The wispy clouds slid by his cockpit as Tim climbed to cruising altitude. 'Pepe,' as his buddies called him in reference to a trip to Tijuana during training, could only think about the three-day leave coming his way at the end of this mission. As long as Pete, his navigator and relief pilot, found the bomber group, and Tim kept himself alert during the time they were near the target, everything would be cake.
Today the B-29s they were scheduled to meet were hitting Okayama, a relatively minor city along the coast of the main Japanese island, Honshu.
It had been hit before, and there hadn't been much of importance there to start with, but nowadays the Forts were running out of targets, and everything was fair game. Except, of course, the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, but the rest of that city had been burned out by May of last year, so that wasn't an issue. Tim wondered why it ever had been. Certainly nobody had been too concerned about sparing Hitler's life, and in the history of warfare capitals and leaders were always fair game. He supposed it had to do with the Japanese myth that the emperor was descended from gods, or some such story. He didn't much care.
Not that Tim was insensitive to such feelings, or quite as bigoted as some of the other pilots about the Japs. He simply wasn't concerned with abstract religious theories at the moment. His spiritual thoughts were running along a more immediate, practical line, since they were nearing the coast of Shikoku and could expect a little flak, at the least. As they say, 'there are no atheists in foxholes.' He wasn't all that worried; the flak had been pretty light lately, and he hadn't seen an enemy fighter, or plane of any kind, since early January, when a few Franks had made a feeble attempt at intercepting the bomber formations during a raid on Osaka. One of the other Twin Mustang flights had veered off to wax them, and he hadn't even gotten close enough to see the red balls on their wings.
Japan was running out of pilots, or planes, or both, it seemed to Tim.
Here he was, winging toward the enemy's home soil, and they couldn't even make a serious attempt to stop him. Maybe they were saving up for the big event, the invasion of Honshu, which was due sometime soon. Rumors said early in March, which put it three weeks away, and that seemed about right.
He had seen the ships assembling off Kyushu, when he flew over on his way North from Okinawa. Hundreds, maybe thousands of vessels, from aircraft carriers and battleships to LSDs, LSTs, and the other smaller landing craft.
Some of the sailors were already cruising off the coast, in battlewagons and carriers, doing their part in the softening up of Japan proper.
The formation of 29s came into view to their left, headed in the same direction as his own fighter squadron. Their silvery, tubular shapes glinted in the sunlight, making them easy to find and join up on. That same visibility should have been a major drawback in evading enemy fighters, but since there weren't many of those around anymore the planes had been left unpainted to save weight. His P-82 was bare for the same reason. Its twin fuselages, each based on a P-51, were joined by the wing and a tailplane, with the guns mounted in the center wing and a drop tank under it and under each outer wing. The two engines droned along loudly.
Tim buzzed Pete on the intercom. "How soon do we hit the island?" "About ten minutes, Pepe," Pete answered. "We make landfall at Cape Ashizuri, then steer 036 to the north coast of Shikoku." From there they would begin the run on Okayama.
Pete was on top of things, and that reassured Tim. Navigation was never his strong suit, and he enjoyed the ability to just fly the plane and not worry about checking off waypoints. In the P-51, the pilot had to do everything. Usually there was a 29 or some other plane to act as pathfinder, leading the fighters toward their target, but you still had to keep track of what was going on. It was easy enough to get separated in a dogfight, or swoop down to strafe some target of opportunity - those few still left -and when you looked up again, you had to figure out how to rejoin the formation, or, if things really got screwy, find your way back to base. The 45th Fighter Squadron, along with the other units in the 21st Fighter Group, had transitioned to the P-82Bs almost as soon as they became available last fall. They hadn't completed training on the shiny new birds in time to take part in Olympic, the invasion of Kyushu, but now, along with the other 82 squadrons and those still equipped with the good old 51, they were flying escort missions for the big B-29 Superfortresses on strikes against whatever targets were still intact enough to hit.
Okayama was one of those. The 29s would dump incendiary bombs on it, burning out the flimsy wood and paper buildings that filled most Japanese cities...or had filled them, before the war. Now almost every town of any real size was rubble. At least the fighter pilots got to break off once in a while, and search the countryside for targets of opportunity, meaning anything of any size that might conceivably have a military purpose: trucks, large buildings, boats, whatever. Tim got a thrill out of shooting up boats and trains. There weren't many of either left, but he always kept an eye out for them. A steam locomotive spouting a cloud of white after a few .50 caliber rounds pierced it was an amazing thing to see. There weren't many large ships around anymore; they had almost all been sent to the bottom, and besides, they were usually covered with anti-aircraft guns that could ruin a nice strafing pass. But small boats, especially if they were carrying any ammunition, made a nice big fireball if you hit the fuel tanks. The waters were pretty empty nowadays, though, after the Navy and the 29s finished laying mines all along the coast. The idea was to cut off food to the soldiers and civilians, forcing them to surrender sooner. It hadn't worked yet, but surely it would help. Japan lived by the sea. The place was just a whole bunch of mountains right by the water. There were a few flat places, but no one was far from the ocean. And almost everything moved by water, so stopping that source of supply had to make things rough on them.
"There's the Cape," said Pete. And now Tim could see the rocky outcropping below and ahead of them. He answered, "Got it. Turn to 036?" "Right-o," came the reply. "Then about twenty minutes to the north shore, and five or ten more to the target."
Now it was time to pay attention. One of the nice things about long-range escort missions was that they gave you time to think, compose letters in your head, whatever you wanted. Of course that could also be a drawback, if you worried about what could happen. There was still danger, even though most of the Japanese planes were gone or hiding. And besides, that was the only redeeming feature of a long, tiring, boring trip. There was no way to really stretch out, though at least in a Twin the other pilot could relieve you for a spell, letting you take your hands off the controls.
And speaking of relief, the tube wasn't exactly pleasant to use. On the other hand, the pit toilets on Okinawa were no joy either. And, Tim noted, he at least had a fairly warm, dry place to do his job, unlike the dogfaces on the ground.
Tim started scanning the skies with more frequency. He'd hate to be jumped right before a leave. The 29s were closing up formation, and his squadron did the same. Tim's wingman, Buddy Taprowski, pulled up on his left. The flight was in a finger four formation, laid out like the fingers of somebody's left hand. The flight leader, Major Seymour Bartlett, was in the same position as the middle finger of the 'hand.' And what a good place for him, Tim thought, nursing a slight feeling of insubordination. Major Bartlett's wingman, Terry Jones, was to his right rear . Tim was to the Major's left and back, with 'Tapper' off his own left rear. Pete, Tim's copilot, had been Tapper's wingman before they transitioned to the 82s. Then he was promoted, or demoted depending on your point of view, to riding shotgun in Tim's bird. He hadn't seemed thrilled about it, but whoever said the Army Air Force was fair? Tim and Pete had argued about what to name the plane, and what the picture on her nose would be. The first time he ever saw a Twin Mustang, Tim had been struck with inspiration: his plane would be "Double Exposure," with two scantily-clad women flying in close formation.
Not very original, perhaps, but appropriate. Pete, on the other hand, a die-hard ass man, had wanted to redo the artwork from his old plane, "Tail Wind," which featured a gorgeous woman in a short skirt bending over, the skirt blowing up almost over her head. In the end, Tim had decided that since Pete had lost his plane, he should at least have his own picture. But Tim still wanted his own choice. Well, the answer was staring them right in the face: put one on each fuselage! There was plenty of room on a P-82.
They had started a trend; several other planes in the 45th now had multiple nose art.
"Approaching north coast," Pete reported. They had the 29s to follow now, but Tim appreciated the update. After two turns to line up on target, and hopefully confuse the defenders a little, the bomb run would begin. The Twin Mustangs began to separate into individual flights again, in order to cover all approaches to the seventy-odd bombers. They would spread out all around the formation (except directly below, of course) to make sure no Jap fighters could get close.
The wispy clouds a few thousand feet above them softened the sun's light a little, but it was still a gorgeous day, and perfect for flying. The Twin Mustang was soaring along steadily, not getting buffeted much by the predicted turbulence. The weather guys almost never got it right. When they forecast clear skies, a storm rolled in. When they called for overcast and rain, you got this: a thin layer of cirrus, and smooth, dry skies. They were lucky if they predicted a sunset correctly...
A glint off to his left caught Tim's eye. The 29s were low to his right, and nothing should be out on the other side. He buzzed Pete. "Hey, see something at about ten o'clock?" Tim banked the plane a little to let him see better. "Yeah, I got something. Looks like...fighters, single engine. Maybe Jacks," Pete answered. The planes were climbing, on an intercepting course that carried them toward the front of the bomber group.
Tim called on the open frequency, so all in the formation could hear, "Bandits, eleven o'clock low. Ten or twelve, possibly Jacks." The Jack was a tubby, single-seat fighter, pretty well armed with four 20 millimeter cannon. The Twin Mustangs had six .50 cal machine guns, about average for American birds, and in fact the same number as on P-51s. But since on the Twins they were grouped closely in the center section, they did a good job of chewing up whatever they hit.
"B and C flights, intercept." The squadron CO, Colonel Chuck Frantz, assigned Tim's flight of four, and another providing top cover, to get the Jacks before they got to the bombers. All the 82s punched off their drop tanks, to gain more speed and maneuverability. Banking left and accelerating, Tim stayed with Bartlett as the formation headed toward the Japs. Closing, he could see there were about a dozen dark green planes, struggling to climb fast enough to reach the B-29s in time. Two of their pilots must have noticed the approaching Americans, as they peeled off and dove for the deck. "Forget them," said Bartlett. "Stay on the main formation. C flight, hold back and let us make a pass, then get whatever's left." Tim made sure his guns were armed, chute tightened, everything ready to go.
