Lana McGraw Boldt

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Flower of the Pacific
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Iris and Eva

 

 

Excerpt from Flower of the Pacific

[pp 91-96]


            Cole was sleeping fitfully when the phone awakened him at 3:00 a.m.
            "It's happened!  They've hit Pearl Harbor!" Jake shouted over the line.
            "Pearl?  How do you know?  When?  What happened?" Cole was instantly awake.  "Where are you?"
            "I'm at the radio shack.  I thought I'd show Maria and her father the facilities and we just happened to pick up a San Francisco station.  They said the Japanese have bombed Pearl Harbor.  The reports are still confusing, but it was bad.   They're having to explain where Pearl is, even.  Caught them on Sunday morning...asleep."
            "My God!"  Cole was stunned.  Then he grasped the magnitude of the news.  "We're next."
            "They're probably on their way now.  I'm having a hell of a time raising anyone in Manila.  Get your pants on."  The line was dead.  Cole hung up.  Dick was behind him, already half-dressed.
            "They hit Pearl first."  Dick's words were a statement, not a question.  "How bad?"
            "Not clear, but it sounds pretty bad."
            "Now maybe they'll believe us.  You'll get a call to scramble next.  I'll go ahead on up to Clark as planned.  Maybe I can be of more use up there."
            The phone rang again before Cole had finished dressing.  He spoke briefly, then ran back into his bedroom.  "The P-40s are going aloft," he confirmed over his shoulder.
            "If I get that generator working I'm going to make them test it out by heading south," Dick called after him.  "Maybe you'll give me some fighter protection."
            It was five-thirty before the engines of the fighters pounded the humid tropical darkness.  Cole knew that most of their pilots must find the pulsing noise excruciating to their tender heads.  Once aloft, the usual radio chatter was less than normal, whether due to the hangovers or the possibility of coming face-to-face with the enemy, Cole couldn't tell.  He just knew that finally he could do something.  The stick felt good in his hand.  He watched the green dials and felt the sure response of the plane.  He scanned the horizon, sighting on a bright star in the thin darkness of the early morning.  They banked and headed north in formation.
            By mid-morning the comments over the radio had changed from tense and short to a steady grumble.  Flying without breakfast, looking for what they considered an imagined foe, on low fuel tanks and even emptier stomachs was more than they wanted to endure.  Cole tried to keep their spirits up - but even he couldn't argue with the needle on the fuel gauge, which hovered dangerously close to empty.  As squadron leader, he had no choice but to order them down to Clark Field for refueling.
            As he climbed out of his cockpit, he glanced at his watch and his heart sank: eleven-thirty, the time they usually landed for lunch break.  The B-17s were also on the ground.  He was horrified to see that each pilot had followed the old habit of neatly parking wing tip to wing tip in protection against ground sabotage from fifth columnists, but perfect targets for air attack.  It was just like Bill had said.  He dashed to the crew chief and ordered the P-40s immediately refueled.
            "My men are going to lunch," the seargeant said amiably.  "We'll get right on it when they get back."  He turned and sauntered toward the mess hall.
            Something in Cole snapped.  The sergeant was only one of many who didn't see the urgency in the situation or the impending danger, only one of many who felt America was invincible, but it was the sergeant Cole could reach out and grab by the shirt.  He shoved the startled man against the wall. "Listen, you son of a bitch," he growled, "you'll refuel those planes now or the only thing you'll be eating for the rest of this war is bread and water.  Now get your crew and hop to it!"
            "Yes, Captain," the sergeant said, wide-eyed, as he scurried after his crew.
            Cole hurried toward the mess hall, dripping in the pounding midday sun.  He had to hurry the pilots and get those planes back off the ground.  Stopping momentarily at the control tower, he found that Dick had checked in.  The men thought it highly amusing that Dick had insisted they take the B-17 up when all the others were coming in for lunch.  Well, Cole thought, at least one plane was safe.
            A radio operator in the corner seemed to be having trouble with his set.  "What is it?" Cole asked.
            "Don't know, sir."  The operator was young and intense.  "Something coming in from up north, but it's full of static."
            "Keep trying," Cole encouraged.  "It could mean our lives."
            He looked at his watch as he walked into the mess hall:  eleven-fifty.  The men were all sitting around the tables, eating.  "We're taking off in ten minutes," he announced.
            "What's the matter, Tennyson," asked one of the bomber pilots, "you think that oxygen's going to help your hangover?"
            "Nah," countered the copilot, "Tennyson's been riding a burr because he left his girl back home and he hasn't been getting any."
            Cole ignored their jibes, made a sandwich of a couple of slabs of Spam and bread, and headed toward the door.  "Pearl Harbor wasn't a drill and we're sure to be next.  They've almost finished refueling.  Let's go!"  He turned to the B-17 pilot and added, "Those Fortresses of yours are going to make a pretty neat target all lined up like that."
            "Come on, Cole," one of his squadron pleaded, "at least let me get a cigarette with my cup of coffee."
            Three of his younger, more serious pilots caught his concern and followed him, grabbing their flight jackets as they headed out the door.  The others slowly got up, coffee cups in hand, and meandered outside.  He was halfway across the field when he noticed them still standing in the shade, stalling over their cigarettes,  "Move it!" he shouted.
