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These tiny islands couldn't base a single plane, yet Jap fighter squadrons were using them. How was it being done?

FOUR LUCKY MEN

By DAVID V. REED

CHAPTER I
Without Benefit of Surprise...
1

THIS is the story of four men who were lucky, and others who weren’t. It begins with a carrier that was part of a task force on its way west from the Gilbert Islands.

Because this was an attack day, reveille sounded for the Air Department at 0330. The night was still dark and cool. It was an hour before the rest of the carrier would waken, but already the darkened catwalks and ladders rang quietly with the tread of pilots, radiomen, gunners and flight deck crews hurrying to breakfast. The Air Department always lost an hour’s sleep on attack days.

There’d been a time when Jim Boland wouldn’t have missed that hour’s sleep. In the beginning, when he was new to Bombing 22, he’d probably have been lying awake in the darkness long before reveille, swapping small talk with his two bunkmates. Later, when he’d learned how to sleep, chances were he’d retired early. It was only recently that sleep had become inadequate when it was not elusive.

This was one of the tired days. If they hadn’t waked Boland an hour early, he wouldn’t have remembered it was also one of the attack days.

Cigarette smoke in the wardroom was thick enough for visibility zero when Boland got there. He said a few good mornings and sat down to breakfast. It was an attack day breakfast. The rolls were hot, the coffee steamed with fragrance, and there were bacon and eggs and massive steaks, but Boland felt nothing of the ravenous morning appetite it had taken months of combat flying to develop. He poured himself water and used it to swallow a benzedrine tablet. Across the table, a pilot named Wilson caught the slight action and gestured at him with a fork.

Headache, Jimbo?”

“Not much,” Boland said. “Aspirin’ll kill it."

He poured coffee and drank it black. Then he lit a cigarette and listened to the talk around him. The talk never changed. Only some of the voices were new, the voices charged with tension and eagerness, asking questions about the attack. The room and its sounds were slowly receding from him.

He wondered if he was ill, but the attendant thought of going on report made it impossible for him to answer the question honestly. The flight surgeon had been sharply solicitous on the last check; he would probably like nothing better than to have Boland show up at sick bay. Besides, there was no time now.

The smoke didn’t help. It was the smoke, the lack of ventilation because the hatches were battened down for action. And he hadn’t slept well. No nightmares—nothing like that, though now and then he’d think of friends he would never see again, or remember some of the things that had happened to him, seeing again, as if on a screen, the moments of past battles flash on and off in the darkness. Natural enough. Maybe he could have used ten days at Pearl, but it could wait. Hell, anyone could use ten days at Pearl, anytime. He’d been around too long to be a fool about combat fatigue. There was nothing wrong with him a little benzedrine couldn’t fix for a few days, and then he’d be all right again.

He poured more coffee. It had an ascetic, comforting bitterness. Not that he wasn’t all right now. The benzedrine meant nothing. One developed a tolerance for it—the damn stuff didn’t seem to have any effect on him anymore. He got out another tablet, broke it in half under the table. This time Wilson didn’t see him take it, and after he finished his coffee he went up to Ready Five.

Final briefing was careful, detailed. They’d known for a few days their target was Nauru. The outline of the oval island danced on the chart before Boland, but he could close his eyes and see it clearly, see it as it had appeared under his plane on another morning. It seemed a long long time ago. The teletype chattered: possibility of enemy interception and attack, large Jap carrier force believed to be in these waters, wind direction, speed, position of ship, nearest friendly land, time of surface bombardments, and on and on. Before it was over, Boland pulled on his Mae West and cloth helmet, then gathered his flight board, gloves, gun and asheathed six-inch blade, and waited for the chaplain’s prayer to come over the squawk box.

Then the prayer was over and the squawk box said, “Pilots, man your planes.”

BOLAND started up the companionway to the flight deck. The sky was a dark, depthless blue. Along the eastern horizon a slender red line showed dawn coming. Boland met his gunner and chatted absently with him as they hurried across the bustling flight deck to their plane. The gunner was a big, laughing redhead named Ray Stone. He’d been with Boland five months and he was Boland’s third gunner.

Just as they reached the first of the SB2C’s, plane handlers came running down the deck, waving their arms and trying to shout above the roaring Hellcat motors up forward. Suddenly the roaring began to diminish. The attack was off.

Ten minutes later the Captain addressed all hands. The Jap carriers had been sighted and the two forces were maneuvering for an imminent attack. The ship remained at General Quarters and the Anti-Sub patrol was doubled.

