A YANKEE FLIER OVER BERLIN
Illustrated by Paul Laune
Grosset & Dunlap Publishers : : New York
Copyright, 1944, by Grosset & Dunlap, Inc. All Rights Reserved
Printed in the United States of America
For LARRY SOUTHWICKE
A WARTIME BOOK
THIS COMPLETE EDITION IS PRODUCED IN FULL COMPLIANCE WITH THE GOVERNMENT'S REGULATIONS FOR CONSERVING PAPER AND OTHER ESSENTIAL MATERIALS.
I RUGGED GOING II ACTION III HULS IV SCOUTING MISSION V HIDDEN DROMES VI PRISONER VII ESCAPE VIII FLIGHT IX TRAPPED X SPY XI MUSTANG XII ZERO HOUR XIII SPY HUNT
A YANKEE FLIER OVER BERLIN
The Commanding Colonel stared at the big map with its red ribbons marking air trails to and from targets. He was spotting the exact point where his Third Fighter group would have to turn back and leave the big Fortresses and Liberators to go it alone into the concentrated defenses of Germany.
Weather Officer Miller looked glumly at the map as Colonel Holt placed his finger on a spot.
"6/10 cloud over station six." Station six was a Luftwaffe fighter field.
The colonel scowled and shook his head. "Are the big boys going out?"
"Yes, sir. Conditions over target are very good." Weather grinned when he said it.
"We won't get much of a whack at the Jerries," the colonel said rather testily.
"The Forts and Libs will make it through," Weather said with a lot of cockiness. He was beginning to act like the rest of the gang around headquarters who believed that the Forts and the Libs could go it alone all the way and shoot down any number of fighters the Germans could send up. Colonel Holt was a strong supporter for fighter cover. He was battling for a flock of longer-range fighters that could accompany the big fellows all the way to Berlin. The way things were going he might not be escorting at all within a few weeks. His Third Fighter Command might be on scouting duty.
"We'll see what can be done about it," he said as he turned away.
The colonel walked out of the high-ceilinged room which was buried under thirty feet of steel reinforced concrete. He came up out of the building into a drab night. A raw wind stabbed at him, and sent light clouds scudding across the face of the moon. Overhead, a night fighter growled its way through the lonely sky. The country spread around the base was flat with only a few hills to break the sameness.
Out on the dispersal area Colonel Holt could see guards watching the shadowy forms of the Thunderbolts. A jeep came chugging up a muddy street and turned off toward the mess barracks. At one-five in the morning the base looked peaceful enough. Sheltered by darkness, its mud ruts and half-finished buildings were softened by the gloom. Still scowling, the colonel strode away.
Several hours later, in a tunnel-shaped hut with a corrugated iron roof and a cement floor, two fliers sat near a wood stove. Stan Wilson was poking wood into the stove.
"I wonder if anyone ever kept one of these gadgets burning all night," he said sourly.
"Sure, an' 'tis against the rules," Lieutenant O'Malley said and grinned.
"I'm beginning to think Allison showed good sense in running out on us and joining a bomber outfit," Stan growled. "Here we are sitting up all night keeping this stove poked full of wood."
"That big bum," O'Malley snorted. "Only today he said that he's livin' in a palace with a sure-enough butler to buttle." O'Malley shook his head sadly. "The spalpeen says that butler can sure bake a foine pie."
"On top of that we get to fly Thunderbolts for the fun of it." Stan jabbed a slab of wood into the stove and slammed the door.
"We've jest been havin' bad luck," O'Malley said. "I can stand a Nissen hut jest to be flyin' one o' them babies. We'll meet up with plenty o' Jerries." O'Malley grinned eagerly, his homely face lighting up. "Remember how we used to mix it with them Jerry bandits tryin' to blitz London?"
"That was a long time ago, as wars count time," Stan answered. "We've been away a long time. The Jerries don't get near London any more, and I heard a rumor that the Forts and Libs are able to shoot down ten fighters for every one the Thunderbolts get."
O'Malley snorted. "Bombers shoot down Me 109's and FW 190's! 'Tis jest propaganda put out by the brass hats to fool the Germans. I'll have to see it done, me b'y."
"From what I hear we'll probably have a reserved seat for the show. We sit up there and watch." Stan smiled. "But we can always elbow in and fly a Fortress or a Liberator."
"Not me," O'Malley declared. "I'm no good at flying a milk wagon. I'll handle me own guns."
"Tomorrow will tell the tale. We're to get our first whack at Jerry in this new job," Stan said.
"Sure, an' I'd go to bed an' forget it, but the minnit I get me eyes closed this stove goes out an' I'm freezin'," O'Malley growled. "I don't think we'll be goin' any place. Them brass hats meet at Operation Headquarters an' the generals call in Weather. Weather squints out through a porthole an' says, '6/10 cloud over target.' Then the generals up an' go back to bed."
"We sure miss a lot of missions because of bad weather," Stan admitted. "One of these days some fellow will invent a seeing eye sight that will look right through the clouds."
"You been readin' the funny books too much lately," O'Malley said.
"Missed any of yours?" Stan laughed as he glanced toward a pile of comic books stacked beside O'Malley's cot.
"I think our dog robber's been snitchin' a few." O'Malley yawned and stretched his arms over his head. They were long bony arms with huge hands attached to them.
"Weren't you in Berlin before the war?" Stan asked.
"Sure," O'Malley answered. "Bein' a son of good auld Ireland, I was itchin' to get into a fight an' it looked like the Jerries were the only ones preparin' to do anything."
"Why didn't you stay over there?" Stan grinned broadly as he spoke. "I hear there are pretty girls in Berlin and that their mammas can bake swell pies."
O'Malley sighed deeply at the mention of pie. His big Adam's apple bobbed up and down, then his wide mouth clamped shut.
"Sure, an' I don't like bein' pushed around, an' I don't like to see other folks kicked an' slugged by a lot of spalpeens dressed up in brown shirts."
"You may get to wave to that girl when we fly over Berlin," Stan said.
"I could go straight to her house, only she lives a ways out of Berlin. We used to go ridin' in the country on our bikes. Ivery lane we'd ride down some guy in a storm trooper uniform would stop us. I kept pawin' out me Luftwaffe card all o' the time." O'Malley grinned.
"So you got out and joined up with the British and then with us." Stan poked another stick of wood into the stove.
O'Malley yawned again and eyed his cot. "If you insist on keepin' the fire goin', I'll catch me a couple o' winks o' sleep."
"I'll keep the joint warm," Stan agreed.
O'Malley went over to his cot. He kicked off his shoes and crawled under the blankets fully dressed.
The minutes dragged away and Stan nodded beside the stove. An hour passed and he roused himself to poke in more wood. He dozed off again and was roused by an orderly making the rounds calling the crews. The stove was cold and he fumbled with stiff fingers as he lighted it again. When it was cherry red in spots, O'Malley poked his tousled head out from under a blanket. Stan knew he had been lying there waiting for the stove to get hot.
They dashed water over their faces and hurried out into the raw morning. Stan glanced at his watch. It was four o'clock. They walked to the briefing room where they joined a crowd of pilots who were seated on benches staring at a square of transparent talc pinned over a wall map. Red lines showed the route of the Forts and Libs. Soon a sleepy buzz of conversation filled the air. As the pilots talked, they watched the little group of officers gathered before the map.
Suddenly the Old Man, Colonel Holt, turned and faced them. There was an immediate hush.
"A lot of people think we just go along with the bombers to catch a bit of fresh air and to keep from going stale. This mission promised to be our chance to crack the enemy, but unfortunately, Weather reports clouds up to our return point." The Old Man stared unwinkingly at his men. He read the disappointment in their faces. "We are hoping that for once Weather will be wrong."
This brought a few grins and a snort or two from the pilots. The Old Man went on talking.
"You are to fly formation as planned. This will be strictly a team job. There will be no free-lance hunting. Understand?"
Everyone looked glum. O'Malley scowled. It was not his nature to like strict rules. He had learned what he knew in the days of the Battle of Britain and later in the South Pacific and then over Africa and Italy. O'Malley always had been a rip-roaring fighter who accepted battle against any odds. If trouble did not come his way, he went looking for it.
Stan wondered if that last warning was not aimed at O'Malley and himself. All of the other fliers were trained to this sort of fighting. Stan and O'Malley were the only old heads in the flight.
O'Malley and Stan marched out with the others and climbed into heavy flying suits. The Thunderbolts were high fliers and worked best at twenty-three thousand feet or more. That meant heavy equipment with oxygen and all of the other trappings, including heated undergarments.
The pilots waddled out to their planes and climbed up. Ground crews moved back. They had serviced and checked the fighters and now their Pratt and Whitney twin bank radial engines were turning over smoothly. Exhausts flared blue flames which sent wavering shadows across the wet cement of the apron. Flight Officer Mickle was running about like an old hen with a scattered brood of chicks.
Stan glanced down the wet and gleaming runway. An Aldis lamp winked down toward the shadow bar. Stan eased himself back against the shock pad. He glanced at his temperature gauge and across his instrument board. The throb of his Pratt and Whitney engine hinted at power, though it was rolling over smoothly and effortlessly. Stan remembered other nights many months past when he had sat in a Hurricane waiting for the flash of the lamp and the order from the tower to go up through the blind alley between the barrage balloon cables to wage unequal war against invading Germans. Things had changed a lot since then. Now he was a part of the Eighth Air Force of the United States Army and was fighting for his own country as well as Britain.
"Red Flight, check your temperatures." That was the voice of Flight Leader Sim Jones.
The boys checked in one at a time.
"Up to fifteen thousand. Stay in close," Sim ordered.
Suddenly a motor burst into full-throated roar. A dark form hurtled down the runway and lifted like a flash. Another ship darted away, and then another. Stan slammed his hatch cover shut and opened up his throttle. He jammed down hard on one brake and the Thunderbolt swept around. She poised an instant, then knifed down the slippery runway. Stan hoiked her tail with a blast of prop pressure and hopped her off. He went roaring out over a mobile floodlight and up into the dark sky for the rendezvous with Red Flight.
