, an extraordinary face, a face of delicate beauty, framed by a mass of dark-red curls, a face with hazel eyes and brows drawn in lines of concern while marvelous lips mouthed the words, "Yank! Come out of it."
A girl? Where he hell was he? Hands were gently shaking his shoulders and he realized they belonged to the girl.
Hal jerked up straight, his eyes wide, his heart thudding. The train. Relief flooded through him as he remembered: he was on an English train on his way to Thorpewood, base of the 300th Bomb Group.
"Okay,Yank?" The girl asked, and Hal's face flamed. The damn nightmare again. This time he'd made a fool of himself in front of the only other passenger in the small compartment.
"Yes," he murmured. "I'm... I'm okay."
The girl made a tight smile, "Jolly good. You were having a real go."
She had the kind of drawling British accent that many American women... and every American actress... would die for. Her pale skin would have been flawless except for a spray of freckles across her nose. A ring of dark brown surrounded the irises of her eyes, giving them a snap and sparkle that matched her smile. She was slender without being skinny. She wore a knee-length skirt, a blouse that looked as though it was silk, and a tailored jacket of fine gabardine. She sank back to her seat on the other side of the compartment where she continued to study Hal as though suspicious that he might become violent. Hal felt compelled to explain that she was in no danger. "Just a dream. Nothing to worry about."
She nodded. "A good many soldiers have them. Was it bad?"
Hal wasn't sure how to answer. She undoubtedly thought that he was suffering from some form of combat fatigue. Except that he had yet to see even one minute of combat. He had only arrived in England ten days ago. After completing an ETO orientation course, he was on his way to his assigned combat group.
The girl mistook his silence for pain and she said, "You're a bombardier."
Hal glanced down at the bombardier wings pinned above the left breast pocket of his uniform jacket. The shine of the metal and the lack of battle ribbons embarrassed him. In the States he had been awarded the Good Conduct ribbon and the yellow American Theater ribbon and when he had arrived in England he had been wearing them. But as soon as he saw the rows of ribbons worn by combat veterans his two little strips of color had seemed pitiful, so he had removed them, preferring to be known as a neophyte rather than a fool.
He touched the small, slender bomb that occupied the center of his wings. "That's right."
"B-24s or 17s?"
"Oh," she said. "Well, good luck."
Judging by the sympathy in her voice, she probably thought that she was talking to a dead man. Her pessimism was justified. Back in 1943 and early 1944, the life expectancy of an Eighth Air Force bomber crew was very short. Since approximately ten percent of the bombers were lost on each mission and the aircrews had to fly twenty-five missions before their combat term ended, a crew's chance of surviving to the end of their tour was highly improbable. Now, in July of 1944, survivability had improved but not by much.
"Thanks," he said.
He turned his head dismissively to gaze out the window. The girl's words had resurrected doubts he did not want to face. But, strangely, he felt a peculiar calmness. In a day or two he would begin riding the skies above Europe, sustained more by chance than aerodynamics. If he did not survive, it was fate. Kismet. As with most soldiers, his fatalistic acceptance had not come suddenly. It had been subconsciously nurtured since that day in California almost a year ago when he had enlisted. And it had germinated during ground and flight training, so that now he felt that he was prepared to die if it came to that.
Gazing out the window he wondered idly what had happened to the other passengers. When he had boarded the train at Luton outside of London, there had been several people sharing the compartment with the girl. The heat in the small compartment and the gentle rocking motion of the train had quickly lulled him to sleep. Now the other passengers were gone. They must have departed at one of the stops. He hoped that the train's conductor hadn't forgotten him. He'd specifically asked to be told when they reached Thorpewood.
"Why do you do it?"
He turned his head. "Beg your pardon?"
She was leaning toward him, her gaze intense. "Keep on with daylight raids. Your losses are astronomic. Why do you do it?"
Hal debated about answering. He was certainly no authority on military tactics. And he did not feel like getting involved in an argument with someone who probably had preconceived ideas that were undoubtedly Procrustean. Still, his pride was stung. What right did this English broad have to criticize her nation's rescuers?
"We've got long range fighter cover now. Our loses are coming down."
"They're still high. More than twenty thousand casualties last year alone. You should be making night raids the way we do."
"Your night raids wipe out whole cities. Precision bombing by daylight hits specific targets."
"The German's bombed our cities."
"Did it make you want to surrender?"
"Of course not."
"So your area bombing probably won't make them surrender either. But precision bombing, taking out their factories and transportation, will stop their ability to make war."
"The RAF hits those targets."
