Broadman & Holman
October 25, 2004
Jack Martin shook the newspaper uneasily. The column was short, but it was still a memoir on the war and that bothered him. Jack didn’t like any story about that war. Even thinking of World War II made him nervous, edgy, and silent. Of course the war was ages ago, but the memories never stopped bothering him. He turned the page quickly, and started searching through the movie advertisements.
Though a tall man who stayed unusually fit, Jack’s eightyone years had still taken its toll, leaving deep lines under his brown eyes and around his narrow mouth. A double chin hung from his neck, but he still looked fairly well.
Off in the other room, the telephone rang, but Martha would answer it. During the decades since their children George and Mary left home, his wife made it her habit always to answer the phone first. The irresistible impulse seemed like some sort of mania with Mary. Jack listened, but could only hear her mumbling something or other.
Jack didn’t like to admit that his hearing wasn’t what it once was. He buried his head in the newspaper again. The sports section declared that University of Oklahoma might again have the number one football team in the country. Bad news for Texas fans.
The weather report said an unexpected cold wind was coming down the plains and would sweep over Dallas and the rest of Texas, leaving more than a hint of autumn in the air. Leaves already had started to fall and the evening air felt brisk, but this time of the year always stimulated Jack Martin.
“Jack!” Martha called from the dining room. “You’ve got the strangest phone call.” His gray-haired wife walked into the living room and pointed over her shoulder. “Some man says he is calling from a town called Maastrich. I think he said Maastrich, Germany.”
Jack jerked as if Martha had shocked him with an electric wire. His mouth dropped, and he stared at his wife as if he’d seen a ghost. “I don’t think I heard you right.”
“Maastrich, dear. Some town in Europe.”
Jack blinked several times, and wiped his mouth nervously.
“It can’t be!”
“Heavens! All I know is that some man with an accent says he’s looking for a Jack Martin.” Martha shrugged and rolled her eyes. “You know anyone in Germany of all places?”
Jack stared at his wife. “It can’t be,” he said and leaped out of his chair, stomping toward the dining room. “Just can’t be.”
“Can’t be what?” Martha frowned.
Without answering her, Jack hurried to the phone and picked it up nervously. “Hello. This is Jack Martin.”
“Ah! Herr Marten!” The clear, crisp voice sounded like the man was in the next room. “I am calling from Germany to see if you were the pilot of a United States Air Force B-17 Flying Fortress shot down during World War II.”
“World War II!”
“Ya,” the caller spoke with an obvious German accent. “My name is Reinhold Schroder. I am part of a group that digs up objects left behind from the great war. I think your word for our efforts might be a ‘hobby.’ Recently, we found a piece of the fuselage of a B-17 Flying Fortress with a number and the words ‘The Flying Tiger’ still painted boldly on this section. Does that awaken any memories?”
Jack Martin nearly choked. He had refused to mention the name Flying Tiger for over five decades. He had to catch his breath.
“You are still there?”
“Sorry. Yes, yes. I was the pilot of that airplane just before it crashed.”
“Ah! Excellent! Our records are correct! Most helpful. We are not clear, but it seems you would have had in your crew a navigator, turret gunner, a lead bombardier, perhaps a couple of other Air Force men.”
Jack blinked several times. “Yes.”
“Wonderful! Our members will be most excited. You see we were all born after the war, but grew up hearing about the conflict. Most exciting!”
“Yeah,” Jack growled. “More than a little stimulating.”
“What? I don’t think I understand.”
“That was a long time ago.” Jack rubbed his forehead. “Way back there in the dusty past.”
“Ya. Most certainly was,” Reinhold Schroder said. “We are digging up the airplane to put the pieces in a museum in our city. I am calling to see if you have any pictures of yourself when you were the pilot. Maybe, a picture of you today?”
“Pictures?” Jack stirred uncomfortably. “I . . . I . . . don’t know.” He scratched his thinning gray hair. “I’d have to search.”
“Most excellent! Our desire would be to call you back in a few weeks and see what you have found.”
“You said your name was Schroder?”
“Reinhold Schroder. May I call you in, shall we say, three weeks?”
“Three weeks?” Jack took another deep breath.
“Yes, and we’d be delighted to have any stories, memories, you’d like to share of what happened to you.”
“Stories?” Jack started blinking again. “Huh! I don’t know. I’ll have to think about it some.”
“Certainly. And if any other members of ‘The Flying Tiger’ can be located, we’d like to communicate with them.”
