Pros and Cons
ETO - LONDON
Turning the Army jeep into the curb, Danko braked and threw the gearshift into park. As he started to pull the key from the ignition, the jeep lurched forward, the sound of metal meeting metal registered on his ears only a fraction of a second before his head encountered the steering wheel. Gently massaging the bump that was rising on his forehead, the lieutenant angrily climbed out of his jeep.
Behind the wheel of the jeep that had rear-ended his, was a young soldier; there was no hat or visible insignia to distinguish his rank. However, it was clear he was in the American Air Force as he wore the heavy leather jacket common to bomber crews. Its wool collar was turned up against the cold wind.
Too angry to care the major occupying the passenger seat of the other vehicle outranked him, Danko demanded, "Where the hell did you learn to drive, soldier?"
"I'm sorry, Lieutenant," the young soldier apologized as he climbed out of his jeep to stand beside Danko. "I just returned from a mission and I guess I haven't got my land legs, yet."
The major, a briefcase in one hand, climbed from the damaged jeep. Noting this, Danko reluctantly swallowed the ungracious statement he wanted to make and settled for the less satisfactory, but more acceptable view. "I hope you're better in the air than you are on the ground, soldier, or we'd better start learning to speak German."
With a far from snappy salute to the major, Danko turned on his heel and walked briskly up the sidewalk leading to Allied Headquarters. Though he would never admit it to the young soldier, Danko knew the accident was partially his fault. His thoughts had been on the reason behind General Worth's unexpected summons, not his driving, thus, he'd almost driven past the designated parking area. When he'd realized this, his braking had been a little more precipitous than normally prudent in such a busy area. This, however, was not something he was willing to admit to the non-com. While there had been no obvious sign of rank, Danko knew that the major would probably not rate a driver with a rank above a corporal.
Dismissing the accident from his thoughts, Danko again contemplated what this new mission might bring. The Dirty Dozen was back up to full strength after an almost disastrous mission to destroy a dam in Italy. Fearful of detection from a suspected traitor in their midst, they'd chosen to destroy the secondary target, a bridge, instead. In doing so, they'd lost five men, including the traitor. Now, they were again burdened with four unpredictable and untrained replacements. Always an unnerving circumstance.
His steps echoing loudly down the long hall, Danko slowly made his way to General Worth's office. Knocking firmly on the heavy wooden door, he waited impatiently for a summons.
No matter how often he entered the large office, Danko's eyes would automatically seek the view revealed by the large windows off to his right. The gardens they revealed were no longer as immaculate as they had once had been, but its beauty was still impressive as well as soothing. The bright colors solaced him in a world that had become filled with the darkness of death and destruction.
"Ah, Danko." Pushing away from his desk, Worth rose to his feet. "I'm glad to see you made such good time."
Reluctantly tearing his eyes away from the soothing landscape outside the window, Danko nodded. "A gas shortage has a way of preventing traffic jams, sir.¬"
"It's probably the only good result to come from rationing," agreed the general.
Never one to be patient, Danko asked, "What's going on, General? You promised me at least a week to train the replacements."
"It doesn't look like you'll get your week. Worth shook his head and came around the desk to stand beside his subordinate, "The only information I've been given is that you'll be working for the Air Corp on this mission. We'll have to wait until Colonel Gallagher of the 918th Bomb Group arrives to get the details."
"I've heard of this Gallagher," said Danko. "He's some hot¬shot bomber pilot--"
"Who flies better than he drives," a voice from the open door finished.
Even before he turned, Danko knew who would be standing behind him. Who would've guessed that the young soldier who'd struck his jeep was a full colonel? For once, an air raid siren would be welcome.
Unaware of Danko's discomfort, Worth stepped forward. "Colonel Gallagher, I'm General Worth and this is Lieutenant Danko."
Coming to attention, Gallagher saluted. "Please excuse my uniform, General, I just returned from a mission and was told to report to you immediately.¬"
"Quite all right, Colonel, I fully understand. I'm expected in a meeting at 1300. It'll probably last the rest of the day," soothed Worth, moving to stand behind his desk. "But from what Ed Britt tells me, your problem can't wait."
"He was right, sir." Turning to the major who'd been standing quietly behind him, Gallagher asked, "Harvey would you set up the pictures?"
The three men slowly followed the major to a large table set against the back wall. As they did so, Gallagher explained, "Twice now, we've tried to bomb Stuttgart. Both times we've been turned back by fighters and flak and had to settle for secondary targets."
"That sounds like an Air Force problem," Danko pointed out, "not an Army problem."
The youthful features hardened. "That's where you're wrong, Lieutenant. The factories in Stuttgart build engines, for planes, for ships, and for tanks. That makes it everyone's problem."
As the two men angrily squared off, Worth calmly intervened, "How does General Britt think a commando unit can help?"
Reluctantly pulling his gaze from the irate lieutenant, Gallagher stepped closer to the photographs Stovall had laid out on the table. "Intelligence believes there's an advanced radar unit operating in Wissembourg, a small town northeast of Stuttgart." Gallagher picked up one of the photographs and put his finger on a large building in the center of the town. "They think this is where the unit is located.¬"
"They believe? They think?" Danko picked up another of the photographs and studied it before practically throwing it at Gallagher. "You want me to risk twelve men on conjecture?"
Worth angrily stepped between the two men. "That'll be enough, Lieutenant."
"It's all right General." Gallagher held up a placating hand. His own anger no longer visible, he met Danko's eyes with his own, "I know how you feel, Lieutenant. The day before yesterday, I led two hundred and ten B-17's to Stuttgart; seventeen of them didn't return. Yesterday, I led another hundred and fifty bombers to the same target; ten of them didn't come back. That's two hundred and seventy men in two days. We tried again this morning, but got turned back by cloud cover. As soon as the weather clears, I'll have to try it again and keep trying 'til we finally reach the target and destroy it."
Never had Danko heard so much pain and so much determination in another man's voice. The youthful features of the boy he'd reprimanded for hitting his jeep had disappeared to be replaced by eyes old beyond their years. It was a face that could no longer mask the emotional pain of ordering men to their deaths.
Unaware of his subordinate's change of heart, Worth asked, "Why don't you bomb the installation yourselves?"
Handing the General a photograph showing more of the area surrounding the building, Harvey Stovall replied, "If we did, we'd probably destroy much of the town. Something our allies might not appreciate. You see, Wissembourg's in France."
"Damn Krauts think of everything," Worth disgustedly noted.
"Not everything," contradicted Danko, his face reflecting a determination that matched Gallagher's. "They didn't count on the Dirty Dozen."
"Can my men expect help from the underground?" asked Worth. "Though it's technically French, many of Wissembourg's citizens are sympathetic "to the Germans," explained Stovall. "Therefore, there is no organized resistance in the area. It's a small town, so any newcomers would be spotted immediately."
Danko sighed in frustration. "You're just full of good news."
The hope clearly audible in his voice, Gallagher inquired, "Can you destroy the installation?"
"We'll damn well give it a try, Colonel." Burying his earlier animosity, Danko smiled encouragingly. "How much time can you give me before you have to fly another mission?"
Stovall took his glasses out of his breast pocket and put them on before pulling a file from the briefcase. Opening it, he reported, "Cloud cover is expected to clear by 1400, day after tomorrow."
"That doesn't give us much time." Danko picked up a photograph with a building circled in red. "But, we'll see what we can do."
Shaking his head, Gallagher sighed, taking years off the tired face. "I never thought I'd see the day that I'd want it to be overcast."
Danko smiled back. "If you plan a picnic instead of a mission, I guarantee there'll be rain."
Hidden safely behind a plank fence, Danko watched with satisfaction as the building they'd been sent to destroy burned brightly against the night sky. Lebec's explosives had been expertly placed. Instead of blowing out, the building had blown inward; collapsing the walls upon itself so there was little damage to the surrounding area.
The mission had been executed with a surprising ease. The objective had been reached in time and he'd lost no men. When the skies had started to clear in the late afternoon, Danko had gotten nervous. He knew the bombers would be taking off earlier than expected. It was the Dirty Dozen's job to see that they weren't greeted by flak or fighters, and they'd done their job well.
Tapping the shoulder of the curly-haired man squatting beside him, Danko whispered, "Let's go, Leeds. We're supposed to rendezvous with the others in fifteen minutes."
"Too bad I forgot to bring marshmallows," said Leeds, the light from the flames momentarily illuminating his lean face.
Danko tried not to smile as he pointed to the German soldiers converging on the scene. "I think it's a bit too hot for that, in more ways than one."
"You've got a point," Leeds agreed, rising to his feet.
As the two men cautiously slipped away into the countryside, Danko muttered, "Roasting marshmallows? I never would've figured you for a Boy Scout, Leeds."
"Well, I wasn't one, officially," admitted the forger. "But I used to help little old ladies across the street all the time."
Danko had no illusions about the men he commanded. Grateful for the loud fire alarm allowing him to continue the conversation, he asked, "How much did you charge those poor little old ladies?"
"Not much considering I was risking life and limb. Have you ever tried to cross Chicago's State Street at rush hour, Lieutenant?" Leeds defensively inquired.
"How much?" pressed Danko, hoping the darkness hid his smile.
