Meant to Be Ch. 07byjerseyblue©
Newly minted Captain William's mood did not fit the day. The weather was clear and crisp with a hint of fall in the air. It was excellent weather for flying. Instead Aaron's mood was one of foreboding. He kept going over in his mind the news he received yesterday. Chet Morgan was dead. He had been killed over in Holland during a big operation, one that could end the war. Morgan was the one who coined the phrase "the 3 Musketeers" when they were at Princeton. Most thought he was referring to their hockey line but Aaron knew it encompassed more. It had to do with friendship and commitment to each other, through thick and thin. Williams, Morgan, and Callahan, together forever and now Morgan was dead. Aaron hadn't heard from Jake Callahan since he shipped out with the 1st Marine Division. He knew they had some rough fighting and were now fighting on some God forsaken island named Peleliu. Aaron hoped Jake was all right.
Bill Archer slid up alongside Aaron as they crossed the tarmac. "You OK?"
"Yeah, just thinking," Aaron answered. "What's up?"
Archer looked around. "It's Gilles. He got a letter from home saying his wife fuckin' around. Some 4F clown. He is taking it pretty bad."
Gilles was the "Tantalizing Takeoff's" navigator and was a real horn dog. Every woman no matter her age was fair game. He felt he was doing his duty to comfort them because so few men were around. Aaron heard rumors that Gilles had replaced him in the affections of Bridget. No one pushed it because it was still a touchy subject.
"As long as he does his job, I don't care," Aaron said. "Personally, it couldn't happen to a nicer guy."
"Excuse me, Captain."
Aaron turned to face an older man dressed rather casually in a flight jacket and gear. "Yes?"
The older man thrusted out his hand. "I'm Peter Smithson, AP news. I was told I might be able to hitch a ride with you today. I liked to witness firsthand what I have been reporting perhaps get a good story too."
"Don't see why not. I think we can find room for you. I'll tell Sgt. Rousseau to hook you up."
Today's mission was to Hamburg to bomb the Harburg oil refinery. It wasn't their first trip to this site, as after they destroyed it, the Nazis would rebuild it. The weather was clear with very little cloud cover. It meant they could visual drop as the target would be clear. Unfortunately it also meant a clear target for the fighters and the flak gunners.
The German fighters were becoming more aggressive, more desperate in pressing home their attacks. Though none of his crew had seen it, Aaron was told that on at least two missions pilots had deliberately rammed some bombers.
And the flak seemed to be getting more accurate. On the last mission, one shell passed completely through the port wing. It didn't explode and luckily missed all vital connections. Other one exploded nearby and fragments cut into the mid-section. Most hit behind the waist gunners so even though it looked like a sieve, no one was hit.
That was part of their luck and even other crews talked about. So far not one crewman had been hit and "Tantalizing Take-off" had suffered only light damage. With Army Air Force extending the number the missions needed to go home, it seemed to be only a matter of time before their luck was up. Aaron had an awful feeling that it might be today.
So far the flight had been uneventful. Aaron and Bill talked about how easy it had been so far. Even the reporter seemed disappointed. Aaron let Bill take over the controls. Archer had been the co-pilot since they arrived in England and he acted as if that was all he wanted to be. When asked, he said he was happy where he was and he didn't want any more responsibility. Aaron gave him more and Archer took it but it seemed when someone else pushed it on him, he refused.
Of all the people on the base, Archer was Aaron's closest friend. It was Archer who set him up with Bridget with the idea they could double date since his girl and her were good friends. That didn't work out mainly because of Aaron but it didn't hurt their friendship. Bill understood and never pushed the issue. Archer had met Vicki on various occasions and could see for himself why Aaron decided the way he did.
The run into the target was uneventful but the flak seemed much heavier than the last time. The fighters were thick and getting thicker. The escort fighters had their hands full but so far they were being successful. Maybe Aaron was wrong about his feelings and their luck hadn't changed. They dropped their payload, turned and headed for home.
Vicki was cleaning up the flower shop and whistling a catchy tune. She couldn't remember where she heard it but now she couldn't get it out of her head. At least it seemed to make the work easier. Not that it matter as business had slowed and wouldn't pick up until the holidays. Still, it kept her busy.
Ever since she returned from the trip to London with Aaron, she was much more cheerful. She smiled more. The glow was back in her face and she had let her hair down which gave a softer look to her. She knew why she felt this way. She was in love, a deep, complete love. It was a love she always wanted and dreamed of.
In the days after London, she tried to act like the old Vicki, the one that returned to Duckworth after Robin's death and retreated inside herself. She began to rationalize her relationship with Aaron. She was too old for him; he too young for her. When the war ended, he would return to America and leave her here. She was lonely and this was just a reaction to that. She was acting like a silly young schoolgirl, not a mature woman. It was just sexual; there were no real feelings. For every logical argument she came up with, Vicki returned to the same conclusion.
