Chapter 14: A Rookie No More
Chapter 14: A Rookie No More
When all come home after a mission over enemy territory, the high spirits of the young men would be unbounded, and so it was on the return from that first combat mission. But, it would not be long before the reality of the dangerous game we had been brought into began to hit us. On May 7, we were assigned two missions for the day. The first was to escort B-26 bombers over France; the second, the one I was assigned to was a fighter sweep over Reims. Captain Glass—now Major Glass after his promotion on the 30th of April, led both missions. On the escort mission a group of fifteen or more German Focke-Wulf 190s jumped the formation from out of the sun and from above. Lt. Buford “Hugh” Thacker was last seen going down with his left engine on fire. He disappeared into a cloud bank and no one saw a parachute. Lt. Milton Merkle was a recent addition to our squadron, joining us along with Bob Milliken, on April 23. Milliken would become the 429th’s only combat ace with five enemy planes shot down. Merkle was hit at 10,000 feet by one of the 190s while flying in Colonel Wasem’s flight. The Colonel believed he saw Milton falling away from the plane but because of all the activity of the fighting and the cloud banks he could not be certain he saw a parachute. Losing two of our guys, especially Thacker who had been with us all along and who was a popular and lively fellow, was a bitter reminder that we were engaged in a very serious business. Of course, many more reminders of this were to come.
As it turned out, Lt. Thacker walked back into our base at Warmwell on June 16, a little more than a month after he bailed out. His face was scarred from the burns he received from his dying plane, but the French underground had hid him, helped him dress as a French peasant and provided a guide to help him get over the steep, rough mountains that separated France from Spain. From there he made his way back to England and Warmwell. Merkle was not so fortunate and became the first loss of our squadron.
But while we took our licks, it was on this mission that we got our first licks in as well. Lt. Herman Lane was flying wingman for Colonel Darling and a 190 got onto the Colonel’s tail. Just as a good wingman is supposed to do, Lane got on the 190s tail and pounded him. He fired 104 20 mm cannon shells and 907 50 caliber bullets at the enemy fighter, observing just before the fighter disappeared into the clouds that hits were appearing on the wing roots of the enemy. He claimed it as “Damaged” back at the briefing, but when the gun camera film was viewed, his claim was upgraded to “Probable.” And that was worth a celebration.
I flew on that second mission in a fighter sweep, but all we ran into was flak. I say all we ran into because flak brought down more planes than anything else, but it’s hard to feel heroic about surviving those dirty, rough bursts. We returned at 9:30 that night exhausted but safe.
It didn’t take too long to change from high-strung combat rookies to experienced, professional fighter pilots. It is true that the thrill of sliding those throttles forward and feeling all fourteen hundred and fifty of those horses contained in the twin Allison 12 cylinder engines pulling me into the deep blue never diminished. But neither did the gut-chilling dread of knowing each time we left the “comfort” of our cold, drizzly southern English base, it might be our last time. Last time to feel the rush of power, last time to enjoy the camaraderie of fellow pilots, last time to write a letter home. The month of May, 1944 ended with three officers lost—Thacker, Knox and Merkle. Our unit now was fully loaded with a total of 324 men including 50 officers and 274 enlisted men. I was very proud that I was one of 18 officers in our squadron to receive my first combat medal, the Air Medal, for our work during this, our first full month of work as a fighter pilot.
In late May and early June, ground attacks switched into high gear. We were sent on mission after mission to attack railroad marshalling yards, other transportation facilities, bridges, truck convoys, trains, and just about anything else that looked like it might hinder a successful invasion. We all knew it was coming. We were located on the southern end of the English island and it seemed like every able-bodied soldier that Allies had was headed for southern England. All of our outgoing mail was blocked.
On June 2, 1944, Captain Larson was the flight leader for a large group from our Group attacking a key bridge near Bennecourt. This bridge crossed the Seine river west of Paris and in retrospect, it is easy to see that cutting off this bridge would hinder German reinforcements being sent to Normandy. This was a true dive bomb mission where our training in dropping bombs on pinpoint targets would be critical. Captain Larson led the mission with Lt. Al Mills as his wingman. I would follow those two in, flying lead with Lt. Banks on my wing. We sensed now that we were participating in a military operation like nothing the world had ever seen. So when we studied the maps in the briefing prior it was with a fierce sense of purpose. While we also carried maps in one of the big pockets in our flying pants above our right knee, we tried hard to memorize every little detail or our target. The bend of the river, the railroad track approaches to the bridge, the layout of the nearby town. If we did our jobs, success might mean many saved lives for our boys who had to get into the water and onto those beaches—though we did not know when or where as yet.
