All this, and I am still hungry,
Still twenty years overweight, still unable
To get down there or see
What really happened.

-James Dickey, “The Firebombing”

 

10 0733Z Mar 45

With all four engines turning, one Superfortress rattles the ground like an earthquake. With more than a hundred bombers roaring on the tarmac—their Wright Cyclone radial engines generating the noise and rumbling equivalent of 800,000 horses—it sounds as if the brigades of Hell have been unleashed on Guam. The propwash carries aloft sharp, choking vapors of high-octane fuel. Twenty-knot trade winds further swirl the grit and oil scud across the airfield until a dense, brown haze settles six feet above the south ramp, where Captain Lou Remiker finishes his preflight on Millie’s Muffins.

The heat is unbearable. Even as the sun goes down, it’s 104˚ in the shade.

Remiker slides his palm along the silver B-29’s smooth, sizzling belly. He counts a dozen flush rivets with his finger before climbing through the forward hatch. A third-generation West Pointer, he carries a creased photo of his wife and two young sons in his flight suit pocket, tucked between his survival knife and crew light.

A year ago, Remiker was an instructor pilot in Oklahoma; now he’s a war-seasoned aviator. He loves the job. He loves his crew like family. He loves flying the complex sixty-ton bombers—the newest planes in the war. He loves the long hours in flight, the procedures and planning. He even loves the risk, the fight, the chance to stare Death in the eye and not flinch. He’s figured out how to use fear to his advantage.

“All the great ones loved fear,” his father once told him. And so he does.

Remiker’s father tasted mustard gas under Blackjack Pershing, and his grandfather took a musket ball in the neck holding Jubal Early’s line at First Manassas. Remiker doesn’t think his brand of valor measures up to his heritage and he’s the first to say so. For an officer with a Distinguished Flying Cross, Silver Star, and Purple Heart, this is hardly a logical conclusion, but he never sidesteps his own shortcomings.

Remiker climbs up a narrow ladder through a twelve-foot tube that leads to the cockpit. Inside, the sweltering plane melts like a candle, spicing the air with aromas of hydraulic fluid, engine oil, and canvas seating. There’s also a stronger odor today, an overwhelming blast of kerosene coming from the bomb bay.

As he climbs, he visualizes procedures. Taxi. Takeoff. Departure turn. The long steady climb-out. He also has oppressive thoughts of the ocean, that familiar but abysmal space which he will soon have to cross again.

Some fifteen hundred miles away, the sun descends on Tokyo, the frail-beating heart of the once-mighty empire. For so long out of reach, so much of this war has been fought only to get close enough to finally drive this dagger home. Over three hundred planes will attack Tokyo in parallel, simultaneous launches from here on Guam and from Saipan to the north. It will make Doolittle’s ’42 raid on Tokyo look like a child’s prank. Quite possibly, this mission will deliver the decisive blow in the war. Even the thought of Tokyo inspires awe. But first, the American bombers must cross a merciless ocean. They must endure agile Jap fighter planes, anti-aircraft guns, hydraulic leaks, magnesium fires and a thousand other things that can and often do go wrong on these missions.

Trust the process, Remiker knows. He flips on the auxiliary power switch, and the familiar whir of gyros spooling up settles him.

A moment later, Duffy Lasko, the young copilot and husband of the eponymous Millie, with her explosive muffins, climbs into the cockpit, grinning and whistling a tune.

“Evening, Pops,” Lasko says. “Great weather for a fight.”

A newsreel rookie, Lasko sports a silk scarf and a Clark Gable moustache. Though this will only be his fourth mission, his ignorance is counterweighted by his unabashed arrogance. But Remiker likes his young co-pilot, even admires his cockiness, the way he has conceived of heroism and glory long before earning it.

Lasko winks and pulls out a bourbon bottle. Though it clearly violates regulations, there are other codes that matter, unwritten, fraternal rituals. Remiker splashes a belt into his canteen of pineapple juice, twists the cap and hands the bottle back to the flight engineer, Captain Gase, who has just climbed into his station behind the pilots. Before the war, Gase was a geologist in a Mojave mining town. Now he’s an inveterate drunk. By the time they arrive on station, he’ll be walloped. But even drunk, Gase is methodical and precise, more capable than most fliers are sober. He pulls a swig off the bottle and then cycles the hydraulics, beginning the long process of priming the four fuel pumps.

Millie’s Muffins will be the very last bomber to depart this evening, the least enviable spot in the batting order. Losses are always highest at the end. But as the 315th Bombardment Wing’s schedules officer, Remiker never asks another man to do something he won’t do. His boys understand and seldom complain.

