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Between the Nazis and the Deep Blue Sean

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Between the Nazis and the Deep Blue Sea
By JJJunky

 

ACT I
AN RAF BASE IN NORTHEAST SCOTLAND

The mist swirled around him as Gallagher followed the W.O. to the hardstand. He had been in Scotland for only a few days, but he had learned enough to know heavy fog was common this early in the morning. He wasn't worried. By the time they were ready to take-off, the sun would have burned away enough of the enveloping shroud to allow their departure.

He was satisfied with the direction the conference had taken. Normally, he never felt comfortable working with undercover espionage agents, but this time he felt confident that all elements could operate with full cooperation. He had worked with Danko and his "Dirty Dozen," before and had no qualms about doing so again even though the unit was made up of ex-cons.

The other detachment, a three man team known as Jericho was not as familiar to him. The leader was Franklin Sheppard, an American Army Captain with a degree in engineering. His associates were Jean Gaston André, a Lieutenant in the Free French Air Force, whose specialty lay in the field of weaponry, and Nicholas Gage, a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy. A former circus performer, Gage had been sent to Scotland to represent Jericho, though he appeared barely old enough to shave. Gallagher, however, knew from experience that age was not an accurate tool to measure a man's abilities. His own peers viewed his accomplishments as the commander of the 918th Bomb Group with jealousy and envy rather than admiration.

"Here we are, Guv'nor," the Warrant Officer declared, pointing to the Bristol Beaufort sitting in the middle of the hardstand. "Your pilot will be with you presently."

"Thank you," Gallagher politely acknowledged as his eyes professionally inspected the condition of the old aircraft. As he prepared to board her, an anguished cry reverberated from inside the metal fuselage.

"Oh, no," a familiar voice protested. "If Colonel Gallagher's flying this thing, I'm walking."

Gallagher smiled as the speaker was quickly admonished.

"Stow it, Leeds." Danko's tone was more resigned than angry.

A third voice, the English accent distinguishing him from his American counterparts, inquired, "Are you chaps suggesting I should be concerned about something?"

"No, Gage," Gallagher reassured him, climbing into the light bomber. "You don't need to worry. I'm not the pilot today."

"You'd think I'd have learned to understand you Americans better after working with a Yank," Gage replied, shaking his head in puzzlement. "You are a pilot, Colonel, and from what I've heard, a very good one. What would be the problem if you were our pilot?"

"The last time I was in a plane the colonel was piloting," Leeds hastily explained, "I nearly fell out of the bomb bay doors without a parachute."

Running a finger along the neck of his black turtleneck sweater, Gage nodded. "That clarifies things splendidly."

Gallagher hoped there was still enough gloom to hide the smile he was trying to suppress. He knew Danko would see it as encouragement -- not that Leeds needed any.

In their last mission together, the Dirty Dozen had been sent to destroy a radar station that was decimating Gallagher's group. They had accomplished their task, only to discover they had blown a fake installation. Before they could infiltrate the real one, Gallagher had been shot down. Using the American colonel's reputation, Danko and three of his team gained entrance to the real compound and destroyed it. The buildings were still smoldering when the Dirty Dozen, with Gallagher and Komansky in tow, stole a German Condor. Despite an assault by fighters, they managed to escape to England.

Now, they had been thrown together again. This time, with the aid of the Jericho team, the Dirty Dozen would locate a hidden aircraft factory that had been reported in the Heidelberg area. Sheppard, André, and Gage would infiltrate the plant and try to rescue the plans for a new German fighter. Danko's men would then mark the boundaries of the plant with specially designed beepers whose signal would be picked up by the B-17 radar operators. Timing was the most crucial ingredient in the mission.

"Is everyone here?"

A strange, distinctly feminine voice interrupted Gallagher's contemplation. Turning toward the sound, he absently noted that the mist was clearing as he had anticipated. Framed in the hatch by the soft glow of the early morning dawn was a young woman. Though he was not a tall man himself, Gallagher knew the top of her head would barely reach his shoulder. Her slight frame was enveloped in a flight suit that seemed to be covered in zippers. A leather helmet and goggles covered strawberry-blond curls.

"I said, is everyone here?" the young woman repeated.

Puzzled and fascinated by her southern drawl, Gallagher nodded his head. "We're waiting for the pilot."

"Well, I'm here," the woman announced. "Second officer Bobbie Jo Draper of the Air Transport Auxiliary."

Before Gallagher could so much as introduce himself, much less his colleagues, she sidled past him and into the cockpit. Stowing her bag behind her chair, she slipped into the left seat -- the pilot's position.

"A woman!" cried Leeds, gripping his seat so hard the blood drained from his hands. "A woman's going to fly this big old thing?"

Having been at war longer and thus experienced with its effects more acutely, Gage nonchalantly replied, "The ATA is made up almost entirely of women, including, as you may have guessed, volunteers from your own part of the world."

"I take back everything I said, Colonel," Leeds apologized, a frown marring the lean face. "If you want to fly, you have my permission."

"You don't know how important that is to me, Leeds," noted Gallagher. The sarcasm in his voice was replaced by amusement as he pointed out, "But I've never flown a Bristol Beaufort."

