Wing and a Prayer

by Dianne Price

When Colonel Rob Savage recovers enough from a near-death accident to resume command of the demoralized Heavy Bomber Group at Edenoaks Air Base in England, he faces many challenges. As Rob labors to make his group best in Wing again, his bride, Maggie, works long, exhausting hours as an RAF nurse, all the while fearing for Rob’s safety during bombing missions.

The unthinkable happens. Rob and Maggie return to their Scots island of Innisbraw, battling to keep alive their dreams for the future. Rationing, blackouts, and the threat of German U-boat invasions conspire against the newlyweds. Can Rob and Maggie cleave to their faith in God through such hardships and trials as the devastating war goes on and on and on?

Chapter 1

Edenoaks Air Base, England, late November, 1942

Colonel Rob Savage paused on the walk in front of the base hospital, gaze sweeping the south side of the air base.

Only 0530 and already Jeeps jounced over rutted roads, strident horns scattering bicyclists who raced each other to the chow hall. A few sluggish crewmen plodded through the main gate, heads down, uniforms rumpled after a short leave—and a long bus ride.

“Looks the same, smells the same.” Rob’s nostrils twitched at the odor of spent aviation fuel and smoke from Nissen hut stoves wafting palliative offerings to the bruised sky. The always present, elusive scent of fear suspended over the base turned sour on his tongue.

His bride, Maggie, swatted his arm. “It’s only been six months. What did you expect?”

After a quick grin, he ticked his wildest wishes off on his fingers. “Oh, Nissen huts for everybody instead of tents, tarmac to replace those dirt roads and their potholes big enough to swallow a Jeep, and a few more hangars equipped for extensive large repairs.” He laughed and hugged her waist. “A man can dream, can’t he?”

“My man always dreams—then makes them come true.”

The luve in Maggie’s eyes stopped a breath in his throat. After looking around to make sure no one was watching, he brushed his lips across her silken cheek. The warm-honey fragrance of heather on her skin and hair spoke of their Scottish island home.

Innisbraw. The Atlantic pounding the rocky fells, sending prisms of spume high into the air, wildflowers fluttering like butterflies in a brisk sea-salted breeze, island folk smiling a greeting as one passed.

His yearning to return tasted sharp and clean, like a blade of spring grass.

“Where did you go, luve? You’re far away.”

Her pleading violet-blue eyes and plaintive question snapped him back to the present. “Home. Innisbraw.”

Maggie sighed and nodded. “I miss it too.” A rueful smile wrinkled her nose. “But now ’tis back to war with you.” She tapped her watch. “And I’m going to be late reporting in.”

Rob’s answering smile faded like the sun at gloaming. “Pray for me, Maggie. I’ve got a bad feeling that the temporary CO may have left me some nasty surprises.”

Warm fingers laced through his. “You know I will. Remember this promise from the Word: ‘I can do everything with the help of Christ who gives me the strength I need.’” She squeezed his hand and mimed a kiss. Tucking errant wisps of hair into the bun above her collar, the luve of his life—his wife—hurried up the walk, starched hospital whites rustling.

A pang of loss brought a groan as she opened the door and disappeared inside. No more running his fingers through the mass of black hair that slipped down her slim back to below her waist. No more sitting in front of a peat fire sharing memories of yesterdays and dreams for tomorrows. No more walking across the top of Innis Fell, laughing at the pewlie gulls hitching a ride on a rare off-shore wind. His belly cramped. It would be agony not having her at his side almost every waking moment. Maggie exuded a faith he would take years to attain, and her sweet spirit understood his impetuous rush to accomplish everything immediately.

But she was right. He was back to war, where he longed to be, fulfilling his duty.

Guide me, Lord. Give me Your thoughts, Your words today.

His steps turned toward his office. A few officers he didn’t recognize executed crisp salutes as they passed. Why were they smiling? They couldn’t know he was their new CO—unless someone had leaked the news.

