WAKE UP CALL - (submitted by Jim Pink, 316th Sqn)
It is 0556 AM and Corporal Beckett, a squadron orderly, makes his way through the various squadron tents. He finds one of the many tents he will need to enter this morning where its four occupants are sound asleep.
“Lieutenant Tines, sir? Wake up, sir. Mission is go, sir.”
“Ya, ya, I’m up. What time is it . . . feels like I just went to bed.”
“Lieutenant Zurn? Time to get up, sir. Breakfast is at 6:25.”
“Hump! Food, I’m sleepy not hungry . . . hump,” as Zurn rolls over.
“Lieutenant Hogue? Mission today, sir. A full gas load, 3500 gallons. Briefing at 07:30.”
“What . . . <yawn> Okay, I’m up.”
“Lieutenant Flynn? Please get up, sir. You got ten Mark-43s to give the Krauts Hell for all of us back here, sir.” Krauts? They’re not the only ones getting Hell today! Wait, ten Mark-43s, 5000 pound load, I though we were going to Ploesti today? We’ll never make it with that load, thought Flynn.
Satisfied all four men are awake, Beckett leaves the tent to awaken another crew.
BREAKFAST AND IN THE BRIEFING HUT, 88th BOMBARDMENT GROUP, 30 May 1944
If John McPherson had any question the group was going to Ploesti today, it was confirmed by the unappetizing breakfast in front of him--salty fried SPAM, scrambled eggs made from powered eggs accompanied by huge amounts of catsup to give it flavor in order to make it edible, soggy and greasy toast, and bitter coffee that tasted like it made from sheet metal. If Ploesti was the objective, the cooks would have prepared the finest meal fit for a condemned man--steak with fresh eggs, pancakes, dry toast, and fresh coffee. With conversations held to the bare minimum around him, John was joined by his other two tent mates, Lieutenants Frank Geist and Charlie Nelson. The men talked about the crappy food, the weather, any mundane subjects to get their minds of the horrors of the war. Joining the trio, was a newly arrived replacement. Introducing himself as Steve Hansen, the new guy showed the initial enthusiasm coupled with pre-combat jitters of all new replacements. After the initial greetings and hand shakes, the trio found out that Hansen would be their co-pilot today and he had sought them out at breakfast. Hansen asked questions all new guys always asked; “What was it like, the flak, the enemy fighters, the flight to and back from the target,”. McPherson, Geist and Nelson answered his questions as short as possible without going too much into details trying no to scare him too much, telling the rookie that it was something he could not imagine without experiencing it for himself.
Stomaching their breakfast as fast and best and quickly as they could, the four men left the mess hall, slowing walking in the cold morning air with other crews to the briefing building. At the entrance, MPs were checking the identification of the officers checking it against a roster on a clipboard. After being waved through, McPherson went to the blackboard in the back of the room to check which plane he’d flying and in which slot in the low squadron. In his squadron section, he found what he was looking for. John checked the squadron call-sign, Still Spartan, he thought. Also written in the same yellow chalk, he found his name and next to it in the column marked “Aircraft” were the seven numbers, 42-11840. His ship was an old F-model nicknamed the Caballero. John had flown it before--it was a good plane and it handed well making formation flying easy. More importantly, under the position column, was the best sight he’d will see this morning: “Group Spare”. After his last mission to Bucharest three weeks ago, John was glad to be catching a break.
Standing next to him, was another member of his squadron, Gary Sanderson. On seeing where his crew would be today, Sandersons’s reaction was not unexpected . “Aww, Christ, we’re Tail-End Charlie today.”
Eyeing Sanderson, John remarked, “You’d better not abort for some phantom reason because we’re the spare.”
Sanderson elbowed McPherson with a slight poke in his ribs, “Don’t worry, John, if I do abort, it will be for a real reason.”
“It better be, or you’ll know what’s going to happen to you,” John said in all seriousness.
“What, you’re going to sock me one when you get back?”
“Worse. If I don’t make it back, I’m gonna haunt you for the rest of your life,” deadpanned John. Gary chuckled at his reply. “C’mon, lets go get a seat before we have to stand in the back.”
The room could handle over a hundred men consisting of the four officers of each crew and the briefing personnel. John could see a lot of new faces; hardly anyone was left from the original group who flew across the Atlantic last December. He could make out where the rookies speculated where the group was headed today . . . Ploesti. The rumors were spreading like wildfires that the Hell that was named Ploesti would be their target. John knew better. Having being told by the orderly at the wakeup that the bomb load would be 5000 pounds, John knew Ploesti would be too far. With a load like that, northern Italy was a better prospect.
McPherson and Sanderson found their command crews in the middle of the smoke-filled room and took their seats on the long wooden plank that was supported by empty wooded boxes that had been used to ship fifty-caliber ammunition to the group. Charlie Nelson offered him a Lucky Strike that John refused with a hand stop but Charlie found other takers in Hansen and Geist. Checking his watch, John saw it would be another five minutes before the briefing would begin. John contemplated the velvet curtain covering the route map on the stage, wondering what the target for today would be.
IN THE BRIEFING HUT, CONTINUED - (submitted by Jim Pink, 316th Sqn)
Lieutenant Tines sat down behind McPherson and Sanderson. Slapping John on
the right shoulder Gary started, “You lucky bastard, got a spare today?” John
just looked at Gary with the big smile he usually reserved for the Italian
lasses in town and
said, “You bet. So keep that create of yours flying today Tines.”
