Sam's War

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Chapter II

For several minutes Louis couldn't get Lil' Butch leveled off, still flying in an awkward, jerky line. He was having to pull hard to the right just to keep it flying straight. As Louis strained to regain control of his vessel, Cormac desperately called back on the radio to Sicily.

“Darn-Thing Tower! This is Lil’ Butch!” he yelled. “Lil’ Butch, calling Darn-Thing Tower! Come in, Darn-Thing Tower! Do you read!?”

For the next few minutes the crew of Lil’ Butch was a team of chaos. Men spilled about the fuselage, screaming, trying to discern whether they were dead or alive. Thrown to one side, then the other, finding themselves suddenly in another part of the plane.

Just as Louis leveled out the vessel, Cormac got through to base. “This is Darn-Thing Tower calling Lil’ Butch. We read you. What’s your situation?”

“We’ve taken a hit on the left wing!” Cormac replied urgently. “Knocked off course, but have regained control! Cannot make the run! Repeat! Cannot make the run!”

As Darn-Thing Tower gave Cormac a vector back to Sicily, Louis called back on Lil’ Butch’s interior channel for someone to assess the damage to the wing. Soon, Carl Huffman, the right-side gunner from Oregon was on the line.

“Looks pretty bad, Skipper,” yelled Huffman over all the noise. “There’s a hole the size of a basketball between the engines, and I see flames coming from the outside engine.

“Is the prop turning?” asked Louis.

“No, sir.”

“What about the inside prop?”

“Looks okay for now.”

Louis thought for a second. The round that struck the wing must have passed right through without detonating; otherwise they’d all be dead. The left wing would’ve been blown completely off, a gaping hole in the fuselage as they fell to the earth in a burning spiral. Louis then wondered why he was speaking to Huffman instead of Ricky Upshaw, the left-side gunner from Florida.

“Where the hell’s Upshaw?”

“I was just about to tell you, sir. His leg’s broken.”


“Got thrown all the way down the fuselage when we got hit. His strap must’ve come loose. We’re fixing’em up right now.”

“Paul!” Louis called back to the crew member he’d flown the most missions with, the cocky New Yorker in charge of the payload.


“How are ya?”

“Well, I’m just fine, Sam,” said First Lieutenant Paul Ingram with biting sarcasm. “Thanks, and how are you?”

“We gotta salvo the bombs, Paul.”

“I’m working on it, Sam. Give me a minute, will ya?”

“I mean now, Paul! Asap!”

“Not yet. Hold on.”


“You know the procedure, Sam. We’ve got to at least look for a secondary target.”

Ingram, who was bleeding from a bump on the forehead, was trying to sort out some of the maps that had spilled out of his overhead compartment. He was trying to find one that jived with their current coordinates and hopefully showed another potential target. At the same time, he was looking over a list of radio channels for British units that might be in the area and could use a little help. They still had twelve 500-pound bombs, enough to erase a mid-size town.

“Paul!” shouted Louis. “We’re losing altitude fast! There’s no telling how much we’re dropping! We could be crashing into those mountains down there in less than half’n hour!”

“Hang on a minute, Sam.” Ingram was looking over one of the older maps that showed towns that had been liquidated by the Einsatzgruppen, Nazi death squads that had followed behind the invading armies back in ’41 and ’42, eradicating the undesirables.

“Paul, I’m serious!” screamed Louis. “We gotta do something about all this extra weight! Now, I’m ordering you to salvo the bombs!”

Ingram didn’t answer; something on one the maps caught his eye. Not only did he see a potential secondary target, he saw a special receiving call sign for a British commando unit in the same area, code named Chicken Whistle Fox.

“Ingram, do you hear me!?” Louis was so angry he was just about to have someone go check on the bombardier.

“Okay, listen up,” Ingram finally said. “Take a heading thirty-nine degrees east-by-southeast. Do it now, Sam, please.”

“What is it?” asked Louis, checking the instruments and adjusting their course.

“Well, it used to be a small town called Baklavil. Serbian Yugoslavia. According to what I’m reading, the Krauts killed everyone there a couple of years ago. Now it’s a barracks for an SS battalion.”

“Are you sure?”