"Hold on to your hat, Pete," he said.
"Roger that," the right-seater replied. The flight was closing at an angle with the Jacks, and Tim waited until they were well within range to open up on the plane he'd picked out of the gaggle of enemy fighters.
Bartlett shouted, "Get 'em!" Tim fired, and saw his tracers converge on the rear fuselage of the Jack in his sights. It performed a neat little outside loop, nosing over and whipping around quickly before the tail section detached and the plane tumbled down end over end. Tim thought he must have chewed up the control lines. He pulled left and tried to line up on another one. Somebody else in the flight hit a Jack in the fuel tanks, because it exploded into flames and debris. "Wooo-wheee!" shouted Terry Jones. The other pilots had scored, too, because two more planes were smoking and spiraling toward the ocean below.
The Japanese formation was scattered now; the four they had lost and the two runaways left six Jacks, now turning and banking and trying to avoid the silver Twins roaring into their midst. Tim saw one veering down and right, and pulled hard to get his guns on the diving Jack. He heard Pete grunt over the intercom, as the sudden g-forces pushed him against the wall of the cockpit. At least Tim knew when such a move was coming. Poor Pete had to ride it out, never knowing what Tim might do next. Oh well, they weren't up here for Pete's pleasure, or for that matter Tim's.
The Jack was weaving left and right, looking for a way out, any way.
Tim didn't think the Japanese were getting much training anymore, because they didn't seem to have much spirit or skill when it came to dogfighting.
At least that made his odds better, he mused. He touched the gun button on his stick. The .50s roared, and he saw the tracers go high and right. He nudged the stick ever so slightly left, and the Jack helped out by starting a climb again. Tim's next burst walked back along the engine cowling and across the canopy. The engine started smoking, and the plane rolled over and headed for the deck, out of control with the death of its pilot.
Tim didn't think much about that particular bit of information. He had killed two men today: this one, and the other Jack's pilot because there had been no chute. Before the war, he would have told anyone asking that killing was wrong, no matter what the reason. Now, reality had altered his views somewhat. He didn't enjoy killing others, but the cold hard truth was that in a war, you had to kill or be killed. He didn't envy the grunts their jobs in this case either, as they often were face to face with those they fought, and killed them directly, not to mention seeing the bodies, enemy and friendly, after the fight. In a plane, you rarely saw your adversary's face. It made things more abstract, and, Tim thought, more tolerable. He had shot down seven planes before today, and not all of them had gotten a chance to jump clear before they went down. So he had sent, say, five or six men to their graves now. He wondered what his mother or grandmother would think of that, not to mention Sarah, his girlfriend. She hadn't been thrilled when he'd enlisted in the A.A.F., but she had accepted it as inevitable, in light of the war and Tim's love of flying.
Well, now he was one plane short of being a double ace, and she'd get to read about him in the hometown paper. Not that making ace was that hard anymore. As the war approached its end, the enemy was running out of fuel, planes, pilots...everything needed to put up a good fight. That meant easy pickings most of the time, though there were still a few good pilots out there on the other side. And even a brand new flyer got lucky once in a while.
"B flight, form up on me." Bartlett's voice brought Tim back, and he pulled up to join the flight leader. C flight was going after the four Jacks left after Tim's second hit and the one Tapper splashed. Bartlett had only gotten one, total, and that meant he would probably be jealous of Tim for awhile. He wanted to go after the two that had gotten away, but Bartlett wouldn't go for that, and they ought to be rejoining the bombers anyway. And that is what they did, coming in on the left of the big formation just in time to see flak starting to blossom ahead, as the planes neared the target. Black and brown puffs, like angry clouds, burst here and there, in front of and below them. Then they seemed to climb, reaching for the American formation, trying to pierce holes in it. Tim caught a glimpse of a silver P-82 chasing a valiantly twisting Jack down to the left. One of C flight, trying for another rising sun painted under his canopy. The flak was close now, only slightly below them as they came up on Okayama. He saw the first bombs fall away from the lead 29, then the rest of the planes pickled their loads. About seventy B-29s, something like ten tons of bombs in each... around a million and a half pounds of bombs, maybe a little less, was falling toward the city below. Many were incendiary, to ignite fires. Some were high explosive, designed to shatter solid structures, and help spread the fires started by the other bombs. As they hit, Tim noticed the shock waves torturing the air, but couldn't see much more from his height. He knew that, down below, horrible forces were blasting everything in the city. The fires would ignite and spread, heating the air and making a firestorm that would burn everything before it.
Meanwhile, the flak had found their altitude. Tim felt the shock waves of these explosives, and tightened his grip on the stick to offset the shudders. The anti-aircraft shells were pretty sparse, and none came very close to his flight. But he saw one of the 29s start to smoke from an engine, and then another took a hit in the fuselage, blasting metal into space. At least they had already dropped their loads. In his P-51, Tim had seen a Superfortress get hit just before reaching the target, and its bombs had detonated instantly. The plane disintegrated, seeming to stop dead in the air as most of the fuselage and wings disappeared, the tail and other extremities plunging down toward the ground. There were no chutes. No time.
Another Fort took a hit in the wing, but by this time the formation was already clear of the target and turning toward the sea. They would head back the way they came, parting from their Twin Mustang escorts when they were clear of the Japanese coast and heading southeast to their bases in the Marianas. Tim relaxed a little. Then he heard the call.
"Bandits, three o'clock high." He didn't recognize the voice. Colonel Frantz ordered three of the other flights after the new threat, and though Tim was able to follow the fight sporadically on the radio, he never saw the Japanese planes. As the formation cleared the southern coast of Shikoku, the flights that had taken part rejoined the main force, and Tim saw that they were one short.
This wasn't the time to ask about that; he'd find out on the ground, from one of the other guys.
"Fuel looks good," Pete reported. "Hey, what are you going to do on leave?"
"Just bum around the base." On a leave, Pete would have headed for the Officer's Club, or wangled a flight to Hawaii or Manila if he had the time. Tim planned to take it easy, maybe write some letters, maybe even take a trip to see whatever sights were left on the island. The fighting had been fierce once the troops had gotten inland, but there were still some fairly pristine areas. The towns were rubble, mostly, but he'd heard there were some castles or something along the southern coast.
There was about an hour left until they reached base. Tim's mind wandered, wondering what Okinawa, and Japan, had been like before the war. Were they peaceful? Was there any sign of the violence coming so soon? Pete interrupted. "Hey, Tim, heard anything more about the Tokyobuster?"
Tim had heard of a superbomb that was supposed to stop the war in a week, but apparently it had fizzled. There wasn't much talk about it anymore; one rumor was that a big test had failed, and they only had enough TNT or whatever for one bomb. There were stories the generals might use poison gas, especially since the Japs had used grenades with cyanide gas in them during the fighting on Kyushu, but nobody talked much about that either. He wondered why. How the heck could anybody hold back something like that, something that could take out a hundred of the enemy for each American soldier? It was cruel, but so was firebombing; for that matter, so was a bullet or bayonet in the gut. After the fights on Iwo, Okinawa, and Kyushu, everything was fair. Tim had heard about the Japs who ran at tanks with bombs on the end of poles, usually dying without accomplishing anything but occasionally blowing a tread off.
When the tanks stopped, other crazies (the Jap with the pole blew his fool self up hitting the tank) would rush out and try to skewer the crew. Others slapped bomb packs on the armor, or wore the packs and threw themselves underneath the tank. Some of the tankers had cobbled up special armor: wood planks to keep the magnetic packs off, sandbags to reduce the effect of an explosion, nails or other spikes to keep the enemy from climbing on top. Some said they'd seen kids and women carrying the bombs, or rushing the infantry with sharp sticks.
Of course, they were crazy and violent in the air, too. The kamikazes had sunk dozens of ships, and other fighters rammed B-29s occasionally. There were even rocket planes, launched from ramps or dropped from Jap bombers, that were just piloted bombs, sparking and smoking as they headed toward the Navy boys. And they had motorboats with bombs in them, that tried to ram ships, and little submarines that did the same thing or snuck up and launched torpedoes. The Japanese were a very strange people. They didn't seem to think about dying. It was just their duty, to the emperor or the country or their gods or who knew what.
On Okinawa, more than a hundred thousand Japs had died, and less than ten thousand were captured. A lot of those were caught while wounded or unconscious; few gave up on purpose. On Iwo Jima, Tim had heard, only 22 Japs actually surrendered, out of six thousand killed and a few others captured. U.S. losses were pretty high, too, and no one looked forward to what would happen on the main Japanese island of Honshu. Kyushu had been bad, though no one was talking numbers. The Army and Marines were still fighting there; they had only taken the southern part of the island, enough to use for bases for the next assault, on the big island. They weren't getting much action, but they were ready for it. He'd heard stories that whole towns had been wiped out when they rushed the troops, carrying their spears and grenades.
He had to hand it to the Japs, they were persistent and patriotic. The Japanese were as good at defending their homeland as people in the U.S. would be, only less well armed and more suicidal. And the strangest thing was, once subdued, they stopped.