‘Tit’ Swetnam, the bombardier, climbs in last. He squeezes forward to his seat inside the Superfortress’s giant glass nose. From the hill country of North Carolina, Swetnam is a tea-totaling Southern Baptist, a preacher’s son with a gift for gab. He’s also the only one who doesn’t drink bourbon. Instead, he crams cut-leaf tobacco into his cheek and swallows the juice. The back of his leather flight jacket is festooned with a large Confederate Flag and row upon row of silver bombs marking each completed mission

The bombardier station rests a full two feet below Remiker’s seat, so that in the refracted, afternoon light shining through the plane’s massive, Plexiglas windscreen, Swetnam looks every bit like a boy riding on the handlebars of a bicycle.

Lasko twirls the control wheel. An aileron rises and falls on the starboard wing. Remiker checks the port wing and gives a small nod.

It’s the same all across Guam. For over an hour, hundreds of pilots and crews have run through the same start-up routines. Hundreds of boots fluttering rudder pedals, hundreds of hands adjusting seats, saying prayers, twisting tiny knobs on altimeters until the numerals line up—28.95—and the field altitude of eight feet above mean sea level registers as the slightest clockwise tilt of every needle on every instrument panel’s face inside every bomber.

As the first plane begins its takeoff roll, a twinge of fear snaps inside Remiker’s chest, a feeling almost sexual in the way it takes over. He notes it, welcomes it, and from his thigh pocket, pulls out the Before Take-Off Check List and begins.

~

Inside a sweltering Quonset hut, Colonel Jeremiah Pike stands at rigid attention. His uniform shirt is drenched in sweat. Because of a wooden prosthetic peg attached to what remains of his right knee, Pike leans noticeably left while standing still. Engine noise rattles up from the ground, through his wooden leg, shaking his whole body.

“We have three new downs, General,” Pike reports. “Two fatigue cracks and an oil sump.” There’s an elegant calculus to war. Everything is counted, inventoried, checked and re-checked. Warriors and accountants. Pike has been both in his lifetime, though he is neither now.

“Goddamned targeting selection is my decision,” Lemay says, shouting at a telegram in his hand. The general stomps back and forth across his cramped quarters, clenching the telegram. Thick shouldered and barrel-chested, a linebacker pilot with a bulldog head, Lemay is always in motion, as if to say that resting men are lesser men. Though just six months older than Pike, Lemay’s dark, centerline-parted hair has already begun to gray. His stern face, with wide jowls and a rounded chin, never smiles. To hide a palsied droop in the corner of his mouth, Lemay constantly chomps on the nub of a never-lit cigar. He keeps his khakis freshly pressed and his boots sparkle with polish. He doesn’t even sweat, which Pike can’t figure, because it’s over a hundred degrees.

Telegrams have been arriving all day—well-wishes, weather reports, intel on ship positions, fuel quantities from depots on the Marianas, even the occasional protest from a theater commander, as this one apparently is.

In one stroke, Lemay has boldly changed American strategy. For the first time, they will be bombing a civilian population without mercy, a clear violation of long-standing traditions. Pike knows this a radical shift, verging on the criminal. It’s never been done before by American fliers. There’s a frenzy about it all, though Lemay remains certain and unapologetic. It is either a masterstroke of military genius or utter madness and, as Pike well knows, the difference is negligible.

“Let ‘em burn,” Lemay snarls at the telegram. “It’s war, not goddamned diplomacy.”

The general bites down on his stubby, unlit cigar and continues to pace. The vibrating Quonset hut is thick with tropical humidity and darting gall midges. The thirty-eight year old wing commander has either forgotten to or decided not to put his peg-legged adjutant at-ease. At attention now for almost five minutes, Pike needs to shift his weight or fall over. The pressure in his stump throbs, like a toothache multiplied by a kick in the balls.

Buried in the palm of Pike’s hand is a steel propeller the size of a quarter. For weeks now he’s been building a surprise for the boys—a toy, something he works on in his precious off-hours. He pinches the blades into his skin, drawing blood to the surface, hoping that one pain will erase the other. The noise grows more deafening as each new plane starts up.

At the very center of the hut, suspended from a large nail in a wooden beam, hangs the general’s holstered service revolver. The gun rattles on its post. And the beam rattles too, as do the corrugated tin walls and the ceiling itself, as does the attachment brace on Pike’s wooden leg, as does everything in the hut, even the ground beneath it, all of it vibrating and churning like the teeth of a colossal sawmill.

For his part, all Pike wants is his opium. Four hours have passed since his last drop, and he feels the cold, creeping, hand of sobriety stabbing pins into the emptiness where his leg used to be.

He needs it more than sleep, more than food, even more than getting off this island. His refuge is yellow tar, the laudanum tincture he creates with an ounce of raw Burmese opium, two pinches of saffron, one of cinnamon powder, a pint of ethanol, all of it mixed together and ground in a ceramic bowl. Batches of it—cured for days and bottled—wait for him in tiny glass vials like jewels buried deep inside his footlocker.