Our fighters were loaded down with the heaviest ordnance they could carry—a one thousand pound high explosive bomb under each wing. The load could be felt as we lifted off into the clear air; no sign at this time of the late spring storm that would delay the launch of Operation Overlord for a day and cause misery for our troops. We climbed to 8000 feet and we could make out the landmarks below us from the briefing map. Captain Larson led us to the target unerringly and called it out below. Dive bombing was dangerous business. We had to release our bombs at about 1500 feet as we pulled out of a 400 mile per hour plus dive. If we didn’t time it just right, we would be caught in the bomb blast of the plane ahead of us—and that could be deadly. In fact, one of my friends, Clarence Moore was killed on July 14 on a mission I was on while we attacked a bridge with delayed-fuse bombs. His plane was sent out of control by the blast of the bomb released by the fighter ahead of him and we saw his plane do a complete roll before spinning into the ground into a stone building. (Joe said railroad yard but Swindt p. 87 says bridge—also Swindt does not list Joe on this mission).
Adrenalin was doing its intended business as I watched Captain Larson ease his Lightning over and begin the dive toward the target. His wingman Al Mills, followed at enough distance to make sure the bomb from the lead plane exploded before he got there. And then I pushed on the control wheel and watched the ground fill the screen in front of me. I had practiced dive bombing numerous times in training, but this time it was for real. I had to concentrate on the target. Forget about the planes ahead of me and the bomb blasts that would rock me as I approached. And forget about the anti-aircraft fire that was now filling the air all around my plane. I vaguely saw the tracers screaming up at me, but I kept my eyes fixed on the bridge below, now fixing it as firmly as my flying skills would allow in the middle of my gun sight. Ease it down just a bit, nose down. The target has to be low in the sights. My bird is shuddering now as it approaches top speed of over 400 miles per hour. Thoughts flew back quickly to my near fatal dive experience during training when I experience the compression problem of the P-38 and barely managed to pull out of a steep dive. I’m going in at about 20 degrees and approaching the release altitude. A blast comes up from the water below but I keep my eye fixed on the target, not caring whether the Captain or Mills has hit the bridge. I am going to hit that thing, or die in the attempt.
The trick is simple. You don’t just drop the bomb at the target. You use the momentum of your diving fighter to fling it at the bridge. To do that, the target has to be kept low in the gun sight. Then, as you hit the release altitude, there is one brief moment when the target is dead square in the middle of the crosshairs. That’s when you pull the bomb release lever. The explosions and flak were jerking me around, but I kept the target as tight underneath the horizontal crosshair as I could. My right hand was on the control wheel and at 1500 feet I eased off the heavy pressure I had been keeping on it to keep the plane in its dive. Now as its nose began to lift I watched the bridge pass through the center of my target. I jerked on the bomb release and the plane felt like it had hit the bottom of a bungee cord drop and seemed to jump into the air. The high speed converted into lift at the same time as the 2000 pound weight dragging the fighter down dropped off and I zoomed into the blue sky. Then I noticed just how thick the flak was all about me. This was a heavily defended target. But I knew that we had hit it good and I knew that my bombs did not fall uselessly into the water. Our squadron finished the attack by going after the second span and then strafing the railroads tracks busy with traffic on the eastern bank and returned to base.
It was the first successful dive bombing mission of our Group. A photo of our handiwork, with the first span of the bridge completely knocked out, is included in our squadron history compiled by our intelligence officer Karl Swindt. It is the only such photo of bomb damage from our squadron in this book. A lot of celebrating went on that night. It so happened that a long scheduled Group Officer’s party was held that night and the entire Group was in high spirits over this achievement. I was very proud to have been selected by Captain Larson for this attack and to have been a major contributor to its success. My flight instructor might have considered my flying style to be too mechanical, but the precision approach proved valuable on this and many other successful missions. This success, along with numerous other successful missions resulted in my promotion to First Lieutenant on July 10 and also, to my being awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. This medal, one of the highest the Army Air Force has to offer, was announced in our squadron history as having been issued to me on June 22, 1944 under Ninth Air Force General Orders No. 109. Unfortunately, I never knew about as I was in German hands by the time the higher ups came around looking for me and in the process of being released from military service, this little detail never quite caught up with me.
