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Just another mission
The rivets rattled and the fuselage shook as the engines shuddered to life and slowly started to rotate. Newly promoted Captain Hank Allen and his Co-Pilot Joseph Newfield were making the pre-flight checks when their flight engineer, Steven Randall popped his head into the cockpit.
“We ready to go yet?” he asked annoyingly. Steven was young like the rest of the crew, no older than twenty probably because he was enlisted and had probably been drafted, but he had the tendency to talk like a nagging old woman when impatient.
“Not yet Steve. You’ll know when we’re in the air.” Hank replied, not looking up from his check board.
“And how’s that?” he nagged on.
“We’ll be waving goodbye from five hundred feet when we throw you out.” Joseph snapped. Steve not wanting to anger him further lowered his head and backed out of the cockpit.
A smirk on his face Hank asked, “Why are you so mean to the kid?”
“Because he annoys the crap outa me, that’s why.” Joe shot back at him. Hank shook his head some more, “Well you should get used to it because he’s part of the crew now.”
“He’ll never be Bob.” Joe said mournfully. Robert Simmons was the previous Flight Engineer until he had been killed in a bombing mission over New Guinea. â€˜Bob’ had been very liked by his crew and others; he was always the comedic relief after a bad mission. He always knew when to tell’em and when to hold’em. He could also fix anything that was put in front of him. The five-foot-three, nineteen-year-old son of an auto mechanic in New Jersey was just small enough to wiggle his way into anything or go anywhere to fix something. He had been manning the tail gun after one of the crew, Skinny MacAfree, was wounded. An ace Zero pilot who had been responsible for the deaths of five other crews in the squadron was on a second pass at them when Bob opened up with the .50 caliber machine guns. The Ace opened up at the same time hammering the gunner position with a wall of rounds that shattered the bubble. Bob’s rounds did the same to the Zero, another crew had confirmed it, and that the Zero burst into a million pieces. Hank had ordered the B-25’s radioman Stewie Castillo to check on Bob when he radioed back a few seconds later with just the words, “Bob gotâ€˜em.”
His bullet ridden body was carried from the plane with the utmost care. His family had requested that he be buried at the field with his friends. Hank and the others had honored that request and now he lay a few yards behind the barracks in a crude cemetery with the bodies of other fliers. Hank could see the cemetery now, even from his distance he could spot Bob’s old wooden cross.
“No, he’s not Bob. But he’ll have to do.” Hank looked towards the old plantation home that served as the squadron’s HQ and barracks. A sharply dressed Major stepped outside onto the terrace and fired a flare into the air.
“Alright guys lock it up. It’s show time.” Hank radioed to the crew and all the hatches were locked and secured.
Hank’s plane was first in the formation, the lead plane. He was mission commander this time. The second mission in a row. Lead planes were always the first target of fighters and to survive it the first time was lucky but a second time in a row was suicide. Hank kept getting the feeling that he had rolled the dice and that they had just come up snake eyes. His luck would be pushed to the brink on this one. Pilots as well as any soldier in combat were subject to superstition, each had his own little ritual or token with him on a flight. Joe had a four leaf clover he carried with him that his brother had sent him from England. Castillo wore his grandmother’s crucifix that he kissed before every mission and after. Skinny in the back swore he had a lucky foot like a rabbit so during a mission he would take off his right boot and sock and rub his foot. Time after time again he tried to get others to rub it for good luck as well. On one mission a young replacement actually did after being mesmerized by his crazy stories of its mystical luck. He was killed the next day to which Skinny just replied, “He wasn’t a real believer.”
Hank on the other hand was the exception. He didn’t have any charms or voodoo rituals he performed he merely carried the picture of his girlfriend, Alice Wayne Wright, in his flight suit pocket. He removed the picture and wedged it between the gauges of his altimeter and fuel intake. The black and white photograph didn’t do her justice he thought to himself, staring at the photo, his mind replacing all the missing color. Her pale blue eyes, her long curly brown hair gently caressing her face as his hand would. Hank didn’t have any magic charms, but he did have a reason to fight for every day the good lord gave him.
A voice came over the radio, “Captain Allen you may take off when ready.”
“Copy that, we’re on our way.” Hank replied. Gently he opened the throttle and the B-25’s brakes were disengaged. The plane leaped forward with its immense horsepower, he thought for sure the plane was going to shake itself apart.
“Hold on.” He said to Joe as he pulled back on the yoke and the nose of the bomber lifted into the air and traded earth for the sky.
Since leaving the crude dirt strip they called a runway Hank and his crew had been in the air for forty-five minutes. They were on their way back to New Guinea to perform some low-level skip bombing and do a strafing run on a Jap airfield farther inland. Hank and his crew were attached to 13th Squadron of the 3rd Bomb Group and lately they had been tasked with “skip bombing” missions where they would fly in low between two hundred and two hundred and fifty feet at over two hundred miles an hour and drop their bombs and allow they to skip like stones into the sides of enemy ships.
As they flew they passed various small island. No more than a few hundreds yards long the crew’s navigator/bombardier Tommy Franks none the less was marking them on his chart as potential emergency landing sites. Hank looked out over the horizon but still only saw ocean.