“I’ll have to think about that too,” Jack said slowly. “It’ll take me some time.”
“Of course, Herr Marten. I will be back in touch. Dunken ja! ” He hung up.
Jack slowly returned the receiver to the cradle and silently stared at the wall, trying to order his thoughts.
“Jack!” Martha marched in. “Your face doesn’t look right. You appear white. Are you all right?”
Martin stood up haltingly, but didn’t answer his wife’s question.
“I need to go outside and get some air.”
“Air? Jack! It’s getting cold. Are you okay?”
He didn’t say anything but walked toward the back door, letting the screen slam behind him. Jack walked straight for the back fence and an empty corner where no one would interrupt him; certainly not Martha. The huge bright moon threw shadows across the back yard, but the gentle breeze felt more like a skin bracer. He inhaled deeply.
Far overhead the harvest moon looked round and clear, but the far off globe reminded Jack he was now eighty-one years old. More than occasionally the scars on his legs got tight and the dark red blots could sting when the weather turned cold.
The indentations where the flesh had been removed had stayed for decades. When the pain periodically came back, Jack had to grit his teeth but never, never did he mention the problem. Jack still had other aches and pains left over from the war, but for the last six decades he’d kept his mind off the disaster that had created the injuries. Not once had he told Martha or the children anything about that deadly airplane crash outside of Maastrich.
It was so long ago; it seemed like yesterday morning.
During the decades following the war, Jack had moved to Dallas and started his own insurance business. As the city grew, his business developed. Life had been extremely good to the Martin family. After their marriage he and Martha joined a church down the street, and had been there virtually ever since.
Eventually the children went down to Austin, and George and Mary graduated from the University of Texas. The Martins lived normal happy lives like most Americans. In time his hair grayed, and then after a decade of worry the thick brush thinned, but Jack never talked about the war.
The wind picked up, and Jack rubbed his arms. He wasn’t good at talking with anyone about the past because what followed the crash of “The Flying Tiger” had so shaken him that Jack couldn’t discuss the experience with anyone without becoming emotional. During the early years in the late forties and the fifties, he refused to even let himself think about it.
A tomcat abruptly jumped up on the fence and ran across the palings before disappearing into the alley. He watched the old cat disappear into the night and wanted to follow him.
Could he tell Martha . . . and George . . . and Mary . . . about those horrific experiences that so nearly cost him his life and had cost others theirs? Jack didn’t think so. He didn’t know if he could change his habit of silence or if he should even try. But the phone call no longer allowed him to push the memories aside. The past had come back for a visit and wouldn’t be ignored.
The year was l943 . . . sixty-one years ago.
September 2, 1943
The steady roar of the propellers echoed in Jack Martin’s ears. With their mission over Berlin completed, the squadron of American bombers started their return to England. The constant noise of the B-17 Flying Fortress diminished the possibility of much lengthy personal conversation inside the body of the bomber, but Captain Jack Martin’s crew had relaxed on their return from their five hundred-mile foray deep into Germany. Their flying formation had given the Berliners a run for their lives and most of the bombers escaped the massive ack-ack ground fire. Martin wasn’t sure how many of their formation had gone down, but it was clear that any loss was not good. Nevertheless, all in all the flight had been a successful early morning run.
The entire formation kept their radios off to avoid tipping off the Luftwaffe as to which direction they might take in escaping. Unfortunately, Martin’s airplane was bringing up the rear of the mission and that made them vulnerable. Usually navigators weren’t used on these shorter runs, but because “The Flying Tiger” brought up the rear, this position had been covered in case of unexpected problems. One fact was sure. The Germans wouldn’t let up.
Nazi persistence made sense to Captain Jack Martin. He had come from a German family background. His grandfather had immigrated to America with the name Heinrich Matthys. The old man quickly saw the need to “Americanize” himself and changed his last name to a more English sounding “Martin.” Growing up around old Hennie Martin had taught Jack enough German that he understood the language and could speak it. He always felt more comfortable on these flights knowing it was possible to understand the enemy if anything turned out wrong.
With the formation cruising along at an altitude of 25,000 feet and with their oxygen masks in place, Jack started to breathe easier once they crossed the Rhine River and the Belgium border was in sight. A tall, thin officer with thick black hair, Martin had studied previous warfare in the area and knew how important the terrain underneath him had been in both World War I and during this struggle.