In front of Operations Headquarters, an American flag sagged on its pole, limp in the breathless morning. Hank’s black bicycle leaned against the dingy white clapboards.

The familiar sight brought a stir of excitement as Rob pulled the door open.

Notices to flight personnel—some yellowed with age, some new—fluttered from a corkboard on the wall. A copy of a Stars and Stripes newspaper lay discarded on the empty, uncomfortable wooden bench. The same bench where those awaiting an appointment, usually disciplinary, with the CO would fidget, the odor of their sweat and fear permeating the peeling paint. The door to his old office was closed.

Major Hank Hirsch, Rob’s aide since he first took command of the 396th, sat at a desk in the middle of the long, narrow room, muttering as he shuffled through a mountain of paperwork. He looked up and leaped to his feet, a grin threatening to dislodge the steel-framed glasses perched precariously near the end of his nose. “Colonel Savage!” He snapped a brisk salute.

Rob returned the salute with a smile so broad he almost choked on it.

Hank adjusted his glasses, rushed forward, and pumped Rob’s hand. “Rob, you can’t know how good it is to see you back. Your recovery took so long, I wondered if you’d ever return.”

“It’s good to be back, Hank.” Rob clapped the major’s shoulder.

The six months had not been kind to Hank. Salt overwhelmed pepper in his short sideburns, lines of fatigue bracketed his lips, and his once-erect shoulders slumped. He held Rob at arm’s length. “You’ve lost some weight, but you look fit.”

His voice sounded hoarse. The replacement commander must have worked him into the ground. “I feel fit. And don’t worry about the weight. Maggie’s on a crusade to fatten me up.”

“Oh, congratulations on your marriage. General Fielding announced it at a briefing. It’s been the talk of the base all weekend.”

Is that why those officers were smiling? “Uh-oh, things must be mighty slow around here when that kind of news makes waves.” He winked at Hank.

Hank’s gray eyes sparkled, a fleeting glimpse of the man Rob remembered. “Come on, Rob. When ‘the old man’ finally gets hitched, that’s news.”

“What do you mean?”

“You really don’t know?”

“No idea.”

“Ever since you first took command last January, there’s been a bet on how long it would take you to say ‘I do.’”

“A bet?”

“That’s right. I believe the pool was over three hundred dollars. Major Anderson won it.”

Rob’s pulse thrummed at the thought of seeing his best friend. “Den? That traitor. I’ll make sure he doesn’t keep a dime of that money. He’ll be standing rounds of drinks at the officer’s club for weeks before I’m through with him.”

“Don’t be too hard on him. I understand he’s the one who introduced you to your wife.”

“What? Is that what he’s been telling everybody?”

“Sure is.”

Rob suppressed a snort of glee at the thought of getting even with his old buddy. “He’s lying through his teeth. All he did was dare me to ask her to dance. When I get through with him …”

Hank checked his watch. “That’ll have to wait. You have an appointment with Doc Larson right now for your physical.”

“Oh, yeah, my physical.” Rob’s chest rumbled as he chuckled. “You’re about to witness the quickest physical you’ve ever seen. Come on. You’re going with me.”

“Why me?”

“I want you to see the shape I’m in. After all, you run interference for me with Wing. I need to convince you almost as much as the doc.”

* * *

Flight Surgeon Major Larson lowered his stethoscope and scribbled cryptic figures onto a chart.

Rob’s heartbeat stuttered. “What’s the problem? I could have run in place a lot longer if you hadn’t told me to stop.”

The doctor tossed the chart onto the examining table. “Twenty minutes at that pace should have raised your pulse at least thirty beats over what I just recorded. What have you been doing on that island?”

Hank flipped Rob a thumbs-up and waggled his eyebrows.

“Walking, running, leg-lifts, sit-ups, more walking and running.” Rob toweled off and pulled on his skivvy shirt.

“I don’t understand how you can be in better physical condition than before you crashed.” Larson studied the worn linoleum for a moment before looking at Rob. “A little over six months ago, you left here paralyzed from the hips down, only a breath away from dying. Am I looking at some kind of miracle?”

