Sam's War

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Chapter I

90 days earlier: U. S. Air Base-Palermo, Sicily

Captain Sam Louis opened his eyes and struggled to sit up. He had been fast asleep dreaming about his wife and child. He could still see Topsy smiling at him, squinting her eyes and scrunching up her cheeks the way she always did when she was happy. She was holding little Butch in her arms and chewing gum. But now Peter Cormac was speaking to him as he sat up in his cot. A sergeant had just come with a clipboard and pen, holding it out for them to sign the wake-up roster.

“Come on, Sam. Briefing’s in thirty minutes. Better hurry if you want chow.”

It was 22:45. If everything was a go, they’d be in the air in a little over an hour.

Louis and Cormac shaved and after a breakfast of bacon and eggs, they sat in a huge briefing room with over three thousand officers of the U.S. Air Corps 429th Heavy Bombardment Squadron, part of the 2nd Bomb Group. The Second to None Libertatem Defindimus. The 429th of the 2nd was a major division of the 5th B-17 Bomb Wing, one of the many arms of the United States 15th Air Force. Anything and everything that was vital to the enemy’s military was fair game to the 15th. Their mission was to cripple and destroy Nazi Germany’s oil production, transportation and communication lines, disperse enemy counter attacks and spearhead advances of Allied armies in Mediterranean Europe.

The packed auditorium was part of a school next to an airport that had been used by the Germans one year earlier. An enormous map of Southeastern Europe was displayed at the head of the theater. The whole of Italy kicking Sicily took up the left section of the map. The Adriatic Sea, the Balkan Peninsula and their target, Ploiesti, Romania, were all to the right. Ploiesti was the Third Reich’s main oil reserve, a gigantic maze of refineries that churned out Hitler’s oil, gas, synthetics and other petroleum products. The destruction of Ploiesti had been a top priority of the 15th Air Force for over a year now. Dozens of massive air strikes had been launched against the target with well over 10,000 American airmen lost, and the number was growing fast. Damage to the Nazi refineries had been significant, but as a whole Ploiesti was still operating at about 60 percent, an unacceptable number to the Allied high command.

The night’s mission was quite simple, but far from easy. Over a thousand B-17s from the 2nd Bomb Group were to fly in a zigzag pattern through the dark of night at 30,000 feet across Italy, the Adriatic Sea, Yugoslavia and into Romania, each packed with three tons of ordnance. When they got to Ploiesti all they had to do was drop their bombs, leaving a staggered swath of obliteration. Then, turn around and fly back to Sicily. Unfortunately, hundreds of thousands of Germans would be on the ground firing powerful cannons into the air trying desperately to kill them. An equally destructive barrage tearing at the stratosphere, stretching the vertical limit to mankind’s madness.

While negotiating the Nazi porcupine of fire and steel, before and after dropping their loads, many of the bombers would sustain heavy damage yet still remain airborne. Unable to make the return trip to Sicily, they would continue on into Southern Russia, where they could put down at one of the Ruski’s emergency landing strips. However, if the plane was too badly damaged to make it to Russia, the pilot did his best to get the vessel as close as possible to allied territory before giving the order to bail out. On the ground, allied airmen stood a 90 percent chance of being captured only to languish in a filthy, packed prisoner of war camp.

Shortly after midnight, Lil’ Butch, Louis’ B-17 Flying Fortress took off with a full complement of bombs and crew. There were ten men in all: four officers, pilot, co-pilot, navigator and bombardier; and six gunners: left, right, top, bottom, nose and tail. And each gunner was loaded for bear with 50 caliber machine gun fire that had an effective range of two miles. In the plane’s belly were twelve quarter-ton bombs, each capable of leveling a city block. Lil’ Butch assumed a position in the center of the great armada of war planes, the aching hum of over 4000 engines. Sleek silhouettes splayed across the starry night sky in waves of mechanized perdition. A deliverance of ruin for the Fatherland.