High above the channel, the ships of his flight tucked in and circled. Soon they picked up the flight of Liberators and Fortresses. At twenty-five thousand feet the big bombers left broad vapor trails behind them. Stan looked down upon the killers from his perch in the sky. Dawn was breaking and the scene was no longer drab.
Red Flight was covering the flank of Second High Squadron. Stan could clearly see Third Low Squadron and First Lead Squadron. Each squadron was composed of a first flight of three bombers and a second flight of three bombers. Stan grinned. He knew exactly where his pal March Allison was flying. He was in left-hand slot, second flight, Second High Squadron, the hottest spot in a bomber formation.
Stan eased over a bit and shook O'Malley off his wing. Sim was waggling his wings, ordering the boys to spread out and get set for interception. Red Flight spread out but stayed in position like a football team moving into formation for a screen pass. The bombers roared on toward Germany, keeping tight formation so as to be able to lay out a deadly cross fire from their fifty-caliber guns. Each Fort and each Lib was a bristling pillbox with nose guns, waist guns, belly guns, and ball turret guns. Stan wondered if he would not be flying one of the big fellows very soon.
Everything went off smoothly and according to plan, except that for once Weather had missed a bet. As the flight neared the point over Germany where the Thunderbolts were to turn back, a cold wind washed the sky clear of clouds and a cold sun shone upon the raiders.
"In the good auld summertime." Stan heard O'Malley humming.
"Shut up, O'Malley," Sim grated.
Suddenly flak began to blossom out from the countryside below. It blossomed in the sky over the bombers and in the middle of Red Flight. Thunderbolts ducked and dipped but went roaring on.
Down below, the bomber boys were scanning the skies.
In his Fort, Allison drawled over the intercom, "Pilot to navigator."
"Go ahead, pilot."
"Navigator to pilot, hot stuff coming up."
"Right waist gunner to pilot, sir. 190's at eleven o'clock. They're after the flight ahead."
"Rear gunner Roger, sir. Flock of Focke-Wulfs at six o'clock. Coming in on our tail."
"I say, old man, don't get itchy fingers. No ammo to waste." Allison's voice was calm and unruffled.
O'Malley's voice broke in over Stan's headset. "Hey, sure an' we ought to go down an' bust that up."
"Stay where you are, O'Malley," Sim snapped. "We have plenty of Me's coming in at twelve o'clock."
Stan had been so busy watching the bombers he had not checked his own part of the sky. A glance showed him Sim was correct. A flight of some twenty Me fighters were diving and circling above.
"Keep them up there," Sim ordered. "But stay in your slot. You happen to be outnumbered and you also happen to have the job of seeing that those Me's stay up there away from the bombers."
Red Flight knifed along through the thin air, ready to smash any Me daring to go down the chute upon the bombers.
"Come on down and fight, ye spalpeens!" O'Malley was yelling.
Stan saw that the Forts and Libs were slamming lead at the Focke-Wulfs in a blaze that rivaled a Fourth of July celebration. He kept an eye on Allison's Fort and saw an FW go down flaming after a thrust at the bomber. Stan chuckled softly.
"Allison got one!" O'Malley yelled. "'Tis a sad day, this, for Mrs. O'Malley's son."
Allison's Fort got another FW and O'Malley's flow of abuse against the Me's increased. He was in a towering Irish rage. But it did no good. The Me's hung on, waiting for the Thunderbolts to turn back. It was a case of who ran short of gas first. Now "lace-panty" flak was blossoming all over the sky. It exploded in pretty pink bursts and that was why the boys gave it such a fancy name.
"We have to go in," Sim ordered grimly.
"Go in!" O'Malley bellowed. "Why not give them birds a scare anyway?"
"We'll zoom up and scatter them," Sim said. "But any man who stays to put on a show will have to walk back."
Stan eased over and kicked on a bit more power. The Germans had the attack route well charted. They knew just how far the Thunderbolts would be able to penetrate. With a burst of speed Stan went up and over. Every Thunderbolt did the same, but O'Malley beat them all to it. He roared over Stan's head, almost ripping away his hatch cover.
The Me's ducked gracefully and scattered. They looped and dived for it. Stan saw at once the chase was hopeless. The Jerries meant to tease the Thunderbolts deeper into Germany so that they would be sure to run out of gas. It was infuriating, but there just was nothing that could be done about it. Stan watched O'Malley as he roared after a Jerry.
"Come back, Irisher. They're just tricking you out of gas," he called.
"The spalpeens!" O'Malley roared, but he zoomed up and over, then tailed in after Red Flight which was heading for home.
Stan saw the Me's dive down to overtake and attack the Forts and Libs. He had a cold, sick feeling in the pit of his stomach. He still was not convinced that the big fellows could take care of themselves. They had a hundred miles more to cover before reaching their targets, and then another hundred to return before fighters could meet them.
Red Flight slid in on its home field, a sleek flight group in fine trim, except for one slight wound. Sim's ship had picked up a small piece of flak, but it had done no damage. Sim had it in his hand when he climbed down and joined his men.
"A foine battle!" O'Malley fumed.
"I was hit," Sim said, grinning.
"'Tis the fillin' out o' one o' yer teeth," O'Malley answered.
"I counted eight fighters shot down by the big boys," a pilot remarked.
"Check in all kills you observed," Sim said. "It will help the bomber boys get credit."
O'Malley stared gloomily up into the sky. Stan nudged him. "How about some breakfast?" he asked.
O'Malley brightened a bit. "I ordered a pie for breakfast," he said. "If that cook forgot my pie, he'll be no more than a grease spot when I get through with him."
O'Malley got his pie, a thick apple pie dripping with juice. He cut it into quarters, slid one slab out on his fist and began munching, paying no attention to the dripping juice. Stan stared into his coffee cup. He was thinking.
O'Malley finished his second quarter of pie. He looked at Stan.
"What you dreamin' up now?" he asked.
Stan smiled faintly. "You know, I have a hunch we might fool those Jerries. They have this all down to a science. A flight is reported to their head man and he figures out just how far we can fly. If we could do say a hundred miles more, we'd have some fun."
"So you're goin' to order planes with a hundred more miles gas supply." O'Malley grunted and attacked his third piece of pie.
"We could take along emergency tanks and drop them," Stan said.
O'Malley halted the movement of his hand. His mouth was open like a cavern. He closed it.
"Sure, an' 'tis a brilliant idea. We'll see the general about it as soon as I've finished me pie."
"No, we'll see Holt. He's our superior officer. Let him have the credit." Stan leaned back.
"If we tell a lot o' brass hats, the Jerries will sure hear about it," O'Malley said sourly.
"I think not. We have to get permission to install the tanks, you know. This isn't the South Pacific where you just go to your ground crew and ask them to rig up something for you." Stan laughed as O'Malley screwed his face into a frown.
"I'll say it's not the South Pacific," he agreed. "We got so many rules here a fellow gets tangled up before he takes off."
"We have lots of time on our hands. We'll barge over and have Allison tell us what happened. He'll be back after a bit."
O'Malley gave Stan a suspicious look. "You're not thinkin' o' askin' fer one o' them crates full o' guns?"
"No," Stan answered. "If I did, I doubt that they'd take me. I've been a fighter pilot too long."
"They took Allison," O'Malley said.
"Allison is a natural for bombers, he has no nerves and he can handle a crew." Stan got to his feet. "Finish your pie and we'll be on our way."
Stan and O'Malley found Allison in his comfortable quarters, an old English mansion set on a little hill. It stood in the middle of well-kept grounds. As they drove up in their borrowed jeep, O'Malley scowled at the house.
"A blinking castle," he said in mock cockney British.
They parked the jeep and went inside. The boys were gathered around an open fire lounging in easy chairs. Allison moved out of a huddle and crossed the room.
"Welcome, you wallflowers," he said with a big smile.
"Sure, an' yer a disgrace to the both of us, lollin' in the lap o' luxury," O'Malley answered with a big grin.
"How was it?" Stan asked.
"Very rugged," Allison admitted. "Sit down while I order a pie for O'Malley."
The boys seated themselves and Allison described the mission. He loaded his pipe and sat staring into the fire.
"Not much like pushing a Spitfire or a Thunderbolt. You just plow along through the muck and hope the boys will bat down all of the fighters coming at you from every angle."
"How many did you get?" O'Malley asked.
"Six for sure," Allison answered. "The real fun started when we headed for home. We had been plowing through flak as thick as a swarm of bees but we had been lucky. Two of our flight went down flaming and we saw the boys bail out. I thought we were slipping through pretty nicely when an Me winged us with an explosive cannon shell. After that we got hit plenty. We picked up a shell which went off inside our outboard engine. It started rolling smoke but no flames. Then a shell smashed the intercom system and communications went dead." Allison bit down hard on his pipe.
"Must have been tough," Stan said.
"We couldn't hold our altitude. We lost about a thousand feet a minute and nothing the copilot and I could do would hold her up."
"Sure, an' you did a good job of it gettin' in," O'Malley praised.
"When I couldn't talk to the crew I turned the controls over to the copilot and went aft. I got to the top turret man and told him to get the gunners together in the radio compartment. I figured we'd smack right down into the channel." Allison fingered his pipe and stared into the fire.
"I went back to the copilot and we fought her head. She sagged in over the coast and came right on home, smoking like a torch. As we came in, we found we had a belly landing on our hands, so we skidded her in. Poor Old Sal is a mess right now."
"Anybody hurt?" Stan asked.
"Bombardier got a piece of flak in his leg. The tail gunner had his greenhouse blown into his face and is in the hospital. I forgot to say we dumped our guns and everything else we could pry loose. I guess that saved us." Allison leaned back. "When you fellows going to shift over? This is the real thing."
"Sitting duck stuff," O'Malley snorted. "You jest sit there an' take it. You never fired a gun on the whole trip."
"No," Allison admitted. "But we bagged six Jerries and there was plenty of shooting. You should see my boys work those 50's."
