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When Heroes Flew
Author: H. W. "Buzz" Bernard

Prologue

 

 

On a bitter December day in 1928, Egon Richter, seventeen, and his father, Gerhard, crunched across a snowy field in the Hunsrück, the high rolling plateau south of the Mosel River in west-central Germany. Underneath a bleak, colorless dawn, their breaths trailed behind them in thin, silvery streams.

They had come to hunt wild boar, hoping to down a fine, fat hog for Christmas dinner. As they approached the edge of a woods, Gerhard held up his arm, hand extended. They halted. Well back in the forest, half hidden among the firs and spruce, a shadowy form, low to the ground, shuffled haltingly through the semi-darkness.

Egon and his father waited in silence for almost ten minutes until the form reached the tree line, the delineation between forest and field. There, the shape came into sharp definition: a huge hog, an old boar, battle-scarred and limping. With one tusk broken off and an open wound across his flank—testimony to a recent duel, no doubt—he appeared in no condition for another fight. Yet when he spotted the two men, he squared up to face them, the coarse hair between his massive shoulders rising in a bristling warning.

He snorted a cannonade of steam into the brittle cold, then launched a mock charge, kicking up a spray of dirty snow and dead grass. But he proved incapable of even a short dash. One of his front legs gave way and he pitched snout-down onto the frozen ground, furrowing through the icy cover like a snowplow.

Egon raised his rifle, a Mauser bolt-action—a relic of the Great War in which his father had fought and been wounded a decade earlier—and positioned the front sight over the hog’s heart. He pictured the pig on the holiday dinner table, his family seated around it in anticipation of a sumptuous feast.

The boar lurched to his feet, but refused to flee. Instead, he stood his ground, grunting and snorting, his tiny red eyes locked on the hunters in what seemed to Egon pure hatred. The animal stalked forward, this time cautiously, favoring his gimpy leg. Still, he displayed the determination of a beast spoiling for a fight. Egon steadied his aim.

“Don’t,” his father said, his voice soft and raspy in the cold. “He’s an old warrior. Let him live. Honor his service and bravery.”

Without looking at his father and holding his aim, Egon responded, “Nein, Papa. He challenged us. I will answer that. I, too, am a warrior.”

He squeezed the trigger. The gunshot reverberated over the frigid Hunsrück. The boar staggered, spun, then collapsed into the snow. He attempted to rise, but was able to lift only his head. Egon worked the bolt on the Mauser. An empty shell casing arced into the frosty air. He fired again. The hog ceased moving.

Egon, overflowing with celebratory enthusiasm, dashed forward. He knelt by his kill, expecting to feel his father’s approving hand on his shoulder. No such touch came. He looked behind him. His father, unsmiling, arms folded across his chest, remained in place, ankle-deep in the crusty snow.

Egon shrugged, laid the rifle against the boar’s bristly hide, and withdrew his skinning knife.

 

 

1

 

 

En route from Hardwick, England, to Benghazi, Libya

March 26, 1943

 

 

At ten thousand feet, a lone United States Army Air Force B-24 bomber roared southward over the Bay of Biscay off the coast of France. The plane, piloted by Captain Al Lycoming and his copilot, Second Lieutenant Lenny Sorenson, “Sorey,” was not on a bombing mission. Rather, it had been dispatched to Benghazi, Libya, from its home base in Hardwick, England, to join up with a small bomber force already in place in North Africa. The reason for their deployment had been rather obscure, only that they were to participate in an operation involving “experimental bombing tactics.”

They edged around Spain, keeping a watchful eye out for German fighters based in the so-called “neutral” nation. Al had been warned that the Nazis apparently held their own definition of what constituted neutrality, so he kept the crew on high alert.

They cruised without incident for over an hour, but off the coast of Portugal the peacefulness ended. Tail gunner shouted a warning over the interphone. “Aircraft coming up on our six. Fast.”

“How many?” Al called back.

“One.”

“German?”

“Can’t tell.”

“Get ready to shoot.”

“Roger that.”

“All positions, prepare to fire.”

Al turned to Sorey. “Let’s take ’er down, gain some speed.”

“Ready.”

The tail position again: “Hold on. Looks like a friendly. He’s peeled off to our port.”

Al glanced to his left, out the cockpit glass. A fighter tore into view, then slowed as it came abeam of the bomber. The fighter bore an RAF roundel on its side.

“Hold your fire, everyone,” Al called. “It’s a Brit. Spitfire.”

Sorey leaned forward to see around Al and get a good look at the fighter. “Probably out of Gibraltar.”

Al nodded.

The Spitfire waggled its wings and accelerated away.

Once the B-24 reached the Straits of Gibraltar, Al relaxed. He pressed his throat mike to make an announcement. “We’ve reached Gibraltar, so it should be clear sailing from here on out. We’ll grab some gas in Casablanca, then press on running parallel to the North African coast to Benghazi. The stop in Casablanca will be brief, about forty-five minutes, so get out and stretch your legs. But don’t go wandering off looking for Bogart and Bergman or you’ll end up AWOL and sitting out the war in Leavenworth.”

In response came a chuckle or two, a series of “Yes, sirs,” and a few double clicks—an informal radio signal of acknowledgement.

Sorey turned toward Al and raised his voice to be heard over the bellow of the bomber’s four big engines. “Of all the gin joints, in all the towns . . .”

“Jesus. You memorized lines from the movie?”

“Seen it four times.”

Al rolled his eyes. “War is hell.”

“Nothin’ else to do but sleep, eat, and fight.”

The stop in Casablanca ate up an hour, but once airborne again, Al got them back on schedule. They flew eastward along the north coast of Morocco and, after that, Algeria, the deep blue Mediterranean Sea below them, a gray-smeared cloud deck of altostratus above. The air proved smooth, unlike the thermal-ridden summers that could send them bouncing up and down as if riding an invisible roller coaster.

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