Unpunished, page 1
By William Peter Grasso
Copyright 2011 William Peter Grasso
The cover for Unpunished was designed by Alyson Aversa
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Unpunished is a work of fiction. Apart from the well-known actual people, events, and locales that figure in the narrative, all names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to current events or locales or to living persons is entirely coincidental.
Onboard “The Lady M,” an American B-17 bomber over Germany
Late Summer 1944
Sweet Jesus, make this stop! No atheists in foxholes, eh? How about no atheists in bombers, either? Just us guys stupid enough to volunteer for this shit. That Kraut fighter just hit us somewhere. I felt it…cannon shell, I think. I’m breathing so hard I’m going to blow this oxygen mask right off my face, and my ears are ringing like the Bells of St. Mary’s. Me and Larry…probably Eddie, too…just pumped about a thousand rounds of 50 cal at him and it didn’t matter a bit. Probably never scored a hit. But he sure as hell scored one on us, somewhere. Survive thirty-five missions like this? You’ve got to be kidding me. And this is only number three. There’s just too many ways to die up here… flak, fighters, weather, your own mistakes. Please, God, don’t let me piss myself.
Where are those damned escort fighters? If this is the best they can do keeping the Krauts off us, we’re in deep shit.
The Lady is still flying, though, still in her place in the formation, her engines making their droning noise just like normal. That Kraut came straight at us from 12 o’clock high…he must have been aiming for the cockpit. Goes from a tiny dot in the distance to right on top of you in a second or two. I hear Captain Pilcher in my headphones, so he and Freddy must be okay. Pilcher’s screaming for damage reports. Nothing to report up here in the nose. Me and Larry are okay. Tail gunner says he’s okay. So does the top turret and ball turret, too. Something wrong at the waist guns, though. Linker says Lapinski’s gone…got blown out his gun window, no chute. Big hole in the roof of their compartment. So that’s where we got hit? Flying Fortress, my ass. Oughta call it Flying Target…or Flying Coffin.
Now Pilcher’s screaming for somebody to check Moscone, the radioman. He didn’t report in. Hell…I’ll do it. Unplug and grab me a walkaround oxygen bottle…anything to get out of the nose, this cramped, plexiglass fishbowl. Not like the rest of this plane is any safer. I’m just the navigator…not even the lead navigator in this formation. About ten more planes gotta die before that honor falls to me. I just do my position confirmation checks and play follow the leader. Hell, I can do the navigation in my sleep…I’m a mathematician, for cryin’ out loud! But my skills only become crucial if we straggle out of formation. Until then, I’m just another gunner on this crate. What the hell am I doing here? I’ve got a wife. I could have had that war work deferment at the Institute. What a dope!
Crawl up into the cockpit, my gear snagging on stuff like crazy in these tight quarters. Freddy, the co-pilot, has the controls. He keeps looking over at Pilcher, who doesn’t seem to be doing a damned thing…just sitting there with his hands in his lap, staring straight ahead. Some aircraft commander, that Pilcher! Wonder what they’re saying? The oxygen masks hide everything but the eyes, and Freddy’s look like they’re shooting daggers at Pilcher. Freddy looks back at me, probably says something into the interphone but I can’t hear. I’m not plugged in.
As I slide past Eddie Morris’s top turret, he’s letting loose with his 50 cals. Hit him, Eddie! Kill him! Please!
The firing stops. Nothing changes. Just more spent cartridges piled up on the deck and the stench of cordite getting stronger.
Tony Moscone, the radioman, is lying on the floor of his compartment. David Linker, that smart-mouthed Jewish kid with an answer for everything, is hunched over him, bandaging his head. The first aid kit is scattered everywhere. Moscone pulls off his oxygen mask, screaming like a terrified child, “I don’t wanna die, I don’t wanna die,” over and over again. No shit, fella. Save your breath before it freezes all over your face. And put your goddamn mask back on.
The Lady’s guns fire again and I start to duck, like there’s someplace to hide. Dumb shit!
Linker pulls off his own mask and yells to me, “He’ll be okay. Just got banged up a little…Get him to calm down, will you, Lieutenant? I’ve got to get back to my gun.”
