We didn't think it was going to be our last reconnaissance mission, but that's how it ended up.
We had been flying together for more than a year by then, our little anomaly in the greater pattern of the world. I was a U. S. naval officer, a naval aviator, flying in a Marine squadron in the Philippines, what was an almost exclusively Army domain. Since we answered to a Navy command, the U. S. Asiatic Fleet, we did some crazy things, but then, in those days just before the war started in the Far East, everything was a little crazy. Everyone was tense and jumpy, knowing the Japs were on the warpath, and wondering when the shooting would start.
On that morning, it was 6 January, 1942, the war was then just a month old, and we had done a lot of scrambling to stay ahead of the enemy, and lost some of our guys in the process, but had been ordered south to the Army's make-shift field at Del Monte, on Mindanao. There were just four of us there, all that were left: ONE, FOUR, FIVE, and TEN. We were flying Martin 167 Maryland light bombers, and we just called then by their number. The Major in ONE with FIVE and TEN were to depart for the Dutch field at Laha, on Ambon Island in the Netherlands East Indies to work with the Australians and the U. S. Navy's Patrol Wing TEN basing there. My assignment, that is, my crew's assignment, Number FOUR's, was to make a recon of the Jap positions at Davao and then Jolo Island, recover at Tarakan in Dutch Borneo, and report to the Dutch commander there what we found, since the enemy at Jolo clearly threatened that position.
We were off at the crack of dawn.
There were so many Japanese ships in the bay off Davao and at Malalag that we were counting groups rather than singles. It was incredible... there were easily sixty ships there, probably a dozen warship or more, the rest of them transports and freighters. No doubt about it. Japan was serious about invasion. There was no question in my mind at all. The Philippines were lost unless the Pacific Fleet arrived very quickly, and with lots of muscle.
We made altogether three passes over the harbor, medium altitude, about five thousand feet, so Sergeant Mulvane in the nose could get a good count. I told Corporal Tracy back aft in his radio compartment that I was depending on him to watch for Jap fighters. He had a single .30 caliber Browning, but his eyes were our best defense. The Martin 167 was a fast aircraft for its day, we could break 260 knots in level flight, twice what the Navy boys could do in their dawdling PBY flying boats, so in my mind our speed was our best defense. Oh, the Zero could catch us all right, but the Jap fighter pilot had to be very serious about it and willing to commit to a long chase, and we banked on them loosing us then in the clouds.
Anyway, that day was a lucky day for us. Tracy saw patrolling fighters high above us, but they didn't see us. Ha, Ha... too bad. We made our passes, counting noses, gathering our intelligence, and beat feet outta there while thanking our lucky stars.
Will put together the report. That's Sergeant Mulvane. His first name was William, went by just Will. Like I said, we'd been flying together for more than, well, a year, yea, it was a year. So things were kinda informal, though officially he always called me Lieutenant Shepherd. The third crew member was our radioman, Corporal Richard Tracy, USMC, a young kid from Florida, but a sharp Marine and a very good radio operator.
We were headed west over the southern Mindanao highlands and about the time we hit the Sulu Sea, steering for Jolo, Tracy told me that he had a response from NPO, the Navy radio station on Corregidor, up north near Manila, and that they had rogered for our sighting report and would then route it onward to various commands.
Jolo was simple, and a single pass over the anchorage told us all we needed to know. More Japanese ships, several transports and a pair of destroyers. That kept Tracy busy for a while, and Will gave me the heading for the Dutch field at Tarakan, and we scooted to get clear of the enemy. We didn't see any fighters at all, but knew they were there, somewhere. Before too much longer Tracy told me he had Tarakan Ops on the circuit and we were cleared to come in. By 1130 we were on the field and a truck led us to a secluded grassy part of the apron under a big tree and I shut'em down for a break. Sergeant Mulvane gave me his chart with out track plot, Tracy his copy of our reports, and I jumped aboard the truck for Ops. Will would see to the fueling and servicing, and we passed the fuel bowser on the way to Ops.