"You'd never flown a Condor before either, and that didn't stop you. Why should it stop you this time?"

Noting the storm clouds forming across Danko's face, Gallagher hastily acknowledged, "It certainly wouldn't hurt me to learn."

The cramped quarters making movement more difficult for his larger frame, Gallagher followed the young woman's path to the cockpit. Pausing at the entrance, he pointed to the co-pilot's seat, "Do you mind?"

Her attention focused on the checklist in her hand and the instruments in front of her, Bobbie shook her head. "Go ahead." It was not until she noticed the colonel's bars on the passing collar that she quickly added, "Sir."

Gallagher tried to believe it was interest rather than fear that riveted his attention to the young pilot's actions as she completed her pre-flight chores and prepared for takeoff. He had never flown with a woman, and the prospect of doing so now with the enemy so close unnerved him. However, her professionalism and abilities were above reproach and the liftoff was one of the smoothest he had ever experienced. He studied the instruments, finding nothing to cause concern, but that didn't stop him from worrying.

They flew south following the rugged coast where the brilliant green of pasture met the gray-blue water of the North Sea. Gallagher tried to relax and enjoy the scenery, but his eyes were continually drawn to the instrument panel in front of him.

"I have over a thousand hours in light bombers, Colonel," said Bobbie, obviously noticing his preoccupation.

Embarrassed, Gallagher stuttered, "I'm sorry if I've offended you."

"We're use to it," the young woman laughed, though there was no mirth in it. "Men still doubt my capability, even though I've flown almost everything that has wings. Can you say the same, Colonel?"

Remembering the American, British, and German planes he had flown under various circumstances, Gallagher said, "I've come close."

"I'll bet you didn't have to log as many hours as we did before they let you fly solo," Bobbie bitterly observed.

Gallagher ruefully admitted, "I flew a couple without logging any hours."

Interested, Bobbie turned a curious gaze on her co-pilot. "How did you manage that?"

"When you steal a plane from the enemy," Gallagher sheepishly revealed, "you don't have time to take lessons."

Eyes gleaming with a desire that her companion readily appreciated, Bobbie sighed. "Have you flown an FW190?"

"No," Gallagher confessed, "but the war isn't over yet."

Sadness replaced the eager anticipation on the young face. "Sometimes, I think it'll never end."

"I don't mean any disrespect," Gallagher said, nervously licking his lips, "I'm just curious. How did a Southern Belle end up in an English bomber in the middle of a war?"

A reflective smile revealed slightly crooked teeth. "I wanted a little excitement in my life."

"I think you found it."

"I had this noble idea," Bobbie continued, ignoring her companion's comment, "that I could help save the world. Instead, I'm a glorified taxi driver."

"Even taxi drivers do their part," Gallagher gently pointed out. "The soldiers who go into battle couldn't get there if there wasn't someone to take their place. Even the most menial job can assume great importance in a war."

"I guess," Bobbie reluctantly acknowledged.

A hand on his shoulder drew Gallagher's attention from the thoughtful young girl to the small, blond man who had squeezed between their seats.

His finger pointing to a spot southeast of their present position, Gage asked, "What do you make of those, Colonel?"

Squinting in the direction the Englishman had indicated, Gallagher used a hand to shade his eyes from the rising sun. As he watched, the dark shapes drew swiftly closer. "Judging by their speed, I'd say it's a couple of FW190's."

"You're sure it's not some of our own fighters?" Gage hopefully inquired.

"I wish they were, but they're not." His eyes scanning the empty sky, Gallagher suggested, "Gage, get Danko and Leeds and man the guns while I call for help."

"There are no guns, Colonel, and no radio," said Bobbie, slowly pushing the steering column forward putting the plane into a dive. "Our only chance is to get down to treetop level and hope they ignore us."

"No guns and no radio!" Gallagher gasped, not even trying to hide his fear. "What is this, a flying coffin?"

"ATA planes never have guns or radios," Bobbie calmly explained. "And, the only navigational equipment they carry is a compass."

"With that information, Colonel, I'd say your assessment was fairly accurate," observed Gage.

The fighters had now become clearly identifiable. The black bars making the fuselage designated their country of origin. Even above the noise of their own engines, Gallagher could hear the scream of the deadly aircraft. It was a familiar sound that warned him the pilots were about to dive. "Gage," he hastily advised, "you better get in back and try to find some cover. I think we're about to become clay pigeons for Luftwaffe target practice."

"Here's hoping they're lousy shots," replied Gage, as he turned to leave.

"Colonel," Bobbie called, gaining her co-pilot's attention. "Would you watch the altimeter and speed? I'd hate to stall."

The bomber twisted and turned as it continued its gradual descent. Though heavier and slower, they would not be easy prey for the quicker fighters. The first burst of 20mm shells marked a trail through the air in a space they had occupied only seconds before. The second burst cut a path across the right wing and into the cockpit.

Gallagher saw the blood on his right arm before he felt the pain, but he had no time to attend to it. "Number one engine is on fire. I'm going to feather it."

"Colonel," protested Bobbie, "this isn't a B-17. We've only got two engines."

"We've got one, now."