“Hey Tommy are we close?” Hank radioed to him. Tommy was situated in the Plexiglas nose of the B-25, one of the most dangerous places of the aircraft because it was the most exposed.
“Yah Hank, just another ten minutes and you should see the coastline.” He replied. Every flight Tommy would radio up little minute direction changes to keep them on course. “Come right to zero-three-zero.” He would say or “Come left to bearing one-eight-five and stay there.” It could get annoying sometimes, but Tommy hadn’t gotten them lost yet. Another ten minutes passed and over the horizon appeared the New Guinea coast.
“Alright boys keep your eyes peeled for that convoy.” Hank radioed to the other six planes in the flight. Before taking off the crews had been briefed on a Jap convoy carrying fresh troops and supplies that had been spotted coming down the slot by an aerial recon flight. They were going to be parked in a lagoon on the far side of the island and that was why the trip had taken longer than usual to get there. They had to completely go around the island to get the drop on the ships.
“Alright everybody I see the coast.” Hank radioed.
“You see, just a little patience gets you a long way.” Tommy radioed back. Joe was laughing in the side seat, Hank just shook his head. Turning the yoke and adjusting the pressure he put on the pedals he brought the B-25 high and around in a clockwise circle. To Joe and his astonishment, the lagoon was empty.
“Lead to all flights, the lagoon’s empty we must’ve missed them.” Hank radioed somberly.
“Those darn Nips sure work fast.” Captain Hooper of the B-25 “Lady Luck II” radioed in the clear just off of Hank’s starboard wing.
“Well lets hope they haven’t taken the island just as fast.” Joe replied.
“Alright lets hit the airfield.” Hank sighed and pointed his plane further inland. Everyone was on their guard now, Skinny in the tail gun had ceremoniously removed his boot and sock and was rubbing it intensively. Steve was clutching the four leaf clover his brother had sent him as well as the handles of the top fifty caliber machine gun, Castillo had kissed his crucifix and was now saying a quick prayer before assuming his gunner’s position in the waist. Joe was even fiddling with his lucky penny. Tossing it up and down before seeing if it was heads or tails.
“What are you doing?” Hank asked only half interested.
“Seeing whose going to make it.” He flipped it one more time. “A shucks. Unfortunately Stevie boy back there wont make it. And I was just getting’ used to the guy.” He said sarcastically.
“Joe don’t do that -.”
“What? You lived.” Hank once again just shook his head and glanced down a the picture of Alice. I hope he’s right Hank thought.
A few minutes later a clearing began to come into view followed by an airstrip. It was cluttered with barracks, fuel depots, warehouses and above all planes. Betty’s, Zero’s, and everything else from transports to fighters was on the field.
“Jackpot!” Joe hollered.
“Alright boys were going in.” Hank radioed one last time before diving on the airfield. Hank pulled the triggers and the side mounted gun pods opened up with their 12.7 mm rounds. Hank and Joe could see the tracers as they slammed into the dirt kicking up at the heals of running crewmen and pilots. Joe pulled a switch and pulled a trigger releasing two rockets from a pod on their wing. The rockets found their mark on the fuel depot and a raging inferno ensued. Black smoke rose into the air clouding the sky.
“Hey leave some for us.” Hooper radioed as he dove in followed by the others. Hank pulled back on the yoke and came around for another pass. He could here the machine guns of his crew firing down on the enemy. Joe let loose another volley of rockets and destroyed two Betty bombers that we taxiing on the runway. Charred and jagged metal littered the field. After five minutes it was over. The airfield had been reduced to nothing more than craters and destruction. Hank did one more fly over to see if the job was done. There was nothing left.
“Alright guys we did our job let’s go home.” Hank radioed when suddenly he was cut off.
“Captain,” it was Steve. “Captain two o’clock high. I see four Zekes. Repeat four Zero’s on our tail.” This was the last thing he needed.
“Well shoot’em darn it.” Joe cursed into the radio. A moment later the guns opened up, on both sides.
“Hey Skinny, try not to get hit this time. That’s an order.” Hank radioed.
“Will do boss.” Came the reply.
Castillo opened up in the waist gunners position but the Zero’s were just too fast he kept on missing.
“I cant get a bead on them Cap.” He radioed when suddenly the fuselage of the plane started to become like Swiss cheese. Zero rounds began peppering all around Castillo who instinctively dove to the floor. Followed by a loud explosion outside Castillo lifted his head to see Steve cheering like a mad man.
“I got’em I got’em. Castillo did you see that I got’em.” He said proudly.
“Sorry pal, I’m afraid I missed it.” Castillo replied, trying to regain his composure. “Cap it’s Castillo. The new guy got one.” He radioed when holes began appearing in the roof of the plane. Sparks flew as rounds ricocheted off the fuselage, Steve ducked out of his turret position but not before a round nicked him in the ear. Steve fell to the floor clutching the side of his head.
“I’m shot. Castillo I’m shot.” He whimpered. Castillo moved closer and pried the quivering man’s hand away from his head. The tip top of his ear was singed. Charred black but only at the tip. There wasn’t even blood, the wound had cauterized itself. Castillo began laughing hysterically.