In Ready Five, Boland got a corner chair and tried to doze off, but the benzedrine had hit him and he was jittering. His hands trembled unless he kept them tightly clasped. He tried to read but his eyes were burning and the words blurred. He forced himself to close his eyes and sat there listening to the blood pound in his ears, listening to the room rock with too loud talk and laughter, to the teletype hammering on and on.

Someone near him said, “Look at Jimbo, will you?”

“Sleeping like a baby.”

“Hasn’t that guy got any nerves anymore?”

“Nah—he had them shot away at Rabaul.”

“Boy, it takes something to be able to sleep at a time like this.”

After awhile Boland gave up. He opened his eyes and lit a cigarette, listening to the talk. Every time the door opened cigarette smoke blew out and the latest scuttlebutt blew in. The Japs had three battleships and six carriers. Two Jap forces were converging. The Japs were trying to get the American force between their fleet and Nauru, so they shuttled their attack. It wasn’t long before someone pulled Boland into the game. He really had no opinions but he had to do something to relieve his ever-tightening nerves, so he talked, and at least as loud as the others.

BOLAND generally didn’t take much part in ready room bull sessions anymore, but when he did they listened. And not only because he was Exec. He had two Purple Hearts, a Navy Cross, a DFC, two unit citations. He had been with the Big E, and at Midway with the Hornet when she went down at Santa Cruz. He was, as his gunner, Ray Stone said after Life had run a picture of Boland among top Navy aces, “a figure of note.” The plane he flew had twenty-six tiny bombs and six Jap flags on its fuselage, and it should have had a row of little desks for the times he had successfully fought assignment to non-flying duty. It was generally agreed that when Jimbo Boland left Bombing 22, it would be as the flying CO of his own squadron.

So they listened to him until he began to feel self-conscious, certain he was behaving oddly. Gradually he withdrew again and sat with an open magazine in his lap.

The Captain addressed them at 0825 and again at 1020 but nothing happened and they were still at battle stations at 1300. The supply officer managed to get hot sandwiches to the ready rooms and Boland ate. He was relaxing slowly and he wondered whether he would be able to sleep a little, but at 1425 there was another briefing. The attack was going to be made, without benefit of surprise.

Weariness surged through Boland. He went to the water cooler and swallowed two tablets of benzedrine. By 1450, when the order came to man planes, he was beginning to come alive again. He went up to the flight deck swiftly, as if he couldn’t wait to get to his plane. It was true, but it was because he didn’t want anyone to see the way his mouth kept twitching.

2

START Engines had been given. The carrier swung into the wind. She was moving at top speed now. The Air Officer’s red flag came down, the white Commence Launching went up.

Fly Two, the Launching Officer, sent the Hellcats rolling down the deck. Half the TBF’s followed. Then Fly One signalled the dive bombers. Boland’s Helldiver was the third the yellow-jerseyed traffic men guided to the starting line.

The folding wings came down, locked into position. Fly Two made small circles over his head with his checkered wand and Boland’s hands danced to gun the engine full. Every movement of his hands was precise and light and dancing, because they couldn’t be still for an instant. His eyes burned as he watched Fly Two. Then the wand came down across Fly Two’s chest and pointed to the end of the flight deck.

Boland released the brakes, started rolling, picked up speed and swept off the end of the deck. He banked sharply to port, pulled up his wheels and went into a long circling climb.

The three other carriers were launching their air groups. By 1530, when they started for Nauru, there were almost two hundred planes in the sky. The dive bombers flew between the fighter planes above and the Avenger torpedoes below. They climbed steadily in a sky that was pure sun-drenched azure. The sea stretched endlessly in every direction and the motors settled into a drone.

“Mr. Boland.”

“Yes, Ray?” Boland said over the interphone.

“Did you want some gum?”

“Yes, thanks.”

It’s in the message chute.”

Chewing gum helped. His jaws ground together savagely. When the gum had lost its taste he lit a cigarette, then another, and a third before his pack was empty, and then he asked Stone for some of his. He felt razor-sharp and impatient for action. His fingers kept clenching and opening and his breathing was rapid.

“Mr. Boland.”

“What is it, Ray?”

“Sir, do you think the Jap carriers left?”

“Don’t know, Ray. It looks that way.”

“Maybe this attack’ll bring them back.”

“We’ll see.”

Boland couldn’t tell whether he was trembling with cold or jittering. They were flying at 10,000 feet. A high layer of cumulus hung suspended in the east. The western sky was beginning to take on an orange glow, and the lead planes were black, paper-thin silhouettes against it. Then, far far ahead, just as radio silence broke, little groups of dots appeared.

