Passegiatta Pt. 05byAdrian Leverkuhn©
©2008 ©Adrian Leverkuhn
0530 hours, 07 July 1943
98th Bomb Wing, United States Army Air Corp Eighth Air Force
Terria Air Base, south of Benghazi, Libya
The B-24s lined up in formation on the hard-packed sand were in the pre-dawn silence, but already men swarmed around the ungainly beasts – loading bombs and .50 caliber ammunition and hundreds of gallons of gasoline into each of the twenty four aircraft. Mechanics drifted among the aircraft signing off on this repair order and that modification, checking tire pressures and oil levels for the umpteenth time while gunners walked just far enough away from the fuel-laden Liberators to smoke one last cigarette before following the bombs and bullets up into the belly of their assigned beasts. The sun was still well below the horizon yet already the day was shaping up to be hot as hell, already men were beginning to sweat as fear and exhaustion mingled with piss-stained coffee and nervous bile-drenched vomit soaked into the barely warming earth.
Pilots walked from the briefing hut, climbed into Jeeps and trucks, rode out to their assigned aircraft while they organized briefing notes and call signs in their minds. One Jeep stopped beside a B-24 that had the name "Hell's Belles" painted in red and yellow just under the cockpit windows, the words so framed by the arced bodies of a three lingerie clad women thrusting her breasts forward in apparent defiance of anyone or anything in authority, each proudly thrusting their middle fingers at Adolf Hitler. The pilot and co-pilot stepped from the jeep as it rolled to a stop and wordlessly began their own pre-flight inspections of the aircraft.
The co-pilot, a lieutenant from Freer, Texas by the name of Hal Needham, was a lanky blond haired fellow with a crude joke and a ready smile always graced by a thoroughly chewed-over toothpick dangling from the corner of his mouth; he walked under the right wing shining a flashlight into exhaust pipes and the landing gear well, spun open a tiny fuel valve and checked the color and smell of the fuel in each tank, then walked over and looked at the chit the crew chief held out for his signature.
The pilot, a captain hailing from a small farm just outside of New London, Connecticut, was a short, brown haired man whose face was dominated by a moustache the size of California; his name was Paul Thomas Goodwin. He had turned twenty four years old at midnight; Needham and the other members of Hell's Belles' crew had given Goodwin a box of cigars and promised to get him laid when they returned to England in the fall. Goodwin had the reputation of having bedded very nearly every single woman in southeast England in the four months his group had been posted there, and he had now been without a woman for almost a month. He was, quite understandably they thought, in a very foul mood when he lit up his first cigar.
Goodwin was now similarly occupied checking the left wing's major orifices, and so satisfied the Liberator was indeed airworthy he lifted himself up the entry hatch and hauled his way further up into the cockpit. He stopped off long enough to hand a list of radio frequencies and call signs off to the radio operator, then crawled along to the cockpit and slipped into the left seat. He pulled out the stiff cardboard takeoff checklist and began flipping buttons and setting dials by flashlight, at least until his eyes grew accustomed to the pale red instrument lighting. He heard his co-pilot clambering up from below while he set the fuel tank selector switch to "ALL", the normal position for take-off, then he slipped his flashlight in its holder.
"All set, Queer?" The co-pilot had acquired this inglorious nickname quite naturally: Queer rhymed with Freer, as in Freer, Texas. His full handle was 'Hangin' Hal, the Queer from Freer," and it was said reverentially in some corners that the former moniker allegedly had something to do with the Queer's rather sizeable implement, which was rumored to hang down somewhere south of his kneecaps. Women all over East Anglia were said to be in total awe of The Queer's equipment. The boy settled into the right seat, taking great care not to mangle his equipment.
"You betchca, Cap," Queer said. "Good as gold." Needham finished out his pre-flight checklist then told Goodwin he was ready. "How 'bout you."
"Calm down, willya? You're as nervous as a fart in a frying pan this morning!"
A crewman on the intercom came on and advised: "Captain, all set back here."
"Roger. Get everything stowed, Perkins."
Goodwin saluted a ground crewman below and started his number two engine, the engine closest to him out on the left wing. Needham monitored pressure gauges and temperature readouts while Goodwin started the remaining three engines, then they sat, waiting, waiting, always waiting until the Unit Commander signaled and the lead B-24 moved off toward the runway.