The plane shuddered as the second fighter strafed the fuselage. A cry of pain was barely audible above the screaming engine and the howling wind blowing through the broken windshield. Noticing their evasive maneuvers had taken them away from land and over the North Sea, Gallagher asked, "Bobbie, do you know how to ditch a plane?"

Fear visible on her face for the first time, Bobbie admitted, "Only what I learned in class."

"Well, I hope you got an A."

The gray-blue water loomed closer. Positioning his body as best he could in the cramped quarters, Gallagher warned the three men in the fuselage. "Brace yourselves, we're about to ditch."

The nose of the plane touched the tip of a wave. Despite his own preparation, Gallagher was unable to keep himself from ramming his chest into the steering column. As the plane settled into the water, he fought to remain conscious. Waves of cold water crashed against the broken shell of the cockpit, drenching its occupants. Wrestling to release his seatbelt, he was surprised when a petite, but strong hand pushed his aside and completed the task for him.

With Bobbie's help, he managed to make his way to the peppered fuselage where he found Danko had already inflated a small rubber raft and was helping Leeds and the obviously injured Gage navigate its undulating surface. Water was almost up to their knees by the time they had climbed aboard the raft and pushed away from the sinking aircraft.

 

918th BOMB GROUP
ARCHBURY, ENGLAND

Komansky laid a slip of paper on the growing pile awaiting Colonel Gallagher's attention. The commanding officer of the 918th Bomb Group had only been gone a few days, but from the work that had accumulated, it looked as though he had been gone a month. Knowing the colonel would work well into the night in an effort to clear his desk, Sandy flipped through the forms one last time hoping there would be something that could be taken care of by either himself or Major Stovall. However, as he had expected, everything required the attention or signature of the commanding officer.

When he had first been transferred to the 918th, Komansky hadn't liked Gallagher. At that time, the future colonel had been a major and General Savage had been in command. As a flight engineer, Sandy had thought Savage was the best pilot he had ever flown with -- until he had been forced to join Gallagher's crew after the general had been shot down. Though Savage's technique had been smoother, more steady, Gallagher almost always brought them home, no matter how badly damaged they were. His abilities had become mystical, at least to his men.

When the phone in the outer office rang, Sandy sighed with relief, certain it was the guard at the gate reporting Gallagher's return. Crossing to the stove, he put a pot of water on its hot surface. By the time the colonel walked through the door, the coffee would be ready. As the ground exec walked into the office, a rare smile lit Komansky's face.

Taking off his glasses, Stovall rubbed his eyes as he announced, "That was General Britt. Colonel Gallagher's plane is missing. Enemy fighters were reported in the vicinity of the registered flight plan. It's presumed that he's been shot down."

Komansky felt as though someone had punched him in the stomach. The dangers of war and his commanding officer's impetuosity often had him imaging the worse. But this was one mission he'd thought Gallagher could safely undertake without him.

 

FIELD PUNISHMENT CAMP
GLOUCESTER, ENGLAND

Feke glanced dispiritedly around the barracks. In one corner, Vern and Roy were playing poker with two of the new replacements, Rodall and Ortiz. From the matching expressions on the brothers' faces, the game was lacking a certain excitement. The Hungarian was not surprised. Once you had gambled with Leeds, all other games seemed like child's play. Even when he beat you, the Chicagoan made you feel as though you had played one of the best games of your life. Unfortunately, you had played it against someone who had played the best game of his life.

Laughter from one of the bunks across the room drew Feke's attention. A broad smile splitting his handsome face, Lebec gently tapped Farrell on the head. "Twelfth Night is a comedy, Hollywood. You're reading it like it's a tragedy."

"You can't read Shakespeare's lines as if they're funny," protested Farrell.

"You can if they're supposed to be funny," Lebec pointed out. "Shakespeare wrote comedies as well as tragedies, you know."

"He did?"

The look of amazement on the naïve face made Feke grin. If Farrell ever got the chance to return to Hollywood after the war, he might have something to offer the directors besides a pretty face, that is, if Lebec had anything to do with it.

When Sergeant Cutter entered the room, Feke wouldn't have taken a second glance if the sergeant hadn't been accompanied by two M.P.'s. Though the residence of the Dirty Dozen was in a Field Punishment Camp, the guards rarely entered the prisoners' barracks.

"Listen up," Cutter ordered.

The sound of cards being thrown to the table was drowned by the slamming of a book. Wood creaked as the other two new recruits, Preston and Mead sat up in their bunks.

Cutter had never been a very good actor; this was no exception. Though he hadn't said a word, Feke knew all was no longer right with his world. "What's wrong, Sergeant?"

His militarily precise tone marred by a slight tremor, Cutter announced, "The plane Lieutenants Danko and Leeds were on has been shot down."

"Any survivors?" Lebec demanded, climbing to his feet.

"The wreckage hasn't been located," reported Cutter.

A frown wrinkling the almost perfect brow, Farrell asked, "Can we help look for it?"

"I'll contact General Worth and see if he can get us attached to a search party," Cutter replied, hope shining from the stern eyes. "In the meantime, stay in the barracks and don't cause any trouble."

Early in the war, Feke's entire family had been executed by the invading Nazis. The pain and anger resulting from this wanton act had kept the Hungarian fighting to avenge their loss. Now he felt much the same pain as he had felt then. As improbable as it seemed, these men had become his family.

