KAMIKAZE

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Submitted Date 10/22/2022
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Kamikaze (Translated Literally: Divine Wind)

I'm Captain Rosie Martin, commander of "Sweetie Pie," a B-17 Bomber. As with all such planes, she had a pin-up girl painted on the nose. The crew, myself included, would always slap her on the ass for luck before boarding. All crew but one, co-pilot Lt. Elmer Ferguson had too much respect for "Sweetie Pie" to do that. Behind the pin-up girl, on the olive drab glossy paint, were twenty-one black painted bombs, one for each sortie flown. When you got near her you could smell oil and aviation fuel.

I slid into the pilot's seat, and Elmer plopped into the white sheepskin covered co-pilot's seat beside me. He ran his hand over the top of the instrument panel. His raspy voice spoke, "C'mon babydoll. You'll get us there and back. Yes, you will." His weathered hand tapped the top of the panel and he slid back into his seat.

The engines began to turn over, one after another until they were all spinning. Then we heard it, the satisfied purr that only happened when the timing on the cylinders was perfect. Even when the ground crews only has 4 hours on her, if Elmer was sitting beside me, there was that purr. You can't calibrate the timing on four nine cylinder engines in four hours. But somehow, like magic, she did it for him every time. For this, and other reasons like it, I usually let Elmer do the flying.

We began taxiing - our turn in the elephant walk. Our escorts were already in the air. St. Nazaire was going to have a very bad night. We didn't expect to run into their fighters until we were close. The Focke Wulf 190 was a formidable enemy, even with the green kids they had flying them at that point. You didn't so much see one as hear it. The whine of a Fw 190 engine always made my stomach churn. They'd be there to greet us, along with the 109s. Hopefully we'd be among the lucky who made it home.

Elmer's eyes sparkled in the lights of the instrument panel. The plane held him in a trance. It wasn't just the engine timing, she flew differently for him. I was beginning to wonder why.

Just like that, the rough bumps of the wheels gave way to divine smoothness that you only feel when you're off the ground. I always liked that part the best.

Earlier that day, before we piled into "Sweetie Pie," I saw a familiar sight. Elmer was standing by the nose talking to her. My gunners thought he was nuts. So did the ground crew. Who talks to a plane? Well, a lot of us did that at times, but we never heard a reply.

Elmer's calm voice intoned,

"We're going to St. Nazaire, Baby. Yes, again.I know you'd rather hit Berlin. Maybe next time. If we hit St. Nazaire hard enough, they'll let us go. Yes, you'll see it. Your bombs will light up Brandenburg Gate. It'll be like dawn that night, there will be so many flashes. It'll be beautiful. Be patient. I know you'll get us there. Just get us through tonight."

I shook my head. I'd seen pilots sent home with Section 8 papers for less.

After we pounded the U boat pens, enemy fighters greeted us like angry hornets. We'd just thrown rocks at their nest. Hitler probably lost a third of his boats. But we took losses, too. I heard the radio chatter as bomber after bomber got crippled and couldn't keep up with the formation.

We lumbered back home thinking we were out of it. Then I heard that pelting hail sound of 13 millimeter bullets strafing our air-frame. The sound of that fighter engine turned my blood to ice. A 190. When the he got closer I could hear the thuds as 20 millimeter shells blew through both of our port engines. They began to scream and flame, so Elmer shut them down. I prayed that the fires would keep away from the fuel tanks. I heard a yelp as the port waist gunner, Donnie Kroger got hit in the strafe. I heard a thud as the dead body of the Navigator, Carl Kaiser, hit the map table. I could imagine the 190 turning into position for another strafe.

The chugging thumps of Charlie Peterson's starboard gun rang in my ears. I prayed that he'd kill the bogie. I heard Charlie's jubilant yell, "Got him!". I let out a sigh of relief. We might get to make it home after all.

I assessed Donnie and Carl's conditions. Charlie filled in the details. "I've patched up Donnie. Bleeding is under control. He might make it. Carl's dead. Buck Kaufman's alive, but stuck in the ball turret. He's tapping the hatch. I can't get him out." His voice quivered, "Captain?" His eyes pleaded, "Are we going to make it home?"

I knew the right answer, but I was too shaken up to give it in time.

Elmer stroked the panel and answered just as I began to speak, "Of course we are. Sweetie Pie will come through for us. Always has."

Charlie sighed with relief.

I looked back at the instrument panel and froze. We were losing fuel. We wouldn't have enough to clear France. We were going to have to bail out over enemy territory. No, we would not be going home. Nonetheless, Elmer had given the right answer. I pointed to the fuel gauges.

Elmer glanced at the panel, then looked up at me. His eyes spoke the words his lips knew better than to utter, "We're going to be fine."

And then he spoke out loud, "Come on, Sweetie Pie. Get us home."