Though it was impossible to see the younger man's face, the slight hesitation before his reply spoke volumes. "It was the depression, Lieutenant."
When the moon suddenly broke through the clouds, the two men found shelter in the shadow of a tree. Finally, Leeds admitted, "A penny a crossing."
"A real bargain considering the hazardous conditions," Danko sarcastically replied.
"That's what I thought, too," Leeds agreed, "but the cop who pinched me didn't see it that way."
The moon slipped back behind the clouds, allowing the two men to resume their journey. His eyes constantly searching the shadows, Danko commiserated, "Not much of an entrepreneur, was he?"
"You and he would've gotten along great, Lieutenant," Leeds wryly observed.
The sirens faded forcing them to continue their trip in silence. Both men were acutely aware of the dangers hidden in the darkness, but so far they'd been very lucky. Danko hoped the other teams had been as fortunate. Roy and Lebec had the longest distance to cover to the rendezvous, while Feke and Vern had the shortest. Still, despite the danger, Danko knew they all preferred having had a role in the destruction of the radar station. It was better than the babysitting job assigned to Cutter and Farrell.
The two men had been left to wait, no doubt impatiently, inside a dark, wet cave with four untrained, yet potentially treacherous recruits. Left as a rear guard, it would be their job to complete the mission if the original assault failed. A backup which, fortunately, had been unnecessary. As he moved stealthily through the darkness, Danko realized that for the first time, he just might return to England with the same twelve men he'd left with.
When Leeds warning was abruptly cut off, Danko turned, ready to assist the younger man. Before he could do so, however, his arms were pulled behind him and held firmly in a grip as strong as steel. Though he couldn't see the man holding him, the full moon creeping out from behind a bank of clouds illuminated the two men struggling with Leeds. Danko relaxed when he saw that their attackers weren't German soldiers as he'd originally believed, but were instead farmers, or so their clothes seemed to indicate.
"It's all right, Leeds," Danko quietly whispered. "I think they're friends."
"You couldn't tell it by me," panted Leeds, massaging an aching shoulder.
When his own arms were released, Danko turned to face a man as big, if not bigger, than Vern. Shaking his arms to get the circulation going again, the American asked, "Do you speak English?"
"I do," said one of the men standing beside Leeds. "My name is Jacque."
Trying to keep the annoyance from his voice, Danko inquired, "What are you doing here? I was told there was no resistance in this area."
"We are not from this area," explained Jacque. "One of my men was out scouting last night and saw your parachutes. When he told me, I knew I had to come and warn you."
Puzzled, Danko pointed out, "Up 'til now, we haven't had any trouble. What did you need to warn us about?"
"The building you just blew up was empty," Jacque emotionlessly stated. "It was what you Americans call a red earring."
"Herring, pal," Leeds hastily corrected. "Don't talk about earrings to a man who shares a room with nine other guys."
Danko ignored the forger as he demanded, "What are you talking about?"
"There was no radar in that building as the Germans wanted you to believe. The facility you seek is in Bruchsal, northwest of here, across the border in Germany," supplied Jacque.
"Why didn't you inform the Allies?" snapped Danko, no longer able to bury his anger.
"We were not sure ourselves 'til last night. Rene," Jacque pointed to the man standing behind Danko, "just returned with the information as we were setting out to look for you."
"Dammit!" Danko angrily paced the small area separating the two groups.
"That means he's not happy," interpreted Leeds.
"American," Jacque soothed, "we know where the radar installation is. You can still destroy it."
Stopping his pacing, Danko eagerly inquired, "Before tomorrow afternoon?"
"No, that would not be possible," admitted Jacque. "It is too dangerous to travel by the roads. After your activities tonight, the Boche will be everywhere looking for you."
Unless the weather changed for the worse, Danko realized there was no way they could destroy the radar unit before Gallagher launched his next mission. Danko knew the young colonel was counting on them. It was hard enough to lead over a thousand men to face death. Harder still when the deck was stacked against you. Yet, even if they couldn't reach Bruchsal in time to aid this mission, Danko knew they had to destroy the installation. Gallagher had said he would keep trying.
"Jacque, can you take us to Bruchsal?" he asked. "Show us where the installation is?"
"Qui. It will be a difficult journey, but we can show you," Jacque agreed.
"Leeds," ordered Danko, "go get the others and bring them here. Tell them to move it or I'll have'em doing KP for the duration."
"Yes, sir," Leeds unhesitatingly agreed. Even as the last letter rolled off his tongue, the forger was slipping quietly into the darkness.
918th BOMB GROUP
Harvey slowly opened the door into his commanding officer's sleeping quarters, hoping his deliberation would silence the normally squeaking hinges. Even with the previous day off, he knew Gallagher had to be tired. While most of the men had taken the opportunity to relax, the colonel had spent his time catching up on the paper work that accumulated while he was flying. This was a burden Harvey tried to ease, often working late into the night himself. Unfortunately, there were too many reports only the commanding officer could endorse.
The glow from a cigarette shone through the darkness telling Harvey that his stealth was unnecessary. Smoke wafted around his head, the pungent odor clearly showing that this wasn't Gallagher's first cigarette. A light snapped on next to the bed as the older man crossed the room.
"Time to get up already, Harv?" The voice was resigned, belying the apparent eagerness of the almost sleepless night.
"0500, Joe." As Gallagher sat up on the edge of the bed already dressed for the mission, Harvey put a steaming cup of coffee in his hand. "Briefing's in half an hour."
"To what do I owe the honor of this early morning visit?" asked Gallagher, taking a cautious sip of the hot liquid.
Harvey uneasily admitted, "I told Sandy I'd wake you. I wanted to talk to you before the briefing.¬"
"About?" prompted Gallagher.
Nervously fingering the bill of the hat he'd taken off before entering the room, Harvey said, "About my flying this mission."
"You flew the last two missions," snapped Gallagher, angrily stubbing out his cigarette. "You didn't come close enough to death? You want to give it another chance?"
"Every mission we fly, we face death," Stovall pointed out. Forcing himself to remain calm, he continued, "This one is no different than any other.¬"
"How can you say that?" cried Gallagher, slamming down his cup. The hot liquid spilled, painfully scorching his fingers. Gently sucking the reddened flesh, he mumbled, "Over two hundred men have already lost their lives without even reaching the target. I don't want you to become the two hundred and first."
Pulling a chair close to the bed, Harvey sat down, "It'll be different this time, Joe. The Krauts won't know we're coming."
"If Danko's done his job," Gallagher pointed out. "If he hasn't, it won't be any different today than it was the day before yesterday or the day before that.¬
"Which is why you need me." Sitting forward in his chair, Stovall pressed, "After the heavy losses, you're gonna have a lot of green kids up there. You need my experience.¬"
Gallagher reclaimed his coffee cup. "You're too tired, Harvey."
"And you're not?" countered Stovall.
"You were when this war started," interrupted Stovall. "You're not anymore."
"That's ridiculous." Gallagher smiled and shook his head. "We've both had the same number of birthdays since the Japs bombed Pearl Harbor."
"I'm not talking about chronological age, Joe. A couple of years ago the biggest worry most of these kids had was what girl to ask to the Senior Prom. You graduated from West Point only five years ago." Gesturing outside, Stovall sadly continued, "Look at those kids now. Look at yourself. Can you honestly say you don't look and feel at least ten years older than you are?"
Gallagher took a sip of the rapidly cooling coffee. His eyes focused on its dark depths, he asked, "What's that got to do with you flying this mission?"
"I got some rest yesterday. Did you?" Gallagher remained silent as Stovall pointed out, "This war hasn't physically made me all that much older than you.¬"
"What makes you think it hasn't affected you along with the rest of us?" Gallagher put his coffee cup on the end table and picked up a cigarette and lighter.
Sitting back in his chair, Harvey forced himself to relax. "I don't fly as many missions as the rest of you, plus, this isn't my first war. I've had the chance to experience life. I watched my son grow up. Most of these kids will never get that opportunity."
Gallagher lit his cigarette and took a long pull before demanding, "Are you trying to say you have less to live for than the rest of us?"
"No," contradicted Stovall, "I just don't have anything more."
A light tap on the door drew both men's notice. Standing at attention, Komansky said, "Excuse me, sirs. Doctor Kaiser just called. He says Captain Lewis has a fever of 102 and won't be able to fly."
"Who do we have in the Pilots Pool to replace him?" asked Gallagher, gently massaging his temple.
"No one, sir," Komansky replied, "that's why I thought I'd better report it immediately. Do you want me to scratch Captain Lewis' plane sir?"
Gallagher had smoked almost half his cigarette before he reluctantly broke the long silence. "Major Stovall will take Captain Lewis' place, Sandy and lead the high squadron."
"Yes, sir." Komansky saluted before rushing from the room to fill out the paperwork required for the switch.
Knocking the ashes off his cigarette, Gallagher thoughtfully regarded his friend, "Are you happy now, Harv?"
"I'm too scared to be happy," admitted Stovall.
