By Syl Francis
"We few, we happy few, we band of
brothers..." (Henry V)
[Friday 30 OCT
531st Bomb Group, 8th Air Force
Duncan, you can't be serious!"
always serious, Colonel Hogan. You know as well as I do that this is long
overdue." Duncan spoke mildly. "Robert, you've flown close to fifty
missions. You know what that means."
usually mild-mannered demeanor darkened. His dark, handsome looks were that of
a recruiting poster. He glared at his Group Commander with disbelieving eyes.
"You're grounding me? You called me into your office to tell
me that? This is the big surprise?"
Robert," Duncan replied evenly. "I called you in here to tell you
that I've recommended you for your first star and the Distinguished Flying
crossed his arms in anger, unable to believe what he was hearing. His dark eyes
smoldered, obviously fighting a losing battle with his temper.
mean that you're gonna stick a new medal on my chest, a star
on my collar, and then tell me that I have to fly a desk for the
rest of the war? Thanks, but no thanks!"
you've flown over fifty missions. That's twice the usual
twenty-five allowed by regulations. I've kept you on flight status longer than
any other officer, because you're the best squadron commander I have. And
you're the most highly decorated combat pilot in the Group, not to
mention the entire Wing! Hell, the whole Army Air Corps--!"
come on, sir! That's an exaggeration. I have it on very good authority that
John Wayne's decorations are a lot higher!"
grinned. His best squadron commander had the most uncanny way of diffusing a
tense moment with an innocuous comment. Most Group Command and Staff meetings
ended with Hogan cracking some silly one-liner that invariably broke everybody
glared pensively at his Commanding Officer.
you know that this a load of hogwash! Am I supposed to sit safe behind a desk
while everybody else takes the risks? I can't do that, sir! I won't!"
stiffened at the junior officer's insubordination. He snapped a pencil he'd
been holding in half, the only sign that Hogan's anger had affected him.
Hogan, I needn't remind you whom you're addressing, do I?" Duncan and
Hogan held each other's eyes for a moment longer. Finally, both men relented.
nodded reluctantly. "Begging the General's pardon. I was out of line,
Robert. You have every right to be upset." Duncan opened the lower drawer
of his massive executive desk and pulled out a bottle of Scotch whiskey. He
looked questioningly at Hogan, who gave a curt nod. Pouring them each a drink,
Duncan handed a shot glass to the highly decorated, highly irate officer
standing before him.
toast, sir," Hogan said, a sardonic glint in his eye. "To the Army
Air Corps! The only organization in the world that 'rewards' its
successful pilots by grounding them!"
Hogan's ironic expression, Duncan clinked his glass against the junior
officer's. They both took a deep gulp from their drinks.
deeply, Duncan glanced over to Hogan and gave him a rueful grin. "You and
I may not agree with the Corps' practice, Robert. And should we ever start
running low on trained crews and pilots, the Corps will be forced to put a stop
to it. But you're as aware as I am of the statistics--the more missions a crew
flies, the greater the chances of their not returning home. And the chances
increase with each mission after twenty-five."
walked up to Hogan and placed a fatherly hand on the younger officer's
shoulder. "Robert, you know that it's time for you to be rotated out of
combat. You've served your crew and the Air Corps faithfully and well. To ask
you to keep going out--"
I want to keep flying! Nobody's forcing me
didn't finish his sentence. He didn't have to. A light seemed to go out of his
eyes. A look of profound sadness quickly overtook him. Walking back to the
window, he looked for his B-17 Flying Fortress.
easygoing as Hogan usually appeared, Duncan knew that he had an inner core of
steel. Duncan couldn't remember the veteran officer losing his cool before.
Except perhaps when he lost a crewman. Hogan didn't easily take losing a man.
take over the squadron?" Hogan asked.
Zapinski. He'll be promoted after this mission."
nodded. Zapinski was his executive officer, a hard worker, and a topnotch
pilot. He, himself, had recommended Zapinski for promotion to the next grade
and for his own command. I just hadn't considered that the squadron he'd be
taking over would be mine, he told himself.
a good man," he said simply. Straightening his shoulders, Hogan turned and
walked to the windows overlooking the vast airfield of Northhamptonshire,
England. The 504th Bomb Squadron, part of the 531st Bomb Group, was lined up
neatly, nose-to-tail, wingtip-to-wingtip, on the runway. The unit would be
deploying within the next three hours for yet another massive night drop.
had come to Gen. Duncan's office for his mission brief and had been surprised
that the Group Operations Officer (S-3) was not there. Now he knew. The general
had wished to drop his own little bomb in private.
veteran pilot's dark, restless eyes searched the field for his plane. He easily
spotted her in her in takeoff position--the lead. He smiled a bit wistfully at
her nosecone, which sported the familiar image of 'Goldilocks,' a bathing
suit-clad, blonde bombshell--who came fully loaded, as his crew would say.