"If Danko's dead, what's gonna happen to us?" Mead demanded of the more experienced team members.

There was no answer to a question the men refused to contemplate.

 

THE SMITH ARMS
LONDON, ENGLAND

André took a sip of wine enjoying the ambiance of the empty pub. An air raid had sent the few patrons with courage enough to imbibe this early in the morning to the cellar. The Frenchman had seen too many destroyed buildings to know there was no safe place in a war. Survival was an act of luck, not foresight. Stone and wood would not stop a one ton bomb.

Glass rattled in the blacked out windows as the door was opened then closed again. Realizing his solitude was about to be invaded, André sighed. In the four years since the war had begun, there had been precious few moments he could call his own. Trying to hide his disappointment, he raised his eyes until they finally rested with surprise on his American partner. "Bonjour, Sheppard. Since you have taken the trouble to track me down, it would appear as though Gage has returned and our little vacation is over?"

Avoiding his associate's eyes, Sheppard shook his head. "Gage hitched a ride on an ATA flight. It looks like the plane was shot down, possibly over the North Sea."

Danger and death were inevitable byproducts of an espionage agent's life. They had each come so close to death it had become a constant possibility in their lives. Almost the only thing they could count on -- except each other. André had thought he had prepared himself for this day, but he was wrong.

 

ACT II
THE NORTH SEA

Gallagher's eyes anxiously scanned the sky. How long would it be before someone discovered they had been shot down? How much longer after that before they were found?

A wave crashed against the rubber boat spraying its occupants with drops of ice water. Gallagher's gaze shifted to where Bobbie and Danko were trying to administer to Gage. A 20mm shell had grazed the Englishman along the right side of his rib cage. It was a serious wound, even when medical attention was immediately available. Stuck in a raft in the middle of the North Sea, his prospects were not promising.

The damp uniform clinging to his skin made Gallagher shiver. Blood from the wound in his forearm seeped through the makeshift bandage staining the water in the bottom of the boat. Careful not to jar his aching chest, he raised his arm to lay it on the top of his leg.

Every move slow and careful, Danko crawled to Gallaher's side. "Are you all right, Colonel?"

"How's Gage?" Gallagher returned.

"If they don't find us before nightfall, his chances aren't good," Danko whispered. Leaning over Gallagher's arm, he gently inspected the bleeding wound. "He'll never make it 'til morning."

"I doubt any of us will," admitted Gallagher, gritting his teeth against the pain.

Tearing a strip from his already almost nonexistent shirt, Danko wrapped it tightly around the gaping hole in the younger man's arm. "Why do you say that? Is there supposed to be a storm tonight?"

"Not as far as I know." Experienced eyes looked to the heavens. "What'll kill us is the cold."

"Even though we have the raft and aren't directly in the water?"

Gallagher nodded. "We're still wet from spray. It'll be enough."

His lean face showing his exhaustion and pain from his wounded leg, Leeds observed, "It looks like Gage isn't the only one facing a deadline. And I mean dead."

 

8th AIR FORCE HEADQUARTERS
PINETREE, ENGLAND

Glancing around at the disparate group scattered around his office, Ed Britt almost felt overwhelmed by the worried gazes focused in his direction. Apparently, none of them were as prepared as they had thought for the death of a trusted colleague. Feeling lost behind the barrier of his large desk, he turned his attention on the one man in the room he could call friend, Harvey Stovall. "At the moment, all Air-Sea Rescue craft are concentrating on saving the crew of a merchant ship sinking off the coast near Dover. As soon as they can safely do so, a plane will be recalled to search for Joe and the others."

"How long will that be, General?" Sheppard demanded the anger in his voice clearly audible.

In spite of the fact that Sheppard was technically his subordinate, Britt felt intimidated by the Army captain. Though most of Jericho's operations were classified, stories of their exploits had filtered down from the top brass. Almost ashamed that his own contribution to the war effort did not equal his countryman's, Britt reluctantly replied, "They tell me it could be another two hours, possibly three."

"It'll take at least two hours after that before they can refuel and fly to the area where we believe the plane went down," noted Stovall, his finger marking the distance on a map between Dover and the eastern coast of Scotland. "That'll leave only about three hours of daylight."

"I realize that." Annoyed, Britt climbed to his feet. "If I had any jurisdiction over Air-Sea Rescue don't you think I'd use it?"

"Let me take up a B-17," Harvey eagerly offered.

The proposal was tempting, but reality intruded making Britt point out, "Where would you get a crew? Joe released the 918th for ten days leave before he left. By the time you found a crew, it would be too late."

"Excusé moi, General." André stepped forward. "I am Jean Gaston André, a lieutenant with the Free French Air Force. I have been in the cockpit of a B-17 many times and would like to offer my services as co-pilot."

A speculative gaze rested on the tall Frenchman as Britt limped around his desk. He knew if it weren't for his bad leg, he would volunteer himself, but his years as a pilot in WWI didn't qualify him to fly a B-17, one of the most formidable planes in the air today. Could he trust André, or was the Frenchman's desire to save his friend so great he was willing to risk his own life and the nine lives entrusted to his care?