"We aim to stir up a bit of excitement," Stan said.
Allison frowned at him. "You birds better remember this is modern warfare, not the Battle of Britain or the Pacific. They'll bounce you high and quick for breaking rules. This Eighth Air Force is big stuff now."
"Thanks for the warning," Stan answered. "But we plan to go through proper channels."
"And it's a deep secret," O'Malley added.
O'Malley's pie arrived and he dropped out of the talk for a time. Stan and Allison chatted about the changes and the amazing way the Eighth had grown up until it took a large section of British farmland to house it.
Stan and O'Malley left early and hurried back to their own mess. They wanted to corner Colonel Holt. They found him in the mess looking very dour and gloomy. He was alone. None of the other men seemed to care about trying to cheer him up. Stan and O'Malley barged over to his table.
"May we sit down, sir?" Stan asked.
"Sure." Holt motioned to two chairs.
The boys sat down. Stan ordered coffee and O'Malley ordered pie.
"I need just a bite to get me in shape for supper," he said when Stan glared at him as he gave his order.
"Lousy show today," Holt grumbled. "I don't mean the way you fellows flew it, but the way the Germans have everything figured out so neatly. We lost eleven bombers."
"We might fool Jerry," Stan suggested.
"Suppose we just toted along some extra tanks of gas and cut them loose about the time the show should start. We know their tactics and pattern. We'd have a lot of fun." Stan leaned forward.
"Can't do that," Holt said. "You fellows might have to get busy as soon as you hit the coast. Kicking off a tank can't be done with an FW dropping out of a cloud on your tail."
"Just half of us will go with extra loads. The others can cover for us. We'd sure surprise Jerry." Stan spoke eagerly.
"Foine idea an' one I'd have been proud to have thought up," O'Malley broke in.
Colonel Holt began to smile. "I believe you have something there. The element of surprise and all that sort of thing. We'll take a crack at it."
"Elegant," O'Malley said. "I'm speaking for extra gas."
"You and O'Malley get extra tanks. You're both old heads at lone wolf tactics. I'm beginning to think we have too much handling out of the control room." He bent forward and his smile faded. "But, remember this, I'm under a general who's a stickler for the book, so be careful."
"We won't let you down, sir," Stan promised.
O'Malley just grinned wolfishly. "I got a date with that Jerry with the red beard."
"You boys tend to the installing yourselves. Oversee it yourselves. I'll put through an order clearing everything for you."
"Thanks, Colonel," Stan said. "Now we'll run along and get busy."
"First you come with me and we'll figure out how much tank capacity you'll need and how many men will go along." The colonel got to his feet.
"If you don't mind, sir, we'd like to have you sponsor the idea. We intended to take it up with Lieutenant Sim Jones first. Wouldn't want to be going over his head." Stan spoke quickly.
Holt looked at him and nodded. "That's fine of you boys. Mind if I claim the idea for the present?"
"Not in the least," Stan answered.
"In that case you'll hear from me later through regular channels. I see you men know your way around in this army."
Stan and O'Malley saluted and moved off. O'Malley grinned. "Slick work, Stan," he said. "Now we won't get blamed for anything."
"And we won't get a medal, either," Stan remarked as he matched O'Malley's grin.
Returning to their Nissen hut the boys policed their living quarters and got things in order. The hut was such a primitive affair that little could be done to keep it in order. The round wood stove leaked ashes on the floor which was always tracked deep with mud. There was a little wash bowl and a table which O'Malley used to stack his laundry upon. The cots were GI with GI mattresses.
After they had cleaned up, the boys went over to the huge sheds where the mechanics worked over the planes. They learned from the chief mechanic that Colonel Holt's order had come through.
"I have the boys on your ships," the sergeant said. He did not seem to approve of the idea.
"I'll be after lookin' out fer me own ship," O'Malley said and hurried away.
"You don't seem to like the colonel's idea," Stan said.
"We've tried it before, sir," the sergeant replied.
"The boys got jumped out of cloud cover and were sitting ducks for the Jerries," the sergeant said sourly. "Too much cloud cover and too many Jerries for that stuff."
Stan grinned. "I'll drop around and let you know how it works this time."
Walking back to his ship he watched the boys working on her. He was soon satisfied that they knew just what should be done and made off. O'Malley did not show up at mess and Stan began to wonder where he had gone. He finally sauntered into the rest room where he found O'Malley shooting the breeze with a group of fliers.
"You missed a steak dinner," Stan greeted him.
O'Malley grinned, "That's what you think," he said. "I had me a steak dinner with the corporal that fixed up me ship. You know that feller hadn't had a steak for a month. He sure went for it." O'Malley seated himself and elevated his feet to the top of the radio. In this position he promptly went to sleep.
Stan talked with the boys until time to turn in. He wakened O'Malley and they sloshed through the mud to their hut. During their absence, two other boys, replacement men, had been quartered in the hut. They greeted the two old heads eagerly.
They were Bugs Monahan and Splinters Wright, both from Toledo, Ohio. They had just finished flight combat school and were eager for action. Someone had given them the records of Stan and O'Malley. They were both eager to talk to the veterans. Splinters was a tall, thin youth with a little mustache. Bugs was short and fat with a round beaming face and a quick smile.
"We've heard a lot about you fellows," Bugs said.
"Never believe anything you hear in the army," Stan advised with a grin.
"Sure, an' ye've been taken in by me auld pal Goebbels," O'Malley added.
"I'm turning in. We'll get a call along about four in the morning," Stan said. "See you boys over at the rest room. That's where we shoot the breeze."
"See you at midnight when we get up to poke wood into that stove," O'Malley contradicted.
"We'll keep the fire going. We're not sleepy," Splinters said. They were both disappointed that the old heads did not want to go into a gabfest.
Stan and O'Malley turned in. They had learned to get as much sleep as possible. The two replacements kept the fire going as they had promised, and the boys did not waken until they were called at three-fifty the next morning. Bugs and Splinters had gotten a little sleep. They were up instantly and eager to trail along and see what was going to happen.
"Ye'll soon learn to sleep when ye get a chance," O'Malley said.
They sloshed across to the operations room and joined their flight. Maps were ready and Colonel Holt was standing with his fellow officers. The room was filled with a buzz of talk. Something was up and the boys knew it. Stan and O'Malley sat in the second row with Bugs and Splinters beside them. Stan turned to the boys.
"When you leave here you are not to talk to anyone about the operations planned, not even to other officers," he warned.
"There must be something up," Bugs said. "We'll keep mum."
"When we get back we'll give you the story," Stan promised.
Colonel Holt began speaking, and the talking stopped. "Men, we are going to try a different approach. Weather says we'll have clear going." His pointer moved along a red ribbon. "The bomber objective is a fighter station and a plant near Huls. Ordinarily we'd turn back just beyond Antwerp. Today we'll have a flight along which will carry enough extra gasoline to add two-hundred-twenty miles in range. I'll spot those ships for you and it will be the job of those carrying the regulation one-hundred-ninety gallons to protect the specials until they drop their extra tanks."
The pilots who were to be long-range fighters grinned happily; the others looked their disappointment. The colonel went on giving the details.
"The long-range ships will deploy and go in under the leadership of Lieutenant Wilson. He will have detailed evasion orders."
The boys listened to the rest of the briefing impatiently. Stan stayed after the others left. Colonel Holt went over the plan with him, then Stan hurried out to get his group together. Sim Jones met him as he entered the flight room. He gave Stan a cold look.
"Did you engineer this, Wilson?" he asked.
"I did not ask to be put in command, if that's what you mean," Stan answered.
"You act like you thought you had to take over here," Sim said and his eyes blazed.
"Wilson has forgotten more about flyin' than you'll ever know," O'Malley cut in. "And ye better remember that."
"Easy, now. This is a teamwork job," Stan said. "Your orders are to cover our long-range ships. They'll be heavy and gas logged. My planes have to get to use all of that extra gas, Sim. What we're doing is trying to break the jinx on the fighters."
"Yeah? It smells bad to me. I think you're trying to get yourself an extra bar on your shoulder."
Stan's lips pulled into a straight line. "I don't care what you think of me, personally, but you better cover my flight, and cover it right."
The other fliers were staring at the two officers. They had worked under Sim Jones a long time. Stan was a newcomer the same as Colonel Holt; both had seen much service in other theaters of war. Stan sensed that they were siding with Sim. He turned away and began getting into his outfit. O'Malley was beside him.
"That bird may try something," O'Malley said out of the side of his mouth.
"We sure slipped up when we didn't let him tell this plan to the colonel," Stan said sourly.
The boys sloshed out on the field. Stan looked over the dim outlines of the planes. He would have six ships in his penetration flight. His boys had been carefully instructed. They were to break away and appear to leave with the other fighters, then loop up and over and come in on the enemy from out of the sun when he dived down after the bombers.
One by one the Thunderbolts slipped into the raw morning darkness. Stan eased his ship off the ground and up into the sky. He dropped into place in Sim's flight along with O'Malley. They were separated by one ship. The Thunderbolts carrying extra weight were spotted so they could be covered by the others.
Soon they picked up the Forts and Libs and were headed across the channel toward Flushing. Day broke and they could see the bombers below them. The air was clear and cold but there were many scattered banks of clouds all around. Stan kept his eyes open. Today he was not watching the beauty of the bomber formation, he was checking on his own flight of fighters. Sim was holding his ships in perfect formation. They roared along with Stan and his boys using gasoline from their reserve tanks so that they could get rid of them as soon as possible.
Their first action came near the coast. A flight of Focke-Wulf 190's broke out of a big cloud and roared in on them.
"Break for action. Cover specials!" Sim called.
The formation of Thunderbolts broke up and the fight was on. As usual the Jerries were not aiming to close with the Yanks. They were willing to pick off a cripple or a plane cut out from the flight but not to make it a real battle. Their job was to delay and to pull the fighters away from the bombers.