She must have heard him, because for about eight seconds I felt that perfect-timing purr.

Ninety-three miles from the coast, all the gauge needles pegged to empty. It was time to bail, but the engines weren't stopping. Something must be wrong with the gauges.

Elmer stared straight ahead. His raspy voice spoke, "I never did tell you about Mr. Kurashige, did I?" I stared at his calm face. He continued, "Mr. Kurashige was a farmer out by us. Dusted his own crops. Taught me how to fly."

"Elmer, what the…" I started, but he cut me off.

"You all think I'm some kind of weirdo because I talk to our planes. He taught me to do that."

He read my incredulity and continued, "I thought he was crazy, too. But I wanted the sky, and he offered to give it to me. If I did it his way. Unlike most of you, Uncle Sam didn't teach me to fly. Mr. Kurashige did."

"You learned to fly from a goddamn Jap?" Charlie's anger startled me.

Elmer answered him, "His family was from Japan. He was an American, just like you. Loved baseball, apple pie, and the Star Spangled banner. Loved the emperor about as much as as you do. Of course, he kept the old religion. But that saved him plenty of times, and me, and I've always gotten you home. You might want to respect that a little bit more."

Charlie's strong hand slammed into the fuselage as an angry sigh escaped him. But he was quiet for most of the flight after that.

Elmer continued, "Shinto, he called it. The old religion. There are other versions of it than the Emperor worship they practice in most of Japan now. His family had kept one alive. Mr. Kurashige told me that everything in this world has a spirit, a Kami. Every person, animal, plant, rocks and trees, even machines."

"Machines?" I asked.

"Every machine has a spirit. Not like ours, but they have them. He told me that on the day of my first lesson. I thought he was crazy. He approached that old biplane with reverence. The respect was so deep. When you were with him and that Huff Dalland, it was like being in church. 'Young one,' he called me, 'She is divine. Never forget that."

Elmer glanced out our windshield, and seeing no sign of ack ack batteries, continued, "'You must learn to feel her.' Mr. Kurashige said. 'Most pilots never learn. But if you can talk to her, she'll get you home every time.' I will admit, he didn't talk to his plane with words like I talk to Sweetie Pie. That's my own take on it. On my first flight I learned what he meant."

Charlie snorted in disgust.

Elmer kept on, "Mr. Kurashige always checked the weather before he went up. Those old biplanes didn't have the instruments that we have now. That day, our compass wasn't working. As Mr. Kurashige only flew in visual conditions and knew the land like the back of his hand, he didn't care. But weather can be a funny thing."

Elmer adjusted the our throttle as the engines were starting to sputter a little.

He had more story to tell, "After we got to 2000 feet or so Mr. Kurashige told me to take the stick. It was glorious! I was actually flying. I was looking down on birds. We've all had a first flight. I banked the plane to a due north course. It was getting darker, too dark for early afternoon. A storm was moving up the valley, quickly. I wasn't so exhilarated now. We couldn't turn around, or we'd be right in it. I began to feel the icy fingers of fear moving up my spine. My stomach began to feel sick. Mr. Kurashige knew this was no job for a kid on his first flight. 'I take stick.' he said. I was all too happy to let him have it."

We'd all seen rough spots. We were in one now. I knew what he must have been feeling.

Elmer adjusted out flight path 15 degrees NNE and continued, "As you might imagine, that storm behind us caught us about ten miles later. We were being buffeted in the storm clouds, and then it got even worse. Pea sized hail started pelting the plane and stinging our faces. Those icy fingers of fear gave way to lightning bolts of terror. I was a twelve year old kid, and probably going to die on his first flight. This wasn't how I had imagined it at all. Once that ice started sticking to our wings, we'd drop like a stone. Even I knew that. I thought Mr. Kurashige must be about crawling out of his skin. Instead, he was downright serene."

Another visit from a 190, or a run in with those ack ack guns, and I'd be about ready to crawl out of my skin. But through it all, Elmer had the tranquility of Marlowe from Heart of Darkness. I listened as the story went on.

"We'd lost any sense of direction, and might survive less than fifteen miles of hail before we'd be done for. Maybe nine minutes of air time, at the most. I didn't know that then, but I've worked it out since. I couldn't sit still through that. But I noticed something, Mr. Kurashige was still. He wasn't talking out loud, but you could tell he was communing with something. There was a presence with us. Even in the hail and the wind there was a kind of a hush. He was talking to her, just like he said. With nothing for it, I rested my right hand on the lip of the cockpit and surrendered. And in that moment, I felt her, the Kami. That old Huff Dalland started talking to me. Not words. They don't use them. She told me she'd get us home. I believed her."

I cut in, "So what happened?"

Elmer went on, "Mr. Kurashige made an adjustment here and there. In four minutes or so we were out of it. He landed us in the field of one of our neighbors. And as soon as he did, I understood."