They were like misbehaving children, in a way. A kid would do anything it could get away with, but once discovered and punished, it usually gave in. By and large, the Japs in the occupied areas accepted the Americans now, after they knew they were beaten. Tim hoped his friends and neighbors wouldn't be so meek in the same situation, that they would have always kept fighting. Of course, he was glad that the Japs didn't.
He told Pete, "I wish they would find some damn thing to wake the Japs up and get them to give up before we have to kick every single one of their asses."
Pete replied that he couldn't wait to do some kicking of his own. "You know, it's awful boring sitting over here, Tim. All I do is plot our course and watch for bad guys.
Maybe I oughta see about getting into a 51 unit up on Kyushu."
"Well, you might get your own ass kicked by some granny with a tomato stake," Tim answered.
"Hah, hah," Pete threw back. "You're so droll."
"Tell you what," said Tim. "Next mission, if we see anything promising, you can take over for a while. Maybe you can get a couple more notches in your belt."
"Sounds great," said Pete. "Hey, we're coming up on Oki now. Let's start the landing checklist."
When they finished the checklist, Tim waited for Bartlett and his wingman to turn final, then rolled onto the base leg. Coming around behind the two planes, now spread out for landing, he slowed to 135 knots. The gear and flaps were already down, and Tim let the Twin drift past the threshold at just over 130. The mains touched about two hundred feet beyond the end of the runway, and he brought the stick back until the tailwheel thudded onto the ground. Taxiing off onto the steel plate ramp, he and Pete opened their canopies. The air was cool, for Okinawa, about seventy degrees, and the clouds had lifted.
Tim's pass was for three days. That wasn't enough time to go very far; if he could find space on a flight to Hawaii, he'd only have a day there, and all the flights were full right now with supplies coming in, and wounded soldiers and sailors going out. It happened that Pete had a day free from flying, though he was scheduled to ride shotgun with a transfer pilot the next day. So in the morning the two pilots borrowed a jeep from the motor pool and headed off to 'see the sights.' Luckily the weather was good, for this time of year: warm, and cloudy but not raining. Okinawa was a large island, very rocky and with coral reefs around it. Tim always enjoyed seeing the reefs, those that hadn't been chewed up and littered with debris during the amphibious landings. They were different colors in different places: white, pink, orange, and many other shades. The airstrips where the 45th and other squadrons were based had been built in the central and southern parts of the island, because the north end was hilly. There had been towns in the south, but most were destroyed by months of fighting.
Still, there were a few landmarks left. With Tim driving, the pair followed a road out of what was once the largest town on Okinawa, Naha, along the coast for about five miles to Urasoe Castle, a jumble of old walls that had been falling apart long before last April. They got out and walked around for a few minutes, but weren't very impressed. So they hopped back in the Jeep and drove farther, after a few miles coming to another castle, this one better preserved. There were some natives lolling along the roadside, and they came up to Tim and Pete, offering coral jewelry, and clothes and scarves made of bingata, a dyed fabric common in the area. Having seen similar wares before, the pilots smiled and shook their heads. It was almost surreal; here they'd been fighting these people a few months back, and now the place felt like one more tropical tourist haven. At least, it felt that way away from the shattered towns and metal-strewn coast. There had been desultory efforts at cleaning up the worst wreckage, and of course burial details and ordnance experts had cleared the bodies and unexploded shells away, but though the coast hadn't seen the heavy fighting (which took place farther inland,) most of the beaches were no good for swimming anyway.
Pete asked one of the locals what this place was called, and he replied "Nakagusuku Castle," in heavily accented English. "Show round? Show round?" he asked.
"No, thanks, we'll walk around ourselves," Pete smiled. Disappointed, the man went back to working bits of coral into a necklace.
Ambling toward the walls of the fortress, Tim asked Pete when he was due for a leave. "Next month, I think. I'm gonna try to get to Manila, see what's new there." He had been based there before the landings on Okinawa, and though the city had seen its share of fighting, he never stopped talking about the wonders of the place.
Tim had always wondered what he liked about it, and decided to ask. "Got a girl there or something?"
"Well, as a matter of fact, yeah," Pete replied. "Name's Maria. She used to do our laundry, and we'd go down to the bay or walk into the country. Cute girl. Helluva ride, too. She's probably hooked up with some other guy by now, though. Hey, how's your fiancee doing?"
Tim had a brief moment of anxiety, wondering if Sarah might be thinking about 'hooking up' with anyone else. "She's okay, I guess. Got a letter from her last week.
She's working in a plant, making parts for trucks. Not what she had in mind to be doing when she grew up, she says, but she seems to like it."
"When are you two going to get hitched?"
"Well, when I get home we're going to set the date. Prob'ly three or four months later, so we can get everything organized." Tim had known Sarah since they were freshmen in high school; she'd moved from another town, and he remembered the first time he saw the lovely new girl in her blue dress.
Pete looked at the ground. "Man, I wish I knew when we will be going home. Wonder how much longer the Japs can hold on."
"Can't take too long, I figure," Tim answered. "We've cut off their food supplies, they don't have gas or other supplies for their planes, almost all their ships are sunk...they're beat, they just don't know it yet, or won't admit it."
They walked along for a while in silence, then headed back to the jeep.
On the drive back Pete talked about going up with another pilot the next day, on a CAP mission to provide air cover to the fleet steaming north.
"I'm just going to hang around base, write some letters, and probably talk to Skipper about that trim problem," said Tim. Their plane had been pulling to the left slightly, and Tim had had to dial in a little trim to compensate. It wasn't much, but if something was bent it ought to be looked at by the crew chief, Ernie Skipton.
"Yeah, he ought to have a chance," said Pete. "Hell, there's nothing else wrong with the thing, and I'll be going up with one of the new guys in a bird they ferried in. You can remind him to paint on some more rising suns for the planes you got yesterday." Tim smiled at that.
The next morning Pete left early, rounding up a captain named Rogers from the barracks next door for the flight. Tim had breakfast at the mess, then went to the PX to get some paper for his letters. First he wrote his parents and sister, telling them he was fine.
Then he sat down in front of a blank piece of paper, wondering what he could say to Sarah. He couldn't tell her much in detail of what he was doing over here, because it would never pass the censor. So he started out, after a few sentences about how much he missed her, describing the few sights on Okinawa. He knew she would love to see it, battle-scarred and all. Until he entered the service, Tim had never been out of his New York state, and Sarah still hadn't had the chance. Sure, working in the plant in Buffalo let her see a little bit of the world, and the papers and radio helped, but actually going to a foreign place, a tropical island, would thrill her. He tried to make his words into images of the sights, the smells, the feel of the wind and the downpour of the monsoon. The last part wasn't hard, as the rain had started up again soon after Pete had left. Hopefully the mission would go okay. 'Sarah, you know how after a storm, the breeze usually feels cooler, and the air is more dry, as if the rain washed all the water and heat away? That doesn't happen here. It's hot and humid before the rain starts, and even worse after. At least this time of year it's a little cooler than the summer, but it's still warm, and so wet that it's never comfortable. Still, when it clears up, the place is very nice.'
He finished up the letter, then lazed around inside, waiting for the rain to let up. When it didn't , he threw on a poncho and ran to the mess hall for lunch. SOS, the usual chipped beef on toast, was the highlight. Things went downhill from there, taste-wise.
He stayed awhile and talked to some of the other pilots, catching up on the latest gossip. Then he trotted over to the PX again, and picked up a few books to pass the time. One, a short history of the Battle of the Bulge which had been fought more than a year before, had a cover picture that reminded him what snow looked like. The other was Mark Twain's A Tramp Abroad, one of the few Tim hadn't read by the humorist. He stuffed them under his poncho and scurried back to the barracks.
About three o'clock, tired of reading and bored, he noticed that the rain was letting up. Carrying the poncho just in case, he walked down to the flightline. Pete should be back from the flight soon, and Tim wanted to see what it had been like. After stopping by the maintenance shack to remind Skipper about the trim problem, Tim walked along the line of his squadron's P-82s, then on past the P-51Hs of the 457th. The base was huge, with planes everywhere. 51s were the most common, but there were two other Twin Mustang squadrons, some transports, a reconnaissance wing, and even a few of the new helicopters, the flimsy contraptions called eggbeaters by everyone who saw them. These were used mostly to fly VIPs around, but Tim heard they had been used to fly in supplies and even a few troops to hard to reach areas on Kyushu, and in Burma and other mountainous areas. He didn't want to go up in one; they took a very skilled hand to hold steady, and Tim didn't like the idea of a blade coming loose. In a plane, even a single-engined one, if the engine failed or threw a blade you could at least glide a fair distance. The eggbeaters had no wings; if a blade came off, you were doomed because that was all that held it up. And even a tail-rotor blade flying loose could make you spiral in. No, Tim wasn't interested in that kind of thrill. The jets, though...the gray P-80s had flown in last month, right after two C-54s with MPs on board had landed and cleared an area of the flight line. These sleek planes were faster than any fighter on either side, and they didn't even look, at first glance, as if they had engines at all. The jet was run by air pulled in the front, mixed with fuel and set on fire, and pushed out the back. Tim still didn't see exactly how it worked so well, but he ached to try one out. The Shooting Stars were so fast, so new, that he dreamed about them, dreamed of flying over Mount Fuji and shooting down anything that came up to oppose him.
Well, their pilots would have that chance soon. So far they had just been training, occasionally flying out to practice dogfighting with each other and even some of the Mustangs. But the invasion was coming, and surely the best fighters available would be put into service along with everything else.