Rob suppressed a snort. “Miracle? If you mean instant healing, you’re way off base. If you’re talking about John McGrath’s skill as a surgeon and the rehab plan he worked out for me, as the Brits say, ‘You’re spot on.’” He shrugged into his uniform shirt. “That’s why so many people consider him one of the world’s leading orthopedic surgeons.”

Larson’s face flushed. “Of course.” He glanced at the chart again. “I’ve never been so happy to be wrong in my life.”

“So I passed the physical?”

“With flying colors. I’ll call General Fielding at Edenoaks Hall with the good news. He asked to be apprised of the results the minute you finished.”

“Thanks. Now, if that’s all, I’d better tackle a stack of paperwork.” He toed into his boots. “I’ve got a lot of catching up do.”

“A word of warning.”

“Okay?”

Larson fidgeted, Adam’s apple bobbing like a fisherman’s float in a stormy surf. “First, I want to welcome you back to the 396th. You were sorely missed. Right now, morale is low and I understand performance has suffered severely. You have your work cut out for you. Of course, you did it once before. I’m certain you can turn this group into Wing’s top performers again.”

Ouch. “Anything else?”

“I want you to know how happy I am to have Leftenant McGra … Savage back. She’s a real asset to any hospital.”

“Thanks, Doc. I’m glad to hear that. Of course I’m a little prejudiced, since I wouldn’t be talking to you today if she hadn’t called her father.” Rob’s tone was more gruff than he meant it to be.

The doctor’s face flushed again. “I understand.” He unclenched and extended his hand. “It’s good to have you back, Colonel.”

* * *

Hank trotted to keep up with Rob. “I’ve never seen Doc so flustered.”

Rob grunted. “He refused to remove that large piece of shrapnel from my back—said it would kill me.” He shortened his stride. “If Maggie hadn’t been seconded here and contacted her father to transfer me and remove the shrapnel, I’d be six feet beneath a white cross in some military graveyard.”

“Doesn’t sound like Doc Larson. I’ve always considered us lucky to have him.”

“Don’t get me wrong. We are. For a while I blamed him for my being in such bad condition when I reached Edinburgh. But he was probably so overwhelmed by having the CO as a patient, he was afraid he’d botch the surgery and end up killing me.”

Hank held the OP’s door open. “I can’t believe the RAF loaned your new wife to us again. Thought they’d hang onto every one of their experienced nurses.”

Ducking his six-five frame into the building, Rob gripped Hank’s arm. “Not seconded this time. It’s a permanent posting.” He grinned at the surprise on his aide’s face. “I’ll tell you all about it when we can squeeze in a few minutes.”

* * *

Just outside Rob’s office window, B-17s sat on hardstands in the parking lot beside the runway, the gray sky mirrored in polished Perspex windscreens. He shook his head and glanced at his watch. 0800 hours, cloudy but no rain. Why weren’t they out on a strike? That would be his first question to Hank as soon as he brought in all the papers for the first briefing.

The front door slammed and his office door burst open.

Major Dennis Anderson, Rob’s best friend since plebe year at West Point, rushed in, his always-ruddy face the same color as his short, unruly mop of hair. He grabbed Rob into a bear hug. “Bucko!” he shouted. “Welcome back. You look great.”

Rob returned the hug, memories of the years they’d spent together threatening to tip him over the emotional edge. They hugged again, grins wide. “So do you, Den, but what are you doing here? I thought you’d be high over France this time of morning.”

“Target’s socked in. Storms. So the mission was scrubbed.” He grabbed Rob’s shoulders. “Come on. I want to see you run a few laps around the office. I’ve been waiting months for this.”

Rob pulled away and sat at his desk, pointing to the chair opposite his. “That’ll have to wait. From what I’ve heard, things haven’t been going well around here.”

“Work, work, work, that’s all you think about. At least that crash didn’t scramble your brains.” Den plopped down in the chair.

