I Died in the Sky
In 1936 I was nothing but an experiment. My designers had good intentions, but so do most parents when they have children. They think they know everything there is to know until that day of delivery comes. There is joyous backslapping, congratulations extolled out, cigars and champagne for all. And then reality sets in; the growing pains are exactly that, painful. This doesn’t’ work. That’s not a good fit. Too many leaks. Too many changes. Too many damn problems. But those who conceived me wouldn’t be swayed. They diligently nursed and fussed over me. A tweak there and tweak here. Slowly but surely, I began growing and maturing. At anytime they could have thrown in the towel in utter frustration, but that wasn’t in their make-up. Failure was not an option for so much they couldn’t see would ride on my future growth.
Unlike most infants, I would have to grow up fast and hearty for my service was going to be called upon long before I was ready.
I could not have asked for better care takers. These people I didn’t know treated me with kid gloves on a daily basis. We became a close-knit family even when then cussed me out for things I had done wrong and things I hadn’t. Yet at the end of a tumultuous and torturous day, no matter how trying or cranky I acted, they would wash me down, make sure everything was working and gently put me in my berth, smile and then retire for the night.
I cannot tell you how loving these people were to me. Every day they greeted me with a smile, a smoke and a hot cup of Joe. Those who toiled and watched over me at night treated me as one of their own. I was never alone and felt so loved and cared for. This was my family and I would do everything in my power not to let them down or shame them with a poor performance. I looked forward to the day I would be able to return the kindness they showered me with. I wouldn’t have to wait long.
December 7th 1941 would be my wake-up call. While I was still young and naïve, it was time to grow up and live up to the expectations they expected of me. It was time to join the ranks who were answering the call by the hundreds of thousands. It was time to prove my worth and readiness and repay those men who had given me life. It was time to take the skies and earn my keep.
My name was not important up until now. Only a select few needed to know. Now it was time for me to be introduced to the world. My names were B-17, B-24, B-25, B-26 and B-29. Like my caretakers, we would be a family sworn to uphold liberty and justice. We would bond together and become the wards or our caretakers. It was time to show these brave men and women, we would carry them into battle and bring everyone of them home safely. It was our time to shine!
I couldn’t have been more wrong or naïve. I would die in the sky.
I went into mass production for there was a war to be won. No longer could they build me by hand one at a time, they had to figure out how to produce me in the hundreds overnight. As in my creation, the growing pains were unfathomable as those who worked on me had not a clue what they were doing. Mistakes were common place in the early days. Not enough parts, tools or components to keep up with the pace. Many of the workers had never seen a such a child as I, much less worked on one. I had to trust those who developed me to lead the way and iron out the problems. In time they did, but without loss. My youngest sibling, 29, would be the mostly costly and deadly of us. She was ahead of her time in design, range and payload. Too many of my precious souls would pay the ultimate price for getting her battle worthy and in the skies and even then, she was known to fail with a full load of fuel and bombs. But I’ve gotten ahead of myself.
Dozens of homes popped up across the country for me and my countrymen. All those hours of meticulous training and care I took for granted, were now making sense. I was a machine of war and it is my responsibility to look after these brave souls.
Women would ferry me across this great land to weigh stations where the men would take over and fly me into the combat zones. At the time I didn’t understand why they couldn’t take me all the way, but it wasn’t an issue for me to question. I was very confused when I found out they didn’t have the same benefits as the men, but again, it wasn’t my place to contest. They handled me with the same, if not more loving care, as the men, so I did my best to repay their kind affections.
I learned names even the history books hadn’t addressed: Troston, Hitcham, Abbots-Ripton, Neaton, Eye, Metfield, Iwo, Tinian and dozens more. These were my new homes. This is where I would bring my children back when the day was done. Little did I know the cost we would suffer.
I would learn new names I wish to hell I could forget: Regensburg, Schweinfurt, Berlin, Cologne, Hamburg, Ploesti, Naples, Dresden, Caen, Frankfort, Kiel, Tokyo, Yokohama, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. While the names are different, the outcome was not.
While each mission was meticulously mapped out and prepared for optimum damage, I still had to get them there and back in one piece. Even though I thought I was prepared for the worse, I could not have been more wrong.
It took hundred of hours to build me and my brethren and countless, unnamed hours to maintain us. Yet, in the blink of an eye all that care would evaporate in a blinding flash! I thought I was built solid enough to take it. I thought I was ringed with enough protection to ward off any dumb enough to get in range of my bristling armaments. I thought I was indestructible. I thought wrong.
The more missions I flew, the more vulnerable I felt. Despite being surrounded by sisters and brothers, I could never shake the feeling I was always being singled out. My caretakers never spoke of it, but I could feel it in my controls. Their sweet would freeze on their faces and controls as we neared a target. The chatter that was gay and jolly before take-off became serious and sober. I could feel the tension of each person as they were caught up in their own secret thoughts of mortality and the future. And then all hell would break loose.
