The lone B-17 struggled to remain airborne. The pilot, Jim Franklin, checked the number two engine just outside the window to his left to make sure the engine fire remained extinguished. The engine was dead, having caught fire after taking a hit from anti aircraft defenses on the bombing run over the German city of Bremen, the flames leaving behind a telltale black scar streaking rearward across the wing. The three remaining engines kept the heavy American bomber airborne but incapable of keeping pace with the rest of the bomber group. The mood was somber among the remaining men as they all understood their slim chances of survival away from the protection of the group and each man on board, with that fact in mind, decided to invest himself quietly in his duties. Besides, the tail gunner Eddy Humphries would not be coming home after attempting to fight off an approaching Messerschmitt fighter, and it just didn’t seem right to be chatting it up as if nothing had happened when Eddy’s cot would be empty that night. That is, if they ever actually made it back to their own cots.
Jim mechanically pushed through his usual checklist as he reviewed all the gauges and dials on the panel in front of him. For the moment, all seemed stable as the big bomber lumbered westward on the return flight to England. He then quickly glanced over to the seat next to him only a few feet away in which sat his copilot, Daniel “Danny Boy” Lawrence who was similarly busy inspecting the gauges in front of him.
The flight team of Jim and Danny could not have been comprised of a more unusual and yet more efficient pair. Jim was from southeastern Alabama, not too far from the cotton capital city of Enterprise. His childhood had consisted of farming, hunting, fishing and various forms of manual labor all of which entrusted him with a great respect for the outdoors. He was a natural mechanic with steely nerves and it did not take the Army Air Corps long to recognize his talents as a pilot.
Danny, in contrast, hailed from Long Island New York, from Brooklyn to be exact. Italian food, traffic, concrete and steel were his specialty. Before meeting Jim, he had never known anyone from the Deep South, much less Alabama, and it took him some time to understand the slow cadence of the southerner’s speech. In spite of their friendship, Danny nonetheless never missed an opportunity to mimic the pilot’s accent. He was, however, always surprised by Jim’s quick wits and, although he would have never admitted it openly, he rarely emerged as the winner from their verbal jousts. The Southerner was simply too fast on his feet, even for the fast talking New Yorker.
But there was now no time for humor. The oppressive strain that both men felt weighing down on their shoulders was undeniable. Counting themselves, there remained nine souls aboard the plane, all of whom desperately wanted to see the fields of England once more. Nine souls for whom they felt completely responsible.
The silence began to be oppressive and so, in an attempt to keep his crew focused, Jim cleared his thoughts and spoke into the intercom.
“Alright ladies,” he began. “I know Jerry has left us alone for now, but you can bet he’ll be back. Keep your eyes open.”
“Hey cap,” responded the smooth voice of Ridgeway “Ridge” Taylor the ball turret gunner. “I just wanted to remind you that my gun position was, shall we say, slightly compromised during this mission and I’m afraid remains somewhat unserviceable at the moment.“
Jim shook his head in mild amusement as Ridge was always known for being long-winded.
“Therefore,” Ridge continued. “I have moved back to the tail gun position. I can still be your eyes back here but Eddy’s .50 cal gun took a hit so I’m afraid I am not going to be able to do much more than hurl some harsh language at any fighters that show up.”
“Fair enough,” Jim responded. “Call out what you see. Keep the chatter down.”
“That’s Ridge you’re talking to there,” replied Bobby Quinn, the right waist gunner. “If you tape his mouth closed, he’ll blow up.”
“Enough about explosions,“ Ridge responded. “I’ve had enough of things blowing up for one day.”
The solitude, interrupted only by the background noise of the remaining engines, returned as the intercom fell silent. Jim inhaled deeply as he gazed once again out the left window across the dead number two engine. The day, aside from the horrors of war, had been beautiful from a weather standpoint with cotton-like clouds intermittently obscuring the October sky. Jim watched as the bomber lumbered on, its wings slicing through the intermittent clouds.
“Jim,” Danny’s voice suddenly recalled the pilot from his musings.
“Uh huh,” Jim responded as he turned to face his copilot, noticing that Danny did not have his usual carefree demeanor.
“What’s on your mind?”
“This mission is different.”
Jim wrinkled his forehead.
