The rich, dark tones of the slice of pecan pie contrasted sharply against the background of the white porcelain dessert plate. Pecan had always been Emory Tucker’s favorite and it took him no time at all to slide the plate off the edge of the table while simultaneously grabbing a fork from the other end. Turning from the table, he surveyed the church’s fellowship hall for the distinctive sight of Hannah’s blonde hair and soon spotted her off to his left.
It was Christmas 1946, but in many ways the war still raged on for Emory. Not even the familiarity and joy of his church’s annual Christmas pie social could completely expunge the memories of the South Pacific. But, where other methods failed, Hannah had succeeded. The young German woman’s presence had, since he first met her under the tall evergreen pine in their school days, superseded all other worldly influences.
But as Emory turned toward Hannah, his path was suddenly interrupted by the appearance of Mrs. Francis Bellrose, a widow known by Emory since his childhood. She had always been the meekest of persons and interposing herself in Emory’s path seemed to take extreme effort in addition to causing significant emotional discomfort as well. A woman in her late 50’s, she stood before the taller young man dressed in clothing which had been more stylish prior to the war and which had faded with the passing of many seasons. Her shoulders were slumped forward as if expecting a reprimand and her nervous eyes peered out from beneath a crown of graying hair and a pair of dark-rimmed glasses to make intermittent contact with Emory’s.
“Well, hello, Emory,” Mrs. Bellrose began nervously. “I mean, excuse me for stepping in your way.”
She smiled and laughed timidly while pushing her glasses farther up the bridge of her nose.
“A..Are you enjoying yourself tonight?”
“As a matter of fact, I am, Mrs. Bellrose,” he responded. “And, as you can see…”
Emory held up his plate of pecan pie.
“I have returned for a slice of your award-winning pecan pie.”
Mrs. Bellrose laughed again nervously and her gaze dropped to the floor as if she felt the compliment was undeserved. As she did so, it was almost as if Emory could physically see the weight she bore upon her shoulders. She had lost her husband many years ago in a locally well-known but tragic farming accident and had raised their only son, Henry, alone. Her hardship was not that she had lacked support from her church family, it was just that no matter what path Francis chose, it inevitably proved to be the most difficult. Nothing ever came easily and life in its typical merciless tendency had left its unmistakable mark. Loneliness and financial burdens had etched their lines into her journey, and Henry had fared no better.
“Emory,” Mrs. Bellrose began, her gaze still fixed on the floor. “Forgive me for asking, especially at this time of year, but I fear if I do not ask now then I shall never have the courage to ask again.”
Her gaze rose to meet Emory’s.
“I can’t imagine the memories and scars that you must bear from the war. But, I also know that you served with my Henry. Yet, you never speak of him, and have not since you returned home and he did not.”
Her gaze fell to the floor as if the request was too much to bear.
“Emory, I must know what happened to him.”
Even before the question had been fully posed, the surroundings of the church’s fellowship hall began to fade and Emory once again felt the warmth of the South Pacific sun streaming through the glass canopy of his cockpit and heard the engine’s roar as his mind returned to a place and time far away…
The hit on Henry’s Corsair had undoubtedly caught him completely off guard although Emory, from a higher altitude, had seen the Japanese fighter swoop skillfully onto Henry’s 6 o’clock position and rake the American fighter with heavy machine gun and cannon fire before breaking off. Smoke began instantaneously to trail from the engine as Henry struggled to maintain control and altitude. Emory rolled his Corsair into a shallow dive.
“Hang on, Henry,” Emory called into his microphone. “I’m on my way.”
“I didn’t see him Emory…” Henry replied. “He was on me before I knew it.”
“Are you hurt?”
“No, I’m ok, but my plane’s another story. She’s bleeding oil and I’m losing pressure. ”
Emory scanned the horizon and saw multiple American warships to the east of a nearby lush green Pacific island. He pulled alongside Henry’s mortally wounded Corsair.
“Can you keep her nose up?”
Henry was obviously struggling.
Emory peered through Henry’s clear canopy at his young friend at the controls and, even from that distance, he could sense the panic intensifying. He and Henry had known each other from grade school and this was certainly not the first time that Emory’s assistance had been required in a crisis. Henry always meant well, but the fortunes of nature and destiny seemed always opposed to him. He had lost his father as a child and had been subsequently raised by his mother. Because of Henry’s frequent failures, he lacked confidence which in turn hampered his social skills as he seemed almost innately to believe that he was a poor substrate from which a proper friend could be formed.
