Steel Fortress is a story of survival, about a flyboy aboard a B-17 bomber who is catapulted into the extraordinary experience of flying the "heavies" in the never to be replicated arena of World War II air combat. He flies the gauntlet of Germany's defensive network in 1944, battling the demons of war in the European Theater and also in his mind. It is a commentary on the totality of the human experience of war, from the brutal realities of combat to the internal battle that goes on within each individual survivor.
On a cold February morning in 1944, Harold leaves his new bride at an Iowa train platform and embarks on a stark and riveting journey, where camaraderie is the key to survival, and loss is the lesson learned. Heroism combined with humanism drives this compelling saga of the human spirit at its most triumphant and most vulnerable. Steel Fortress joins ranks with the most poignant of commentaries on war; it is a story for the ages, and evidence of the universal spirit of man.
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The Memoir of an American Airman in Europe, 1944
By Michael Sargent Martin
Abbott PressCopyright © 2014 Michael Sargent Martin
All rights reserved.
At seven o'clock, on a hot, muggy morning in April of 1943, a farmer drove his American Harvester truck noisily down a dusty dirt road outside of Biloxi, Mississippi, just as he did every morning. It was early in the season for produce, but with the war effort going on, there was always a needed commodity of one kind or another that somebody could use. This day, he had a load of scrap metal and old tires he was taking into town for selling or trading. Out in front of him, he saw a G.I. running up the side of the road like he was being chased by hound dogs. As he pulled up to the young man, he slowed his truck to get a look. He smiled and waved when he passed, and the G.I. looked over and waved back. Then the farmer pulled over, stopped his truck, and waited for the runner to reach him.
He leaned over and rolled down the passenger side window while the young man ran up to the truck and stopped to hold his knees and pull air into his lungs. "Hey there young feller, where's the fire?" the farmer asked.
With heavy breath, the G.I. answered, "I got to get back to the base by eight o'clock or my ass is grass!"
The farmer chuckled with amusement. "I've passed by you every day this week, same time every day. Don't they let you sleep on the base?"
"Oh, yeah, but my wife is down here to visit me—she's staying in Biloxi," he said, still breathing hard.
"Well, don't just stand there suckin' up all the air. Hop in soldier, and I'll save you some time. I drive right past there. It's the Gulfport Field isn't it?"
With a nod, the young soldier got into the passenger seat and introduced himself. "I'm Harold Martin from Detroit, pleased to meet ya."
They shook hands and the farmer offered an introduction. "The name's Dupree, just like on the side of the truck. Well son, it's a pleasure to meet you, and it's good to know that they let a few of you Yankees in to fight this here war. Why, us rebels can't do it all by ourselves you know." He paused for a second to ponder that idea, and then added wryly, "But then maybe we could at that, now that I think about it." Dupree looked over at Harold with a wide grin on his beard-stubbled face.
Harold returned a smile. "Oh, from what I've seen, maybe you're right, at least that's what you all say, but I don't mind helping out just the same."
Dupree chuckled and nodded favorably. "So what are ya training for, son?"
"B-17 bombers, sir, we're going to smack Hitler right where he lives, and end the war by this time next year!"
Dupree slapped his knee in excitement and let out a rebel yell. "By God, you go ahead and do just that! And give him one for me too while you're at it!" He looked very pleased with himself as he pictured in his mind the good old-fashioned Yankee beat down Adolph Hitler was going to be receiving very soon. "Boy, I've been waitin' for you guys to get over there with all that heavy metal. Those B-17s are sumthin' all right, I've seen pictures of them, why, with all those guns, the Jerrys won't even get near you guys!"
Harold was beaming at that notion and nodding his head with enthusiasm. "Yes sir, that's the plan, I don't figure to even get my uniform dirty!" Dupree thought that sounded great. He laughed and let out another yell, and they kept talking as they drove down the dirt road.
"Well son, here we are," Dupree announced as they pulled up near the gate. "If I see you runnin' this way tomorrow, I'll stop again for ya. Good luck!" He waved and left Harold standing in a swirl of road dust. Harold was at the base with time to spare.