“Listen,” Danny began. “I’m only telling you this because I know you’re not the superstitious type. You know how the rest of us are. It’s just that last night before we left, I had this dream.”
“You put much stock in dreams?”
“I reckon I haven’t thought about it much.”
“See, now there’s your problem,” Danny responded. “You don’t think enough. Well, I don’t dream that much. At least not about home. I mean, I’m a New Yorker. I’m not the nostalgic type. So, when I dreamed about being back home, it got my attention.”
“So what’s wrong with dreaming about home?”
“Now see, if you were the superstitious type, you would understand what that means. It’s not a good thing, but you’re too busy farming and picking cotton to have time for such as that.
“Maybe so,” Jim responded with a laugh. “But then again I’m not the one using his pilot as a shrink.”
“But see,” Danny continued as if he didn’t hear. “Last night I had a dream that I was back home. In my own bed. It was as if I woke up and could hear all the usual sounds. I could hear my mother humming in the kitchen, and most of all, I could smell the sweet scent of my mother’s cornbread muffins coming from the oven.”
“I hate to rain on your parade,” Jim interrupted. “But if it’s sweet, it’s not cornbread. It’s cake.”
“Whatever,” Danny replied. “That’s not the point, hillbilly.”
“Not a hillbilly. It’s flat where I come from.”
“Are you going to listen to my story or not?”
“Alright, I’m done pulling on your chain. For now.”
“So you see,” Danny resumed. “It’s never a good sign to dream about home before a mission. Especially as vivid as this one was. It could mean that you’re close to the end of your rope. You know, that your time could be running out and your luck is about shot. That kind of thing.”
“Why couldn’t it mean that this whole thing is going to be over soon and we’ll all be going home?” Jim offered.
“You’re way too optimistic,” Danny replied as he motioned out his window. “Have you actually looked at this plane? We’re shot to pieces and we’re all alone. It’s not looking good for us.”
“Just don’t let the others hear you say that.”
“Believe me, they already know it. Bombers like us in the shape we’re in don’t come back.”
“It’s just that they look up to you, Danny. Hearing it from you would snatch away whatever little bit of hope they have left.”
Danny nodded his head.
“I’m being serious though when I tell you that I appreciate you telling me,” Jim responded sincerely. “You’re just preachin’ what we all feel.”
“And what about you? You just sit there and grin and bear it?”
“You know I’m not superstitious.”
“Yeah, I know. But we’ve all got ways of dealing with it.”
Jim took a deep breath.
“I just believe that the story of my life was penned long before I was ever born by Someone who created me and loves me more than I can understand. I’m not leaving this world one second before I was meant to. If you believe that, it changes the way you look at things.”
“Like I said,” Danny continued unconvinced. “We’ve all got our ways.”
“I reckon so,” Jim replied. “It’s just that some ways are more true than others.”
Before Danny could respond, Bobby Quinn’s voice crackled over the intercom.
“Hey, Cap, we’ve got company.”
“Five o’clock. Same altitude as us. Looks like a single fighter.”
“Not sure, but it didn’t look like any German fighter I’ve ever seen.”
Danny immediately swung around in his seat to check out the sighting.
“I don’t see it, Jim. Just clouds.”
“Contact,” called Ridge from his new position in the rear. “Five o’clock coming out of the clouds.”
Danny strained his neck even further for a better view.
“They’re right. I see him now.”
“Call out what you see, Danny,” reminded Jim.
As Danny continued to observe and report, he noted immediately that the new visitor was not on an attack course, but was instead pulling alongside into an escort position. As it left the clouds behind, Danny observed that the fighter’s design was not German, but neither was it a typical friendly design from the skies over Europe.
“Bobby, is he showing any hostile signs?” Danny called back.
“Negative. He’s just pulling up alongside. Wait, he’s got American markings.”
“Hold your fire, then”
Danny watched in amazement as the solitary fighter drew in closer. It seemed to glide in with the grace of a soaring eagle all the while wagging its wings in greeting as it did so. The sun’s white light shimmered off of its pristine blue paint and, in fact, the entire plane had the appearance of having just rolled off the assembly line and never having faced combat at all. The large, powerful engine spun an oversized propeller which, even on casual observation, seemed capable of accelerating the plane to impressive speeds. The plane nonetheless had graceful lines and its design seemed familiar to Danny, but not from the European front. It definitely did not conform to the well known silhouettes of the P-47 and P-51.
