United States Army Air Forces, Eighth Air Force 356th Fighter Group, Martlesham Heath Areodrome, Woodbridge, Suffolk, England, Autumn, 1944
The early morning sun was already burning through the low lying fog, just as forecast, and he could now clearly see the airfield through the mist. He felt the sun’s warmth on his shoulder as the crewman adjusted his shoulder straps. To his left was Henderson, his wing-man for the mission. He was sitting silently in his own cockpit, looking neither left nor right. Henderson was a skilled pilot with two kills of his own, and he was glad to have him assigned as his wing-man. He could trust him to be there, protecting his six o‘clock.
This was his last mission. Tomorrow he was rotating back to the States, and instructor school. After that, who knows. He had six kills, and today, he desperately wanted another. He had a bet on with Harkins that he would go home with seven, and he wanted that dollar. He smiled at the thought. It wasn’t the damned dollar of course. It was the pride of youth.
He wanted to stay, but had been abruptly refused. “We need you to pass on your skills, Captain. Teaching what you know and how to do it could save the lives of many a young man.” The Colonel’s voice softened. “Hell, Benny, I know how you feel, but this war leaves no room for personal feelings. If we are going to win, and we must win, then we have to do the prudent thing. You are going home, so pack up.”
“Sir?” Corporal Davis pointed at the tower where a lone figure was climbing the outside stairs to the observation deck. He appeared to have a flare gun in his hand. It was time. He nodded, and Davis stepped off the wing root, ducked under and reappeared in front. To each side, crewmen stood ready with fire bottles off the wingtips.
The airfield was a former English pasture, and the grass was the same grass that the farmer’s cows once dined on. The house and barn were visible on the far side of the field, on a hill rising beyond a wooded copse. It had been confiscated for the duration, and the farmer was angry until the first German bombs rained down. Now he sometimes bought fresh meat to a grateful mess hall sergeant. His curly haired daughter of eighteen often came to the fence and waved as the flights landed. She was a beautiful young girl, and the returning pilots thought of her as a good luck charm.
He looked over his shoulder at the tower just as the red Very flare arced into the sky. He looked forward, and Davis had his right arm up, his index finger pointing up and twirling as a signal to start his engine. He worked the primer five times and was rewarded with the sweet smell of aviation fuel.
“Clear the prop.”
Davis signaled that the prop was clear and he pushed down on the brakes. The starter motor whined, and the massive, eleven foot, four bladed propeller, began to turn, A cylinder caught and coughed, then another, and suddenly, the mighty V-twelve, Rolls-Royce Merlin engine, built by the stateside Packard company, came to life with a snarling roar. He could feel the smooth surge of power as the P-51 Mustang leaned against the chocks. The same thrill of having that much power at his bidding and control swept through him again, as it always did. He thought once more about how he loved this job.
He reduced the engine to idle.
He checked his instruments, one by one, and was satisfied with what he saw. He looked left and right and nodded to the crew members at each wingtip. They put down their fire bottles and disappeared under the wings to pull the chocks. In seconds, they reappeared at the wingtips, holding up the chocks for him to see. He looked down the line to his right, and the first plane was already taxiing. He waited, watching Davis who had both arms extended in front with fists closed for brakes, head turned to his left, watching the taxiing fighters.
Finally, Davis beckoned to come to him, and he released the brakes and cracked the throttle. The sleek and beautiful aircraft rolled forward slowly, as Davis backed up, still beckoning. Then he stopped, and extended his left arm forward, fist clenched, a signal to engage the right brake. He complied.
Immediately, the Mustang swung hard to the right and into the line of taxiing aircraft. He glanced to his left, and Davis came to attention, with a crisp salute. He returned the salute, and Davis gave him a thumbs up which he also returned, with a wide grin. He considered the Corporal to be a friend, and he was sure the feelings were mutual although they never discussed it, since he was an officer.
The string of fighters were silver dancers in a long conga line as they zigged first right and then left in order to see where they were going. A view straight ahead was impossible with the tail wheel on the ground and the nose high in the air.
As he made the turn to the end of the runway, he checked over his left shoulder and saw Henderson behind him. While he waited for the man ahead of him to take off, he scanned his instruments again, looking for discrepancies. All was normal. He taxied into position and held, looking toward the tower. He got a green light, and advanced the throttle part way, applying full right rudder as he did so, to counteract the massive torque of the Merlin.
The P-51 lurched forward, and the prop blast engaged the rudder, giving him some control. He increased the throttle and pushed the stick forward slightly. The tail rose obediently and he could finally see forward over the long nose. He advanced the throttle to full takeoff power, and reduced pressure on the right rudder as the airspeed increased. He checked the airspeed indicator, and eased back on the stick. Immediately, the Mustang lifted off, and the altimeter began to wind. A P-51’s rate of climb was described as that of a homesick angel, and it was exhilarating.
He climbed to altitude and formed up. Behind him and on his left, he could see Henderson, just feet away. He lifted his hand to Henderson, and watched the leader. The coast was coming up fast, and they would soon be out over the Channel. He scanned his instruments. All was normal, and the big engine was humming a sweet tune of its own.
A few miles out over the Channel, they received the order to check their guns. He broke formation, cleared the sky ahead, and fired off a short burst. The recoil from the six, fifty caliber machine guns slowed a Mustang’s speed enough to be felt by the pilot. To his left, he heard the rattle of Henderson’s guns. They reformed with the rest of the squadron.
The morning’s briefing confirmed that they were escorting a flight of one hundred B-24 Liberators all the way to Berlin. They would rendezvous near Rotterdam on the coast and then proceed straight to Berlin. The weather was clear and resistance was expected to be light until they were within fifty miles of the target. He was assigned to provide top cover, so they would be some two thousand feet higher than the formation of bombers.