Lemay doesn’t glance up as Pike slaps at a fly and shifts his weight. The relief is unimaginable. Blood flows again to the stump. Pleasure trickles up and down his thigh, a rekindling of muscle and nerve, an ecstasy almost as thrilling as the opium he craves.

Four hours, Pike thinks. Four hours.

The first planes thunder skyward as Lemay continues to snarl at the telegram.

~

On the island’s southernmost beach, three Chamorro boys gaze up as, one by one, an endless train of roaring, silver-skinned bombers launch overhead. Again and again, giant machines lift off with a furious rumble, climb, retract gear and raise flaps. Massive wings bank left over the reef with the slow, graceful certainty of terns in flight, puffing four oily smoke trails like dark, parallel scars across the otherwise pristine sky. The boys keep a tally in the sand. They watch one shrink, rising to the southwest before disappearing, only to be replaced by the next bomber, and the next, and the next.

Skimming the shore, a proa approaches. White sails billow against blue sky. On deck, the boys’ fathers are busy gathering nets out beyond the reef. The boys whoop and holler, splashing between land and sea, trying to gain their fathers’ attention, but the thundering planes drown out their voices. Their frantic waves are not returned. They chase after the boat, shouting and whistling, until it tacks and vanishes beyond a point on the southeastern side of the island. The relentless noise continues. It goes on like this for almost two hours, until the boys have long lost count and interest, until the final plane has departed and a wave has erased rows of tally marks in the sand, leaving behind a deep stillness over the beach, and the boys have rushed into the water to swim.

 

10 1320Z Mar45:

Moonlight paints the fuselage and illuminates a ravishing likeness of the young Millie Lasko straddling a map of Japan. She holds a picnic basket—gingham cloth covering a brimming bounty—in the crook of her left arm. Her breasts are bursting out of a flapping denim shirt, à la Rosie the Riveter, and a look of pure ecstasy radiates from her face. From between her legs, flaming bombs fall toward a bull’s-eye painted atop the Ryukyus.

The bomber clears a dark atoll at forty-five hundred feet and begins to climb again. For five hours and fifteen hundred miles, they’ve been staircasing up and down at irregular intervals to avoid detection. They’re climbing now, back to seven thousand feet, for the remainder of the run.

It has been smooth flying so far. The first wave of bombers, already heading back, report light flak. Heavy turbulence. Rich targeting. Happy Hunting!

“Good to go, right sir?” Lasko asks.

Although the reports are encouraging, Remiker knows they’re fast approaching the mouth of the dragon.

“It’s time to tell you about ‘O’Leary’s Law,’” Remiker says to his young co-pilot.

“Dear Lord,” Swetnam groans over the interphone. “A sermon? Now, sir? You woulda fit right in with my daddy.”

Remiker has told this story so many times that he wonders if it really happened, or if it is a preamble to a larger lie. But he remembers Artie O’Leary. He remembers his sandy hair and gap-toothed smile.

Gase grabs the bourbon, switches on the auxiliary fuel pump, and closes his eyes. Swetnam unbuckles and scratches his nuts. The physical demands of the long flights are unrelenting. Twelve hours of utter boredom and two minutes of terror.

“Dumb-shit thought he was smarter than everybody else,” Remiker says.

O’Leary was, in fact, smarter. Much smarter. A better flier. More courageous. Remiker was his mentor, his instructor pilot, for ten weeks of multi-engine training.

“It was just over a year ago,” Remiker says, though it feels like a century. “O’Leary decided to cut a few corners and copied another student’s flight plans.” Remiker remembers the hangars in Oklahoma, the work stations, the pages and pages of aircraft manuals. Grueling then, those days return fondly now, the innocence of training like a pleasant dream.

“O’Leary vectored north in near-blizzard conditions,” Remiker says “Two hours later, he overshot the runway in Laramie instead of Laredo. Slid his Havoc into a snow bank and snapped five propeller blades.”

Lasko groans.

“Next thing he knew, he was at parade-rest in front of an honor board on Hatbox Field.” In fact, Remiker cast the deciding vote. He doesn’t tell Lasko this part.

Millie’s Muffins hits a patch of turbulence and wobbles. The plane cools as it climbs. Engine noise becomes a steady drone after awhile, enough to lull an entire crew to sleep. It’s happened many times before. Remiker checks their altitude and continues. He glances down at the ink-black sea.

“Shipped off to the regular army. Three weeks later, while slogging his way across a snowy Italian mountain pass with a Fifth Army infantry unit, Arthur Nash O’Leary took a German bullet just above the bridge of his nose. They shipped his body home with a wax plug in the bullet hole so his brains didn’t leak.”

Every flier has one of these stories. They’re passed along, acquired with the procedures and techniques of flight. They’re sermons, cautionary tales, intended to scare rookie pilots, to bully them into trusting procedures and obeying rules. But did it really happen? Sometimes Remiker isn’t sure, though the guilt he feels over O’Leary’s death is real enough.