With an apprehensive glance at General Worth, Cutter said, "Me and some of my men were gunners on the last mission we were assigned to with Colonel Gallagher. We'd be willing to do it again."

"It still leaves the crew without a navigator and a radio operator," Britt unhappily pointed out. "You could fly in circles without knowing it. And even if you did find Joe and the others, how would you call a rescue ship or tell them where to find him?"

With an assurance his subordinate had lacked, Worth said, "On the same mission Sergeant Cutter was referring to, Feke acted as radio operator."

"Part of our training with the OSS," added Sheppard, "included navigation."

"From a thousand feet above the earth?" Britt skeptically inquired.

Sheppard confidently nodded. "Above and below."

Logic, experience, and training dictated that Britt deny permission for the undertaking. With untrained personnel, he could be condemning Stovall and Komansky to death. But, for once, he let personal feelings override his command judgment. He would tell his superiors that men of this caliber were worth the risk. Only his heart would know the truth. Joe Gallagher was like a son to him. General or not, he was willing to gamble his career to give the boy a fighting chance to survive the war.

His evaluation complete, Britt conceded that the decision was not his alone to make. Without Harvey Stovall there could be no attempt. Given the odds, his old friend deserved the right to decline the mission. "What do you think, Harvey?"

"I think we're mighty lucky to have found a crew so quickly," replied a smiling Stovall.

The answer was pretty much what Britt had expected. Silently applauding his friend's courage, Britt let his gaze rest on each of the anxious faces in turn before rendering his verdict. "Good luck, gentlemen."

 

THE NORTH SEA

Gallagher closed his eyes as the raft slid down the side of a towering wave. The sea was getting rougher. The darkening sky overhead graphically indicated the cause. His good hand twisted around the rope circling the outside of the boat. He knew, beyond a doubt, that the only thing between a watery grave and the possibility of staying alive was the tiny rubber raft bouncing across the waves like a child's toy.

Cold water filled the bottom, swirling across their legs, numbing their extremities. Helplessly, Gallagher watched as Danko and Leeds desperately tried to keep them from sinking. With one hand gripping the same rope that anchored Gallagher, they bailed with the other. Exhaustion and desperation had made their efforts mechanical. The only time they ceased in their duty was to change hands.

Rope burns crisscrossed Bobbie's right hand. Her left hand had turned blue with cold where it gripped the belt circling Gage's waist. Tossing back the wet hair stinging her eyes, she asked, "There's one thing I don't understand. Where did this raft come from?"

"From…the…airplane," Leeds slowly enunciated as though he were talking to a child.

Red staining her cheeks, Bobbie elaborated, "ATA planes don't usually carry rafts."

"I'm surprised the ATA bothers to put engines on their planes," Leeds muttered, pausing to glare at the young pilot.

"Actually," Bobbie observed, "if they could get away with it, they probably wouldn't. The Beaufort was the first plane I've had in a long time where both engines were operational."

"Lieutenant," Leeds turned to focus his attention on his superior, "I'll go back to Marston-Tyne Prison before I'll go on another ATA flight."

"If you don't shut up and bail, that's a decision you may never have to make," warned Danko, throwing another hatful of water over the side.

"I brought the raft on board," Gage confessed in a voice that quivered with pain. "I've always had a fear of drowning and I know ATA flights carry the bare minimum of equipment."

Leeds snorted. "That's an understatement."

"Thank God for your fear," Gallagher fervently intoned, ignoring the Chicagoan -- a lesson he was learning from Danko.

A wave drenched the occupants of the raft shooting cold splinters of water into delicate flesh. Bailing with renewed fervor, Danko reflected, "I thought you said you were a lieutenant in the Royal Navy, Gage?"

"I am; that's where I discovered my fear. You find out a lot of things about yourself when a destroyer gets torpedoed out from under you. When they tapped me for Jericho, I was more than willing to go."

Even as his eyes continued to search the sky for salvation, Gallagher nodded. "The closer the proximity to death, the clearer you see life."

 

ACT III
918th BOMB GROUP
ARCHBURY, ENGLAND

Komansky slowly walked around the Piccadilly Lily. After receiving the call from Major Stovall, he had driven to the B-17's hardstand. It was essential that everything on the aircraft be in top condition. The inexperience of the crew made this preflight check more vital than ever. He could not depend on anyone noticing a problem. To them, it might not look like a problem.

Gasoline fumes perfumed the air as the ground crew finished topping off the enormous tanks. Climbing into the fuselage, Komansky checked the waist guns to be sure the ammunition had been properly positioned and loaded. Nodding approval, he crawled back to the tail gun. Here, he found the ground crew had forgotten to load the clip. With a practiced hand, he quickly armed the weapon. After another thorough inspection, he returned to the bomb bay. The ball turret, top turret, and nose guns were examined with the same critical eye.

Neither wild horses nor top brass could have kept Sandy from participating in this mission. Yet, despite his determination, he understood the risk they were taking. This was not an experienced B-17 crew -- which made a dangerous job that much more hazardous.

Komansky knew that only a few short months ago, he never would have volunteered. As a cocky sergeant, he had only been interested in his own welfare. The nine other men on the crew were merely tools to aid in his survival. Gallagher had made him look at himself differently, as well as his mates, and the war in general. He had discovered there was a man and a cause he was willing to give his life for.

