Cadet Nick Gordon shaded his eyes from Texas sunlight and fidgeted impatiently with a Zippo lighter in his pocket. He stood restlessly among classmates at San Marcos Army Airfield watching an approaching P-40 trainer flown by Major Mike Monroe. All Nick could think about in the sweltering sun was graduating as a fighter pilot and shipping out to the Pacific to avenge Pearl Harbor.
Commander Monroe brought the P-40 airplane lower, preparing to demonstrate a touch-and-go landing and take-off exercise. Every cadet in the class watched intently, knowing they would be expected to perform the same training maneuver.
Nick squirmed and pulled his damp shirt from sticking to his back. This couldn’t be over soon enough for him. He was clearly ahead of his classmates in all the training thus far, and the new exercise would be no exception.
Major Monroe flew the P-40 down sharply, leveled the nose up and planted the landing gear firmly on the runway.
“Beautifully done,” Nick said to no one in particular, wiping perspiration.
The P-40 engine roared as Major Monroe accelerated for the take-off phase of the demonstration. A sudden burst of blue smoke from a screeching landing gear spun the plane in a ground loop, flipping the fighter nose over wing, spewing chunks of tail section down the runway, until the P-40 skidded to rest upside down against a pile of dirt.
Nick instinctively pushed aside classmates, bolted forward, and ran as fast as he could. His heart hammered and his lungs labored as his boots thumped full speed on runway tarmac. It was as if he would never get there, his arms pumping, sprinting desperately toward the wreckage. Nick ducked under a fractured wing section, dropped to his knees in fuel-dampened dirt and pushed frantically at the canopy. Fumes stung his nostrils while engine heat popped and hissed threateningly. Nick kicked furiously at the upside down canopy until it budged, then pushed with all his might until it gave way.
“Shit,” Major Monroe groaned and his arms dangled to the ground.
“Easy Major,” Nick moved one arm aside, crawled partially under the cockpit and raised Commander Monroe; unsnapped the major’s shoulder harness, unbuckled the seat belt, and lowered Major Monroe onto the dirt. Nick grabbed the major’s collar and back-pedaled, teeth clenched, pulling the commander from the wreckage as fast as his legs could go until he collapsed onto his butt, a groggy Major Monroe between his quivering legs.
Voices and sirens raced toward them.
A small explosion concussed. Flames crackled up the fuselage. Black smoke billowed high enough to be seen from town, which would make Air Corps wives and friends shudder with anxiety.
Nick arrived home at his rented cottage by the river, let the screen door slap shut and tossed his cap onto a table near the door.
“Oh Nick,” his wife Eloise came from the bathroom, wiped her hands on her worn flannel robe and sat down at a kitchen table. “I’m so glad you’re all right. What was it happened today?”
“Let’s have a little hug or something.”
“Of course, come here.” Eloise reached up from where she sat. “Now, tell me what happened.”
Nick kissed her forehead and opened an icebox in search of milk. “Had a little engine fire on one of the trainers.” No need to upset her with details. Eloise worried enough already. “The smoke made it look a lot worse than it was. You been drinking out of the bottle again?”
“Oh Nick,” Ellie put an elbow on the table and rested her chin on her palm.
“There’s crumbs floating in here.”
“Probably just toast, Nick.”
“When I want toast, I’ll eat toast. Right now, I want milk.”
“All the same family, what’s the difference? You kiss me don’t you?”
“Not while you’re eating toast.”
Eloise got up and moved his hat on the table. “Letter came for you today.” She read the envelope. “It’s from a lawyer. Who do you know in Indiana?”
“Indiana?” Nick glanced at the front of the envelope, then ran a finger under the flap and ripped it open. “Looks like a questionnaire, and a letter. Dear Mr. Gordon,” Nick read aloud and sat at the table.
Ellie read over his shoulder.
“I have been retained by the State of Indiana, County of Benton, to satisfy the disposition request of a Mrs. Gertrude Raney in her last will and testament regarding farm property she owned prior to her passing.”
“Who’s this Gertrude Raney?” Ellie gave him a little shove.
“How am I supposed to know? Here, it says, Mrs. Raney had a grandson named Nicholas Ames Gordon and every effort is being made to locate the missing heir.”