Gallagher shook his head in puzzlement. "Then why did you almost force me to let you fly?"¬
"If fear could stop a war, there would never be any wars," Harvey sadly pointed out. "But if you let fear stop you from doing your job, you'll never be free.¬"
SOMEWHERE IN THE GERMAN COUNTRYSIDE
The first rays of the early morning sun glowed on the horizon as Danko hurried his men across the long bridge that spanned the Rhine River. At this moment, they were vulnerable to any passing enemy patrol. The weapons they carried belied the image of simple farmers that their clothing suggested. Danko didn't relax until the last man had entered the forest bordering the river.
"You know," Leeds shifted the heavy rifle he carried from his right shoulder to his left, "I think that's the first time we've ever crossed a bridge without blowing it up behind us."
Danko's frustration found its release in anger. "Since you've got enough energy to talk, Leeds, you can join Rene on point."
"Yes, sir." Leeds reply was less than enthusiastic as he pulled the rifle off his shoulder and joined the taller man.
The two men were barely ant of sight before Danko was ordering, "Let's go."
Johannsen, one of the new men with an expertise for anything electrical, dropped to the ground. "I don't know about the rest of you guys, but I'm taking a break."
"On your feet, Johannsen," Danko ordered. "We'll rest when we have the time to rest, not before."
"And when will that be? When we're all dead?" Insolently, Johannsen continued, "In case you never heard, Lieutenant, Lincoln freed the slaves eighty years ago."
Unholstering his pistol, Danko pointed it at the taller man. "The Emancipation Proclamation didn't free a man who electrocuted his sergeant, I did. Now, on your feet, soldier, or I'll kill you where you're sitting."
"And draw every Kraut within five miles?" Johannsen shook his head. "I don't think so."
Danko handed his gun to Cutter. In the blink of an eye, he had an arm around the heavier man's neck and a knee pressed against his spine. "I don't need a gun to kill a man, Johannsen."
Tugging ineffectually at the arm cutting off his air, Johannsen gasped, "All right, all right."
Danko eased his grip and moved away. Reclaiming his gun from the sergeant, he said, "Don't disobey my orders again, Johannsen. There are no second chances in this unit."
Without sparing the other man another glance, Danko started walking in the same direction Leeds and Rene had taken minutes before. It had been a long time since any of the convicts he'd recruited had challenged his authority. He'd almost become complacent. A situation that could be dangerous, not only to himself but to the men who followed him. Particularly Sergeant Cutter, an M.P. who'd joined the unit after Sergeant Butts had been wounded on a mission. Though Danko was sometimes annoyed by the man's almost excessive military mentality, it was these qualities that also made him indispensable. When you were dealing with convicts, a sense of discipline without physical abuse was important.
The first con Danko had recruited was Janosz Feke. Originally from Hungary, Feke's talents were almost indispensable. He could speak German and a number of other languages fluently. His hatred of the Germans, who had killed his family, made him a formidable assassin. However, it also made him unpredictable.
Jean Lebec was a Cajun from New Orleans. As an explosives expert and medic, his talents were vital. So far, more than half of their missions had involved blowing an important enemy installation. Unfortunately, his medical skills were insufficient to stop the bullets and shrapnel that tore up a man's body. Though they had yet to return from a mission with all twelve of the men they'd left with, many who had made it out alive were indebted to the gentle man from Louisiana.
As a forger and an ex-fence, Dylan Leeds had special talents that were illegal in a normal society, but had become crucial in the twisted world that had existed since Germany invaded Poland. Additionally, he was fluent in Italian, one of the few languages Feke couldn't speak. But, even more than these assets, Danko was thankful for the boy's sense of humor. Leeds could ease a difficult situation with a single word.
Smiling, Danko let his thoughts turn to Farrell. An actor before the war, the tall, blond had a naiveté that had yet to be destroyed by the horrors they'd witnessed. Many of the other cons had taken to calling him "Tarzan" in reference to his "almost" being cast in the coveted role.
Roy and Vern Beaubuff were brothers from the Pacific Northwest. Though the elder of the two, Roy was about half his brother's size, this shortness of stature coupled with an equal shortness of temper often got the boy into situations that required Vern's assistance in extricating him.
These men were the core of the Dirty Dozen. Danko recognized it, even it Worth didn't. The rest of the team, Johannsen, Bishop, Lowry, and Reynolds were no more than excess baggage. Lambs led to the slaughter by overly ambitious superiors. Limited training left them vulnerable, their talents often wasted before they could be utilized.
"I think we better stop and rest, Lieutenant," suggested Lebec.
Idly, Danko wondered how long Lebec had been walking beside him. He must be more tired than he thought not to have noticed the man's presence. "We don't have time to rest."
"We better make time," protested Lebec. "If we met the enemy right now, most of these guys wouldn't have the strength to lift a gun, much less fire it."¬
Disregarding his own exhaustion as well as the weariness that marked the face of the young man beside him, Danko shook his head. "You'd be surprised at what you can do when your life is on the line."
"Come on, Lieutenant," Lebec pleaded. "We've been on the run since we parachuted into France."
As Danko contemplated his options, Leeds and Rene appeared through the trees, their presence revealed by sight, not sound.
"Listen, Lieutenant," ordered the forger.
Above the sound of rustling leaves and chirping insects, Danko heard a dull roar high above his head. As he pulled a pair of binoculars from his pack and raised them to his eyes, the unmistakable roar of anti-aircraft guns drowned out the other sounds. "Damn, they're early!"
"Who?" asked Lebec.
Ignoring the question, Danko lowered the glasses and addressed the tall Frenchman, "Rene, how much further to the installation?"
"A kilometer, maybe two," replied Rene, holding up two fingers obviously not trusting his meager command of the English language.
"Is there a place where we can hide?" asked Danko, again raising the binoculars to his eyes.
Rene nodded. "There is a bridge. Underneath is a place to hide. "
The white canopies of the parachutes Danko had first seen through the binoculars now became visible to the naked eye. Gesturing to the sky, the lieutenant noted, "We better find shelter fast. Pretty soon these woods will be crawling with Krauts looking for those flyboys."
"Couldn't we help 'em, Lieutenant?" Farrell hesitantly inquired.
Danko shook his head. "Not without jeopardizing the mission. Now let's move it."
Even as he forced his tired body into a slow jog, Danko wondered how many planes would be shot down today? How many men would die without reaching the target again? He could only imagine the anger and resentment Gallagher must be feeling. It hurt that the young colonel might never know Danko's own disappointment.
THE PICADILLY LILY
HIGH ABOVE THE GERMAN COUNTRYSIDE
Pressing the interphone to his throat, Gallagher called, "Pilot to navigator, how much longer to the I.P., Frank?"
"Fifteen minutes, Skipper," replied the young navigator.
Even though the heading shouldn't have alerted the Germans to their target, the flak and fighters that had greeted them on their previous missions to Stuttgart surrounded them now. The fighters seemed undaunted by the flak, and continued their assault on the mighty fortresses long after they normally would've broken off. Battered by the dual attacks, six B-17's had already gone down in flames.
The Picadilly Lily had lost one engine and another was running hot. Sweat poured down his face as Gallagher fought the damaged aircraft. Barely noticing the pale features of his young co-pilot, Gallagher ordered, "Release the green flare, Jim. We're going for the secondary target."
"Thank God," the young man gasped as he reached for the switch behind his head.
His right hand fighting the wheel, Gallagher used his left to press the mike against his throat. "Pilot to navigator. Frank, plot a course for the secondary target."
Even as the acknowledgement cracked over the line, the Lily shuddered under the dual attack of 80mm and 20mm shells. "Damage report," ordered Gallagher.
"Right waist to pilot," the fear in the young voice was clearly audible, but the report was clear and concise, "number three engine is on fire and number four is leaking oil."
"Feather three and four," Gallagher hastily addressed his co-pilot.
"But that'll only leave us with one engine," protested Jim.
"Feather them before we blow up," Gallagher angrily repeated. Pressing the mike to his throat he continued, "Pilot to crew, we've lost three engines, boys. I'll try to keep her in the air as long as I can. Bail out."
The co-pilot needed no second bidding. He was out of his seat and through the hatch before Gallagher's last word had left his lips. Dropping down from the turret, Komansky's boots barely missed the scared young man's head.
His face clearly showing his disgust at the co-pilot's hasty retreat, Sandy said, "Come on, Skipper, before she goes into a spin."
"I'll be right behind you, Sergeant," Gallagher replied. "Now get out of here."
Gallagher knew the tail gunner had a long, narrow passage to traverse, and he wanted to give the boy as much chance as possible to escape the damaged aircraft. Komansky had just dropped through the hatch when Gallagher felt his tenuous control start to slip. Praying that the rest of the crew had made a safe exit, he kept one hand on the control stick as he crawled out of the cramped seat. If the plane started to spiral before he could jump, he'd be trapped in the doomed aircraft.
UNDER A BRIDGE NEAR BRUCHSAL, GERMANY
The sun was just starting to creep down the western sky when Danko ventured from their hiding place beneath the bridge. Though he had been unable to sleep in the intervening hours, he had rested. The only ones who had been able to sleep were the four recruits, making Danko wish once again that he was given more time to train the new men thrust upon him. Their stamina was far below that of the other members of the Dirty Dozen.
Rounding the bend in the river, Danko stealthily made his way to Cutter's hiding place. The spot the sergeant and Feke had chosen as a lookout was easily defensible as well as abundant with cover for possible escape. The deep shadow of a large boulder provided concealment. Danko focused his eyes on the road that ran along the river of the opposite bank. "How does it look, Sergeant?"