After months of practicing extreme low level flying in both England and North Africa as part of their ongoing preparations for Operation Tidal Wave, today's mission was straight forward, dull, routine. The big mission was still a month or more off, maybe longer. At least everyone hoped it would be longer. Today was just a warm up for the main event.
Today a wave of diversionary B-25s was going to make a run at a railway yard north of Milan; Goodwin's group was going after another much larger railway complex well to the east of Milan. It was hoped any German or Italian fighters would be drawn off to chase the B-25s out over the Med and leave the much faster, much heavier loaded Liberator's unmolested on their long run-in to the target. The fact that the last one hundred miles of their bomb run would be made at tree-top level was a new wrinkle, and it was hoped this new dimension would catch the defenders completely off-guard.
Goodwin's Liberator was number three in line this morning; takeoff and climb-out went as scheduled and the formation took bearings and rumbled off toward the east coast of Italy some ten minutes after six in the morning. They climbed slowly to twenty four thousand feet then, as they burned off more fuel, the formation edged higher, closer to thirty thousand feet. The plan they had been briefed-in on called for the group to turn west just south of Venice at high altitude, then dive for the deck about a hundred and fifty miles out and make a straight run in to the target at maximum speed. The departure plan was simply to make for Genoa, then Sicily, where the Allies invasion beachhead was already well established; if all went well the group would make it back to Libya in time for a quick game of baseball. Total mission time was slated for a little over eight hours. At least if all went well.
It was a 'bluebirds' day – not a cloud in the sky – and even as the group headed north they could see off to the west huge billowing clouds of burning munitions and fuel supplies that Allied bombers had hit during the night somewhere on the north coast of Sicily; the sun was not yet high enough to obscure the yellow-orange glow of the myriad fires rampaging through these supplies so critical to the German's defense of the island. Goodwin smiled at the sight: someone had done a pretty goddamn good job last night.
The rising sun lit off cloudtops like soft yellow candles as the formation droned northward across the Mediterranean toward Taranto. The men on Hell's Belles passed around cool sandwiches and drank stale coffee from pale thermoses as first Bari, then Ancona slid by in a fat grey haze far off the left side of the formation. As they grew nearer to Ravenna and the Adriatic coastline, crews grew increasingly nervous as the droning group passed over the shoreline far below even as navigators took quick fixes on distant landmarks and refined their positions. Ferrara next formed out of the mists ahead, and while the possibility of real airborne opposition now loomed menacingly, mercifully no one saw any aircraft – friend of foe – in the sky ahead of or around the group. Soon, with Verona ahead just visible under coppery layers of late morning haze, the formation turned hard left and dropped like a stone toward the Po River, pilots opened throttles to the stops as their aircraft settled in just a few meters above the treetops and the bombers thundered toward their bombardier's Initial Points – and the beginning of the final run-in to the target.
Goodwin was in his element down here 'in the weeds'; he loved low altitude flying, the danger, the immediate – and final – consequences of making any mistake excited him, made him feel more alive than anything he had ever done in his life. He kept one hand on the throttle levers, the other on the wheel, his feet jockeyed the rudder pedals furiously as the B-24 plowed through ground thermals and air currents and prop-wash from the aircraft ahead. He rarely scanned the instruments, instead kept his eyes fixed on the aircraft dead ahead and – peripherally – the ground rushing by barely one hundred feet below. At almost four hundred miles per hour in the thick roiled air, the ride was intensely rough and gunners in the back of the aircraft vomited out their gunports, sandwiches and coffee drifting down onto the treetops and cowering faces of a completely astonished landscape.
The formation achieved complete tactical surprise this morning; as expected, enemy fighters had been drawn to the coast and ground defenses simply couldn't engage targets coming in at this low altitude. As the miles reeled by, as the target grew ever closer, the pilots and group commanders knew they had pulled it off.
The bombardier in Hell's Belles called the IP, but the pilot would continue to fly the aircraft to the target because of the low altitude; dropping the bomb load would be called by the pilot as Goodwin had the best sense of orientation and drift to the target from his vantage point. Bomb sights were useless at this altitude. Perhaps the biggest danger the men now faced came not from enemy aircraft or anti-aircraft fire, but by bombs dropped from aircraft immediately ahead. Bomb fragments and flying debris thrown violently into the air from bombers just ahead would become as deadly as any other hot metal fired at them in anger, and all simply because from this altitude and at this speed their bombs would impact and detonate just milliseconds after being dropped.
