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Colonel Robert Hogan watched the parachute glide like a dandelion seed effortlessly through the clear, cold night sky, and briefly allowed his mind to wander to more pleasant times. Training novices for the Royal Air Force seemed like a million years ago. But the US Army Air Corp flying ace could still remember the fearful hesitation followed by the whoops of triumph that young recruits shouted as they accomplished their first real leap from an aircraft, before grinning broadly at the American commander. Shifting in the underbrush that helped conceal him from any possible German patrols, Hogan smiled at the scenes as they replayed in front of his mind's eye; if a leap from an Allied bomber wasn't such a perilous undertaking, with the ever-present threat of being discovered, or killed by flak or parts of your own aircraft on the way down, a clear night like this could mean a dream jump, an experience to be savored by all the senses.
Hogan abruptly dropped his smile as reality forced its way back in, and he remembered his own bailout over Hamburg. He had lost the majority of his crew that day, in a vicious dogfight that from the very beginning was clearly aimed at ambushing his B-17, Goldilocks. His leap from the burning aircraft hadn't been graceful, like the one he was watching now; it had been dizzying, overwhelming, terrifying. His senses had been overloaded, and while he could force memories of the agony he had suffered from his injuries and his ejection into a sky bursting with enemy fire to the back of his mind, the tortured cries of the men under his command remained forever in his foremost thoughts.
They were after me, Hogan thought, squeezing his eyes shut at the horror of his own capture, still despairing at the taunting of the Nazis when they confronted him, interrogated him, beat him, in their attempts to get the Allied secrets from the American squadron commander that they knew he had—one of the Third Reich's "Most Wanted." But Hogan hadn't talked, and the Germans had let loose their fury on him, before finally transferring him to Stalag Luft 13, a Luftwaffe prison camp just outside Hammelburg. Then a familiar self-torture rang through his ears: They might have made it back if they hadn't been flying with me.
Drawing in a frigid, but calming, breath, Hogan deliberately collected his thoughts. A lot of water's flowed under the bridge since then, he reminded himself. Now, more of our boys have a chance to get out of Germany. The faces of the men Hogan worked with back at the prisoner of war camp flashed in his mind. Captives though they were, they were all now a tight sabotage and espionage unit, working out of Stalag 13 with Allied High Command in London and with the local Underground. And in the last three years, they'd retrieved downed flyers, rerouted escaped POWs from other prison camps, and ruined German military operations until they'd lost count. They were now one of the biggest secret threats to Nazi Germany in existence, and so far there was no end in sight. Yep, Hogan thought again, with some satisfaction, things sure have changed.
Hogan's eyes followed the billowing silk as it descended into the trees about a hundred meters away. "Time to go to work," he muttered to himself, pushing the thoughts of the last thirty seconds from his crowded mind. He stretched as he prepared to go lead the downed flyer to the tunnel network under Stalag 13. I wonder how old this one will be. Nineteen? Eighteen? He sighed as he anticipated the shell-shocked, terrified expression he would see on the baby-faced teenager who would no doubt be trying to remember everything he'd learned in training school—if he wasn't too busy saying every prayer he'd ever learned as a child to think about contributing to his own survival. No matter in the long run, Hogan considered—this was a routine mission; the poor kid would be in friendly hands soon enough. Then Hogan's men would get him out of Germany and back to his unit, just like all the others.
Hogan scanned the woods around him as he made his way to the approximate landing site. So far, no one around to obstruct the rescue. Good. Just up ahead, he saw the chute in the trees, entangled in some branches. The man in it was twisting and turning, struggling and gasping in his hurry to break free. Experience had taught Hogan to watch before approaching if there was no immediate threat: more than one panicky man had hurled a knife toward the unexpected rescuers nearby. Thankfully, almost all of them had been badly aimed. But still, there was no point in adding to the fear. When the man was on the ground, Hogan would make his presence known.
Finally, Hogan saw the man tumble from the web of rope and silk, then pull off his helmet and shake his head. Hogan grimaced. Even younger than before. God, was I ever that green? Try to get the chute, he urged silently. They won't stop hunting if you don't hide it! As if he had heard Hogan, the airman gave a couple of tugs, but when the parachute didn't give, he gave up and looked to run for his life.
Hogan was about to cautiously reveal himself when sudden shouting and rifle fire froze him in place. He watched tensely as the young man spun around, wild-eyed, then took off in Hogan's direction. Hogan readied himself to draw the man quietly into the safety of the brush when three German soldiers appeared, weapons primed.
"Halt! Anschlag!" came the warning call.
The young man turned and raised his arms. Hogan's shoulders sagged; he'd never even seen or heard this patrol. He had done all the right things, but with this unexpected intrusion, they had become all the wrong things. Now, this mere boy would become a prisoner of war, and unless he escaped, he would spend the rest of the conflict cooling his heels in a prison camp, where the enemy would do its best to break his spirit, and take away any innocence that remained.
Hogan's operation had to remain secret. To reveal himself now would be to put everything—and everyone involved—in jeopardy. So Hogan bit his lip as he prepared himself to witness the capture; he could do nothing to help now.