Just then Zurn sat down snatching one of Nelson’s Luck Strikes, “Thanks Chuck.” Nelson shot back, “It’s Charlie, not Chuck.” Zurn chuckled, “Sure, right Chuck,” he said mockingly. “That’s the last smoke you get from me then,” Nelson blurted back.
Tines stepped in, “Alright Loren, stop messing with Nelson.”
“John,” Tines said changing the subject, “where do you think we're going? With that Crap we eat for breakfast it can’t be Ploesti.”
Lt. McPherson replied, “We’ll see in a minute Gary, here comes the Major.”
ON THE WAY TO HARDSTAND 16
As Charlie Nelson and Frank Geist exited from their navigator and bombardier’s briefing, both men saw a waiting jeep with Corporal Vinnie Johnson at the wheel along with John McPherson in the front right seat and Steve Hansen in the back. After climbing into the back, McPherson gave Johnson the signal to start the engine.
As they drove to their hardstand, McPherson observed the many scenes that he had seen many times before being played out before him: the ground crews performing last minute cleaning of the bombers’ windshields, armorers finishing up loading 50-caliber ammunition, mechanics securing up engine cowlings, flight engineers performing their pre-flight inspections. Passing Hardstand 12, McPherson saw Major Tanner, their squadron CO, speaking with Captain Snakenburg, their Squadron Leader for today, about today’s mission.
Stopping at their hardstand, the four officers already saw the rest of their crew already there and were getting into their flight gear. Exiting the jeep, Corporal Johnson bid them good-bye. “Good Luck, Sirs,” Johnson said waving his hand, “see you when you get back in about two hours.” If all went well today, there would be no aborts and McPherson and his crew would be back before lunch.
The rest of the crew approached McPherson eager to find out if the rumors were true. "So, where are we going today, Skipper?" It was his flight engineer, Master Sergeant Joel Simeon.
“We’re going to Zagreb.”
“Zagreb? Never heard of it, Lieutenant.” McPherson noticed it came from one of the two rookie gunners assigned to him today. “Is Zagreb near Ploesti, Lieutenant?” asked the other nervous rookie.
Davidson was it?” The new man nodded yes. “It’s in northwestern
Yugoslavia, not Romania. We’re the group spare today, so we may not get
the chance to bomb some train station.”
Just then McPherson saw the crew chief for their airplane, Master Sergeant Robert “Bob” Santos, approaching. “Okay, crew get ready to mount up and Steve? Start the walk-around while I have a word with the crew chief.”
“Sure thing, John,” replied the co-pilot and Hansen began ducking under the port wing to check out the condition of the plane.
Santos stopped and raised his right hand and saluted. “Good Morning, Lieutenant.”
“Good Morning Master Sergeant.” After returning his salute, McPherson asked, “Is she ready to go?”
“Yes, Sir, all fueled up and loaded per the Field Order.”
“How’s she running, especially number three.” McPherson remembered how over Bucharest when that engine had to be feathered.
“Working like a champ, Lieutenant. Number three has been timed out and flight checked.” Anticipating McPherson’s next line of questions, “And my boys replaced out the starboard fuel tank, got the turrets and port ailerons working. Generally, we fixed up all the damage that you brought her back with over Bucharest.”
“Yes, I know she’s your baby, Chief. But it’s not my fault the Germans keep shooting her up,” McPherson said breaking into a smile. “But if you have any pull with Herr Goering in Berlin, you have my permission to send him a telegraph about taking it easy on your baby.”
“Well, Lieutenant, considering he’s not a very good friend of mine, I don’t think that will be happening soon.” Santos liked McPherson and his easy-going attitude. He didn't look down at the enlisted men as inferior to them, unlike some of the other officers. This made made it really easy to joke around with him. “And remember, Lieutenant, you don’t own the plane. She belongs to me to keep her in tip-top shape. You’re only renting her. So I’d expect you to return her in the same condition as when you took her out. Which should be easy to do, since I heard you were a spare today, Sir.”
“Well very good, Master Sergeant, I’ll do the best I can. And thank you and your men for your efforts.”
SOMEWHERE ON THE WAY TO HARDSTAND 34 - (submitted by Jim Pink, 316th Sqn)
With the sounds of Wright R-1820-97 Cyclone radials sputtering to life and the clatter of equipment being stowed or mounted Lieutenant Tines reviews today’s mission in his head. Riding in the front passenger seat of an army jeep Tines barley notices the hustle and bustle at the various hardstands. It seems like years since the mission yesterday but it ended early as a fascist German fighter busted up the Vengeful Harlot in the early stages of their sortie to Wollersdorf. The boys of the Harlot returned to base hours before the rest of the squadron and spent the day analyzing the damage to their ship and helping out around the base.
Now as the sergeant from the base drivers’ pool turned Tines’ jeep down a strip of tarmac heading toward hardstand 34, Tines recognized MSgt. Pappy Fenn sporting a big grin. Martin, he hates his first name, always puffs up with pride when his ground crew pieces together the battered birds these ungrateful pilots bring home. Pappy Fenn takes his job to heart, as he can’t keep an emotional distance from those wet behind the ear pilots and their crews for longer than a few missions. This will make it harder when a B-17 of Hardstand 34 does not return. Eventfully these planes fail to return, which will be a sad day indeed.
As the jeep slows down and pulled up to the B-17 called Vengeful Harlot the boys start hopping off the back. They move to there assign duties and start loading the last of the equipment needed for today’s mission.
“We got ’er up ’n run’n Lieutenant,” states Pappy.
“Great, I never doubted you Martin,” replied Tines with a wink! Acting upset, Pappy shot back a scowl.
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