Sam Louis had been born and raised in Needles, Oklahoma, a speck on the map of the southeast portion of the state, just minutes from both Arkansas and Texas, and only an hour’s drive from Louisiana. His family’s farm was adjacent to the Broken Bow Indian Reservation, where the plains of the Sooner State turned to rolling foothills forming the southwestern fringe of the Ozark Mountains. The Great Depression had hurt the Louis family, but they were a tough, hardy bunch with an old Irish heritage woven into an even older Cherokee resilience. Sam’s father, Nate, shared a section of land with his two brothers and their families, over 300 acres that had once been fat and fertile, now blown dry by the dust bowl. The three families worked hard together to get by, but full-time farming just didn’t pay the bank note. Only months before the crash of ’29, Nate and his brothers had taken out a sizable loan against their land, and had been struggling ever since.

Sam’s mother, Enola, was the great-granddaughter of Confederate Colonel Jesse Driskill, who had commanded a battalion at Shiloh and a regiment at Chickamauga. She canned preserves selling them for a nickel a jar, and occasionally made a quilt that fetched a buck at the market down in Texarkana. Nate Louis had come from a long line of lawmen, usually forced into the job because nobody else could or would do it. Sam’s grandfather, Levi Louis, had ridden with the likes of Charles Goodnight and Joe Lafors, tracking some of the Southwest’s most ruthless outlaws. When America entered the First Great War, Nate was working as a state patrolman. He was so good at the job that literally hundreds of letters were written to the governor from the communities around Needles and Broken Bow, demanding that he not be drafted for fear that crime would go up in the region.

“Don’t half-step on nothing, Son.” Nate would always tell Sam as a child. “Do it all like your life depends on it.” He’d then smile and wink. “Helps ya sleep better.”

At a young age, Sam developed a keen mechanical and loved tinkering with engines, large and small. Besides hunting and fishing, the only thing he liked better than fixing a truck or tractor was driving one. He wouldn’t hesitate to get behind the controls of any vehicle. One day, fifteen-year-old Sam came home with a big smile on his face and a bright twinkle in his eyes. At first Nate and Enola feared that he might have lost his virginity, but then he explained the reason for his rapturous mood.

“Guess what?” he said with a radiant grin. “I flew an airplane today.”

After the initial shock wore off, Nate, Enola and Sam’s three siblings; Joe, Pat and little Pam listened as he told how an airplane was being used to spread insecticide on some cotton fields north of Needles.

“Crop dust’n, they call it,” said Sam, nodding with a trace of erudition.

The plane had landed on a dirt road and Sam sprinted over to ask the pilot, a short wiry Vermonter named Milo, if he would take him up for a ride. Once in the air, Milo let Sam take the controls from the forward seat. For several minutes Sam soared through the air like a bird, manipulating the craft as he whooped, howled and screamed at the sun and sky, chasing the wind and clouds, taunting the earth and its gravity. From that moment on, Sam knew he wanted to be a pilot flying the world over and maybe someday going to the moon.

Milo was a veteran pilot of the Great War. He had white hair that fell to his collar and dark leathery skin, contrasting with an affable, disarming smile. His work was seasonal and he sometimes performed in air shows throughout the country. But for the next few years, every spring he would return to the southeast corner of Oklahoma to do a little crop dusting and pay a visit to his farm boy friend. Each time the unofficial lessons took up where they left off the previous summer. Milo carefully taught Sam the rudiments of aviation, logging dozens of hours in the sky, takeoffs and landings, and the basics of aircraft maintenance.

Milo was a single malt scotch drinker, always smelling of the pungent liquor but never seemed to be drunk. His handsome features and carefree outgoing personality made him quite a ladies man. He often showed Sam his photo collection of girlfriends. He was never married but had a son close to Sam’s age that had died several years earlier of a blood disease, a newly discovered cancer called leukemia. This, Sam figured, was the reason for Milo’s attachment to him. The lively New Englander was invited to the Louis home for dinner a few times, entertaining the family with his tales of travel and adventure. He explained that he took up flying at the age of eighteen on a dare from a friend. He was soon one of the first airmail carriers in the country, perhaps in the whole world, delivering parcels all across the Northeast, landing and taking off wherever there was a good road or a flat field.