Tim broke his stare when he heard the roar of big engines to his left.
An F-15, the recon version of the P-61 night fighter, was rolling down the runway, its massive silver shape with booms and wings spreading almost to the edges of the strip lurching a little on the pierced steel planking. It lifted off and climbed into the lowering scud. It started to rain again, a steady downpour. Suddenly a P-82 appeared out of the clouds at the opposite end of the runway and came in to land. It was one of his squadron's planes, and Tim walked back to the line shack to meet the crews. Pete and Rogers were the fifth to land, and Tim noticed that the drop tanks were still under the wings.
"How's it going, Pepe?," Pete called out.
"You ought to see all the ships we flew over. It looked like you could walk across the ocean on troopships."
"See any Japs?," Tim asked.
"Nah. Nothing. I'm telling ya, I want to get in there and flame some.
The war's going to be over before I get my own plane again."
"Okay," Tim laughed. "You'll get your chance tomorrow, if the Japs cooperate."
And they did. Flying CAP for the fleet, as Pete and Rogers had the day before, Pete and Tim were flying high cover when Tapper spotted planes low and to the left.
"Bandits, ten o'clock low! Tons of 'em!" He was right. It looked like a kamikaze attack, with dozens of planes clumped together, surrounded by fighters providing cover. Colonel Frantz called out, "Break and engage!"
Tim told Pete, "You got it," over the intercom, and Pete flashed a thumbs up. He punched off the drop tanks, and heeled the plane over hard left in a steep dive. Tim was amazed to see Pete fly this way. Sure, he had been in 51s and was used to throwing planes around, but since Tim had been flying with him he had only seen Pete fly as a relief pilot, sometimes handling the landing. Tim felt guilty, now, for not letting Pete have a chance to really fly more often.
The Japanese fighters saw the group of Americans closing in on their charges, and peeled off to intercept. Tonys, from the look of them: long, pointed nose, mottled green camouflage. Tim tried to relax and let Pete fly, but it was hard not being in control.
He swiveled his head to check behind them. It was so easy to get caught up in chasing your target, and not notice another plane coming up on your six o'clock. At least the 82 had room for two sets of eyes. He saw the rest of the squadron, spread out in pairs, heading toward the enemy formation. Turning back, he saw the Tonys climbing to meet them, and then tried to find the bombers again. They were the important thing here: if they got through to the fleet, they could cause tremendous damage and death. Tim didn't envy the sailors, sitting almost motionless on huge targets, waiting to get hit by a lucky kamikaze, hoping the AA guns and fighters kept the Japs far away. At least up here you could chase after your adversary. Squinting, Tim made out the formation low and to the left rear, heading steadily on toward the ships. They looked like Peggys, but with no turrets. And there seemed to be long, pointed antennae sticking out from their dark green noses. Some kind of radar? Who could tell? But the lack of turrets suggested to him that they might have been removed to make room for explosives. Lately the Japs had taken to stuffing planes with dynamite, not just hanging bombs beneath them and crashing into the ships. Piloted bombs was all they were now. It was sick.
Pete cranked the plane hard left, and Tim hoped their wingman wasn't in the way. Tapper was off above them, though, angling for one of the lead Tonys. The "Double Exposure" --actually, the "Tail Wind," Tim corrected himself, now that Pete was flying-banked hard right now, and Tim felt the bottom drop out as Pete pushed over and dove, almost straight toward the enemy formation. Lining up on one of the Tonys on the right edge, Pete fired. Tim felt the plane shudder, and watched the tracers arc slightly as Pete walked the rounds onto the Tony. It seemed to jump, then pieces of the tail came off, and it whipped around in a spiral to the right, out of control.
Tim didn't have a chance to watch for it to hit, or see if there was a chute. Pete rolled left, and lined up on another Tony. Tracers whizzed by the canopy, over Tim's head. One of the other Japs was shooting at them, but Tapper blasted it a second later, apparently hitting its fuel tanks because it disappeared in a ball of smoke and flame. Pete was driving down on another one, whose pilot was jinking and diving as he turned away. As the Tony pulled hard left, Pete let the guns loose, and caught the Japanese plane in the wing and fuselage. It heeled over and dove straight down. Tim watched it splash into the ocean, as Pete rolled inverted and pulled through in an Immelman turn, reversing course. Looking up when they returned to level, Tim saw a chaotic dogfight, a mix of 82s and Tonys, all turning and climbing and diving to get the edge on their adversaries. The Tonys were getting the worst of it, although he saw one silver Twin Mustang break off with flames coming from its left engine. Two Tonys dropped out of the fight after it, hoping for an easy mark. "Break left!" Tim screamed into the intercom. "Two bandits, eight o'clock!"
Pete rolled toward them, and another Twin flashed past in that direction as well. Catching sight of the "Thunderbird" Malloy and Siegel had painted on their bird, Tim wished them luck. They continued their own pursuit; while there were two pilots in each P-82, you could still only shoot down one plane at a time, and Tapper had disappeared during the first part of the dogfight. "Thunderbird's" wingman was gone, too, probably chasing one of the stragglers. They took the lead Tony on the wounded 82's tail, and followed as it broke off. The other one stayed on, though, gaining on the now smoking bird.
Tim yelled at Pete. "Come on! Let's get him!" Pete climbed a little, to avoid hitting the American plane with a burst at the Tony. As he pitched over to line up, the Tony let loose a volley of cannon and machine gun fire at the now descending P-82. It ripped into the left wing, breaking off a chunk of the tip and mangling the aileron. The silver American plane rolled to the left, barely under control. Tim saw the pilot drop the flaps to slow down, getting ready to bail out. The Tony closed, ready to finish off its opponent. Luckily Pete was in position now, and as Tim watched the 82's canopies slide back and the Tony line up, Pete triggered the six .50s in the center section. First the Tony's cowling exploded into dozens of pieces.
Then the canopy shattered, and the rear fuselage came apart as the concentrated fire tore into it. The Tony suddenly broke apart in mid-air. Pete pulled up to miss the debris. The Twin Mustang's crew had bailed out and were settling toward the rolling water.
Tim was already on the radio to air-sea rescue. "Dumbo control, Dumbo control, this is Panama four. Two pilots down, approximately one-five miles southwest of the fleet. Request assistance."
"Roger that, Panama. Help is on the way."
Tim was glad they were so close to the fleet. At least if you got waxed, you didn't have to float around forever waiting for rescue. Also, it meant that the Navy's flyboys were around to help out too. He saw a flight of Tigercats, the new twin-engine Grumman, heading north to intercept another kamikaze attack. That meant one of the big carriers, like the Midway or FDR, was out here with the other flattops. The Tigercat needed a long deck to get into the air.
Pete was angling back toward the bomber formation, which was now only a dozen miles or so from the fleet. They didn't have much time to down the Peggys before they started their attack. Tim braced himself as Pete firewalled the throttle and angled toward the bombers. He counted at least twenty of the ominous, dark green twins. Looking over his shoulder he saw a few 82s mixing it up with the remaining Tonys, but most of the squadron was now following "Tail Wind." They closed up and reorganized themselves into flights as much as possible.
Tapper reappeared off their left wing. "Where did you get to?," Tim called to him.
"I had a little fling with one of them Tonys," Tapper replied. "He tried to knock on my back door, but I wouldn't let him in. Had to rough him up a bit."
"You're a pervert, Tap," Pete laughed. "Now pull it in, and let's get these bastards."
Pete dropped his nose and swooped toward the Peggys, opening fire as he came within about three hundred yards. He flew across the formation at an angle, from the left rear to right front corner, firing almost continually. The others followed him, and then each doubled back for another pass. The Peggys slogged determinedly toward the fleet, not trying to evade the 82s racing back and forth above them; with nowhere to go, and no turrets to defend themselves, the medium bombers simply tried to get through the storm of bullets. But one by one they dropped out of formation, crashing into the water, or fireballed as the American fire hit their explosive-laden fuselages. Tim, basically along for the ride, counted as they were destroyed. Eighteen of the Peggys went in, leaving only three headed for the fleet. The Twin Mustangs pulled off then, unhappy about not finishing them off, but knowing that they had to skedaddle before the sailors started throwing a wall of lead up around the ships. The Navy boys weren't too concerned about what was flying towards them, just that it didn't come near, and they were known to knock down American planes that got too close in the heat of battle.
Almost out of ammunition, and reaching bingo fuel, the 82s formed up and headed back to Okinawa. The Navy's planes could handle the rest of the fight. Tim took over from Pete, who was worn out from the work of the battle. He almost wished they could land on one of the carriers they passed as they flew south, because he hated the long trip home.
He counted four, plus the Midway-class he figured was out there somewhere. And the Brits had some boats out here too, because he saw a patrol of Seafires and Avengers circling, probably waiting to spot survivors from any ships that got hit, or watching for the Japanese suicide boats that had appeared during the battle for Okinawa. Small motorboats with big bombs inside, these were easy to pick off, but if they came in all at once, one or two might get through. Tim decided he didn't want to be on a carrier that much after all.
After landing and debrief, Tim and Pete wandered over to the O Club to get a drink. They ran into a group of pilots from the 46th squadron. Benny Weisman, a huge dark-haired copilot, stumbled over. Their sister squadron's crews had been here awhile, from the smell of beer on his breath. "Hey, youse guys had a helluva day. We saw you working over that Jap bomber fleet, galloping back and forth like a bunch of wild horses. How many did you get?"