Hogan's eyes, his Flying Fortress was much more than just a plane. She was his
lifeline home. As long as he loved her and treated her gently, 'Goldilocks'
would get him home to Connecticut and his family.
his most private musings, Hogan thought of Goldilocks with the same deep
passion as that of a beautiful lover. He grinned rakishly. Or at least of a
beautiful woman who comes 'fully loaded,' he added to himself.
fact, for as long as Hogan had been flying Goldilocks in the European Theater
of Operations (ETO), there had been no other woman whom he considered
lovelier--with the possible exception of his mother.
clasped his hands tightly behind his back. And now the general wants to
ground me, he thought bleakly. Hogan recalled his previous missions over
the course of a year. First flying as a neutral observer with the RAF. Then
when the US officially entered the war, flying bombing raids over occupied
as the Allies prepared for the eventual push into Europe--at least two years away,
his whole existence had been punctuated with one dangerous mission across the
English Channel after another.
sadly reflected how over the course of time, his command had lost three crews
--Lt. Tripper's plane over Antwerp; Lt. Costello's over Bremerhaven; and the
last one--Lt. Maddox--less than a week ago, over Hamburg.
looking out at the home of the 504th 'Black Knights' Bomb Squadron, Hogan's
nerve-wracking bomb run over Hamburg seemed almost unreal. He thought about the
flak. So heavy I could've gotten out and walked on it. He recalled the
Messerschmitts--They were everywhere!--With almost free control of the
skies, because the 504th was beyond Allied fighter escort range.
squadron successfully held its tight box formation through almost the entire
ordeal. When suddenly, the German fighters overran Lt. Maddox's plane. Maddox
and his crew were recent replacements flying their first combat mission. They
were in the 'tail-end Charlie' position, which was reserved for rookie crews.
inexperienced, Maddox allowed himself to be successfully separated from the box
formation, and next thing Hogan knew, Maddox's B-17 was gone, a bright fireball
in its place.
ME-109s must have gotten a direct hit to the plane's still fully loaded bomb
bay. Hogan closed his eyes at the memory.
we didn't even take out the target, he
the rest of the squadron made it safely home. But at what cost? A plane and
its ten-man crew gone! One moment they were there--joking, fighting, swearing,
praying--the next instant they were gone!
thought of the youthful pilot and his crew. They'd just completed their crew
training at Moses Lake, and had arrived in England less than a month ago. Hogan
recalled Maddox's cocky attitude and his eagerness to see combat. He suddenly
men...little more than schoolboys.
How many more letters home will I be forced to write? he thought. How
many more mothers will I have to inform that they'll never see their son again?
felt his shoulders slumping at the overwhelming feeling of despair that coursed
after this next mission, I'll be sitting flat on my butt for the rest of the
war! How will I face the squadron when I tell them?
stood staring out at the flight line for a few moments longer, lost in his
thoughts. Finally, shaking himself back to the job at hand, Hogan straightened
his shoulders and faced Duncan.
are my orders, sir?"
[Saturday 31 OCT
South, southwest of Hamburg, Germany
504th Bomb Squadron approached the target from the south. They came in low,
just out of range of the German air defense batteries. The bright flares from
the continuous bombardment of anti-aircraft fire, blazing just below them,
turned the night sky into day.
like a Fourth of July fireworks display, eh, Colonel?" Lt. Harris spoke
from his position in the copilot's seat.
Fourth of the July!" Hogan replied, not taking his eyes off the
instruments. "The Roman candles are aimed at the
like to get my hands on the desk jockey who recommended we approach from 10,000
feet!" Harris growled. "I can almost touch the treetops!"
grinned slightly at Harris' exaggeration.
so-called 'desk jockey' happens to be our beloved Commanding General, Harris.
Look at the bright side. This way, if we go down and your chute doesn't open,
you won't have as far to fall."
sir. That sure makes me makes feel better," Harris said sourly. Hogan
flashed him one of his patented devilish grins, and then became all business.