"Them Krauts ain't exactly gone on vacation, Lieutenant, but they ain't runnin' around like a chicken with its head cut off, neither," Cutter graphically replied.
Danko smiled at the analogy. "So you think it's safe to do a recon patrol?"
"Safe ain't the word I'd use," Cutter contradicted. "Risky is a better description.¬"
Slapping the Sergeant on the shoulder, Danko pointed out, "Sitting under a bridge, hoping the German Army doesn't discover you also has its risks.¬"
"You've got a point, sir," conceded Cutter.
"I'm going to take Feke, Lebec, and Rene, and go have a look at that radar installation," Danko explained. "You stay here with the rest of the guys. If we don't come back, it's up to you to complete the mission.¬"
"Full of optimism, aren't you, Lieutenant?" Feke sarcastically noted.
"I call it being realistic," countered Danko.
SOMEWHERE IN THE GERMAN COUNTRYSIDE
Slowly regaining consciousness, Gallagher groaned as he pushed his aching body off the hard ground. Wondering how long he'd been unconscious, he cautiously climbed to his feet, grateful that his parachute had caught on a rock instead of dragging him halfway across the German countryside. As he put his weight on his left ankle, he grimaced with pain. He was pretty sure the bone hadn't broken, but he didn't dare take his boot off to examine it. If the ankle swelled as he was sure it would, he'd never be able to get the boot back on. Ignoring the pain, he gathered the voluminous material that made up his parachute. He would have to hide it if he hoped to escape enemy detection.
His hands were full of the silky material when he heard a rustling in a bush to his left. Dropping to his knees, he released the parachute and pulled out his pistol. When a leather bomber jacket crept cautiously through the trees, Gallagher sighed with relief. Recognizing the familiar figure, his spirits rose.
Keeping his voice low, he called, "Sandy, over here."
His eyes alertly scanning the surrounding area, Komansky crossed to his superior's side. "Are you hurt, sir?"
"I think I sprained my ankle," Gallagher replied in frustration.
"I'll get rid of the parachute, Skipper, then I think we better find a place to hide," Sandy suggested, already gathering the silky material into his arms. "This place has been crawling with Krauts. That's why it took me so long to find you."
"What do you mean?" asked Gallagher, surprise clearly audible in his voice. "I only landed a short time ago."
"That's not possible, sir. It's been four hours since we jumped," the sergeant anxiously explained.
No longer able to ignore the dull ache in his head, Gallagher gently fingered the bump that had risen above his left ear. Sheepishly, he said, "I guess I hit my head harder than I thought."
Stuffing the parachute into a hole between two boulders, Komansky asked, "Will you be all right, sir?"
"Except for a headache, I seem to be fine," assured Gallagher.
His task completed, Komansky returned to Gallagher's side. "I think we better go, Skipper."
The sound of a branch breaking near the same spot where Komansky had emerged made Gallagher raise his pistol. Keeping it aimed at the area, he let Sandy help him over to concealment behind the rocks. When no one emerged and there was no repetition of the sound, Gallagher began to think the noise had been made by a frightened animal. Relaxing slightly, he still kept his eyes focused alertly on the surrounding trees as he stepped away from their concealment.
"I thought you said you could fly better than you drive?"
Only the familiarity of the voice kept Gallagher's finger from squeezing the trigger as he whirled around to face the man standing behind him. "What the hell are you doing here, Danko?"
"For starters," smiled Danko, "rescuing you."
Holstering his gun, Gallagher angrily observed, "I wouldn't have needed rescuing if you'd done your job."
The smile faded as Danko snapped, "We did our job. It's too bad your so called intelligence didn't do theirs."
"What are you talking about?" asked Gallagher.
"We blew up the wrong building," Danko explained. "Or rather, we blew up the right building, it just didn't happen to contain the radar installation."
Dazed, Gallagher shook his head. "Why are you here?"
"We met up with the resistance, and they told us where the real installation was," said Danko, the smile returning to his face.
The anger that had colored his voice faded as Gallagher eagerly inquired, "Where is it? Can you destroy it?"
"As to where it is," Danko gestured to the north, "you nearly parachuted into it. Whether we can destroy it or not? Well, that's what we're about to find out."
For the first time since Danko's appearance, Gallagher's glance strayed to his young sergeant. He smiled as he noted the confusion on the dirty face and the gun still pointed at the Lieutenant. "It's all right, Sandy, believe it or not, he's one of us."
"I very much doubt that, sir," muttered Komansky.
"Close enough," Gallagher corrected himself. "He's an Army lieutenant."
His face flushed with embarrassment, Sandy lowered his pistol. "I'm sorry, sir."
"That's all right, Sergeant," Danko nonchalantly replied. "There were a few rifles pointing at you."
Three figures emerged from the trees, their weapons no longer aimed at the airmen, though they were held alertly in strong hands. "These are two of my men," Danko introduced, "Feke and Lebec." Pointing to the tall man in the middle, Danko continued, "And this is our guide, Rene, of the French resistance."
Nodding an acknowledgement to the introductions, Gallagher impatiently asked, "Now where's that radar installation?"
"According to Rene, it's just over the next hill," said Danko, gesturing behind him. "Why don't you wait here with your sergeant, while we go have a look? Then, we'll take you back to where the rest of my men are hidden."
"I'm coming with you, Lieutenant," said Gallagher, already limping in the direction Danko had indicated.
Barely suppressing his frustration with a superior officer who'd apparently lost his senses, Danko unhappily agreed, "Yes, sir."
By the time they reached the hill, Gallagher was leaning heavily on Komansky's shoulder and hoping that Danko hadn't noticed. The radar installation they sought had contributed to the deaths of over two hundred of his men. He wanted it destroyed before it took any more.
"Feke," Danko pointed to his right, "you keep watch over there. Rene, you stay here and keep a look out."
"I'm coming with you," Gallagher hastily asserted.
Shaking his head, Danko replied, "I figured you would." Noting the determination on Komansky's face, he reluctantly added, "Your watchdog can come, too. Let's go, Lebec."
The four men quietly climbed the hill. Close to the top, Danko motioned to the ground with his hands. Dropping to their stomachs, they crawled their way to the crest.
Unlike the nondescript building in Wissembourg, the real radar installation was housed in a thick concrete bunker surrounded by barbed wire and soldiers. Two sets of barracks flanked the building. There was only one entrance through the barbed wire fence, and it was heavily guarded.
Fighting the despair that filled him, Gallagher followed the others as they crawled back down the hill. No one said a word as they retraced their steps. They were a safe distance from the installation before Gallagher found the courage to ask, "Can you destroy it?"
"I don't know," Danko unhappily admitted. "Lebec?"
The Cajun shook his head. "You saw the building, Lieutenant. The only way to blow it up is from the inside."
"What about a concentrated bomber attack?" suggested Gallagher.
"You'd destroy the compound and probably kill a lot of Germans," Lebec replied, "but, I don't think you'd destroy what's in the building. As I said, the only way to do that is to plant explosives on the inside."
Stopping to rest his aching ankle, Gallagher frowned. "Then we'll have to find a way to get inside the compound."
"Excuse me, Colonel," Danko firmly asserted, "I'll find a way in. You and your sergeant can wait in a nice, safe hiding place or you can start finding your own way home."
Gallagher smiled as he started walking again. "I don't think so, Danko."
"We're on the ground, Colonel. This is my command."
"I realize that, Lieutenant," Gallagher didn't stop walking or smiling, "but, you see, you can't get rid of me. I'm your way into the compound."
UNDER A BRIDGE NEAR BRUCHSAL, GERMANY
As the moon played leapfrog with the clouds, Danko anxiously paced the deep shadows under the bridge between the river and his sleeping men - or at least the men who weren't on patrol or lookout. Cutter, Feke, Vern, Roy, and Leeds had been gone almost two hours. More than enough time to capture a German command car and four uniforms.
Though he was concerned for his men, Danko knew this wasn't what was making him pace. It was Gallagher's plan for getting into the installation that had him worried. Danko generally had little respect for most of the officers he'd served with. They were quite willing to risk the lives of their men but rarely willing to risk their own. Gallagher, however, was different. He knew the installation had to be destroyed, and he was willing to put his life on the line to do it.
There was no noise to alert Danko that his men had returned. He'd sensed their presence before their sudden appearance. "How did it go?"
"A piece of cake, Lieutenant," Cutter proudly stated. "Those Jerries never knew what hit them."
"Then what the hell took you so long?" demanded Danko in exasperation.
A German uniform draped nonchalantly across his shoulder, Leeds said, "That isn't exactly State Street out there, Lieutenant. It took a while for the right car to drive by. Then we had to hide it."
Accepting the explanation grudgingly, Danko asked, "What ranks are the uniforms?"
"One major, one corporal, and two privates," supplied Vern.
For the first time since he'd heard the plan, Danko smiled. "So far everything seems to be going our way.
"The only thing we have to worry about now," said Feke brushing some dirt off the German uniforms he was holding, "is that Gallagher's name will open the doors he says it will."
Quietly joining the small group, Kamansky confidently noted, "That's the least of your worries. Any Kraut with half a brain knows who Colonel Gallagher is."
