I have been a little behind on entries into my blog, but it is not a result of laziness or procrastination, but I have been taking a writing class. More specifically, a class on writing fiction. I am a firm believer in continuous learning. The more you know, the more well rounded you are as a person. Plus, when you are at a party, you can come up some all sorts of good stuff to entertain (bore perhaps) other guests. I finished up my last assignment just yesterday and want to catch back up. In honor of Memorial Day (stay tuned for an article about the Doolittle Raid within the couple of days), I decided to write a story about a young World War II pilot who gets shot down behind enemy lines. Drawing on materials I have read over time, and maybe a reference to Hogan’s Heroes (see the tunnel portion of the story and imaging a hollowed out tree stump for the entrance/exit), I think it turned out better than I hoped. Does this mean I will write a book one day? Who knows, but I would like to do it at some point.
“Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I shall fear no evil, because I am the meanest son-of-a-bitch in the valley,” calmly said Johnny as he released his payload on the German airfield. The two bombs fell into a row of German fighters, exploding into a fiery vortex consuming aircraft and soldiers alike. Pulling his P-47 Thunderbolt into a shallow climb, Lieutenant Jonathan “Johnny” Sullivan glanced over his shoulder back to the airfield admiring his work. The surviving German soldiers were scurrying around amidst the chaos trying to mount a defense. Beneath the oxygen mask, Johnny was smiling.
“Form on me, I want one more pass on the field,” said Captain Jack Rutherford, leader of the attack flight. “Anyone damaged?”
Each of the other three pilots in the flight responded with negatives.
“They’re on alert now. Keep it as low as you can, maintain your speed,” said Rutherford. “Sullivan, I want those fuel tanks on the north side. All others follow me and hit those hangars.”
The group of P-47s circled around for the second attack run. Taking advantage of a shallow valley, the four P-47s raced towards the field. The snow-covered ground blurred past the aircraft as each pilot focused on his altitude and speed. As they approached the final two kilometers, each of the aircraft broke from formation to begin their attack. Flashing lights from tracers streaked past Johnny’s canopy. Another time and place they would be beautiful, mystifying even; however, now they represented destruction and death. Johnny was lined up on the two large fuel tanks next to the hangars. His left hand was pushing the throttle control to the limit in an effort to pull every ounce of power in his engine. He made a conscious effort not so grasp the control stick too tightly by flexing his fingers, lightly tapping the trigger. As he approached his target, Johnny let loose a deadly barrage of lead from his guns, ripping the tanks apart. A growing fireball emerged into the sky, swirling and transforming itself into a large black cloud of smoke.
Johnny closed his eyes as he had no choice but to fly through the rising dense smoke. As he emerged on the other side, the sky was clear and just a few moments he would be out of range and free to regroup with fellow pilots. Tracers rushed past his cockpit, followed by the unmistakable metallic pings of bullet strikes. With a touch of the rudder, Johnny skewed his aircraft, throwing off the aim of the German gunners. A quick glance to the right wing revealed some holes in the skin, but looked to be superficial. He winced at the impending conversation he would have with chief mechanic and the trouble he would be in for wrecking ‘his’ airplane. All in due time, thought Johnny. He still had to clear the airfield and get back home safe.
Johnny’s P-47 was shuddered by the explosion of anti-aircraft fire. The engine began to hesitate and sputter. The controls felt a little sluggish. He eased back on the throttle and began to climb the aircraft. Johnny pulled up his aircraft into a climb to gain precious altitude and could hopefully nurse his way back to the base.
“Captain, I’ve taken some dam…”
Just then a second burst of anti-aircraft file exploded, throwing his aircraft over to its side. Johnny’s cat-like reflexes applied opposite ailerons which enabled him to recover, and he did not have to check his instruments to know the engine was failing. His canopy was being splattered with oil, and the engine was bellowing a thick black smoke. He pulled back more on the throttle, and felt the rushing heat from up front. Smoke also began to work its way into the cockpit. Johnny knew the engine was failing.
“I’m hit,” Johnny shouted over the radio. “I’m on fire, I’m on fire! I got to get out!”
Without waiting for a response, he prepped himself for bailing out. He still had reasonable control over the aircraft, but the growing fire under the cowling and with the fluids of the engine spewing out, the aircraft could explode. Unbuckling the belts, Johnny threw off the canopy and gently rolled the aircraft over. Flying free from the stricken aircraft, he was grateful his parachute finally opened and glanced over to watch his beloved P-47 in a flaming death spiral. A muffled boom indicated the moment of impact, to which Johnny could not stand to watch. The column of smoke would be a beacon for any German search parties to start. He would have to move as fast as possible to put as much distance between him and the wreckage.
The ground quickly approached, Johnny’s mind raced to remember his training for parachute landings. He forced himself to not tense his muscles and readied himself for the hit and roll upon impact. Thankfully he was coming in a clearing and did not have to worry about getting caught in any trees or deal with any water.
Seconds after hitting the ground, he quickly released the parachute and harness and stuffed as much as he could in some bushes nearby. Not enough to fully hide his parachute, but every second he gained now would increase the chances of evasion and hopeful rescue. Johnny zipped up his flight jacked against the cold wind, and absently patted his sidearm drawing some comfort. Dashing into the trees for cover, Johnny ran as hard as he could.