I recognized the Indonesian fellow driving the truck. I hadn't been in Tarakan since mid-November, but he remembered me, too. He was a sharp cookie, spoke excellent Dutch and pretty fair English, as well. I took a chance and asked him about Annaliese, knowing that fellows like that in small communities kept up on the developments all around. I was glad I asked. He told me straight out that she worked now in the headquarters building in the commander's office, and that she hadn't hardly spoken to a man since she had seen me last time I was there. He wished me good luck, with, what sounded to me like an Australian accent. Strange.
A Dutch Navy officer friend greeted me at the door, which alerted her to my presence... and I went to her desk to say hello. She seemed surprised and pleased, but uncertain what to do. She stood and smoothed her dress, her long hair flowing everywhere, and smiled her radiance to me. She was still as beautiful to me as before.
"Please have dinner with me, Annaliese, would you?" She nodded quickly with a big smile, welcoming me, and I paused at her desk a moment. As usual, her dress was conservative, though always light in the constant heat and humidity – Tarakan is just 3°s above the equator, about 180 miles, and on the edge of the Borneo jungle. Annaliese did not dress provocatively... that was not her. To me, a pretty girl's dancing eyes and long hair are always first rate attractions, and she was beautiful beyond measure. She was shy and hesitant, couldn't find any words to speak, but her smile and her expressive blue eyes told me a great deal. I was pleased to see here again, too.
Commander Vermeulen was waiting with several of his staff, including one of the Dutch flying boat pilots from the Naval Air Service group stationed there. Our greetings were friendly, but hurried and he was anxious to hear about what we had seen. His table was cleared waiting for our chart. He listened to my report, we all discussed the meaning we could derive from that, and he asked what my assessment might be. He knew very well that the Japanese were coming; it was only a question of when. He had, I think, two of his own Dutch Navy flying boats running patrols from Tarakan, and they were very keen on what they felt sure would be invasion convoys headed their way within a few days. That certainly seemed the probability to me as well. I did not envy them their position in the least.
The Commander was a genial kinda guy. He told me that he had a car take out cold beer and sandwiches to my crew. There was a dinner party in preparation for the evening for all the staff and their wives, and he invited the three of us as well. He had rooms prepared for us in the barracks close by and then asked what my orders were. I told him I needed to check in with Radio Ambon and Patrol Wing TEN there to be sure. He rose then with a curious expression on his face, and turned for the large window looking out over the field and beckoned me to follow him out of earshot of the others as they were departing.
He mulled over his thoughts for a moment, and I waited for him to speak.
"Will you being seeing Miss Larsen while you are here?"
It was a very fatherly kind of question, but caught me off guard because, though I could easily guess that he was aware of my liaison on my previous visits, there was no overt reason evident for him to inquire into my personal life. Between us, nevertheless, there was little need for any kind of secrecy, and to me it was no great intrusion.
"Yes," I replied, "as I passed through your outer office I met her again and asked her and she agreed to dinner this evening. May I bring her to your dinner party?"
"Please do; she is more than welcome." There was more between the lines that followed. I knew a little of Annaliese's background because she had told me during our picnics and time together the previous fall, but he could add a great deal of more recent information. She and her father were Danish, he had been a senior engineer on the oil drilling rigs, and a very good one, employed by BPM, Bataavsche Petroleum Mĳ., the Dutch company that managed the oil fields in eastern Borneo. I noticed his usage of the past perfect tense, and since I also knew that Commander Vermeulen spoke very precise English, I knew something else was coming. Sure enough, her father had died three weeks before after a difficult bout with Malaria. That left her essentially alone; a seventeen year old girl, a European in Asia, and he motioned to the east, suggesting in his motion what we both could guess was approaching. He was concerned about her safety when the Japanese came.
His ability to get her away to the south was limited; scheduled commercial air service and all shipping had already been suspended, and before that time she had refused to leave her parent's home and their memory behind. Clearly, she was distraught, he said, and her only living relatives were in Nazi-occupied Denmark, leaving her nowhere to turn. In the weeks just passed she had spoken to him of me, and had wondered if there was any possibility of me coming again. She was working on his staff now, he added, to give her something to occupy her time, and it would be, he suggested broadly, of great service to the Royal Netherlands Navy were I to find some way to assist.