“I spend my whole life adjusting to never having relatives or a family. Now comes a possible clue as to who my parents are, but she’s dead. You think it’s real?” Nick heard his voice pose the question with an indulgence of hope, an indulgence he’d wasted countless youthful hours and tears over, but that was before Headmaster Huggins at the orphanage had disciplined such immaturity out of him with a ruler on the knuckles until he’d learned not to cry. Self pity, that’s all it was, Headmaster Huggins would say. All crying was self pity, and unless you’re a baby or a woman, crying was like being crippled by choice. If you can choose to cry, you can choose not to cry, and that was what growing up to be a man was all about. The same went for hoping. Futile distraction. Self control made you a man.
“It’s addressed to you,” Ellie said. “Reckon they’d have some reason to send it.”
* * *
Flight school graduation included a speech by Major Monroe and he alluded to his touch-and-go demonstration and quipped that, in the tradition of SMAAF Flight School, the class of October forty-two holds the distinction of seeing how touch-and-go shouldn’t be done, the levity causing him to wince and press a hand against a rib dislocated from the accident. Laughter aside, they got on with the traditional flinging of hats and the presentation of lieutenant bars and assignment orders to the newly commissioned pilots.
Nick limped across drizzle-dampened tarmac, wondering what lay in store. The day before at the graduation ceremony, he was presented the award for being first in his class, but instead of getting assignment orders like everyone else, he was handed a note to report to the commander’s office today at 1300 hours. He climbed four wooden steps, favoring a tender ankle aggravated by a stiff military oxford, and pulled open a dark green door. Inside, a freckled private sat typing and exchanging small talk with a sergeant and a corporal at separate desks.
“He’s expecting you.” The private clacked Underwood keys until a bell chimed, then slapped a carriage return.
Nick crossed worn floorboards to a door ajar, removed his cap and pushed inside.
“Nick. Come in please.” Major Monroe rose from a gray desk and extended a hand.
“Morning, sir.” Nick snapped a salute, shook the major’s hand and stood at attention.
“Relax, Nick. You can dispense with the formalities now that you’ve earned your commission.” Monroe moved toward a percolator. “Coffee, Nick?”
“Thanks, no.” Nick peeked at paperwork on the gray desk, looking for a sign of his orders.
Monroe tipped the percolator, farther and farther, until finally steaming black liquid trickled into an Ohio State University mug. “Good thing you didn’t want any. McGuire!”
“Sir?” The freckled private appeared just inside the office doorway.
“Better fix this thing up.” Monroe handed the empty percolator to the private.
Nick clutched his cap. “You have to know how much every cadet here looks up to you. You’ve forgotten more than most of us will ever know.”
“Cadets.” Monroe gazed out a window at activity around a hangar. “No offense, Nick, but being looked up to by cadets is not the real world in a military career.”
“I’d fly in your squadron any day.” Nick moved close to Monroe. “Why, you and I belong in the Pacific, dogging those Japs back to where they came from.”
Monroe smiled and gestured toward a frayed sofa under the window. “Sit down, Nick.” He sipped coffee from the mug’s stained rim. “About your request for the Pacific Theater—,” the major looked troubled. “There’s more to the global picture than avenging Pearl, you know.”
Nick handled his cap nervously. “But sir, there’s the tradition that honors the top graduate’s assignment request.”
“That has always been the tradition. And, your request is an honorable one. You have more raw talent than any cadet that’s come through here. And, your attitude, except for a few spates of cockiness, has always been exemplary.” Monroe paced with a hand in one pocket. “Hell, you were first in your class. You saved my shorts out on the runway that day.” He leaned on the desk and looked over at Nick. “You think it’s an easy decision to deny your request?”
Nick slumped back.
“I’m sorry, Nick, but you have to understand how important this decision is for me to override your request.” The major straightened. “I’m not in the habit of apologizing to a junior officer. You’ll have to trust my judgment on this one.” He got a folder from a drawer and dropped it on a table near Nick. “Here are four numbered envelopes. The first one will get you to Jacksonville.”
“That’s right. Numbers two and three will get you to your destination, and they’re to be opened only in succession. Envelope four contains your personnel records. It should be obvious that this mission is highly classified. Top secret. Understood?”
“Be ready to leave in seventy-two hours.” Monroe scribbled on a notepaper. “Give this number to Eloise. Tell her to call the wife and me if there’s anything she needs. We’ll look after her, Nick. Good luck.”
FLOOD STAGE – CHAPTER 2
Nick arrived exhausted in Oran, Algeria and caught a Jeep out to an allied post commanded by British General Montgomery. The third envelope got him a bunk for the night and in the morning he tried to get comfortable scrunched-up with his duffel bag and pounds of packages and mail in the back of a courier plane. What little view he had was of barren wasteland and desert plateaus creased by canyons and fissures at the edge of the Sahara.