On June 5, at 4:30 in the afternoon, all of the officers of the entire Group consisting of Fighter Squadrons 428th, 429th and 430, about 150 of us, were called into the Officer’s Club for the most important mission briefing of the war. On maps hung all over the walls was described the greatest, and most meticulously planned military operation in history. After a thorough briefing by our First Army Liaison Officer, Major Mulholland, we were given our radio call signs and then someone read a message from General Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of Allied Forces:
“Soldiers, sailors and airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force! You are about to embark on the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. They eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you…I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full Victory. Good luck! And let us all beseech the blessing of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking.”
Then our Chaplain, Leon Milner, stood up and offered a simple prayer: “Give us strength, courage, guidance, and understanding in the days to come, and protect us and our fellow men.”
I remember the special excitement of this day that we knew was coming and we believed would provide the beginning of the end of this long, bloody war. But in many other ways, it was just one more mission, more of the same. It was more significant for the higher ups who had to plan and sweat out the results. But for us all we knew was that we had to climb into our airplanes every day, sometimes twice a day, cross the channel, do our duty as best we could and then hope for luck or the grace of God and get home so we could do the same the next day. It is more in retrospect and seeing more time and life pass by do I feel a surge of pride and gratitude to have been there to observe and even play a small part in the greatest invasion in history—more than that, the starting point of returning freedom to an entire continent of grateful people.
We patrolled over the invasion fleet in the waters of the south of England on that night, but it was a dark night and cloudy and we had no sense of the vastness of the effort at that time. When we landed at about 11:00 p.m. that night, the sky was filled with airplanes heading across the Channel. It was the C-47s, the transport planes carrying the paratroopers over. When daylight came, the C-47s were coming back and many landed at Warmwell due to damage or low fuel. The first one came in on rough engines and the co-pilot and flight engineer stepped out of the plane to greet the ambulance crew. The pilot was dead. On the first pass over the target all the paratroopers had gotten out except one. The pilot circled the landing zone again so the last trooper could jump but as he circled a small arms bullet hit the plane, killing the pilot almost instantly. The paratrooper got out and the co-pilot brought the plane back. It is quite possible that our little base received the very first casualty back from invasion. Soon, our little strip was filled with broken men and machines, with cranes and ambulances busy hauling them off the runways so more could land or crash.
At 10:40 on the morning of June 6, Major Glass led our squadron with fifteen planes on a dive bombing mission in support of the invasion. By the time we reached our target, another railroad bridge over the Seine, it had already been taken out, but we attacked the rail line and put it out of action in very rough weather conditions. On June 8, I was on a mission to bomb railway tracks and installations in the Avranches area near the invasion beaches. We spotted three Focke-Wulfe 190s flying close to the ground but we were low on fuel after the bombing and we returned to base without closing in to attack them.
On June 16, ten days after the invasion, we were into a routine of mostly strafing and dive bombing missions with an occasional longer bomber escort mission thrown in. We were all thrilled to have Hugh Thacker walk into camp giving us encouragement that it was possible to escape back to England after being shot down over France, and more than that, giving us hope for others we had lost whose fates were still unknown. On June 21, we were given notice that there was going to be another award ceremony following a parade in front of General Kincaid who would hand out the medals. One of those was to go to Captain Larson who we all felt deserved that 14th cluster to his air medal for his character and leadership as our operations leader. I especially felt that way since he was my flight leader on “F” Flight. This group consisted of Captain Merle Larson, Bill Banks as Assistant Flight Leader, Al Mills, me, Bob Milliken, Joe Skiles and Dennis Chamberlain. Only three of our little group would escape death or being shot down—and I was not one of the three. Bob Milliken would become the only ace of the entire 429th.