“Can anyone tell me what plane that is?” Danny asked.
“It’s an F4U,” Ridge responded. “It’s a Corsair.”
“A Corsair?” Danny responded as he turned to look at Jim. “Those only serve in the Pacific, not here. I’ve never even seen one.”
Jim was as perplexed as Danny.
“See if you can raise him on the command radio.”
Danny’s attention returned to the unique visitor now clearly visible out his window. He could now easily see the pilot through the clear walls of his cockpit canopy. Danny seemed to catch his attention immediately at which point the fighter pilot greeted him with a salute. The new visitor then pointed to Danny, motioning to the entire bomber in the process, back to himself, and then straight ahead.
“What’s he doing?” Jim inquired.
“I think he’s saying that he’s going to escort us from here.”
“What’s a Corsair doing here?”
“What do you want me to do, send him a letter?” Danny responded. “You know there’s no way in the world I can ask him that without radio contact.”
At that exact moment, the radio operator’s voice crackled into their headsets.
“Sorry, Jim. I can’t seem to contact him. I tried every channel.”
Danny then turned again to see their new escort remaining steadfast out his window. Almost as if he anticipated what the next question would be, the fighter pilot pointed at his throat microphone and then drew his finger across his throat in a slashing motion.
“He seems to be motioning that his radio is out.”
There was a brief period of silence.
“This is all really odd,” Jim began. “Something’s not right. Can you see any other ID markings?”
Danny’s gaze returned to the fighter.
“He has the number ‘777’ in gold on the tail and engine.”
Danny continued his inspection. There was another emblem painted underneath the pilot’s canopy, and it took Danny a moment to decipher what it was.
“He’s got a pair of wings painted under his canopy.”
Danny turned back to Jim.
“What do you make of that?”
“Probably means he can fly.”
“Well,” Jim began as he looked across Danny and out the right window. “Maybe we shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth. This is definitely irregular but it’s not something that we can’t all figure out once we're on the ground. At least we have an escort. That’s certainly better than none.”
“Maybe so,” replied Danny. “But I’m not sure I trust him. And what good is a single fighter against the whole Luftwaffe anyway?”
“Time will tell,” Jim stated bluntly as he shrugged his shoulders. “Just keep your eyes on him and let me know if he does anything unusual.”
“He just flew in all the way from the Pacific. You can’t get much more unusual than that.”
Jim nodded in agreement as Danny’s gaze returned to their steadfast blue companion. The Corsair continued to maintain a consistent distance off the right wing. Danny could tell very little about the pilot except that his gaze seemed fixed forward save for the occasional glance to check on the struggling bomber. It was almost as if he was perfectly at ease. As if everything was unfolding exactly as it should.
“That is one nice-looking fighter,” mumbled Danny.
“Position?” Jim’s voice broke the silence.
The navigator’s voice crackled through the headset indicating that the beleaguered plane was now lumbering over The Netherlands.
“See,” Jim responded as he shot a glance over at his copilot. “We’re making progress.”
“Like I said before, you’re too optimistic. Jerry is still out there licking his chops.”
Bobby’s voice suddenly interrupted the conversation as he broke in over the intercom.
“Cap, you might want to take a look at our escort.”
Jim leaned forward to better see out Danny’s window. The sleek blue Corsair had begun to inch closer to the right side of the bomber while slowly gaining altitude. The pair watched in amazement as the fighter gradually began to slip into a position directly above the bomber.
“What’s he doing?” inquired Danny.
Jim’s only response was a slow shaking of his head.
“Ridge,” Danny called over the intercom. “We’ve lost eyes on our escort up front. Call out what you see.”
“Well,” Ridge responded. “He’s settled directly over us but he’s steadily climbing. He’s getting smaller and smaller as time goes by.”
“Kind of like Ridge’s brain,” Bobby whispered.
“I heard that.”
“I’ve got him,” Danny replied looking through the plexiglass pane directly overhead. As Ridge had indicated, Danny could see the lighter undercarriage of the fighter becoming smaller as it continued to climb.