"The RAF tries to hit them. We do."
Her lips tightened and her eyes, that had been wide and inquiring, narrowed. "Well," she snapped. "Now that you Americans have taken over the war, I'm sure it'll be over in a few days."
Hal's smile was tight. "Somebody had to take over. You really fouled it up."
Her face flushed, but her voice was icy as she said, "We're very grateful to you Americans. So thank you very much. Is that what you want to hear?"
"I don't want to hear anything."
He turned to stare out the window. His lips were stiff with anger. She obviously had no idea of how Americans thought.
To his relief she tilted her head back against the seat and closed her eyes tightly as though to lock him from her thoughts. Which was fine with him. He didn't want to think about her either. He knew that her attitude wasn't typical of the British. Everyone he had met until now had been friendly, and very much aware that Americans were dying in a war that was not of their making. She probably was bitter because of a bad experience with an American soldier. Well, that was her problem.
He wondered what kind of work she did. She could be on military leave. But her mop of red hair was probably too long to be military. Maybe she was married. Except that she was not wearing a wedding ring on her left hand.
He gave a startled jump when the train's ancient conductor thrust back the compartment's sliding door and announced that the next stop was Thorpewood.
The train was already slowing and Hal stood up to pull his heavy B-4 bag from the overhead rack. The girl also stood up and took a small suitcase from the rack above her seat. Apparently, she was also getting off.
The train groaned to a stop at a long loading platform in front of a brick station house. Hal opened the compartment door and stood aside so that the girl could step out onto the concrete platform. Immediately after he stepped to the platform and closed the door, the engine hissed and the clanking sound of each car's coupling ran through the train as the small coaches were shocked into motion.
Hal stood on the platform, uncertain about his next move. How did he get to the air base? How far was it? Perhaps there would be a taxicab on the street. The girl was walking into the station house, her heels clicking briskly. She appeared to know her way around so he followed her.
The small station was deserted so he pushed through the opposite door to the street. The girl was standing outside the station, her suitcase at her feet. She glanced impatiently from her watch to the deserted macadam-paved, two-lane road in front of the station that bisected a small village. This was Hal's first close-up look at an English village and he studied it with interest. It was like looking at a page from a travel folder. Small stone houses with thatched roofs hugged the narrow road as though clinging to a vein of life. They looked as timeless as the many gnarled oaks and the moss covered stone fences. A faint mist obscured the scene making it look like a painting by Monet.
There were no people in sight. For a moment Hal had the disquieting feeling that he had somehow put down in Germelshausen, the enchanted German village that appeared once every hundred years.
He was debating what he should do for transportation when he heard the whine of a straining engine and an olive colored Chevrolet staff car careened around a bend in the road, narrowly missing the corner of a stone house that thrust perilously close to the street.
The car screeched to a halt in the parking area in front of the station and a short, angular Corporal threw open the door and jumped from the driver's seat. He was wearing pilot's sunglasses and a leather A2 jacket, with his pants bloused into paratrooper boots. He grinned as he walked quickly toward Hal and the girl. "Miss Axley, I presume."
"Right-O. The Colonel's waiting for you."
He turned toward Hal and pushed the bill of an old chamois-lined pilot's cap back from his forehead. "Bailey?"
Hal nodded. "Right." It seemed that he and the girl, Miss Axley, were to share a ride to the air base.
Hal picked up his B-4 bag just as the Corporal whipped off his sunglasses with his left hand and snapped a salute with his right, holding it at rigid attention. Hal had to put down the B-4 bag in order to return the salute. The Corporal grinned and Hal knew that his action had marked him as a tyro. Officers who had been in the Army long enough to acquire military habits, never carried anything in their right hand if they could help it. They keep their hand free for saluting.
The Corporal snapped his hand down and said, "I'm Corp'l Weems. You're two minutes early. Pretty damn good train service considerin' there's a war on, huh?" Weems picked up Miss Axley's bag and carried it to the car. The girl followed and Weems opened the car's back door for her. He stood holding the door while she ducked inside exposing a long length of leg in doing so. Weems grinned and winked at Hal. Weems then opened the car's trunk and tossed her bag inside.
Hal quickly carried his bag to the trunk and placed it inside. Weems slammed the lid and as the Corporal walked to the driver's side of the car, Hal noticed that the back of his leather jacket had been painted with twenty-five bombs in clusters of five. Above the bombs was the name "Shady Lady." Hal was impressed. Anyone who could live through twenty-five missions had to be some kind of hero.
