Because of the strong side winds, the Captain quietly adjusted the trim wheel that would bend the rudder in a little more causing the big plane to fly slightly crab-like over the German countryside. These were the kinds of runs that he hated. A daylight bombing run over 1944 Dresden was never a pretty sight, but the broken puffy cloud cover wouldn’t provide any cover for the 12 large bombers, but they would hide the Messerschmitt’s German fighter planes that could ruin a guy’s day.
The seat seemed to burp or jump slightly followed by a quiet voice on the intercom radio “starting a little earlier today”. Soon the sky around the bombers bloomed with dark clouds of explosions as the anti-aircraft (Ack-Ack) shells began to explode about them. The “Ack Ack” with it accompanying “flack” of shrapnel was the usual welcome to true enemy territory, and meant the fighter airplanes would be showing up very soon. “Reception committee at 2 o’clock high.” The flight commander confirmed from the lead B-17 bomber. “Four and Three stay in close to your leads and tighten up.”
The squad today was made from “enders”, Front-enders with new flight crews fresh from training, and like the Captain’s crew, “Tail-enders” and on their last mission; second set of 25. Long months ago the Captain’s uniform hat had reached and exceeded the much admired “20 mission crush”, which is usually attained by closer to 15 sweaty nerve wracking bombing runs from Bassingbourn, England to Germany or France and back; usually in the pitch black of night, but only if you were lucky.
“You headed up to London tonight?” he asked his co-pilot and second in command.
“We thought we might. Maybe see a show and make a night of it. How . . . damn!” as the flight deck jumped hard, “about you?” As the Co-pilot eased in a little more fuel for the four engines and keyed his mike, “Blue Squadron, Blue Squadron, Little Betty stepping right Oh-two-one, Oh-two-one, keep it up.” As he glanced out the window to watch the squadrons break into two bombing run squads as they banked their B-17 Flying Fortress to a slow gentle left.
The Captain yelled over the sound of the 50 caliber machine guns hammering away at the attacking fighters. “I thought I might hitch a ride with you two up as far as Elephant and Castle, I’ll catch the tube over to Vickie Station from there”. The huge airship jumped and bucked higher as the cabin suddenly was shot through with bits of steel, tin and bitter December air. Daylight was like a searchlight, at the captain’s right foot, shown through a hole in the nose of the airplane that was half the size of a man. He tested his controls as the plane yawed and wiggled in response.
Keying his flight mike, “button up boys, it’s going to be a cold ride home today”. Switching back to the squad channel, “Shooter, Shooter you have joy.” Turning over the guidance to the bombardiers of each bomber laying flat in the belly of each steel beast with an eye glued to a bombsight and a hand on the set of controls.
Sitting back, this was the worst time of the flight for the flight crew… as much as five long minutes of being out of control. The bombardiers could only see what was on their charts and photos and match them to their bombsights, the gunners had plenty to do and would for well over another hour as they defended the airship, and the engineer was fussing with what ever the engineer is always fussing with during a bombing run. And the pilot and co-pilot feel like the most useless people in the world.
The plane lurched in a chain of shudders as its belly-load of death slid out of the racks and into freefall on their way to destiny and a meeting of their end and others. “Bombs away” came the call releasing the pilots to grab their respective wheels and replant their feet on the rudders. Two sets of eyes scanned the cockpit looking for any shift of the dials that had occurred in the last ten seconds.
Keying the command mike, the Captain called out “Little Betty Blue Squad, empty and turning Two-four-zero, repeat Two-four-zero”.
Four days and seventeen hours later, the Captain finally hobbled gently into his barracks room on a cane. The doctors had cut away some of the side of his right leg where the shrapnel had torn up the calf, and amputated the small right toe that had suffered some shrapnel and frost bite. All in all, he considered himself lucky. He was finished with bombing and in the course of the twin hitches he had only lost three planes and one gunner. Some squads had been completely wiped from the air.
He looked at the really nice photo one of the crew chiefs had taken of the crew and plane when they were all just a bit younger and fresher looking. A few more days and her nose would look fresh and smooth again for the new crew.
His hands quietly removed the wings, propellers, Captain’s bars and ribbons from his uniform shirt and laid them in the Gentleman’s Tray on the bureau along with his Identification papers, driver’s license, medical air certificate, and his lucky ticket stub from a Yankee’s game. Tonight was laundry night and the shirt still smelled of the explosive cordite smoke from the Anti-Aircraft guns mixed with, days of sweat and the medicinal smell that hangs in a hospital.
His bandaged right hand reached out and touched the glass on the small photo in a gold frame of his girl back home. Softly his mind formed a hazy pillow of an idea about his not being able to fly any more and settling down and getting married. Little did he know that in less than ten years his country would ask him to fly bombers once again, on the other side of the world in a cold country called Korea. Two of his crew would join him but only one would rejoin him as a civilian stateside.
And the little girl that was years away from being born, would remember her daddy, and treasure his stories about his scars and missing toe, always.