Martin’s B-17 wasn’t flying far from the Ardennes Forest which had been regarded as unpassable in World War I, but in this conflict the German’s Army Group A had made a surprise attack through the unprotected Ardennes, cutting the Allied forces in half in May 1940. Nazi paratroopers dropped immediately into the heart of Holland. At the same moment the Nazis struck in Belgium. With a minimal eighty-man force that had rehearsed on a mockup of the fort, they descended in gliders with blitzkrieg tactics at full tilt. A day later the Belgian fort of Eben Emael fell to the Germans, opening the Albert Canal to use by Nazi troops flooding into Belgium. In three more days Rotterdam had been heavily bombed and Holland immediately surrendered. German Army Group A surged through the Ardennes and quickly pushed the French resistance out of their way. Hermann Goering’s Luftwaffe then destroyed any trapped forces with air attacks.
King Leopold III surrendered the Belgian Army on May 28, 1940, without warning his allies. The Allied flank was suddenly fatally exposed, allowing German tanks, or panzers, to push toward the Channel. The surviving Allied forces had to retreat to the port of Dunkirk and run for their lives. Captain Martin certainly didn’t want any similar problems with the Luftwaffe today.
“Captain, sir!” Lieutenant Hank Holt said over the microphone, “at our present speed we’ll be coming up on Maastrich, Germany, in a couple of minutes. We’re about on the Belgian border. So good so far, but we’re far from out of the hands of the Jerries,” the navigator observed.
“Keep me posted, Lieutenant,” Martin answered. “Maastrich is an important area because it’s close to Eben-Emael Fort and the Albert Canal. I’m sure the Germans will have plenty of antiair artillery waiting for us if we’re identified.”
“You got it, kid!” Holt answered and clicked off. Jack especially liked Hank Holt because the small, stout man always kept his sense of humor no matter how complicated their problems became. If anybody was dependable, it was good old Hank.
Actually the entire crew of The Flying Tiger had proved to be good airmen. Martin’s copilot, Al Smith, and the lead bombardier, Denver Meachem, had grown up together in Oklahoma and stayed buddies. Martin trusted their judgment, as well as his turret gunner Pat Taylor. Jake Gates had already proved himself a most capable tail gunner. Good men and more than trustworthy.
Martin particularly liked flying a B-17. The basics of flying the aircraft had been easy to learn, and the plane was always dependable. Flying Fortresses were not easy to knock down, and stood up under considerable damage. If he had his choice, Captain Martin would choose to fly a Flying Fortress bomber any day of the week.
Jack heard an extra loud noise and looked up. From out of nowhere a Messerschmitt Bf l09E fighter roared out of the clouds, diving straight for their B-17. The piercing sound of machine gun fire ripped through the fuselage before the captain could even move. Instantly the glass in the cockpit shattered and Jack ducked his head, hanging on to the controls to keep the airplane stable.
“They hit us!” Hank Holt shouted in his microphone. “But I don’t think they hit any engines.”
“Hang on!” Martin shouted back. “The Krauts will be back!”
“Smith!” Martin said to his copilot sitting next to him. “Get a firm grip. We’re in a bind. The Jerries are onto us.”
Gripping the wheel even more tightly, Martin glanced at the copilot. Al Smith sat slumped against the side of the cockpit.
Machine gun fire had caught him behind the neck, exploding a bullet through his chest, and killing him.
Captain Martin gasped in terror. Blood was rushing down Smith’s chest, over the seat, and splattering against the window.
Al’s arms hung limp at his side.
“God help us!” Jack shouted into the mike. “They hit our copilot!”
“And they got our bombardier,” some voice from the back reported. “Meacham’s dead.”
“Hang on!” Martin ordered. “Back there in the turret make sure you’re alert, Taylor. You too, Gates! That Messerschmitt will be back.”
“Sir,” Holt reported, “we’re just about to come up on Maastrich. It’s a good-sized town. Got to be heavily protected.”
Jack grabbed the controls with a steel grip. The bomber couldn’t be in a worse position than to be at the tail end of the formation with a Messerschmitt above them and antiartillery fire below them. The Germans certainly knew what to do to blow them out of the sky.
“Oh no!” Taylor the turret gunner bellowed into the intercom.
“We’re picking up a new Nazi attack plane. Another 109 is coming up at us from below.”
Captain Martin turned on the radio to send the rest of the formation or any Allied fighter planes out there a message that they were in trouble. “Mayday! Mayday! This is Flying Fortress ‘The Flying Tiger.’ Jerries are all over us. We’re just about over Maastrich. Can we get any help?”