Back at a hotel in Biloxi, Harold's new bride, Marge, was up and starting her day. The hotel was a well-built southern style structure of white stucco and red clay roof tile, with a walk out onto the gulf shoreline. She went out onto the veranda and sat at a small table where terrazzo tile warmed her feet and the morning sun warmed her back.
Waves slowly lapped the shoreline in a mild rhythm, which she hardly noticed underneath the sound of a sea breeze gently moving the limbs of palm trees and garden planters in the open patio. The wind coming onto the shore had picked up some of the morning coolness from the ocean. The bit of a chill raised bumps of goose flesh on her arms and bare shoulders. Marge lifted her face directly into the sunlight and closed her eyes to let the warmth of the sun wash through her in waves of sensation that seemed to match the cadence of the waves rolling onto the sandy beach nearby. She took in a long breath of air, tasted salt water, and noticed the scent of julep blossom and bougainvillea. This was splendid and luxurious. And to think it was only yesterday that she was in Detroit where there were still patches of dirty snow on the ground and where it was an overcast forty degrees.
"May I get you some coffee, miss?" A waiter had come to the table dressed in a casual white shirt and pressed linen trousers, appropriate for a balmy day, even this early in the year.
Marge didn't notice him until he began to speak.
"Oh! I'm sorry, I was daydreaming," she said, looking at him with a bright smile. "Yes, please, and a menu."
The waiter left with a pleasant efficiency. Again, Marge didn't notice when he returned to the table with a coffee pot. She was enjoying the glorious morning in this new and exotic place, and the sun felt so good that it made her swoon ... so when the man started talking, it startled her.
"Your first visit here, missy? The Gulf can be very nice this time of year. But it can turn quick all the same. On a dime, I'd say. We haven't had a good root up down here for a few years, but you know you can just about always tell when ones comin' in." The man was elderly, black, and pleasant looking. The many lines of his face showed a sturdy looking character, as if he had weathered many heavy storms in his life of one form or another, but the furrows were comfortably worn and part of his natural expression.
Marge studied him as he began to talk. She didn't expect him to engage her the way he did, that kind of thing just didn't happen in the northern climes, or with city people. Most of the time, folks up north just leave you alone and don't invade your space, so Marge was a little taken aback, but pleasantly surprised at the same time. This man had an easy congeniality that a lot of southern people seemed to have and no compunction about talking to her like she was kinfolk.
Marge shaded her eyes from the sun with her hands and smiled. "How did you know this was my first time here?"
"Little lady, your skin is as pale as a bale of cotton, and if you don't watch out you're going to peel like an onion by tomorrow."
"Oh, right, thanks for reminding me, I'll cover up. Say, did you mention we might be headed for some nasty weather?"
The gentleman looked to the south and breathed in the salt air. He seemed to conjure up some innate knowledge or sensibility that living in this environment would afford him, and he paused to reflect on it. "No, Missy," he crooned, "just clear sailing and cool breeze, at least for a while." He continued his gaze toward the water to reflect on the mobility of changing climate conditions, or perhaps, his reflections were on a larger scale, perhaps a global scale. Then the expression on his face became slightly more somber. He soberly amended his remark and said quietly to himself, "... at least for a short while." He looked kindly at Marge and inquired, "Is your young man in the military? There's a lot of them comin' and goin' around here these days and the base is just a few miles from here."
"Yes he is, and you're right again. He's in basic training at Gulfport and I'm here for the week. It's so beautiful down here, and peaceful."
"Well, enjoy your stay, missy, and all the best to both of you." He spoke warmly but then cast yet another glance out over the bay and seemed to study the horizon line over the distant water. His smile faltered a bit and gave way to a slightly pensive countenance before he turned again toward
Marge, regained his pleasant smile, and with a nod, left the table. Marge noticed that brief, faraway gaze and wondered what was on the man's mind. She thought he was nice, but rather curious. Suddenly a cool gust of wind swept over her and chilled her shoulders. She looked up and saw that the sun had gone behind a cloud. She considered the waiter's thought-filled and somewhat incongruent observations and was a little unsettled. But then the sun came out again, and Marge settled back in her chair and dreamily listened to the waves rolling onto the shore. She gave the elderly black man no further thought until he came back with the breakfast tray. He quietly served the food and upon leaving, turned to look at Marge with a level gaze. "Now, you and your young man take good care of each other, y'hear. Days and years go by quick, and one needs to make the most of it in these kinds of times."