Then he adds, “Lapinski bought it, Lieutenant Joe. He’s just gone…fell right out of the airplane.”
The tears Linker tries…and fails...to fight back freeze as soon as they drip away, just like the radioman’s blood. Moscone curls into a ball on the floor, rocking gently. This kid’s gone…shell shock…combat fatigue. I’m not in such hot shape myself, after only three missions. Only thirty-two more to go...
I get Moscone back into his seat and strap him in. One look in his eyes tells you he’s someplace else. Even with his mask on, I can tell he’s mumbling something. I unplug his microphone…nobody needs to listen to his crazy shit right now. He stares blankly through his radio console to God knows where…anyplace but here, on this B-17, where the rest of us wait to get blown to bits or fall to the earth in flames. Ship’s guns start firing again…another Kraut is coming. Will he be the one that kills us? In an instant, we’ll know…
Nothing. We’re still flying. We’re not dead yet. Our guns fall silent…until the next one.
Squeezing back to the cockpit…I brush Morris’s foot as I pass beneath his turret. He glances down from his domed perch atop the airplane, unrecognizable in leather helmet, oxygen mask, and sunglasses. He gives me a thumbs up…I’m glad he thinks so, the stupid bastard.
I get to the cockpit and crouch behind the pedestal, between the two pilots: Captain Leonard Pilcher and Lieutenant Freddy O’Hara. I pull off my mask and shout the news about Moscone. Pilcher, who’s been sitting there like he’s in some kind of trance, suddenly turns to me and says the words that knock me for a loop:
“Gelardi, give me a course for Trelleborg, Sweden. The Lady’s shot up and we’ve got to get our injured man medical help ASAP. Keep us out over the water, away from the Danish coast.”
Freddy O’Hara pulls off his mask and explodes: “Sweden! You’re outta your fucking mind! We take casualties and you want to desert? Sit out the war? No fucking way! Just bail him out and let the Germans take care of him if you’re so fucking worried. Sweden and Switzerland…that’s where all the yellow bastards go. There’s nothing wrong with this airplane. She can still do the mission.”
“You forget who’s in charge here, Lieutenant,” Pilcher replies. “I decide what this ship does. I’ve got to look out for my men.”
“Bullshit…you’re just yellow. You get wounded up here, it’s tough shit, that’s all. I ain’t no deserter.”
“Suit yourself, O’Hara. Feel free to bail out over Germany, the Baltic…I don’t give a shit.”
Freddy turns to me. “Three missions with this clown and now he pulls this Section 8 bullshit! We get jumped, and first he acts like he’s in a fucking coma, then he decides he’s the boss again. Joey, are you going along with this high-brow scumbag? You know what it would mean…for the rest of your
All I can manage to say is, “I…I guess...I’ll do what I’m ordered.”
“Great, two fucking deserters,” Freddy spits through clenched teeth. I’m amazed I can hear him at all over the drone of the engines and the clatter of the guns. Now Freddy’s shouting again. “Tell you what, Captain. I’m tellin’ the rest of the crew what’s goin’ on here and give them the choice you just gave me.”
“I don’t need to remind you of the penalty for mutiny, do I, Lieutenant?” Pilcher shouts back.
“Fuck that! Mutiny against a deserter! That’s rich! I’ll take my chances with the enemy, you chickenshit coward. Typical fucking rich boy…”
Freddy O’Hara is through talking.
In a minute, the tally is done. Sergeants Ed Morris, David Linker and Frank Hughes—the tail gunner—elect to stay. Morris is torn. He has no interest sitting out the war as an internee in Sweden, but he’s the flight engineer: The Lady M’s airworthiness is his responsibility. Plain and simple, he loves her. He won’t leave her.
Frank Hughes is more afraid of parachuting than staying on board.