Hal had scarcely climbed into the back seat beside the girl before Weems pulled the car around in a tight circle and out onto the macadam road. Hal yanked the door shut as Weems speed-shifted into high gear so fast that Hal's head snapped back. As they raced along the twisting, narrow road Hal kept a good grip on the back of the front seat so he wouldn't be thrown against the girl. Again, he wondered what kind of a job she had. She had to be damn important for the Colonel to send a staff car to meet her. He doubted that the car would have been sent for a lowly lieutenant.
Beyond the village, the two-lane road was flanked on both sides by low stone walls and over-hung by the branches of oaks, yews and elms. Beyond the walls, the pale sun turned translucent a pearly mist that enveloped green pastures and forlorn fields. Out of the mist browsing cows and horses appeared and vanished like timeless ghosts. Except for the rushing car and lingering contrails high in the blue sky, the war might not have existed. It was hard to believe that many of the men who should be walking these green fields lay buried somewhere under a blistering African sun or beneath the sands of a Normandy beach.
Then the illusion of peace was shattered by the deep sound of aircraft engines. It was a sound that Hal knew he would always hate. He had first heard it at Carlsbad Bombardier Training Base when each morning at 0300 his sleep had been interrupted by the sounds of AT-11 engines being warmed up for morning practice missions.
The sound deepened into a thundering roar and a B-17 lumbered into the air from behind a line of mist-shrouded trees and passed low overhead, each of its four radials engines straining to produce its full 1200 horsepower. The bomber was so close that Hal could see the bombardier in the nose hunched over a Norden bombsight before the big bomber ripped its way through the low overcast, leaving a trail of sound and prop-torn mist.
"He isn't supposed to do that," he said impulsively.
"Do what?" the girl said.
"Take off in the nose."
"Oh? Why not?"
"Against regulations. If anything went wrong, he could be killed."
Weems said back over his shoulder. "They don't pay much attention to things like that here. You take off in the waist you've got to crawl through that friggin' upper turret and the bomb bay. Too damn much trouble."
"Oh." Hal supposed that they did a lot of things differently here than they did in the States. Maybe these men had learned to ignore danger, living close to it day after day.
"Probably only a practice mission anyway," the Corporal said with a shrug.
"Practice? I thought we were through with that."
"Not if you make a lead crew." Weems swung the car expertly around a sharp curve, the tires screaming and the girl was thrown hard against Hal. He was acutely conscious of her shoulder pressed against his.
"Sorry," she said as she pulled herself away.
"That's okay." He raised his voice above the roar of the engine "Corporal, take it easy."
Weems grinned into the rear view mirror. "Wouldn't believe I washed out in pilot training, would you? I bet I could'a been an ace by now, but those idiots said I didn't have no coordination." He flung the car violently in the opposite direction as though to prove that washing him out had been a monumental mistake.
In spite of Corporal Weems' demonstrated driving skill, Hal felt a sense of relief when they swept around a turn and pulled up before a black and white striped pole that barred the road. A helmeted soldier with an MP band on his arm came out of a small shack and stared blankly at the car.
Weems rolled his window down and yelled, "Hey, Clarence, you jerk. Open the gate. I got VIPs here. You wanna get court-martialed?"
The MP put one foot up on the pole and drew heavily on a cigarette. "Okay, Admiral. Who've you got? Eisenhower?"
"Colonel Bailey. Chief of Staff for the whole damn Army."
"Bullshit," the MP said. But he pushed with his foot and the pole swung in a half circle away from the car. Corporal Weems ground the car into gear and shot through the opening before the pole could rebound.
"He didn't check our credentials," Hal said.
"Didn't have to. You're with me."
"But," Hal realized this for the first time, "you didn't check them either."
"You're Bailey, ain't you?"
"Jesus, you ain't gonna be another hardnose?"
The reply stifled Hal's answer. The Corporal's lax attitude amazed him, but apparently that was the way they did things here. He noticed that the girl suppressed a smile as she relaxed back against the seat. His own mouth set in a grim line. Two years ago she wouldn't have been smiling. In those days, when a German invasion was a real threat, everybody in England thought that anybody they didn't know was a German spy.
Since entering the gate, they had been passing more green pastures dotted with ancient oaks and patches of elms. It seemed to Hal that they followed the winding road for most of a mile before they came to a scattering of low, half-round Quonset huts made of corrugated steel. The rusting metal of the huts was broken at regular intervals by painted-over windows.
Looking like half-buried oil drums, the buildings sprawled aimlessly on either side of narrow side roads, while around and behind the squat buildings green pastures stretched into the haze. Two or three bicycles leaned disconsolately against the sides of the huts.