Goodwin got word from his bombardier that the target was now less than ten miles ahead – just barely a minute away now. He pulled back gently on the stick and the Liberator climbed ever-so-slightly, up to maybe a hundred and seventy feet above the ground, and he commanded that the bomb bay doors be opened. Flak started popping above the formation, then gunners on the ground lowered their aim and began firing into the formation, oblivious to the danger this presented to their own forces on the ground.
Goodwin saw bombs dropping from the aircraft ahead – "too soon, goddamn it!" he yelled – and a wall of flame-filled dirt filled his view ahead over the instrument panel. Now, instead of seeing the onrushing world just ahead he saw black clouds filled with boxcars, flaming fountains of twisted rail and molten meat. As rock and timber, the sinew of all railways filled the air, he heard shattering glass and metal slamming into metal all around, he smelled cordite and scorched earth as smoke poured into the cockpit and his eyes watered reflexively as the stench washed over him.
He instinctively pickled the bomb release switch on his wheel, felt the aircraft lurch as the load fell away, and he rushed to trim the elevators so to keep the Liberator from shooting up uncontrollably into the flak-filled sky. As suddenly, Hell's Belles cleared the wall of cloud and roared into open skies. The lead aircraft, just ahead and to his left, burst into flame and disappeared behind him in an instant, black cotton balls full of death paved the way ahead, so he jinked up and right, down and left, left rudder, right rudder, hug the ground, pull up . . . the men behind held on as Hell's Belles corkscrewed through the air still, Goodwin hoped, miraculously unscathed.
Goodwin looked left; there were no other aircraft in sight . . .
"Queer! We got anyone on us!"
Goodwin looked at his co-pilot. The boy was slumped over to his right, his head leaning against shattered glass, blood and bits of brain were splattered all over the cockpit.
"Shit! Needham? You with me?"
He called on the intercom for someone to come up to the cockpit and move Needham's body from the controls; someone – he didn't have time to look – came forward and muscled the body aft; again he called, this time for the bombardier to come up and sit beside him and help scan the horizon for enemy aircraft.
"Bandits!" he heard over the intercom. "Nine o'clock high! 190s comin' down, skipper! Large formation!"
Goodwin looked high over his left shoulder; he could make out yellow spinners on the diving Focke-Wulf 190 fighters as they sliced downward through the clear sky above toward his formation. He slammed the throttles forward again, dove as far down into the weeds as he dared and concentrated on sudden obstructions that popped up ahead and now shot-by with dizzying speed. Gunners began calling targets, machine guns hammered the sky and the air filled once again with scorched gunpowder now mixed with testosterone-drenched adrenalin, vomit and piss.
20mm cannon rounds slammed into Hell's Belles just aft of Goodwin; he heard men screaming, then smoke filled the air. The aircraft began to yaw left, he slammed in right rudder and looked out over his left shoulder: the number one engine was simply gone! The entire engine cowling and structure had been hot away, now flame-licked soot raced away from the wreckage into the slipstream. Another burst of machine gun fire from his gunners behind, someone yelling "Got him, I got the bastard!" and Goodwin methodically toggled the number one fire extinguisher and dialed in some aileron and rudder trim to compensate for the yaw inducing drag of the blown away engine.
He turned south toward Genoa and Corsica, slowly nursed his altitude back up to ten thousand feet as the German fighters fell off to refuel. Pavia drifted by, then Piacenza and Parma, all off to the left, while survivors of the formation closed in behind Hell's Belles. Goodwin was now in tactical command of the group, and he signaled for the formation to tighten up. They would head for Sicily, where the closest Allied forces were located. If anyone had to ditch or was forced to land before making Libya, they could shoot for Sicily. Goodwin worked up a rough course toward Bastia, on the northeast coast of Corsica; from there he would lead the group on to Palermo, then toward the Libyan coast, and, be it ever so humble, home.
