Guess you could say I knew most of the guys sitting round that table, well, recognised them. I didn’t know them all personally, some were before me, some after, but they were familiar faces to me. Crews come and go, those that bought it got replaced by fresh guys and, in a way, you learnt it was best not to get to know most of them too well.
Gunner, Bombardier, Radio, Navigator, Pilots. The guys round this table had two things in common and one was a shared look of tiredness, deep, unending, hollow eyed fatigue. The look of men pushed to the limit of endurance, of coping with fear, of death. A sunken eyed expressionless gaze of combat crew in the US 8th Air force.
For the most part, they just sat there, silent. A couple would, maybe, deal a few hands of cards, another might read, the rest just stared ahead or looked down at the ground. Waiting. Yep, we were always waiting. Waiting for the weather to lift, waiting for the next mission, the next period of Leave, waiting. Spent our entire damn lives here just waiting. Spells of inactivity broken by the fear filled tension of another daylight trip to one German city or another, then this…waiting once again.
Another guy approached the table sliding back a vacant chair. The screech of the metal legs on the floor making the guy opposite jump like a jack rabbit. I looked at him closely, the way he wore his gear, that look of terror mixed with something else, a sort of self-conscious timid innocence: The look of a Rookie. Could see it as plain as your face. Another fresh faced kid, new to England. The last time he had that look of fear and hurt on his face his Ma probably bent down and used her handkerchief to wipe the tear off his cheek. Maybe, that happened less than five years ago. He just sat there for awhile, looking kind of lost, lost and confused.
“How many?” I asked
“Just..two..it was my second trip” he managed to stutter.
I kind of felt sorry for the kid, asked him his position and what ship he was on, just to make conversation.
“Tail gunner on Kentucky Moon”, he replied.
Kentucky Moon a B17G, one of hundreds of ‘Forts flying off fields in East Anglia. Each built the same, give or take, and each one unique for the ten men who risked their lives in one. That was the other thing the guys round this table had in common.
I was lost in thought and I didn’t see the rookie get up, just saw him backing out of the canteen and looking, now and again, at a few guys on other tables with a look of shock on his bewildered young face.
He bellied her in, some damn fine pilot, kept her straight as she tore up some of that old Norfolk mud and slid to a stop.
There was that moment of stillness, silent inactivity hanging on the brink and then all hell broke loose. Fire crew and medics running towards the airplane and hatches being thrown open on it, crew jumping clear. Jeez, there were flak holes you could step through and one glance of what was left of the rudder made you appreciate that pilot even more. Some had a few injuries, but all were walking, except the tail gunner, laying in the mid-section with the two guys that had stayed with him. Our Doc’ did a great job that day. I heard later that the guy’s heart had, actually, stopped beating and our Doc’ worked his magic and had got it started up again. Like a lot of our guys he had come back dead in a shot up B17 but, unlike most of those poor kids, he had been brought back to life again. Thanks to the Doc’.
That tail gunner, eventually, told his story. How he had felt nothing after the cannon shell had struck and sent shrapnel into him, didn’t remember being dragged over the bulkhead and into the waist position where crew could bandage him up, give him morphine and try to keep him alive, or how his heart had given up as Kentucky Moon had slid to a halt. What he did remember was feeling numb as he walked into a silent canteen, full of tables with crew sitting round them. How he had seen a few guys he recognised on a couple of the tables, guys who had joined the squadron with him, guys who had come back dead after their first mission. They put it all down to shock, his brain going crazy due to lack of oxygen, but then he described some of the faces sitting round the table he had sat at and that got to a few of the older guys, because those descriptions matched men that they had known. Men who had not been around when this kid had arrived. The men he described had all come back dead on one ship, one trip or another and there had been plenty of them.
That kid said it hadn’t been seeing them that had got to him the most. He had kind of realised they were what they were when he saw the other rookies. Guys he knew had been killed just a week or so before and it wasn’t as if you could see through them or anything, they just looked like normal guys. No, it was looking out of that canteen towards the airfield and seeing the cracked concrete and weeds, the broken glass in the outbuildings, boarded up, the empty control tower crumbling with age and the big bill board opposite with the words “Millennium Housing Development. Luxury Apartments ready to view, from December 1999”.