Sim handled the situation well. The Thunderbolts did not break away, nor were they delayed. They met each thrust and stab, but they refused to be pulled into side shows. For once O'Malley was ignoring a Jerry fighter. He was well up in front heading straight for Germany. Stan was in the rear where he had been spotted. Sim was flying his cover, having dropped back for that purpose.
"I guess he's all right," Stan muttered. "He's making it his personal business to see that I get through."
At that moment two FW's dived down at the tail ships. Stan did not shift course.
All Sim had to do was to make a pass at the Jerries, loop over and shoo them away. Suddenly Stan realized Sim was not making a pass. He had stabbed at a Jerry coming in far to the side.
Kicking his rudder, Stan went into action. The Jerries, seeing their chance, had cut him off and now he would be sucked into a fight. The Thunderbolt responded awkwardly. Stan reached for the tank release, then his hand froze. If he kicked loose his tanks, the Jerries would be wise to the trick. They would radio the information to base. Grimly Stan dived and then zoomed.
The two Focke-Wulfs gleefully tore in upon him. Stan gave one of them a burst but missed. He was caught like a clumsy float plane and knew it. Up he went and over, using every evasive trick he knew. Out of the corner of his eye he saw that Sim had banked sharply and was coming back to help him. He also spotted the cloud the Jerries had used to ambush the flight. As he laid over and made for it, one of the FW's knifed in and splattered him with lead. He felt the bullets pinging against his armor plate and ripping through his wings. Ducking, he went down under the cloud, just what the Jerry wanted.
Sim had cut out one of the FW's but two others had joined the hunt, bent on finishing the Thunderbolt they had cut off. Stan laid over and wobbled around just as though he was hit bad. The Jerry banked and went up a bit to get a better dive. He figured he had plenty of time because the Yank was crippled. That was what Stan wanted. He kicked the Thunderbolt wide open and zoomed for the cloud. Too late the Jerry saw what was up. He roared down through the misty edge of the cloud and barely missed a head-on crash with Stan.
The instant the cloud closed around him Stan kicked off his extra tanks, then he dived up and over the cloud. The Jerries were waiting for him. Sim was chasing one FW, but three waited for the cripple. When Stan came zooming out of the top of the cloud, they were a bit startled and showed it by their hesitation. Stan grinned as he snapped his ship over and dived on the nearest Jerry.
Before the German could get going Stan had him in his sights and his thumb had squeezed the gun button. His six 50's flamed and the recoil set the Thunderbolt back on her flaps. The Jerry shuddered an instant, then broke in two and burst into roaring flames. Stan went over the wreckage and cut in between the other two Jerries. They were alive now and in action. Around the three went, up and over, painting the chill sky with streaks and loops of vapor. Stan did not hold on long. The instant he had a chance to dive and run for it he did. And the Jerries did not chase him. They were convinced he was no cripple.
As Stan roared after his formation he saw Sim closing in from far to his left. He was red-hot and wanted to tell Sim a few things, but he knew the setup was such that he had to keep his mouth closed. Sim had made an error of judgment in going after the lone Jerry and letting the other two cut him out. Stan was sure it was intentional, but he could never prove it.
Another thing that worried him was that he did not know how much gasoline he had used out of his reserve before he kicked his tanks loose. He was flight leader of the group headed for Huls. If he went on with his flight and there was much dogfighting, going and coming, he might not get home. Sim's voice came in.
"Wilson, sorry I couldn't handle all three Jerries. You'll have to go back with our flight."
Stan scowled. Sim appeared well pleased with the idea. "I'll use my own judgment," Stan snapped back.
"Name a leader and go back," Sim barked. "That is an order."
"Sorry," Stan answered. "I'm taking the boys on through."
Stan overtook his formation and dropped into place. The flight was deployed with the Jerries perched up above and around waiting for the Yanks to go home. Below lay the fields of Holland.
"Are you clear, specials?" Stan called.
"All clear," the boys called back. That meant they had zoomed down and ditched their tanks in a way the Germans would not notice.
Flak was coming up and a flight of FWs were worrying the Fortresses and Liberators below. One big fellow was out of formation and having a tough time. Fifteen FW's were after it.
"We'll go down and have a crack at those FW's on that Fort," Stan called. "So long, Sim, see you at mess!"
One after another the six special Thunderbolts zoomed down upon the FW's. They came down in a screaming dive and their first burst sent five FW's smoking to earth. Instantly the whole battle changed. The flocks of Jerries up above were taken by surprise because this was not according to the book. The Yanks should be keeping altitude, holding them pinned to the sky, and they were due any moment to start running for home.
Stan and his crew covered the limping bomber and she began to pull up into place where her flight had slowed to help her. Up above, the Jerries cut loose and the Yanks got a crack at them as they tried to filter through. For five minutes the sky was a battlefield, then the Thunderbolts up above had to leave. They broke off and headed for home. Behind them they left the wreckage of eleven Messerschmitts and Focke-Wulfs.
With the bombers, O'Malley was putting on a show which reminded Stan of the old days. He was stunting so wildly and slamming lead so fast the Jerries began giving him a wide berth. Stan began to realize that their mission was not to be any picnic. One Thunderbolt went down, slashed open by a cannon shell. No chute blossomed out beneath it as it twisted and rolled toward earth.
There were too many Me's and Focke-Wulf fighters. They were everywhere, stabbing and diving, slashing at the bombers and ganging up on the fighters. Stan realized that his flight should have had at least thirty planes in it, and he began to suspect someone back at headquarters had marked this down as an experiment, figuring upon losing only six planes.
Another Thunderbolt went down and then another. O'Malley was still taking care of himself and Stan was doing all right, but his gasoline gauge was leering at him and its needle was rolling steadily around. When the fourth Thunderbolt broke into flames, Stan knew it was time to go home. He probably would not make it, but there was a chance.
"O'Malley! Stan calling. Head for home!"
Looking through the smoke and the bursts of flak, Stan saw nothing of O'Malley. The Irishman had been in the midst of a fight a few minutes before, but now he was nowhere to be seen. He checked the bomber flight. It was going in for its bombing run and the batteries on the ground knew just where the automatic pilots would take over for the run. They were putting up a box barrage at that point.
The Forts and the Libs rode into that blazing inferno of fire without wavering or shifting formation. Stan saw bombs dropping, sticks of big fellows. A Fort directly below him was plowing ahead when a puff of smoke enveloped its tail. The smoke swirled away and there was the Fort without any tail at all, only gaping holes where the rudder and the high tail had been. The Fort sagged over and went into a terrible dive. One after another chutes blossomed out until Stan had counted six. That was the number alive in the Fort, the others were dead.
Stan laid over and made a sweep, ducking in and out of the flak. The Jerries had pulled away and gone back to their fields for more ammunition and more gasoline for the interception of the Forts and Libs on their return trip.
Looking about, Stan saw nothing of O'Malley's ship. He headed for home with a grim frown on his face. Everything went well until he reached the channel. He met no German fighters and had a fair tail wind. But his gasoline supply was very low. The needle kept bouncing off the empty peg, riding clear, then dropping back. The English coast was a long way off.
Stan was flying at twelve thousand feet and that gave him a chance to drift a long way, but not far enough if his gas ran out. Steadily he drove toward the friendly shore. Below him the channel looked cold and choppy.
Thinking of O'Malley added to his gloom. When you work with a man in the air, you expect the day when he does not return with you. But when the time comes it is a stabbing shock. Stan and O'Malley had seen so much action and had tackled so many tough jobs, they had come to feel they always would pull through.
Glancing at the gas gauge Stan saw that it registered empty, and the needle was not showing any signs of movement. He glanced down at the gray expanse below him and frowned. His ears strained for the first break in the steady throbbing of the Pratt and Whitney radial.
The engine kept hammering away for a long time. Stan checked his Mae West suit and made other small preparations for a bath in the channel. Then the engine sputtered, smoothed out, then sputtered again. With a wheezing blast it went dead.
Stan eased the nose down to hold his speed and began sagging down a long slope toward the channel. He scanned the choppy sea for signs of a British patrol boat. Several of the fast rescue boats should be patrolling the flight line, ready to fish Yank pilots and crewmen out of the water. He saw no sign of a boat.
Slowly the Thunderbolt settled down. Floating a fourteen-thousand-pound fighter in over a long distance is not like slipping along in a glider. If there were any up-drafts, the Thunderbolt paid no attention to them. She sliced on through and Stan had to nose her down to keep her from falling like a rock.
The sea came up to meet him and he began judging the spot where he would take his bath in the icy water. Suddenly he heard the roar of plane motors and looked up and back. A Fort was nosing down toward him. Stan squinted to see if he could catch the markings. He could not make them out, but he knew the ship was a bomber returning from Huls.
There was no time for further looking. The Thunderbolt hit and hit hard, as though she had slammed into a stone wall. She slewed around, jerked and bobbed, slamming Stan back against his shock pad. He palmed the hatch cover open and kicked loose from his belt and chute harness. In a moment he was leaping into the water and the Thunderbolt was swirling down into the sea. She lifted one wing as she slid from sight, as though saluting him.
"Tough luck, old girl," Stan said. He got a mouthful of salt water and began sputtering.
The Fort was low over the sea now and Stan saw that it was shot up a bit. Then he saw the name painted on its fuselage. It was The Monkey's Paw, the Fort Allison had taken over for the raid. He waved, and the Fort dipped her wings. She went roaring on toward the thin black line which was the coast.
That meant rescue unless the high waves battered him and pulled him under before a boat located him. He was struggling to stay afloat on the rough sea when a Spitfire began circling overhead. The Spit dropped down lower and lower. It wove back and forth and finally it dived toward him. Stan waved some more.
The Spit stayed with Stan until an orange-snouted speedboat appeared over the foam-rimmed horizon. The boat came roaring toward him, guided by the Spit. Stan grinned eagerly. Nice teamwork. Allison had radioed, the Spitfire pilot had picked up the message, and he had been rescued.
The speedboat pulled alongside and strong hands caught hold of Stan.
"Up you come, me hearty," a seaman shouted.
Stan was so chilled he had to hang on to the arm of the sailor to keep his knees from buckling.