“Nice of you to hang around,” Danny exhaled sarcastically. “I can’t blame you for heading home a little early, especially after all the Jerry’s you just shot down.”
Jim continued to watch the fighter through his own plexiglass pane but did not respond to Danny’s comments. There was not particular explanation for the emotion, but Jim could not deny a sense of sadness as the Corsair disappeared into the cloud cover. With a sigh, his gaze returned to the airspace ahead.
“Well,” continued Danny. “You know what they say.”
“They say lots of things these days.”
“I’m talking about when they say about you getting what you pay for.”
Jim nodded in agreement.
Danny’s attention then returned to the front of the bomber. Initially, nothing appeared to have changed. Most of the cloud cover remained above the bomber’s altitude and the sunlight still illuminated the Holland landscape far below. A sudden flash of light low and off to the left suddenly caught Danny’s attention. His arm immediately shot up to point at the area of the disturbance.
“There, 9 o’clock low.”
“I saw it,” Jim responded, having seen the flash at the same moment.
“Hold her steady,” Jim ordered as he reached behind him for his binocular case, an undeniable sense of dread descending as he did so. Jim unclasped the latch on the front of the case and slipped the binoculars free before raising the lenses to his eyes. After getting his bearings in the airspace in front of him, Jim soon located the single craft speeding towards them. Initially, Jim did not recognize the design but was awed by the rate of climb and the speed with which the small craft turned into their path. Even at that distance, Jim could see that it was a sleek vehicle with a green mottled color enhancing its almost shark-like appearance. It was not an Allied design, and Jim prayed against all odds that their presence might go unnoticed. This slim hope was short-lived, however, as the plane turned directly into the stricken B-17’s path. As it did so, a wave of terror knifed through Jim’s stomach as he realized that the plane had no propeller. Jim lowered his binoculars and handed them to Danny, his pale appearance unable to mask his anxiety.
“Our forward turret is out, right?” Jim asked as he motioned for Danny to investigate the incoming plane for himself.
“Yep,” Danny responded as he peered through the lenses. It only took a moment for the copilot’s emotions to match Jim’s. He lowered the glasses and immediately looked over at the pilot.
“You don’t think…it looks like a…”
“A Messerschmitt 262,” Jim completed the sentence.
“The German jet fighter,” Danny added.
“Ridge,” Jim called over the intercom. “I need you to stay sharp. Call out anything you see approaching from behind. We’ve got company up here.”
Jim glanced briefly at Danny, his attention never wavering from the developments to their front.
“These fighters are hardly ever alone,” Jim observed. “If we’ve got one in front, I’ll bet there’s another approaching from behind.”
“Jim, we’ve got nothing to defend ourselves with, front or back.” Danny observed. “We’re a sitting duck.”
“Eyes forward,” Jim responded with a nod.
“I mean, was it really too much to ask for our fearless escort to hang around at least long enough for Jerry to show up?” Danny added as he peered longingly through the overhead window.
“Maybe not,” Jim responded somberly. “But I’m not sure what chance he would have had against this fellow anyway.”
Jim’s focus returned to the stretch of sky ahead, the fighter now dead ahead and closing incredibly fast as the black exhaust from its twin jet engines tainted the sky behind it. The fighter grew in size as the jet accelerated and the distance between the two shrank incredibly fast.
“Whatever you’re gonna do, you’d better do it quickly,” Danny encouraged as his knuckles turned white.
“At that speed, he’ll only have a second or so at best to fire,” Jim responded. “Wait for me, and when I give the signal, we turn hard right. With his high approach speed, he may not have time to adjust. Maybe.”
“Hang on, fellas,” Jim’s voice crackled over the intercom. “It’s gonna get rough.”
“Get ready, Danny”
“He’s closing fast…”
The shark mouth and its bristling canon were almost within range when the sudden arrival of a new outside disturbance shattered the tense atmosphere. It was a sound difficult to describe; not quite a whistle or a scream but closer in character to a howl. Rising rapidly in intensity and pitch it quickly overshadowed the hum of the B-17’s remaining three engines and pierced its metal hull from above. Glancing quickly up through the overhead plexiglass, the two men’s gaze was met by the incredible sight of the Corsair streaking forward in a steep dive on an intercept course with the approaching jet.
“Look!” Danny exclaimed.