The intercom buzzed. “Want me to hold off a while with that briefing, Colonel?” Hank asked.

“Yeah. I’ll get some info from the major, then we’ll look at that stack of papers. And close my office door, please. No calls, no interruptions.”

Den tapped fingers on knees, right eyelid twitching.

Rob leaned back, lacing his fingers behind his head. “Doc said morale’s in the tank and Hank showed me some of the worst strike photos I’ve ever seen. Only twenty-five percent of the bombs on target? You’ve been second-in-command while I’ve been gone. What happened?”

“Second-in-command, huh?” Den exhaled loudly and rubbed his eyes. “Who do you think was pegged to lead all those strikes? Yours truly, that’s who.”

“So the last commander wouldn’t fly lead?”

“Wouldn’t? Couldn’t is the real nitty-gritty. The minute your ambulance turned the corner, Wells was on the horn recruiting an old buddy to take your place.”

Rob pictured by-the-book Wing Commander Brigadier General Wells, Major General Harlan Fielding’s predecessor, rubbing his hands in glee at the thought of having one of his own puppets appointed to command his star group.

Fatigue deepened the lines around Den’s bloodshot blue eyes. He’d lost weight.

First Hank, now Den. What other bad news lay buried beneath piles of reports? “How well were the strikes planned?”

“Right out of the book, but don’t ask how many had to be scrubbed because we couldn’t get enough crews or planes into the air. The doc was right. Morale’s in the tank.”

How many planes, each crewed by ten good men, had they lost in the past six months? “Losses?” He steeled himself for the answer.

“So many you’ll have to ask Hank for the figures.”

Den was hedging, so it must be bad. He should be able to recite those numbers in his sleep. “Is that the reason you couldn’t get enough planes in the air?”

“Only one reason.”

“What are the others?”

“Our belated commander couldn’t even find his own quarters by himself, let alone manage the protocol needed to finagle new crews out of Reassignment HQ. Wells dug in his heels and only requested replacement Forts for the 396th when Bomber Command got on his back. We often had squadrons down to three or four planes instead of seven.” His eyelid twitched again. “Plus, he cut the ground crews to five men instead of the usual ten. Some planes sat on their hardstands for days waiting to be repaired and signed off as airworthy.”

Rob slammed his fist on his desk and leaped up. “Five men to plug holes and replace engines? And Eighth Bomber Command cleared that?”

“They were never told. Remember, with Wells as Wing Commander, he ran the show.”

“I’m surprised he didn’t have a mutiny on his hands when Wing’s other three groups had to cover most of the strikes.” He paced, hands clenched behind his back.

Den swiveled his chair, tracking Rob. “Why do you think Wells was recalled to the States? We weren’t the only group with a beef. All the pilots in Wing, including our squadrons, wrote Eighth Bomber Command and gave them the skinny. Believe me, they didn’t pull any punches. Less than a week later, General Fielding booted Wells out and took over.”

Rob leaned on his desk. “When was this?”

“Three weeks ago.”

“What took Hal so long to get rid of my replacement?”

“He left the same day as Wells. Since then, General Fielding’s been planning our strikes and finding crews, and the ground crews are back up to ten.” Den snorted. “You should have heard the clapping and hooting when the general showed up at our briefing a few days ago and announced you’d be arriving to retake command today.”

Maybe that explained those eager smiles he’d encountered on his way. “Why should they celebrate? I’ll be lucky if I know any of the pilots still based here. I’m only a big question mark until I prove myself.”

“You think the general stopped there? He spent over fifteen minutes filling in everyone there with the way you operate—planning each strike to minimize losses, flying lead plane on the hairiest missions, even your hard-nosed handling of anyone who shirks his duty. By the time he finished, the crews were so fired up they went out and bombed the living daylights out of our target. That was a set of strike photos you’d have been proud of.”

Rob called Hank in and the three spent most of the day reviewing the changes to be made. After that, Rob and Den nursed another mug of coffee and caught up on their friendship. By chowtime, Rob was starved, exhausted, and overwhelmed by all he had to accomplish.

