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JULY 26, 1945, THE MARIANA
A sign just over the door of the flight operations building read: WELCOME TO NORTH FIELD, TINIAN, THE WORLD'S BUSIEST AIRPORT.
A sprawling complex of barracks and maintenance hangars, several hundred P-51's and B-29's, and four parallel ten-thousand-foot paved runways tended to support the sign's claim. At that very moment three of the runways were active with landing traffic.
On the remaining runway a B-29 was starting its takeoff roll, and the quartet of twenty-two-hundred-horsepower engines with their seventeen-foot, four-bladed props flailing at the warm Pacific air emitted a throaty roar. The glistening giant moved down the runway on its tricycle landing gear, gathering momentum as it passed row upon row of parked fighters, bombers, reconnaissance, and cargo planes until it was a speeding silver streak. As all men everywhere who love airplanes will do, several mechanics from the 315th Bomb Wing stopped their softball game long enough to watch the takeoff.
Three quarters of the way down the runway the bomber rotated, and its nose came up as it broke free of the ground, a graceful bird in flight. But almost immediately a brilliant flash of light came from the left inboard engine, followed seconds later by a heavy, stomach-jarring explosion.
"Oh, shit!" one of the mechanics shouted. As everyone watched in dumbstruck horror, the plane nosed back to the ground, then erupted in a huge ball of fire.
General William Canfield, just deplaned and heading for the headquarters building at the far end of the field, ordered his driver back to the crash site. He braced himself against thesway of the vehicle as the driver turned sharply onto the runway, then accelerated to seventy. At the end of the runway thick, oily smoke roiled up from the gasoline-fed flames of the crashed B-29.
"There may be survivors," Willie shouted over the scream of the jeep's engine and the roar of the wind. "It was a maintenance test flight, so there were only three on board."
"Jesus, General, there's no way anyone could lived through that!" Willie's driver, Sergeant Grega, shouted back. "It's burnin' like all hell."
"But it wasn't carrying a bomb load. There's at least a chance that there were survivors."
"Not much of one," Grega insisted.
By the time they arrived at the crash site, the fire trucks and ambulances that were on permanent standby at each end of the runway were already at work. The foam generators of the fire engines were spraying frothy suds into the fire while two asbestos-suited rescue workers dashed into the flames. After what seemed an agonizingly long time they reemerged, carrying one of the bomber crewmen with them. A stream of water was directed toward them as they broke out of the wall of fire.
"Over here! Get him over here!" a medic shouted, holding open the back door of the olive-drab three-quarter-ton truck marked with red crosses.
Struggling with their burden, the two rescuers started toward the waiting ambulance. As the medics loaded the injured crewman, Willie jumped from his jeep and hurried over. He recognized the victim as the flight engineer. The man was conscious but obviously in shock.
"Good work, men," Willie shouted encouragingly to the rescue workers. "What about the pilot and copilot?"
One of the rescuers took off his helmet and shroud, and when he did, Willie was struck by how young he was. He couldn't have been over eighteen. The young man looked at Willie with sad eyes and shook his head.
"Sorry, General. The other two was dead."
"Are you sure?" the noncommissioned officer in charge of the fire detail asked. "How do you know they were dead?"
"One of 'em didn't have no head," the young man answered flatly. "The other one had less 'n that."
"Okay, let's go!" one of the medics shouted to the ambulance driver, slapping his hand on the side of the truck. "Get him out of here!"
The ambulance raced off with its siren screaming.
"Did you know the two officers, General?" the noncom in charge asked.
"Yes, I knew them," Willie answered. "The pilot was Major Whittaker, the copilot was Captain Carlisle. They served with me in Germany, and I had lunch with them just a short while ago."
"I'm sorry," the NCOIC replied. "I knew 'em, too. They were fine men, both of them."
Willie sighed. "We've lost a lot of fine men in this war, Sergeant--so at least we know they're in good company.
"Yes, sir, that is a fact," the sergeant agreed. "That is truly a fact."
"General Canfield?" Sergeant Grega spoke up. "You ready to go back now? Don't forget, you got that meetin' with General LeMay."
"I haven't forgotten," Willie replied, walking back to the jeep. He sat in the right front seat with his foot propped up on the door sill and his arms folded across his chest. He stared at the fiery wreckage for a long moment, then said to his driver, "Okay, Sergeant, let's go."
As Grega put the jeep in gear and swung around, leaving the burning bomber behind them, Willie pulled his mind away from his dead comrades to his meeting with Curtis LeMay. He wondered what the general wanted to see him about--and whether his life would once again be irrevocably changed.