“Bogies at twelve, six, nine and three o’clock!” They descended on us like locust, intent on clearing us from the skies. I shuddered and rocked as bullets poured forth from my guns searching for the enemy. More than not, they missed. No matter how valiantly they fought back they couldn’t keep them off. Instead of keeping my eyes straight, I would glance side-to-side to check on my flock. I should have kept looking forward. One by one, I watched as wings and engines fell off, fuselages were ripped in half and stabilizers disappeared. Elevators were riddled with holes. Liquid streamed and sprayed from ruptured lines. Nose sections exploded in flames. It was too much! Men screamed and cried over the radio as their bodies were holed and burned. I watched in horror as plane after plane fell from the sky. Some flipped over and went straight down. Others kept battling the odds even when engines were flaming uncontrollably and slowly dropping out of formation. I would watch and count to see how many chutes would billow. One, two, three. “Oh, no. God no! His chute is on fire! He’s not wearing one!” Oh, how I wished I could turn back to the safe confines of my new home, but that wasn’t an option. We had to keep pushing forward and grieve for the fallen when the mission is over.
I took a deep breath when I heard the call, “They’re pulling out.” It was time for a breather. It would be short lived. Ahead of us I saw little black puffs of smoke starting to fill the sky. Flak! This was a foe we could not see much less defend ourselves from. We cold only keep pushing forward through the steel curtain that began filling the sky. It is the most hopeless feeling in the world. As much as we wanted fly under it, over it, or around it, we could only fly through it. I rocked, yawed, jumped and bumped through the maelstrom. I dared not look to the left or right for I might be the one who takes a shell. I had to concentrate and keep pushing through. I hoped I wouldn’t hear the calls, but they came. “There goes “Lucky Lady.” “Rosie” is on fire and falling back. “Little Ghost” just disappeared. “Georgia Peach” lost a wing and spiraling down. Another forty have left our ranks.
We plod on to the target grinding and clawing through the cold air and our destiny We must stay in formation or what is left of it. “Target one mile ahead. Navigator, take over.” What beautiful words. What resounding words. In a few more moments we will be able to drop our load and then break and run for home. I jump up with the words, “Bombs away.” We bank hard right and start the long journey home but at least we’ll be a bit faster on the return trip.
Again, we are forced to take on flak only this time we can maneuver freely and change altitudes to keep the gunners guessing. This time we’re lucky with no losses. But the wolves are still waiting and they are more interested in damaged ships for they are easy prey. While we take in a deep breath of soothing, crisp air, we hear the cries from the stragglers as one by one they fall to their doom. I cannot go back to help them. I cannot provide kind words or crack a joke. I can only pray for them and be thankful it wasn’t our time.
We touchdown on our home turf and the tension in my skin lets out a large, deep, sigh of relief. We made it. Being the first one back, we pile into a jeep and are driven to the briefing hut. But before we report on the mission, we stand with our commander and start counting planes. “One, two, three, four” and then a long pause. The commander is checking off those that are arriving, “Ten, Eleven, Twelve.” Another long pause. “Thirteen, fourteen, fifteen.” “Sir, red flares from number fifteen.” “Notify emergency crews to be ready.” Red flares mean there are wounded on the plane. The closer she comes the more pronounced her damage comes into focus. Multiple holes in the fuselage, two engines were feathered and she was yawing to the left with only one wheel down. It would be a tricky landing at best. It would take all the pilot’s skills to bring her home safely. The wheel touched down and collapsed under the weight. She was belly sliding across the runway; sparks showered behind her in a brilliant light show. She hit a berm and spun about then came to a rest. Emergency vehicles swarmed towards her to tend to the wounded. It wouldn’t matter. They were fifty yards out when she exploded, igniting the remaining fuel in her tanks. There was nothing we could do-nothing!
The count resumed, “Sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen,” then nothing. We waited for over an hour, all of us. After an hour, they silently shuffled off to eat, smoke, vomit, cry and then debrief. Six would not return. Another sixty fathers, brothers and sons lost. I shuddered with the loss of so many, but there would be more in the coming weeks, months and years.
Slowly, my men came to me and starting assessing my wounds. This time is wasn’t bad. A dozen bullet holes, a jammed turret, minor flak damage to the ailerons and stabilizer. Easy peasy they would half-jokingly say as they went to work patching me up.
Seventy plus years later, I am still able to hold my nose high in the sky as my caretakers have brought me back to life with the same tender-care they showered on me so long ago. I thrill with the throbbing of my mighty engines as they cut through layer after layer of air, hurtling us higher into the heavens. The rush is unbelievable and then it stops. We have reached cruising altitude and peace. I look side to side and see nothing but a blue, cloudless expanse and then it begins as it always does. I see black dots exploding, the radio comes alive with calls for help. I watch my brothers and sisters explode around me and fall. I hear the cries for moms, dads and loved ones as they spin out of sight or disappear in a violent explosion. I cringe with the calling of bogies swarming over us. I jolt with pain as pieces of me are torn off with the impact of bullets and shells. I feel a warm liquid covering my once clean floor. I try and block out the cries of, “I’m hit. I’m hit. Oh, God, I’m hit. Don’t let me die. Don’t let me die!” And then it’s gone and the serenity surrounding me returns. I take a breath and pay the only tribute I can by flying true, and straight as the faces I will never see again flow through me. It is for them I fly. It is for them I will honor. It is for them; I will fly with pride as I remember them. It is for them.
Over one hundred and twenty-five thousand would serve us and care for us. Of these brave selfless souls, over fifty-seven thousand would die, eight-four hundred wounded and ninety-eight hundred captured. I will never forget you and will always honor your memories.
Yes. Even though I am proud to fly today and honor those of my past, believe me when I say, I died in the sky.
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