"That's good," offered Leeds, nodding his head, "that's about all the brains most of those Jerries got."
Danko smiled and shook his head in mock exasperation. "All right you eight balls, go sack out. Morning isn't that far off."
As the others drifted away to find a comfortable place to sleep on the hard, rocky ground, Komansky remained at Danko's side. "Is something wrong, Sergeant?" asked the older man.
Komansky hesitated before replying, "Permission to speak frankly, sir?"
"We're hardly in a situation where it's wise to keep secrets, Sergeant," said Danko.
"I was talking to Johannsen," Komansky explained. "He told me that most of your men are convicts."
"Not most," corrected Danko, "all, including myself. The only ones who aren't are Sergeant Cutter and the Frenchmen." The darkness hid the sergeant's reaction, but just as Danko had sensed the presence of his men, he felt the young man's shock.
"I…don't understand, sir," Komansky hesitantly admitted.
Suddenly feeling the exhaustion he'd ignored for so long, Danko crossed to a boulder at the edge of the river. Sitting down, he wearily leaned against it. He wasn't surprised to find Komansky beside him. In fact, he would've been disappointed if the young man hadn't followed him. "If they can live through this war, these men, my men, will have their sentences commuted. They've been offered amnesty in return for their unique talents."
"I wouldn't call murder or rape a unique talent, sir," Komansky argued.
"Wait 'til you see them in action," suggested Danko. "Then, maybe, you'll understand what I'm talking about."
"Will it be safe?" Komansky asserted. "For the colonel?"
Danko was surprised by the question. He had rarely seen such loyalty between two such disparate ranks. One could almost call it friendship. "With the three men I'm sending in with him, Colonel Gallagher couldn't be any safer if he was in his mother's arms."
"I just wish I could go with them," admitted the unhappy young man.
Hearing the fear in the admission, Danko apologized, "I'm sorry, there isn't room. Feke's the only one who can speak fluent German and can pass as a major. Lebec's the only one who knows where to set the explosives, and Leeds can speak Italian if he's questioned and knows how to drive a command car."
"No," interrupted Danko, "there's only enough room in the trunk for me."
Komansky rose to his feet and leaned against the boulder, pounding his fist into its hard surface. "There's got to be something I can do to help."
"You'll be busy," promised Danko. "The only way we'll be able to get out of that compound with your colone1 is to shoot our way out. We're gonna need every gun we can muster on that hill to back us up."
"Just take care of the colonel, will ya, sir?" His face flushed a bright red, Komansky nonetheless unhesitatingly added, "He's pretty special, ya know."
"I know. I found out at our first meeting," said Danko, gently fingering the bruise on his forehead.
THE GERMAN RADAR INSTALLATION NEAR BRUCHSAL
Feke hoped that his nervousness would look like impatience as he waited for the guard to check his papers. "I don't have all day, Sergeant."
"Sorry, sir," the sergeant swallowed uneasily as he crossed to the phone in the guard hut. "No visitors are allowed to enter without Colonel Meinhof's permission.¬"
"Then get it." In apparent anger, Feke waved his hand at the phone. "Be sure you tell him I have a captured American pilot."
While he waited, Feke carefully studied the position of every soldier and gun within sight. Even as he did so, he knew Leeds and Lebec were doing the same. It was careful preparation that had kept them alive in the past -- and would hopefully keep them alive in the future.
Returning to the car, the German Sergeant handed Feke his papers and saluted. "I'm sorry, sir, Colonel Meinhof says this is not a POW camp. He suggests you take your prisoner to Stuttgart."
"I don't have time for that," snapped Feke. "I'm expected in Heidelburg within the hour."
The sergeant returned to his phone. A short conversation was followed by a quick return. "The colonel says that is not his problem."
Feke shifted uneasily and threw a despairing glance into the back seat. Lebec couldn't speak German, so he couldn't understand the problem, though it was obvious he knew there was one. Gallagher, however, apparently understood enough as he kept glancing down at his uniform. Following the gaze to the name written on the pocket of the jumpsuit, Feke sighed and crossed his fingers before turning his attention back to the sergeant. "Tell your colonel that my prisoner is Colonel Gallagher."
"Yes, sir." The phone call was much shorter this time. The sergeant waved to the private standing next to the barricade. "Colonel Meinhof says he will be happy to receive you."
"Thank you, Sergeant." Feke had trouble keeping the smile off his face as he waved Leeds through the gate.
The car had barely pulled to a stop in front of the large bunker when two men emerged from its dark recesses. From the insignia on the uniforms, Feke knew that the tall man leading the way must be Colonel Meinhof. The other man, a lieutenant, opened Feke's door before he could do so himself. Exiting the car, Feke saluted. "Colonel Meinhof, I am Major Righter. I appreciate your taking this prisoner off my hands. I'm sure you understand why I felt he should be taken to a maximum security installation."
"Quite right, Major. It's my pleasure." Meinhof's eyes were already focused on Gallagher, the feral gleam in them sending a chill up Feke's spine.
"Raus," ordered Feke, pointing at the prisoner. Lebec's gun remained aimed at Gallagher's back as the man climbed awkwardly from the car. Only when Gallagher had reached Feke's side did Lebec exit the car.
His gaze never wavering from the disheveled airman, Meinhof said, "Thank you, Major. You have given me the chance to meet the man who has personally destroyed much of the fatherland. His capture will bring great joy to our superiors in Berlin."
"I'm happy to assist the Fuhrer in any way I can," smiled Feke.
"Do you have time for a cup of coffee before you continue your journey?" Meinhof graciously offered.
Though it was obvious that the colonel hoped he would decline, Feke nodded agreement. "On a day such as this, a hot drink would be most welcome."
"Bring him," Meinhof ordered, waving a hand at Gallagher before leading the way into the bunker.
Acting as though he was still guarding "the prisoner," Lebec kept pace, his gun at Gallagher's back. Feke motioned to Leeds to turn the car around before following the unnamed lieutenant.
Inside the bunker, Meinhof stopped and spoke in a surprisingly accent-free English. "Take Colonel Gallagher to my office," he ordered, motioning to his subordinate. "You may begin the interrogation. I'll join you shortly."
"Interrogation?" Feke questioned.
Meinhof nodded. "There are many things I would like to know about the way the American Air Force operates. I'm sure Colonel Gallagher will be happy to tell me."
"I wouldn't count on it," Gallagher muttered.
"But I am," Meinhof confidently stated. As Lebec started to follow Gallagher into the small office, Meinhof intervened, "Your guard will no longer be necessary, Major. He may wait for you in your car."
"Yes, sir," said Feke, feeling his panic rise as he tried to think of an excuse to keep the Cajun in the bunker. Only Lebec knew where to place the explosives, and only Lebec had them hidden beneath his coat.
His rifle now slung over his shoulder, Lebec briskly saluted. "Heil Hitler."
As Lebec brushed past him without a word or look, Feke fought to keep a pleasant smile on his face. It was only when he realized he hadn't heard the door open and close that he knew Lebec had found a hiding place within the bunker. Hoping the colonel hadn't seen or heard anything, Feke hastily urged, "You said something about a cup of coffee, Colonel?"
The eyes that had never left Gallagher's retreating figure reluctantly shifted to his associate. "This way, Major."
Though it was difficult, Feke continued to smile pleasantly and make polite conversation while slowly drinking his coffee. By now, Leeds would've released Danko from the trunk of the command car and the two men would be placing explosives around the outside of the bunker, near gun emplacements and armored vehicles.
Because he knew what to look for, Feke knew Lebec was accomplishing his mission as well. Most of the explosives should be set by now and the radar operators dead. Letting the knife he'd concealed up his sleeve drop into his hand, Feke put his coffee cup on the table and stepped closer to the colonel. On a pretext of shaking the man's hand in farewell, he pulled the colonel onto the blade of the knife. No sound escaped the shocked lips -- only blood. As the body dropped nervelessly to the floor, Feke headed for Meinhof's office to rescue Gallagher.
Pulling his pistol, he slowly opened the door. As Lieutenant Shantz's head lifted to see who was entering, a foot was solidly planted between his legs, doubling him over with pain. Quickly crossing the room, Feke struck the bowed head with the butt of his pistol.
As he released Gallagher from the chair he'd been tied to, Feke noted, "Nice shot, Colonel."
"Believe me, it was my pleasure," said Gallagher, wiping the blood from his mouth.
His rifle held firmly in both hands, Lebec entered the office, "The explosives are all set and the technicians are dead. Let's get the hell out of here before somebody comes."
They had only taken a few steps toward the door before Lebec's fear was realized. A bullet from the Cajun's rifle caught a guard just above the heart. At almost the same time, a small hole appeared on his forehead. While Lebec's and Feke's shots had been accurate, they had also alerted the guards outside. As the three men emerged from the bunker, Danko and Leeds were all ready furiously exchanging rounds with the enemy.
Gunfire from the hill covered the three men as they sprinted across the open space between the bunker and the command car. Just as they reached their destination, Leeds cried out in pain and fell to the ground. Lifting their friend into the back seat, Feke and Lebec climbed in beside him. Grabbing machine guns Danko had placed there for them, they began firing at anything that moved.
As Gallagher limped up to the car, Danko ordered, "Get us out of here."
