Under a War-Torn Sky, page 1
About this book
Henry stood and began limping towards the sunset. He had no idea whether he was in Germany, France or Switzerland. All he knew was that west was the way home.
Shot down on a mission, 19-year-old bomber pilot Henry is alone in a treacherous land. Desperate to get back to his family and the girl he loves, he is forced to rely on the kindness of strangers and the cunning of the French Resistance. But in his battle to survive the deadly journey across Nazi-occupied Europe, he must face a terrible choice: can he take someone’s life to save his own?
Praise for Under a War-Torn Sky
“It’s packed with action, intrigue, and suspense, but this novel celebrates acts of kindness and heroism without glorifying war. Small details add both credibility and appeal to this gripping adventure.” Booklist
“This is a gritty, unblinking look at the horrors that the Nazis visited upon France during the occupation. Readers with an interest in warfare and adventure will find a sure winner here.” School Library Journal
“Based on real life… Searing scenes of destruction and hatred are balanced by selfless acts of kindness.” The Bookseller
“A really excellent read…one of the most successful in making me feel what people sacrificed during the Second World War… Under a War-Torn Sky is an excellent and thought-provoking book.” Write Away
“This book is full of danger, terror, surprises and tenderness.” Teaching & Learning
Winner of the Borders Original Voices Award for Best Young Adult Book
For John, who has steadfastly believed in me;
For Megan, whose astute questions helped build the story; And for Peter, whose unspoiled joie de vivre I would wish for all boys growing into men.
About Under a War-Torn Sky
Praise for Under a War-Torn Sky
About the Author
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More from Usborne Fiction
“Pull her up, Hank! Pull her up!”
Henry’s arms were locked through the steering wheel of his B-24. He was yanking with all he had, but the wheel was stuck solid. “I can’t! She won’t budge!”
The bomber was in a death dive. Henry’s pilot had hurled them into the dive to put out a fire in the plane’s engines. The fire had erupted after a Nazi fighter shot up their wing. The force of the winds against the bomber as it hurtled towards the ground was the only thing strong enough to snuff out the flames. Still, Henry knew the pilot’s strategy was a real gamble. There was no guarantee that once the plane was rocketing to earth her two pilots would be able to wrestle her level again. Right now the plane was bucking and rattling enough to shake a guy’s teeth loose.
Over the intercom Henry listened to the panic of the crew: “We’re going down!”
“Do something, Hank! Please! I don’t wanna die!”
In his mind, Henry heard the distant growl of his father: Do something, you idiot. The surly voice slapped him into action.
Henry had learned to cheat death at the very last second during flight training. Hadn’t he repeatedly yanked his plane up just before smashing into something, forcing out a big-man guffaw to hide the fact he’d almost wet his pants, he’d been so afraid? He could do this. Just yank the wheel, Henry, yank it hard, to level the plane off.
A German Messerschmitt zoomed past to strafe the bomber’s cockpit one last time. Henry couldn’t believe the pilot would take the trouble to target a plane already in flames. Ha, you missed me, he thought.
“Do something, Hank! Pull her up.”
Henry looked down at the wheel. He stared at the metal half-circle. Put your hands on it, fool.
But he couldn’t. The Messerschmitt’s bullets must have ripped his arms clear off. He stared. He couldn’t find them anywhere in the cockpit.
Henry looked up through the shattered window and saw the green, leafy domes of treetops racing towards him. Closer, closer. There wasn’t anything left to do but die. He tried to scream.
With a choking gasp, Henry lurched up. He clenched his hands. They were there. He felt every finger. Henry recognized the stink of burning coal, wet woollen socks hung up to dry, lingering cigarette smoke. He was in his Nissen hut on base in England. It had just been another nightmare. He was awake. He was alive.
Quietly, Henry eased himself back down on his cot. He was grateful not to have woken up the other fliers who slept in the cold hut. They could be tough on a fellow if they smelled his fear. It was hard enough being the youngest copilot there. Henry was just barely nineteen.
He rolled over, still trembling. He wanted to get up and walk off the nightmare, but he couldn’t without waking everyone. So he flipped onto his back, whacking his ankles against the cot’s iron rails. It creaked loudly. With embarrassed irritation, he wiped leftover dream sweat from his face and stared up at the bottom of the shelf over his head. On it, where no one else would see it, he’d taped a poem called “High Flight”. A nineteen-year-old American pilot, flying with the Royal Air Force, had written it just before he’d been killed. Henry knew every word.
He closed his eyes and tried reciting it silently to ease himself back to sleep:
Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds – and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of – wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air.
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or even eagle, flew;
And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.
That’s how Henry had thought flying would be – dancing the skies, skating the winds, playing tag with angels. But flying bombing missions hadn’t been anything like that. The missions had been teeth-gritting beelines to targets, dogged all the way by men shooting at them. He didn’t know how many planes he’d seen explode, scattering debris and bodies through the clouds, how many screams of pain he’d tried to ignore during the past few months.