The Ligurian coastline loomed ahead, Genoa lay just off to the right buried under a vast thunderhead of storm clouds that had ominously climbed to well above forty thousand feet in the intense summer heat. The way ahead was now choked with building cumulus clouds, some towering so high Goodwin couldn't make out the cloudtops from his altitude. Soon he was weaving the formation through tight white canyons of vaulting clouds, and the ambient turbulence became more pronounced with each passing minute. Each time the Liberator shook it sounded to Goodwin as if someone was throwing a metal toolbox into a brick wall; each concussion was followed by jarring rattles and cascades of loose metal detritus finding its way back into the aircraft's belly.
Goodwin was aware of a flash, then a volley of 20mm cannon fire tore through the Liberator; fire engulfed the right wing and smoke poured once again into the cockpit . . . but this time Goodwin smelled raw gasoline . . .
"Get ready!" he called out. "Assume bailout stations!"
Goodwin pushed the nose over while he armed and fired all the primary and secondary fire extinguishers. Hell's Belles dove down into cloud . . . the pure white interior soon grew dark and cool as sunlight retreated into memory . . . A matter of pure chance now, the cloud's moisture added to the fire suppressive chemicals flooding the blazing wing, and almost instantly the fires were out. Goodwin looked at his engine instrumentation – only the number two engine remained and there was now almost zero fuel left in the tanks. Hell's Belles was going down, and going down fast.
Ludvico Ferrante hated Germans. Everything about them. He hated the imperious way they ordered him about, the strutting air of superiority they assumed when coming into his father's ristorante, their boisterous pretensions of being the 'master race' . . . all of it, all of their imbecilic Teutonic braggadocio . . . and yet most of all, he hated Major Gunther Weber with a fury that would fire his soul until the end of time. In Ludvico Ferrante's mind, Italy would never live down the shame of having allied itself with these Hitlerite scum; the only way to regain any measure of self respect would be to help throw these thugs out of his country. And this he intended to do.
Ludvico was just this day eighteen years old, yet here he was, in the ristorante as he was everyday, serving seafood from his father's boats to German officers and the wives and mistresses of the rich Austrian industrialists who still came to Portofino despite the war. Portofino had been held in highest regard since Goethe roamed the area as a young man; it had become something of a ritual for the sons of wealthy German bourgeois families to find their way to Rapallo and Portofino as a part of their education, a part of seeing how decadence tempted and distorted the Real German Man, swayed him from material achievement into diseased decadence. But, oh how fun it was to be tempted! How rich it was to be decadent, even if only for a summer!
But Gunther Weber was something else entirely!
"We Germans are your allies!" he had heard time and time again from Weber, but that was before he had raped half the women in Portofino, and as often as not at gunpoint, and in the company of a half dozen or so other willing 'noble allies'. Now, with the Americans in Sicily and the invasion of the Italian mainland rumored to be just days away, Ludvico and hundreds of other men and women in the area were forming partisan bands to wage guerilla warfare against the Germans until the Allies could reach the area.
'How easy it would be,' Ludvico said to himself, 'to slit this man's throat right here, right now!' Or poison his soup, place a bomb in his car! Now, today . . . right now! 'Do it!' he told himself. 'Now!'
Though there were others in the ristorante, including two other German officers, Ludvico went to a cutlery case and pulled out a long knife used to filet fish tableside. We was going to carry it over and place it on the serving cart next to Weber's table, put it there, then when the time was right . . . strike!
"You! Boy! Bring us more bread, and some real butter . . . none of this ersatz crap!" Weber pointed at Ludvico was his steak knife in his hand, the malevolence in the gesture total and unmistakable. "And another bottle of wine, you idiot!" He turned to the woman sitting at his side, a local whore too used to the good life to refuse this crude pig. "That little shit!" Weber continued, "I'm going to have to beat some common sense and good manners into him before too long . . ."
Ludvico carried the knife to the cart and placed it there, and was going to turn from the window and go to the kitchen when he saw it in the skies over Rapallo. Fire! Fire and smoke! At first it was too far away, there was no sound . . . only an intense, blinding light . . . but soon he heard it . . . the unmistakable sound of a stricken airplane, engine catching and sputtering, even though the noise was still far off, far across the bay. He could feel the German's eyes on the back of his neck, heard his chair scraping back on the stone floor, soon felt the man's dark presence by the window next to him.