Knight Leader to Black Knight Squadron," Hogan radioed. "ETA to
target, four minutes. Acknowledge."
rest of the squadron immediately radioed acknowledgement. One bold subordinate
irreverently answered with, "Baby Bear to Goldilocks. Acknowledge--ETA to
target, two minutes." The sound of suppressed twitters from the rest of
the squadron rang in Hogan's headset.
shoulders shook in silent laughter. Hogan grimaced slightly, but then grinned
wolfishly. He knew how to play this game.
to Baby Bear. Major Zapinski, report to me after we return to base.
was a slight pause, followed by a nervous throat being cleared.
allowed himself a small smile. Despite
being second in command, Zapinski was not above pulling a prank on his C.O.
Knowing he'd been caught red-handed, the Squadron Executive Officer returned to
proper radio protocol and readily acknowledged his identity.
Knight Two to Black Knight Leader. Acknowledged."
decided that for that round of much-needed levity, he'd buy his X.O. a drink
when they got back. He switched to intercom. "Pilot to Bombardier. Heads
up, Lt. Stevens. ETA to target, two minutes!"
to Pilot. Acknowledged. ETA to target--two minutes."
he expertly piloted the aircraft, Hogan kept a wary eye on the increasingly
heavy flak erupting just below him. Soon those Jerry triple-A gunners are
gonna find our range and we'll be sitting ducks, he observed grimly. What
was the general thinking? he asked himself, echoing Harris' earlier
knew that the 504th was to approach from a 10,000-foot ceiling, which was well
below the B-17s maximum cruising altitude of 35,000 feet. The low approach
increased the danger to the planes from the air defense batteries as they
neared the target and dropped their payloads. However, according to Operations,
it also increased the chance of 'optimal penetration' of the
target, which was housed in an underground, steel-reinforced concrete complex.
the target--according to the Germans a 'milk processing plant,' but to US
Intelligence a parabellum munitions factory--was vital to the war effort.
Moreover, since the last time they'd tried to knock out the target they'd
failed and lost a plane, the 504th was determined to succeed at
to Bombardier. Target approaching. You have control."
to Pilot. Roger. I have control."
the B-17 approached a target, the pilot always turned control of the aircraft
over to the bombardier. While, Hogan still did the actual flying, Lt. Stevens
ordered minor adjustments to ensure the best approach through the Pilot
Directional Indicator (PDI).
PDI transmitted the desired course changes to Hogan via his instrument panel,
and Hogan in turn called out the course adjustments to the rest of the
squadron. The pilots adjusted their approach accordingly.
two degrees," Hogan intoned, making the necessary adjustments.
Steering starboard two degrees," came the response over Hogan's headset.
The PDI sent two more minor adjustments. Within seconds, Hogan heard the words
that signaled control had been returned to him.
away!" Stevens called. "Flying straight and true."
watched the long, steady line of 5000-lb bombs as they streamed steadily to
their target. A few moments later, Stevens shouted, "Bingo! Look at her
go! That was for Lt. Maddox and his crew!"
thousand feet below, the ground erupted in a series of bright plumes. Several powerful
explosions suddenly mushroomed upwardly, hung momentarily as if looking over
the city of Hamburg, and then collapsed back. Fires broke out everywhere, and
soon the winds whipped them up into a violent firestorm.
there were anything left of the underground complex, it probably wouldn't be of
much use to the German war machine. As for anything left alive down
there--Hogan preferred not think about it. This was war, after all. And war was
turned and gave Lt. Harris a thumbs-up sign. "That's a keeper,
gentlemen!" he said over the ship's intercom system. "Pilot to
Bombardier. You did your usual outstanding job, Lt. Stevens!"
to Pilot. Don't thank me, sir! You're the one who kept this ol'
Hogan responded in mock severity, "Be careful who you call an 'old bucket'
around here, lieutenant!" As he spoke, Hogan reached up and caressed the
bulkhead immediately above him. "Goldilocks' a lady and deserves to be
treated like one!"
right, sir!" Stevens hastily replied. "Goldilocks knows she's the
only girl for me!"
don't you forget it!" Hogan winked at Harris, who grinned back.