Tony Moscone is incapable of making choices and Linker won’t leave him. After unlucky Harry Lapinski, Tony is David Linker’s best buddy. And like I said, Linker is Jewish. Jumping into Nazi Germany by choice probably doesn’t seem like much of an option to him, with that big J stamped into his dog tags. We’ve all heard the stories…Jews fleeing for their lives all over Europe. We were all skeptical of those stories, too. All except Captain Pilcher. Linker says he overheard Pilcher once, spewing with all the certainty of willful ignorance, “Sure Hitler’s gotta kill off the sheenies. That’s the only way he’ll get control of the banks.”
And me, Joe Gelardi…I’m going to stay, too. But I’ve got a problem right off the bat. “Captain,” I say, “I don’t have a chart for airfields in Sweden.”
Without a word, he reaches into his flight jacket and produces a folded map.
Shaking his head in disbelief, Freddy cries, “You fucking bastard! You’ve been planning this! Count me the fuck out!”
I unfold the map and stare at it in disbelief. This is a damned road map…like some tourist would use! How the hell am I supposed to navigate off this? What are we going to do? Read signs?
Still, I’m going to stay with the ship. With the Captain.
Pilcher grabs his control wheel and announces, “My airplane.” Freddy relinquishes the controls in disgust. Pilcher retards the throttles, and The Lady M begins her descent, dropping out of the bottom of the formation.
Besides Freddy O’Hara, Lieutenant Larry Harkin—the bombardier—and Sergeant Lou DiNapoli—the ball turret gunner—want no part of Pilcher’s plan. They bail out somewhere over northwest Germany, close to the Danish border.
Before he leaves the airplane, Freddy O’Hara confronts Captain Leonard Pilcher one last time:
“I promise you, Pilcher…if I ever see you again, I’m gonna kill you, you useless bastard.”
He takes one more deep breath from the oxygen mask. Then, the last of the three, he jumps.
Miraculously, no German fighters bothered The Lady M as she made her way, alone, north across the Baltic Sea. Two fighters had passed close by but did not engage, even though her gunners had let loose a few useless bursts at them. Probably low on fuel and out of ammunition, they were desperate to get home before prowling American fighters feasted on them. But there had been no American fighters, either.
Just as well, Captain Pilcher thought. I’ve only got three gunners left. Ed Morris would handle the top turret, if necessary, but for now, he was helping Pilcher fly, operating the systems Lieutenant O’Hara, the co-pilot turned parachutist, usually handled. Tony Moscone was nothing more than a passenger; physically present, mentally elsewhere. The Lady M’s bomb load—and the top secret Norden bombsight—were jettisoned harmlessly into the Baltic on Captain Pilcher’s orders.
Then he gave the order to jettison the machine gun ammunition.
Ed Morris pulled off his oxygen mask to register a personal protest: “Why, Captain? What if we get jumped? You know the stories of the guys who started cleaning their guns over the Channel…and got shot down?”
Pilcher responded into the interphone for the whole crew to hear. “No Germans around here…This is neutral Swedish airspace now. We don’t want to seem like we’re posing any threat. Take the hand-operated guns off their mounts and stow them. Point the top turret guns full up, all the others full down.”
As he listened to Captain Pilcher’s orders, a thought popped into David Linker’s head: Is this guy reading from “The Deserter’s Handbook” or something?
This all seemed too strange to Joe Gelardi, like they were suddenly over a different planet, one that was not consumed in a war. What the hell are we doing? A little battle damage to the ship, one gunner gone, and the radioman out of commission...That’s a reason to divert? Ships have been shot up a lot worse and still finished their mission. Pilcher’s the boss…but why does following his orders feel so much like…disgrace?
The Lady M had descended below 10,000 feet; they no longer needed oxygen. Gelardi had given Pilcher a rough course to fly, but without current wind and weather information—or an aviation chart—there was little he could do to provide drift corrections. Just wait for the landfall and try to figure out where they were visually.
Little was said onboard The Lady M, the silence a testament that events were now completely beyond their control. The crew assembled in the cockpit; there was no point staying at their weaponless battle stations. A coast came into view. Joe Gelardi tried to reconcile what he could see on the ground with the ridiculous map Pilcher had given him. “Should we turn east or west?” Pilcher asked his navigator.
Joe Gelardi replied, “I have no earthly idea yet, Captain.”