Remiker wonders about all the effort, the carnage, the great vacuum of war. He tries hard never to think about the vote he cast.

They level-off at seven thousand feet and Remiker resets the autopilot. A handful of stars shimmer out the window. Below is only the interminable darkness of the ocean, unchanging and perpetual.

“That was one unlucky son-of-a-bitch,” Lasko says.

“There’s no luck in any of this,” Remiker says, though he knows, all too well, luck is often the only thing a pilot has. “You work hard. No shortcuts. Know every inch of your airplane. She’ll tell you what’s going on.”

Remiker wants to teach his young copilot everything, but there are parts of O’Leary’s Law that will remain unspoken. For he knows the beating heart of O’Leary’s Law has little to do with what happened in Oklahoma. O’Leary’s Law isn’t about honor codes or shortcuts or unhappy endings. It’s about knowing the answer to a simple question. What do you most fear?

No one could answer this question for Remiker. He has discovered it on his own, in the countless, ass-clenched hours spent over the ocean. The answer, when it came, arrived as something of a shock.

He’s never feared flying. A natural pilot, a real stick-and-rudder man, he has no fear of this unstable B-29 with its propensity for magnesium fires, oil leaks, and structural failures. He can handle the airframe. Neither does he fear Lemay, his commanding general, with his wild missions and desire for glory. Accustomed to discipline, Remiker has been following orders his whole life. And despite the wild risks, he’s not even afraid of combat. A man should experience battle at least once in his life. This, he believes. Besides, he knows the Japanese are already defeated. All that remains is how much it will cost to win the peace.

What Remiker fears most is water.

He has crossed the Pacific enough times to feel its vastness like a disease. He gathers the ocean’s emptiness in a place that must be his soul. Water is everywhere at once. It surrounds, overtakes, erases. Nothing in his life has prepared him for this, for how the ocean so fully reduces and expands. Not the till plains of his childhood with their slicing blizzards and indescribable summer mornings. Not the giant runways at Hatbox Field, which seemed to stretch forever, but were still never long enough. Not even the sky feels so singularly large, because no matter how high he climbs, Remiker can always see ground below him. But out over water, everything is swallowed by emptiness. The ocean extends without limit or border.

Airplanes don’t crash out here. They evaporate. They disappear. Vanish without so much as a single canteen of the crew-preferred but command-prohibited bourbon and pineapple juice bobbing to the surface. Out here, Remiker knows he won’t be as lucky as O’Leary if something goes wrong. There’ll be no luxury of landing in Laramie. No reassignment to an infantry unit. And his cold corpse won’t be shipped home for burial beneath sugar maples in Saint John’s cemetery. Out here, mistakes and miscalculations lead to a place worse than death. They lead to oblivion.

“O’Leary’s Law is arithmetic,” Remiker says to his co-pilot in lieu of the truth. “If everything is lined up, then the answer falls into place. The plane flies true. She tracks her rhumb lines and delivers on target. She brings your sorry ass back home. O’Leary’s Law is about carrying the ones and place-holding the zeros. Think of flying like a vast, complex equation. You solve it carefully, by following the steps. That’s all.”

Remiker can’t bring himself to mention water. A man must learn some lessons on his own.

The bomber wobbles again. Sheet lightning flashes to the south, a distant crackle of white in an otherwise perfect, pitch blackness.

“So that’s O’Leary’s Law,” Remiker says to Lasko. “You do this job long enough, you’ll find something to believe in. You make sure that your logbook balances, that your takeoffs and landings come out even.”

Do that, Remiker thinks, but doesn’t say, and you can at least give your pretty young wife a goddamned body to bury.

Ahead of them, Remiker spots the first streaks of dawn breaking in gold-orange ribbons of color above the water. Except they are heading west, and the sun should be rising at their tail.

~

Six hours after the last bomber departed and Pike still can’t sleep. It’s been days since he’s closed his eyes. Even the opium doesn’t help anymore. The more he takes, the less he sleeps.

He obtains the supply easily enough. Even on this remote island in the middle of the Pacific, the war has created a contraband system as complex and varied as anything he witnessed on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. Almost anything can be purchased, except silence and peace. But with enough opium, Pike can make the noise and the fighting almost disappear.

He hears a rustling in the dark as he glues the final propeller cap onto the tiny nacelle. The small blades are catching. Drops of glue have spilled onto the axel and impede the propeller’s movement. Carefully, he rotates the blade and cracks off the glue, until the stuck propeller twirls as freely as the other three.

Pike has soldered together two, brass, .50 caliber casings, fashioned wings and a tail out of scrap metal and paint, and has shaped the nose with putty, until the whole thing bears some fair resemblance to a real Superfortress. On the wings he painted the star roundel and blue bars, miniature squadron numbers.

He has christened them after The Three Stooges, the inseparable Chamorro boys who he’s come to look upon almost as sons, though they’ve never exchanged a word. Though Pike has misnamed them—the one who is clearly the leader, clearly the Moe of this group, he calls Curly. The one he calls Moe has a long nappy hair and should be Larry.