"A bit chilly, eh?" a young officer asked. "Come along. We'll wrap you in a newfangled blanket your Uncle Sam just furnished us."
"It wasn't exactly a Turkish bath," Stan admitted.
"I'll radio in for an ambulance," the officer said as he helped Stan wiggle out of his soggy clothes and into the electrically heated blanket.
"No ambulance," Stan said. "I'll catch a ride over to my base with someone."
"The ambulance is the fastest way," the officer said.
"They'd take me to a hospital, and that's the last place I want to see. Just dry my outfit if you can."
"Glad to, old fellow, and we'll have a spot of hot tea ready for you in a jiffy." The officer turned away.
Stan drank hot tea and toasted himself inside the blanket until they were near the port where they were to put in. By that time his clothing had been dried by one of the machinist mate's men in the engine room.
Getting dressed Stan went on deck. They were edging in beside a pier. Stan was the first over the side. He shook hands with the British officer and waved to the crew, then he headed for a row of cars parked along the street near the wharf. Picking out a car with a uniformed girl at the wheel he walked over to it.
"Hi, Yank," the girl greeted him. "You look a bit wrinkled."
"I just had my daily bath in the channel." Stan grinned at the girl. "My butler forgot to pack my bathing suit so I went in as is. How about a lift?"
"This is Sir Eaton Pelham's car. I'm afraid it isn't available." She smiled sweetly when she said it.
Stan glanced at the other cars. There were no other drivers about. He looked back at the girl.
"Sir Eaton a kindhearted man?" he asked.
"Very," she assured him. "He carries a pocketful of cracker crumbs for the pigeons."
At that moment Sir Eaton Pelham appeared. He was a burly Englishman, wrapped snugly in the folds of a greatcoat. His ruddy face beamed and he nodded to Stan.
"Jolly nice weather for one day," he said as he opened the door of the car.
"Very," Stan answered. "How about a lift?"
Sir Eaton looked at Stan closely for the first time. "I say, a Yank flier. What could you be doing here?"
"I was just fished out of the channel by one of His Majesty's patrol boats and want to get back to base."
"Hop in, old man. Where is base?"
"Take me to Diss," Stan said as he climbed in.
"Right-o." Sir Eaton did not ask any more questions. He spoke about the country they whirled through, but never mentioned the war at all. When Stan got down at Diss, Sir Eaton waved his thanks aside. "Good hunting, my boy," he said. Turning to his driver he said, "Whitehall, London. We'll have to hit it a bit fast to be on time for my meeting."
Stan stood staring at the car as it whirled away. "Whitehall," he muttered. "Pelham." Suddenly he began to laugh. He had hitched a ride with one of Winston Churchill's right-hand men. And he had taken the honorable assistant secretary many miles out of his way.
Hailing a jeep Stan hooked a ride to the camp. He walked into operations and up to the desk. A major looked up and then started.
"Wilson!" he exclaimed. "We had you marked down as lost. Sim Jones reported you short of gas."
"I hitchhiked back. Caught a ride with one of Churchill's secretaries," Stan said dryly.
The major looked at him sharply, then shoved a pad across the desk. "Just put that in writing," he said.
Stan made his report, then headed for his hut to change into an unwrinkled uniform. There was no one in the hut, but his things and the belongings of O'Malley had been neatly stacked. Stan scowled.
"They gather a man's stuff up in a hurry around here," he muttered.
He put his own things back and did the same with O'Malley's. There would be no rush about making O'Malley out a dead man. Getting into his uniform he headed for the mess. He was suddenly very hungry.
Walking into the little dining room he halted and his mouth dropped open. At a table, with four youngsters listening open-mouthed to his talk, sat O'Malley. He looked up and for a moment held a big piece of steak poised on his fork. Then he shoved the steak into his mouth and waved a big hand.
Stan crossed the room and seated himself. There was no warm greeting. O'Malley swallowed his steak and grinned at his pal.
"Ye're a bit late, but in time for the pie course."
"I took a bath on the way back," Stan said.
"Now, now," Stan cut in. "No names named."
"I said a spalpeen let you down," O'Malley growled.
"And what happened to you?"
O'Malley grinned. "Me? Oh, I had the boys tuck an extra sixty gallons o' gas aboard. The colonel said we was to handle fixing the tanks, so I fixed mine like that."
"You dropped out of sight at Huls in a hurry," Stan said.
"I ran out of ammunition, and havin' a spot of extra gas, I did a bit o' sight-seein'," O'Malley explained. "An' did I get an eyeful!"
The four youngsters sighed and got to their feet. It was time for them to shove off.
"See you when I got time to tell you how I chased a Nazi birdman right down on a British landing strip," O'Malley called after them.
"You've been stringing the kids along," Stan said.
"I gave them only a bird's-eye view o' the life o' the great O'Malley." The Irishman leaned back and surveyed the platter where the steak had been. "Now jest a wee bit of apple pie an' I'll have the edge taken off me hunger."
He ordered a whole pie. Stan ordered a steak and coffee. As soon as the orders were placed before them, O'Malley leaned forward.
"Sure, an' I saw the strangest sight today," he began. "I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it."
"What was it?"
"I was flittin' along over the tops o' trees an' the spires o' kirks when I zoom out over a wooded slope with a big cleared field in the middle o' the woods. There on that field was at least seventy Jerry fighter planes." O'Malley paused to cram a large bite of pie into his mouth.
"Fighter field. Did you get its location?"
"Sure. An' I thought I'd give those fellers a grand scare. There wasn't a plane in the air, so I was safe. I zoomed up an' over an' came down in a dive." O'Malley paused and shook his head. "You'd never believe it. I could hardly believe me own eyes. When I came back down to scare the daylights out o' them Krauts, there wasn't a plane on that field. They just vanished." O'Malley looked hard at his pie and kept on shaking his head.
"It's all right to tell that yarn to me, but don't ever tell it to a general," Stan said. "Did they all take to the air?"
"Nary a plane in the air. It's some black magic them Krauts have conjured up, if ye ask me."
It was clear that O'Malley was in dead earnest. Stan believed O'Malley had seen the planes. He also believed there was some trick the Germans had worked out to hide their fighter fields and to protect them.
"We'll have another look," O'Malley said. "I have the place spotted."
"Being able to get fighters out of sight so quickly would account for our not being able to knock out their fighter fields," Stan said. "We'll have to give this some thought."
"It ought to get us special duty," O'Malley said.
"I'll bet you slipped inside their warning system and caught them flat-footed. But there must be some way they get parked planes moved so fast."
"We'll be the b'ys to find that out," O'Malley answered.
"I doubt if we ever make anybody swallow your story," Stan said.
Stan and O'Malley had a visitor that night. Allison drove over to see them. Looking around the Nissen hut, he grinned broadly.
"Sure, an' I'll call the butler," O'Malley said. "He just stepped into the drawin' room."
"Sit down, pal." Stan motioned toward one of the cots.
"Homey spot you have here," Allison observed.
"How did it go today?" Stan asked.
"You fellows did a swell job, but why only six fighters?" Allison's smile had faded.
"The brass hats knew I was goin' along," O'Malley replied.
"One of those little experiments," Stan explained grimly.
"Pretty expensive try, I'd say," Allison answered.
"O'Malley spotted a big fighter base all equipped with vanishing planes." Stan got to the point he wanted to discuss at once.
"There must be dozens of them, but we have never been able to spot any of them to knock them out. Those Me's and FW's just sprout out of the ground as we go along." Allison frowned and shook his head. "If we could spot the fields, we could send out separate missions ahead of a raid and knock off those fields."
"O'Malley says they snap the planes out of sight in less than a minute. He slipped in over one of them, circled, and when he came back there wasn't a plane in sight."
"I figure there were at least seventy planes parked when I popped in over the field. When I came back over they were gone." O'Malley shook his head.
"Think anyone would believe such a yarn?" Stan asked.
"Every bomber pilot and crew member would believe it," Allison said grimly. "Why don't you report it and ask for a chance to check up?"
"I've already gone over the head of Sim Jones once and got socked for it," Stan said. "But O'Malley ought to report it."
"Sure, an' I'll be after seein' Colonel Holt meself." O'Malley ran his fingers through his mop of red hair. "I'd as soon have this Jones bird after me as not."
After that the talk got around to the raid on Huls. Allison's ship had come through with only a few bullet holes. His bombardier had laid their eggs squarely on a factory building. It had been a good show for the Forts and Libs.
"What I'm worried about," Allison said as he got ready to leave, "is that the Wellingtons and Lancasters will blow Berlin off the map before we are able to penetrate that far."
"Them nighthawks?" O'Malley showed his scorn by frowning savagely. "Flyin' boxcars!"
"They haul a lot of TNT and they get through, to their targets, but there'll be a lot of stuff for the precision sights of the Forts and Libs," Stan said. "You notice when they want important targets like locks or sub pens or carefully placed factories they send you boys to get them."
"I know, old man," Allison said with a grin. "But I'd like to make the Berlin run."
"With those hidden fighter fields out of the way you could go in and out alone," Stan pointed out. "The way it is now, they keep sending up fighters all along the route."
"I have to run for it," Allison said. "Pilots meeting."
After he had gone Stan and O'Malley headed for Colonel Holt's office. Bugs and Splinters came in just as they were leaving. They were both highly excited. They had been assigned to active duty. Stan smiled at them but he was thinking that they were taking the places of the men who had been in his flight.
The boys were waiting for the colonel when Sim Jones came out of a side door. He paused for a moment. Stan eyed him coldly; O'Malley walked on into the colonel's office without speaking.
"I suppose you think I deliberately tricked you, Wilson. You're headed for the Old Man." His lips pulled tight. "I don't blame you, but I didn't pull that stunt to get you cut out. It was a boner on my part."
"It was," Stan agreed dryly. "And I'm not squawking to the colonel."
Sim looked Stan in the eye; he flushed a deep red. "I figured I was so good I could cut back and take out all three Jerries."