She touched the ring and twirled it around her finger. There was no way around it; she was madly, deeply, in love with Aaron. It didn't make sense and she finally realized that love didn't make sense. Something, maybe fate, had them meet. Her life with Robin had been as if it was planned. There were certain steps they had to take which led to the next one.
It was so different with Aaron. There were no plans, nothing saying this is the way it should go. All she knew was when he was with her, she couldn't be happier. No matter what they were doing, it felt so right. When he wasn't there, she counted the minutes until he came again. But every day she felt happy, cheerful, and alive just knowing he loved her.
"My, someone is in a chipper mood today," Vicki's mother said entering the store through the back. "Must be it's the good weather."
"Oh, Mother, you know it isn't the weather," Vicki laughed.
"Yes, dear." Mother knew the answer and she was almost as happy as her daughter. It had been too long since she had seen Vicki act this way.
Vicki moved behind the counter and picked up a small clay pot. Suddenly she staggered, dropped the pot, and clutched the counter. She swayed, almost losing her balance.
"What is it, child?" Her mother moved quickly to her side.
Vicki was pale and clammy. She felt unsteady on feet. "Just a moment, mother. I'll be alright."
Her mother slid the stool behind her. "Here, sit. I'll get some water."
She returned with a glass. "What was it? You frightened me."
"I don't know." Vicki said slowly. "Suddenly this terrible feeling came over me. I can't explain it. It was worst than when you say someone walked on your grave and you get that feeling. It was awful. What could it have been?"
"I don't know, Victoria but its all right now," Mother said. "Don't worry."
Wham! There was huge explosion off the port side of the plane. The cockpit filled with black smoke and the smell of cordite. "Tantalizing Takeoff" seemed to leap in the air, ripping the controls from Aaron's hands. The plane trembled as he fought to gain control.
The intercom crackled with voices, all talking over each other.
"Quiet!" Aaron said. "Let's calm down and report." It was obvious from the feel something was badly wrong.
"Captain," Rousseau said from the top turret, "Look at the port engine #2."
Aaron turned and looked. "Jesus, Mary and Joseph!" he whispered.
The flak blast had torn the cowling almost completely off and knock the engine off its mount. Oil and gasoline were streaming from it. Why it wasn't on fire was a miracle. It didn't mean it wouldn't.
"Billy, cut the fuel to #2. Then switch it off. We can't feather it." Aaron spoke as calmly as he could. Archer stared out the window at the damage. "Billy," Aaron said a little louder. "Do it now."
The cockpit was still in smoke but it was clearing. Aaron could see out the front now. A large piece of sheet metal was bent up, partially blocking the windshield.
"Captain, this is Wilson."
"Go ahead. What do you have?
Sgt. Max Wilson was the radio operator. He was knocked from his seat by the explosion but upon recovering he took an oxygen bottle and crawled forward. What he found stunned him.
"Sir, there's big hole in the port side. Must be 3, 4 feet big. Things are all tore up here."
"Yes, sir," Wilson was just 19 but he was growing up fast. "Lt. Gilles is hit real bad. I don't know if he gonna make it. Lt. Martini is bad off too. That reporter guy is here with me. He looks OK. A little groggy, that's all."
"See what you can do. I'm counting on you."
Rousseau came down from his turret. "Its bad, Captain. Without that engine and the drag of it and the hole, we'll never be able to stay in the formation. There are lots of fighters out there." He shook his head.
"Well, Sergeant," Aaron patting Archer on the thigh. "Lets see if we have any luck left?"
His question was answered in the next 5 minutes.
The enemy knew a cripple when they saw one and they swarmed to the attack.
"2 bandits, 2 o'clock."
"2 more, 6 low"
Aaron could feel the plane quake as the fighters scored hit after hit but the old girl took it. He tried to take evasive action to help the gunners but the plane responded slowly.
More fighters came on. Suddenly Rousseau shouted, "FW, 12 o'clock high!" His guns opened up.
The cockpit seemed to come alive with sparks and pieces of flying glass and metal. Aaron felt something white-hot tear into the outside of his thigh. He yelled out.
As suddenly as it happened, it was quiet. The pain in Aaron's thigh was overwhelming. He felt he might pass out. "Billy, I'm hit. Take over." There was no response. Aaron turned.
Archer had his hands clutching his throat. He made no sound except a strange gurgling noise. His eyes were open wide. He seemed to questioning what going on. The blood was seeping between his fingers.
