See, I wanted to get into the action This was World War II, and it was my personal war. I wanted to fight. When I was inducted, they put me, as they did everybody, through a battery of tests, and when they looked at all the results they said, “Boy, you qualified for everything. Now, you have to list what branch of service you want to serve in and, bam, then you’re off to basic training in that service and pretty soon you’re in the war, right where you want to be.”
So I took the list and checked off my three choices.
Number One was Infantry. That was the down-and-bloody place for fighting, and they said, “You put that down anywhere as a choice and that’s where you’ll go, because that’s where they need replacements all the time.” Just to make sure, I put Field Artillery as my second choice and Armored Corps as my third, and next thing you know, I’m on my way to basic training.
In the Air Force.
That’s when I began to perceive that they didn’t really much care what I wanted. Somewhere somebody was making arcane calculations of what the Army wanted. And that’s what they chose.
All right, I was in the Air Force. Then they kept me stooging around the Lower Forty-eight for two years before they at last dumped me into the hopper of the 456th Bomb Group (Heavy) weather station in Italy. It was just in time.
The rumbling and grumbling roar of B-24 motors was coming from every one of those takeoff strips that sprawled over what had once been Italian farm fields and olive groves. We weathermen just arriving from the States had got there in such a hurry that I had already pulled my first shift in the weather station by the time I dumped my baggage in the four-man tent, one of whose cots would be my home for the foreseeable future.
At last! I was in the war! The proof of that was right overhead, where some three hundred or so lubberly B-24s were fighting every attempt of their pilots to gain altitude so they could form up for the long pull across the Mediterranean to where their war would start — No! Had started already!
Once I was outside, I could see in the last glimmer of daylight those chubby B-24s nuzzling into their formations, a few of them all formed up already and already starting to line out across the Mediterranean Sea toward southern France. That’s what it was, the invasion of Southern France, begun at last! And every American and British bomber and fighter in Italy or North Africa was joining in the fight.
The sky was full dark now, stars beginning to appear, along with the little running lights of all those planes — no! It wasn’t dark! Two great blossoms of red and yellow fire swelled overhead, followed at once by the great ker-BANG blast of two B-24s that had cut their turns too fine and exploded in the air as they turned into a collision … and then, suddenly, another immense ker-BANG from a little farther away, as two more B-24s collided … and then a single, smaller blast as a plane flying by itself caught a chunk of wreckage from one of the collisions and itself blew up.
That was five heavy bombers afire at once in the sky over the 456th Bomb Group. Ten men in each crew. Fifty human beings dying before my eyes.
And the next morning at daybreak, every last cook, clerk or MP in the 456th Bomb Group was rousted out of his bed at dawn and set to join one of the wobbly lines of searchers that trudged across the earth under where the explosions had been, looking for a head, a thumb, an ear, a boot with something that once had contained a living human’s foot, to turn over to the graves registration squadrons to try their luck at identification.
That’s what I saw that first night with the 456th. There were ten men, from pilot to tailgunner, in each of those five blown-up bombers, but there were no parachutes and no survivors.
Oh, I was in the war all right. I just wasn’t allowed to do any fighting.
To be continued.