By lex, on February 9th, 2008
Flew three times today, and it’s amazing what you can get used to after a long, dry spell of looking up at birds wistfully. It was an absolutely perfect day for flying, nary a cloud in the sky and the dome above a crystal blue the like you’d want to drink from, or swim in maybe. Maybe both.
Warm enough by 1000 to toodle up the five in a leather jacket – courtesy of some small hole-in-the-wall in Osan, Korea. It’s a USAF A-2 style, complete with a faux, but authentic-looking blood chit – and lightweight cargo pants. I’ve a mad notion to lay it by in favor of a Vanson Manx – an entirely more suitable jacket for a motorcycle – but it isn’t like they’re giving them away, are they?
No. No they are not.
Wore my brown leather flight boots, of course. The steel toes keep the gear shift from digging in to my instep. Is what I tell myself. The traffic flows mostly cooperated and I was there in good time.
The first set was another father and son team, only this time the son was my age, and his pops a former P-38 pilot from The Big One. Your man had to be pushing 90, and I assumed it was his son who’d bought him a flight for old times sake. Because, who knows? The sand keeps running through the hourglass, he was a wee, small thing, and weary though he was, yet did he seem to fade the more while I was talking to him.
But no, it was the old feller himself that had bought the flight, and there was a gleam in his eye as we briefed and when we’d gotten airborne he brought it to the youngster hammers and tongs. A hard man in the air, and I guess there’s some things you don’t forget. They’d grown up together playing tennis, and now he was too old for that, but he wasn’t too old to show his young man a thing or two. I was proud of him. I think we all were.
He told us his story: He’d spent two months in POW camp near Munich after having been shot down in Austria. Chasing down a train in the low Alps. It was too tight in there to follow the tracks, so they’d popped over the mountains and ended up highlighting themselves. His flight was spotted, the train stopped and unlimbered their heavy machine guns. When he started his run, he could see his tracers – one round in seven – arcing down towards the engine compartment. As he started his dive recovery he could see their tracers going past his canopy – they looked like golf balls, he said.
The Germans started scoring hits, and it was like going from driving a car on a smooth road to driving in gravel. By the time he’d come off target his left engine was on fire, so he immediately pulled it to shut-off and feathered the prop. His eyes were distant now, but upon hearing this, the other pilot and I saw it with him, we nodded. Unless they are pilots, that’ll be the part the grandkids forget to tell their children, the feathering of the prop.
He had hopes of climbing out under one engine and ran that throttle up, but no: The linkage had been severed. The power that he’d used in the dive run would be insufficient to climb out. He was going in.
He followed the tracks between the mountains on both sides, airspeed decaying even as the altimeter unwound. After a few long moments he spotted a barren, snow capped field. With just enough smash to pop over a power line, he shoved the nose back down to make the landing happen in the space available. For a while he thought he’d run into a farm house at the field’s far end, but while the right engine lashed at the snow, the feathered left prop dug in and the plane did a graceful 180 and came to a stop.
Climbing out, he came under immediate machine gun fire from the farm house, and dropped to the deck. His wingmen circled overhead, and he thought that perhaps he could ease up, put the plane between him and the threat and run for it, but the instant he raised up even slightly the machine gun tore gouts through the snow around him. The message was clear: We have you. Sit still.
Eventually his wingmen ran out of gas, and returned to their base. Once the fighters had gone, out came the Wehrmacht soldiers. Hands up. Come with us. Your war is over.
He was lucky to have only been in the camp for a couple of months. Daily food was a small loaf of bread, and a Red Cross parcel. The Germans brought hot water in the morning, and the prisoners made instant coffee from the powder in the parcels. One night the prisoners went to sleep with the sound of Allied artillery going over their heads and into the German rear. The next morning the German guards were gone, and US MPs had taken their place.
There was no hot water that morning. The MPs didn’t give out Red Cross parcels. Everyone was to sit tight, they’d be bringing up field kitchens soon. And then they’d be evacuated.
The first day came and went, and there was no food. The second day passed in the same way. On the third day, he and a buddy wormed through the wire in front of a pair of MPs and went looking for something to eat. Having been turned away by various field artillery camps who had nothing left to spare, they finally found a truck with K-Rats in the bed, hiding under a cover. They took two cases home for their camp mates, and things were better for a while, even though the camp kitchens never arrived – everything was moving forward so fast, the logistics couldn’t keep up.
Each day they scrounged for food, every day being told that today was the day, or that food kitchens were coming up. On the seventh day of their liberation, the war officially ended and the two airmen again went scrounging for food. Everyone they found had somehow managed to get drunk on cognac, officers and enlisted. “Loaded” he called it. I remember that my father had called it being loaded too. Eventually your man and his buddy decided it was better to join than fight, and got loaded themselves on empty stomachs. They’d walked eight miles from the camp in search for food, and were deeply thoughtful about walking back in the dark with a snootfull. They finally found someone sober enough to jeep them the eight miles back to their POW camp, and fell asleep happy, drunk and hungry at two AM. At 0400 they were rudely shaken awake, and with hangovers and pounding skulls, they were loaded on to trucks for a bone-jouncing evacuation out of the theater in an unsprung, ten ton truck.
That was the Army, he said. His eyes coming back into focus now from 63 years ago this spring. Seeing us again for the first time in a few minutes. Who were listening in rapt fascination, knowing that this tale had been told many a time before, but that the telling of it from the first person perspective was nearly over. That was the Army.
I reckon it still is.