"Are you sure you trust me behind the wheel of a car?" asked Gallagher as he climbed into the vehicle.
Jerking from the recoil of his machine gun, Danko snapped, "Just drive!" The car was already in motion as the command left his lips.
Glancing into the backseat, Danko saw Feke and Lebec firing on the soldiers trying to converge on either side of the vehicle. One hand trying to staunch the flow of blood from the bullet wound in his leg, Leeds held a pistol in his other hand and shot at anyone foolish enough to get close to them.
Turning his attention to what might lie ahead, Danko was horrified to see that Gallagher intended to ram a half-track the Germans had partially rolled into their path. Firing at a machine gun nest off to his left, Danko cried, "This isn't a tank, you know."
"You got any better ideas for getting around that thing?" demanded Gallagher.
Reluctantly, Danko admitted, "No."
"Then hang on!"
One hand gripped the dashboard while the other continued to fire the machine gun. Glancing into the backseat, Danko knew the horrified expressions on Feke's, Lebec's and Leed's faces reflected his own. He closed his eyes against the sure death awaiting them.
The clash of metal meeting metal was drowned by the roar of the bunker disintegrating behind them. The command car fishtailed around the half-track. Its front end was badly damaged, but the engine continued to turn over. Danko cautiously raised his head to see the remains of the bunker disappear inside a ball of flame.
Ignoring the damage the vehicle had sustained, Gallagher pulled on the steering wheel and redirected the car down the road. "Nice show, guys."
As the car bounced in and out of a pothole, Lebec acknowledged, "Thank you, sir." The fear clearly audible in his voice, he added, "May I say the same about your driving?"
"I've never driven one of these things before," admitted Gallagher. "Anyone know where third gear is?"
Danko's white-knuckled grip on the dashboard didn't lessen as he ordered, "Drive the car into the woods. If we run into any Krauts in this thing, we've had it."
"Try not to hit any trees, sir," pleaded Leeds as Gallagher drove the car off the road.
When the vehicle finally came to a stop behind a tall bush, Danko jumped out on legs that were far from steady. "Let's get back to the bridge and find the others."
With Feke supporting him on one side and Lebec on the other, Leeds noted, "I've never been so happy to walk in my life."
UNDER THE BRIDGE NEAR BUCHSAL, GERMANY
As soon as he was close enough, Danko started counting the men who'd arrived back at the bridge before them. He was disappointed to see one was missing. "What happened to Johannsen?"
"I shot him," Komansky dispassionately replied.
"You what?" demanded Danko, barely containing his anger. "If you weren't competent enough for this detail, why didn't you say so?"
Komansky straightened his shoulders and angrily faced the older man. "I was able to do the job, Lieutenant. The failure wasn't mine."
"Komansky here saved Cutter's life." Putting a supportive hand on the airman's shoulder, Farrell explained, "Johannsen was about to shoot the Sarge in the back."
"I guess he figured with you down in the compound, Lieutenant, and Sgt. Cutter dead, the rest of us would just let him go," offered Vern.
Roy shook his head. "Silly boy."
Ruefully, Danko realized he would have to apologize to Komansky. The words not coming easily to his lips, he said, "I'm sorry, Sergeant."
"It's not fun to shoot a man, particularly when he's supposed to be on your side, Lieutenant," noted Komansky with barely-controlled anger.
"Not as hard as it is to replace a man like Sgt. Cutter," Danko pointed out.
His lips split in a tentative smile, Komansky glanced around at the group of convicts that surrounded him. "Oh, I don't know, I always thought the army was full of wild animal trainers."
Danko's own lips broke into a broad grin. "That's what I always thought about the Eighth Air Force. If I ever need a sergeant, I'll give your boss a call."
"I'd hang up," said Gallagher. "I'm not about to let the best flight engineer in the wing perform in your center ring."
As he started to pull off the German uniform he'd been wearing, Danko wasn't sure if he should feel elation over the successful completion of another mission, or despair at what
Johannsen had tried to do. In all their missions, this was the first time one of the cons he'd released had turned on them. It scared him. Would he constantly have to be looking over his shoulder from now on? How would he know who he could trust?
"We must return to our village," said Jacque, crossing to Danko's side and shaking his hand. "Bon chance, mon ami."
Gripping the hand firmly, Danko replied, "Thank you for your help. Be careful. The Germans will be looking for us."
"American or British commandos, oui," Jacque agreed. "Not French farmers."
"Sometimes Jerry's not all that particular," cautioned Farrell.
"We will be careful," Jacque reassured.
The three men had barely disappeared around the bend in the river before Reynolds was asking, "What about us, Lieutenant? How do we get back to England? ¬"
"We already missed our transport," explained Danko. "Our only alternative is to walk to the coast and hope we can get a boat across."
Tying off the bandage he had wrapped around Leeds' wounded leg, Lebec shook his head. "Neither Leeds nor Colonel Gallagher are in any condition to walk that far."
"We'll just have to help them," Danko dispassionately stated.
"The bullet is still in Leeds' leg," protested the Cajun. "He'll never make it."
"You got any better ideas?" Danko angrily demanded.
Lebec unhappily shook his head. "No."
"Well, I do," Gallagher calmly asserted. Spreading out a map he'd pulled from one of the zippered pockets on the leg of his flight suit, he pointed to a spot just north of their position. "We'll fly home."
"We'll what?" cried Danko.
"About ten miles from here is a German airfield." His finger marking their approximate location, Gallagher slowly slid it across the map to a position south of Heidelburg.
"Are you sure there's an airfield there?" Roy skeptically inquired.
Gallagher nodded. "I ought to be. We've bombed it often enough. "
Crouching down next to the colonel, Danko's eyes followed the route Gallagher's finger had drawn. "Even if we find the airfield and can steal a plane, can you fly it?"
"Last time I escaped from the Krauts, I flew a German Heikel. I didn't have too much trouble," replied Gallagher.
His curiosity was piqued, but Danko recognized the danger they were in. It wouldn't be long before the Germans found their hiding place. The quicker they were on the move, the better their chance for escape. He would just have to wait to find out about Gallagher's "last escape." "All right, you eight balls, let's get these German uniforms buried and get ready to move out."
As the others rushed around policing the area, Leeds waited until Gallagher had refolded the map and slid it into its pocket before asking, "Excuse me, sir, what did you mean when you said you didn't have too much trouble with that German plane?"
Gallagher smiled as he replied, "The take off went without a hitch."
"And the landing?" Leeds pressed.
"That wasn't so good," admitted Gallagher. "We crashed."
His face draining of color, Leeds sighed. "That's what I was afraid of."
"It wasn't my fault," asserted Gallagher. "We were shot down by our own fighters and anti-aircraft guns."
"That makes me feel a lot better, sir," Leeds unhappily replied.
A GERMAN AIRFIELD SOUTHEAST OF HEIDELBERG
Handing Gallagher his binoculars, Danko asked, "Which one should we take?"
"There's only one that's big enough to hold all of us," said Gallagher after sweeping the field with the binoculars. "The Focke-Wulf 200 Condor."
"Would you mind translating that into English?" Danko requested.
Gallagher smiled as he lowered the glasses and pointed across the field. "It's that big one, next to the hangar."
"There's got to be a catch somewhere," Roy skeptically announced. "It can't be this easy."
The tired face Danko had first seen in General Worth's office returned as Gallagher acknowledged, "It won't be easy. The Condor was once known as the scourge of the Atlantic where they bombed the hell out of allied transports.¬"
"But now?" prompted Danko, instinctively knowing there was a "but."
"Now they're pretty much retired. They were originally designed as a commercial airliner, so they weren't strong enough for the rigors of combat," Gallagher explained.
Danko shook his head in confusion. "Are you saying we better not take it?"
"We have to take her," said Gallagher. "We haven't any other options."
"Then what's the problem?" Danko demanded, his fists balling in frustration.
"The problem is," snapped Gallagher, "that plane probably hasn't been used in months. She won't be fueled up. In fact, I bet she doesn't have enough gas to get her off the ground, much less all the way to England."
"Then we'll just have to fill her up," Danko calmly stated.
Gallagher shook his head. "How? You don't even know where the fuel tank is."
"But I do," said Komansky.
"See, you're worrying over nothing." Danko slapped Gallagher lightly on the shoulder. "All we have to do is steal some ground crew overalls and fill the plane with gas."
"Nothing to it," assured Farrell.
Throwing the young man an unbelieving glance, Gallagher suggested, "Ammunition for the guns might be a good idea, too. That is, if they work."
"Next time I go on leave, I'll be sure to give you a call, Colonel." Danko sarcastically noted, "You're lots of fun."
* * * *
Gallagher waited impatiently for the midnight rendezvous. He wished he could pace. Activity, any activity, would be preferable to the passive role he'd been forced to assume. The darkness made it impossible for him to see the airfield, but he knew Danko, Feke, Komansky, and Vern were finishing the job they'd started hours before -- making a German war plane flyable. It was ironic. Komansky had spent most of the last year of his life knocking enemy planes out of the sky.
"Time to go, Colonel," whispered Cutter, laying a hand on his superior's shoulder. "Hopefully, them Krauts have all gone nighty-night."
Nodding agreement, Gallagher rose unsteadily to his feet. "Is everybody ready?"
