by Estevana Rey
WWII Alternate Universe
Corporal JD Dunne was a dead man.
Captain Chris Larabee could have accepted that fact if they had been shot out of the sky, or even if Dunne had been killed outright, but he'd never counted on it ending up like this.
He didn't care about his own life, not since the first German bombing raids on England in '39 when his English-born wife and 5-year-old son, on a holiday London, had been among the first casualties of the War. But JD... he was just a kid. Hell, most of the men dying in this war were kids. Most of the pilots behind the controls of the B-17s that dotted the skies over Europe had been plucked from college campuses. Larabee and his co-pilot, Ezra Standish, were exceptions. Experienced commercial airline pilots, they probably had more flight time between them than the rest of their bomber group combined. Although Standish was not yet 30 and Larabee was just a few years older, other pilots glibly referred to them as the "old men."
Not much about Larabee's crew was typical. For starters, Larabee's B-17G 'Flying Fortress' didn't have a name, although the last three digits of her serial number - 777 - had suggested monikers such as "Lady Luck," "Lucky Lady," "Larabee's Luck," and other references to the mythic numeral. The crew referred to her simply as "Seven" and had never decided on anything more formal than that. Corporal Dunne had wanted to paint something on the nose, but they'd never gotten around to doing that, either.
With two exceptions, most of the crew was from Texas or New Mexico. No one had planned it that way, it had just been an odd coincidence. Two of the original crewmen had been replaced before their first mission. The radioman, Tommy Chanu, a Navajo and one of two Indians with the original crew, had been mysteriously pulled from his assignment, as had dozens of other Navajos in the service. Rumors abounded, but no one knew where Chanu had gone, or why. He had been replaced by Rafe Mosely, a cocky know-it-all whom the rest of the crew accepted only after they realized they were stuck with him. Their original right waist gunner, Eli Joe Chavez, had been a bad apple from the start. He had been arrested by civilian authorities for rape two days after they had arrived in England, and had been replaced by Mark Kuykendall, who had already survived the loss of one Fortress.
Left waist gunner Josiah Sanchez and tail gunner Buck Wilmington, were career soldiers. Sanchez had been in the Army longer than the average bomber crewman had been alive. Rumor had it that he'd seen action in the Great War, although Larabee knew for a fact he wasn't that old.
Engineer Nathan Jackson had been an honor student at one of the few medical colleges that accepted Negro scholars, but had lost his chance at flight school when a white officer had wrongfully accused him of starting a bar fight in which a white soldier was killed. When assignments were made in Rapid City, other crews had refused to accept him, but Larabee figured his medical expertise could only come in handy, and Jackson wasn't a bad shot, either.
His Navigator, 2nd Lieutenant Rory Selkirk, was an Apache Indian who claimed he could find his way into and out of Hell if he had to. Larabee didn't doubt him. Selkirk was almost leisurely in his duties, always certain that they were where he said they were and were headed in the right direction.
The bombardier, 2nd Lieutenant Vin Tanner, never said much about his past, and his service record listed his next of kin as St. Anthony's Home for Boys. He was from the same town as Chavez, and Chris suspected they had known each other before the war, although neither had ever owned up to it and they clearly weren't friends. Tanner wasn't much for discipline and protocol, but he had an uncanny talent for memorizing and locating targets, and for knowing the exact moment to release the tons of explosives the Fortress carried.
Ball turret gunner JD Dunne, a pint-sized, irrepressible 17-year-old, was the youngest member of their crew. In fact, he was the youngest of the 210 men in the bomber group. Two weeks after his mother had died, he had turned old enough to enlist, and the Army had become his family. He had grated on Larabee's nerves at first, maybe because his youthful exuberance reminded him too much of his own son. But Dunne was like a playful puppy who kept coming back no matter how many times you kicked it, and eventually, he'd won all of them over.
And now, he was going to die.
+ + + + + + +
Larabee had relinquished the lead bomber position to El Chicote and Rafael Cordoba, the crazy, arrogant sonofabitch who piloted her. Cordoba was convinced El Chicote was invincible. Maybe he was right. They'd never been touched by flak or shell, and the only casualty her crew had suffered had happened the day before when their radioman had lost his grip pulling himself through the crew's hatch and landed on his head. They'd practically had to force a replacement on board at gunpoint. Superstitious that surely El Chicote had used up all of her luck and part of someone else's, no one wanted to fly with the crazy bastards.