"Forget it," Stan said and grinned. "We all pull 'em."
Sim turned and hurried away without another word. Stan was still smiling as he entered the colonel's office. O'Malley scowled up at him.
"Did you bop him one?" he asked.
The colonel was seated at his desk. He looked from Stan to O'Malley and lifted his eyebrows.
"No," Stan said. "I made a date to have lunch with him."
O'Malley's eyes opened wide. The colonel leaned back. "Go ahead with your story, Lieutenant," he said.
O'Malley finished his story and the colonel considered the matter for a few minutes.
"It sounds fantastic," he finally said. "But it fits in very neatly with what we have been able to learn about German fighter tactics. I think we should look into it. I'll let you men know what I plan to do."
"Could we have any special assignment growing out of this?" Stan asked.
"You will get the special assignment," the colonel promised.
"Thank you, sir," Stan answered as he got to his feet.
They saluted and left the office. O'Malley was still in a sour mood.
"You made up with that Jones bird?"
"I did," Stan said. "Now let's head for the mess."
When they entered the mess, the boys greeted them warmly and crowded around. There was no trace of resentment or jealousy. The fellows were eager to know what had happened over Huls. Stan and O'Malley were the only two pilots to get back. Sim sat at a table alone.
Stan talked with the boys a while, then walked over to where Sim was seated. He pulled out a chair and sat down.
"Mind if I join you?" he asked.
"Glad to have you," Sim said and meant it.
After a bit O'Malley came over. He had noticed that Stan and Sim were laughing over something and he did not know what to make of it.
"Sit down," Stan greeted him. "Have a pie on me."
"Sure, an' I'll do that," O'Malley said. He sat down and waited to hear what he could.
Stan and Sim laughed and talked and finally O'Malley joined in. It was clear that the boys had buried the hatchet, so he saw no reason for being grumpy. Besides, the cook had just made some blueberry pies and they were extra tasty.
After mess Stan got a call from Colonel Holt and hurried off, leaving O'Malley and Sim together. The colonel had two officers with him when Stan went in to see him.
"General Ward and Major Kulp," the colonel said. "This is Lieutenant Wilson."
The men shook hands and all sat down. The colonel passed several papers across to Stan.
"You are on special detail. You'll be equipped with P-51 ships and have a flight of three. General Ward suggests you do a bit of rhubarb raiding."
"Thank you, sir. These 51's are the new long-range fighters?"
"They have the same range as the Libs and Forts." The colonel smiled. "But we have only a few of them. Later, perhaps, we'll have a great many."
"Check carefully on location and construction of fields. Each ship has a camera to record the details of any fields you locate." General Ward spoke in a Texas drawl.
"Don't trust the cameras entirely. Get down low and see all you can," the major added.
"The third pilot, who is he?" Stan asked.
"Did you have a man in mind?" Colonel Holt asked.
"I should have consulted you, but I already have promised a man the job."
"Who is he?" Stan asked, trying not to show his disappointment.
Stan began to grin. "The same man I had in mind," he said.
"Good. Now take over."
Stan hurried away. He found the boys listening to the radio in the rest room. At his nod O'Malley and Sim joined him at a reading table.
"We get special rhubarb detail," he said.
"Foine," O'Malley said eagerly. "Only we'll never be able to fly far enough into Kraut territory to see anything."
"I get to go along?" Sim asked.
"Colonel's orders," Stan said and grinned. "And we get P-51 ships with the same range as the Forts."
"Sure, an' we'll fly to Berlin," O'Malley said.
"You better be thinking about locating that airfield," Stan answered. "There was a general at the meeting I just left."
"As long as he won't be askin' to go along, it's all right," O'Malley said.
"Now let's get some shut-eye." Stan got to his feet.
In the operations room the next morning, their papers were ready and they headed out on the field where three big Mustangs stood ready and warmed up. They were powerhouses with wicked armament and plenty of wingspread. In addition to wing guns, they had bomb racks which were fitted with extra gasoline tanks.
"Sure, an' they're one-man bombers," O'Malley crowed.
"They weren't built for hedge-hopping, but the major said they could do about four hundred miles per hour on the treetop level," Stan explained.
Sim whistled. "Wait until the Eighth gets a flock of these," he said.
"You plot the course, O'Malley," Stan said. "We'll stay in close until we start down over Germany, then we'll keep within striking distance to cover each other. We're camera equipped but we have to use our eyes, too."
The boys climbed up and got settled. Control gave Stan clearance and he called to his flight.
"Rhubarb Raid, check temperatures. Sim, take off first. Rendezvous at twenty thousand."
Stan leaned back and checked his instruments. He watched Sim slide away and shoot skyward. The 51's were plenty fast. O'Malley went off next and was in the air almost at once. Stan kicked his throttle open and roared after his pals. The Mustang hopped off as though she weighed only a few pounds instead of three tons or more.
The three P-51's slipped into close formation and headed out across the channel. The day was a good one for reconnaissance, because there were many banks of clouds at high level with a very high ceiling. Stan kept his eyes open for enemy interceptors. He half hoped a few Me's would spot them so that they could try out the new ships. No fighters were seen until they reached the mouth of the Rhine.
Below them they could see Rotterdam and beyond, Gorinchem. O'Malley was wagging his wings, signaling to go down. The fighters they spotted, three in number, did not try to intercept them.
Stan signaled back and they all peeled off. The P-51 went down smoothly but with a swift rush that set Stan back against the shock pad. He had to ease on a bit more power to stay with O'Malley who was trying his ship out.
At five thousand feet they flattened out a quarter mile apart and stalled in toward a line of trees and a windmill. O'Malley brushed the sails of the mill as he swept over it. They were close to the ground now, flipping along like cotton dusters on a Texas plantation. O'Malley was hugging the ground, popping over trees and sliding between buildings. Stan saw the white faces of people as they looked up. Most of them waved to the ship with the United States insignia. They were Dutch farmers.
The three ships hedge-hopped on over the low country. O'Malley held a speed that made the ground blur and waver. It also made dodging power lines and missing church steeples exciting business. Stan raked a pennant off the top of a building without seeing the building at all. After that he called to O'Malley.
"Hey, you. Get up a bit!"
"Sure, an' the scenery is foine down here," O'Malley called back. But he did take a little more altitude.
They roared in over Germany and headed for Huls. Twice they were blasted by machine guns, but they were flying so low the German detector system had not spotted them. They were put down as Mosquito bombers out hunting locomotives and trains:
"We're coming in now," O'Malley called.
He had swung wide of Huls and was headed for some low hills. Knifing over the the nearest hill, with their bellies scraping the tops of a row of trees, the three P-51's nosed into a little valley.
Suddenly Stan saw the airfield O'Malley had spotted. In a snap guess he placed the number of planes lined up at one hundred. They were in a long row at the base of a hill. Runways led out to a wide flight strip.
"Strafe them!" he shouted.
The order was not necessary. O'Malley and Sim were going straight down the line of planes, their guns blasting flame and lead. The target was so narrow that Stan had to stall and slip a bit to drop behind in order to get a shot at the line.
The Mustangs went over so fast the Germans did not have time to fire a shot at them. Not a plane moved, except those which blew up or burst into flames under the withering fire from the Yank guns. Up the P-51's went and over the ridge. They were roaring along at such a pace that it took a long zoom and bank to get lined up for a return trip.
When they came back over, the Germans were ready for them. Smoke makers were billowing thick haze over the scene and every imaginable sort of gun was slamming lead and steel into the sky. The air above the field was thick with flaming muck. O'Malley was out in front with Sim close off his port wing. He went into the muck low down. Stan came in a bit behind his pals.
Looking down into the flaming muzzles of the guns Stan stared hard. There wasn't a plane in sight! Not even the burning ships or those blasted to bits could be seen. There was nothing but the green slope of the hill and the smooth runways leading to the flight strip.
"Well, what do you know!" he muttered.
At that instant the muck enveloped him along with the pall of smoke from the edges of the field. Just ahead of him he saw something that looked like a huge rocket lift toward Sim's ship. It exploded with a blinding flash directly under the P-51. Sim's ship shot upward and a wing swirled away like a dark strip of paper torn from a wall. Then the P-51 nosed into the ground and exploded. Cold sweat broke out all over Stan's body as he pulled his ship over and up.
At five thousand feet up and well away from the hot spot, Stan took stock. He tried to call O'Malley and found his radio was shot out. Looking through his spattered hatch cover, he saw that his port wing had three gaping holes in it. But the engine was singing sweetly. His first thought was to locate O'Malley, but he had another when he spotted three Focke-Wulf fighters roaring in on his tail.
"We'll see what you have to offer, sister," he said softly as he kicked the Mustang wide open and laid her over.
The big ship responded with a surge of power that yanked her into the sky and over in a perfect roll before Stan could decide what was going on. Leveling off, Stan looked for the FW's. They had missed him by a wide margin. Stan grinned.
"You don't need a pilot, lady," he said.
Coming over he tried a burst on one of the FW's. It was a long shot, but the Jerry was lined up neatly in his sight. The heavy guns of the P-51 roared and bucked. Up ahead the FW wobbled and dived. The other two went up for altitude. Stan went up, too. The P-51 was a high-altitude lady and would do better up where she had rare air and plenty of space.
Stan eased away from the FW's and did not challenge them. They circled, taking a good look at this new type of fighter. They had learned from sad experience that any new Yank ship might prove to be deadly. The Forts had taught them that.
Stan was well up now where he could look down on the flight strip below. He saw nothing of O'Malley but he did see two wrecked planes at the far edge of the field away from the hill. Nosing down Stan dived toward the field. The two FW's dived after him, but he soon eased away from them.
Sweeping in a few yards above the runway, Stan laid over just a little. He checked the wrecks and saw that one of them was Sim's ship. The other was an FW fighter minus one wing. The Germans behind their hidden batteries opened up with a savage burst of fire. Stan went straight toward the hill, flying low to keep out of the flak. As he shot up off the runway he stared hard at the hillside ahead, then blinked his eyes.