The parade was almost over when we got over before we got the word that a mission was on. The award ceremony would have to wait. Unfortunately, for Captain Larson, it would have to wait a long time. He led the squadron on a low level attack on an enemy airfield about 10 miles of Dreux. His plane was hit by flak and caught fire. Banks, his wingman, watched his chute open and circled over him to make sure he landed safely, waited until he got out of his chute and headed for nearby woods. I wasn’t on the mission (???) but was devastated when I heard the news. Captain Larson was my flight leader, my mentor and probably the best officer in our unit. Somehow, if a crafty, careful and veteran fighter pilot like he could get it, any of us could. We were in a very dangerous game and I think I felt more vulnerable at that time than any other. Still, we all expressed confidence that like Thacker, he’d return to us before long. Larson had already been shot down once, over North Africa, and had walked through enemy lines to safety. If anybody could make it out, certainly he could. But, of course, he didn’t. In less than two months and I would meet up with him in Fresnes prison and share the rest of the war as a “guest” of the German war machine.
The Allied forces were bogged down in Normandy. The expected breakout to begin the march toward Berlin and an end to the war before Christmas just wasn’t happening. We flew mission after mission, mostly to interrupt German reinforcements, sometimes B-26 or longer range bomber escort, and sometimes, like on June 25, to fly a protective patrol over a gaggle of warships, including the battleships Arkansas and Texas, who were pounding the port of Cherbourg. Even though our boys were bogged down in the hedgerows of Normandy, our contribution as Fighter-Bombers was greater than anticipated. General Omar Bradley, writing on June 20 to Major General E. R. Quesada, the Army general with responsibility over the Ninth Air Force, wrote: “Their ability to disrupt the enemy’s communications, supply and movement of troops has been a vital factor in our rapid progress in expanding our beachhead.”
June ended with the loss of Merle Larson and Lt. Paul Heuerman who went down on the 29th of the June. But, we were receiving briefings about packing our belongings and shipping over to France. That was exciting and what we all wanted, but Warmwell had become home and although its comforts might be scarce, we knew that a forward airfield just behind the lines would not live up to the standards we enjoyed in England. Besides, would the French be as generous with their boozy salutes to the “Yanks?”
The first two days of July was soggy and rainy—impossible for low level missions. And on the third of July I was given a seven day leave. I don’t recall how many missions I had in, but it was well past the 25 that earlier in the war considered a tour of duty. I had at least 30 and the intensity since the invasion was great. I was still hurting from the loss of Captain Larson so I welcomed the chance to go to (JOE—need to know where, what you did, how you felt, etc.). I longed to go home, but of course, that was not an option, and as I left with a huge sense of relief, I already worried about what it meant to come back, climb back into the cockpit and face the incredible risks once again.
Back at the base, I missed a memorable Fourth of July celebration. The men, being deep into a sodden celebration with some RAF fliers, complained to the Brits that this Fourth of July was pretty sad compared to the kind of celebrations we were used to at home. Huge fireworks displays and all that. The two RAF pilots slipped out and taking advantage of an opportune moment managed to gather a number of Very pistols, flare guns and shells from the control tower. They proceeded to chase each other around the field firing these bright emergency lights at each other, until one got away and entered a latrine window. The latrine happened to be occupied at the time by an RAF Wing Commander. His noisy, dropped pants protest seemed to fan the celebration flames and suddenly it seemed everyone had flare guns and other incendiary devices. Soon even the controller in the tower had joined in. So, despite blackout requirements and completely unauthorized fireworks, the base enjoyed a memorable Fourth of July.
On the eleventh I returned from leave, refreshed and mentally prepared to resume my duties. I found out I had been promoted to First Lieutenant. Now there was no longer a hint of the swagger of the rookie or the doubts and questions about how I would do in real combat. Sure, I hadn’t been in a dogfight—yet. But I had faced all the dangers this line of work represented and had survived. Still, I knew my survival was not so much a matter of skill—or even luck. I had more a sense than ever that what would be would be, that I was in the hands of One who had control over this entire mess, and those were good hands to be in. So I faced the work ahead with more of a sense of determination to see it through whatever lay ahead.
Early on the morning of July 12, I was in the air again on another attack mission in the Rennes, Angers and Laval region. By 10 am, we were back at base and nearly 100 railroad cars were smoking wrecks or severely damaged. It was July 14 when my friend and much respected pilot Clarence Moore was hit by a bomb blast from the plane ahead of him and killed. Another serious blow. On that day, our squadron reached a grand total of 75 missions completed. July 18 saw our squadron get caught up in the biggest mass dogfight to that time. I was not on the roster for the early morning mission. It was an epic fight and the next day the Stars and Stripes, reported the event this way: “Ninth Air Force Lightning fighter-bombers about to dive bomb a railway bridge crossing the Eure River south of Pacy-sur-Eure yesterday were attacked by over 50 FW 190s. Although outnumbered almost two to one, the Lightnings destroyed ten of the enemy, probably destroyed another six and damaged 14—and demolished the bridge.” We were not without loss. Lt. Glenn Goodrich, from Yakima, Washington, his plane damaged deliberately crashed it into a stone wall in a small village. While he could have bailed out, it was a heavily populated area and observers on the ground watched as he guided his stricken plane away from houses into the wall.