A few months after the Great War began, Milo enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Corps. Over France and Belgium, he shot down twelve enemy planes and was himself shot down three times, taking months to recuperate from each wreck. In his last crash the control stick was violently jammed into his mouth knocking out his front teeth. He once pulled out the bridgework to get a laugh from the Louis children, displaying a hilarious gape-toothed grin.

“It did not taste very good,” he said in a witty tone. “But it was a lot better than the propeller.”

In the spring of ’39, Sam was finishing up his last year of high school, debating whether to accept the football scholarship he had been offered by Oklahoma State, or stay on another year helping out at the farm. Things were beginning to look up. The bank was easing off a bit and the land was showing signs of renewal. Even the rains were a little more frequent. But Milo was late, mid-May and still no word or sign of him. Throughout his day Sam would look up at the sky scanning the horizon for his friend, hoping to hear the familiar drone and suddenly spot the yellowish-brown craft buzzing among the clouds.

Graduation came and went with Sam deciding to stay home a little while longer. The scholarship was good till next year, and he knew there was little chance of him getting much playing time, at least not until he was a sophomore or a junior. Then one day he noticed his father seemed a bit solemn as he arrived home from work, his shirt stained with sweat, badge glinting in the June sun.

“Something I need’a tell ya, Son,” he said, taking off his hat. “Milo’s dead. Crashed somewhere up in Kentucky. Happened back in April. Jack Harvey just found out the other day. Told me this afternoon.” Nate paused and placed his hand on Sam’s shoulder. “I’m real sorry, Son. I sure liked him. I know you did too.”

All that night Sam sat on the roof, near his bedroom window gazing up at the stars, thinking of Milo. At one point a meteor shower ran the length of the sky, dozens of shooting stars tracing the exact parallel from horizon to horizon. When it was over, Sam whispered, “Go get’m, Milo.”

By the fall of ’41 Sam was a sophomore at Oklahoma State, earning his education the hard way. Although he was an excellent athlete with plenty of grit and determination, he had yet to play a single down in a football game. The competition was tough and strangely political. He was mainly used both ways in the long grueling practice sessions scrimmaging against the first string offence as a safety, and against the first string defense as a halfback. But one Saturday in early December, Oklahoma was playing Nebraska in front of a roaring hometown Norman crowd when one of their key defensive players fractured his ankle. Sam was sent in as a replacement, and just seconds off the bench he intercepted a pass and ran it back 60 yards for a touchdown, helping win the big game. For a very short while Sam Louis was the talk of the town. But the next morning Pearl Harbor was attacked and football just didn’t seem that important anymore.

Like most American boys his age, Sam went to enlist in the Army joining the huge surge to go off and fight the Japs and Nazis. He was waiting at the recruiting station with some friends after filling out the endless paperwork when his name was called ahead of the others. He was shown to the desk of a captain in his late-thirties with a well-trimmed mustache and a pair of round spectacles.

“Sam Louis,” said the captain without looking up from the papers in his hand, his voice holding no trace of a Southern accent.

“Yessir,” said Sam, standing erect and calm before the serious man.

“You’ve indicated on your enlistment forms that you know how to fly an airplane.” As the captain said the last word he turned his face up sharply at Sam, completely void of any emotion, unnerving the farm boy. “Is that right, Mister Louis?”

“Uhm…yessir, I do. Uhm…Sir.” he choked.

“You have a pilot’s license?”

“No, sir.”

“Flight school, then?”

“No, sir.”

“But you know how to fly a plane?”