He wonders why they are up so late. He drapes a towel over his pestle of scorched yellow opium tar and another towel over the model airplane.

Stars tumble in the sky. Coconut palms appear to gambol around his tent. He wonders, sometimes, if the boys are real or merely hallucinations. Pike hears giggling in the darkness, and shines his crew light out to the trees until the boys step closer.

“You should be asleep,” he says.

Six eyeballs stare from a few yards away. He tosses a sleeve of saltines their way. The boys quickly gobble them up.

Curly, the bravest, steps closer and points toward Pike’s missing leg. The boys never tire of seeing it, if an absence is something that can be seen. Pike shakes his head. He’s in no mood.

A .30 caliber tracer round had sizzled through his P-51’s fuselage over Belgium and melted his tibia and fibula. He should have bled out in the sky, but the steaming bullet cauterized the wound, and he limped his damaged fighter plane back across the Channel. Along the way, Pike managed to splash two ME-109s, his fifth and sixth kills, making him an ace. Stars and Stripes ran the incredible story, including a picture of the nearly exsanguinated pilot being extracted from his chewed up plane. Three months later, Lemay wanted “tactical eyes” on staff and summoned Pike to Guam. As far as he knows, Pike is the only one-legged colonel in the Pacific Theater. He may also be the only opium addict, though this seems less likely.

The boy points again toward his leg.

“No,” he says, stronger than intended, sending the boys scampering back. Pike decides that he will not give them the toy plane, as though he is punishing his own children. A moment later, he changes his mind.

He has made things for them before—dog tags bent together into tops, lug nuts attached to tie-down pennants and transformed into parachutists, oil cans and spoons fashioned into drums—but nothing so elaborate. Curly reapproaches half a step and points at his leg.

Something worries Pike, something just beyond the haze of his opium-addled brain. It feels similar to waking from a dream in which he has perpetrated an awful crime—murder, rape, something monstrous and irredeemable. A sense of the awful act trails from sleep and will never be forgotten or erased. It is like that now.

He limps back inside and comes out with the toy. He holds it up in the tent light and motions for the boys to approach. They remain still. He twirls the toy plane sideways, flying it through the air. Again, he urges the boys to come closer but they don’t budge. Then he holds it out, trying to show that he’s made it for them.

Curly points again at Pike’s missing leg.

“No, you little rascal. Not tonight. Take this. I made if for you.”

The boys scurry backward and make no attempt to retrieve the toy.

Frustrated by their lack of surprise, by their ingratitude, Pike lifts his pant leg a little and reveals his wooden peg. Moonlight turns the smooth wood an eerie, purplish gray, like a slab of boiled beef. He gives it a shake and they scatter back into the night, howling with laughter.

“Go to bed, you devils,” he says. He pulls the tent flap closed, leaving the toy bomber outside.

~

Vulcanizing stacks belch thick plumes of putrid smoke skyward. Along the Ohio, coal barges float downstream. Men on deck with charcoal faces slump against the rails. The boy—the general at age nine, skinny and tall—pedals a bicycle away from the bluffs, toward an open field, through emerging stalks of yellow rapeseed and stacked honeybee hives, then turns a corner and is suddenly pedaling through a snow-strewn Montana prairie, chasing the white horizon on the same bicycle, the one his father refused to buy for him, snowflakes kicking up behind its wheels like ash stirred from a fire pit.

“Curtis!” the boy’s father calls to him from across the gorge. But the old man’s voice dissolves in swirling wind. Snow-ash streamers rise and dance from behind him. The air is rich with smells of springtime, of overturned earth and mud. He pedals the bicycle faster, away from his father, up into the endless horizon. His lungs burn like they have been scarred with phosphorous. He shouts back toward the old man but the words dissolve in the snow, wind and ash. Everything cools and whitens as the bike lifts off the ground and begins to fly.

Lemay startles awake. The lingering chill of prairie snow melts quickly in the humid night. He checks his watch and, for a moment, forgets where he is. He reaches out for Helen’s hand but finds only stacks of paper. He closes his eyes until his breathing slows. Then Lemay rolls over and farts.

The first planes will be over Tokyo by now. Whatever happens, he has acted decisively. No half-measures here.

Authority. It is something the general feels in his bones. All the great ones did. The uncertainty he experiences in his most private moments, those crippling doubts—more oppressive than the island’s heat—he has learned to shove aside. First, he defeated his doubt. And once conquered, the rest came easily.

He will destroy Tokyo tonight. He closes his eyes and tries to reenter the dream.

 

10 1411Z MAR45

Horrible vibrations rattle along the longitudinal axis as Millie’s Muffins begins to climb. The air inside the cockpit smells vaguely of digested beans. The sky should be inky black but glows orange, brighter than noon.