On July 25, we participated in a mission that Ernie Pyle wrote could be considered one of the historic pinnacles of the war. It was the closest coordination between ground troops and air forces of the war. The stalemate on the ground was frustrating the planners and an all-out effort to break out was called for. Heavy bombers saturated an area where the ground troops were to move into, medium bombers hit hard closer to our troops, and the 474th was assigned a target area nearest the ground forces, who marked out the target area with red smoke flares. We received some small arms fire and although seen as a routine mission to us, this kind of close air support was to become an increasingly important part of our focus.
Bill Banks, one of our most popular and experienced pilots, and a Flight Leader of my flight, had become increasingly nervous as the weeks wore on. He started with six bunkmates and now he was alone. There was talk of his room being hoodooed. When Captain Larson did not return as we expected, Banks wondered aloud if anyone could survive if the Captain couldn’t. Then, on an armed reconnaissance mission on July 27, 25 or more ME-109s attacked the Group. A Lightning from the 430th flew into Bill’s plane and sheared off a chunk of his wing. He struggled to keep it under control but others saw it start to spin. His parachute was seen opening before drifting into a cloud. After he failed to return, some of the pilots went to his room in the Officers Quarters and boarded up the door. The jinx was now complete.
The 28th of July I was assigned to a bomber escort mission over Chartres. Takeoff was at 6:30 p.m. Shortly after takeoff, our controllers intercepted German radio traffic that vectored their fighters to attack us near LeHavre as we formed up with the B-26s. We were warned to prepare for the attack. I thought my time had come to mix it up with the Jerries but as we approached the anticipated battle area, our controllers relayed that the German fighters had begged off the fight saying they were low on fuel. It was just one more heart pounding, exhausting flight.
By this time, we had received orders to pack up and move to France. The long awaited breakout was finally beginning and we would be among the first to relocate to liberated soil. Our demonstrated ability to provide the combat troops with much needed close support was critical. Captain Holcomb had replaced Larson as our Operations chief and he led us on a dive bombing mission on Sunday, July 30. It was a beautiful, clear morning and we came back having cut up the target rail lines in two places plus damaging five locomotives and freight cars. But the flak was intense and seemed an ominous warning of what was ahead.
So July ended with us packing our belongings in preparation for a move to France. The advanced echelon left for France the last day of July. We had lost four good men: Banks, Levey, Goodrich and Moore. I was now a First Lieutenant and added the Second Bronze Oak Leaf Cluster to my Air Medal. More than that, I was alive and still fighting.
(Joe—Swindt lists you as flight leader on August 3—mission in Paris area to hit tracks—shot up 15-20 assorted vehicles. Right? Dennis Chamberlain killed on this mission))
Our advanced echelon of nine officers and a group of enlisted men were over in France trying to create an airbase out of a French field near Neuilly-La-Foret. The report back about conditions: “Stray German cavalry horses are pastured along with many cows in the lush grassland around our tents, and fresh milk is delivered to our doorsteps on the hoof. As a matter of fact, the cows are so numerous we often have to drive them away to make room for our equipment. Apples and wild blackberries now augment our daily diet of K rations. All in all, the outfit looks like a wild, roaming band of gypsies, scattered around as we are in this pastoral setting.” A bulldozer was busy carving out a suitable landing strip out of the now dusty-dry farmland. A steel mesh landing carpet was laid down over the leveled ground. On August 7, the new strip was ready and we said goodbye to Warmwell.
We landed on the dusty strip and by August 8, almost all of us were in place in our small tent city. Good news greeted us. Two of our pilots lost in July, Banks and Levey were both in Allied hands. Banks was even back in London! It was great news and again an encouragement that bailing out did not necessarily mean the end. And, of course, Banks’ jinxed room was left behind at Warmwell. By now, I had become a leader of our group.
