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OSS Commando: Hitler's A-Bomb
The two landing strips side by side at Amendola Airfield on Italy's Foggia Plains were made of steel mats bolted together to keep bombers from sinking in the mud. A green flare streaked a signal against the red, orange and purple veins of dawn. Deep-throated pops and backfires crackled as fifty-six B-17 bombers and one B-24 started their engines.
Each of the B-17s contained nearly 3,000 gallons of high-octane gasoline, 8,000 pounds of bombs, hundreds of pounds of 50-caliber ammunition and ten crewmen. It took full power from all four engines of each aircraft to lift that much mass into the air. Takeoffs were always dangerous.
Unlike the other bombers, the B-24 Liberator was lightly loaded. Its cargo consisted of twelve Type C containers, packed with weapons and other equipment, and one OSS agent, all for delivery to Polish resistance fighters operating around Warsaw. It would be the last plane to take to the air, since it needed to conserve fuel.
Today's assigned bombing target was the Rakos railroad marshalling yard in Budapest, Hungary, which supplied German forces along the Russian front. The B-24 would accompany the other bombers to Budapest, then fly on through the target and proceed, alone, to Poland with its payload. Even the gun turrets had been removed from the Liberator's nose, waist and belly to lighten its weight, leaving only a mounting on top of the fuselage and a tail gunner. Only eight airmen from the "Carpetbaggers," the 801st/492nd Bombardment Group, which supported covert operations in Europe, flew the giant aircraft.
Planes lined up nose to tail oneach of the two runways, taking off within seconds of one another. Pilots applied full throttle to their engines while standing on the brakes, and then released their big birds to pick up speed as they lumbered down the uneven steel matting. They lifted slowly, laboriously, into the air to fly circles overhead as they formed up. There would be four squadrons of seven planes each, for a total of twenty-eight aircraft in each of two flight groups. Plus the black B-24 Liberator.
Captain James Cantrell, OSS operator currently assigned to OGs—operational groups—working out of London—occupied a jump seat forward of the navigator's station in the B-24. He wore fleece-lined flight gear. His steel helmet, kit bag and flak jacket were piled on the deck at his feet for ready access as he watched the B-17s struggle to get into the air. While squadrons packed together in tight formations carried a bunch of firepower and could put up quite a battle against German fighter planes, a single plane was little more than an old crippled sheep separated from the flock and vulnerable to preying coyotes.
"A bombing mission is enough to scare shit out of the Pope," the navigator, Lieutenant Jack Myers, warned James through the plane's intercom.
"I've gone beyond that," James said. "I'm already up to scared shitless."
Lieutenant Myers laughed as though he couldn't believe a man who would parachute behind enemy lines could ever be that frightened.
"It'll be even scarier after we break off by ourselves past Budapest," he said, and he stopped laughing. "Better put on your helmet, Captain."
The Liberator roared and shuddered against its locked brakes. Then it took off and joined a squadron in the first group as the sun slid, red and festering, into sight above the hazy curvature of the earth.
Judging by his appearance and modest size, Captain Cantrell hardly matched his growing reputation in the OSS for getting jobs done. In his mid-twenties, he was barely five and a half feet tall, wiry and with stiffly cropped hair so red it looked orange. A generous rash of freckles across high cheek bones and pug nose gave him a cocky, slightly belligerent look. A "Dustbowl Okie" from the hills and prairies of east-central Oklahoma, he had defied his stature to become an outstanding athlete during his college years at Oklahoma A&M: captain of the baseball team, champion collegiate welterweight boxer, member of the starting-five basketball squad.
The OSS had recruited him from the robbery-homicide investigations detail of the Oklahoma City Police Department and from the 45th U.S. Army National Guard Division because he spoke both French and German fluently. His maternal grandparents were immigrants, Gramps from Germany and Grams from France. They had raised him in three languages after his parents were killed in a freakish accident when a team of farm mules bolted through the woods.
James had excelled during OSS training as he had in college and in virtually everything else he tried. Colonel "Wild Bill" Donovan, founder of the OSS and James's uncle by marriage, had corralled swashbucklers like James from all over the States and had run them through tough courses in the black arts of spying, guerrilla warfare, demolitions, secret radio broadcasting, cryptography, lock picking, safecracking and "dirty fighting" hand to hand. James had proven such a natural in special-operations warfare that within the past year he had conducted four "behind-the-lines," including the last one in support of the D-day landings, which had won him a personal audience with his hero, Winston Churchill. This mission into Poland might well prove to be his most challenging and hazardous to date.
The OSS station chief in London had summoned James to the cramped office of "British Isle Exports" on Southwark in London for his briefing. Most OSS ops in Europe were initiated from this underground cloak-and-dagger closet.
"Thrilled to see you've recovered so chipper," Henry greeted the agent, referring to the wounds and injuries James had sustained at Normandy.
"I'm thrilled you're thrilled, sir."
James limped over and took the proffered stuffed chair in front of the desk. The permanent slight limp came from an old bullet wound he had sustained in Sicily. He casually draped one leg across the chair's arm. Henry didn't smoke, couldn't stand the stench of burning tobacco, but he said nothing when James fired up a Lucky Strike and blew smoke toward the ceiling.OSS Commando: Hitler's A-Bomb. Copyright © by Charles Sasser. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.