"Pete got three of the bombers, and three Tonys earlier. Guess I ought to let him out of the cage more often, right Pete?" Tim smiled.
"Well," said Pete. "I guess I don't mind showing you how it's done once in a while. Maybe you could learn something."
"Hah, hah. Very amusing."
The banter went on for a few minutes, then Benny raised his glass. "To the 45th, the Wild Horses who sent eighteen kamikazes to wherever the Japs go after they die.
May you always have a sturdy plane, sunny skies, and good hunting. Cheers!"
"Cheers!" The toast went around the room, and Tim decided things didn't get much better than this: happy, loud pilots after a good flight.
The next day was damp and cloudy, and Tim woke late, his head feeling like there was a vacuum inside. Luckily they weren't scheduled to fly until after noon. He walked outside to clear his head, then back in to clean up and write a couple of letters. At 1030 he met Pete for lunch at the mess, and they went to the briefing afterwards. Colonel Frantz started off by congratulating them for the mission yesterday. "Things went really well. Let's keep it that way. I have some news from the fleet. The Peggys we couldn't get were all downed by AA from the destroyers. However, another attack to the north slipped through the Navy's screen. A formation of Bettys with Bakas under them hit the fleet, sinking the Oriskany and severely damaging one of her escorts. The Japs still have plenty of fight left in them, so be on the ball. We're off the fleet run for today, though. The mission is escorting B-29s to Hiroshima, where the intel boys suspect the Japanese are gathering suicide boats for a massive attack. They will be bombing the waterfront and rivers, hell, most of the town, because of the way it's laid out. Hiroshima sticks out into Hiroshima bay. It looks sort of like a hand out in the water, and a river cuts across it in several places. We don't expect much fighter activity, but watch for flak over the target. After the 29s are through, our squadron will be released to search for targets of opportunity, especially the boats, while the 46th escorts the bombers back to Oki." Though most of the bomb groups were still based on islands to the east, some had moved to Okinawa, on other fields that surrounded the one the 45th was based at. Tim wondered if this meant the fighters would be moved up to Kyushu, to give them more range for the final invasion. You never could tell in the army, with all the rumors and secrecy.
After returning to their barracks to get some equipment, Tim and Pete walked out to the flightline. "You know, you can have it this time, Tim. Doesn't sound too exciting."
"Gee, thanks," Tim replied sarcastically. "Don't let yesterday go to your head. The bombers were sitting ducks...although you did do a damn good job on the Tonys."
"Thanks," Pete said. "Anyway, I know how you like shooting up stuff on the ground. Sounds like we might get a chance today."
"Yeah." They did a walkaround and read off each item on the checklist, then climbed up to their cockpits and strapped in. The ground crew performed some final checks, then backed off. Pete read the engine start checklist, and Tim's hands followed each step.
Flaps up, carb air in "ram," trim, fuel, magnetos, props, throttles, starters...The two Merlins roared to life, the propellers spinning as more checks were carried out. Finally Tim signaled to Skipper to pull the chocks, and returned the sergeant's salute as he advanced the throttles to pull away.
On the taxiway behind Major Bartlett and his wingman, Tim tested the controls and ran up the engines as he did before every flight, checking the oil pressures, mags, and rpms among other things. Bartlett rolled down the strip, Jones on his wing, Tim turned onto the runway and let Tapper take his position. Formation takeoffs were work, especially for the wingman, but they cut the time to launch a whole squadron almost in half. Once airborne, each flight formed up on the lead, and the 45th entered a holding pattern until the 46th got into the air as well. Then the formation headed east to join up with the slower B-29s that were already in the air.
They headed north toward Shikoku, following the same path as on the mission to Okayama. But instead of turning northeast after crossing Cape Ashizuri, they headed north-northwest, to come over Hiroshima from the south, seaward side. It was only one hundred miles from the cape, less than twenty minutes flying time. As they passed over the Inland Sea, between Shikoku and the main island, Tim and Pete armed the guns and dropped the gas tanks under the wings. Ready for action, the squadron spread out around the 29s as they crossed some small islands in the bay. No fighters had been sighted, but better to be ready. Besides, Tim thought, if the Japanese are aiming their flak at the 29s, the farther away we are, the better.
It started just before they reached the city. Small brown-black puffs reached slowly higher, trying to find them. Suddenly the sky erupted with flak all around the formation, and Tim saw a B-29 explode in a storm of fire. The other bombers dropped their payloads almost simultaneously, and he wondered briefly if they had reached their aiming point, or just dumped the bombs to avoid their companion's fate. He put the thought out of his mind as he climbed with the rest of the squadron, trying to avoid the shells. Frantz called for a turn to the west, as the bombers and the other Twin Mustang squadron veered off to the southeast.
Starting a steep dive, the Colonel ordered a general search for the boats, and every flight went off on its own. "Rendezvous at Cape Ashizuri at 1500 hours," Frantz added. Tim turned north, trying to put some distance between his plane and the city. He noticed nobody else had headed back that way either; though the suicide boats were likely to be along docks near the bay, no one wanted to fly through that flak again.
He and Tapper headed along the Ota river, following it and looking for anything promising. After about ten minutes, Tapper called out that he saw a factory, and veered toward it. They were supposed to stay together in flights, but both pilots preferred to hunt alone, and there didn't seem to be any opposition out here in the country. Tim kept weaving along the river.
About five minutes later, the river entered - or rather, left, because he was flying upstream - a gorge, its steep rocky walls rising from the swift stream. Pete yelled, "Boats in the river! Just below the gorge!"
There they were: dozens of small, wooden motorboats, each big enough for one crewmember and a ton or so of explosives. Tim wondered if he should be surprised that they were so far upstream; surely it made sense for the Japs to hide them away from the obvious dock areas of Hiroshima. No time to ponder that; they were already flashing by below, and Tim pulled up and left to make a strafing pass.
Just then tracers whizzed by his cockpit, and Pete called out again.
"AA guns, seven o'clock! Let's hit them first."
"Right," answered Tim. He continued to yank the plane around, losing speed in the tight turn, as Pete radioed Tapper and the others about their find. As the nose of the big fighter settled on the clump of trees where the fire had originated, Tim depressed the gun trigger on his stick. The six fifties tore into the brush and leaves, and a small explosion, probably ammo, popped off amidst the dust. The anti-aircraft guns ceased firing, and Tim pulled right a little to line up on the boats lying along the banks. They had been covered with netting and branches, but still stood out as man-made, strung beside each other. Tim fired again, and there was a series of satisfying fireballs as the boats erupted, each prematurely-detonated bomb hopefully saving a Navy ship and her men.
Another set of explosions off to the left announced Tapper's presence.
He broke onto the radio net with a shout and announced that he had shot up some kind of factory down the river, and seen people scattering from it like ants.
Both pilots pulled up after their runs and circled for another pass.
Tapper dove in and raked the boats again, and as he pulled off Tim rolled in. The air ahead turned black-grey, and an instant later he felt the plane jerk. Flak! This was bigger than the earlier gunfire, and just as Tim jinked to present a harder target, another burst blossomed off the right wing. He felt a pull to the right, and noticed with a heavy feeling in his gut that the right engine was smoking, the power loss causing the plane to veer to that side. Then he noticed the holes.
Pete's canopy was shattered in several places, and jagged holes marked where pieces of the AA shell had carved through the metal skin of the plane.
"Pete, what's the damage like?," Tim called over the intercom. "Pete?"
Maybe the intercom was out. Maybe...but Pete's head was slumped against the side of the canopy, and he didn't seem to be conscious. Tim looked away as he jammed the left Merlin's throttle forward, pressed in more left rudder to counteract the torque, and pulled back on the stick. Tapper was on the radio, talking about strafing the new gun site, but Tim ignored him.
"Pete? Answer me!" Nothing.
He keyed the radio. "Tapper, I have engine damage, and Pete's not answering. I'm going to head for the sea."
"Roger," his wingman replied. "How bad is the engine?" "Can't tell, but I'm losing oil pressure," Tim said. "I'm going to feather it. Where's the nearest base?"
"Hang on." Tapper's rightseater, Jim Murphy, was probably checking.
"Probably Nobeoka, on the east coast of Kyushu," Tapper answered. "It's about a hundred miles.
Can you make it?"
"Yeah, sure," Tim said. "The left engine's okay, and I have good control. I hope Pete can wait, though."
"That's the best we can do...get it going as fast as you can, and we'll guide you there," Tapper stated. Tim was thankful for that. With Pete unable to navigate, Tim would have to rely on his own map, and he hadn't looked at it in a few weeks. There hadn't seemed any need. Now, he was very interested in what lay between him and Nobeoka.
Slowly he increased the throttle, until the airspeed indicator read two hundred and eighty knots. "I don't want to take it much faster," Tim told Tapper. "The torque is pretty strong, and I need to hold it hard over as it is."
"Roger. Should take about twenty, twenty five minutes, according to Murph." Tapper was on his right, now, checking out the damage. "You have some nasty holes, and there's oil all over the cowling," he reported. "I can't tell how Pete's doing, because the canopy is crazed."
"Roger that," said Tim. "Just get us down as fast as you can." They flew on for five minutes, then veered slightly southeast to avoid overflying the still Japanese-held northern end of Kyushu. Flying down the Bungo Strait, Tim noticed that it was empty of ships; the Navy and Army Air Force had mined it to restrict Japanese resupply efforts. Coming to the open ocean they turned back to the southwest, and Tapper called Nobeoka control to report their emergency. Receiving clearance to land, the pair of Twin Mustangs cut north briefly, then turned almost due south on a straight-in approach to the single runway at the advance strip.