"Oh." Marge looked up at him, surprised once again by the man's unabashed familiarity. She studied his face closely for any sign of guile or misdirection but saw that he was sincere, so she replied, "Thank you so much. That sounds like good advice, I will remember that."
Marge finished her breakfast and got on with her day. She walked into town later on and bought some sunscreen, and a pair of sunglasses that came to a point at the corners of the frame. They caught her eye and she thought they looked stylish, like the girls in Look magazine. After a while, she returned to the hotel, went for a swim, then lay down for a nap. When she woke up, it was mid-afternoon, and she began to get ready for Harold's return from the army base at five o'clock.
Soon enough, she heard a rap on the door of the room and a key turn the lock. She had been reading a magazine but threw it aside and jumped up. Harold opened the door and stood in the doorway, sweaty and dirty from road dust, and she ran into his arms. Harold kissed her hard, and then held her out at arm's length. "Margie! I haven't seen you since this morning and I forgot what you look like." He smiled teasingly and then added, "It looks like this southern climate appeals to you, but you better be careful, you're starting to get some mighty rosy cheeks."
Marge looked at her arms and considered the observation. "Hmm, you're the second person to mention that to me today." Then with a quick, teasing scowl, she asked, "Hey, what do you mean you forgot what I look like already?"
Harold laughed. "Well, I tried to wake you this morning but you were dead to the world, so it's been a long time since I've seen you, awake at least."
"Well, I'll tell you what. I'll make sure you don't forget me when you leave again tomorrow, what do you say?"
Harold looked at her from top to bottom and with an approving nod, told her, "I think you're just the girl who could do that."
That evening, they had dinner at the hotel dining room. A piano was playing in a corner somewhere. Harold was in an Army long sleeve shirt and tie, and Marge wore a floral print summer dress. Harold lifted his glass to her and offered a toast. "Well, here's to the two of us on our belated honeymoon!"
"So this is our honeymoon, eh?" She liked that idea. With a wide smile, she added, "Well, I guess it is, and a beautiful one at that. Better late than never, I always say." She lifted her own glass and returned the toast. "Here's to us, and here's to spending our honeymoon on the Gulf instead of back where it's still wintertime."
They finished their dinner and walked outside to the patio. The gulf wind was stronger now as it rode the evening tide, and Marge had to pull a light sweater around her shoulders as they watched the setting sun drop behind golden backlit clouds over the water. They were silent for a while, and then Marge remembered the encounter with the black gentleman.
"Harold," she mused, "I met a man this morning—he was my waiter, and he was most interesting, but I think he scared me a little. It seems people down here aren't shy with strangers because he talked to me like he knew me. It was kind of curious."
"Hmm, well what did he have to say? Did you tell him you were already married?
"Oh it wasn't like that, silly. He was older, but he looked like he knew a lot. He said we should take care of each other."
"Well, that's good advice, I'd say."
"That's what I said too, but there was something else there, something in the way he said it."
"What's that, honey, what else did he say?"
"Nothing, really, it's just in the way that he said it, but I can't figure it out. It was kind of like he thought trouble was coming, I mean it made me feel like trouble was coming, and we needed to take care of each other." Marge wrapped the sweater around her shoulders a little tighter against the balmy, but cool night wind.
Harold rubbed warmth back into her arms with his hands and reassured her. "I will take care of you, you know that, and don't you worry about me getting into trouble. No German is going to touch me flying around up there five miles in the air—why do you think I chose the Air Corps?"
Marge managed an affirmative expression. She thought it would be easier to settle for that familiar explanation of what sounded like a logical choice. Maybe it was a sound decision but any way you framed that picture, it didn't sound safe, and it wasn't any easier to accept. "Well, maybe you're right," she finally responded, "but all the same, if you're over there and I'm over here, how will I take care of you?"