"Let's head home, boys. Pilot to Navigator. I hope you've already plotted
our return trip, Lt. Schmidt. And this time--make sure your map gets us all the
way across the Channel!"
to Pilot." Schmidt's good-natured voice came over the intercom. "I'll
do my best, sir!" He was the best navigator in the 504th and a pretty good
nose gunner, too. Hogan was happy to have him as part of his crew.
that, gentleman? 'Wrong-way' Schmidt guarantees us a safe flight home. Drinks
are on him!" The intercom resounded with raucous cheering.
L.T.!" someone yelled. Hogan recognized the voice as PFC Harper, the right
if he tries to land us in the drink again?" That came from Sgt. Dixon, the
can it, you clowns!" Schmidt called out in mock annoyance. "The C.O.
said the drinks were on me. He just didn't tell you that you had to bring your
Mae West--just in case." The navigator's response was greeted with loud
to Harris, Hogan said, "Take over, Lieutenant. But be gentle with
don't need to worry about that, sir," Harris reassured him, taking the
controls. "I'll treat her like a real lady!"
next instant, the plane shook violently. A hit! Within moments, a loud
explosion rocked the cockpit, and Hogan felt the plane shudder from nose to
tail. He immediately grabbed the controls back.
hit!" he yelled over the intercom. "Pilot to crew! We've taken a hit.
by one, his men reported in, all except two--Lts. Stevens and Schmidt. As the
crew reported, the plane took several more hits.
to Bombardier! Stevens! Report! Navigator--report! Lt. Schmidt!"
received no response.
to Signals! Sgt. Kinchloe, check the nosecone. Stevens and Schmidt aren't
to Pilot! Roger."
the 504th Bomb Squadron was under massive anti-aircraft fire. The air defense
batteries had finally found the squadron's range and were now saturating them
with a deadly barrage.
flak was thick and heavy, exploding in bright flashes all around Hogan's
squadron. His own plane was taking a severe battering. In the past few minutes,
Hogan felt the plane lurch and reel from hit after hit. Still, the B-17 was an
incredible workhorse. On at least four occasions, the crew had made it back
home with part of the fuselage shot off.
couple of times, Hogan even managed to bring her in with only one engine and no
landing gear. It was little wonder that the crew had the utmost faith in their
to Pilot! Sir, the nose took a direct hit! Both Lt. Stevens and Lt. Schmidt are
felt a cold hand grip his insides. Stevens and Schmidt weren't the first men
he'd lost, nor would they be the last; nevertheless, Hogan felt a little piece
of himself die with the young officers. Swallowing painfully, he nodded, and
opening his mouth to acknowledge the report, he found himself unable to get the
to Pilot." Kinchloe's insistent voice sounded strained. "Col. Hogan,
did you copy?"
worriedly watched as his Commanding Officer, usually so cool under fire,
struggled to regain his bearing.
to Signals," Harris answered. "We copy, Kinch."
this point, one of their starboard engines took a direct hit. The next instant,
they lost the second starboard engine and their hydraulics. Hogan and Harris
struggled desperately to hold the bomber steady, but they were quickly forced
to fall out of the Squadron box formation.
Knight Leader to Black Knight Two! We've lost two engines and hydraulics. We
can't maintain our position. Take over, Black Knight Two!"
slight pause greeted his order.
Knight Leader, this is Black Knight Two." Maj. Zapinski's voice sounded
coolly professional. "Acknowledged. I'll get them home, Goldilocks.
smiled slightly at Zapinski's irreverence, but he had complete faith that if
anyone could get the 504th home, it was his X.O. "Thank you, Baby
Bear," Hogan replied.
soon as the plane began to lag behind the Squadron's protective shield, a large
band of German fighters fell on the crippled plane like a wolf pack.
Hogan shouted. "Pilot to crew! Look alive, guys! Or we may not be
alive much longer! Harris--! We've gotta hold her steady or we'll
lose her!" His crew's excited voices provided a steady
stream of traffic over the intercom as the plane limped along.
at nine o'clock!"
at six o'clock--!"
many! Too many!"
with both Hogan and Harris trying to keep the plane steady, without hydraulics
and short two engines--not to mention with what seemed the entire German
Luftwaffe gunning for them--it was a lost cause. Soon, Hogan had to prepare the
men for the order they all dreaded.
to crew! We're losing altitude. This is it, men. I'm gonna try to keep her
steady until we're over the forest north of Hamburg. Be ready to abandon ship
when I give the order. Acknowledge."
got him! Tail gunner to Pilot! I got one! I got--!"