He and Cordoba had exchanged words earlier that day when El Chicote's navigator had tested his cheek gun by firing a burst of rounds past Dunne's ball turret.
Dunne had screeched into his mike "THAT ASSHOLE SHOT AT ME!" like some kid tattling on the schoolyard bully, which had, of course, been the desired effect.
Cordoba's reply was to taunt the young corporal. "Cálmate, chiquito. If he wanted to shoot you, you'd be dead."
"Can it, Cordoba!" Larabee had snapped. "Save the bullets and showboating for the Krauts."
He'd had to smile when Wilmington, who could be downright threatening when he wanted to be, had offered to hurt El Chicote's entire crew if the Jerries didn't. Buck had pretty much 'adopted' Dunne as his kid brother. No one messed with the little guy when the big guy was around.
But his cock-sure attitude aside, Cordoba was the best there was, and now, Larabee trusted him to lead the rest of group home to Sudbury. Chris had vowed that his own plane would make it at least as far as the English Channel. JD was not going to die on enemy soil.
He struggled with the controls of his Fortress, trying to coax just a few more miles out of her. She was a tough lady, and while a merely mortal airplane would be in her death throes by then, she was gamely living up to "The Legend" - the one that said if there was any possible way for a B-17 to bring her crew home, she would.
Chris supposed that under different circumstances, he'd be praying that she would hold together when he set her down on her belly with no landing gear and a gaping tear in her fuselage, but he was too numb to even think about that. He'd get her down, all right, but if he lived to tell about it or not didn't seem to matter to him. Not now... not knowing JD was about to die, and he'd be the one to kill him...
+ + + + + + +
1st Lieutenant Ezra Standish unconsciously patted the small leather bag that hung from a cord around his neck. The hard metal of his dog tags kept it from touching his skin, and buried as it was under his skivvies, undershirt, heated suit, coveralls, Mae West and jacket, he probably only imagined he could feel it there. Mother, con artist that she was, was still a genteel Southern belle and would no doubt be appalled that Ezra had indulged a practice she would dismiss as heathen. But Ezra abhorred gambling and left nothing to chance. He figured it couldn't hurt to cover all the bases.
He remembered the first time he'd placed the pouch around his neck. Two weeks before Christmas, just days after their arrival in England, Selkirk had received a package from home. He had opened the box and had begun to read a letter that was inside. The others could tell from his expression that something wasn't right, although it didn't look like bad news, exactly.
"What's in the box?" JD had wanted to know. Ezra smiled at the memory. You could lead JD around by the nose if you dangled a cookie in front of him. He could sniff them out a mile away. Rory had cookies in his box, all right, but also in there were 10 small, leather pouches, and he clearly didn't want to explain them. In fact, he had looked like he wanted to run from the room.
It was Vin Tanner, their bombardier, who broke the ice. He reached into the box and pulled out a light tan one adorned with turquoise stones. "Medicine bags," he stated matter-of-factly. "For us?"
Rory looked uncomfortable, his bronze skin darkened by an embarrassed flush. "My mom... You gotta understand... she still follows the old Apache ways."
Vin's response to that was to slip the bag around his neck.
Rory looked surprised. "How do you know what those are?" His dark eyes narrowed.
Vin smiled. "When I was a young'n, I wanted to be an Injun when I grew up. Never cared much for bein' called a 'cowboy'."
JD took a bag also, this one almost white, and decorated with tiny, colorful beads of turquoise, jet, coral, mother-of-pearl and wampum. "What's in them?" he asked, fingering the small pouch.
Rory read from the letter, "The feather of an eagle, so that you may soar high, the feather of a hawk for strength, the feather of a quail for courage, the feather of the chaparral for speed, and the feather of the owl, so that you may find your way safely through the darkness."
"That's it? Just feathers?" JD remarked.
JD was sometimes slow on the up-take, and Sgt Wilmington had slapped him on the back of the head to drive home the meaning behind the gift.
"Sorry, I didn't mean any disrespect," the boy said to Rory, "Honest." He followed Vin's example and put the pouch around his neck.