Emory had always been sympathetic to Henry and his mother but also felt great apprehension for his well-being when Henry expressed the desire to join Emory in the Navy once they had both reached combat age. Henry had no flying experience while Emory had helped to support his family by crop dusting the fields of Southern Georgia in a surplus Curtiss Jenny biplane left over from the Great War. Emory had gently expressed his concerns to Henry, but his friend’s mind was set as he explained that he felt as if his life had never really served a purpose and that, additionally, he had as much right as anyone to defend his nation.
Emory wondered if Henry regretted that decision as his Corsair continued to lose altitude.
“Listen, Henry,” Emory continued. “You know what to do. You can’t maintain altitude and she‘ll never make it back to the Intrepid. Bail out while you still have enough altitude for your chute to open.”
Henry responded with a thumbs up sign and immediately opened and locked his fighter’s canopy. He then unbuckled his safety harness and rolled the Corsair over on its back. With the assistance of gravity and the plane’s airspeed, Henry slipped out of the cockpit and sailed unscathed past the tail fin. It was a textbook bailout and within a few seconds Emory saw Henry’s chute blossom against the blue of the Pacific below. He breathed a sign of relief as he banked his fighter to get a better view of Henry’s descent.
But the relief was short-lived as a flash from the sun reflecting off of a metallic surface at three o’clock low caught Emory’s attention. To his horror, he noted a Japanese fighter, presumably the one that had downed Henry’s Corsair earlier, closing in rapidly on Henry’s chute.
“No…” Emory whispered recalling the well known tactics of some of the Japanese pilots. He rolled his Corsair over into a steep dive to intercept the enemy fighter but his instincts already were screaming that he would never make it in time. Almost as if time slowed to a crawl in spite of his plane’s swift descent, Emory saw the enemy fighter level out directly in front of Henry’s chute, open up its guns, and surround Henry with tracer rounds. Even at that distance Emory could see Henry’s body lurch under the impact and swing downward at an awkward angle as one of the rounds severed one of the parachute straps. The enemy fighter then veered off into a steep dive toward the ocean.
Time seemed to crawl forward for Emory, his propeller appearing to slow almost to the point of stopping altogether as the sound of his engine grew fainter. The white chute remained suspended in midair carrying the lifeless body of his friend whose single desire had been to find purpose. For people to stop laughing at his misfortunes. To give his mother, who had known nothing but sorrow, something to be proud of. Emory envisioned Henry’s mother, awaiting the return of her only boy, the single blue cloth star displayed prominently in her Georgia home’s front window. With complete clarity, Emory knew what he had to do.
The propeller suddenly spun at full speed and the engine roared anew as Emory opened the throttle, switched to war emergency power, and banked into a steep dive to follow the tiny speck now diving toward the tropical island off to his left. The water and methanol injection surged into his engine and Emory could feel the increased power pulse through the frame of his aircraft. His Corsair was superior in almost every measure, but the Japanese plane already had a significant head start and, after witnessing his attack on Henry, Emory sensed that his enemy was a skilled and deadly pilot.
The Corsair easily pushed 500 mph in its steep dive; it’s distinctive whistle piercing the air as it did so. The Japanese fighter grew slightly larger through Emory’s canopy as the enemy plane leveled out and flew straight toward the island. As he closed the distance, Emory could see his opponent glide just above the waves and fly straight toward a gap in the jungle vegetation which extended back from the beach and cut into the tropical forest beyond. That gap was the mouth of a river, and it was to this landmark that the enemy was headed.
“You think I won’t follow you in there,” Emory growled, fully understanding the danger ahead. “You couldn’t be more mistaken.”
His attention momentarily passed to the photo of Hannah attached to his control panel. Even in the black and white photo, her features remained stunning and his hand stretched out to touch the treasured image.
“Es tut mir leid, meine Liebe, aber ich muss das tun. Für Henry.” (I’m sorry, my love, but I have to do this. For Henry.)
The jungle soon swallowed the Japanese fighter with Emory closing the distance rapidly in pursuit. Emory threaded the eye of the needle with the beach and river bed streaking by only feet below the underbelly of his fighter. The rugged Corsair was immediately swallowed as well by the lush greenery with the line of trees along the river bank providing very little maneuvering room. Here, he could afford no mistakes.
Emory hugged the river bed matching every curve and turn of its flow, all the while closing on his prey. He could see the enemy fighter ahead but a clear shot did not present itself as the aircraft would curve around a bend in the river before Emory could pull the trigger. Edging closer with each turn, the Corsair hugged the water so closely that spray from the river flew up in a fine mist in its wake.