"Yes, sir," Cutter acknowledged, his body tensing in an unconscious desire to came to attention and salute.
Even in the dim moonlight, Gallagher could see the effort it took the M.P. to refrain from delivering the military courtesy. Smiling, he suggested, "We better get started."
Though he would've liked to have taken the lead, Gallagher reluctantly conceded to Cutter's expertise and experience. He had complete confidence that the man would get them onto the airfield and to the Condor undetected. It was what came after they boarded the plane that had him worried. Gratefully accepting Lebec's shoulder as a crutch, Gallagher blindly followed the man's lead, walking when he walked, stopping when he stopped.
At times, the journey seemed interminable. Yet, when the large plane loomed up in front of him, Gallagher was unprepared. Hands from above and below helped him hop up the ladder into the Condor's bomb bay.
"She's as air worthy as we could make her, Skipper," whispered Komansky.
"Good work, Sergeantr," Gallagher acknowledged. "Are the guns operable?"
"As far as I can tell, yes, sir, they are," said Komansky.
Gallagher glanced around at the silent men who surrounded him, "You better take the top turret, Sandy."
Even as Komansky was moving quickly through the bomb bay to the front of the ship, Gallagher was suggesting, "Lieutenant, you better get your best men on the other guns. Then come up and give me a hand in the cockpit."
"What!" The whites of his eyes glowing in the darkness, Danko protested, "I don't know how to fly this thing."
"Neither do I," Gallagher calmly pointed out. "We can learn together."
Silently admitting that he felt a certain amount of vindication from the look of fear that flashed across the lieutenant's face, Gallagher followed Kamansky to the front of the plane. His sore ankle and his unfamiliarity with the ship made Gallagher's crossing of the bomb bay slow and awkward. He sighed with relief when he finally reached the cramped cockpit. Slipping into the left seat, he forced himself to relax and get his bearings. With only the uneven light of the moon for illumination, he carefully examined each of the controls on the instrument panel. The purpose of most of the gages was obvious; there were, however, a few that had him confused. Frustrated, he loudly whispered, "Feke, get up here."
A dark head popped up between the pilot and co-pilot's seat. "What do you need, Colonel?"
"Can you read what that says?" asked Gallagher, pointing to a gage directly in front of him.
"Vertical velocity indicator," Feke interpreted.
"Wonderful," muttered Gallagher pointing to another gage, "I thought this was the vertical velocity indicator. Looks like we're going to have to go over every one of these instruments."
Slowly, Feke read the words printed by each instrument. As he did so, Gallagher recalibrated his thinking. If he forgot for even a second that this wasn't a B-17, they would all be dead.
Squeezing past Feke into the co-pilot's seat, Danko said, "All guns manned and ready, Colonel."
"Make sure the interphone works," ordered Gallagher, his eyes never straying from the instrument panel in front of him. "Then have Komansky explain to your men how to fire those guns."
"Colonel, if there's one thing my men know how to do, it's shoot Germans," Danko indignantly stated.
Gallagher sat back in his seat and turned his eyes on the lieutenant. "If I tell them there's a fighter coming in at nine o'clock low, will they know where to look for that fighter?"
From the expression on Danko's face, Gallagher knew he'd made his point. Returning his attention to the instrument panel, he said, "Okay, Feke, let's go over this one more time."
When he was finally satisfied that he had learned all he could in the time allotted, Gallagher sat back in his seat. His hands gently explored the unfamiliar controls. While it felt good to be back in an airplane, he wished it could be a B-17. She wasn't called a flying fortress for nothing.
"The interphone is in working order and all gunners are plugged in," reported Danko.
Putting on his own headset and throat mike, Gallagher noted, "Then I guess we're ready to go. Feke, get on the radio. As soon as I turn these engines over it's going to wake this entire base. See if you can't answer some of the tower's questions, buy us some time. I'll take whatever you can give me to get these babies warmed up."
"Yes, sir." Feke smiled as he exited the cockpit.
Puzzled, Gallagher asked, "What was he smiling about?"
"Your guess is as good as mine, Colonel," Danko nervously replied.
Strangely, the other man's unease calmed Gallagher's own nerves. One hand firmly gripping the control column, he flipped the switches. His eyes carefully checked each gage as he waited for the engines to warm up.
What felt like only minutes later, Feke reappeared. "I'm sorry, sir, we're out of time. We've been ordered to shut down our engines and report to the commanding officer."
"That's it then," said Gallagher. Pressing the mike to his throat, he announced, "We're on our way, boys. Gunners, be ready."
Even as they taxied onto the runway, small arms fire struck the ship in several places. Ignoring the bullet hole that had suddenly appeared through the Plexiglas in front of him, Gallagher pressed forward. Once on the runway, he paused to build up speed before releasing the throttles. In the darkness, he couldn't see the end of the runway, but he had carefully examined every inch of it with the binoculars earlier in the day. All he could do was hope he'd have enough speed when it came time to pull back on the yoke. As they raced down the runway, he silently counted; when he reached the number he'd decided on earlier, he pulled back on the wheel.
"Oof." Danko groaned as the co-pilot's wheel connected solidly with his stomach. "You coulda given me a little warning."
Though most of his attention was still centered on his instruments, Gallagher smiled. "I figured you were happier not knowing."
As the ground disappeared into the darkness, Danko noticed that there were no lights to mark the existence of the town or the people who occupied it. Feeling disoriented in the dark void in which he found himself, he said, "While my mind understands your reasoning, my stomach would've appreciated a warning."
"Fighters are following us up, Skipper," Komansky called. When the moon suddenly emerged from behind a bank of clouds, he was able to be more specific. "Four Me-109's coming in at six o'clock low."
"Damn," Gallagher swore. Gently easing the yoke forward, he leveled the plane before dipping the nose to the ground.
Danko instinctively grabbed the co-pilot's wheel. "What the hell are you doing?"
"Taking us down to the deck so those Messerschmitts can't shoot up our belly," explained Gallagher. "Now will you let go of that yoke and let me do the flying?"
Sheepishly, Danko released his grip. "Try not to hit the ground."
"Oh, I won't hit the ground," reassured Gallagher. "I can't guarantee I won't hit a tree or a mountain."
Danko groaned. "I knew I shouldn't have let you behind the wheel of this thing."
"If you think you can do a better job, you're welcome to try," offered Gallagher, a smile easing the concern that marked his face.
"Do I get a vote on this?" asked Feke, returning to the cockpit.
Before either man could reply, the plane shuddered and perceptively slowed. Checking his gages, Gallagher pressed the mike to his throat. "Damage report."
"I think we took a hit in the bomb bay, Skipper," Komansky replied.
"Feke," ordered Gallagher, "get back there and see how bad it is."
The young Hungarian had barely acknowledged the order when a fighter stitched a path along the right side of the plane. Pulling up to make a loop before resuming its attack, the Messerchmitt flew into a stream of lead Komansky unleashed against it. Smoke trailing from both engines, the fighter dove into the darkness, the fire in the cockpit marking its passage.
"Nice shooting, Komansky," Danko happily cried.
"Not good enough, sir," replied Komansky. "There's a fire in number three engine, Skipper.¬"
Even as he reached for what he hoped was the switch to stop fuel from propelling the blade, Gallagher acknowledged, "Roger, feathering three." As he heard the engine disengage, he pulled back the throttle.
"I don't know how to tell you this, Colonel," said Danko. "But we don't have any parachutes.¬"
"We don't need any, yet," soothed Gallagher. "We've only lost one engine."
"Only one engine he says," Danko muttered.
His face flushed with exertion, Feke pushed up into the cockpit. "The drag is caused by the bomb bay doors, Colonel. They opened, and we can't get them closed."
"Anybody hurt?" Danko anxiously inquired.
"Reynolds and Leeds were sitting right on 'em when they opened," Feke explained. "Lebec managed to grab Leeds and hang on 'til I got back there."
Danko's face never changed expression, but concern was audible in his voice, "Are they all right?¬"
"Reynolds never had a chance," admitted Feke. "Lebec dislocated his shoulder."
"And Leeds?" Danko prompted.
"You know Leeds, sir." Feke smiled. "The air is a little blue back there and it has nothing to do with the cold."
His lips twitching threateningly, Gallagher pressed the mike against his throat. "Sandy, get back to the bomb bay and see if you can get those doors closed. We won't have enough fuel to reach England at this speed."
"Yes, sir," Komansky acknowledged.
"Feke, you better take the top turret 'til Sandy gets back," ordered Gallagher. Tilting his head back so he could catch the Hungarian's eyes, Gallagher cautioned, "Try not to shoot off a wing."
Covering his eyes with one hand, Danko groaned, "Why did I ever let you talk me into this?"
918 BOMB GROUP ARCHBURY, ENGLAND
Harvey Stovall yawned and pulled his coat more snugly across his chest enjoying the quiet of the mist shrouded field. Despite the raincoat's protection, the damp chill air of the early morning crept into his bones making them ache. He felt old. Older than he had since before this war began. In less than three hours, his new commanding officer would arrive. This would be his fourth since joining the 918th, and each time the transition got harder. He had been proud to serve with Davenport, Savage, and Gallagher. Each had initiated his own unique style of command. It had been an honor to say that he could call each of them friend.
