THEY WERE CLOSE NOW, THE zeros. Running him down from behind.
Thirty minutes ago his belly gunner had counted over 20 on the Buka airstrip, close to a dozen kicking up dust as they taxied for takeoff. They would be on him soon; they should have been on him by now.
“Give me forty-five more seconds.”
It was Kendrick, over the interphone. The waist gunner and Photo Joe. Asking, begging, for just a little more time to get his pictures. The photographs, they’d said back at the base, that could change the course of the war. Almost four hours in the air and this is what it had come to. Forty-five seconds.
Below him the low sun caused the stunted eucalyptus trees to cast dappled shadows on the flowering frangipani of Japanese-held Bougainville Island. Far to the east the active volcano, Mount Bagana, spewed
slender flutes of black smoke into the cloudless sky, like veins in blue granite. But it was neither the island’s flora nor its topography that interested Captain Jay Zeamer and the anxious crew of his B-17 Flying Fortress this morning. It was the hidden reefs of Empress Augusta Bay. The reefs that lay submerged just beneath the breaking waves where the Marine landings would take place. The reefs waiting like bear traps to snag their LSTs.
The reefs, the airfields, the enemy defenses: these were the reasons why Jay and his men were here. A lonely B-17 600 miles from home. Soon to face the might of the Japanese Imperial Navy’s most elite fighter pilots, a desperate enemy determined to prevent the Americans from returning with their photos. The impossible mission, someone had called it. Now Jay Zeamer knew why.
Not that every recon flight wasn’t a deadly gamble. No fighter escort. Not even a friendly formation to help ward off the swarms of bogeys. Jay knew too many recon crews who had never returned. That was the rub. Scouting enemy positions was only half the job. Getting the information back would be the “impossible” part. The Zero pilots knew it as well.
Jay scanned the bay again. Visibility was clear. Just a scrim of ground haze over the shore, which the infrared camera filters would cut through with ease.
Now the tail gunner’s voice crackling over the interphone. Another fighter squadron lifting off, this time from Bougainville. A dozen at least.
Jay thought about cutting and running. No one would blame him. No one could. He had volunteered for this job with the clear understanding that he’d run the operation his way. His way meant any way—any way—he wanted. They had already reconnoitered Buka Island. The flight wouldn’t be a total waste. Hell, Buka was where the wolves behind him had picked up his scent.
Why hadn’t he trusted his gut, gone with his initial response? At first he’d said no when they’d tacked on the Buka run at the last minute. Just Bougainville, he’d told them. Forget Buka; Buka was suicide. He should have held firm. What could they have done? Grounded him? He’d been
disciplined before, too many times to count. Washed out of one Bomb Group for being too flaky, nearly court-martialed by another for that stunt over Rabaul. A lot of people didn’t like Jay. Aloof, they called him. A screwoff. No respect for authority.
And this was where it had gotten him.
When they wouldn’t give him a plane he’d foraged one, plucked from the boneyard at the rump end of the runway, and rebuilt it from the wheels up. When they wouldn’t give him a crew he’d recruited one, men like himself; misfits they called them at first, but each now an Airman with whom he’d entrust his life. And when they wouldn’t give him assignments he’d volunteered for them, recon missions no one else wanted, missions they all had to be a little crazy to take on. Missions like this one, which right now his every good sense was screaming at him to abort.
But then Jay envisioned the Marines. It was the middle of June 1943, and the war in the Pacific hung by a thread. In the 18 months since Pearl Harbor the Japanese had controlled the game, spreading like algae across the vast, watery theater, securing far-flung bases with impunity. Yet now the tide just might be turning. First at Midway, then on Guadalcanal. Small steps. But steps. And the island below him—Bougainville—was next. The key to unlocking the stranglehold of the Empire of the Rising Sun.
After Bougainville there would be New Guinea, and from New Guinea a return to the Philippines, until finally the ships of the U.S. Navy would be lapping at Japanese shores. Forget the great and grand strategies transmitted from Washington, pushpins on a map. The turnaround in this war would begin with boots on the ground at Bougainville. Marines depending on his photos in order to reach that beachhead. If he didn’t do the job, if he throttled and fled, someone else would have to come back and do it all over again. He could not live with that.
Then another thought, creeping into his mind on cat’s paws. A man’s character is his fate. He hadn’t been much for philosophy back at M.I.T. He was an engineer, a maker, a builder, with little use for pious pro
nouncements. But he never forgot that line. A man’s character is his fate. One of the Greeks. Heraclitus? He considered himself a man of character, a pilot of character. He was the captain of a United States Army Air Force bomber crew, a leader of men. Well, he’d soon find out his fate. Their fate.
The first wave of Zeros hit them from the front. Through his port window he caught the bright yellow strobes of the twin 7.7-millimeter machine guns winking from the Zeke’s nose. Then the larger red flare from one of its two 20-millimeter cannons flashed from the wing. The sound of the shells like shotgun blasts fired into a bucket of sand as they smashed into his plane.
They were going for the bomber’s front bubble, blasting it with cannon fire. But the bombardier Joe Sarnoski down in the Greenhouse was giving as good as he got, the red tracers from his twin .50-cals cutting bright curving arcs through the azure sky. Joe nailed the lead Zero, sending it into a spin, and now the entire crew opened up, even Kendrick at the waist windows, finished with his photos. Seventeen machine guns streaking the sky with evanescent streams of gray-black smoke. The old Fortress juddered and wheezed from their recoil.
The rumble reached the cockpit first from the nose and then converged on him from behind, up from the belly gun and down from the top turret. Finally it growled through the fuselage from the tail gunner’s blister all the way to the flight deck. It was the kind of noise you never forget, accompanied by the familiar odor, the smell of the fight, the grease and powder.
From the corner of his eye he saw Joe Sarnoski blast a second bogey, raking the Zeke from the engine cowling to the wing tanks, the enemy fighter’s aviation fuel erupting into orange flames that streaked to its tail. It was as if the bombardier were plowing a highway. The irony was not lost on Jay—Joe was his best friend and had insisted on coming along on this one last mission before cashing his golden ticket back to the States, his kit already packed back in his quarters.
Jay silently thanked God that he had just as another Zero hove into
view in front of him. He pressed the trigger button on his wheel that fired the special nose gun he’d installed just for this purpose. The bullets punctured the Zeke’s fuselage, and he watched the aircraft flame out, making certain that it spiraled into the Solomon Sea.
He was still craning his neck when the flash erupted in the cockpit. There was the briefest effusion of colors.
And then everything went dark.