Martin waited for a reply but none came. If anyone in the formation had picked him up, no one was breaking the silence.
Artillery fire opened up from the ground and then suddenly the two Messerschmitts reappeared. One came from above and the other from beneath them, attacking only seconds apart. The B-17 rocked and shook while German machine gun fire strafed across the entire aircraft. Ground artillery burst through the wings, and instantly fire exploded from an engine on the left wing.
“We’re hit!” the captain yelled into his microphone. “The left engine’s gone. Prepare to jump. I don’t think we can pull out.” The airplane started downward into a dive. Flames leaped from the wings and smoke came rushing through the cockpit.
Jack took a deep breath. “God help us,” he prayed under his breath. “We’re going down.”
With no time to reflect, Captain Martin only reacted. Fire erupted around him, smoke rolled in the doorway and clouded the cracked windows around the fuselage. With one last yank on the wheel, he tried to pull the Flying Fortress out of the dive only to discover there was nothing he could do to level the airplane. Deterioration had already become too severe, and he could not reverse the downward drag. Hank Holt had already left the cockpit. Flipping off his safety harness, Jack struggled to climb out of the cockpit and get back to the side door to jump. Time was running out.
The body of the B-17 had already burst into flames, indicating that the Messerschmitts and the ack-ack ground fire had torn into the aircraft’s fuel lines, possibly even igniting some of the ammunition. Smoke flowed through the airplane, making it difficult to see anything. Obviously, they were in more than serious trouble.
Martin could see men running through the smoke heading to the door to jump. It was pointless to try to count the number of men escaping. Already too many of the crew had been killed.
At the tail end of the B-17 something exploded, knocking Martin backward against the bulkhead wall and sending a ball of fire roaring forward that instantly turned into a burst of black smoke. For a second Martin was stunned and unable to hear anything, then his stupor vanished as waves of fire shot up his legs. He looked down in horror to discover flames consuming his flight pants.
“Help!” Martin shouted, beating against his legs to put out the flames. “I’m on fire!”
In the roar of the fire spreading rapidly through their airplane plus the additional sound of wind swirling into the bomber, his voice went nowhere. The horrible agonizing pain of burning in his lower legs made Martin beat frantically on his pants, but the fire continued. Something flammable must have splashed on him.
“Get out!” Lieutenant Hank Holt’s voice cut through the mayhem. “Everybody out!”
“Help me, Hank!” Jack screamed. “I’m burning up!”
Hank Holt rushed through the smoke. “Good God! You are on fire!” He grabbed a fire extinguisher and started spraying the flames. “We’ve got to get you out of here.”
The throbbing pain had become nearly paralyzing. Captain Martin tried to stagger forward. Hank slipped his shoulder under Martin’s armpit and pulled him toward the door.
“Forget that stuff about being the last man out!” Hank yelled. “I’m going to push you through the door, and jump out behind you. Get out of here before the entire airplane explodes.”
Jack gritted his teeth. The pain in his legs remained too great to do anything more than nod his head. For a moment Martin was certain he would faint.
Lieutenant Holt kept beating on the flames and knocking out the fire, but the damage to his legs had already been done.
“Just get through that door and pull your rip chord,” Holt instructed. “Can you do that?”
“Yeah,” Martin groaned. “I think I can.”
“I’ll be behind you.”
The captain could feel Hank pushing him toward the door.
The B-17 went into an even sharper decline and flames shot higher. With a hard push, Holt hurled Jack through the door. Jack tumbled head over heels, the fierce wind sending his body into a swirling spin toward the ground. The throbbing ache eased momentarily in the rush of the plunge toward the earth. The roar of the bomber’s engines disappeared in this world of no sound. Jack had no sense of falling, only floating leisurely through the air like a leaf dropping gently to the ground. An ultimate sense of aloneness surrounded his idle, gentle descent to the earth. The sensation felt like he could float for days. With the return of the burning and throbbing in his legs, the illusion vanished.
Because he had no idea of his altitude, Jack recognized his dilemma. If he was too high and pulled the cord, there might not be enough oxygen and he could pass out. On the other hand, if he was too close to the ground, he could still come down with far too great an impact. The latter alternative seemed riskier so Jack released the parachute by yanking the D-ring on his side. When the parachute released, the harnesses shot up past him and he grabbed them. Jack fiercely held to the long nylon belts and prayed.
“God, help me out,” Jack mumbled as the parachute tumbled out of the pack. “Oh, please. I don’t want to die today!”