The shock that followed nearly made Hogan scream in raw agony. As the youthful flyer started to stutter his name, rank, and serial number, another fresh-faced youth appeared, obviously another flyer who had been shot down with the one standing in front of the Germans. The boy froze when he realized what he had stumbled upon and also raised his arms. Then one of the Germans raised his rifle and said to the others, "Vergesst nicht: Keine Gefangenen." No prisoners. Hogan braced himself as he heard the click of the trigger, but could not make himself turn away as the soldier fired at point-blank range, sending the first boy hurtling through the air until his body hit the tree he had just dropped from with a sickening thud. Another German also fired, but his victim just dropped where he'd been cut down. The third German approached the first boy and prodded him with his weapon, shrugging when the boy didn't move. He reached down through the gear for the boy's dog tags, as someone did the same to the other youth. They nodded, satisfied that they had done their job. Then the man who had fired the first shot ordered, "Verteilt euch! Wir müssen sichergehen, dass wir sie alle erwischen!"
The order to spread out and continue searching for others made its way through the fog in Hogan's numb mind and spurred him into action. Breathing hard, and trembling more than from the cold, he stumbled away from the bush and ran as fast as he could away from the nauseating scene. Only when his shaking legs gave out did he stop and succumb to the need to be sick, as the looks of surprise and shock from the mere children he had watched be brutally killed flashed over and over before him, to join the other heartbreaking memories in his mind.
"Holy cats, it's a bit late for this!"
Sergeant James Kinchloe pulled off the headsets he had used to listen to the radio message from Allied High Command in London and looked incredulously at his companions in the tunnel under Barracks Two.
"What is it, Kinch?" asked French Corporal Louis Le Beau, the radioman's bunkmate. He strained to see what the American had written down on his sheaf of paper. Scribbles. Nothing he could make any sense of.
Kinch shook his head. "London says to make sure no one goes out again until further notice. They say they've got word that there may be trouble brewing that they don't want us involved in."
"'They don't want us involved in'?" echoed Andrew Carter. The youthful American Sergeant scratched his head. "Well that's a change. I mean they usually want us to be in the middle of it. Or causing it!"
"Well, that doesn't worry me so much," Kinch said. "What worries me is that Colonel Hogan and Newkirk are both out tonight."
"What kind of trouble is it, Kinch?" asked Le Beau.
"They won't say yet. Just they don't want us caught in the middle. Must be pretty big."
Le Beau furrowed his brow. "Tonight of all nights for Pierre to go out to visit some mademoiselle," he muttered. "And le Colonel out getting pilots!"
"Well at least we know the Colonel will be back soon—it's only a routine thing, Louis. We'll see him come laughing down here in about an hour. As for Newkirk—" Kinch stopped, thinking of the RAF Corporal who had niggled permission for a night on the town out of Hogan before the Colonel went out—"well, he can think on his feet. He'll be safe with some fine fraulein and back before midnight—that was the Colonel's order, and he wouldn't dare be late."
Carter tried to offer some reassurance. "Boy, you're right about that, Kinch. I mean when the Colonel gives an order, it's an order, and he expects his orders to be obeyed. I mean, even if he's not here, he expects people to do what he told them to do. I mean I wouldn't be caught not doing what the Colonel said to do tonight, boy—he was pretty tired when he left; you know how he's been taking on extra duty because of your cold, Louis—and I mean, he didn't want anyone making any more work for him, because I bet he's going to just sack out when he gets back, and—"
"Carter!" Kinch said, trying to stop the flow that was Andrew Carter's mouth when he was on a roll. "The Colonel's due back before Newkirk. And I'm sure they'll both be fine."
They all nodded and headed upstairs, offering pats on the back and assurances. But despite the brave words, no one would be convinced till everyone was home in Stalag 13 safe and sound.
Colonel Wilhelm Klink paced back and forth in his office long after evening roll call had confirmed that everyone was present and accounted for. Several times, he was tempted to pick up the phone and ring back General Burkhalter to reconfirm his superior's orders. But every time he put his hand on the receiver, a cold chill from deep inside himself made him draw back his hand and simply start pacing again.
Klink opened his window and, not bothering to brace himself against the cold air that greeted him, he looked across the compound that was Stalag Luft 13 at Barracks Two, where his senior Prisoner of War officer, Colonel Robert Hogan, was bunked out for the night. Hogan, if it were up to me...
Klink paused mid-thought. If it were up to me, what? What would I really do? Klink thought of the countless times Hogan had come before him in this very office, asking for the impossible—a bowling alley, a yacht club, a pool party—rumba lessons! The most ridiculous and improbable things that any prisoner could expect from his captors. But there were other reasons for Hogan's visits as well: extra rations for his men; extra blankets when the cold weather didn't let up for days and the firewood didn't seem to make any difference. Hogan even volunteered his own services in exchange for some of these privileges, as he had pitched in to do Le Beau's cleaning duty earlier this week when Hogan explained that the Frenchman needed extra sleep, to fight off some flu making the rounds of the camp.
But Klink was conscious of the fact there was even more to it than that; during their somewhat regular chess games in the Kommandant's office, Klink had found Hogan to have quite a strategic mind, and although the American often pretended to be stupid about German military matters, Klink was more than aware that his own position at Stalag 13 had more than once been saved by Hogan's savvy... and cunning. And there was a genuineness about Hogan that spoke to Klink in a way that the Kommandant could not express, partly because he was not inclined toward shows of intimacy, and partly because expressing admiration for the enemy was a sure way of getting one's self put in front of the firing squad on a charge of treason.
So, if it were up to him... Klink closed the window and stared at the phone, debating whether to make the call or to just follow through on the order as he had always done, unquestioning, unerringly.
Klink changed his way of thinking. If it were up to Colonel Hogan, what would he do? He shook his head and looked up at the portrait of Adolf Hitler on the wall. This time, mein Fuhrer... this time you have gone too far.
Klink turned back to his desk, put the telephone receiver on the blotter, and sat down, worried and grim. Tomorrow, Hogan. The beginning of the end starts tomorrow.