“What the heck is so funny? I just got shot.”
“It’s a scratch you big baby.” He managed to get out through the laughter.
Hank heard Steve call that he was hit and began to trying to contact Castillo.
“Castillo? Castillo had bad is he?” Hank asked frantically. Over the radio came only the sound of ridiculous laughter. “He’s alright Cap. It’s just a scratch.” Castillo replied followed by more laughter. Skinny was still manning the tail gun while two jokers in back were laughing their brains out. Hank saw another pass by the three remaining Zero’s and he took evasive action. He radioed Tommy to hang on tight in the nose as Hank pressed the yoke forward and sent the bomber into a dive. The three fighters whizzed by only inches above them. Looking up he saw them change course and head for Hooper’s plane.
“Hoop watch yourself, you got two of ’em comin’ in on your six.” Hank cried into the radio but it was too late the Zero’s were already on him. Letting loose with their cannons the Zero’s tore into the starboard engine and it took only a few seconds for the engine to catch fire and them blow completely apart. Hank cried for them to shut it down, A B-25 could fly on only one engine, not very fast but it could still fly. However Hooper did not have time to shut it down.
“I cant hold her Hank, I’m going to make a run for the coast, bail out over the ocean.” He radioed. Hank acknowledged the plan and gave him his blessing to separate from the group. Another fighter took a blast to his cockpit from the turret gunner of another B-25 called “Big Bertha” now that was a tough crew. There were only two fighters now and they must have been low on fuel or ammo or maybe even both because they started to break off. Only problem was they had no place to land. Hank and Joe both looked at each other and laughed at the irony.
“Alright fellas they’re bugging out lets go home. Castillo, Get on the radio and let Air Sea Rescue know to get their butts up here.” suddenly the radio crackled to life.
“Hey Hank?” it was Hooper. “Hank I see the convoy, they just rounded the bend. Just wanted to let you know.” Then the line went dead. He looked at Joe who gave him a very serious look, something not common to Joe.
“Let’s go get’em.” He growled. Hank didn’t need a second opinion. He radioed the rest of the flight and told them to head for the lagoon.
It took a good five minutes to get back to the coast but Hank was ready. Tommy, the bombardier had taken the safeties off of all the bombs and put them on a ten second delay. Gently Hank eased the battered B-25 and leveled her off just above two hundred feet. He pushed the throttle to two hundred and fifty and punched it. The middle ship, a Jap transport frigate. Bingo. He steadied himself, waiting for Tommy to give the word. Flak guns and anti-aircraft guns were all ablaze now as they saw the bombers coming in but Hank didn’t care. Just waiting for Tommy to say go. The ship got closer and closer, black plumes of metal fragments exploding all around them. The plane shuddered as one of the shells hit a little too close for comfort and Hank and Joe were bounced out of their seats. The ship was only a few hundred yards from them now when finally, “Go!” came the command and Hank pushed the button. Bombs away. The first two that dropped landed in the water and bounced up off again landing on the main deck exploding a half second later. The ship erupted into a terrifying blaze, it must have been carrying fuel or something because they had never seen an explosion like that before.
An hour and a half later Hank gently touched his B-25 down on the airfield. Carefully he brought her a complete stop and locked the brakes. Crew chiefs and mechanics raced toward the aircraft, placing chalks on the wheels and maintenance guys climbed aboard to inspect everything. Hank smiled proudly at his aircraft that was conveniently “The Miracle” Their bomb bay was empty and the crew was all safe. It was a good day. The roar of a Navy PBY- Catalina search and rescue aircraft came in behind him. A few minutes later the ramp opened and six men walked out onto the dock, the lead man was Captain Bruce Hooper. The two men shook hands and exchanged greeting for a moment.
“Hoop you SOB they brought you back here? I would have thought for sure they would have kicked you to some pretty nurse hospital after that one.” Hank said jokingly.
“Not this time, but maybe the next.”
“So Lady Luck III, I presume now? You know maybe if you came up with a new name you would get shot down again.” Hank advised.
Hooper nodded his head, “Maybe. But maybe not. You never know Hank so until I do the name lives on.” He chuckled and walked off to get a drink at the plantation house.
Hank once again shook his head in disbelief, he had a small hint of wisdom in that one. Who knows what he’ll say next time. He thought. But that was it you never knew what would happen next. And that was what made life so interesting. A never ending game of chance. He looked down at Alice’s picture. She was so beautiful. Then he looked back at his plane, all charred, blackened, and full of holes she was but still a beautiful sight. Hank had never been able to compare Alice to anything else before he was always stumped for words but now he had it. If he had to compare Alice to anything, it was “The Miracle”.
Well, he thought to himself, that was fun he laughed. Unfortunately that was just another mission and occurrences like today would be very common and sometimes now work out so well. But he was still alive at the end of the day. He patted “Miracle” on the side, feeling the bullet holes and flak dents that were the day’s battle scars. The engineers would have to fix these before the next mission, he thought then turned away and headed for the plantation house.