With a groan of frustration, Henry put his hands over his eyes and rubbed his forehead to clear his mind. That’s no way to go back to sleep, he told himself. He listened to the deep, steady snores of his b
Suck it up, boy. A whiner won’t last long in this world.
Henry pushed his father’s voice out of his head. He was sick of that voice and its harsh assessments. It had been a real struggle for Henry not to see himself the way his father seemed to. He’d thought he’d be free of his father here, overseas, in a war, a chaotic world away from their isolated farm. But the voice haunted him still.
Henry made himself think about blueberry pie. To smell his ma’s blueberry pie – that would calm him down. It always did. He drifted home to Virginia and dreamed of his mother, Lilly, standing by the kitchen sink. She was awash in Tidewater sunshine:
“Get your fingers out of my pie, you sneak,” Lilly chided. “It’ll be cool soon enough. Then you can have a proper slice and sit down to the table like civilized folk.” Her dimples showed as she said it, though, so Henry knew he could push it. He pulled out another small wedge even though it scalded his fingers. He popped it into his mouth.
Grinning, Lilly picked up a wooden spoon and shook it at him. “You’re a hambone,” she said and caught him for a hug.
“Lieutenant Forester?” A voice cut through the bleary warmth of Lilly’s kitchen. “Get up, Lieutenant. You’re flying today.”
Henry forced his eyes open. Sergeant Bromsky stood by his bunk, shining a flashlight. The blueberry pie evaporated.
“I’m up, I’m up,” Henry said and stretched himself awake. He was used to arising at 4 a.m. on his family’s chicken farm. But most of the other fliers weren’t. Sleepy groans filled the Nissen hut as the sergeant and his flashlight beam moved from bed to bed to rouse fifteen other pilots, navigators, and bombardiers – the officers of four bomber crews.
“Where we heading, Sarge?” Henry asked. “Any idea?”
Sergeant Bromsky came back to Henry’s cot. It was next to the small black stove that heated the thirty-foot-long hut. Built like a tin can cut in half and turned onto the ground, the hut had only one door and two windows at each end. It was dark and damp. Winds from the nearby North Sea found every crack. Even right beside the stove, the airmen shivered.
Sergeant Bromsky faced his backside to the stove. “The word is Germany, pretty far in. But keep it to yourself. You know the rules, Hank.”
Henry ground his teeth. That meant about a thousand miles round-trip under attack by enemy fighter planes and anti-aircraft guns on the ground. They’d just hit Berlin and lost almost half the base’s crews.
“What number is this, Hank?” the sergeant asked.
The sergeant always asked Henry what number the day’s mission was, as if he were rooting for him to get home. His support helped Henry. In return, he gave Sergeant Bromsky his cigarette rations, even though the other guys in the hut made fun of him for not smoking them himself. Henry had been born and raised in tobacco country, and he just hated the stuff.
Today, though, superstition slowed Henry’s answer. To finish his tour of duty and go home, Henry had to survive twenty-five missions. But every airman had figured out that the average life span of an Eighth Air Force bomber crew was only fifteen. Everyone was afraid of the fifteenth mission. It was a make-or-break flight.
“It’s my fifteenth,” Henry said quietly. He watched the sergeant’s face tighten.
“Yeah?” Bromsky looked away. His eyes fell on a photograph pinned to the wall beside Henry’s cot. A pretty teenage girl smiled back at him.
“I hadn’t noticed her before,” Bromsky changed the subject. “Who’s the dame?”
“Oh, she isn’t a dame, Sarge. That’s Patsy. We grew up together. Her family has the farm next to ours. She’s almost like my kid sister.”
Sergeant Bromsky leaned forward to get a better look at Patsy’s thick, wavy hair, heart-shaped face, and serene smile. “Wow. She’s a real looker, Hank.”
Henry was mortified to feel himself blush. He tried to seem nonchalant. “To tell the truth, Sarge, that picture kills me, because she looks so ladylike. What I love about Patsy is that she’s no sissy. She’s a real spitfire. We could use her fighting the Germans.”
Henry could tell from the Sarge’s smile that his attempts to seem indifferent to Patsy’s beauty were failing. He was just so confused about Patsy these days. Until right before he’d joined the Air Corps, they’d been buddies, best friends. But somehow their relationship had changed when he’d received his orders. And her letters, well, her letters brought out a longing in him he’d never felt before. Henry couldn’t sort out if the longing was for her or home or just peacetime. But it was a strong feeling. She wrote him and he answered every week. He started to ask Sarge what he thought about the wisdom of romancing a girl through letters, but changed his mind.