“Just take the heading and give me a minute. I got to make a call.” Ingram fiddled with his radio a moment, then announced the call sign. “Calling Chicken Whistle Fox. Urgent. This is Lil’ Butch. Do you read? Lil’ Butch calling Chicken Whistle Fox. Urgent. Do you read?”

Ingram kept repeating the call sign and soon a voice with a thick British accent came on the radio. “This is Chicken Whistle Fox. We ‘ear ya Lil’ Butch. An’oo the ‘ell might you be?”

After giving the Brit a quick rundown on their situation, Ingram inquired about Baklavil and any enemy troops in the area.

“Did you say ya got twelve quart-tonners?” said Chicken Whistle Fox. “Well, you’re a Godsend, Mate. Tell ya what, drop ten’a those babies on Baklavil if ya don’t mind. Then, keep ‘ead’n due south ‘til ya come to a river.”

“Why only ten?” asked Ingram.

“’Cause, my Yank friend, I’ve got another target for ya. But first take care of Krautville, as we call it.”

“And you’re sure there’re no civilians there?”

“All dead, mate. Bloody Krauts killed’em all ‘bout three years ago. Nearly a thousand’a those bastards live’n there now. An’ ten’ll get ya twenty, ‘at most of’ems the ones ‘at done it. So do us all a big favor, if ya please, an’ run somethin’ good’n ‘ot right up their arse.”

“Herd that, Sam?” said Ingram. “And according to this map, there’s not another town for nearly a hundred miles.”

“Yeah,” said Louis. “I think I see it.”

Just as Lil’ Butch topped a line of low spiky mountains, lights of a small town could be seen deep in a hidden narrow valley. The idea of dropping bombs on innocent civilians made Louis feel a little sick, but he trusted Ingram and the Brit seemed to know what he was talking about.

“Aw’right,” said Louis, thinking of his own little home town and how terrified the people of Baklavil must have been. “Let’s do it.”

It was a quaint little town, a small cobblestone crossroad with steeply roofed cottages and old rustic buildings once full of a happy cheerful people. Jews had settled the little valley so long ago nobody could accurately recall what century the town had first been founded, occasionally a subject of heated debate by the village’s elderly gentlemen.

The people had been easily rounded up with no resistance whatsoever, taken off into the woods; the able-bodied made to dig a huge trench. Photographers from the Nazi Propaganda Ministry had been there to record the brave crusade. In groups of twenty and thirty, the Jews of Baklavil were marched down into the trench and shot, a full day’s work for the German death squads. Toward the end when most were dead, filling the trench in a bloody heap, a contest was started. With lugers drawn, the most brazen fired with frightful rapidity as the less brazen kept count. A sick game of numbers shooting their victims as if they were bottles on a wall. Many of the Jews were silent, not screaming or begging, seeming to be at peace with their fate. Some, however, shrieked a hideous laughter upon seeing their loved ones shot. It started with a grandmother witnessing the casual execution of her teenage daughter and one-year-old grandson. The laughter then spread like a contagion, a shrill animal-like cry that echoed through the valley, as if unbelieving of the doom that had befallen them.

Many of the Germans could still hear that laughter in their sleep, when off alone or near the spot where it had happened. Vodka and schnapps kept the laughter at bay, but only for a short while. Creeping back it would come, reverberating through their thick skulls to the distant parts of their empty souls.

Six sentries of the 23rd Schutzstaffel stood around a fire at the northern edge of the town. Only one of them had been at the massacre three years ago, telling the story over and over to the others, bragging that he had won the killing contest. Now he was telling them about a whorehouse he had frequented in Munich before the war. How the other customers had to leave when he was there because every girl was required to quench his ravenous sexual appetite. All six of the sentries had blood on their hands and very little of it was from combat, but he was the only one of them to sometimes hear the laughter. Just that very moment, as he told his explicit pornographic tale the laughter beckoned like an annoying bell rung off in the distance. Or was it something else.

“Was is das?” asked the criminal sentry, looking to the north.

A hum, a slight droning hum could be heard. For a moment they were all quiet. Then a few of the older ones looked at one another. They recognized the familiar sound of Detroit-built Briggs & Stratton engines. They could all see it clearly now, coming from the mountains, its left wing ablaze.

“Das ist ein American flugzeug,” said another German.