The sun continued to blaze its path down below the horizon, and the emerging shadows gave the winds a frigid chill. It was going to be a long night.
Johnny was growing fatigued. He estimated that maybe two hours had elapsed since the crash. He was hopelessly lost and not sure what to do. He could keep running, but in the darkness, he could easily be running deeper into German territory.
“Hold it there, Yank. Let’s see those hands,” said a voice from the darkness.
Johnny froze and held his hands half way up. His muscles tensed as he debated whether or not to draw his sidearm. The quarter moon gave some illumination in the cold January evening. He wondered if he could simply sprint off further into the wooded area. Surely the man could not shoot accurately in the darkness. Johnny was not sure if there were others, and the man did have a British accent. He was not sure if he was an ally, or working for the Germans. Johnny wondered what a Brit was doing out here at all.
“Turn around nice and easy,” said the voice. A figure emerged from the shadows. The man approached and relieved Johnny of his sidearm. “No need for any accidents. Here put this on,” said the man tossing over a hood. “Don’t try to be a cowboy. I’ve got you covered. Stay quiet and do what I say and nobody gets hurt.”
The man prodded Johnny forward through the trees. He tried to keep track of direction and for how long they went, but he was constantly stumbling over the uneven terrain. Eventually the man led Johnny to a small, primitive cabin. After making a final check to see if anyone was present or if they were followed, the man led Johnny inside.
The man directed Johnny to a chair at the table in the center of the room. The man then removed the hood. Johnny’s eyes were quick to adapt to the dimly lit room. The room was a basic square, obviously designed for basic functionality. There was a cot in one corner, and a desk with a radio unit off to the side. A few small crudely constructed cabinets were lined against the wall. The large blanket covering the only window kept light from escaping. This was definitely a hideout, thought Johnny as he glanced around the room.
“Do you want something to drink?” said the man. “You look like you could use one. Hungry?”
The man was average weight and height, short brown hair. No traits that would stand out in a crowd. He wore dark green pants and a navy blue woolen jacket, complete with the French stereotypical beret. Probably pushing forty thought Johnny.
“Lieutenant Jonathan Sullivan. Serial number 240241,” said Johnny.
“That’s well enough, lad, but you did not answer the question.”
“Lieutenant Jonathan Sullivan. Serial number 240241.”
“Do you think I’m a bloody Jerry? Stick that name, rank, and serial number nonsense up your arse,” said the man. “I know you’re the American pilot the Germans were looking for. I’m actually here to help.”
“Why the hood then? Why force me here at gunpoint?” Johnny gestured to the hood tossed off to the side.
“Think about it, Yank. Someone sneaking up on you at night when you alert for Germans,” said the man. “I want to get back home myself one day. Getting shot in the middle of the woods is not part of the plan.”
“What’s your name anyway?” said Johnny.
“The less you know the better we all are. Just call me William if that works for you.”
Garbled voices from the radio interrupted the awkward moment of silence between the two men. William made some minor adjustments to clear up the signal. The voices were German, and William began to focus on what was being said and jotted down some notes. Johnny was watching, but began to look towards the door. He was not sure William was going to help, or if this was some elaborate ruse. He could still make a break for it. William was busy working with the radio.
“Oh yea, your pistol is in the bag on the bed.” William gestured to the bed without turning his head away from the radio. “You may need it before we’re finished.”
Johnny cast a final glance to the door but strode over to the bed to retrieve his sidearm and placed it back in its holster.
“You can get some water from the well just outside the door to your left. I don’t have much for food at the moment, but help yourself to some of that dried meat in that cabinet there,” said William. “If you need to relieve yourself, pick any tree out there. If you need to dig a hole, pick a tree further out, will you?”
For the first time since the crash Johnny caught himself smiling. He went out to relieve himself and was quite thirsty as the adrenaline of combat long since wore off. His mouth was parched from the constant running.
“Listening to anything interesting?” asked Johnny as he came back inside.
“Just some idle chatter, nothing interesting, which is fine with me. There’re no indications the Germans are actively searching near here, so we are probably safe for the moment,” said William. “You look beat. Get some sleep and we can plan in the morning.”
Johnny did not have to be asked again, and immediately got comfortable on the small cot.
“Have you ever been on a submarine?” asked William.
“Can’t say I have. What does this have to do with us?”
“You’ll find out. It’s late, get some sleep and I’ll keep watch for a while.”
Johnny barely heard the last part as his body succumbed to the impending unconsciousness.
“Hang tight, lad. We have to hold off until dusk at the earliest. You can leave now if you want. Be sure to give my regards to the Germans when they get you.”
Johnny was fidgeting his hands repeatedly as he sat watching William monitor the radio. Johnny did not respond and knew William was right. The darkness was the safest time to go. Johnny drummed his fingers on the table and was tapping his leg up and down.
“You said something about a submarine,” said Johnny trying to use conversation to calm his nerves.