Rory set the box where they could all reach it. "My mother said you will know which one to choose." And one by one each man made his selection. Somehow, everyone knew that the black leather pouch with the jet thunderbird design belonged to Chris. He chose last and it was the only one that remained.
They had flown their first mission the next day, all of them wearing the medicine bags, and since then, they'd never gone up without first observing the ritual of putting them on along with their gear. Partly it was because they all liked Rory, but another, grimmer reality was that on some primal level, they all honestly hoped the magic would work. Morale in the Eighth Air Force had bottomed out in October, after the heavy losses suffered in the disastrous Schweinfurt raid. Messerschmitts and Focke-Wulfs had taken down twenty percent of their number, and the others had limped home with their crews bleeding, dying and dead.
The pervading feeling of hopelessness had begun to rub off on all of them. The demands placed on the young crews exacted a heavy toll on spirits as well as bodies. Just three days before, a Fort had ditched in an open field ten minutes after take off. Heavy with both fuel and bombs, and with a fire in the number three engine, she'd miraculously managed not to explode and her crew had escaped with nothing more than scratches. A few hours later, though, one of her officers had gone berserk in the mess hall, running in circles and screaming incoherently with arms flailing until his crewmates had literally sat on him. No one had laughed. There had been no smirks, no disparaging remarks made about the man behind his back. Nothing was said at all. He wasn't the first to go that route, and he wouldn't be the last.
All of them knew he could be the next one to lose his nerve - or his life.
+ + + + + + +
"You okay, Ezra?" Larabee asked. The Southerner's knuckles were white, he was gripping the controls so tightly.
"No," came the uncharacteristically terse reply.
Chris nodded. "Wish there was some other way, but at least we'll get him home."
Ezra shook his head. "His 'home' is Boston, not..." Standish waved in the general direction they were headed. They'd be over the English Channel in a few minutes. "I just can't imagine..."
Ezra usually had no problem with words, but they seemed to elude him now. Perhaps because the situation so defied description. Neither man in the cockpit could bring himself to contemplate what had to be going through JD's head at that moment. It was one thing to get it in one quick burst of machine gun fire or a flak hit, or, to lie in wait for death while your life bled out of you. Both were not the way anyone wanted to go.
But to know that a horrifying, gruesome death was a certainty, and to count down the minutes while waiting helplessly for it to happen... That was asking too much of any man, especially one who had yet to see his eighteenth birthday.
+ + + + + + +
Nathan Jackson readied the morphine styrettes. He had four, but he was certain three would do the job. JD was a small kid - it was how he'd ended up the ball turret gunner, an assignment that usually went to men who were short on inches and maybe common sense, but long on guts. That was Corporal Dunne in a nutshell. Being shot at made him mad, because he hadn't yet seen enough of the carnage of combat to be scared. So far, their crew had escaped unscathed, and the experienced soldiers, Wilmington and Sanchez, had taken care to see he was elsewhere when mauled bodies were being carted off the airstrip. It wasn't that they didn't think JD could handle it, although, really, no one handled seeing their comrades with missing limbs and exposed viscera very well. After thinking about it, Nathan realized it was because they saw a younger, unjaded version of themselves in JD, and had wanted to keep that sparkle of innocence and youth untarnished just a bit longer.
JD was good man, too. He tended to get excitable and noisy in a combat situation, but he always did his job. The Krauts had at least two less Messershmitts because of him, and he'd saved their collective butt at least once.
Not today, though....
Thinking back to how they had arrived at the drastic step he was about to take, Nathan recalled them thinking that the mission would be a piece of cake. A six-hour milk run to a lightly guarded target of secondary importance.
No one could have foreseen the freakish set of circumstances that Nathan would probably replay in his mind for the rest of his life.
They had already released their bombs and were flying for themselves, comfortable with the knowledge that they were almost out of range of an aerial attack. Manning the top turret, Jackson had been the first to see the Messerschmitt dropping right down on top of them. He had, in that brief instant, wondered if the pilot was suicidal, until a too-close glimpse of the cockpit answered the question for him. The normally transparent enclosure was awash with blood and gore. The Messerschmitt had a dead man at the controls.