“When I was about ten I was in a fight in the school yard,” Henry continued. “This dopey boy, Jackson, was giving me trouble because my family raises chickens and the farm smells of them. He thought he was better than all us farmers. His dad hauled cargo at the Norfolk docks and didn’t have to work the dirt the way we did. He was yelling: ‘Henny Penny, what a chicken.’ Well, I’d given him a sharp punch like my dad showed me. But he’d knocked me down and was kicking me good. Patsy came tearing up out of nowhere. Her face was red as a tomato. She kicked Jackson’s shins so hard he cried!”
Henry paused to look at Patsy’s face and felt his own flush again. “Anyway, she’s…special, you know, Sarge?”
Before Bromsky could reply, Henry rushed to wrap her up with a safe comment. “I mostly appreciate how Patsy checks up on Ma for me. Dad doesn’t talk much except when he’s mad. Living on a hundred and fifty acres all alone with him and two thousand chickens could drive anyone crazy.”
“Two thousand chickens! I’m not sure I’ve ever even seen one live chicken,” said Bromsky, who was a native of New York City. He gave Henry a quick clap on the back. “Good luck today, Hank. I gotta roust the rest of the crews.”
Henry dressed hurriedly to prevent the concrete floor’s icy cold from seeping up through his entire body. He kept his blond head low as he pulled on his mission gear. The ceiling was eight feet high in the centre of the Nissen hut but it curved downward to the ground from there. Henry was a lanky six feet tall and still stretching, as his ma always said.
Over his long johns, he pulled blue flannel underwear that was wired to connect to the airplane’s electrical system and protect him from severe frostbite. If thick clouds and enemy flak forced them to fly at twenty-four thousand feet – four and a half miles up – the temperature inside the bomber’s open bays could be thirty below zero.
Next came wool trousers and shirt, plus a black wool tie. Over that, Henry pulled flying overalls and fleece-lined boots. Finally, he picked up his fleece-lined bomber jacket and strapped on a .45 pistol. He’d need the gun if he had to bail out somewhere over Nazi-controlled Europe.
Across the aisle, Billy White, another copilot, was inspecting his beard. Dark-haired Billy was just six months older than Henry, but his beard grew thick. Henry had to look close to find anything to shave. Still, he did it. During a flight even the slightest stubble caught condensation that could freeze and leave a string of icy beads right where the oxygen mask gripped his face.
Billy rubbed his smooth face and grinned. “Gotta be close, boys,” he said to a bunkmate who cat-whistled at him.
Billy was peering into a tiny mirror hung next to a sultry photograph of movie star Rita Hayworth. He caught Henry’s dimpled, babyfaced reflection in the mirror. He tapped Hayworth’s photo and said, “Hey, Hanky, this is a real woman, no prudish kid sister. But would you know what to do with a real woman if you ever caught one?”
Henry straightened up. He’d gotten used to the raunchy humour around the barracks. He’d also flown a lot more missions than Lieutenant White. “You know what, Billy,” he said. “I’ve learned a thing or two flying all my missions. When guys are scared, they talk big.”
“Whooaaa,” laughed a few of the men as they scrambled to get ready.
“All right. Save the spit for the Germans,” interrupted Henry’s pilot, Dan MacNamara. Dan was twenty-five years old, married, and the father of a baby girl named Colleen. He’d been the oldest brother in a rowdy clan of seven Irish siblings in Chicago. He could control the barracks and crew with just a few words.
“Billy,” Dan said. “We’ll let it stand that you’ve danced with every girl this side of London. Of course, whether you’ve gotten anywhere with them, we don’t know.”
He turned to Henry. “Hank, you’re one hotshot pilot. Nobody flies a tighter formation than you do. Let’s just get over there, drop our bombs, get home, and I’ll buy you both a beer. That’s root beer for you, right, Hank?” Dan winked at Henry as he said it.
“Yeah, yeah,” Henry said and smiled.
Today would be Dan’s twenty-first mission. He had even survived the legendary raid on the Ploesti Oil fields in Romania the previous August. Dan had told Henry how the bombers had gone in at treetop level to avoid detection as long as possible. They didn’t know about the anti-aircraft guns hidden behind haystacks. A third of the planes went down in flames, too low in altitude for any of their crews to bail out.
After hearing that, Henry was certain Dan could survive anything. Henry’s first four raids had been under a different pilot, last name Cobb, a real wildcat flier. He’d bled to death on their fourth mission, as Henry fought on alone to get their plane up and over the Dover cliffs and crash-land on English soil. Only then had he realized he was covered with Cobb’s splattered blood. Henry had crawled out of the cockpit and vomited for fifteen minutes solid.
With Dan in command, no matter how bad the flak or fighters were, Henry knew he at least had a chance.
Dan threw open the door to a wet wind and a sea of slippery, icy English mud. “Let’s get to Group Ops,” he said. “Briefing’s in ten minutes.”
“Jeez,” said Billy, pushing his way out past Henry. “It musta poured last night.”
“Isn’t it always raining in England?” muttered Dan. “Let’s hope the weather officer knows what he’s doing.”
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