I can do everything with the help of Christ who gives me the strength I need.

Yes, with the Lord’s help, he could—he would—make it happen.

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Chapter 2

Rob tossed some coal into the stove and stretched his back. He’d been at his desk since 0400 studying new personnel folders in an attempt to assign cohesive crews to each Flying Fortress. A time-consuming job, but necessary. He couldn’t pair an inexperienced flight engineer with a pilot who had only two missions under his belt. One of them needed battle smarts.

He studied the pictures on the wall and the flood of memories—some bittersweet, some warm—brought a smile. Several shots of his old Fort, Liberty Belle, with various crews. A portrait of Douglas MacArthur, Superintendent of West Point in 1911. And another of then-Colonel Hal Fielding.

Rob’s smile turned to a grin. Hal had pinned the wings on Rob’s US Army Air Corps uniform after teaching him to fly. No wonder Rob loved the man. He owed his flying career to Hal Fielding.

A rap on his office door interrupted a yawn. “Come on in.”

General Harlan Fielding stood in the doorway, craggy face bathed in a smile. Of average height and weight, with a deceptively humble demeanor, he didn’t need those two stars on his shoulder to take command of any situation. One look in his piercing, almost-black eyes did it all.

Both men clapped backs and pumped hands.

“You’ll never know how good it is to see you again, boy,” Hal exclaimed. He held Rob at arm’s length and eyed him from spit-polished boots to tight military haircut. “Still too thin but after all you’ve been through, it’s no wonder.”

“My wife’s vowed to fatten me up. You don’t look any different than the last time I saw you over four years ago.”

“Since when did you start spouting platitudes like a politician?” Hal ran his fingers through his short hair. “I had a lot more brown than gray then.” He pulled up two chairs and sat, pointing. “Sit yourself down before I break my neck trying to see your face. And tell me all about this new Scottish wife. I have to admit, the way you avoided females all these years, I thought you’d end up an old bachelor like me.”

Rob laughed as he sat. “I hit the jackpot, Hal. God arranged for me to meet the lass He had planned for me all along. She’s … she’s a miracle, that’s all I can say.”

“Lass? Don’t clam up on me like you usually do. I want to hear every detail.”

* * *

Two hours later, Rob tore off his tie and dashed from his office. “Taking thirty for a run,” he shouted to Hank. Turning right at the main road, he opted for the narrow lane leading around the perimeter of the base, mind racing as fast as his legs.

Yes! With Hal Fielding commanding Wing, the 396th had nowhere to go but up. A World War I ace, Hal had more strategies under his cap than Betty Grable had posters.

Rob grinned and upped his pace. They would argue—they always did—but Hal listened. And he didn’t need a swagger stick to stiffen his spine, or a “book” to plan strikes. Brilliant, quick-thinking, one of the best pilots in the air no matter which plane he flew—Wing couldn’t ask for a better commander.

Another answer to prayer.

You’re in charge, Lord, not the brass in Washington or the Eighth Bomber Command. You. He stumbled to a stop and gripped the security fence to keep from going to his knees. Thank You for all Your blessings, Heavenly Faither. Make me worthy of Your trust. And above all, help me accomplish Your perfect will.

* * *

His first mission since resuming command.

Rob jockeyed his B-17 off its hardstand onto the runway. His gloved fingers tightened around the yoke, stomach cramping as it had on his solo flight in a Stearman P-17 trainer.

Did he still have what it took to fly lead? Help me do this right, Lord. So many lives depend on it.

His handpicked crew brought a glow of satisfaction. Only the best on base were chosen to crew the lead plane because they could expect the most attention from enemy fighters as the other Forts followed their lead on the bombing run.

He pushed forward on the controls, listening to the flight engineer call out the speed. At “one fifteen,” he pulled back on the yoke and the Bonnie Maggie roared into the air. He tapped the copilot’s knee. “Retract landing gear. We’ll climb to five thousand feet and maintain till the others are in position.”