A horn honked, alerting Sandy to his superior's imminent arrival. Scrambling from the fuselage, he dropped to the tarmac. The jeep drew up near the nose of the plane. Stovall extricated himself from behind the wheel while a stranger climbed from the passenger seat. Though short in stature, he had the air of a man who was use to command. From the backseat, a darkly handsome figure uncurled his long legs to stand protectively by his friend.

"Sandy," Harvey Stovall called, retrieving his flight bag, "would you show Sheppard the navigation compartment while I introduce André to the instrument panel of a B-17?"

"Yes, sir."

Before following the sergeant, Sheppard turned a wary eye on his partner. "I thought you said you'd been in a B-17 cockpit?"

"I have, many times," assured the Frenchman.

"Then why does the major have to show you the instrument panel?"

"As I told Major Stovall, I've been in the cockpit of a B-17, but I've never flown one," explained André.

Sheppard's mouth dropped open in surprise. "You lied to a general."

"Mais non," André indignantly denied. "I told him only that I had been in a B-17 cockpit, not that I had flown one."

Shaking his head, Sheppard muttered, "Remind me to explain semantics to you and how they can get you court-martialed. If we survive this mission."

Though the two men wore civilian clothing, Komansky could tell by their conversation they were members of the allied forces. Curious, but unwilling to ruffle Sheppard's feathers anymore than they already were, Sandy led the older man to the navigator's desk. He watched with interest as the serious brown eyes roved over the tools he would need to accomplish his task.

As a hand hesitantly reached out to pick up a sharpened pencil, Komansky asked, "Do you have everything you need, sir?"

"I hope so, Sergeant." Sheppard sighed, sitting down so he could study the map. "If I don't we'll all end up as POW's… or dead."

Since it was obvious Sheppard wanted privacy, Komansky made his way back up to the cockpit. "Everything seems to be ready, Major."

"Good work, Sandy," praised Stovall. "Danko's men should be arriving shortly. Have you decided how you want to position them?"

"Yes, sir." Ticking off the names on his fingers, Komansky said, "I'll put Sergeants Cutter and Farrell on the waist guns. Lebec's slim enough to get through the tunnel to the tail gun, and Roy's the only one small enough for the ball turret."

"I suggest you be ready to run when you tell Vern he doesn't get to go," Stovall warned.

"Actually, sir," Komansky nervously smiled, "I thought I'd put him on the nose guns. Being unfamiliar with the equipment, Sheppard and Feke will have their hands full. Plus, we can always use an extra set of eyes."

"I always knew you had a well-developed instinct for survival, Sandy," said Stovall, smiling in spite of the gravity of their situation.

The thick French accent making him difficult to understand, André remarked, "I assume this Vern is a large man, oui?"

"Have you ever seen a mountain, Lieutenant?" asked Stovall.

"Mais oui," André's gaze grew reflective as he looked out across the runway. "I would ski in the Swiss Alps before the war."

Stovall nodded. "That should give you an idea of the size we're talking about here."

Pointing to the dust from a heavy vehicle, Komansky saw the truck stop briefly at the guard hut before proceeding through the gate. "I think the Dirty Dozen are here."

"Get them situated as quickly as you can, Sandy," Stovall ordered. "I want to get this bird in the air before General Britt finds out there's a weather front moving in."

As he made his way to the fuselage, Komansky wondered how many more obstacles would be placed in their path. Each new barrier lessened their chance for survival.

 

8th AIR FORCE HEADQUARTERS
PINETREE

Walking as fast as his maimed leg and supporting cane would allow, Britt entered his office. Nodding a curt greeting to General Worth, he crossed to his desk and reached for the telephone. Pressing furiously on the plungers to gain the operator's attention, he ordered, "Put me through to the 918th… Major Stovall."

Worry and exhaustion making him appear older than his years, Worth demanded, "What's wrong, Ed?"

"There's a weather front moving in," explained Britt, putting a hand over the mouth piece. "I'm going to cancel the operation."

Disappointment flashed across the lined face before Worth nodded his understanding. "The risk is no longer acceptable."

"Damn it!" The receiver crashed down on the cradle. The resonance of their meeting echoed around the room. "The Piccadilly Lily's already taken off."

"Can you call them back?" asked Worth, moving to stand at the agitated man's side.

"I could try," Britt said, rounding his desk to sit heavily in his chair. "But if I know Harvey, he'll feign radio trouble, at least until they find something or run out of gas."

"It may be selfish of me, but I confess, I'm glad your Colonel Gallagher has such a friend," noted Worth, returning to his seat.

Britt slammed his cane on top of the desk. "You don't risk the lives of nine human beings for friendship."

"That's exactly why each and every one of them volunteered for the mission," argued Worth. Leaning forward, he pointed out, "Every time I send my men out, I know some of them aren't coming back. I have to ask them to give their lives for a cause much more esoteric and far less personal than the life of a friend."