By virtue of having survived this many missions while many had been lost, plus the success I had in carrying out many of the missions assigned, the burden of leadership became mine—including Flight Leadership. I was excited but also aware of the considerable responsibility. The lives of other men were in my hands. Flight leaders before me, like Larson and Banks, had been superb pilots and men of good judgment and character. I was ready for the new responsibilities.
Our new base was not without its dangers. In addition to marauding cows, there were German mines. One of our ordnance trucks hauling a load of 500 pound bombs hit one of those mines the afternoon we arrived. Two men were killed and two critically injured. The explosion was deafening and shrapnel ripped holes into many tents. Then, at 5:30 in the morning the Luftwaffe gave us a little of our medicine. We had been dropping bombs on their bases in France for a while and they decided to return the favor. Thirty bombs were dropped on our base but no real damage done. Still, it was clear to most of us that dropping them was better than having them dropped on you, a lesson made even more clear just three weeks later in Buchenwald.
We were close enough to the front lines to hear the heavy artillery each night a few miles to the east of us. Right in the middle of the two American landing beaches, Utah and Omaha, our landing strip was less than a mile from the beach itself. The breakout from the beachhead had been a long, bloody, difficult struggle. But now, just about as we settled into our new home just off the beaches, the Germans were on the run. Bombing lines, those lines on maps that indicated where it was safe to bomb without hitting our own troops, had to be changed continually as new reports came in. The pace accelerated and the general direction was toward Paris. Our missions were now increasingly focused on the area between our base and Paris, only about 120 miles east. The breakout had focused near Falaise and between this city and Paris, Evreux, Dreux and Chartres were the larger cities. Captain Larson had bailed out about 10 miles northwest of Dreux and now this area saw our focused attention.
While we had shot up an awful lot of bridges, rail lines, and rail cars, along with assorted trucks and other transport equipment, we had not had the opportunity to go after the really juicy targets of German tanks. That changed on August 11. At 3:00 p.m. we got word that several big Tiger tanks had been spotted along a road 9 miles east of Domfort. Captain “Pappy” Holcomb led the attack and we carried two thousand pounders on each plane. The tanks had scattered and were about 100 yards apart, hiding in some trees when we spotted them. It was classic dive bombing. Thirteen planes lining up to take their turns—each trying to avoid getting caught in the bomb blast of the plane ahead. 26,000 pounds of bombs later and the woods were shattered. Because of all the debris from the decimated trees, we couldn’t see just how much damage we had done to the tanks, but we were pretty sure it had put a real hurt on them. Taking out a group of the heavy German tanks would definitely do our boys some good down there. We felt great.
August 12, our squadron attacked an airfield near Evreux shooting up some hangers and some Heinkel 111 bombers. Then, on August 13, I was named Flight Leader for “F” flight and our mission was an armed reconnaissance in the Rambouillet area. What started as another routine day, still settling into our very rustic new quarters, turned into the last day of combat for me. The squadron history had this to say: “On the first mission Colonel Wasem led Ingerson, Reitz, Kirkland, Hallford, Fleming, Moser, Clay, Glass, Chickering, and Castel. 14 trucks and 3 staff cars were destroyed. Lt. Moser’s plane was hit by 20 mm flak and his right engine (sic) conked out over Houdan. Calling Retail Red Leader, he radioed he was heading for home—then he said he was going to bail out, about 12 miles north of Dreux. No one saw either the plane or a parachute, be we had high hopes that he made it down somewhere, safely.”
Whiling away my time in Stalag Luft III gave me plenty of time to reflect on those days of excitement, fear and duty. Swapping stories was good therapy and an enjoyable way to spend the time with my new roommates—although it became clear after awhile that swapping stories was what new arrivals to the Kriegie world did. It tended to be frowned up by those who had been in camp for a long time.
There was no doubt that part of me longed to climb back into the cockpit of that P-38, push on the throttles and feel all those horses propel me into the air, line up that locomotive or bridge underneath the cross hairs and pull on that bomb release lever or squeeze the trigger with those 20 mm cannon shells and 50 mm bullets spitting out destruction ahead of me. But sitting in the increasingly frigid camp on the Polish land, I was aware that I was a lucky one. I might never be able to experience the thrill of a fighter pilot again, but I was lucky to have had those days, and lucky to be alive to share what that time was like. The question was, how much more of that luck—or grace—would I need before I could get back home and be with my friends and family again. Turns out, quite a bit.