"So," he said softly. "So that's the way it is."
He went up and over the hill, spiraling into the sky in a climb steeper than any ship had ever carried him. The FW's had been joined by five Me 110's, but the Jerries did not close with him. Stan headed for home as fast as the P-51 could travel, which topped four hundred miles per hour by a wide margin.
He was roaring along with no opposition in sight and a clear sky around him when he suddenly spotted a plane in his mirror. It was overhauling him rapidly. Suddenly Stan grinned. He eased back on the throttle and waggled his wings as O'Malley roared over him. Picking up speed, he dropped in beside his pal and signaled that his radio was dead. They roared on home, wing to wing.
Stan sat at Colonel Holt's desk along with O'Malley. It had taken them just twenty minutes to get from the operations room to the colonel's office. Holt had called in Major Kulp of the photography wing and General Ward from the command staff.
"When I came in to check the wrecked planes," Stan said, "I was able to see how they do it. They have a screen on tracks. It is covered over with brush and leaves and looks from any angle, except squarely in front, like the side of the hill. They just roll it out and it covers the planes."
"You wrecked quite a few of them on the ground?" the general asked.
"We must have smashed at least half of them," Stan answered. "But the part that interested me most was the underground hangars. The screen is only a temporary camouflage. The planes are snapped back into the underground hangar. I say we got about half of them, because the wrecked ones were still out under the screen. The others had been pulled back."
"We can bomb those hangars out," the colonel said.
"I don't think so," Stan said. "I judge there's a full forty feet of earth over them as a roof, and I suppose there's at least ten feet of concrete under that."
"That would make them safe. Have any any ideas for handling them?" General Ward bent forward eagerly.
"Yes," Stan replied. "We could skip-bomb them."
"Skip-bomb?" Major Kulp asked.
"Bounce our bombs right into the open end of the hangar," Stan said, grinning.
"It might work," Colonel Holt said.
"The P-51's carry bombs, and I'm sure the boys could rig them so that we could fly at the right angle to bounce them into the hangars. If we went across once, they'd have the ships pulled back in and we'd get most of them."
"We'll try it," the general said. "Wilson, you will have charge of the flight."
"It will be tough going. We lost Jones today and O'Malley and I were just lucky. We both had our ships shot up badly."
"Chances we have to take," Colonel Holt said gravely. "Are you sure Jones was killed?"
"I saw his ship hit by what looked like a rocket shell," Stan said. "I went into the smoke and did not see it until I flew over it on the ground."
Silence followed this remark. Finally the colonel spoke. "We'll report him missing in action and hope for the best."
"Sure, an' I'm thinkin' the Jerries were plenty mad," O'Malley said grimly.
"The thing to do is to check with bomber operations and locate the spots where they run into the most fighters. Then scout those areas with low-level flights. When we locate a set of runways near a hill, we'll check. After the data is in we'll try Lieutenant Wilson's skip-bombing tactics. But we want to make a clean-up, for once we let them know how we do it they'll rig up a defense." The general rose to his feet. "I'll let you know, Colonel, what plans my office makes."
"You have pictures of the hangars?" the major asked eagerly.
"I'm afraid I forgot all about your cameras when I came in over the runway," Stan replied. "I was really looking for Sim and O'Malley."
"You fighter pilots always forget the cameras," the major said sourly. "Well, we'll check what you did get."
"'Tis about time to be eatin'," O'Malley put in anxiously.
"In that case, Colonel, we'll run along," Stan said with a grin.
Colonel Holt looked at O'Malley sternly. "Food is a secondary matter right now, but you may go."
"Thank you, sor," O'Malley said. "It's very important to me."
The colonel looked at O'Malley's lank and bony frame and smiled. He turned back to his desk, and Stan and O'Malley hurried away.
"I thought you had to have water to do this here skip-bombing," O'Malley said when they were outside.
"It can be done on land, too. Our boys can rig a delayed fuse and we can roll the eggs right back into the nests," Stan explained.
"We'll have fun," O'Malley chuckled. "In no time at all we'll be over Berlin."
During the next week, scouting flights from the Eighth Air Force field and from other fields near by were made on a pattern. Long-range P-51's and swift Mosquito bombers went out. They searched a wide band of enemy territory and made many photographs. Every landing strip, even though it appeared to be only an emergency runway, was checked and photographed. Then the boys were called in. The fields had been spotted and their underground hangars located. It was time to strike.
Stan and O'Malley sat in the operations room looking at a big map. Colonel Holt stood before the map with his staff. The men leaned forward eagerly. For several days they had been practicing a new type of bombing with fighters, a skip method. The colonel pointed to the map.
"There are many flights going out at daylight. Ours is just one of them, but we have been assigned to destroy the largest of the fighter bases near Berlin. You all know the tactics. There will be thirty planes in your flight. This is a teamwork job." He paused and looked over the eager faces before him.
The men began to breathe easier as the colonel went on. They knew what they were up against. There would be a long flight during which they would avoid fights in the air. Then there would be a sudden attack to be staged just at dawn. That attack would be rugged going and a lot of them would never come back.
When the briefing was over, they crowded out of the room and into the mess for hot coffee and sandwiches. There was little talking. This was the hour of tension. Weather still had to come through with reports and the men had learned that Weather often let them down. Being let down after getting keyed up for a dangerous mission was worse than going out.
But Weather did not let them down. They got their clearance without delay and headed for the ready room. Eagerly they scrambled into their outfits, then barged out into the night. Stan and O'Malley walked side by side.
"We fly the tail slot," Stan said. "That means some hot going."
"'Tis as good as any," O'Malley answered as he headed for his plane. "See you at breakfast."
Like huge night birds the P-51's took off and headed east. Stan watched the flare of their exhausts as they flamed down the runways and lifted into the dark sky.
"O'Malley ready, Wilson stand by."
Stan adjusted himself and checked his instruments. He eased down against the shock pad and waited. O'Malley went knifing away and he wheeled in behind. Hoiking the P-51's tail he sent her off and up.
Quickly the big fighters, each with a bomb load tucked in where ordinarily extra tanks would nestle, closed into formation. The flight leader, Colonel Wellman held them in tight formation.
As they roared along Stan thought back over the past few days. He had been offered the flight leader's job but had turned it down. When Wellman got back he would be ranked up a notch and shoved into a job where he could fly only occasionally. Already his record and his rating kept him at base most of the time. Stan grinned. He did not want anything out of the war but a chance to fly in action.
They moved across the channel, high up in the cold sky. Roaring toward Berlin in arrow-straight flight, they slid over the Netherlands. There were to be no roundabout evasive tactics tonight, not with bombs in the place of extra gasoline.
Stan checked his instrument panel and his clocks. They must be over Germany now. The country below was blacked-out entirely. There was no flak and no lights below. Darkness still filled the world, but dawn was not far away.
A buzzer signal in his headset told Stan it was time to settle down for low flying. Light had begun to show in the east. Down went the Mustangs, and as the dawn began to lighten the low country below, they roared across the German countryside. Now they were greeted by a few bursts of fire, but no heavy flak came at them. Because they were hedge-hopping at a terrific speed, the German warning systems were not spotting them in time to allow gunners to get set.
"Tactical formation, Red Flight." Colonel Wellman broke the silence with that crisp order.
The Mustangs spread out and made a circling sweep. They had been headed straight for Berlin and would be spotted as a nuisance raid group of Mosquito bombers. No fighters would try to intercept them. The Berlin defenders would depend upon flak, as fighters were useless against the fast Mosquitoes. By swinging sharply east the Mustangs would hit the fighter hangars.
The light was good as the boys roared along at treetop level and spotted the landmarks they had been briefed to expect. They flew in perfect formation. Stan was flying the tail slot along with O'Malley. They were in a mopping-up position.
Stan saw the runways flash into sight, then he saw the lead Mustangs go in with their wheels almost touching the runways. A second later there were many flashes of flame and rolling clouds of dust. At the same moment the earth began to erupt fire and smoke and steel. The second wave of Mustangs disappeared into the inferno. Stan saw two of them blow up, then go bouncing and tumbling along the ground. That was all he had time to see. With his hand on the bomb release he went in.
The smoke and the firing was so intense Stan could make out little. He judged his distance and released his bombs when he caught a glimpse of a yawning tunnel ahead. He saw O'Malley cut his load loose. O'Malley was wing to wing with him. Then the Irishman's Mustang stuck her nose into the ground and went end over end down the field like a wrecked kite. Stan pulled up hard and as his P-51 lifted, he felt something hit her. It was as though he had slammed into a stone wall. She staggered, let down one wing, then nosed over. Stan felt the ground slap her and heard the ripping and tearing of metal as something exploded almost in his face. A blinding flash of light stabbed at his eyeballs and blinded him.
The Mustang rolled over and over, her sturdy fuselage refusing to crumple. Stan's one thought was of fire. He pawed aside what was left of his hatch cover and heaved himself upward and out. Staggering free of the wreckage, he found himself enveloped in a choking pall of smoke. Off to his left, a heavy explosion shook the ground. Dirt and sticks and bits of metal peppered him and the smoke surged away before the concussion of the explosion. Stan staggered back and as he did so, four soldiers leaped at him out of the smoke.
One of the men lunged at Stan from the side and two from the rear. He felt a solid impact on the back of his head and felt himself slumping forward, then everything went black.
Stan opened his eyes and found himself in a big room with stone walls and high windows. Sun was streaming in through two of the windows and gleamed upon piles of straw littering the floor. A dozen Yank airmen and several R.A.F. men sat on the straw. Stan lifted his hand to the back of his head and groaned. An R.A.F. man near him said:
"A bit of a tough rap? Can I get you some water? It's all we've seen so far in the way of refreshments."
"Thanks," Stan said. "But where am I?"
"A Jerry prison. I take it you were one of the boys who bombed the fighter fields. I'm Captain Prentiss." The Britisher smiled.
"I'm Stan Wilson. I'm not sure I bombed anything. Is there an Irishman here by the name of O'Malley?"