Closing in on it, Tim wondered if the dirt strip would be long enough for the heavy, fast-landing P-82. He lowered the flaps and gear, going over the checklist in his head briskly. Pulling the throttle back as much as he dared, he saw Tapper shoot past on his left, then pull into a steep climb.
"Hold on, buddy," he muttered into the intercom. "This is going to be bumpy, but we'll be down soon."
As the silver plane crossed the end of the strip Tim pulled the throttle back even more, and raised the twin noses to flare. "Double Exposure" settled onto the hard earth with a jolt, and Tim held the stick hard back while applying the foot brakes. The plane started to pull to the right, into he dead engine, and he had to let off on the right brake. As he straightened things out, the 82 rolled to a stop in a cloud of dust, which was added to by several crash rescue trucks and jeeps rolling to a quick halt beside it.
Pushing his canopy back, Tim pointed to the other cockpit and yelled for the medics to help Pete. They clambered up on the far side as Tim jumped onto the center section and rushed to the canopy, trying to open it. "Back off, captain. We'll get him out.
You're just in the way." The corpsman was concentrating on Pete, and Tim glumly lowered himself off the back of the wing, went under the tail, and stood back by the crash trucks as Pete was hoisted from the cockpit and carried on a stretcher to another truck, an ambulance. It sped away, and Tim was left wondering what to do next. A corporal walked up to him, and offered Tim a ride to the line shack. "We don't get many 82s here," he said. "Mostly we get the little stuff. How does she fly?" "Like an eagle...on two engines, anyway." Tim didn't feel like talking, but he asked the soldier about conditions up here, on the edge of the front. "Well, it's quieted down some," the tall New Englander replied, "but the Japs're still doing their crazy stuff, sending kids to jump under tanks and trucks, pretending to surrender then setting off a grenade when they get close. To tell you the truth, sir, we don't take prisoners anymore. The few Japs we see, we shoo 'em away, or shoot 'em if they come too close. Can't take any chances." He dropped Tim off at the line shack, then scooted back to the plane, which was being prepared for towing.
Tim waited around the edge of the strip for almost an hour, until the corporal came back. "We got your plane over by the maintenance shack, there. Looks like it'll need some work. New engine, lots of patches, and a new canopy, at least," he opined.
"Yeah," Tim responded.
The corporal continued. "They'll send somebody else to fly it out when it's fixed. Talked to the lieutenant, and he says you got orders to catch a flight out of Kagoshima back to Oki. Next supply truck should be here in three or four hours, and you can ride it down there."
"Okay. Thanks," Tim said.
"Your buddy didn't make it. Doc said he was dead when he got here, but they tried anyway."
"I'm sure they did. Tell them thanks for me, will ya?"
"Sure. Want a cup of coffee? That's all we got in the way of hot food; mostly we eat C rations, unless we got an excuse to go to Miyazaki or Kagoshima for somethin'."
"No, thanks," Tim replied. "Let me know when that truck gets here, though."
The NCO walked away. Tim sat for a minute, then got up and walked down the edge of the strip to the maintenance shack. It was a long, low corrugated steel hut, open at both ends. "Double Exposure" sat beside it, along with a P-47 and two artillery spotters, probably Taylorcrafts. He ran his hand along the smooth skin of his plane's tail, then stepped back to survey the damage on the right fuselage. Fierce-looking shards of metal stuck out from holes gouged by the flak. They peppered the area around the engine and cockpit, and there were some on the right wing, too. The engine had apparently taken a chunk of metal right through the case. Oil was everywhere, and two of the exhaust stacks were blown off.
Looking back up at the cockpit, Tim saw that Pete hadn't had a chance. The holes were right where his torso had been inside, nearly as many as along the cowling. The canopy was shattered and cracked, and Tim was amazed it had held together for the flight here. He paused. Heavy gunfire carried on the wind, telling of fighting at the front that was now about a dozen miles to the north. He sat down under the wing and closed his eyes.
He woke to the sound of a truck crunching across the dirt near the shack. Several soldiers from the truck, and two mechanics, started unloading parts and supplies from tarp-covered back. The sun was setting, and Tim walked over to watch.
"Where ya been?," one of the mechanics asked the driver.
"You know damn well where I've been," he replied. "Runnin' junk around for your boys. Now it's so late I can't get back home."
"What do you mean, sergeant?," Tim asked.
"Well, sir, we can't drive after dark. General's orders. Too many snipers and saboteurs still around." Tim was disappointed. Now he'd have to spend the night here.
The corporal fixed him up with a cot in the barracks. He didn't have anything except the clothes on his back, so a locker wasn't a problem. Cool air flowed into the building, though a wood stove had been set up to provide heat. He needed a shower, but didn't want to subject himself to the only available water: it was in a raised tank alongside the barracks, with gravity feed for something resembling running water, and, sitting outside, it was surely frigid. He laid down on the cot without taking off his boots, and was quickly asleep again.
In the morning the driver roused him, and they got coffee at the line shack. Taking on some letters from the soldiers, a few aircraft parts sent south for reconditioning, and Pete's body, the truck lurched onto the dirt road to Kagoshima. The driver, another corporal, named Steve McCallister, had come to Kyushu right after the beachheads had been secured last fall. "They pulled the LST right up on the beach near Kushima and we just drove ashore.
Could hear the firing just inland. Wasn't much of a beach; lots of crags and caves, and I guess the Marines had a helluva time clearing the Japs out of those. My unit was carrying 155 shells, and we had to work our way up to the batteries, unload, and get the hell out while they were firing and all. It was rough for a while." He pulled out a little pistol; it looked vaguely like the famous German Luger. "Got this off a dead Jap officer when we stopped at a burned-out village for lunch. It's a Nambu. Pretty thing, but don't fire worth a damn. The Nip was leading a charge of old women, all of 'em holding pointed sticks. Sticks! Back then I'd never seen a body before, and I puked when I saw all those old ladies. Couldn't eat anything." A flight of Corsairs roared overhead, on some unknown mission. "After that, though, it got so common that I just ignore 'em," the driver continued. "Damn Japs used up every single person on this island, trying to fight us. I guess there's a few still up north, and there's the snipers, but we pound the hell out of the place every so often just to keep them in their holes."
The truck came to an intersection, and an MP in jungle camouflage waved them to a stop.
"Howdy Fergie," Steve called. "Got stuck overnight."
"Yeah, I figured. Sir," he nodded to Tim. "Go on through. Can you pick me up some Coke on your next trip?"
"Sure," Steve answered. He put the truck in gear and pulled away.
"Always stay on the right side of the cops, I always say," he said to Tim, grinning. Tim smiled.
"Anyway," Steve went on, "the Japs put up a helluva fight. They didn't give up till they were dead.
And now we gotta do it again, on the big island. I hear they were gonna surrender, but then some hardhead officers killed the government and made sure the civilians were ready to keep fighting." The truck eased over onto the shoulder, as a convoy approached from the other direction.
Several Shermans led the way. Following the M-4s came a few Alligators, tracked amphibious carriers that were used to haul troops and supplies. Then there were some M-3 half-tracks, and half a dozen 4-ton trucks like the one Tim was in. All were filled with troops, who waved as they passed. Tim and Steve waved back, then pulled onto the road. It was only fifty miles or so from the airstrip to Kagoshima, but the trip took more than three hours. They passed several more convoys, and many burned-out vehicles, both U.S. and Japanese: tanks, jeeps, 3/4 ton trucks with rocket launchers mounted in back, artillery tractors...the only Japanese ones were a few trucks and light tanks, frail things that hadn't stood a chance in the path of the numerous American Shermans and Pershings. Planes continued to fly overhead, sweeping the area for holdouts or going north to strike whatever was left to strike at.
About noon they reached Kagoshima, the main U.S. base on Kyushu. The town had been obliterated in the fighting, but everywhere buildings and hangars sprouted like new grass in the spring. Airfields were scattered around Kagoshima Bay, and a fair number of ships lay at anchor. Most of the bigger ones were laying off the coast, or moving north, Tim knew. But many smaller ones were here: destroyers, transports, oilers, LSTs and LSDs.
The sheer number of ships and planes, and amount of supplies stacked everywhere, told him the invasion must be near. He thought about what he had seen, and what it would be like in the months ahead, when the invasion force struck at the heart of Japan. A lot of people would die: more pilots, hundreds of thousands of soldiers on both sides, and untold numbers of Japanese civilians. Tim saddened at the thought that Pete's death counted for very little, in the big scheme of things. He had been a friend, and Tim felt partly responsible for his death. If they hadn't been chasing up the river like that...
Steve swung off the main road and onto one of the airfields, a bustling transport facility. C-47s and C-54s were lined up to one side of the runway, and a steady stream arrived and departed. Tim got out at the operations center, and thanked Steve. "No problem, sir. Had to come here anyway to drop off the mail. And, don't worry, your copilot will be taken care of." The truck rumbled away. Tim regretted that he couldn't help bury Pete, but his orders were to report to Okinawa as soon as possible. There were plenty of experienced burial details around here, Tim knew. He looked on the board and found the next flight to Okinawa, a cargo trip on an old C-47 that had been an Eastern DC-3 before the war. He introduced himself to the crew and took a seat on a box in back.