Dixon suddenly screamed in agony.
to Tail gunner! Dixon! Come in!" No answer. Another one, Hogan
waist gunner to Pilot!" Harper's voice cut in triumphantly. "Scratch
Olsen's excited voice shouted. "Bogey at three! Watch it!"
were receiving a battering, but were refusing to go down without a fight.
However, it was no use.
Two o'clock, buddy!" Olsen warned. "Uh-oh! Got one on my nine
o'clock! Take that, ya Nazi Rat! I got him! Harper, I got him!" Olsen's
triumphant voice changed to one filled with pain. "Harper! Aw,
jumped in immediately. "Pilot to Right waist gunner! Report!"
didn't immediately reply, and Hogan was about to send Kinchloe to investigate
when the gunner finally answered. "Right waist gunner to Pilot. Harper
took a hit, sir. He's dead."
a few moments later, Hogan finally gave the order.
to crew! Abandon ship! Repeat! Abandon ship! Escape and evasion procedures are
in effect. Remember...if captured, give only name, rank, and serial number.
Good luck, gentlemen!" He nodded at Harris, shaking hands in farewell.
sir. Thank you, sir. Sir--?" The young officer hesitated momentarily, his
eyes expressing the words he was unable to say.
you on the ground, lieutenant!" Hogan promised. "And don't
forget--it's your turn to bring the wine and cheese."
smiled gratefully, and nodded.
sir," he whispered raggedly. At that moment, a Messerschmitt flew almost
directly towards the cockpit, spraying them with lead. The Plexiglas shattered
into a thousand pieces, with Harris taking the brunt of the attack. He was
thrown against Hogan, shielding his C.O. from the deadly fusillade.
his co-pilot slammed into him, Hogan felt him jerk spasmodically as he was
riddled by enemy bullets. Within seconds the German fighter was gone, but not
before he had taken the young officer's life. Struggling to maintain the
controls with one hand, Hogan held onto Harris' lifeless body with the other.
He could feel the young pilot's still-warm blood seeping into his flight suit.
Hogan placed Harris' still form on the co-pilot's seat. Combating against his
raging emotions, he set his jaw and got back to the business of saving the
lives of the rest of his crew.
insides growing numb, he ensured that his remaining men safely jumped, before
finally beginning the climb to the forward escape hatch. As he made his way
down the short ladder to the open hatch below, Hogan could feel his heart ache.
men gone--just like that! Stevens, Schmidt, Harris, Dixon and Harper. He didn't
have the time to mourn their loss. He knew that it would hit later. Running his
hand one last time along the cold, metal bulkhead, Hogan said his last
farewells to 'Goldilocks.'
long, babe. I'll never forget you," and leaped into the black skies over
the cold night air assaulted his face, Hogan became aware of the pungent smell
of burning cordite. Enjoying the momentary feeling of freefall, he realized
that his eyes were closed. Opening them, he became aware of the distance to the
ground, and the shells exploding all around him. The usually coolheaded Hogan
experienced a brief, heart-stopping panic attack, coupled with a strong urge to
jump right back into the cockpit.
pulled the ripcord, and was immediately jerked back, his parachute billowing
overhead. Hogan took several deep, ragged breaths, chuckling shakily. From his
vantage point at the top of the world, he felt strangely separated from the
fires burning below and the flak exploding around him.
there ever a time when death and destruction weren't a part of my life? he wondered.
searched the night sky for Goldilocks. In the distance, he caught sight of her,
trailing fire and smoke, and watched regretfully as she lost her battle with
gravity and spiraled into the rugged, wooded hills below.
took quite a few of 'em with us, didn't we, babe?"
suddenly found himself in the trees and braced for a rough landing. He wasn't
disappointed. Crashing through the thick foliage, he struck a tree trunk with
his shoulder, bounced crazily and then slammed against a thick branch. Finally,
bruised, battered, and barely conscious, he came to an abrupt halt--dangling
ten feet in the air.
the sudden stillness, the sounds of pursuit could be heard in the distance. The
pitch-black of night was broken periodically by the erratic sweep of
searchlights. The sounds seeped into his consciousness, and finally galvanized
him into action.
took out his Army knife and quickly cut through his shoulder harness. Within
seconds he was on the ground and limping at a stumbling run. Stopping to get
his bearings after a few minutes of a reckless, headlong dash, he found the
North Star and started heading in a direction that took him away from the fast
approaching German patrol.
he muttered. "A thousand grid squares, and I land in Kraut central."
End of Part 1