"Major! Major Stovall!" The quiet was shattered by a shrill voice calling his name.
Though tempted to ignore the summons, Stovall heard the alarm in the young voice and reluctantly responded, "Over here."
"Sir!" A very young private, his face so smooth it looked as though he hadn't started to shave yet, ran to Stovall's side and saluted. "Major Hammond asked me to find you, sir. He'd like you to come to the tower immediately.¬"
"What's going on, Private?" asked Harvey as he slowly turned toward the control tower. Despite the urgency in the plea, he walked slowly. Hammond had the reputation for being an alarmist. He had once turned on the siren when he spotted what he thought was an enemy fighter. It turned out to be a flock of seagulls.
The voice cracked as it rose in mild panic. "You better hurry, sir. The major said there's an enemy plane approaching."
As a concession to his escort, Stovall picked up his pace, though privately, he wondered if the enemy aircraft was another flock of birds. Climbing the stairs to the tower with an ease that belied his years, Harvey allowed his gaze to scan the brightening sky.
Relief clearly visible on the plump face, Hammond handed his superior his binoculars. Pointing to a dark speck south and east of their position, the control tower officer reported, "I think it's a Focke-Wulf 200 Condor, sir. Should I man the anti-aircraft guns?"
"You should've done that before you sent for me," Stovall angrily noted as he raised the binoculars to his eyes.
Embarrassed, the major defended, "I wanted to be sure it wasn't a flock of seagulls again, sir."
"Major," Stovall gently reprimanded, "I know you've taken a lot of ribbing for that incident, but never let it cloud your judgment. The safety of this base comes first."
"Yes, sir," the younger man sheepishly acknowledged, reaching for the handle on the warning siren.
Harvey ignored the loud blast as he concentrated on the black speck coming slowly into view. Lowering the glasses, he asked, "Have you tried raising them on the radio?"
"No response, Major." Holding the receiver to his ear, Hammond inquired, "Should I order the men to shoot it down when it comes into range?"
Raising the binoculars to his eyes again, Harvey hesitantly shook his head. "No, just tell them to be on their toes."
"May I remind the major that regulations state that when an enemy--"
"I know the regulations," Stovall angrily interrupted. "I also know that ship already has enough holes in it to make a sieve jealous. I also know they've lowered their landing gear. No sane pilot would slow his plane down like that if he planned to bomb an enemy installation."
"Maybe he's not sane?" offered Hammond.
Reluctantly nodding agreement, Harvey noted, "There's always that possibility, but I don't think so. Not this time."
"She's coming in for a landing, sir," cried Hammond. "What should we do?"
"Let her land," called Stovall running down the tower stairs. "And get me a jeep."
As he rode across the field, Harvey watched the Focke-Wulf roll to a stop at the end of the runway. If the pilot still intended to destroy the base, he wouldn't have much luck at the end of a slab of concrete.
Almost before the Condor had come to a complete stop, it was surrounded by men with machine guns trained unwavering at each of the hatches. A sergeant crossed to one of the doors and pounded on it with his fist. "Raus, raus."
A plaintive wail rose from inside the plane. "I told you he couldn't drive. We've landed on a German airfield."
Though he was surprised to hear the distinctive American accent, Stovall didn't let his guard down. He knew there were many Germans who'd been raised in the States, but had chosen to return to the Fatherland when war broke out. The next voice, however, was even more of a shock.
"Shut up, Leeds," Komansky commanded. "We're in a German airplane; naturally, they think the occupants will be German."
"You've got a point," the first voice acknowledged.
Lowering his pistol, Stovall eagerly demanded, "Sandy, is that you?"
"Yes, sir." Opening the hatch, Komansky cautiously dropped down to the tarmac. "Colonel Gallagher's here, too."
As soon as he'd seen the bullet-ridden torso of the large plane, Harvey knew this was what he'd hoped -- prayed -- for. Gallagher had once again engineered a miraculous escape from enemy territory. Almost crying in his relief, he moved closer to the hatch as Komansky reached up to help his commanding officer down.
Landing on one foot, Gallagher allowed Sandy to move him away from the open hatch. Despite the smile, Harvey could see the pain and exhaustion that marked the young face. "Surprised to see us, Harvey?"
Stovall shook his head and moved to his superior's side to lend his support. "I know by now that I shouldn't be, but I am. I can hardly wait to hear this story."
"Nice to see you again, Major."
Shock made Stovall momentarily speechless as he turned to see another familiar face. Finally, he stuttered, "It's nice… though a surprise… to see you again, Lieutenant Danko."
"It's a long story,'" smiled Danko, exhaustion making him look older.
"So I've been told," Stovall acknowledged.
An older man with close-cropped hair approached. Stopping in front of the three officers with a military precision Stovall hadn't seen since he left the States, the man saluted. "Sergeant Cutter reporting, sir.¬
"How's it look, Sergeant?" Danko asked, glancing at the hatch where other members of his team had started a cautious exit. Despite the apparent friendliness between the officers, many of the guards had not yet lowered their weapons.
"Along with his original injury, Leeds seems to have sustained a broken arm when the bomb bay opened. Lebec dislocated his shoulder in the same incident. Bishop was shot in the abdomen, and Farrell was shot in the side during the fighter attack. Lowry bought it when they got the radio. Everyone else is uninjured."
As he dropped to the ground, Roy fell to his knees and kissed it. "I will never, ever complain about walking again."
"I take it you had a little problem," Stovall mildly remarked, gesturing at the holes that peppered the fuselage.
Gallagher shook his head. "For some reason, the Germans didn't like us borrowing their plane.¬"
"They weren't using it," added Komansky. "So we figured we might as well."
Helping Gallagher limp over to an ambulance, Stovall shook his head. "I can't wait to hear this story."
"I don't think you'll believe it, Major," said Sandy glancing across at the Folke-Wulf.
"Don't forget," Gallagher pointed out, "the evidence to at least part of the story is sitting in the middle of the runway."
"I still don't think he'll believe it," said Komansky, shaking his head. "I was there and I'm not sure I believe it."
9l8th BOMB GROUP
It was late in the afternoon before Danko finished briefing General Worth on the mission. He smiled as he remembered that the same skeptical look that flashed across the general's face had also shone on Harvey Stovall's trusting features. As he walked along the long corridor leading to the hospital ward where his injured men had been treated, Danko sadly remembered those who had not made it, including Bishop who had died of his injuries soon after they landed. This time, Danko couldn't blame their deaths on inexperience or lack of training. Lowry, Reynolds, and Bishop had simply been unlucky enough to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. Johannsen had died because Danko had made the mistake of choosing him. How many more mistakes would he make before one of them killed him?
"Hey, Lieutenant, when can I get out of here?" cried Leeds as he spotted his superior entering the room.
Forcing a smile, Danko asked, "What's the matter, Leeds? I thought you'd enjoy being waited on hand and foot."
"I do," Leeds agreed, "in a civilian hospital. The worst thing you see there is a cut from a carving knife. When they come in this hospital, they come in hurt!"
Feke scratched his head. "That's what a hospital's for."
"You know what I mean," snapped Leeds, giving the Hungarian a disgusted look. "These guys come in without hands, feet, eyes. I even saw a guy's head split open so wide you could see his brain. Lieutenant, I gotta get out of here.¬"
"It's a war, Leeds," Danko pointed out.
"It's not my kind of war," protested the forger. "In our war we at least see our enemy."
Personally, Danko thought he might prefer a faceless enemy. How many times did he wake up in the night seeing the faces of the men he'd killed in combat? Some were mocking, some accusatory, but every feature on every face was clear and distinct, as though it was there before him.
"I agree with Leeds," commented Farrell, throwing back his blanket. "Whaddya say, Lieutenant? Can we get out of here?"
Before Danko could reply, Gallagher slowly entered the ward, leaning heavily on a cane. "I hear you don't like our hospitality."
"That's not it," protested Farrell. "The war is a little too close here, is all."
"He means a little too messy," Roy interpreted.
"Funny," mused Gallagher, "that's what I thought about your war. High in the clouds, away from the fighters and flak, we can sometimes remember a world unmarked by war."
"I guess each man has to fight his own war," Danko acknowledged.
Gallagher shook his head. "For a little while at least, I think this war can do without us. I talked to Dr. Kaiser and he said you were all in good enough condition to endure a drive into town for dinner and a drink… on me."
Farrell and Lebec jumped to their feet, their injuries forgotten -- until their sudden movements reminded them. With greater caution, they slowly dressed. Leeds, however, stayed in bed, his gaze suspiciously focused on Gallagher.
"What's the matter, Leeds?" asked a puzzled Danko. "I thought you wanted to get out of here?"
His eyes never wavering from Gallagher's face, the forger leaned forward. "Who's gonna drive to this shindig of yours?"
"Does it matter?" asked a perplexed Gallagher.
Lying back against his pillow, Leeds shook his head. "I'm not going unless I can drive."
"Leeds," Danko protested, "you've got a heavily bandaged leg and a broken left arm. Don't you think that would make shifting a little difficult?"
"Who would you rather have drive?" asked Leeds. "Me or Colonel Gallagher?
Danko exchanged glances with Feke and Lebec. In unison, the three men agreed, "You!"