Inside the houses and buildings of the murdered town slept over 800 men of the 23rd Schutzstaffel, ruthless well-trained killers who specialized in the dirty work the regular army would not touch. They occasionally pulled grease jobs on their own countrymen, policing and exterminating Wehrmacht units found lacking in the region. They did not hear the engines of the crippled American airplane as it closed in on them bringing reprisal, aligning a rancor little dreamt of.

The first bomb landed less than a hundred feet from the sentries as they tried to run for cover. They were all blown to pieces and nearly a quarter of the town was leveled. After the last bomb, there was no town. But the town was no longer needed in the physical sense. However, a definite presence still remained. Not all the Germans were killed outright by the bombs. Many lay terribly maimed, dying slow and hopeless, staring out of bulging eyes seeing all around them the new world they would soon inhabit. Revisited by those once under their guns, now their masters in the eternal shrieking laughter.

“Holy smoke!” shouted 18-year-old Marcus Bates, the North Carolina tail gunner, as he looked down with a perfect view of the destruction below. “If there was anyone down there, they’re gone now!”

The whole crew felt Lil’ Butch lighten dramatically as the bombs pealed out of its bay. Seconds later ten huge concussive thuds could be heard, one after another, like the running steps of a lumbering giant. The end tendrils of the blast waves reached Lil’ Butch rattling the vessel like a dying angry ghost.

“Aw’right, Paul,” said Louis. “Get back on the horn with that limy friend of yours and find out where he wants the last two spuds.”

“I 'eard that,” came the cockney accent over the wire. “An’ it sounded beeyew’deeful Mate! Now listen, ya gotta be sharp. The moon’s pretty bright tonight, so ya ought’a be able to see the lil’ stream run’n through the gap at the end’a the valley. Do ya see it?”

“Yeah,” said Louis after leaning forward, peering through the windshield at the ground below. “I see it.”

“Follow it, then. In the next valley it comes to a river that runs to the southeast, your left. About five kilometers down is a bridge. The Krauts been use’n it to run supplies down to the coast. Ya can’t miss it. One’a those big gaudy jobs, steel beams an’ all. Bastards built it two summers ago. We been try’n to knock it out, but can’t get close enough. Lost five men already try’n. Would you be so kind as to do a lil’ ‘arm to it? I’ll shoot up a couple’a flares. Light it up like a Christmas tree, Mate.”

“Roger that, buddy,” said Louis. “Paul, you ready?”

“Yeah,” said Ingram. “I’m ready.”

The little stream ran snake-like through the small valley in the grayish-blue moonlight. After disappearing into a gap, it reemerged in the next valley. Within seconds the river came into view, an impressive meandering body of water nearly a hundred yards wide, its glistening surface playing back the stars and the waxing half moon. Lil’ Butch banked slowly to the left as the river passed through a larger wider gap, the fire on its wing dancing, trailing behind like a creature with a life its own.

“Okay, Mate,” came the Englishman’s voice again. “There ya are. I can see ya. Your bloody wings on fire, Mate!”

“No, kid'n!” yelled Louis, derisively. “How ‘bout them flares!?”

“Ya should be able to see’m any second now, Yanks. ‘Ear goes.”

On cue, a bright green flare shot high into the air from the left side of the river, followed quickly by a second and a third. As each flare arced downward deploying a small chute that slowed its descent, the iron girders of a single-span cantilever bridge appeared out of the darkness, caught in an eerie triangle of dancing green light.

“There she is, Yanks!” shouted Chicken Whistle Fox over the radio. “Let the bastards ‘ave it!”

“You got it, Paul?” asked Louis.

“Yep,” said Ingram, looking through his bombsight. “I got’m.”

With the three flares floating directly in their front, Louis and Cormac could see the figures of men running panicked on the structure, a couple of trucks and a halftrack moving slowly to either side.

Through his bomb sight, Ingram had a better view than the cockpit. In over thirty bombing runs, it was the only time he saw the men he was about to kill.

Neither bomb actually touched the bridge. The first landed in the shallows just yards shy, and the second nearly clipped the top girder on the opposite side. But the explosions were so powerful the pilings were literally ripped from the river bottom. Two giant fireballs belched from out of the water engulfing and tearing the span asunder like matchsticks. A thick heavy crash of iron and concrete was followed by the primeval moan of its felled shoring and the screams of men.

“Sorry folks, but the bridge is out!” shouted Bates from his tail position.