“Yessir, I can fly a plane.” he stammered. Sam imagined this man having the authority to sentence him to prison or even death. He began to wonder if his many hours flying with Milo were illegal acts.

“Well, Mister Louis,” said the captain as he leaned forward over his desk pressing his fingertips together. “Flying an airplane is not something your average citizen just happens to know how to do.”

Sam was speechless.

“Please,” said the captain with a sardonic smile, leaning further over his desk, now showing the palms of his hands. “By all means, do explain.”

After telling the man about his four years of flying with Milo, the barnstorming crop-duster, the captain nodded and raised his eyebrows.

“I seee,” he said, letting the word draw out as he reached for the phone on his desk. “Be here tomorrow morning. There is someone who will want to meet you.”

The next day the captain introduced Sam to a major with wings pinned to his chest and a much more casual air about himself. Reflections of Milo. After repeating his story and answering a few detailed questions, the major took Sam to an airfield in the next county. There, on the runway sat a bi-plane similar to Milo’s, but much newer and blue with a big white star on each wing. Right away Sam could tell it was a much more powerful machine; its vibrations were twice that of Milo’s. After the major got the plane in the air, Sam took over and began to soar and play in the sky, convincing the airman to let him try a landing. Although the touch-down was a bit rough, a few jarring bounces, he coasted the bi-plane to a smooth stop, then turned to grin at the major who was also smiling and nodding, slapping Sam on the shoulder.

Two weeks later Sam Louis was a cadet at the United States Army Air Corps Training Center at Lackland Air Base in San Antonio, Texas. He initially thought he would fly fighters, but at 5’11’’- 175 pounds, Sam was a bit larger than the average fighter pilot. Instead, he was chosen to fly bombers, B-17 Flying Fortresses. Each one of the bomber’s four engines was five times as powerful as Milo’s old crop duster. It had a there-and-back range of over 600 miles, with a bomb bay big enough to hold a team of horses. To Sam, the aircraft definitely lived up to its name, its stout sinister silhouette arranged with guns at all angles, its noble, ominous presence. For over a year he trained flying in simulated bombing runs from Texas to Georgia to Wyoming to California and back, literally circling the lower forty-eight, sometimes every other day. Sam became a master of the vessel’s delicate instruments, and finally, a seasoned certified pilot.

In March of ’43, Sam married his childhood sweetheart, Topsy Murry. After a quick honeymoon in the Ozarks, the couple transferred to Barksdale Air Base in Bossier City. Sam then began four more months of intense preparation before being transported overseas. Not long after arriving in England that summer, he received word that Topsy was pregnant. Two months later, he was a first lieutenant flying his first mission out of North Africa.

Since then he had flown forty successful missions over Ploiesti and other targets in Eastern Europe. Successful, yet many were hardly gratifying. Over a dozen close friends had been killed while under his command, and dozens more badly wounded. One of his earlier co-pilots was struck in the temple by a piece of flak that ripped through the right side of the cockpit, painting the whole compartment with blood and brain matter.

Another time a very similar scenario played out; the navigator was struck in the head by a 22-millimeter round from a German Messerschmitt that strafed Sam’s bomber. The gunners were able to rip the enemy fighter to shreds before it made a second pass, but inside the bomber’s cockpit was utter chaos and horror. There was so much blood spewing from the man’s decapitated body, Sam and his co-pilot thought they had been badly wounded, both screamed for help over the plane’s internal channel. All three men who came to assist fainted when they saw the cockpit. By then, Sam realized he was unharmed and had to help revive his crewmen. Another Messerschmitt was spotted, closing in fast.

Once, Sam's plane landed with more dead bodies than live ones, a disfigured hulk of steel so full of holes it did not look like an aircraft at all. A bombardier slouched dead at his sights. A dazed eighteen-year-old side gunner combing through a fuselage splashed with the body parts of his friends. A co-pilot and navigator who both went to pieces afterwards, each drinking themselves into a coma that night. And so it was, the emotional and mental toll that played on the men, many cracking under the strain of violent combat at high altitudes in claustrophobic conditions. The lack of air. The freezing temperatures. The endless noise. Men screaming, slipping on the hundreds of spent 50 caliber cartridges rolling on the deck, slipping on frozen puddles of blood.