“I can’t see a cow’s ass on platter,” Swetnam says over the intercom. “Too damned bright.”

“Three minutes out,” Remiker says. “Find a hole and release.”

The pilot’s hands tremble on the wheel. At this point, he’d be better off releasing control and letting the bomber fly itself.

They have been over Tokyo for less than a minute. The entire city glows, a cauldron of orange magma, like a furnace door has been thrown open and they have flown the bomber inside. Remiker feels intense heat against the wheel, his seat, his skin. He worries the heat will ignite bombs still inside the plane.

A stomach-heaving updraft buffets them and they surge upward, three, four, five thousand feet a minute. Gase cuts power until the plane’s nose drops off and they fall.

“Fuck me,” Lasko says.

“Power back,” Remiker says to Gase after the engineer has already done so.

“Idle it. Idle it off.”

Remiker checks their altitude. They’ve gained almost two thousand feet in just a few seconds. Impossible! He has never experienced anything like this. On the front windscreen, water droplets condense into huge tears. It is like they have entered a volcanic thunderstorm, except the sky above and around is clear, while everything below them glows like the sun. Another updraft pushes their starboard wing and the plane begins to roll.

“Grab it,” Remiker says evenly. “Ease it back now. Don’t let go.”

Lasko struggles to keep hold of the wheel. More than once, his hand slips off entirely. “We’re going to split the spar,” he says. “We’re ripping the wings off.”

Remiker pulls hard against the wheel to keep the plane from rolling onto its back. Checklists and procedures don’t cover this. His greatest fear, of crashing in the ocean, suddenly seems mild and cool by comparison. Anything would be better than this. The airspeed drops to near stall then races up again to over three hundred knots as the nose topples down. He calls for power then immediately cancels his command.

“What the hell is it?” Lasko asks. “Flak?”

“Just ride it out,” Remiker says. “How we doing, Tit?”

“Not one damned thing, sir. No city down there. Just flames and smoke.”

“Find something,” Remiker says.

“I’m tryin’ sir,” the bombardier says. “Maybe we should just shit fire and save the matches.”

They need to release their bombs and get the hell out, but Remiker wants a target. After 1,500 miles of open-ocean flying, he’ll be damned not to put his ordinance on station. His boys need to understand that they can’t hightail it home just because it’s getting rough. The metal moans as wings bend and twist.

Lasko and Remiker pull on the wheel and crush boots against rudder pedals as their sixty-ton bomber is battered about like a rowboat in a typhoon.

Though calm on the surface, Remiker has begun to worry about structural failures. Lasko isn’t far off. The wings might literally snap off. The airframe was never designed for this kind of loading. Once again, the Superfortress lurches upward, reaching a near vertical, past-sixty-degree pitch, before it settles down again. In the negative G’s, Remiker floats against his seatbelt. He reminds himself to be calm, to teach these men how to act in the face of terror.

“I see somethin’!” Swetnam shouts. “I got a bridge. I got a bridge.”

“Take it,” Remiker says. “Take it now.”

A second later, the bombardier pulls up on the release lever and begins the electronic sequence of bombing. In center racks, M50’s and M69’s begin to fall. The entire release sequence lasts less than ten seconds.

Millie’s Muffins lightens and lifts as she empties her payload, and then begins a long, steep turn to the south.

 

10 1414Z Mar45

Tokyo’s final evening as a city. Bombs accelerate down towards the already flaming streets. At five hundred feet, gravity fuses on M69’s begin their firing sequence, exploding aluminum casings off and spraying clusters of five pound napalm shells in every direction. The impact radius curls out indiscriminately. Napalm sticks before it burns: it splashes onto the back of a doctor on the sidewalk; it lathers a cherry tree then fries it; an old lady—a tea merchant once, who has a son at Cambridge—feels her throat fill with the gel. A six-year-old girl, hiding beneath a stone wall, imagines water as the cool gel lands on her cheeks before it ignites.

A quarter mile away, two dozen M50s, fused by an impact initiator, detonate in a sequence that happens in the flash of a millisecond. White explosions bleach everything, gone beyond color and into the pure emptiness of heat. Sidewalks melt. Glass windows and porcelain cups melt. Alveoli inside lungs of pregnant women melt. Emperor Hirohito is covered in a soaked blanket and shoved into an armored car—its trunk stuffed with gold, silver, priceless jewels—and evacuated to the countryside before the Tama River begins to boil.

 

10 2015Z Mar 45

Dawn. The airfield churns with uneasy energy. Everyone waits for the returning planes. Medics ram each other in a makeshift game of football. A crew of engineers, already working, installs metal stanchions for new approach lights at the end of third runway, hastily being constructed. Islanders, hired for a dollar a week, hack away at underbrush and wild bougainvillea for new taxiways.

Above Lemay’s head, olive-drab loudspeakers lashed to the tops of bamboo poles belt out the scratchy voice of Perry Como singing “Till the End of Time.”