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"We'd been flying due North," Elmer said. "If you lose your bearings in a storm you keep your heading so that you don't get totally lost. Mr. Kurashige had done that. But the thing is, that storm extended for a good thirty miles North. If we'd kept our heading we'd have been killed for certain. Mr. Kurashige didn't change course. We were on a due North track. But somehow, we wound up changing course to due East."

I'd seen Sweetie Pie do similar things for him. I only had to look at the fuel gauges for a reminder. "Impossible." I replied out of habit.

Elmer laughed, "Ever since that flight, I've been able to talk with any plane I've ever flown. I can feel them. I guess that crucible had a gift for me."

"Cars? Boats? Trains? Can you feel them, too?"

"Just planes." he said.

I was beginning to think we might be OK. The German antiaircraft battery we were flying over had other ideas. There was no warning. Flak from those guns punched so many holes through Sweetie Pie, she became a block of Swiss cheese.

"Jesus Christ!" Charlie screamed. If we'd still been carrying a bomb load, we'd all be dead.

There was no way she was going to hold together. It was time to bail out. But the guns had one more surprise. One last piece of flak blew through the copilot's side of the cockpit leaving a large gash in Elmer's left leg. Charlie scurried over and tried to stop the bleeding. He had to straddle the hole in the floor where an angry wind whistled threats to us. Elmer didn't move from his seat. He was still alive.

"Elmer, you still with us?" I asked.

Grunting through the pain, he replied, "I'll make it."

"We have to bail now. She won't hold together much longer." I gave the order to the remaining crew over the intercom (after switching off the com to the ball turret – I'd at least give Buck a few more minutes of hope) and prayed it still worked, "Bail out! Bail out!"

I turned to Elmer, ready to help him from his seat. His eyes flashed. "No!" was the forceful but labored reply.

"Bail out lieutenant, that's an order!"

Elmer shifted in his seat, "I will not."

However Charlie might have felt about Elmer's story, he was our flight medic. He took that job deadly serious. Charlie tried to talk sense into Elmer, "The bandages aren't stopping the blood, lieutenant. If you bail out, you might stand a chance. Up here, you're dead for sure."

I knew what he was going to say next.

"I will not leave her."

"You're a damn fool." I said, "This plane is coming apart. In less than ten minutes she'll be falling in pieces out of the sky!" I could hear the groan of steel stressed to the breaking point, and popping of rivets. "You can't make England in her. Bail out!"

I saw the blued glint of his service .45 muzzle pointing at us.

"No."

He was willing to die for a machine. I gave Charlie the nod and he started fitting Donnie with a chute and dragging him to the bomb bay. Tom Landman scrambled up from the bombardier's station in the shattered nose. He grabbed a chute for himself and began helping Charlie with Donnie. I started moving towards the bay myself, wincing at the thought of abandoning Buck in the Sperry turret. That couldn't be helped. Elmer, however, might be. I tried one last time, "It's a nice story, Elmer, but it's just a machine. Twenty more just like it are coming off the line in Burbank this week. It can be replaced…"

I saw the back of his head slump in his seat with an exhale, "She says she can make it."

I knew he wasn't coming.

"Good luck." I said, shuffling to the bay.

After that jump, I spent the rest of the war in a German POW camp. All the while, I wondered what had happened to Elmer. Did he make it? I thought about it every day, when I wasn't thinking about starving or home. Every time I heard the buzz of a plane going over was a sickening reminder. I wasn't sure I ever wanted to fly again.

In 1945 we were liberated. Free to rejoin our old units. I found myself back at St. Edmund's. The war had been over for months, and there wasn't much for the bomb groups to do. We whiled away the time on base and on free time at the local pubs. I was nursing a pint when technical Sergeant Chick Edgarson found me. He'd been assigned to our squadron from the start.

I felt a tug on my arm, "Come outside." he said, "I have something to show you.

I walked out with him from the bustle of the pub to the evening quiet of the street.

"He got her home."

I knew exactly who he was talking about.

"Elmer got Sweetie Pie back to us. God knows how he did it, that thing had most of its tail blown off. By the time he brought her to us she only had one good engine. It's amazing she didn't fall apart." Chick looked up, "Buck survived. Took us six hours to get him out of that turret. He went back stateside, medical. He's fine now."

A lump formed in my throat. I had always assumed Buck was a goner. "And Elmer?"

"Lost too much blood. He was probably dead as soon as the wheels hit the ground." He dug in his coat pocket for a black and white photo. The last one ever taken of Elmer.

He was slumped over the instrument panel, arm draped over it. A last embrace.

A few months later I boarded a transport airplane for a flight home. I ran my hand over her taut steel riveted skin. I didn't realize it until after I'd said it, "Come on baby doll, get us home."

I felt her reply.

 

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