Allowing his head to drop to the back of his chair, Britt gently massaged his temples. A battle between logic and emotion waged inside his heart. Risking ten lives to save four was not a fair trade off. But he knew that at least one of those men could be a key to winning this war. The country with the superior weapons and greater manpower was not always the victor. An army's greatest strength lay in its leader's ingenuity and ability to adapt. Joseph Gallagher excelled in both skills, making him the 8th Air Force's best Group Commander. How much longer would this war last? How many more lives would be sacrificed if these men weren't rescued?

 

THE PICCADILLY LILY

Komansky's eyes raced across the undulating waves before reaching back to the sky. Somewhere on the vast expanse of the North Sea floated his superior officer, while death, in the form of enemy fighters menaced from above. The oncoming storm had forced them to fly low. At times, water from a crashing wave splashed the Plexiglas of his turret. From his position, the view was terrifying. He could only imagine what it looked like from Roy's perspective in the ball turret. Yet, there had not been a single complaint from the diminutive man.

Regret clearly audible in his voice, Stovall said, "Sheppard, plot a course back to Archbury."

"Major?" Komansky protested, aching eyes desperately searching the gloom ahead.

"I have no choice, Sandy," Stovall explained. "We barely have enough fuel to get back as it is."

The right wing dipped as the pilot skillfully eased the plane into a long, slow turn. As the craft straightened into its new course, Komansky's eyes raised to the heavens directing a silent prayer to a God he wasn't sure he believed in. Instead of finding the answer he was seeking, he spotted two planes high above them. Their silhouettes on the dark clouds were undeniably familiar to the young airman. Pressing the interphone to his throat, he called, "Two FW190's, twelve o'clock high."

Pulling back the bolt of his gun, Komansky patiently waited for the targets to drop closer. He knew he was the crew's best chance for survival. The Dirty Dozen didn't lack the courage needed to face the on rushing danger, but they lacked the skill.

The B-17 climbed to give Stovall more room to maneuver. The strategy was two-fold; it would also give them the option of escaping into the enveloping clouds if it became necessary.

"There it is!"

The call was so loud it almost deafened Komansky. Carefully tracking the enemy fighters with his eyes, he pressed the interphone to his throat. Speaking slowly and distinctly, he said, "Whoever made that last announcement, please clarify your information in a calm manner and a lower voice."

"This is Vern in the nose," the young man replied, obviously fighting hard to keep from shouting. "I see a yellow raft just ahead and to our right."

Though he knew he endangered the crew by doing so, Komansky took his eyes off the black specters of death hovering above them to glance in the direction Vern had indicated. Riding down the side of a towering wave was indeed a life raft. As he returned to his earlier vigil, the sergeant realized they were not the only ones who had spotted the raft. "Major, the Krauts are going for the colonel."

"I see them, Sandy," assured Stovall. "We're on our way."

The roar of the powerful engines grew louder as the Major increased their air speed. In a move that was out of character for the normally ethically-minded Germans, one of the fighters dove toward the surface. A line of bullets skipped across the water where the raft had been only seconds before. If not for the motion of the rough sea, the bullets would have found their target.

Above the roar of the engines, Komansky could hear the other gunners firing at the renegade fighter. Knowing their inexperience was causing them to fire directly at the enemy rather than in front, he ordered, "Shoot where you think the bastard's going to be, not where he is now."

Taking his own advice, Komansky aimed at a spot slightly above and to the right of the enemy pilot's position. Counting off the seconds, he fired into what appeared to be empty sky. In a turn so slow it was barely noticeable, the fighter strayed into the path of the 50mm shells. The bullets cut a swath across the fuselage. Smoke billowed from the engines and followed the craft into its watery grave.

"Nice shooting, Sergeant," André praised.

"Thank you, sir," acknowledged Komansky. "But that's only one down. There's still one to go."

In a more traditional -- and honorable -- attack, the remaining fighter turned on the Lily. Avoiding the domain of the top turret, the pilot guided his craft on a course that took him underneath the massive fortress.

Komansky listened in frustration as the other guns chattered at the target. He had to admire the German pilot. It took a lot of courage to take on a B-17 by himself when twelve guns could concentrate on a single target.

"I got him," Lebec's triumphant voice declared.

His gaze turning to the rear of the aircraft, Komansky saw the FW climb into view. One engine had already been feathered, the other was trailing smoke. Throwing open his canopy, the pilot threw his opponents a salute before jumping from his damaged plane. Eyes followed the falling figure until a white parachute opened to slow his descent.

Komanksy activated his interphone. "Feke, when you radio the location of the raft, tell the rescue boat to be on the lookout for a German pilot in the same area."

 

THE WELLINGTON
NORTH SEA

Gallagher gripped the edge of the narrow bunk with his good hand as they breasted another wave. Though the small merchant ship was drier and warmer than the raft had been, he did not feel much safer. From his usual position a mile up in the air, the sea was beautiful and mysterious with its ever changing colors and moods. Regretfully, he realized he would never look upon it with the same wonder again. Instead of having a calming effect, it would now invoke fear and loathing.

The rescue vessel had appeared within an hour of the B-17's departure. Hurt and partially frozen, they had been unable to assist in their own recovery. Sodden uniforms added to the dead weight of their bodies. Eventually, they had all been lifted on board and carried down to the crew's quarters where a doctor could easily administer to their needs.

"Colonel Gallaher?" A heavily accented voice questioned.