He left it at that, standing silently, gazing out the window in the direction of the approaching Japanese, and allowing me complete latitude to draw my own conclusions.
After dinner that evening we sat on the bench in the darkness in front of the cozy little home where she and her parents had lived for several years. Her mother had passed away earlier, shortly after they had come to Tarakan for her father's work. When I asked her what she was going to do, it was quickly evident that she was struggling with an emotional brick wall. She shrugged, and tried bravely to smile at me, and her lower lip began to tremble. I took her in my arms and the tears soon flowed freely as she wept out her anxiety and loss and confusion and loneliness.
Her ability in English was pretty good. She had a basic working knowledge, but lacked practice and exposure. As long as we kept the vocabulary and ideas simple, she was fine. Being fluent in German myself gave me bit of an edge in other Germanic languages, like Dutch, in which I had made some progress, and in Danish, where she had caused my interest to pick up. One did not have, I found out, many Danish language learning resources in the Philippines in 1941. The one thin grammar in the Santo Tomas University library had been published in Købnhavn in 1885.
During the weeks since passing through Tarakan on survey missions the previous October and November, I had thought that I had found the one girl in the world for me. I had thought about that quite seriously for weeks now, even with the intervening commencement of WWII in the Far East on 8 December, but the logistics involved with doing anything about it, as the war started and we were driven every which way by the Japanese, had left me no opportunity. Now, the chance of a lifetime had fallen right into my lap.
"Annaliese," I began gently, "last time we were together we talked of love. Do you remember?"
She sniffled and I could feel her head move on my chest as she nodded quickly. I took the plunge fully aware of the challenges and the risks. That phrase in Danish I could handle, "Jeg elkser dig! I love you, Annaliese."
I could feel her waiting for me to go on.
"I love you and want you to be my companion for all my life. I want you to be my wife. Will you marry me, please." I had decided before to tell her that, and ask her to be my wife, if we were ever able to be together again. Now we were... yet, I felt like I was stepping off the edge of a cliff. That's always a big step for a fellow, I would guess. It sure was for me, and the Japanese were not helping it at all.
She sat up carefully and looked at me. A virtual parade of mixed and various emotions passed over her brow, wonder and surprise and confusion and doubt and thrill, and question and then realization. I was twelve years her senior, and as a young girl, conservative and shy and innocent... I knew she was from our very intimate association the previous fall... she had little idea what all lay ahead of her.
"Please say yes, Darling, and I will be the happiest of men."
She looked at me thoughtfully, and a little twinkle came into those pretty big blue eyes of hers, and she nodded her head again softly... daintily... shyly. Even in the candlelit darkness I could see her nod her head.
There was a twinkle in her eyes... I have thought that such would have been a reflection of light from somewhere... it could not be the candle behind her on the mantle; perhaps a stray moonbeam. It was so very dark, though. I think, when a girl is in love, the light in her eyes comes from within somehow. She was beautiful!
I pulled her to me and kissed her more passionately than I had during my earlier visit, and was delighted to feel her respond to me warmly. Breathless and gasping when we broke for air, she looked up at me and waited. It was dark all around us, but I knew she was blushing and aroused as she struggled for breath and then snuggled closer again.
"I love you, too, Leo. Yes, yes, I will marry you. I was hoping you would ask me." There was a plaintive, yearning, tender tone in her words, "Thank you for coming back for me." It was a wonderful sensation to feel her curl up in my arms again.
"I'm so frightened. What's going to happen to me now? What will you do? Must you fly away again soon?"
"Well, for one, I can not leave you here, Darling." I had already made up my mind on this point, though it entailed rather considerable risk. "When I leave, you are leaving also!"
She raised her head and was looking at me in the shadows, but I felt sure she was smiling. "I am?" There was surprise and question in her voice, but also excitement and relief. That's a lot of message for just two words to bear, but then, she was a lot of beautiful girl.