Emory’s focus was unwavering as the South Georgian crop duster employed every skill ever learned to maintain pursuit and avoid the treacherous terrain threatening him from all sides. A gentle spirit by nature, Emory nonetheless tenaciously clung to his adversary. Henry may have been his latest victim, but Emory would assure that he would be his last.
Banking to the right to navigate the next turn, Emory caught sight of the tail of the fleeing Japanese fighter. Rolling up to his left, Emory lined up and opened a brief burst from his six .50 caliber guns. The tracers surrounded the rear third of the fighter and Emory saw debris fly off as the deadly projectiles struck home.
No sooner had Emory’s guns fallen silent that Emory heard an ominous and rhythmic boom to his rear, followed by the flash of tracers streaking by outside his canopy. There was no need to investigate their source, for Emory already instinctively knew that he now had a Japanese fighter on his tail. The hunter had become the hunted.
Undeterred, Emory pressed the attack as the damage his guns had inflicted, while not a killing blow, had hampered the lead fighter and its maneuverability had been compromised. Curving around the next bend, Emory eased inside into firing position and released another blast full broadside into the lead fighter which immediately trailed smoke as the engine caught fire.
Immediately, Emory saw the canopy of the doomed plane fly open and the pilot began to emerge. Bailing out was not an option at that altitude as it was far too low for his parachute to open and Emory understood that it would be far more honorable in his adversary’s mind to take his own life rather than to have it claimed by this tenacious American.
“For Henry…” Emory whispered as his guns roared and poured deadly fire directly into the cockpit even as a shell from his attacker took a glancing blow off of the Dural armor protecting the Corsair’s canopy. The forward fighter disintegrated and erupted into an enormous orange fireball as it slammed into the tree line on the far bank. Pulling back on the stick, Emory eased his Corsair into a climb out of the riverbed, over the tree line and through the fireball itself. Realizing that his pursuer would lose sight of him temporarily as he passed through the flames, Emory immediately cut his throttle and, with the skillful use of flaps and ailerons, placed his Corsair into a slide which rapidly bled off the plane’s speed. As his pursuer flew past him, Emory held the trigger down and raked the fighter with point blank fire. The fighter shuddered under the pounding and burst into flame before plunging into the jungle, the Corsair rolling and climbing swiftly out of reach of the inferno below.
Emory’s sturdy Corsair had been hit but shrugged off the damage as it soared above the lush green of the island dotted by two blemishes of rising black smoke. Turning his head in all directions, Emory saw no sight of friend or foe. His actions had been witnessed by no one save Him who sees all, and Emory, out of respect and humility, resolved not to report his two victories. Instead, he allowed his mind to accept the calm of the Pacific below and settle on the silhouette of the USS Intrepid cruising in the distance.
Such was Emory’s accurate remembrance of the account, but it was not the way that he chose to retell it. As the memory of the South Pacific faded and returned to the church’s fellowship hall, he found himself unable to tell the grieving widow before him of the humiliating death of her child. Instead, but not without some hesitation, Emory gave his story to Henry as he told his mother the story of a young man who lost his life among the Pacific clouds, but not before sending a threatening enemy ace crashing to the earth in flames. As the story unfolded, tears began to fill Francis’ eyes and her trembling hand covered her mouth, but this time without shame. Her countenance brightened and she directly returned Emory’s gaze. Her shoulders straightened as the weight lifted. With her brow furrowed in gratitude, she touched Emory’s arm and returned to the social with more pride than he could every remember, leaving the young man standing alone holding his porcelain pie plate.
A familiar touch on his arm brought Emory back to reality as he turned to gaze to Hannah’s sapphire eyes. However, his eyes soon returned to the pie plate as he stood reliving the story over and over. As his eyes closed, Emory’s emotions began to overwhelm him.
“You gave her your story,” Hannah whispered as she leaned in and placed her chin on his shoulder. “There is no greater gift.”
Emory, nodded, his gaze still downcast.
“It’s Christmas. Why should we both suffer?”
It was the only response Emory could manage, an audible tremble building in his voice. Hannah immediately recognized that he was in danger of being swept away.
“It’s alright,” she whispered gently turning his head until she met his tearful gaze. “Look at me…look at me…only at me…it’s alright…”
Pulling him close, she placed her arms around his neck.
“Lass das dein letzter Kampf sein,” she repeated gently. “Let this be your last battle.”
Refusing to release her hold, she felt the tension ease in Emory as she saw at a distance and over his shoulder the smiling figure of Mrs. Bellrose, finally at peace.
“And for you as well,” Hannah whispered.