Enemy planes—one o’clock! This is Jake.”

BOLAND came out of his dream. He drew his division in closer to the one ahead and scanned the formation to see how tight it was. His lips were drawn together but the corners of his mouth twitched. The Japs were coming on and there were a lot of them, fifty or more. From upstairs Hellcats and F4U’s were diving to take them on. The Hellcats were dropping their belly tanks now.

The squadron skipper’s voice crackled over the radio. “All right, you Helldivers, get set for ’em and stay in the goddamned formation! Got it, Jimbo?”

“Yessir, boss Jake,” said Boland.

Ray Stone asked over the interphone: “Mr. Boland, you s’pose I can open the hatch now?”

“Hell, yes.”

“Enemy planes—three o’clock! ”

A group of Zekes had broken away momentarily from the Hellcats and they were coming in at the bombers. Their sleek brown and red bodies rolled over slowly and beautifully as they made their runs, and death came in red-orange flashes from their wing cannon. From each of the bombers’ folded turtlebacks a pair of twin thirties followed the Japs as they came into range. The radio kept up a running line of calls and warnings. A crippled Helldiver was dropping out of formation and two Hellcats were circling it as it started down. A voice yelled, “Got him! Got the sonofabitch!” and a Zeke plummeted by, trailing a funnel of black smoke.

More Japs closed in. There were Oscars among the Zekes. They looped and rolled and swung their tails seductively, but the bombers held formation. Boland’s starboard wing man began trading lead with an Oscar. The Oscar rolled lazily as it came in. Suddenly it blew apart with such violence that its wing tips were hundreds of feet apart before they were visible again. A Hellcat came swooping down crazily through the bomber formations. Its tail assembly was hanging by a few wires as it vanished.

“Mr. Boland, pair of bogies at five o’clock!”

“Watch ’em.”

From out of nowhere a Zeke appeared a point to Boland’s starboard, coming straight on. His wing cannon began firing. Boland kept waiting, felt the plane jump, kept his eyes on the Jap a few instants longer and let go his fifties.

Stone called: “What’s that, Mr. Boland?”

“Friend of mine,” said Boland. “Mind your business.”

Boland’s tracers ploughed into the Zeke, but it kept coming. Its cannon had stopped. Suddenly it swerved, wobbled a bit, righted itself and nosed over into a precipitous dive that sent it under the bomber formation. Following it for an instant, Boland realized that the TBF’s had gone on ahead. He looked at the port wing. The leading edge was shattered for five feet halfway down the wing. There was no noticeable loss of speed and the controls seemed intact.

Stone called: “Mr. Boland!”

“Yes?”

“Your friend’s on fire! He’s going! Boy, there he goes!”

Suddenly the radio said: “Target ahead!”

THE sky ahead was rapidly filling with black puffballs. Two waves of fighters had gone in already and the TBF’s were dropping bombs down the center of the runways. The island seemed covered with huge mushrooming clouds of dust and debris.

The radio said, “All right, Jimbo—take it away!”

Boland called to his division: “Open bomb bay doors.”

The wind began tearing at the open bays and its moaning and whistling echoed through the plane. Boland cracked his dive flaps and started down fast and steep. They were at ten thousand feet then.

“Let’s go, Helldivers!”

From far down below the Jap ack-ack muzzles blinked at him and followed him with a shortening line of ugly black bursts. Boland was taking short painful breaths but he felt no sense of danger; there was no time now for danger. Nor did there appear to be any danger from below. The northern end of the island, where it was still untouched, was a brilliant tropical green. A slender white ribbon of beach circled it and stood against gentle combers from the blue sea. The coral reefs were unbelievably beautiful masses of crimson and ivory and deep ochre and magenta. And the Jap AA guns were orange flashes in a world of splendid color.

Two runways, locked almost end to end, were on the southern side of the island. Just north of the westernmost runway there was a cluster of buildings. There was a radio tower just beyond, and a bit south was a phosphate plant. Streams of tracers and ack-ack came up as if from hoses. A division of Hellcats came in again to strafe AA positions just behind the runways.

Boland was at three thousand feet and still going. He was thinking about the heavy ack-ack and machine gun fire and remembering that the revised attack plans had omitted the naval bombardment that had figured conspicuously in the schedule for the cancelled dawn strike. Boland knew that somewhere there was a reason for it, but it didn’t make the attack any easier. He glimpsed what might have been a few Betty’s on fire near the west runway. Almost no planes had been caught on the ground. Natural enough if the attack was expected, but where had so many Jap planes come from?