Aaron forgot his pain as a shot of adrenline went through him. He pressed his hand against Archer's throat. He forgot about his leg and put his other hand on the controls. "Hang in there. I'll get you home."
For the next hour, Aaron fought his own private battle amid the battle that was swirling around him. He fought to keep control of the big plane with one hand while he continued to press his other against his friend's gaping wound. He had removed his glove to better assist him and he could feel the warm blood oozing between his fingers. "Hang in there, Billy. Stay with me."
Around him, the gunners fired their weapons as the fighters bored in on them. They had lost the formation and were just a sitting duck.
The attack seemed to go on and on, but it ended abruptly when 2 P-51s came up on either side and scared the enemy off. They provided escort all the way to the English Channel. With a friendly waggle they departed.
The crew that was unhurt helped out with the wounded. Gilles and Martini were moved to the small space near the radio room. The reporter Smithson, came into the cockpit to check on Williams and Archer. He was horrified at what he found. The control panel was in a shambles and blood seemed to be everywhere. Aaron's hand was still clutching Archer's throat as he flew one handed. Smithson removed Aaron's hand and pressed on Archer. "I got him, Captain," as he removed the injured co-pilot from his seat. "You ok?"
Aaron nodded his head. "Take care of him."
Aaron brought the plane down to an altitude low enough so they wouldn't need to be on oxygen. A piece of their luck still held. The reporter, Smithson, was a medic in the First World War and was doing all he could to help.
Rousseau made his way into the cockpit. The instruments were all shot up and it was difficult to read what was going on. One thing was obvious. Engine #1 was going to quit real soon. He wasn't sure if it was lack of gas or damage.
"You all right, Captain?"
"Never felt better, Sgt." How could he tell him that he was hanging by a thread but he had a job to do. He had to get these boys home. The pain seemed to be less and he hoped that was a good sign. What did Coach Grayson say? 'Pain is weakness leaving the body.'
"Captain, we need to start lighting the load if we are going to make it. Throwing things overboard."
"OK, let's do it."
The men began to throw everything out. Guns, charts, oxygen bottles, any thing that wasn't bolted down. Wilson started to throw the rubber dinghy out the window.
"Don't do that. We may need it," Smithson said.
"I don't think so." He held it up to show him. It was shot to shreds.
Losing the weight was enough to do the trick. That and the fact #1 held on. As the big plane rolled a stop, the men hugged each other and quickly moved to get those seriously hurt off the plane. Pete Smithson climbed to the cockpit. He wanted to thank the young man who got them back. What a story he would have.
He saw Aaron slumped over the controls. Smithson put his hand on Aaron's shoulder. "Son, I just want to..." His voice trailed off. He pulled him back. Aaron was barely breathing and deathly pale.
Smithson yelled out the window, "Quick, get a medic up here!"
Sgt. Rousseau didn't want to do this but he knew he had to. The Army wouldn't do it. It wasn't their policy. Only next of kin would get the notice. No one else. So he decided he would do it. He knew this wouldn't be easy so he dressed in best uniform and headed out.
He didn't have a plan of what to say or in what order he would see the three ladies. The flower shop was the closest so it was the first stop.
As he entered the shop, the bell rang above the door. Vicki looked up from the stool where she was reading a magazine. "Sgt. Rousseau, isn't it?"
"Yes ma'am," he said. He removed his hat and twisted it in his hand.
She looked at him. "Is there anything I can help you with?"
"No, ma'am," He shuffled his feet. "It's about Captain Williams."
Vicki dropped the magazine and grabbed the counter. She turned white.
"No, it ain't that," Rousseau rushed to her side. "But he has been wounded. Docs say he'll be all right but it will be a while. I just thought you should know."
Vicki pulled herself together. "Please tell me."
The sergeant awkwardly backed up. "Sorry, ma'am. We got hit by flak just after our bomb run. Then we got hit by fighters. That's when the Captain got it. He was hit in the leg. Lt. Archer got hit then too. The Captain never told anyone he got hit and no one knew until we got back."
The Sergeant continued. "Yes, he flew the plane one handed and never told no one. A news reporter who flew with us found him slumped over the controls after we landed. He saved us because no one else could have flown that bird."
Vicki listened but it seemed like a bad dream. "Where is he now?"
"I think he is still in the base hospital but they may be moving him to larger one. I don't know. I'm only a sergeant."
She smiled. "Thank you, Sgt. Rousseau, for telling me."
"It's the least I could do. The men know how he feels about you. If I find out more you'll be the first to know."
She sat down on the stool as Rousseau left the shop. She looked around the shop. She didn't know what to do. She stood up then sat back down. Suddenly she did something she didn't do when she found out Robin was dead, she cried.