Lieutenant Cordoba had shouted a warning over the radio that a rogue bandit had seemingly materialized out of the clouds above them. Why the fighter plane had followed them beyond the range of its fuel tanks would forever be open to speculation, although the general consensus would later be arrived at that the pilot, knowing he was mortally wounded, had set his mind on one final act of vengeance.
Nathan had also shouted a warning to Captain Larabee, who was already taking what evasive action he could. But the B-17G was built for distance and strength, not for maneuverability, and Nathan had closed his eyes and waited for the impact, his hand on the ripcord of his parachute, certain that in seconds he'd be either dead or plummeting to earth from the broken Fortress.
Neither had happened, though. The out-of-control Messerschmitt had rolled sideways as it slipped under the Fortress. Its wing had clipped the starboard fuselage with a bone-wrenching jolt, and there followed a violent shudder as the doomed plane raked a diagonal path along the Fort's underbelly.
By some miracle, the B-17 had remained airborne, and the gut-gripping fear that the collision had ripped the ball turret from beneath the plane was quickly dispelled when the radio erupted with a streak of profanity shouted by a distinctly boyish voice. JD had probably had the piss scared out of him, but he was still there.
As the heavy plane's overstressed infrastructure twisted and groaned, a quick radio check had determined they were all still alive. Cordoba was on their starboard wing and had told Larabee it didn't look good. The landing gear bay was seriously damaged and there was a tear on the underside of the fuselage.
Discovering that his controls were sluggish and fearing that the plane would break apart, Larabee had given the order to bail out. Selkirk, Mosely and Kuykendall had moved with trained efficiency to the opening on the undamaged port side. Jackson had been prepared to follow them out when he chanced to look back to make sure the others were behind him.
+ + + + + + +
Tanner had yet to emerge from the forward bombardier's compartment, and Nathan's first thought was that the lieutenant was possibly injured. Sanchez and Wilmington were attempting to align the ball turret so they could open the hatch. It was the only way for Corporal Dunne to escape the steel-and-plastic bubble on the plane's underbelly while in flight. The ball turret was too cramped for the gunner to wear a parachute and it would take at least a minute to get Dunne into one and out of the plane under the best of circumstances. Jackson could see they were having a problem getting the turret open.
Nathan's every instinct told him to jump, but he knew he wouldn't. Moving closer to the turret, he saw what the difficulty was. The impact of the German plane had twisted the support ring that held the ball. The turret itself had a big crack in it where the plexiglas had separated from the metal framework. The complex mechanism of gears and levers that enabled the turret to turn on three axes was a twisted wreck. The electrical connection that heated JD's suit appeared to be intact, but there was no way to tell if it was still working. Larabee took the plane down several thousand feet in case it wasn't, hoping the lone Messerschmitt didn't have company, and that there wasn't an undetected flak battery waiting to greet them.
El Chicote remained alongside them, with the intent of providing cover for the crippled plane until her crew could bail out, but once Cordoba had a good look at the turret, he'd informed Larabee that probably wasn't going to happen any time soon.
Wilmington, Sanchez and Jackson had to agree. There was no way to open the ball in the position it was in, and no way to change its position.
JD was trapped. If the plane went down, he went down with it.
+ + + + + + +
Jackson's concern for Lt Tanner proved correct when the young bombardier staggered along the catwalk that lead from his compartment into the main fuselage. Blood covered one side of his face, and he looked dazed, as though he were trying to figure out what to do next.
Jackson went to him and took him by the arm. There was a noticeable yaw to the rear of the fuselage, as though it were a bird trying to wave its tail feathers, so their footing was precarious. The knowledge that the plane could break apart at any minute didn't help.
He discovered a deep gash next to Tanner's right eye, but the bleeding had almost stopped, and he didn't appear to have any other injuries. "You okay?" Jackson shouted above the noise of rushing air and engines.
Tanner nodded. "Hit my head, but I reckon it's still in one piece..."
Another jolt rocked the aircraft as a small but menacing tear appeared in the starboard bulkhead near the floor. Jackson pushed the lieutenant towards the portside door. "Go!" he shouted.
Tanner got moving, but stopped again when he saw Wilmington and Sanchez frantically inspecting the turret mechanism. It didn't take a trained eye to see what was going on.
"JD?" Tanner appeared to just mouth the name, his voice too soft to be heard above the noise in the plane.