At two thousand Boland sighted carefully, held off, then let the heavy bomb go from fourteen hundred. He started pulling out and all at once the plane staggered. The next instant the radio tower blew up and a blast of air roared up to hit the bomber as it continued down, struggling to break the dive. Another black cloud burst just before the Helldiver’s nose and the cockpit became a buzzing, blistering mass of sound and heat.

Boland's left arm had felt two jabs, but he couldn’t look at anything, couldn’t think of anything now. The few seconds that would mean the difference between pulling out and failure —those few seconds had split into thousands of fragments, and Boland could measure his success from one to another. Time had become an eternity. He had done all he could. The plane was beginning to level off. There was nothing to do now but wait. He sat there watching the earth come rushing up, the horizon turning green and brown everywhere, hemming him in. His mouth hung open and his eyes stared straight down. He had long ago stopped feeling anything. Only his mind kept going, and he wasn’t to remember what he thought for some time yet.

THE bomber was twenty feet above ground when it came out of its dive and headed for the sea.

The motor was snarling furiously. Ack-ack had wrecked the pitch control mechanism and the prop wouldn’t come out of high pitch.

“Ray, are you all right?”

“Yessir! This Boland Stone gathered moss that time, sir.”

That was a funny thing to say, Boland thought. It would be a funny thing to repeat later on, after they’d made it back to the carrier. He knew he meant if they made it back to the carrier. There was another large hole in the port wing and the starboard wing was badly shredded. The ailerons were partly shot away. The rudder reacted sluggishly.

“Ray, what happened to the rudder?”

“Mr. Boland, what happened to the half we still have shouldn’t happen to a dog.”

It was strange, that note of buoyancy in Stone’s voice. The buoyancy of just being alive—as if for Stone being alive had not become a question that outlived attacks. That was one of the best ways Stone and he made a team; they’d always been able to count on each other’s responses. That was why, in the privacy of their plane, Boland called him Ray, and waited for the sirs and misters to wither. Boland’s first gunner had been killed at Santa Cruz; his second was still hospitalized. Stone was his responsibility. Stone was twenty-six. Boland was three years younger, and quite old.

“Mr. Boland, three bogies at seven o’clock.”

Boland kicked the rudder pedals. This was what the Japs had been waiting for—the bombers coming out of their dives, unprotected by their formations. The twin thirties began hammering.

It wasn’t time yet to rendezvous with his division. Most of the bombers were running around over the island, strafing everything in sight. The sky was swarming with Hellcats and F4U’s and Zekes and Oscars. The ack-ack had stopped to let the Japs come in. There were a hell of a lot of them.

“Goddamit!” he shouted. “Why didn’t ACI know about this?”

Stone called: “Bogie diving under us!”

Instinctively, remembering the Japs had come in from seven o’clock, Boland kicked the rudder until the plane swung to starboard, then dipped its nose just as the Jap rolled into his sights. He let go his fifties and watched the tracers stretch a dozen white strings from him to the Jap. The Jap paused halfway through a roll, hung a moment, then suddenly exploded.

An instant of exhaltation burst over him and was gone, leaving him spent and breathless and soaked in perspiration.

“You got him, Mr, Boland!”

WEARINESS rolled over him in vast, soothing waves. There was so much to think about, and he was tired. His hands were trembling and the thought flashed through his mind and vanished. “No, no,” he said very softly, to himself, but he knew it was true and he fought to drive it out of his mind. Then the other thought came back again, stinging with fierce immediacy.

“Ray,” he called, “was it one of their carrier Jacks?”

“Kee-rect! Here come the other two from both sides!”

Stone’s guns were going again. The nightmare began.

When he woke, the instrument panel was a mass of savagely twisted cables and shattered glass. Blood was drip from both his wrists to dark, scattered pools on the floor. The bomber was pitching and rolling, trying again and again to end its agony by dropping into the sea. It was riddled in a dozen places, its wings were torn fragments of metal, its hydraulic systems were smashed, but it flew because something in Boland fought it as it had fought ' the bomber’s enemies until the Hellcats had come. He remembered, without at the moment remembering why he had done it, turning on the Japs, fighting them with his wing guns—fighting them, not as they supposed, in a final death stand but to go on living, determined to survive, forcing the bomber into maneuvers that slowly broke her and her spirit, so that she had only Boland’s to go on with.

Slowly, the nightmare lifted. Three Hellcats had dropped out of a pink twilight sky and swept off in pursuit of the Japs. Their calls had come through to him before the radio was gone, and he had tried to answer them but no sound had come from his lips.

“Ray,” he said on the intercom “Ray, how is it?”