The Maryland was nominally a three place aircraft, but in the narrow, pencil-like body the pilot's seat was offset to the left slightly to make room for a passage forward into the nose. The observer/bombardier normally rode in the nose forward, entering through a hatch below, but could also use a folding jump seat next to the pilot.
The pilot entered from above, through a folding portion of the canopy and hatch in the turtleback over his seat. The third place was the radio operator's compartment aft, with its own hatchway entrance. I planned to take Annaliese with us in the jump seat next to me.
An entire encyclopedia of rules and regulations danced in my head. It was pointless to request permission that could not be given anyway. Then, too, the danger involved with taking a civilian, particularly one you love, with you in a warplane designed and intended and very likely to tangle with an enemy in war is itself fraught with great trauma. That we had just completed one dangerous mission and had every expectation of more to follow, just made that risk more foolhardy than ever. On the opposing side of the balance, nevertheless, lay the virtual certainty that left behind in Tarakan this sweet young girl, who I loved and who loved me, would be left to the ravages of the invading Japanese soldiers. Those many transports we had seen at Davao were headed for someplace, and I was aware of how important oil was to the Japs. The huge oil fields at Tarakan were on their list of targets for sure; that was quite clear from our several intelligence briefings back in the Philippines.
Accordingly, given the circumstances, it was not a hard decision.
We talked far into the night, and she snuggled close to me, closer and more readily than she had the previous visit.
"Will you teach me something new, Leo, like you did before?" Her girlish request during our earlier visit had resulted in her first kiss from a man and his caress of her bare shoulder as we were swimming together in the river, and she had repeated it a couple of times in her girlish excitement at our unfolding relationship, each bringing on a tender exchange between us.
"Yes, my pretty girl, I will teach you." Earlier there had been an unspoken limitation on her query... a barrier we had both imposed upon ourselves because of our standards. She had not been offering me her body, but innocently seeking my closer association. Living on the edge of the Borneo jungle in the 1930s offered little in the way of opportunities for learning and sophistication. Her snuggling as I caressed her back and nuzzled her behind her ear, and our expressions of love and our impending marriage – were now just beginning to take that barrier apart, piece by piece.
She would have followed me and let me, had I pressed her. She was afraid of the unknown, yet trusted me and was comfortable in my arms. I told her we needed a good nights sleep, that tomorrow I would find someone to marry us, and that she should prepare herself to be my wife and go with me.
"Can I stay with you tonight, please?" Her request was as a maid begging a morsel from her prince. What could I say? Still, I knew she was depending on me to lead carefully. In the darkness in her living room, we found the big rattan couch and its many pillows and relaxed together from the day, and talked of our hopes and fears.
By the light of just a single candle we each showered and sluiced away the perspiration of another day in the tropics – even at night the heat and humidity were stifling – then, each in a silken robe, rather than her bed, I lead her by the hand back to the rattan sofa, lay down amid the pillows and gathered her into my embrace, kissed her on her nose, and whispered to her, "I want you with me always, Babe."
For the first time in my life I let my hand rest on a girl's leg – realizing that she was, except for the thin silk, nude and yielding to my embrace. I ran my hand up over her cute little bottom and onto the gentle curves of her back, and felt her snuggle closer to me in the process. I gave her a little squeeze, and she cooed softly, feeling safe and serene in my arms and, I think, relieved of a heavy burden. She was already mine; but within the context of our love we both needed the marriage bond first. As open as she was with me that night, I knew she trusted me implicitly to keep her safe. Considering that, in my idealism, I had waited these many years to find her, holding myself in check yet another night was not too great a challenge. I enjoyed her warmth next to me... her warmth and her softness, more than anything that had ever come my way before.
In the darkness and quiet, we both slipped off soon to a sweet slumber.
Well, if Sergeant Mulvane was surprised he managed to keep it from being obvious as we arrived at the plane within just a few minutes of him. He had the car; we had walked the few hundred yards or so from her cottage. He was up on the wing, emerging from the pilot's hatch, and waved a cheerful greeting and called out to Annaliese. She waved lightly in response, although somewhat shyly as she knew he would deduce that I had spent the night with her, and that embarrassed her a little.