As the ex-civilian plane took off and headed south, Tim found himself wondering what tomorrow would bring, and thinking about that superbomb the rumors talked about. What would have happened if it had worked? What if they got it to work now? All he wanted was for the war to be over, so he could go home to Sarah, maybe get a job with an airline so he could keep flying. When would that be?
Conceived 1993 or so; main body written April 11th to May 8th 1995.
Copyright 1995 Mark Knapp.
To say this story is influenced by Douglas Adams would be to say that water is damp.
A small bird stretched its wings and gently landed between a few cows on a pasture. One cow turned its head while rechewing the grass. The bird picked between some blades of grass in the ground a few times and eventually a worm appeared in its mouth. The bird didn't swallow, but kept the worm firmly in its beak, then flew off to its nest. It was very hungry, but still it didn't eat the worm. It had to yield it to its wife which could then feed it to their kids. Suddenly an enlightening thought struck our little hero. Why bother? Why not eat the worm and fly away, far from wife, kids, nests and complex tax regulations?
And so it did.
After flying for several hours, eating a worm here and there and chatting a bit with church bells, which have the pleasant habit of never argueing with anybody, it landed on the branch of a tree. An exceptionally large and solid tree, one might add. A tree that was truly magnificent and one of a kind.
Within a few attoseconds, the tree changed from a vertical into a horizontal position. This remarkable situation was caused by a rather squarely built man whose rather squarely built and utterly insignificant mind was far too busy producing pictures of a girl so immensely beautiful that even a Vogon captain would stop his plans involving the demolition of the earth to make way for a new hyperspace bypass.
Sure, he'd been in love before. Loucynda, Penelope, Klarine. He had lost his mind then, but this was different. The feeling that possessed his body and soul now was so incredibly strong and powerful that whole worlds seemed to explode. Millions of huge green slimy creatures were killing other huge green slimy creatures, but Cronos didn't know and didn't care.
Cronos walked. He didn't smell. He didn't hear. He didn't taste. He didn't see. He didn't feel. Not even did he sense the small bird that had the misfortune of having a rather rectangular piece of mobile meat squashing its body from three into two dimensions.
Cronos had solemly sworn not to fall in love ever again. Loucynda had betrayed him with a blacksmith, Penelope had died on him, and Klarine had merely driven him to jumping off the edge of a ravine into a bowl of honey - the results of which we all know. But common sense had been knocked out from the very moment a certain female had beaten him. Warchild, Cronos, mercenary annex hired gun, the extraordinarilyy strong and effective assassin, had been beaten by a girl. Still he would give his life for her at any time, he would even clean the excrements of a Mutant Maxi Mega Monster of Multifizzic Omega for the mere permission of being allowed to kiss her feet. He would blow up the planet Sucatraps. He would kill his mother for a mere glimps of her eyes.
Cronos was lost.
The girl meant here, of course, is called Fam. Fam entered the intergalactic history books as being the first female ever (that means past and future) to whom an issue of the I.G.C.O.A.K.A.N.K.S.A.H.J. (Inter Galactic Compendium Of All Known And Not Known Science And Hamburger Joints) had been dedicated. This had started vicious protests as people feared that the serious image of the Compendium would be violated. The article in the Compendium describes her as the 'Ultimate Combination Of Molecules'. Cronos had never heard of the Compendium, but this didn't affect his feelings towards her, nor the feelings of the rest of the male organisms in the entire universe.
Cronos sat on a tree stump. His eyes gazed dazily at nothing. His hands rested between his legs and his expression seemed to represent thousands of thoughts in a second. A red heart appeared above his head. He was chewing on a straw, absent-mindedly.
Fam sat beside a waterfall. Waterdrops covered her body, the sun shone on her beautiful hair, female salmons were hitting their drooling husbands and birds dropped out of the sky. It was all very peaceful and quiet.
Fam was staring at her fingernails intensely. With relief she discovered that she hadn't scratched any of them during the fight with a rather rectangular figure. Not bad-looking either, now that she came to think of it. Well, never mind. She'd probably never see him again. And besides, he had probably forgotten her already. Nobody ever seemed to like her. Really like her. That's why she had never had a serious relationship uptil now. Nobody ever seemed to notice her. That had always been her problem in life.
But then, there were a lot of girls who were much prettier than she was, right? Fam looked at her body and sighed. Still, she was probably much more intelligent than other, pretty girls. There aren't many women who have 42 degrees from the very best of educational institutions throughout the universe. Strange enough, though, it didn't seem to be difficult at all. While other students were studying like freaks, Fam would go and take a hamburger. But this didn't affect her grades. Of course, the teachers at the intergalactic universities were all men, but this was merely a coincidence, she figured.
The building had a lovely baroque structure. Cronos loved buildings with a lovely baroque structure. The building had a small, heart-shaped door. It was pink. Cronos loved pink, heart-shaped doors. In fact, there were very few things he didn't like at the moment. He squeezed his body through the door and looked around in the entrance hall.
It was a neat, clean building. People in white coats were chasing people in green coats. A robot was strangling someone, apparently because he hadn't payed a quarter for using the bathroom. More people with white coats and dark glasses were concentrating on data, probably that of clients.
Someone who looking insanely witty passed the scene.
Some lovely lilacs illustrated the whole thing. Cronos loved lilacs.
Cronos adapted his usual behaviour, acting instead of thinking, and thus headed for the blonde female with dark glasses who seemed to be the receptionist. Her round, wooden desk stood right in the centre of the room, left and right of it stood two palm trees (yes, Cronos also loved the palm trees). Her desk was equipped with a fax, a phone (in the shape of a battery charger) and a battery charger (in the shape of a phone). Cronos put his elbows on top of the desk and bent slightly forward to have a good look at her face. A smile appeared on his face when he discovered that she wasn't even remotely as pretty and delicately-shaped as Fam. The woman behind the desk returned his smile, taking it as a compliment.
"How may I be of service, sir?" she inquired.
Cronos sighed, caught once more in the vicious circle of thoughts concerning the big F. The woman behind the counter again took this as a compliment and waited patiently, smiling vigorously.
A cold scream intruded Cronos' train of thoughts. He peered around to notice that a witty looking person had lost the fight with a toilet robot. He turned towards the woman. The little piece of paper pinned on her clothes told him that her name was Natascha.
"Yes, Natascha, as a matter of fact you can," he informed her.
Women are always very pleased when men remember their names, especially if they've never told them their names. Thinking of the fact that her name could be read by impudently looking at her left breast was not required when applying for the job, so she fanatically didn't. It was not required, either, to be utterly charmed by a handsome male requiring some information, but she was nevertheless. She gave Cronos a waiting look.
"You see, there is this certain female I fancy and now I'd like to sign up for one of your courses to enlarge my self confidence," he told her.
The smile on her face evaporated.
"Well, sir, go to the left, through the entrance hall and FLUSH YOURSELF DOWN THE TOILET!" she cried.
Cronos, being in the mood he was in now, thanked her politely and went on his way. First he used the toilet, turned some naggin' robot into a few balls to play jeu de boules with and finally he arrived at a door with a sign saying, "Mentally-stable executive office". He was about to open the door when somebody on the other side opened it for him, who exclaimed, "Thank you again, sir. Now I'm not afrain anymore that my hard disk will crash."
Cronos entered the office.
The office was neat and clean, just like the whole building. Nice, large windows allowed people to look at other big buildings with large windows. Executives could then wave at colleague executives when they had nothing better to do. The idea of all this erupted from the mind of a brilliant physician who had nothing to do all day and decided to take advantage of other people who had nothing to do all day. He advised all executives to install large windows in their offices to catch more sunlight while working. Every executive, pretending to be immensely busy all day, immediately ordered large windows to be installed. The Terraleaguan Pronto Window Company (owned by the physicians's wife) did some great business. Then the physician advised the executives to wave at colleague executives when they had nothing to do, in order to get some exercise. This resulted in long waiting lists for people who wanted their physicians to cure injuries resembling, but not quite identical to, tennis arms.
The executive smiled at Cronos, while tapping on a hard disk.
"Yes, I just helped someone who was afraid that his hard disk might crash. Now he isn't afraid of that any more," he explained while putting the thing on top of other hard disks, typewriters, televisions, computers and toilet brushes.
Cronos looked at the executive and then out of the window.
"I'm sorry," he said, "but I think that fellow is waving at you."
"Oh yes, so he is," the executive replied and started waving back frenettically at the man. Suddenly he produced a loud cry and grabbed his right elbow.
"Shit, f*@k, hell & verdoemenis," he cursed and rushed past Cronos through the door. Cronos walked to the door and looked into the corridor, but the executive was nowhere to be seen. Warchild shrugged his shoulders and walked towards Natascha's desk again.
"...s, with huge muscles and nice eyes," Cronos heard, "He must have an infinite libido, I..., I...ehrm...I'll call you back, bye!"
Natascha hung up the phone and looked at Cronos akwardly.
"Executive left," Cronos muttered.
"What?" she said.
"I said 'Executive left'," Cronos muttered.
"Oh, he's probably off to visit his physician again," she uttered, "Damn, the fifth time today already. Ehm, sorry, what was it you came here for?"