First Lieutenant Lewis nodded and shouted, “Gear up.”

A grinding sound came from the belly of the plane.

“How does it feel to be in the air again, Colonel?”

“How do you think?”

“Must be mighty good. If your smile were any broader, your face would split.”

A weight lifted from Rob’s chest. His hands relaxed. So easy, so natural, as if he’d been at the controls for the past six months instead of going through grueling therapy and learning to walk. Memories of the pain he’d suffered were fading, but the occasional nightmare still trapped him in that gut-wrenching fear of spending the rest of his life in a wheelchair. Thank God for Maggie, Elspeth, and Hugh. Not only had they taught him so much about the Christ he had accepted as a boy, but they answered every question he brought up about trusting his Saviour.

After the squadrons linked up, he pressed his throat mike. “Pilot to crew. Now comes the boring part. I’ll give you a heads-up when we enter enemy air space. Until then, keep your chatter off the interphone. I need to save my hearing for when it counts.”

A loud hoot reverberated through the headset.

“Should have thought about that before you signed on to fly a noisy, thin-skinned Fort, sir.” The laconic southern drawl was a dead giveaway: his bombardier, Tex “Deadeye” Jeffers.

Good for him. A little levity broke up the tedium of a long wait before enemy fighters brought adrenaline levels surging.

He trimmed the bomber and engaged the automatic pilot.

* * *

Maggie plucked the last of her undergarments from the sink and draped them over the line Rob had strung near the stove. An entire day off. If only it didn’t coincide with Rob’s first bombing mission. Failing to control her shaking legs, she collapsed onto the cot. Memories of the terrible dream she’d had on Innisbraw—of his plane crashing and exploding—filled her with panic. Protect him, Faither. Hold him up with the wings of Your angels. I can’t bear the thought of losing him. Give me Your faith, please, Lord.

She plucked her Gaelic Bible from the shelf. Though she knew the comforting passages by heart, reading them aloud often brought peace. She opened the Bible to a worn page in Philippians. “In nothing be anxious; but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall guard your hearts and your thoughts in Christ Jesus.” Determining to put God’s promise into action, she closed the Bible and returned it to the shelf.

This was Rob’s first flight. She couldn’t give into such fears now. Instead, she’d wash her hair and spend the afternoon answering letters, maybe do some mending and ironing. By the time Rob finished up, her hair would be dry enough for him to brush.

Och, the pure joy and contentment on Rob’s face when he brushed her hair was bright enough to bring sunshine to the dreariest day.

* * *

Rob winced as a German Fw 190 dove on the Bonnie Maggie, a bright stream of shells spitting from its machine guns.

His left waist gunner sent a steady, air-splitting barrage from his fifty-caliber gun.

The German fighter spouted a plume of smoke and nosed over into a steep dive.

“Good confirmed kill,” Rob radioed the gunner.

They’d had a great bombing run, but now he had to make sure every plane and man made it home. Thank You, Faither, for allowing me to fly again.

* * *

Rob slammed the door to their quarters, tossed his crush cap onto the cot, and scooped Maggie into his arms. “There’s my lass.” Her sweet scent of heather, the luve shining in her eyes, and the warmth of her embrace brought a swell of elation that surpassed any he had experienced that day. He was with his Maggie, where he belonged. He kissed her face, her neck, her shiny hair, her lips—those soft lips tasting of all they had shared—and would share.

“Och, I can’t breathe.” She hugged his waist. “And from your smile, I’d say ’twas a grand mission.”

“The best. Bombs right on target, and not a plane or crewman lost.”

“What else did you expect with you flying lead?” She rested her cheek against his chest. “I know you were on heckle-pins, it being your first flight in so long, but with our Lord directing your every move, it had to turn out well.”

He cupped her chin and turned her face up to his. “It was as if I’d never been away, Maggie. And I’ve a crew I can be proud of. Not a man grumbled or hesitated when he was needed. I’m back in the air, lass, where I belong.”