The courier pilot over-corrected a bank and descent maneuver, put the plane down roughly on a plateau in the middle of nowhere and taxied along a canyon rim toward flapping camouflage draped over four P-40 fighters, only two of which appeared airworthy.
“HERE!” The courier pilot shouted over the drone of the engine. “THIS GOES WITH YOU!”
“GOT IT!” Nick hauled out a mail sack and his duffel bag and hurried from the propeller dust.
An unshaven corporal wearing grubby fatigues removed thick glasses and covered both eyes while the plane turned and taxied away.
“Lieutenant Gordon.” Nick introduced himself and dropped the bags.
The corporal wiped his black moustache and replaced the glasses on his prominent nose and said, “This way.”
“Just a minute here, Corporal. Looks like you need a refresher course in rank and chain of command.”
The corporal looked Nick up and down, chuckled, and walked away on a path that skirted down a cliff face and widened to a ledge outside a cave opening covered with a beige and yellow camouflage net. A mess area with crude cooking utensils sat concealed under a blackened recess. The path narrowed in front of four small cave openings.
“This is your new home.” The corporal pulled back a camouflage net and released it. “Get settled in and I’ll call you for lunch.”
“Take care of this, Corporal.” Nick dropped the mail sack.
“I want to see whoever is in charge here right away.” Nick slung his duffel bag inside the cave and let the net fall back in place.
“Operations cave. The big one past the mess area.” The corporal went on down the path with the mail sack.
Nick waited inside the operations cave entrance while his eyes adjusted to a dim view of an office alcove. Books, documents, and handwritten notes lay strewn beside a transceiver and microphone on a sturdy old table. A curled photograph showed the corporal with five females, one of them a woman that may have been his mother—the others were probably his sisters—on front steps of a big city apartment building.
Farther inside, the operations cave widened where an overhead opening provided soft daylight that illuminated a turquoise table, worn in places to wood weathered gray. Five chairs sat randomly nearby. Old cans fashioned into lanterns stuck out from cave walls blackened by smoke. Maps of the Mediterranean and North Africa hung smudged and dog-eared.
A smell of pipe tobacco came from a rear alcove where another light vent illuminated an officer wearing wing-tip brogues with his feet up on a makeshift desk while he concentrated on a handwritten report. Pipe smoke streamed up around the bill of his rumpled garrison cap and dissipated through the vent. An American flag decorated one wall.
“What is it Shapiro?” The officer looked up. “Well, well, what have we here?” The officer smiled around the pipe stem and extended a hand. “Phil Cochran.”
Nick redirected his salute to a handshake. “Lieutenant Nick Gordon reporting.” Nick placed his 201 file on the makeshift desk.
“Ah yes.” Cochran flipped open the file. “Mike Monroe’s boy. How’s Mike doing these days?”
“If you ask me, Major Monroe is too valuable an officer to be relegated to a flight school command.”
“Really? And what would you have him doing?”
“Well, I’d have him in the Pacific, of course, where the war is, taking down the Japs for what they did at Pearl.”
“Oh, you can be sure Mike would rather be in the thick of things, but that isn’t likely to happen.” Cochran took the pipe from his mouth. “In a way, though, he’s in a position of great influence on the overall war effort; replicating his knowledge, judgment, and experience.”
“With all due respect, I’d have to question Major Monroe’s judgment in one regard.” Nick tapped a Lucky Strike cigarette on a thumbnail.
“Well, not to sound immodest or anything, but sending me out here to, wherever, in the middle of a Tunisian desert,” Nick cracked open his Zippo and sparked its wick aflame, “where,” smoke flowed from his nostrils and he pocketed the lighter, “I’m greeted, and I use the term loosely, by a corporal who fails to acknowledge my rank. Speaking of which—”
“Captain.” Cochran acknowledged his rank and smiled. “Go on.”
“Well, Captain, if you’ll allow that facts speak for themselves, then you’ll see in my file that I was the top cadet in my class, not that I expect special treatment for it. But, you and I and everyone in the Air Corps who has been through flight school knows that it’s a tradition to reward the top cadet with his choice of assignment orders. Now,” Nick drew hard on the Lucky Strike, “it’s not like I asked to be stationed in Alaska or the ferry command.” Smoke streamed from his nostrils. “The heat of action is in the Pacific. Everybody knows that. And all I asked for was to be in the middle of it. I can think of nothing else. It’s what pushed me to the top in flight school. Ever since seeing what they did to Pearl Harbor,” Nick paused, “why, that’s what made me sign up in the first place. I mean, give me a break. You think this is just reward for my hard work?”