Fam opened the door and walked in. The room was crowded. People tried to stand in line, but failed in an almost impossible way. People chatted, smoked, jumped, nauseated, screamed, laughed, cried, burped, farted and totally ignored a small man with a large, red tie informing them about all the uses and joys they would undoubtedly receive if they would go and queue up. A man turned his head towards Fam. He stopped chatting, smoking and the rest and started standing there completely baffled. Other people also turned their heads and stood completely baffled.
Within a couple of femto-seconds a total absence of noise befell the crowd. Every single living and non-living organism stood there baffled, intensely gazing at Fam. She closed the door. A 'click' noise echoed through the room and died. Fam turned around and noticed the crowd gazing, completely baffled. She looked around to see what they were gazing at. She saw nothing. She looked through the window in the door and still saw nothing to be utterly excited about. Fam decided to let the people gaze at whatever they were gazing at and head towards the counter.
The people at the counter shrunk away from her, mumbling, "We are not worthy."
"Oh oh," Fam thought, "I should have used that other perfume."
She looked across the counter and saw the only woman in the room.
"Ehm, excuse me?" Fam said, "is this where one can get a job?"
"Yes, my child," the heavily made-up old lady told her.
"Usually this is strictly for men," she continued, "The office for women is on the other side of the building. But I think in this case we can make an exception." Her eyes gazed at the crowd behind her.
"We were looking for a strong man to tame some untameable wild beasts, but I think you have just the qualities we were looking for," she finished.
Fam was very pleased that someone finally seemed to be glad that she existed. In fact she was so glad that she forgot that any wild beasts had been mentioned and gladly accepted the job.
Cronos jumped high up in the air and reached for the monster's neck. He reached the long, slippery neck and held on tight to it. The monster fiercely moved his head up and down, trying to remove its enemy while Cronos was jamming his megaturbulently gigantic butter knife deep into the flesh. He slid down a bit, but held the butter knife in the flesh, and dark-purple blood dripped from the a gaping cut.
The monster groaned and roared loudly. It started to run. Cronos climbed on its back and quickly cut another deep hole. He reached in his pocket and grabbed a small thing and in one swift movement stuck it in the hole. Then Cronos jumped high up in the air and grabbed the branch of a tree. He climbed on top of it and watched the monster run away from him, still roaring fiercely. He took a leaf and cleaned the blood from his butter knife. His eyebrows lowered and an evil grim slid on his face. So, his trained killer ant would take care of it now.
The ant would produce a tiny amount of acid which would go through the wound into the monster's veins. The acid would hitch a ride from the beast's blood and spread all through the monster's system. The ant had been trained to produce a kind of acid that would be lethal to creatures up to 42 cubic metres in size.
Cronos jumped out of the tree and landed on the ground. The ant would report back to him after the monster's death. Cronos would, in return, draw it a map leading to the Grand Bowl Of Honey (otherwise known as The Eternal Honeyjar) and the ant would fulfill its final quest, even if that meant jumping off some very high precipice.
His mind wandered back to the moment Natascha told him the coordinates of the planet where he could follow a course to enlarge his self-confidence.
"The planet you're looking for is called Suicidium," she had told him. When he walked out and turned around, he noticed that Natascha had reached for the phone (in the shape of a battery charger) and fanatically dialed a number, presumably of one of her girlfriends. Now this was nothing to worry about. What did worry Cronos was the evil grin she had on her face. Could it have been? No, she wouldn't.... Would she? But why would she send him to the wrong planet? Surely he hadn't done anything to hurt her, had he?
A squeecking noise.
A second squeeking noise.
Cronos awoke from his thoughts and looked around. Suddenly all his muscles strained and he leapt to the right, behind a tree. A giant bat had only missed him by inches. It was furiously flying around, attacking everything in its vicinity. Cronos watched the mighty creature with awe, while his right hand automatically reached for his improved, hand-made and extremely lethal nuclear disintegration gadget. No need for it, though. The distance between Cronos and the bat increased rapidly. His muscles relaxed and Cronos stood up.
He wondered if this was really the right place to strengthen your self confidence. Cronos had always thought such courses involved long, intense discussions and parting with lots of money. But, then again, it wouldn't be the first time Cronos' thoughts would prove to be wrong. If he could be said to have any at all, that is.
If this would get him closer to Fam, he reckoned, he would go through with it. If this would not get him any closer to Fam, he would go through with it anyway, because he hadn't found a way to get off this planet yet. It hadn't been difficult to get on it in the first place, as Natascha had been more than willing to give him a ride. "Just to make sure you get to the right place," she had said.
The three suns decided to call it a day and solemnly started to disappear behind a few mountains in the distance. Cronos had never seen three suns disappear behind a few mountains and he stared at it, baffled. In fact, he couldn't remember ever having seen a real sun. He had heard about it, sure, but until now he had mainly seen artificial suns with remote controls - ones where you could make the day a bit longer or shorter, matching your individual preferences.
Cronos firmly believed that the other two suns were being recharged and could be reclaimed by some lonely (and dark) planet anytime now. Not many people shared this belief, but Cronos wouldn't listen to other explanations. The guy at the Newstellar Bar For The Very Very Depressed had told him this confidential theory and had also warned him that other people might have difficulties believing it. The guy could even see three pints of Zeastorm beer, whereas Cronos could only distinguish one. But the Newstellar Bar For The Very, Very Depressed was no place to question people or theories, so Cronos didn't.
Cronos' thoughts were brutally interrupted by a small squeecking-like noise. Cronos decided that the time for evasive action had come once more and he carefully walked towards the noise - or at least where the noise had come from a few atto-seconds ago. He made sure not to make any noise himself. His eyes were narrow, but rapidly spied around him so nothing could escape his attention. His hands were ready to demonstrate one of the 536,459 killing manoeuvres they knew. His throat was ready to produce one of the 132 deadly sounds it knew (42 of which, however, would only paralize the victim for a prolonged period).
His instincts took command and suddenly Cronos dove forward, his improved, hand-made and extremely lethal nuclear disintegration gadget held ready at hand (with the safety pin removed, of course). A second later his instincts handed over the command to Cronos again and he quickly checked his position.
The situation that his senses came up with was something like the following.
Right in front of him, he found the disintegration gadget in his hand. It comforted him to see that he was on the right side of it. It comforted him that the safety pin had been removed telekinetically, as the ancient Master of Oriental Arts had taught him. It also comforted him that there was a monster on the other end of his disintegration gadget. It didn't confort him that the monster was only a baby with a very frightened and upset look on its face. Its big, dark eyes twinkled in fear and its whole body was shaking. It looked up, desperately and straight in Cronos' eyes. Cronos had never killed an innocent baby creature and he didn't intend to. A feeling of intense sorrow filled his mind. Here he was, a fearless warrior, survivor of many terrible wars and, until recently, stone-hearted against any small creature which had barely crawled out of its egg.
"HOLD IT RIGHT THERE, BUSTER!"
Cronos looked up. Behind the baby dinosaur stood an impressive figure. It was Fam, arms akimbo. The tree suns behind her (and behind the mountains) made it seem like a giant shadow with fireballs behind her. The sight was magnificent. The situation was slightly less magnificent. For Cronos, that is.
He quickly put the disintegration gadget in his inside pocket and stumbled over the baby dinosaur towards her.
"Honey, I'm sorry, I can explain everything," Cronos uttered, and even he was aware of the fact that is was somewhat of a cliche. He fell on his knees in front of her, head bowed and folded hands.
"How dare you frighten little Alex?" she hissed, "I just got him to go for a first stroll without his mother."
"But Fam, I...I...eh...I...," Cronos continued muttering, still in cliche mode.
"I never want to see you again in my life, you stupid meatball!" Fam groaned, "So get out of my sight!"
The cathedral breathed rest and peace. The windows were very small, so there was always little light, causing a ceremonial atmosphere inside. A few candles burnt, steadily. Suddenly the flame flickered a bit as someone opened the door. It hadn't been opened for years and years.
This was the cathedral where Cronos went whenever he needed to be alone and think about things. That was why the door hadn't been opened for years. The last time it was opened, was when Cronos' Oriental Master showed him this place. The Master told him that this was the perfect place to be, the perfect place to die.
There were no seats, because the only reason why this cathedral was built was that it has been tax-deductable.
Cronos' mind was a mess. Not just a mess, but a giant mess, like a bachelor's house. The world didn't seem to make any sense to him any more. The only thing he could see was an extremely thick sort of mist. He stumbled forward, tripping a few times. He stepped up the three steps and kneeled before the altar.
He looked up at the sculpture of Mary. His matted hair stuck to his forehead, besweated. His clothes were torn and dirty. He had scratches everywhere, some of them were slightly bleeding.
Cronos didn't care.
His big hand reached up and took a dusty but beautiful sword from the altar. He rubbed the dust away and looked at it. There were all kinds of inscriptions on it, written in what was probably an ancient language Cronos didn't understand. The Oriental Master had told him that this sword had only one purpose. That purpose was to provide Cronos with a way to escape from this earth, this world. The inscriptions had no function at all, they just looked interesting.
Cronos took the sword from its sheath, breaking the seal. He lay the sheath next to him.
The sword was beautiful. Very shiny and very sharp. Cronos knew exactly what to do. This world had no purpose for him any more. The woman he loved had made it quite clear that she didn't want to see him ever again. What use was it to kill people for money when you didn't have the girl you love to take care of you? What good was the world anyway?
Cronos held the sword in front of him, reminding himself of Oriental pictures he had seen. With one swift movement he inserted it in his abdomen.
Written somewhere between November 1992 and February 1993.