Pilcher inquired about fuel reserves. Morris, the flight engineer, snapped his reply: “We’ve got plenty…we had enough to get back to England, remember?”
Pilcher ignored the barb, looking instead to Gelardi for confirmation of the engineer’s assessment. The navigator nodded in agreement; they had enough fuel to stay airborne for at least three more hours. But they needed a place to land in Sweden. No other non-hostile nation was in reach; too far to the west, you were in German-held Norway. Too far to the east, you were in Finland, still a co-belligerent with Germany but at war only with Russia. Gelardi felt pretty sure the land below them was Sweden, but that was about all. Wouldn’t it be hot shit, he thought, to come all this way, just to land in occupied territory anyway?
Airborne specks in the distance grew large quickly. Two fighters, wearing Swedish national markings, now bracketed The Lady M. The Swedish pilots were used to this sort of intrusion; it was their only connection to the war that raged in all directions around their neutral country. Stray aircraft from both sides—some lost, some badly damaged, some full of able-bodied crewmen just looking to sit out the war—appeared with regularity: over 300 aircraft since the war began four years ago. The Swedish pilots had their instructions: only engage if hostile intent was displayed. Otherwise, if they seemed determined to land, guide them to an airfield designated to accept internees. None of the intruding aircraft had ever displayed hostile intent, and The Lady M was no exception. Pilcher saluted the Swedish pilot who had given the “follow me” hand signal and turned the big bomber to trail its new escorts.
“Where do you think they’re taking us, Lieutenant?” David Linker asked.
“Beats the hell out of me,” Joe Gelardi replied. “We turned west, so I guess we could be heading to Trelleborg, maybe Malmö,” he continued, moving a finger along the map. “We’ll find out soon enough.”
Within 15 minutes, they were over a small city with an airfield on its eastern outskirts. A narrow strait separated the city from a land mass to the west. The escort fighters lowered their landing gear. Leonard Pilcher began his landing preparations.
Joe Gelardi felt certain now:
“The left gear’s not down! Still got a cross-hatch!” Pilcher cried.
“Not surprised,” Morris replied. “We took some hits around there. Give me a minute…I’ll try to get her down and locked...Tire’s probably shot up, though…Maybe no brakes, either.”
“NO! Never mind!” Pilcher commanded. “Bring the right gear back up…I’ll belly her in.”
“Wait, Captain!” Morris pleaded. “I think I can get it down. Let me try…Don’t belly her!”
“I said no, Sergeant. I’m not going to risk landing on one gear and cartwheeling. Pick up the right gear.”
Morris was begging now. “But this will only take a minute, sir!” The thought of a needless belly landing in this indifferent place—which would reduce this slightly damaged, yet perfectly flyable aircraft to nothing more than scrap metal—seemed foolish and irresponsible to the young sergeant.
“Yessir,” Morris sighed as the indicator signaled the right gear was retracting. “Gear up.”
Pilcher aligned The Lady M with the grass field adjacent the paved runway. The descent was gentle, steady—but poorly executed nonetheless. He was too high and would land too far down the grass strip; even sliding on its belly, the heavy bomber probably would not stop before crashing into some of the hangars encircling the airfield. He should have gone around and tried again. But he pushed the nose over, increasing the sink rate and airspeed, pulling out at the last moment to meet the ground where he originally planned, but going much too fast.
Oddly enough, to the crew of The Lady M, strapped in for dear life, the initial impact with the ground felt like bouncing off a mattress. The second impact was far more severe. Numerous pieces of onboard equipment broke loose and flew forward as the aircraft dug in and rapidly decelerated. The four propellers—and the engines that drove them—stopped abruptly as their blades impacted the ground and folded as if made of rubber. The sound of rending metal filled the crew’s ears. Gasoline from ruptured fuel tanks spilled from the wings and pooled below the now stationary bomber. Within seconds, the fuel ignited and The Lady M was consumed in fire. Her six crewmen barely escaped through the gaping hole in the nose where the bombardier’s plexiglass bubble used to be. Any other escape route would have led them to a fiery death. Ed Morris’s fears for his aircraft—this machine that he loved—had been fully realized.
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