"Right-o. He was dragged in with you." Prentiss got to his feet. "I'll go tell him you're awake."
"Thanks." Stan heaved himself to a sitting position and looked around. Several of the boys nodded to him but none of them got up. All of them were strangers to Stan, men from flights he had not worked with.
O'Malley came in from a narrow hallway and hurried across the room. When he saw that Stan was sitting up, a dark scowl on his face turned into a grin.
"Sure, an' I've been yellin' at them Krauts, tryin' to get them to send a Doc in to fix you up. They jest laughed at me."
"I don't need a doctor. How did the raid go?"
"The boys say we blew 'em off the map. I talked with a couple of Lib boys just brought in. We cleared the path to Berlin." O'Malley grinned eagerly. "I'm glad ye're feelin' foine now. We have to get out o' this hole."
Stan looked up at the high, barred windows. "Yes, we do," he said, more to encourage O'Malley than because he had any hopes. They were deep in the heart of Germany and soon would be in a closely guarded prison camp.
"They're takin' us to another prison in a few minutes. The guard says we get to eat before we're locked up again. We have to be questioned by the Gestapo." O'Malley leered angrily.
"You mean German Intelligence," Stan corrected.
"All the same. Himmler runs 'em both," O'Malley answered.
They were interrupted by a shout from the hallway. A burly German officer stamped into the room and stood looking at the men.
"Get to your feet!" he yelled.
The men slowly rose and stared at the officer. He glared at them, his eyes moving over them slowly.
"You should be treated as swine, you bomb cities and kill non-combatants. Der Fuehrer does not like this," he snarled.
"We are only following the example you set at Warsaw and Rotterdam," a British major said as he stepped over and faced the German. "We are prisoners of war and you'll treat us as such, my fine fellow."
Stan moved forward quickly. The R.A.F. major stood with his feet planted well apart, facing the German. The German lashed out suddenly with a knotted fist. The major swayed a bit and ducked the blow. He started a right cross for the German's jaw but Stan dived in and pinned his arms.
"Swine! Dog!" the German bellowed. "You will pay for this."
"Take it easy. Knocking his block off won't help you any," Stan said as he released the major's arms. "There ought to be better ways."
"I'm sorry," the major said stiffly.
The German glared around him. He puffed out his chest and struck a stiff pose.
"You are to be moved to other quarters. Anyone trying any sneaking business will be shot. Is dot clear?"
"It's clear. Get on with the moving," Stan said crisply.
"You better be after feedin' us," O'Malley broke in.
The officer blew a whistle and a squad of soldiers filed in. The men lined up and the officer began splitting the prisoners up into small groups. He sent six men away with the guards and whistled for another squad.
"They must think we're tough," Stan said and grinned.
Before Stan and O'Malley were sent out, a young lieutenant entered and spoke to the officer in charge. He faced the remaining men.
"Lieutenants Wilson and O'Malley are wanted at once for questioning." He glared about him.
Stan and O'Malley stepped forward.
"Come with me," the young lieutenant snapped.
"What? No squad with fixed bayonets?" Stan asked and grinned.
The lieutenant smiled. "Where we are going there will be no need for an armed guard." He walked away with Stan and O'Malley beside him. O'Malley kept a sharp eye open for a chance to escape. Stan was afraid if they passed an open door O'Malley would bolt through it.
They entered a long hallway and were marched to its far end where they entered a small room. There was a table and a few chairs.
"You may as well sit down," the lieutenant said.
"You almost talk United States," Stan observed.
"I should. I spent ten years in Pittsburgh," the lieutenant explained.
"How did you come to get over here in Germany?" Stan asked.
"During those years I was working for the greater Germany," the officer answered stiffly. "Heil Hitler." He did an about-face as precisely as though he had been on parade before Hitler and marched out of the room.
"Don't tell them anything," Stan said.
"Sure, an' the Gestapo has my life history written down anyway," O'Malley said. "I think we're in Berlin and I'd be after likin' it if I could get loose."
"We'll be watched very close at first. We'll have to wait," Stan warned.
Two officers, a major and a colonel, accompanied by the young lieutenant, entered. The ranking officers seated themselves at the table; the lieutenant stood before Stan and O'Malley.
"You are a part of the Eighth Air Force?" he asked.
"Yes," Stan answered.
"Do you know how many fighters and bombers your force has?"
"No," Stan answered.
"How many of the new type of fighters do you have? The sort you were flying when shot down."
"I've heard some of the boys say a couple of thousand," Stan answered. He was merely reporting a bit of mess rumor he had heard the day before.
The lieutenant scowled and spoke in German to his superiors. After that the questions came fast, but neither O'Malley nor Stan offered any further comment. They answered simply yes or no or refused to answer at all. Finally the senior officer got up in disgust and stamped out.
"You are fools," the lieutenant snapped.
"Would you talk if we caught you?" Stan asked pleasantly.
"Of course not, but we are a superior race. Now you will be given comfortable quarters and food. We observe the rules of war." He turned about and motioned for them to follow.
The boys were fed soup and fish with a slice of bread and a brown liquid which passed as coffee. O'Malley grumbled a lot, but he ate everything set before him.
"If this is what the Geneva treaty said captured officers were to eat, I'm a spalpeen," O'Malley muttered as he marched away with Stan to their quarters.
They found themselves quartered in an old stone house which had at one time been a residence. There was a high wall around it with many guards pacing back and forth and two searchlights located on platforms which were also occupied by a machine gun and its crew. But there was a yard and a few trees and shrubs.
"Not as bad as a prison camp," Stan said.
"Not very good," O'Malley said as he stood looking up at one of the machine-gun nests.
The boys were taken to a room on the ground floor where they met several other fellows from the Eighth. They had been located at the camp for several months and were eager to hear news from England.
Stan and O'Malley talked with them for a while, answering their questions. One of the boys, a bombardier from a Fort, explained the workings of the camp.
"They change us around quite a bit. New men come and some of the old heads go. I figure they do that to nip any escape attempts in the bud." He laughed sourly. "I never heard of anybody getting away from one of these camps."
Another chap drifted in and seated himself. He was a lank Britisher with a mop of black hair.
"I hear you hail from the fighter strip near Diss."
"That was our outfit," Stan said.
"I just got a new roommate who says he's a Yank who was stationed at Diss," the Britisher grinned. "He got shot down a while back. He just came out of a hospital. Got a bad rap on the head."
"We'd like to meet him. He must be one of the boys we lost on our first bombing coverage." Stan got to his feet.
He and O'Malley went upstairs and into the little room. Two men were seated on a bed playing cards. Stan halted in the doorway. Over his shoulder, O'Malley said:
At first Stan was not sure. The man looked like Sim Jones. He was thinner and he had a freshly healed scar on his cheek. His face was sallow and he looked much older.
O'Malley barged past Stan and caught the man's hand. "Glad ye're alive," he said eagerly.
"O'Malley?" Sim stared at O'Malley as he said it. He looked up at Stan. "Wilson, you here, too."
Stan grinned. "Yes, I'm here. We cracked up on a fighter strip while bombing with Mustangs. I'm glad you made it safely. When I last saw you, your P-51 had buried its nose in the ground."
Sim's eyes narrowed sharply. "That crack-up knocked me silly," he said grimly. "I don't remember much." He put his hand to his head. "I was nuts for quite a while, I guess. Even now I forget things. Sometimes I forget what's happened."
"You'll come around," O'Malley said cheerfully.
"They might let us three have this room together," Sim said. "I'd like to have you fellows around."
"It could be fixed," the Britisher said. "They let us line up about as we wish. I'll help you fix it. I've been here a couple of months."
Stan went with the R.A.F. man. They located a non-com who told them to shift around as they pleased. He seemed to know who Stan was and all about him and O'Malley.
"Ve treat you goot," he said.
As they went back the Britisher said, "Some of these Nazis are beginning to try to make friends with us. I guess they figure they may need some friends among the Allies one of these days."
"They certainly will," Stan agreed.
The two boys with Sim gladly moved out and Stan and O'Malley moved in. They found Sim silent and moody, as though he was brooding over his capture and captivity. Stan spoke to O'Malley about it out in the hall.
"Sim is in bad shape. He ought to be in the hospital. We'll have to watch out for him."
"He'll be after comin' around," O'Malley said confidently.
They entered the room and found Sim staring out of a window. Again Stan was struck by the change in the boy. He seemed to have aged at least ten years. He turned toward them, then got up and closed the door. He walked over to a picture on the wall and moved it. Behind it he revealed a small hole in the paper. He placed his hands to his lips and shook his head.
Stan moved over and looked closely, then he pressed on the paper. There was a small cylinder under the paper. He grinned at Sim and O'Malley. Deftly he slit the paper with his fingernail and removed a strip of it, revealing a listening device. Taking out his pocketknife he neatly snipped one of the small wires.
"That will take care of that. Later we'll hook it up again so they won't be suspicious."
"They listen to all new men everywhere," Sim said. Suddenly he began to laugh. "But I have fooled them. I have worked out a way for us to escape."
Stan stared at him. He was not sure Sim was not still insane.
O'Malley said eagerly, "Spill it. Escape is what I'm lookin' for."
Sim went to the door and opened it. He looked up and down the hall, then closed the door.
"I was going to try it alone, but I may be able to take you fellows along." He spoke slowly.
"Sure, three can make a getaway easier than one," O'Malley said. Stan said nothing.
"Germany is cracking up fast," Sim went on. "Rotten inside with half of the guards scared they'll be stood up against a wall and shot when the invasion comes."
"They didn't seem to be slipping much where we landed," Stan said.
"But they are," Sim insisted. "I have a man fixed to take me out of here and across Germany. I'm to get him out of the country and guarantee he'll be safely kept over in England."
"Swell," O'Malley put in. "When do we get going?"
"It will take a day or so. He's no small fry either, he's a non-commissioned officer with some authority. He thinks the Gestapo is about to pick him off for not being tough enough."
"It sounds a bit too easy to me," Stan said. "But I'd take any sort of chance to get back into action."