"We'll spend a lifetime taking care of each other when I get back ... but speaking of taking care of me, how about right now?" Marge smiled and giggled, then Harold took her by the hand, and they went back to their room.
By the end of June, Harold was sent from Biloxi, Mississippi to Long Beach, California for aircraft technical training at a Lockheed aircraft facility. He took gunnery practice as well, and it seemed like he and the rest of the rookies needed all the training they could get. The new recruits were taken out over the bay on an AT -6 trainer that was equipped with fifty caliber guns. They took turns shooting at large flatbed barges that were outfitted with targets on them. By the end of the week-long drill, the recruits were required to hit the target every time. But the exercise didn't always go well. Apparently, the tow cable wasn't quite long enough.
On a bright, crisp midmorning, an AT -6 trainer flew at fifteen hundred feet over blue and white water. It began nosing into a diving pattern which took it on a trajectory towards the tail end of a cargo ship that slowly plowed its way through the waves. It was towing a badly damaged and bullet-riddled target barge, using a very long steel cable, but it appeared that the cargo ship had also taken a few hits.
On a narrow metal seat in the middle of the plane, Harold sat with his hands on the trigger handles of a twin fifty caliber machine gun. In the copilot seat in front of him sat a drill sergeant who was turned around so he could watch the gunners and shout out orders. He was smoking a short cigar, and he was scowling. In the midsection of the plane were three other trainees who were waiting for their turn at the gun. It had already been a long morning, and the Drill Sergeant glared menacingly at Harold who was getting ready to fire at the target. Harold wore sunglasses because of the bright sun reflecting off the water and was wiping them off distractedly on the front of his shirt. He jerked his head up at the gunny.
"Do you think you can get closer than fifty yards this time, rookie? You're burning up all of our fuel here. Try to aim at the big red bull's eye on the barge this time. I think you've killed all the sea lions down there in the water already." There was muffled snickering going on in the back of the plane and the Sergeant glared and barked at them as well. "Don't you screw heads worry, you'll all get a chance to mess up as good as Martin here."
Everybody shut up quick. Harold gave them all a sideways smirk from behind his glasses and said, "Boys, watch this one go right between the eyes." He looked out through the open gun port, and down to the water. The pilot veered the aircraft around and lined up an approach pattern across the flank of the target barge that was now four hundred feet below them. Harold sighted in on the cross hairs and pulled the triggers as the plane flew a straight line across the side of the barge. The heavy gun rattled and roared as tracer bullets described an arc across the water in a jagged line. But as the plane flew overhead, Harold turned his gun sideways, across the open port, to track his target now behind him. The rough water below was strafed by a long line of machine gun fire that turned away from the barge and headed towards the tanker, finally ending with bullets bouncing off the metal hull of the large tow ship.
"Dammit!" yelled the Sergeant. He threw his cigar out the open gun port and slammed his clipboard to the floor. "Not again! That's the fifth time today and it's not even noon yet! We're gonna run outta tow ships here if we don't run outta ammo first! Can any of you goofballs shoot a straight line?"
Excerpted from STEEL FORTRESS by Michael Sargent Martin. Copyright © 2014 Michael Sargent Martin. Excerpted by permission of Abbott Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Flight to Iceland, 17,
England—The First Days, 27,
Learning the Ropes, 37,
First Flight, 39,
Baptism of Blood, 61,
The Air Medal, 81,
The April Girl Missions, 85,
Berlin—May 7th, 91,
Berlin—May 8th, 103,
Three in a Row, 110,
Night Flight, 120,
The Overlord Missions, 135,
Freddie Takes a Hike, 143,
Escape from France, 147,
Getting Lucky Twice, 157,
Sinking into Madness, 173,
The Boxing Match, 179,
The Dog Days, 235,
Secret Mission, 250,
Another Day at the Office, 261,
The Radio, 265,
Terror and Daydreams, 279,
Psychiatric Evaluation, 298,
Playing Out a Bad Hand, 305,
Prodigal Son, 340,
The Flying Cross, 346,
Going Home, 362,
The Journey of April Girl II, 385,
About the Author, 391,