“Beeyew’deeful, Mates!” screamed the Brit over the radio, laughing hysterically like a harlequin. “Very lovely indeed!” We might getta go home early now! In five seconds you Yanks just did what we’ve been try’n to do for two years!”

“Two years?” balked Ingram.

“‘At’s right, Mate. We got dropped off ‘bout six months after you Yanks joined the fight. Better late than never.”

“How many y'all down there?” asked Louis.

“Twelve now. We were seventeen, God rest’m. We use to 'ave to 'ide out a bit in the woods, but you’ve just evened the odds, Mate. Listen my friends, get as close as ya can to the coast. More 'elp there. Wish ya the best. Love ta chat, but I really gotta run. Lots’a clean up, ya see. Thanks again. God bless an’ give’m ‘ell. Over an’ out Mates.”

“Aw’right,” said Louis, “that just bought us another half hour, if we’re lucky.”

As the crew did their best to sort things out, Huffman tended to Upshaw’s leg. Louis, Cormac and Second Lieutenant Brian Sykes, the quiet navigator from Boston, tried to decide the best route to safety.

“If we head directly south,” said Sykes from his seat behind Cormac. “We’ll end up closer to the sea, where the Yugoslavian resistance has more control. There, the navy could pick us up. But they only control the coastal area, a thin, broken strip of rocky beach. Even a mile or two inland, the Germans run things. West, there’s even more Germans, and the mountains get bigger. East is a little safer, but further from the coast.”

“I say we go for it,” said Cormac, “straight to the sea.”

Louis looked back at Sykes who said nothing, just raised his eyebrows and slowly nodded.

“South it is then,” Louis said, looking back out the windshield at the pre-dawn darkness.

A calm type of urgency came over the crew. Using Lil’ Butch’s address, Louis debriefed the men on their latest impromptu mission. For a moment, each man stopped what he was doing when their skipper told them of the little town whose demise they’d just avenged. Some of them actually stared for a long time at the nearest speaker. Others just listened, all of them thinking of home. Then, they returned to their work with no unnecessary talk, their minds dialed-in to the grim possibilities to come.

Fifteen minutes later, Huffman called up to Louis. “Skipper, I’ve got Upshaw’s leg fixed as good as I can for now. But the wing’s start’n to look pretty bad. Fire’s get’n worse.”

Louis turned to look out his window at the wing. Halfway between the two engines was a raging gush of fire extending out five feet beyond the outer engine. Louis could actually see the flames moving closer and closer to the fuselage, a liquid fire flowing even by the second. A jagged pyro-demonic fury devouring the plane’s wing.

Louis then knew they would not make it to the sea, and the order to bail out should be given very soon. He radioed back to Sicily telling Darn Thing Tower, giving them the approximate coordinates of their location. With a tone that emboldened Louis, the crew of Lil’ Butch was then wished the best, and told to go with God.

Five minutes later, the wing was on fire all the way to the fuselage. They were just under 1800 feet. Louis then called back giving the order. “Abandon flight, men. Time to jump. Go when ready.”

The men were already prepared with their chutes on and geared-up with what they had and needed. Upshaw, whose leg was splinted up good and tight, would go right after Huffman. Once on the ground he would do his best to look after his injured friend, the two were like brothers. But until then, he was in God’s hands.

After all the gunners had jumped, Sykes touched both pilots on the shoulder, nodded and without a word was gone.

“Well,” said Ingram over the intercom, “if you’re ever in Manhattan, there’s a bar called The Rusty Nail at the corner of Lex and 101st Street. I live right around the block, and everyone there knows me. First drink’s on me.”

Cormac turned to Louis with a nervous look in his eye. “See ya on the ground, Skipper.”

“Don’t call me Skipper on the ground,” Louis replied, coaxing a grin from his co-plot just before he jumped.

After grabbing his son’s shoes, Louis headed for the escape hatch. He spun as he fell, looking up at Lil’ Butch, a majestic sight crossing the dark-purple sky nearly half-engulfed in flames. Just after he pulled the cord, momentarily sucked back up by his opening chute, the bomber exploded. Disintegrating, its right wing gyrated in a downward swirl of lonely drifting jetsam, pulled to the earth to lay forever. A small bit of Americana, far from home, stirring the rust.

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