Looking up, Gallagher focused on the handsome face of a stranger. Wet hair lay plastered to the aristocratic brow. A stray lock had fallen across the smooth forehead, giving the man a boyish appearance. His shoulders, despite being wrapped in a blanket, shook from a chill no flannel could alleviate.

His prone position making him feel at a distinct disadvantage, Gallagher acknowledged, "I'm Gallagher."

"I am Lt. Hans Schmidt," the stranger introduced himself, lifting his chin and throwing back his shoulders. "I am one of the fighters attacking you this morning and again hour ago."

"Both times you shot at us, we were unarmed," Gallagher pointed out, not even trying to suppress his anger. "You might not have realized that when we were in the bomber, but it was rather obvious we were defenseless in the raft."

"My commander fired on your raft," defended Schmidt, the young face showing the soldier's distress. "Though he threatened court-martial me, I could not follow him."

As he recognized how difficult it must have been for the young pilot to disobey a direct order, Gallagher felt his anger dissipate. "You did the right thing, Lieutenant."

"Yes, but there is reason why Captain Mueller shoot at you." Every word was spoken haltingly as the young pilot tried to explain the circumstances in a language that was not his own.

His anger returning, Gallagher struggled to sit up. Shrugging off the helping hand his enemy offered, he pointed across the room to where the doctor worked diligently to save Gage's life. "There can be no justification for that."

"Not excuse," Schmidt hastily agreed, "ex . . . explanation."

Gallagher closed his eyes against the dizziness threatening to lay him out flat. Raising a hand, he gripped the bunk above him just as the small vessel bounced off a wave, almost throwing him off his perch. The blanket fell from the German's shoulders as he reached to save himself. Sighing in exhaustion and pain, Gallagher suggested, "Maybe you should return to your bunk before you have some broken bones to add to exposure."

"In minute," Schmidt impatiently conceded, regaining his footing. "I want you understand Captain Mueller. Before, he great pilot, great fighter, I respect and admire. Last week, Americans bomb Emaden. Frau Mueller, their children die in raid."

"I'm sorry," whispered Gallagher, understanding his opponent's motives better than Schmidt could have hoped. Gallagher had seen so many innocent people die, he should have become immune to their suffering -- but he had not. His heart ached for their loss, whether they were English, American, or German.

"I believe one your countrymen say it best," Schmidt observed, "war is hell."

 

EPILOGUE
918th BOMB GROUP
ARCHBURY, ENGLAND

A knock on his door drew Gallagher's attention away from the piles of paperwork lying on the desk in front of him. Grateful for the interruption, he called, "Come in."

"Lt. Danko is here to see you, sir," Komansky announced, stepping into the office and partially closing the door behind him.

Rising to his feet, Gallagher directed, "Show him in, Sandy."

As the older man entered the room and crossed to his side, Gallagher carefully studied his visitor. Though he was still a little pale and walked with a stiffness that had not been apparent when they had met in Scotland the week before, Danko appeared healthy. Gesturing to his bandaged right arm, Gallagher offered his left hand before asking, "How are you feeling, Lieutenant?"

"If I ever get on another boat again, it'll be too soon," Danko disgustedly noted.

Gallagher suppressed a smile as he remembered how seasick the other man had been on The Wellington. "I must admit, I'm glad I didn't join the Navy."

A brief smile greeted this admission before Danko, disdaining the small talk, got down to business. "Colonel, I was wondering if you'd heard how Gage was doing? Not even General Worth has the clearance to discover his condition."

"He'll be fine," Gallagher assured. Returning to his seat, he motioned to the chair in front of his desk before continuing, "He'll be out of action for a couple of months, but he should recover fully."

"It's been frustrating not knowing," Danko confessed, gently easing his aching body into the chair.

Remembering Danko's and Bobbie's diligent attention to the injured man, Gallagher could understand the possessive tone he heard in the lieutenant's voice. "You might be interested to know, I recommended Bobbie for a Military Medal."

"She deserves it," agreed Danko.

"That and more," Gallagher acknowledged, pulling a cigarette from its pack. "I wish I could've put her up for a DFC."

"Leed wouldn't agree with me, but I'd fly with her again anytime."

His movements awkward, Gallagher placed the cigarette in his mouth before spinning the wheel on his lighter. When it failed to light, he turned a disgusted gaze on the inanimate object. "Leeds would probably complain if you asked him to fly with Lindburgh after this."

Danko nodded and smiled his agreement before leaning over and taking the lighter from Gallagher's hand. A fire blazed on the first spin. Touching it to the end of the cigarette, he waited until smoke wafted through the air before extinguishing the flame. "Did they cancel the mission?"

"The 863rd is flying it with a team code-named Garrison's Gorillas," Gallagher explained, relaxing back in his chair and taking a long pull on his cigarette. "Ever heard of them?"

"Can't say that I have," admitted Danko, rising to his feet. "I guess it's a bigger war than I thought."

Also rising, Gallagher rounded his desk to offer a left-handed shake. "Good luck, Lieutenant."

"Same to you, sir." Crossing to the door, Danko stopped. "I hope we can work together again sometime, Colonel."

"Don't let Leeds hear you say that," warned Gallagher, a rare smile lighting his face. "He'll probably desert."