Sanchez looked up. "You can't help him.... Go on. Get outa here, both of you!"
But even as he spoke, Jackson and Tanner moved to join the other two as they attempted to manually turn the turret inside its misshapen support. It was no good, they all knew, but they had to try.
JD had placed both hands against the inside of the bubble, as if he could somehow push his way out. He was looking up at them, and Vin found he couldn't look back. The Texan hated confined spaces, and he couldn't even begin to understand how JD didn't go crazy closed up in the tiny spherical compartment for seven or eight hours at a stretch. To be trapped in there like that was a circumstance he couldn't even begin to consider.
Vin felt himself falling sideways and it was only because he fell against Jackson that he stayed on his feet.
"Easy there, Lieutenant," Jackson said.
"Get him out of here!" Sanchez shouted to Jackson. He could see Tanner was injured.
Vin realized they meant him when he felt someone tightening the straps on his parachute. He shook his head to clear it at the same time another spasm wracked the wounded Fortress. The tear in her fuselage grew a couple of inches longer, but the tremor also caused the ball turret to rotate about 20 degrees. The sudden shift had partially freed it.
There was a brief flash of hope, but it was quickly extinguished when they realized that to get JD out, the turret had to rotate on its medial axis, following the length of the fuselage. The only thing it could do, however, was spin horizontally for few degrees in either direction.
Normal procedure for a belly landing would be for them to salvo the turret over the English Channel, but that wasn't an option they could consider with JD still inside, even if they could free the turret. If JD survived the fall, which he almost certainly would not, he'd suffer a slow and agonizing death in the freezing water.
But without their landing gear, they'd have to set the Fort down flat on her belly. If they didn't drop the turret beforehand, JD would be crushed, spread across the tarmac like butter on a slice of bread, and the stress of the turret against the fuselage could cause the plane to disintegrate, killing them all.
Wilmington had already assessed the likelihood of them manually lowering the landing gear. They had the tool needed to do it, but a chunk of the fuselage was lodged in the bay. It would require inhuman strength to accomplish the task, and it was unlikely the gear itself wasn't severely damaged.
There was one other option. If a man could be dropped out the forward crew's hatch on a rope, he might be able to work his way back to the turret and open it from the outside. The step that followed that, though, would be for JD to unhook his safety harness and hope to God whoever opened the turret would be able to hold onto him long enough for both men to be pulled back into the plane.
Whoever was hauling the other end of the rope would be trying to drag close to three hundred pounds against the hurricane force winds outside the plane, and as the four men discussed the option, it was with the knowledge that the three strongest men would ideally be the ones who stayed in the plane.
Sizing up the situation - literally - the obvious choice for the dangerous feat was Lieutenant Tanner. The three enlisted men all had a good four or five inches and thirty pounds or more on the wiry Lieutenant. They looked at the young officer, knowing he had every prerogative to refuse. Wilmington was more than ready to take his place even though there would be more of a risk.
What worried Jackson was Tanner's head injury. If he had a concussion, hanging him upside down could cause him to become disoriented, nauseated, or unconscious. It might even kill him.
But if they didn't send someone out, JD was dead. Tanner agreed to try.
Wilmington radioed the cockpit and told Capt. Larabee what they intended to do.
+ + + + + + +
Chris Larabee's gut reaction to Wilmington's hair-brained scheme was a sudden urge to rush back to his tail gunner and shake some sense into him. Instead, he spoke to Tanner. "You don't gotta do this, Vin. Not a man here will fault you."
"I know that, Chr... Sir," Vin said softly. "But I reckon I gotta try." Vin struggled to keep his voice steady and even. His head was killing him. He didn't remember how he'd been hurt. For all he knew, there was a bullet in his brain and he was dying on his feet. He felt weak and shaky and sick to his stomach.
And he was afraid.
He wanted to be back on the ground. Back in Texas. Any place but where he was.
Then he looked at JD through the cracked plexiglas of the damaged turret. He supposed the kid felt the same way.
JD had stopped looking at them. He was just sitting there now, his arms wrapped around himself as he tried to stay warm in the minus 30-degree wind that was probably slicing through him like a knife despite his heated suit.
"Let's do it," Tanner said.