“Hold steady! Don’t turn! Let him do the work!”
Within only seconds, the graceful Corsair appeared as a blue blur as it streaked in front of the two men, seemingly close enough for them to reach out and touch the rear stabilizer. Leveling out directly in front of the them, the Corsair briefly eclipsed the view of the Messerschmitt before opening fire with its six .50 caliber guns. Caught completely off guard, the Messerschmitt was soon engulfed by tracers and the right engine erupted into flame. In mere seconds it spun violently out of control, dipped its nose and tumbled downward and to the left.
The two pilots remained paralyzed and speechless as they had no time to process what had just happened before Ridge’s distinctive voice burst over the intercom.
“Cap, Cap! Contact at 10 o’clock low and closing crazy fast!”
Danny caught Jim’s gaze.
“There’s your other bad guy.”
“And our guy’s now way out of position.”
“Cap, this Jerry is a different bird,” Ridge continued. “He’s…wait…is that a Schwalbe?”
The men recognized the German nickname for the Messerschmitt 262.
“Afraid so,” Jim responded.
“And just what was that commotion earlier?” Ridge continued. “All I heard was a lot of high-pitched howling.”
“No time to explain,” Jim responded. “But we’ve got some help now.”
Jim’s focus returned to his front, the silhouette of the Corsair growing smaller as the much swifter fighter continued to pull away rapidly from the bomber.
“Come back,” Jim whispered inaudibly as hope seemed to flee away with the Corsair. Almost as if on cue, the graceful fighter pulled up into a steep climb, silhouetting itself against the lighter blue background of the sky. It appeared to hang there suspended momentarily before rolling over smoothly and racing back toward the bomber from which it had come.
“What’s he doing?” Danny questioned.
“Follow me,” Jim responded. “ I think I know what he’s up to.”
Jim then reached down and opened the throttle on the three remaining engines.
“Now, what are you doing?”
“Ridge,” Jim spoke into the intercom without directly answering Danny. “What’s our situation?”
“Not good, Cap,” Ridge responded, the growing panic audible in his voice. “Still closing really fast. He’ll have us in his sights in no time.”
“We don’t have much time,” Jim’s instructions were aimed at Danny. “We have to close the distance between us and our friend as fast as we can. Open the throttles all the way. We have to push her.”
“She’ll fly apart!”
“She’ll hold together. She has to.”
The bomber’s three remaining engines roared under the strain, the large bomber surging forward with that final effort. The Corsair remained steadfast, streaking directly toward them as it gained velocity.
“Now is not a preferred time for a game of chicken,” Danny suggested.
The Corsair continued to bear down on them.
“Stay steady,” Jim ordered. “As the 262 pulls in behind us we’re blocking his view of the Corsair. Hold your course.”
The Corsair rapidly grew in size, coming straight at them.
“I know. Hold your course.”
“Cap!” Ridge exclaimed. “He’s on us!”
The Corsair was upon them at that exact moment as well and Jim saw the sudden flash of its .50 caliber guns, seemingly close enough to feel the heat from the muzzles. The tracers streaked by Jim’s window just clearing the upper surface of the left wing and the dead number two engine. The shells arced gracefully past the rear of the bomber and slammed into the approaching jet at the exact moment it arrived at its optimum firing distance. As the men watched in amazement, the canopy of the jet shattered before the left engine exploded and severed the fighter’s entire left wing causing the plane to spin out of control. The Corsair then altered its course just enough to sail over the left wing of the B-17, it’s left wingtip only inches from Jim’s side window.
Suddenly, the sky was clear. The roar of the bomber’s engines remained prominent and Jim reached out to ease back on the throttles.
“Both of them…” Danny began after several moments had passed. “He got both of them.”
Jim nodded without responding verbally.
“And I don’t think he even broke a sweat. I have never seen anyone fly like that.’
“Nor have I, “ Jim responded. “And I wouldn’t expect to anytime soon.’