            A low moaning sound slowly grew from the north, building in volume as the planes approached.
            "Hey!  Here comes the navy!" someone shouted.  "We can't take off now."
            Cole looked up and saw a dark cloud of planes approaching on the far horizon.  "Navy, hell!" he shouted.  "It's the Japs!  Get those planes up!"
            He climbed into his plane and slid back the canopy.  The other three pilots soon had their engines pounding the super-heated air on the landing strip.  Ahead, Cole saw a dark V formation, headed for the field, growing larger with each second.  They taxied down the runway.  As he lifted off, he saw the men below starting to scatter into disorganized action.  Some of his crew were throwing their cups to the ground and scrambling for their planes.  Others were scurrying around looking for the newly dug and far too few foxholes.  One man was running toward the antiaircraft battery.  Three of his squadron made it off the ground and quickly grouped on him.  It was clear that the others weren't going to make it, because the men were still running toward the planes.  Only three of the others even had their engines beginning to turn over.
            The radio cracked in his ear.  Dick's B-17 was heading south, looking for Japanese carriers on the way.  They needed fighter cover.  "Riley, you and Marshall head south and provide cover for that B-17," Cole ordered into the radio.  "Craig and I will hold them off here and then follow."  He could see his left wingman give him the high sign as the other two P-40s peeled off and headed after the only bomber the Americans had in the sky.
            He didn't have time to see if they made it.  Glancing over his shoulder, he saw the first wave of Japanese planes sweep down over the field.  Two P-40s were taxiing.  One burst into flame; the other veered to avoid hitting it and ran drunkenly off the strip, crashed into a B-17 and exploded.
            "Zero at two-o'clock!" Craig shouted into the radio.
            One of the lead Japanese fighters had spotted them and broken out of the formation that was attacking Clark Field.  Cole caught sight of the red circle on his wing as the Zero maneuvered past him, guns shooting flames.  Coles' heart stopped with the sudden first horror of realizing that someone was actually trying to kill him personally.  The P-40 shuddered and Cole knew he had taken a hit.  His hand were shaking as he gripped the stick.  How could they maneuver so fast?
            From the corner of his eye he saw two others converging on Craig.  Now, overriding his intense terror, came the results of all those hours of training and practice  maneuvers.  Despite the cold sweat dripping under his flight jacket, despite his shaking hands, he knew what to do.  He shouted into the radio, "Craig!  Above you!"  He tried to bank and come up under the enemy plane.  His P-40 couldn't respond as quickly as the Zero and the Japanese was soon around on top of him once more.  In frustration, he tried to bank again to avoid the fire.  The air was thick with black smoke from the devastation below.  His plane was repeatedly buffeted from explosions on the ground.
            Craig's voice screamed over the radio, "I'm hit!  My God, I'm hit!"
            Cole looked to his left and saw Craig's plane in flames.  The cockpit was red with splattered blood.
            He tried to ignore his shaking hands and banked to the left, trying desperately to outrun the Zeros on his tail.  He pushed the engine until it screamed.  When he was over Subic Bay, far from Clark Field, he turned and looked behind him.  A spurt of fire from the guns of the lead plane shot past Cole's right wing.  A wave of nausea swept through him as he saw a small hole open up on the tip of his wing.
            He banked quickly, caught the lead Zero by surprise, and fired at it.  A trail of black smoke came from the Zero's engine.  A whoop of victory escaped his lips as he saw the plane start a slow spiral toward the water.  "That's one for Craig, you son-of-a-bitch!" he shouted.
            Fear gripped him as he remembered his other two pursuers and automatically started evasive maneuvers.  How could the Jap planes be faster and more nimble than the P-40?  It wasn't like his officers had told him it would be.  It was a stinking, unfair match and it was terrifying.  He couldn't see one of them and the other was fast on his tail again.  He banked and saw the second plane come up from under him.  He opened fire, but it easily avoided his shots, banked, and came back down on him amid streaks of tracer bullets.  He felt his plane shudder.
            Help, he was thinking.  Why doesn't someone help me?  He tried to bank, but the left rudder was gone.  Another burst of fire and his engine exploded in flames.  The cockpit filled with smoke.  He tried hopelessly to control the sudden plummeting dive, his head thrown back against the seat by the force of gravity.  He was coughing, caught in a spiraling death plunge.
            Anger filled him.  He pulled the release lever and jettisoned the canopy,  then jumped.  The plane slipped away from him as his stomach flipped over with the feel of free fall.  He pulled the ripcord and his body snapped as the parachute opened.  He was floating above his plane as it burst into flames and crashed into the bay in a spume of oily water.
            He glanced frantically around, his eyes stinging with smoke, fearful that the Zeros would be back in to finish him off as he dangled helplessly from his parachute.  However, they had quickly turned tail and headed back to the main battle.
            He floated down through the smoke toward the blue of  Subic Bay.  I'm probably the first American shot down in battle, he thought with disgust.  Then, strangely, his thoughts were no longer of the battle, nor of his own safety once he hit the shark-infested waters.  Iris, he thought as he hung suspended over the water covering his lost plane.  What will happen to Iris?


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