Lemay waits and watches the sky waiting for his returning planes. Pike stands next to him, holding a clipboard and the manifest. He will be counting the planes as they return.

“Do you miss it?” the general asks.

“Flying, sir?”

“I resent not being up there with my boys,” Lemay says before Pike can answer. “I learned to fly in open-cockpit tail draggers and made six bucks a week barnstorming at state fairs. All I ever did was fly. Four, five times a day. No ear protection. No pressurized cabins. You just flew the goddamned things until you landed, crashed or died from exhaustion. I don’t admire these young men, their routines, the mechanization of their skills. No seat-of-the-pants anymore. No code. You can’t get that from a checklist. I hate what war has done to flying, even if it was inevitable.”

Pike nods. Opium lifts from his brain like advection fog rising off a lake on a warm morning. He no longer expects to make it home. Once it was all he dreamed of, seeing May again, seeing the kids, the sweet smell of their small pantry and the way August painted their front room gold and blue. Now he feels certain that he will die in the war, maybe that he already has, and that the Army just hasn’t gotten around to letting him know.

Pain, uninvited but familiar, like an old friend at the door, slowly gathers in the place that used to be his toes and spreads upward. He flips through his manifest and tries to focus. He must get the count right.

“I hate this part,” Lemay says. “No way to be sure. To calculate risk and reward. No way to know how many were lost, or how many bombs fell on target.”

“Yes sir,” Pike says. “Nothing worse than the waiting.”

A young soldier walks by, salutes sharply. The general tips his head toward the man and Pike salutes. Lemay’s eyes devour the empty pale horizon. In his mind, he’s already fighting the next war.

Nearby on a grassy dune, the three island boys scramble up, leap-frogging each other. Curly scampers close. He holds the toy in his hand and zooms the small plane through the air in an exaggerated mimicry of flight.

The sight of the boys with the toy momentarily lifts Pike’s spirits like a cool breeze. Curly loops the plane in front of him, clearly gesturing toward Lemay, who winks at the boy, and then grabs into his pocket for the nub of his cigar. The other two boys scamper up near Curly and sit in the sand.

After a few minutes, though, there is some jostling for position and a scrum to hold the toy. The plane falls to the dirt and one wing breaks in half. The boys begin to fight. Curly wallops Moe and Larry in rapid succession—the first in his mouth, drawing a howl and blood, and the other in his stomach, crumpling him back into the sand. Pike wants to scream out, more at the sight of his broken plane than at the boy’s violence, but he remains standing next to Lemay, as propriety demands. Curly picks up the one-winged plane and runs off with it. A moment later, the other two boys dust themselves off and follow.

~

When the first planes appear in the sky, they are as meager as mayflies, tiny dots between puffy cumulus clouds gathering north of the island. The dots grow larger, more distinct, descending. Soon the whole sky becomes a swarm of fuel-starved B-29’s.

Lemay strikes a match, suspends the flame a moment, and, for the first time, ignites the cigar. A wave of sweet smoke rises in front of Pike’s face. For the next ninety minutes, the B-29s return in steady intervals. Pike checks their tail numbers against his roster.

~

Millie’s Muffins is four hundred sixty-two nautical miles north-northwest of Guam when Remiker realizes they won’t make it. The port wing fuel pump won’t cycle, and the forward auxiliary fuel pump has stopped responding too. Even though there’s fuel in the tanks, it’s not being transferred. Gase cycles through every possible procedure. Nothing works.

“Try the booster pump,” Remiker says to his engineer.

Remiker wonders if somehow the bourbon is to blame. Gase, stubborn, drunk, might well have missed something and now they’re in trouble and a long way from home. He feels a slackening in his bowels.

“What now?” Lasko says.

“How you boys feel about the elementary backstroke?” Gase deadpans.

Swetnam turns back from the seat and stares at Remiker. The bombardier’s face looks bewildered, angelic, like that of a child. Remiker thinks of his father. Gomp Remiker was a hardened, cruel man. He drove his sons mercilessly. Every hour around the man was a battle. Remiker wonders if his father was preparing him for this exact moment, though he can discern nothing in all the belt-lashing and backhands that will inform his current dilemma. What he wants to do is go to Swetnam and the others and hug them. If they are to die out here, he wants to offer compassion.

“Calculate for Saipan?” Lasko asks.

Remiker knows there’s no divert option. They’re much closer to Guam. They have two choices and only two. They can hunt the open sea for a piece of land and try to ditch nearby, or they gamble it all and pray for steady tailwinds to Guam.

The plane cruises along as the first ribbons of sunrise begin to paint the eastern horizon.

 

10 2143Z Mar 45

Pike watches as the final bombers circle and land. He has fumbled the count, somehow, and knows he will have to start over. He will have to walk along the tarmac, checking each tail number against his list. It will take hours. He can’t do it without another hit. Pike craves opium more than air.