Fatigue descended over the crew as the adrenaline began to subside and the skies remained quiet. The fact that they were still alive in the face of such incredible odds only then began to sink in fully. A sudden, but graceful movement outside of Jim’s window caught the pilot’s attention as the Corsair resumed its escort position. The fighter pilot, as calm as ever, gazed over at Jim and made sure that he had the pilot’s attention before motioning straight ahead. As Jim’s vision adjusted to the distance, he began to make out the coast of Northern Europe and the waters of the North Sea beyond. They had made it. England would be just beyond those waters. Jim gazed back at the fighter pilot, but could think of no appropriate way to express gratitude of such magnitude. Almost as if in understanding, the fighter pilot simply nodded and with a crisp motion of his hand, saluted the bomber.
“Are you all seeing this?” Danny inquired gently over the intercom.
“You’d better believe it,” Ridge replied. “Looks like someone came to say goodbye.”
“That is one elegant plane,” Bobby Quinn added.
For an instant, the Corsair remained seemingly motionless, its powerful engine humming in unison with the bomber’s. With ease and grace, the fighter then slowly began to gain altitude. The crew watched it slowly ascend, its lighter underbelly visible overhead as it settled over them. With one final flash of light from its pristine exterior, it disappeared into the overhead cloud cover and was gone from their sight,
After a moment of lingering tranquility, Danny’s rhetorical question broke the silence.
“So, Cap. What now?”
“Now,” Jim replied with a smile. “We go home.”
“So,” the Colonel growled angrily as he tossed the men’s report onto the desk in front of him. “Let me make sure I’ve got this straight. You fellows want me to believe that your damaged bomber was magically saved from not one but two Me 262’s by a single F4U Corsair?”
Jim and Danny stood at an uneasy attention in front of the colonel’s desk.
“That goes without saying that the closest American Corsair is thousands of miles from here shooting down Japanese Zero’s in the Pacific. But, I’m sure you fellows know that.”
The men remained at attention.
“Oh, sure,” the colonel continued sarcastically. “The Brits have a few but most ain’t colored blue and they’re nowhere near here. They’re mostly on carriers. And they’re certainly not escorting bombers.”
The colonel snapped forward and flipped the report folder back open.
“And what’s this nonsense about a fighter group ‘777’ painted on its tail?”
The colonel glowered at the two men.
“You know that no such fighter group exists, right?”
“Sir,” Jim began. “Permission to speak freely, sir.”
“Oh, pardon me, captain, but after telling me some outlandish story like that, I assumed you already were.”
“Sir, there is no other story to tell.”
“Listen to me, captain. You return with a shot up bomber and one of your crew dead. Unfortunately, by itself that story is pretty ordinary these days. But, what gets my dander up is that you come in here with some hair-brained story about being saved by a single American fighter whose type doesn’t even serve in Europe!”
The two men remained silent.
“Do you know what that sounds like, captain?”
The silence remained.
“It sounds like a cover-up. Like you’re hiding something.”
Jim remained steadfast.
“There is no other story to tell, sir. We are here, and that is because we were saved by a single Corsair.”
The papers on the desk rustled in the disturbance caused by the swift closing of the file. The colonel then sat back in his chair and stared briefly at the men in front of him, first at one and then the other.
“That will be all,” the colonel stated flatly. “Now get out of here.”
With a swift salute, both men turned quickly and left the room, the door latching behind them.
“You give out very little sugar with your judgments,” declared a voice from the corner of the room. “If I have permission to speak freely.”
“You and I have been friends for long enough, major,” the colonel responded. “You know you can always speak freely.”
“I think those boys were telling you the truth.”
“Maybe so. You can never be too sure.”
“No need to have been so uncivil. They were just doing their jobs.”
The colonel didn’t respond. The major then stepped out of the shadow, pulled up a chair and sat down directly in front of the colonel, the old wooden legs creaking as they accepted his weight.
“Besides,” the major continued. “I suppose I’m a little surprised at your reaction.”
The major crossed his legs as he eased back in the chair.
“Because, feel free to correct me, but wasn’t it you that told me that story from the Great War? You know the one. The one about an English Sopwith Camel biplane saving you from that German triplane? I don’t know, but didn’t you tell me that the numbers ‘777’ were painted on its tail? Or am I mistaken?”
The colonel stared intently at the paperwork on his desk before adding his final signature to the report from The B-17’s crew. Without answering, he closed the file for a final time and passed it to the major.
“Take this file to Ms. Johnson outside, if you wouldn’t mind,” the colonel responded with the vaguest hint of a smile.