She kissed his chin. “Aye. Soaring with eagles again.”

He fisted a hand in her hair. Sucked in a breath. “You washed your hair and didn’t tell me?”

“I’ve no’ had the time. But you’ll find my hairbrush on the pillow if you’ve time to brush it.”

“I’d find time even if the Jerries were bombing the base.”

* * *

It didn’t take long to put the 396th on the path toward being the top group in Wing again. Thankfully, Maggie seemed to understand his long hours and distracted thoughts. By the time he relaxed enough to breathe again, married life had settled into a routine of sorts. Though he seldom made it back to their quarters until late evening, when he did arrive, he and Maggie made the most of their time alone.

From the first week, she taught him the dance steps to countless reels, jigs, and strathspeys, humming the melody since they had no radio or phonograph. “I want you to feel comfortable dancing whenever we hold ceilidhs on Innisbraw.” She wrinkled her nose. “Besides, the exercise helps you work off tension.”

On the evenings he was tied up in late meetings at Edenoaks Hall, Maggie never fell asleep before he returned to their quarters. She’d have a pot of coffee and some food waiting on the small, coal-burning stove.

She worked doubles several times a week. On the nights she was at the hospital, he spent time going over Interrogation reports, reviewing strike films and Intel information, and, as always, arguing with Wing over the need for more airplanes.

One such argument took place in Rob’s office on a rainy evening a month after he resumed command of the 396th.

“How many aircraft can you put up for tomorrow’s strike?” General Fielding asked.

“Sixteen.”

“That’s not enough.”

“I’ve been telling you that for weeks.” Rob raised his voice. “We need more planes.”

Fielding brushed aside Rob’s outburst with a shake of his head. “I’m talking about tomorrow.”

Rob rubbed the side of his nose. Would he regret saying this? “I suppose I can have the crew chiefs make two or three cripples serviceable by morning, but I don’t have crews for all of them.”

“Find them. Go through your files and call back anyone remotely ready to be reassigned to duty.”

Outside, brilliant pools of light lit the distant hardstands as maintenance crews readied planes for the morning’s strike.

“Hal, tomorrow’s target is close to the German border. I can’t use crews that aren’t in top shape for a run that long. Besides the flak, the Luftwaffe will throw every Fw 190 they have at us.”

General Fielding removed his cap and circled the office. “Look, Rob, I know you have one of the dirtiest jobs around, but this strike needs every airplane we can put in the air. You’ll rendezvous with and lead our three other groups for this mission.”

“Sir—”

The general slammed his fist into his palm. “If each group has maximum numbers, we can really hammer this target.” Without giving Rob time to reply, Fielding returned his cap to his head and opened the door. “I’ll expect at least nineteen airplanes from the 396th in the air tomorrow morning.”

Rob saluted automatically as the general left the office. He sat behind his desk and took a deep breath as he pressed the intercom button. “Hank, come in here. It’s going to be a long night.”

* * *

The B-17 crews, and even the ground-pounders, celebrated when bad weather over the target delayed the mission for forty-eight hours. By the time the skies cleared, Rob had twenty airplanes and their crews ready.

The 396th led the strike.

With Rob flying lead, they hammered the French target and more, including Rouen, an airfield at Bussac, and a missile site at Pas-de-Calais. Targets in Germany included Osnabrück and the oil refinery at Ludwigshafen. Two strikes against the heavily defended sub pens at Wilhelmshaven proved the most deadly. There, the group’s losses were so high that Rob sat in the cockpit for a long time after they touched down at the air base, gloved fingers curled tightly around the yoke as he fought to control his grief.

Major Dennis Anderson, again his second-in-command, flew lead on short, safer “milk runs” over Saint-Lô, Niorte, Fruges, and other French targets.

The group shaped up as morale climbed and new crews transferred in. Two more B-17s arrived, the strike photos looked good, and Intel reported the Jerries were sweating. By February 1, 1943, Rob glimpsed a light at the end of the tunnel.

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