Sunday, August 9, 2009

First Kill - A Short Story

(c) 1997 Carroll Williams - all rights reserved
Five young World War II pilots experience
their first day
of combat flying in New Guinea.

Five Packard-built Rolls Royce Merlin engines turning four-bladed props drowned out all other sounds on the jungle airfield. A smoky little Wyllis jeep ground to a halt beside a row of five P-51 Mustang fighters. Empty ammunition containers littered the area behind each airplane. Greg McNulty and four other young pilots faced their first combat mission this morning. New Guinea was a long way from Clayton, New Mexico, where Greg grew up riding cow ponies on his father's ranch. The five pilots piled out of the jeep and walked quickly to their aircraft. Each man cinched up his parachute harness. With cockpit checklists completed, the five pilots began a serpentine trip to the end of a steel-matted runway.

First Lieutenant Dan Lewis was the flight leader this morning. Dan at twenty-six was an older guy. He was married. He had a wife and child in Baltimore, Maryland. None of the other pilots on today's mission were married and their average age was a scant twenty-two years. Dan was always counseling the younger guys to take better care of themselves. Drinking and partying was a problem among the single pilots. Clear heads were needed for combat flying.

Curt Hansen was a quiet Swede from Minnesota. He seldom spoke but when he did he had something worth saying. Jorge "Corky" Gonzales was from Laredo, Texas. He was a lively one at any party and had been the translator in San Antonio when the guys romanced the local Latino girls while training at Kelly Field in the AT-6 advanced trainer. Nathan "Hot Shot" Carter was an Arkansas farm boy who had learned to fly while dusting cotton fields from a World War I Curtiss Jenny airplane. He got his nickname from the brand of aerial insecticide he sprayed on boll weevils.

With flaps set for takeoff, Greg eased his throttle forward. The sound and fury of the big Rolls Royce Merlin engine was almost a spiritual experience to the pilot privileged to fly behind one. The fighters joined up at 16,000 feet and turned north. They flew over the Owen Stanley Range with its green peaks jutting into bright cumulus clouds. Most afternoons, these benign-looking white clouds became dark menacing thunderheads. Greg looked down on several cascading streams flowing out of the mountains. These silver ribbons of water running down toward the Coral Sea were the product of tropical rains and provided a source of life to the natives of this beautiful land.

They would fly fighter cover for a squadron of B-25 Mitchell bombers. The Mitchells would be making a low-level raid against Japanese shipping. The five fighters began a gradual descent north of the mountain range. Dan led the group down toward the north coast and the palm-fringed beach facing the Solomon Sea.

A flash of silver caught Greg's eye. It might have been sunlight playing on the surface of the sea or it might have been an airplane in the distance. For a few seconds it disappeared. There it was again. Several bright reflections were moving eastward along the shore.

Greg moved his stick from side to side to rock his wings and catch the attention of the flight leader. With hand motions he pointed toward the reflections. Dan acknowledged and eased his aircraft downward into a shallow dive. He motioned the others to follow. The radio crackled suddenly into life. Japanese fighters were attacking a B-25 formation. Greg's throat tightened. He had shot at targets towed behind other airplanes; he had engaged in mock combat; he had done well in gunnery practice; but this was real. There were well-trained enemy pilots out there. These were men with the spirit of the Samurai warrior who would consider it an honor to destroy his Mustang fighter. These guys would kill him in a heartbeat.

Push the stick forward, lower the nose to gain air speed. With guns armed and adrenaline pumping, the five Mustang pilots dove into the fight. One B-25 trailed smoke from its left engine. It dropped behind the formation. Seven Japanese Zero fighters concentrated on the stricken bomber. The five Mustangs roared through the fight, firing at enemy aircraft. Three Japanese fighters exploded and plunged into the sea. The Mitchell pilot exclaimed, "Man, that was beautiful! Now lets see you guys do it again."

Dan reassured him. "We'll get 'em all for you." Greg was sure that he hadn't hit his target on the first pass. The plane he aimed for eluded his fire. Turning hard left, the five P-51's circled back to join the fray. Four enemy fighters remained. All were circling the crippled B-25. As the Mustangs approached again, one Japanese fighter hit the sea in a shower of debris. The bomber had downed one of its tormentors.

The remaining three Japanese aircraft broke off the attack and headed for New Guinea's north shore. The Mustangs gave chase. Greg suddenly found himself in hot pursuit of one fleeing Japanese Mitsubishi type A6M2 Zero fighter. No one else was on this one. He had it all to himself. The Japanese pilot was good. He was elusive. He flew headlong into a steep ravine and upward into rising countryside, dodging left and right between towering tree-lined ridges. Suddenly the Zero fighter emerged over a plateau. There was no cover here. Greg had a few fleeting seconds to aim and fire.

Fifty-caliber rounds poured from his wing guns in a burst of anger. Tracers showed clearly he was hitting his quarry. Pieces of aluminum flew away from the enemy plane just missing his Mustang. Smoke poured from the stricken enemy airplane. The Zero fighter nosed steeply upward, struggling for altitude. It had no chance to survive. The enemy pilot rolled his aircraft into a steep left bank, opened his canopy and jumped.

Greg throttled back and lowered the flaps to slow his Mustang. He watched in awe as the enemy pilot plummeted toward the jungle below. His parachute blossomed fully open an instant before he plunged into the trees. Greg wondered if the pilot had survived. Well at least he had unhorsed the rider. "Great shooting," he thought, "first mission, first kill!"

Turning back toward the coast, Greg saw no other aircraft in his vicinity. He could hear Dan talking to the B-25 pilot. Dan and Corky would escort the stricken B-25 back to its base at Port Moresby. Dan instructed the other three Mustang pilots to head for home.

Greg flew alone through the afternoon thunderheads. He was on instruments far longer than he ever wanted to be. Thank goodness his aircraft was well built. It took quite a beating on the flight home.

Greg swung his aircraft around the jungle airstrip and set up his final approach. Rubber tires squealed on steel matting sending a pungent cloud of white smoke into humid tropical air. Greg could see that his other two squadron mates had already made it back. With his crew chief, he checked his aircraft for battle damage, secured his flight gear, and set off on foot toward squadron headquarters.

Curt, and Hot Shot were already finished with their combat reports when Greg entered the tent. All seven Japanese aircraft had been destroyed. The B-25 tail gunner bagged one; Dan, Corky, and Curt each got one; Hot Shot got two; and Greg's kill brought the total to seven. Greg and each of his squadron mates had downed at least one airplane. Hot Shot's name took on a new meaning with two enemy aircraft to his credit.

Drenching rain storms closed the airstrip overnight. Corky and Dan were weathered in at Port Moresby with the B-25 squadrons. When the weather cleared, a lone P-51 returned to the fighter strip. Corky met with the other pilots and explained that he and Dan had escorted the crippled B-25 home safely.

They took off and flew eastward along the coast. Dan's Mustang blew an engine coolant line about twenty minutes into the flight. His engine overheated and seized up. He was too low to bail out. He ditched his Mustang in the Coral Sea. Corky circled the area until it was obvious that Dan did not make it out of the airplane. The sea made the first kill among the new pilots.


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