In February of ’44 Sam was promoted to captain. The next day he got word that he was the father of a healthy baby boy named Butch. Along with a picture of the infant, Topsy had the child’s first baby shoes bronzed and sent to Louis. They now hung in the cockpit of the plane that bore his son’s name.

Peter Cormac was new to the war, recently come over from the States. He too had a young wife back home and a newborn child he’d never seen except in photos. Unlike Louis, Cormac was a city boy and always seemed a little jumpy, but was regarded as a competent pilot who knew his place and never questioned orders. A month ago Cormac flew his first combat mission. Although his hands shook, he performed admirably. That had been the first of two successful yet costly missions he’d flown with Louis, terrifying sorties that took the lives of three airmen plus five badly wounded. And God only knew the destruction they had dropped on the enemy below.

As usual most of the ride to the target was spent in a state of nervous tedium, the loud hypnotic buzz of the plane’s engines reverberating through the crew’s ears. Anticipation of the coming bedlam punctuated with sighs of hopeful worry. Four hours after leaving Sicily they neared Ploiesti and the flak began, 88 millimeter cannon fire from the ground five miles below. The enemy rounds were set to explode at different altitudes creating a layered curtain of destruction, blinding airbursts that tore apart the night sky, deafening concussions throbbing convulsive-like. Bits of steal, large and small, zipped through the fuselage. Unbalanced men staggering in place waiting out the wrath, a cataclysmic pariah. Latent death racing about like an ever-changing gale force wind, only a breath away. Then gusting, squalling even closer, always within reach. A dark excruciating fear.

Louis had gone nearly deaf in his left ear from the continuous explosions, a barrage of thudding sound waves that seeped deep into his body causing his joints to ache, numbing his mind and challenging his reflexes. He could still feel the sharp pain in his left calf where four months earlier a tiny chip of flak had struck him through the cockpit wall. He hadn’t even been aware of the wound until after they had landed. A crewman pointed out his blood-filled boot, oozing as he stepped with bright red rivulets running down its side, leaving incarnadine footprints on the beloved Sicilian grass.

Forty times he had run this gauntlet, each time becoming less afraid to be afraid, never fully mastering his fear. Instead, he rode it like a wild horse, all the while petitioning the Almighty. Fate pushing the wing abreast to the lesser parts of valor.

A yawning rush of air was sucked from the plane as the bomb bay doors opened, amplifying the noise in a cacophonous prelude. An ocean of misty, grayish-black clouds passed beneath, overlaid with flak and dotted with the flickers of cannon fire on the ground. Up ahead the aerial explosions from the German guns illuminated the sky in multiple flashes, silhouetting the 2nd Bomb Group in violent hues of orange fringed in blue. Here and there, all across the view from Lil’ Butch’s cockpit, planes were taking hits spinning out of formation in flames.

Then it happened, to the left a shattering crash, a terrific impact even over the noise of the gauntlet of Ploiesti. Louis's body was slammed hard against the cockpit wall, the straps biting into his flesh through the flight suit, before being slammed back into his seat. The world spun, everything dropping off to the right, falling down, a deep ringing in the ears. The rudder controls flopped loose as Lil’ Butch rolled over and over in a violent downward spin. Just before Louis blacked out, his right hand hit the auto pilot switch.

For over three miles Lil’ Butch careened straight down in a dizzying spiral, the entire crew unconscious from the sudden drop in altitude. Then, one of the modern marvels of aeronautics took over. The flaps gradually lifted as the stricken bomber came out of its spin, making a huge vertical U-turn in the sky. By the time Louis came to and could clearly see his instruments, Lil’ Butch was at 14,000 feet going straight up.

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