The answer came slowly. “Not... so bad... sir.”

“We’ll be down soon, Ray.”

“I know.”

He was five miles from his carrier, circling the dark, smudged area of her AA fire. She was under attack from Jap planes. She sped through a greengray sea that was an inferno of smoke and fire, destroying her enemies. She twisted and spun majestically, and every gun was a defiant, deadly voice. Behind her the blood-red sky was dotted with black in a wide protective circle around her. Jap Vais and Kates kept dropping into the circle, letting go their explosives and darting out again to be chased by fighters.

He kept circling her, as close as he dared. He had to land. He was close to exhaustion. Everything had become Temote again. As if from far off he could hear the wind tearing through the shattered plane, and dimly, the motor’s insane fury, but the rest of the world was silent and receding.

THEN there was a lull and he turned and made a run for the carrier, but he was hardly close when more Japs appeared and he was waved off. He heard himself shouting at the top of his voice, until the muscles of his neck were so tight that he choked for breath, but he swung away and began to circle the carrier again. He listened to the blood pounding in his ears and heard himself whispering over and over, “No, no,” telling himself that it didn’t matter now, that he had to hold on to what was left of him, that if only he could bring the plane in safely, it would all be over. But for the first time now he realized that he was faced with such fear that he was swiftly becoming helpless against it. It was taking possession of him. He could feel its presence in the plane. He began to shout again.

He didn’t know how long the attack had been over. He could see planes dropping to the carrier, losing them for a moment in the darkness between the flaming horizon and the deck. He found himself in the landing circle, and other planes ahead of him were making way, letting his ravaged plane go in.

Then he was banking, straightening for the approach, and he was filled with an unutterable gratitude. It was over. He saw the yellow-jerseyed LSO bring his arms up over his head as if to form the U that meant he was coming in too high. His eyes blurred for an instant as he dropped the plane’s nose. Suddenly the LSO was back in focus. He was waving him off frantically. For a split instant longer, Boland was too overwhelmed with sudden confusion to react. He kept coming and the LSO jumped from his tiny platform to the net below, and the plane flashed by and swung crazily off to port. Then fear returned and began talking to him swiftly.

They weren’t going to let him land. The bomber was too badly damaged to be allowed a landing attempt. Even now they were trying to get through to him over the dead radio, telling him to let down in the water near one of the destroyers. His flaps were so smashed that the LSO thought they weren’t down. His wheels wouldn’t come down. Thoughts went racing through his brain too swiftly to be stopped, and when he caught one, the others behind it kept piling on until it was lost. The arresting-gear hook had been shot away. He couldn’t throttle the plane down enough and he would keep coming in too fast. He couldn’t control her well enough to avoid slant.

They waved him off again. Amplifiers on the island shouted in a giant’s voice at him, but he couldn’t unscramble the words. What did they want? He couldn’t bring her down in water. Ray Stone was badly wounded and he was trapped in the smashed fuselage.

They had to understand that. They’d understand if he came around again. He could land. This once more, he could land, somehow, maybe against the barrier, but he would walk away from it and they would be able to take Ray Stone out. They knew he could land. He wouldn’t crash and pile up the deck. He would have waited to be the last, but he couldn’t wait any more. They would understand.

When he came down again in a deepening dusk, the little lights that outlined the flight deck were on. The LSO was using long neon wands instead of paddles. He began crossing his arms over his head in a wave-off just as Boland settled into his approach. The wands vanished in darkness and the deck lights went out.

On the nightbound eastern horizon, yellow lightning flashed where escort destroyers were firing. They were being attacked again. There would be no landings until it was over.

3

HE HAD been lost a long time now. For awhile he’d been able to follow their gun flashes, until a destroyer’s sudden flares had shown him to the enemy planes, and after he’d run and lost them he couldn’t find the task force again. He was drained of all emotion at last. He’d cried silently, more from the release of tension than anything else, but now his cheeks were dry and cold, and his body was cold and his mind was still, and he gave himself up to exhaustion. Every decision but one had been made. It was only necessary to choose the moment when he would start letting down to find the sea. It had to be done before the last auxiliary tank was empty, chances of surviving would be much greater in a power landing.

Survival. The word stirred the ashes of old thoughts and somewhere there was a spark. Did he still think of survival? The spark was gone. No thought but one could live in his frozen brain. No thought but one. He had long since stopped saying no to it, and as soon as he stopped it flooded his consciousness and then froze in him. Now it was all he knew.

He’d been afraid of flying for so long. How much easier it was now that he knew. How much easier everything could have been if only he’d known sooner. But this had been su...

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