“OK, there’s our customers, gentlemen, so take your positions and look sharp. Remember to keep the chatter down and sing out if you see anything. Stay calm.” The last remark from the squadron leader was aimed at Jenkins, who tended to get excited, yelling into the mike so loudly that he became unintelligible.
He signaled to Henderson, and they broke left and began to climb to their assigned positions along with eight other fighters.
One of the first lessons he had learned was to keep his head on a swivel. The pilot who spotted the other guy first was usually the winner, and this morning, they were flying into the sun. If the enemy was above them and could attack them by diving out of the section of the sky where the sun blinded them, they might not see him until it was too late. The German pilots knew that, so that was the most likely tactic. However, they would have to be lying in wait to do that, and often, they miscalculated the wait time and were short on fuel.
“Bandits, five o-clock and high! I make out about a dozen.”
That was O’Reilly, and he was flying top cover too. He twisted his neck far to the right and spotted the enemy. They were in a turning dive, maybe five miles behind and several thousand feet higher. He slapped on full throttle and rolled hard to the right, pulling back on the stick. He knew Henderson would be glued to his tail as he rolled out and pointed the nose straight at the diving fighters. He picked out what looked like the lead aircraft, and fixed his attention on it. That was his man, and he was ready to engage. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Henderson, slightly behind and somewhat farther away, ready to fire.
The enemy was flying the ME-109, and the closing speed between the opposing fighters was nearly five hundred miles per hour, so it was just moments before he saw the twinkling fire at the enemy’s gun ports and saw the first tracers coming at him. As always, they looked slow and harmless, but he knew that they were deadly, and that for every visible tracer round, there would be four more invisible rounds of sudden death. He held off for a few seconds longer and then opened fire, see-sawing the rudder pedals as his own tracers danced back and forth on the lead German. He saw a flash of flame and a smoke plume for an instant and then they blasted through the German formation. Instantly, he rolled right onto his back, and pulled the stick back into his gut. He was now above and behind the diving Germans, and he wasn’t about to let the advantage go. To his left, he saw Henderson, tucked in and slightly behind as always.
Ahead and below, two enemy aircraft were smoking and one was on fire. They were probable kills; one for him, and one for Henderson. But probable wasn’t good enough. He needed a confirmed kill.
He was gratified to see a parachute open, as the burning fighter began to break up. Another American pilot jumped the tail of the smoking aircraft and soon, it too was burning, but this time, there was no parachute. The pilot was probably dead. For some reason, that always bothered him.
They were closing fast on the remaining 109’s, as the enemy fighters homed in on the distant bombers. Again, he picked out the lead aircraft as Henderson moved slightly away. They were directly behind the 109’s and slightly below, where they could not be seen by the targeted aircraft. He closed and had just begun firing short bursts when his target suddenly blossomed into flames and its right wing simply tore away. Kill number seven confirmed. He had won his dollar.
Then he was by them and climbing hard.
He looked to his left for Henderson, but for the first time, he was not there. He craned farther around and then checked to the right. Far below was the distinctive shape of a P-51, trailing smoke. He saw no parachute. He was reaching for the mike when several tracers flew by, and something slammed into the armor plate behind the seat. Behind him and to his left, he could see a 109 about five hundred feet back. Frantic, and for the first time, he went to the P-51’s vaunted war emergency power setting, nearly doubling the output of the big Merlin.
Thirty seconds later, he looked back and was gratified to see the ME-109 falling back rapidly. A few seconds later, the German pilot abandoned the chase entirely and dove away.
He pulled the throttle back out of war emergency, and eased the stick forward, but to his surprise, he continued to soar upward. Puzzled, he checked the throttle setting again and rotated the stick. Nothing changed, and he continued his climb. He was now passing easily through his service ceiling of forty two thousand feet, and climbing faster than he ever had. He checked his instruments, but all was well. And for some reason, he realized that he was content to sit back and see what happened. There was no fear.
The roar of the Merlin gradually disappeared, and the world grew still. The big prop flashed silently in the sun and the sounds of radio traffic and frantic voices drifted away. Suddenly, he knew what had happened and where he was going. Far above, he was beginning to make out a fantastic shaft of warm, inviting light, and a sense of great joy overtook him. He was going home.
“How old was he?”
The VA doctor checked the monitors again and put away his stethoscope. The nurse checked the chart.
“He was ninety two. He was a decorated World War Two fighter pilot and an ace. He later trained other pilots. He retired as a colonel.”
“Well, looks like he slipped away quietly, so I’m pronouncing him.” He reached for the chart.
The nurse nodded. “Earlier this morning, he was moving his hands and feet as if he was flying. I wonder what he was dreaming about?”
At the doctor’s raised eyebrows, the nurse quickly explained, “I earned my private pilot’s license some years ago, doctor, and believe me, he was moving stick and rudder.”
The doctor nodded, and the door opened. An old man stood there, gazing at the figure on the bed.
“Sir? I’m afraid you’ll have to leave sir.”
The old man looked at the nurse for a long moment. “I’m his next door neighbor, and we also fought together in World War Two. I’ll want a moment alone with my Colonel and my friend.”
The nurse looked at the doctor who nodded.
“Very well.” Her voice softened. “I’ll need your name sir.”
“It’s Davis. Back in those days, it was Corporal Davis.”
The door closed softly and for a long time, he stood at the foot of the bed, looking down on the still figure. Then he spoke.
“Had me a dream this morning Colonel Benny. Had me the same dream you had this morning, so here I am. I knew it, sure as hell!”
He came suddenly to attention and snapped a brisk salute, his eyes moist.
“Have a good morning flight, sir! I’ll be seeing you soon enough my own self.”