“Standard procedure. I help airmen like you get back to England,” said William. “I radio the Royal Navy and set up a rendezvous to pick you up. Then it is easy sailing back home and then you’ll be someone else’s problem. Pretty easy actually, unless he run into the Gestapo or patrolling German soldiers. Then we may have to get creative.”
“Whatever it takes to get back home.”
“Alright, but I will need to pass you off as a Frenchman before we can go,” said William. “It will be dark soon. Let’s get to work. Here put these on.” He pulled out some civilian clothes and tossed them over to William. “You need to at least look somewhat French. Your name is Pierre in case we run into trouble.”
“What if I can’t speak French?” Johnny began to put on the old clothes.
“That’s why you let me do the talking.”
“What if that doesn’t work?”
“Then I pull out my MP-40 and spray enough lead to cover our escape. Listen, I have been doing this long enough, and have not encountered anything that I could not handle. Don’t worry, we’ll be fine.”
Johnny changed into the clothes William provided and checked himself in the mirror. He continued to play around with the beret, unfamiliar with the look and feel, but decided that it would have to do. Hopefully they would not be caught or confronted.
“We need to head out in about an hour. Get something to eat and drink while we wait,” said William.
Johnny began to go through one of the cabinets in the search of something he considered edible. Just something to quiet his stomach would be fine, at least until he could get some decent chow back at his or any base for that matter.
“Quiet! I heard something.”
Johnny quickly closed the door and crouched, moving towards the window.
William quickly powered off the radio and grabbed his German MP-40 machine gun. In the woods, muffled voices could be heard.
“Bloody Hell! That sounds like German,” whispered William. He quietly brought his gun to bear and peered out of the window. Johnny quietly removed his gun and readied it. The voices became louder and the Germans would most assuredly notice their cabin.
Both men froze in place, trying not to make a sound. Johnny quietly made sure his pistol was loaded and mentally braced himself for a firefight. When flying combat missions, Johnny had confidence in his aircraft, and felt a sense of control. Here on the ground, inside the small cabin in the woods, he felt naked. The lack of control added to his sense of vulnerability. His fate hinged on the chance the German patrol noticed the small, dark cabin and if so whether or not they wished to investigate or simply wanted to get out of the weather. Johnny barely noticed William pointing at a small rug over towards a corner in the room.
William crawled across the wooden floor, carefully not making unnecessary sounds. He shifted the rug over to reveal a small trap door. Quietly he pried it up and gestured Johnny to climb down the crude ladder leading into darkness. Johnny quickly descended the steps and moved off to the side. William shortly followed suit, but not before tugging on a string attached to the rug to cover the hatch once closed.
“Follow me,” whispered William. “The tunnel leads off into the trees for about thirty meters. It’s a little tight, but we can crawl out of here and be on our way.”
The space beneath the trap door was enough for two adults to fit comfortably, but off to the side, there was a smaller section leading away. William lit a small lantern and pushed it ahead of him as he began to crawl further into the tunnel. Johnny noticed the tunnel was actually comprised of crude wooden planks lined up on the top and bottom and periodic support beams leading into the darkness. Although a makeshift setup, Johnny took comfort in the durable construction and was very pleased with the prospect of escape over possible death or capture at the hands of the Germans.
William came to the end of the tunnel and glanced back at Johnny. “I’ll go first and make sure we are clear. Look for my signal. Once out, we’ll need to get moving. Understand?”
Johnny nodded his head and watched William climb the steps nailed into the shaft leading up. William doused the light and slowly lifted a hatch centered in some brush. He turned his head to look for any patrolling Germans and climbed out. With no signs of investigating soldiers, he gestured into the tunnel for Johnny to follow. Both men crept clear of the brush and began to quickly move out.
William came to a halt and put his finger on his lips to discourage Johnny from making any sounds. The breath of the two men burst into the cold night air. William listened for any sounds indicating soldiers, and was thankful it was still quiet. “Here’s the deal. We are about six miles from the coast. The rendezvous with the sub is on for midnight. Follow my lead and you should be fine.” The two men continued their run to freedom.
William checked his watch for the fifth time since they arrived at the coast. It was 11:57 pm. Johnny swore that the last few minutes seemed like hours as he kept his nervous vigil. There were still no signs of others. When the watch read 11:59 pm as William pulled out a flash light and began sending codes out into the dark sea. Johnny was concerned after seeing no response. After five additional minutes, William spotted a response from out in the water.
“That’s the signal, Yank. Looks like you’re home free,” said William studying the water. “Looks like we’re in the clear.”
Johnny emerged from the tree line and took a couple of steps before noticing that William was holding back.
“Aren’t you coming?” said Johnny.
“Is the war over? No, lad, I have work yet to do. Until you flyboys learn to not get shot down, I will continue to have a stream of packages in need of help. I need a favor though. Can you take this letter back with you and send it to my mother?” William handed a note to Johnny.
“Sure. William, ah, I don’t know how to…”
“You can thank me by blowing up more of these bloody bastards. There’s still work to do. Here comes the raft. Ready?”
Johnny gave a quick nod and grasped William’s offered hand in a final greeting. With a quick glance, Johnny jogged towards the surf to the approaching raft and to his freedom.