The Devils own.
Walt often thought when Boeing designed the B17 Flying Fortress they initially forgot about the radio operators post. It certainly seemed that way, sandwiched as it was between two bulkheads separating it from the bomb bay to the front and the waist area to the rear. Each being accessed by way of a plywood door. Walt always kept the door leading to the bomb bay closed, but liked to leave the one leading to the waist open. Not that he saw anything of Kowolski and Travers, the two waist gunners, but just knowing they were there offered him some comfort as he spent hour upon hour listening to nothing but endless static.
Walt swore and adjusted his oxygen mask as he felt the condensation within starting to freeze. It was a constant problem, one he and his crew had to live with as they endured the minus forty-degree temperatures that were to be found when flying 23000 feet above a very hostile Germany. He shuddered and glanced out across the port wing and saw the two Wright Cyclone engines churning away through the rarefied air. To any airman seeing those engines working as they should was a heart-warming sight. He closed his eyes and not for the first time that day prayed he and the rest of the crew of the mighty Lady Louise made it back to Polebrook.
Walt really needed to make it back, not just for himself but for Jane and their new-born daughter Rebecca. He could have cried at the early morning briefing when the curtain was pulled back to reveal a map of Europe and a long ribbon stretching across it all the way from England to today’s target – Berlin. Why did it have to be Berlin? On today of all days, the day of his 25th and final mission of his tour. With the allies driving up through France and the Russians closing in on Germany from the East he knew if he got through today he would in all probability never have to fly a mission in anger again.
After the initial shock of seeing Berlin in bold red letters, he’d felt a calm, steely resolve come over him. He would get through it, one way or another, just as he always did, of that he was supremely confident. Walt had come to realize a long time ago he was one of life’s survivors. He might have had to lie and cheat his way out of various sticky situations in the past, but he’d always found a way.
It was ironic really; he’d only enlisted in the Air Force as a means of escape in the first place. If he hadn’t God alone knows what may have happened. That damned detective Jacobson had been getting far too close. He felt an overwhelming wave of sadness bearing down on him as he remembered the circumstances which led to him walking into the recruitment office on 51st Street. If only Marci hadn’t struggled…
He shook his head in an effort to banish certain images from his mind. Images he desperately wanted to forget, but knew he never would. He wasn’t that guy anymore. He might well have joined up for less than honorable reasons, but nobody could fault him for his service and the job he’d done. Whatever he was before he was different now. Once the war was over he was going to settle down in England and make a life for himself and his new family. A good honest life; there would be no more drinking, no more gambling and without doubt no more womanizing.
He was suddenly distracted by a flash of sunlight glinting off the silver belly of a B17 in the high squadron above. Walt studied it for a moment and the half dozen planes it was flying in close formation with. In many ways their silver fuselages and the Cobalt blue-sky back drop reminded him of when he was back in school in New York. His teacher, a sprightly old spinster by the name of Mrs. Johnson had kept a fish tank containing five silver fish by the side of her desk. Walt had spent many an hour watching them hang motionless in the crystal-clear water. It had always fascinated him how those five fish always pointed in the same direction as if there were some unspoken rule.
He idly wondered where Mrs. Johnson was now and if she’d be proud of him if she saw him in his uniform. He hoped she would, she’d been one of the few people who’d seen something in him back then. He couldn’t help but smile as he recalled the sound of her lilting voice on the day he left school.
“You’ll be alright Mr. Mahoney, they say the devil always has a way of looking after his own.”
“Flak, two o’clock low,” a voice he recognized as that of the co-pilot, Jim Fletcher said in a matter-of-fact tone. Walt swallowed hard to suppress the ice-cold fear which numbed his senses as soon as he heard the word flak. He, like bomber men the world over, hated flak. With fighters he always felt they had a chance. Each B17 was armed with a dozen fifty caliber machine guns with which to defend themselves. Only, they couldn’t shoot back at the insidious black puffs marking the detonation of an anti-aircraft shell fired by a German gunner 20,000ft below. All they could do was fly on, straight and level and hope God was with them.
Walt balled his fists in an effort to stop his hands shaking as he sweated it out, then came the inevitable.
“Seventeen going down from the high squadron,” another calm, methodical voice Walt didn’t immediately recognise said.
Walt had never seen a plane go down, nor did he want to, but in his minds eye he saw a smoking B17 peeling out of formation and spiraling earthwards.
“Two out of the front,” their flight Engineer, Tom Parker, commented from his vantage point in the top turret.
“Another out of the back,” Jim Fletcher added in his slow southern drawl.
Made as they were in a calm, dispassionate manner these narratives of a stricken crews attempt to escape their fiery coffin in no way reflected the hell those poor men were going through. Men Walt in all probability knew and had shared a drink with in the mess or one of the local pubs. Men just like him…
The commentary didn’t last long and Walt surmised the doomed airplane had either dropped below the line of sight or blown up. Walt didn’t have time to dwell on its fate though as through the interminable static he heard the unmistakable sound of Morse code. He quickly reached across his small table for a pencil, which was no mean feat given the thick mittens he was wearing. Much as he wanted too, he couldn’t take them off as it would only be a matter of seconds before frost bite set in. He cursed as the pencil eluded his grasp and was forced to stretch to reach it. That was when the world as he knew it imploded around him.