They sped past two more clusters of Quonset huts before Hal saw a more substantial looking one-story wooden building sitting back from the road with a flagpole in front supporting a limp, fog-dampened American flag. The building was flanked on either side by two long Quonset huts and an outcropping of smaller wooden buildings. A sign above the large building's doorway read: 300TH BOMB GROUP, 40TH COMBAT WING, 1ST BOMB DIVISION.
"Headquarters," the Corporal said as he pulled up in front of the building.
Weems got out and opened the door for the girl, then went to take her bag from the trunk. Before she slid from the seat, the girl smiled at Hal and held out her hand. "Nice to have met you Lt. Bailey."
Hal took her hand. Was she sincere? Or was she finding her manners. "You too, Miss, uh, Axley."
She got out of the car and Hal watched her precede Weems toward headquarters. He liked the way she carried herself when she walked. He shoulders were back and she took long, swinging strides, her toes pointed straight ahead, moving with purpose and confidence. Going to meet the Colonel. She had to be someone really important.
Weems came back and slid behind the wheel. "Some doll, huh. I bet the Colonel's banging her."
The words sent a chill of disappointment through Hal. So she was the Colonel's girl friend. Or fiancée. That certainly put the damper on any romantic ideas he might have had. Unless Weems was wrong.
"What makes you think so?"
"I've seen her somewhere before. Maybe she's a commando."
"Commando?" Weems had to be mistaken. She was far too soft to be a hardened combat veteran.
"Piccadilly commando." Reading Hal's blank expression, Weems added. "You know. Prostitute. Whore."
Hal couldn't have been more shocked if Weems had jabbed him with an ice pick. Prostitute! That pretty, vivacious girl? He quickly dismissed the thought. Impossible. There had to be another reason to see the Colonel.
The narrow macadam road, bordered by emerald grass, wound past other Quonset huts, but Hal still hadn't seen more than two or three people. He asked, "Where is the field, the runway?"
"Over there." The Corporal jerked his thumb toward a line of low trees. "We got things dispersed here. Germans used to come over and clobber us."
"Were you here then?"
"Sure. Me an' a coupl'a others are the only ones left'a the old outfit. Everybody else's dead, captured or rotated back to the ZI."
"How about you? You have twenty-five missions."
The Corporal snorted. "I'm not goin' back until we've whipped the asses off those bastards."
"Are you still flying?"
"Shit no. I would, but the medics won't let me. Battle fatigue, if you can believe that crap." He spit expertly into the wind. "Battle fatigue. Shit. I had that after one mission."
Hal stared at the Corporal. This was probably the reason he was allowed his relaxed attitude. He was a survivor from the really rough days of the air war. And if he did suffer from battle fatigue, his non-military conduct would be overlooked.
The car swept off the main road, rounded a flat curve and eased to a stop before a Quonset hut in another small complex of huts and wooden buildings set in a sea of green grass. A sign nailed over the door read "HEADQUARTERS, 615th SQUADRON." A short gravel walk led from the paved road to the door.
The Corporal swung to the ground. Without waiting, he grabbed Hal's bag from the trunk and crunched up to the door and pushed his way inside. Hal followed slowly, fighting sudden nervousness. He wondered what he should say to his brother, how he should act. After all, he was only a second lieutenant while Luke was a major, and his squadron commander at that. And Luke had always been a hard disciplinarian when he had been forced to take care of his little brother.
Hal paused before entering to make sure his garrison-hat was on at the proper angle and his jacket buttoned properly. He dusted his shoes on the back of his pant legs, took a deep breath, pushed open the door and entered.
He let his breath out in slow relief. He was in a small outer office. Two straight-backed chairs hugged one curved wall. Three large steel filing cabinets almost filled the remainder of the room. Pictures of B-17s on missions and reconnaissance photos of bombs hitting targets hung on the walls. A sprinkling of comic books and flight manuals cluttered the chairs and the top of the filing cabinets. A small radio made tinny noises that sounded vaguely like Harry James' "Sleepy Lagoon". Weems was already slumped in a chair reading a comic book. An overweight sergeant was sitting behind a desk close to the only other door studying a paperback edition of 'God's Little Acre'. A carved wooden sign on the desk said that his name was Sgt. Leonard Spellman.
"Go on in," Spellman said without looking up. "He's expecting you."
Hal opened the door and walked into the office of his brother: Major Luke Bailey, Squadron Commander.
Copyright © 2003 by Robert L. Hecker
Posted July 29, 2012
Posted May 1, 2002
Posted December 2, 2010
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