The last few bombers shut down and an eerie stillness descends over the field. The pain in his head throbs, but a question forms, just on the edge of his ability to articulate it. Have they broken a code? Have they surrendered the very values that justified fighting this war?

“What have we done?” Pike says to the wind.

~

The mess cooks have burned Lemay’s toast again, and, in spite of living on an island filled with tropical fruit, the jelly appears to have been made from strained kerosene. He scrapes the charred edges off the toast, smears on jelly and chokes it down.

Vigilance. This is the word Lemay keeps thinking about. Vigilance. They have struck the opening blow in a war that will continue long after the coming peace. Regardless of what happens next, they must remain vigilant. It is a good word, he thinks. Strong. It brooks no doubt.

Like a religious vision, Lemay sees the future. He sees skies filling with faster, deadlier planes, with more annihilating raids, with missiles and bombs, with single weapons that can do what it took three hundred planes to do last night. He sees how flying will be taken over by machines, how pilots will be less and less important.

But he’s never been a sentimental type. If this vision is true, and he’s about damned certain it is, he sees himself at the vanguard of it, guiding the way.

~

The last drops of fuel from the forward tanks sputter out and the engines begin to quit. One by one, Remiker and Lasko feather the props. Only the outboard starboard engine continues to turn.

They have climbed to almost twenty thousand feet and are descending. Remiker and his crew have squeezed every last drop of available fuel and dumped the rest. Guam now lies visible off the port wing, an emerald jewel surrounded by a ring of sand and coral. But once that last engine quits, it’s anybody’s guess if they’ll make it. Remiker is running through checklists.

Everyone has donned yellow life vests. Ditching over the reef is risky, but so is bailing out. The most dangerous choice is to stretch for home and miscalculate, and then have no safe place to put down.

But with each second that passes, Remiker grows more confident that they’re going to make it.

They cross the outer reef at ten thousand feet and begin a procedure turn to line up. Can they convert altitude and airspeed into enough distance? Remiker isn’t sure, but it’s still a damn pretty sight to see those planes on the tarmac.

“We can swim from here,” Remiker tells his crew.

Swetnam, the Bible open on his lap, sits in an empty gunner’s chair by the escape hatch. It takes an inordinate amount of rudder pressure to keep flying straight with only the #4 engine firing. Just as they hit the outer approach beacon, the last engine conks out. The cockpit becomes deathly quiet.

“Six thousand feet,” Lasko reports.

Remiker feels it then, that surge of wild energy as dread turns into hope and hope turns into certainty. There’s nothing like it in the world.

He’s conquered it again, this vast, miserable ocean. He’s brought his boys home. He can just make out the rectangular shape of the runway ahead of him. A smile breaks across his face.

“We got this boys,” he says.

He pulls the bomber— a glider now, hollowed out of fuel and bombs—around and lines up its nose with the runway centerline.

~

Captivated by silence after so much noise, Pike has removed his brace and wooden leg and is stretched out on his cot. He should be out re-counting the planes, but he needs a moment alone. Just outside his tent flap, Lemay shakes hands and backslaps squadron commanders. Smiles and salutes, like a politician. Whatever comes next is of little consequence. Pike holds an eye dropper in his hand. Three more drops of opium and then he will recount.

A moment later, Pike spots the boys on the airfield. They are flying mock approaches along the runway with the toy plane. Somehow, Curly has reattached the broken wing. One by the one, the boys run, lowering the plane to the ground and swooping it back into the air.

There it is. A small burst of joy amidst all of this. If there’s a way out, a way home, a way back to the pantry, to May and the girls and August light blazing into the gold and blue front room, it’s this sight. Boys playing. With his dropper, he sucks at the dregs from a vile and lifts it to his mouth.

~

The boys don’t glance up as the massive shadow darkens the ground around them. Pike shouts in vain from his tent. He tries to leap forward out the door, but stumbles over his missing leg and crashes to the ground. Lemay spots them, too, but feels only anger at their interference.

Millie’s Muffins silently glides toward the runway. Lasko and Remiker have cajoled their fuel-starved plane across hundreds of miles of open ocean and brought it onto a nearly perfect approach, with enough airspeed to lower flaps and pull into the flare. Lasko calls out the airspeed and altitude one final time.

Only at the very last second does Remiker spot the three tiny shapes on the runway. There is nothing that can be done.

˜

All day, the fathers pulled manahak from the sea. Their nets bursting with silver fish, they row for home. A good day of fishing. They approach the inlet where they will tie up and spot the priest from Agana standing on the pier. He’s a strange sight to behold, his dark clothing ill suited to this weather. As the sun disappears below the horizon, the men lash up their boat and begin hauling out their catch.

The man who is Curly’s father watches as another great, silver bird rumbles down the island behind the trees, roaring louder than thunder. The plane clears the reef and climbs out to the west while the priest approaches the boat.