One moment all was orderly and just as it should have been and the next there was a mind-numbing crash which concussed his senses. He felt the airplane lurch and stagger through the air and too his horror realised where a moment ago there had been a fuselage there was now a gaping hole. To make matters worse the bomber dropped its port wing and Walt found himself clinging to his seat and staring transfixed with mortal terror at the patchwork quilt of Germany 23000 feet below.
“No, no, please god no,” someone screamed as the B17 did a complete wing over and dropped its nose toward the ground. Walt groped for his parachute which should have been by his right foot, but his hand failed to make contact. He looked about wildly as the sickening realization hit home his chute had gone out through the hole with the rest of his equipment. Barely had this registered when he heard the alarm bell ringing on the bulkhead in front of him. The pilot, Lieutenant Walker, had just given the order to bail out and in doing so condemned Walt to death.
“Hey, Walker, I’ve lost my chute,” Walt yelled desperately in to his mike. Only to be met with a stone-cold silence. No doubt the Lieutenant had his hands full trying to hold the airplane steady long enough for the crew to bail out. If he hadn’t already done so himself.
Walt retched and was forced to undo his vomit filled face mask. He was going to die and this time there was no escape. As if to illustrate the point he felt the plane’s nose pitch up, then a violent shudder as it stalled and plunged earthwards in what was to be its final death dive.
The noise was horrendous as the engines shrieked and the slip stream tore at the gaping hole, even so Walt could still hear somebody screaming there life away. It was the same person he’d heard earlier on; it took him a moment or two to realize that person was him.
In his head he heard the voices of other crews commentating on his demise.
“Seventeen going down from the low squadron.”
“Roger that, two out of the front.”
“Another two out of the back.”
All spoken in the same detached, dispassionate voices his own crew had used to describe the dying moments of the bomber knocked out of the sky minutes before they were hit.
To add to his misery smoke started to billow from around the forward bulk head and he saw flames flicking around the plywood door. He started to pray then, really pray which was ironic really, to think God would reach out and save the likes of him. Not after what he’d done in the past. Was that what this was all about, retribution for his sins?
He didn’t have time to dwell on the subject, the Radio room was getting too hot as whatever fires had started up front took hold. He might be going to die, but he wasn’t going to burn, he’d jump before he let that happen. Somehow, he found some inner strength and managed to drag himself across the floor in to the waist area. The two waist gunners were long gone. Kowolski always said if they were hit he’d be the first out. It looked like he’d been a man of his word.
Walt saw the open escape hatch and started pulling himself toward it using the ribs of the fuselage as a makeshift ladder. It was a futile gesture, but he had to do something. Then he noticed something, the ball turret hadn’t been retracted which meant the ball gunner, Sam Reardon, was either dead or trapped beneath the belly of the plane. Walt shuddered at the thought of the shy kid from Alabama trapped in his Perspex bowl as they plummeted earthward. In the event of a failure, it was the job of the waist gunners to mechanically retract the turret so the gunner could escape. Seemingly Kowolski and Travers had foregone that duty and elected to see to themselves.
He glanced across at the gimbal and the mechanism which retracted the turret, then it dawned on him and hardly daring to breath he looked to his left. Not six feet away was salvation in the shape of the ball gunners parachute stowed away just as it should be.
With a sob Walt lunged for it and in one swooping movement snatched it free and clipped it on to the D rings of his parachute harness. It wasn’t a moment too soon as the waist area began to fill with a thick black acrid smoke along with silver droplets of molten aluminium as the fuselage melted in the heat . Walt steeled himself and dug deep pulling himself toward the escape hatch and suffering a blow to the back of the head from one of the heavy machine guns as it cycled wildly in the slip stream. With one last herculean effort he grasped the edge of the hatch and levered himself forward. As he felt the slip stream plucking him from the airplane, he afforded himself one last glance inside only to see Sam Reardon’s outstretched hand. Then he was gone, tumbling through the ice-cold air.
Back in the States when he’d done his basic training they’d taught him to steady himself, count to at least six then pull the ripcord. To hell with that…
The parachute opened with an almighty thwack and Walt found himself floating in a near perfect silence. There was no sign of the great aerial armada which only minutes before he’d been an integral part of. Nor were there any signs of his fellow crew members, no white parachutes; nothing but a clear blue sky.
As he drifted earthwards he noticed a thick column of oily smoke billowing up from the middle of a dense wood, no doubt this was the funeral pyre marking the last resting place of the once pristine Lady Louise. The tears started to flow then, and he sobbed uncontrollably like a small child as in his mind’s eye he saw Sam Reardon’s imploring eyes. He swallowed hard at the memory and shook his head inconsolably as he knew it was something which was going to haunt him for the rest of his life.
Strangely enough in those desperate seconds when he’d tumbled free from the stricken B17 it hadn’t been his wife Jane, or baby Rebecca who’d flashed in front of his eyes. It had been the girl he'd left behind two years ago back in New York.
Picture credit Google Images