“Says here Monroe thinks you are a natural born pilot.”
“It was a lot of hard work, and you know it. So what do I get? Stuck out in the desert to hole up in a cave like some Neanderthal cliff-dweller, with nothing but a few worn out planes to fly? Seems to me like a gross misappropriation of resources. And for what? An empty desert?” Nick blew a tobacco flake from his lips. A slight wafting of the American flag seemed odd with no apparent air movement in the alcove.
Captain Cochran swung his feet to the floor. “Okay, hot-shot.” He directed Nick to a tattered map of North Africa. “I don’t have much time to educate your naive perception of this war.” Cochran clenched his teeth on the pipe stem and a piece of its gnawed end snapped off and he spat a dark chip to the cave floor. “Here’s where the Germans are.” He poked his jagged pipe stem against the map. “Over here, this is where they’re headed. If they get there, they own North Africa and the Mediterranean. Do you have any idea what that means?” Cochran’s stare made Nick look away to the map. “It gives them control of all the shipping lanes and deep water harbors.” Cochran glanced at the pipe and pocketed it. “It’s a big price to pay if we fail, I’ll tell you that.” He put a hand on Nick’s shoulder. “I can see you being sore about being here. None of us likes it. But, don’t give me this shit about wasting your talents on an empty desert before you know what you’re talking about.”
“If it’s so important, why all the secrecy, and how come the junk planes you’ve got up there?”
“Mike Monroe didn’t fill you in to protect me.” Captain Cochran lifted his cap and ran fingers through his hair. “Mike and I go back to college. We joined together, buddy plan. Mike and I were in England. Can’t discuss what happened, but suffice it to say that Mike got caught in a compromising situation. He might’ve gotten drummed out, but Louis the Lord–Lord Mountbatten–is a pal of mine, and don’t ask how that came about. Anyway, I called in a huge favor and Louis actually telephoned Washington five times and finally pressured Admiral Carrolton of the Joint Chiefs to call off Koronsky, a big-in-the-ears general who has it in for nonconformists, like Mike and me. That got the heat off Mike, even though his career has been decimated. Koronsky doesn’t give a damn about the war effort. Everything for him is personal, and he’d have me out of action, too, if he could get to me. Carrolton is no longer there, so I’d have no recourse to counter Koronsky’s bullshit. That’s why I assigned myself here. And you can see that I take it real personal when you question my judgment about the importance of impeding the Gerry advance. That’s it in a nut shell, why this command doesn’t officially exist, Nick. Just too much politics connected with this war. Victory necessitates being immediately responsive to changing situations. In fact, we need to create situations that force the enemy to react according to our strategies. If I had to go through Washington I’d get nothing done. We’re not working against the system, Nick. We’re working for an allied victory, and we’re getting it done by swapping cooperation. Our reconnaissance of Gerry ground troop deployments and panzer movement gets us supplies and ammo for our own strikes.”
“GENERAL GIRAUD, PHIL!” The grubby corporal announced the arrival of a tall French general accompanied by an aide.
General Giraud banged a walking stick on the turquoise table and ranted arrogantly in his native French.
“I thought I told you never to come here,” Cochran cut in before the aide could translate the general’s tirade. “Every Gerry commander on this front wants to knock out this airfield and you come rolling in here in broad daylight. Do you have any idea how easy it is to spot the dust plume of a Jeep in this desert from ten thousand feet?” Cochran turned to Nick while the aide translated for the general. “See what I have to put up with, godawful ignorance.”
“The general reminds you of his rank and orders you to support his maneuvers around Foundouk with more planes.”
“You tell the general here that there are only so many planes, and only so many pilots to fly `em. I’ve got convoys to hit, tank companies to stop, supply depots and ammunition dumps to destroy. You tell the general here to get me more planes, and pilots to fly `em. Send us some of those Kitty Hawks from the Free Forces in Algiers. Tell him to tell Washington. Tell him to get me French planes and pilots, I don’t care. And tell him, meantime, you guys can’t go hiding behinds rocks and expect us to do your job. That’s all I have to say. Now, get out of here.”
Captain Cochran directed Nick to the command alcove, struck a match on the makeshift desk, cupped both hands around his pipe bowl and sucked a long flame inside. Blue smoke rolled forth.
General Giraud hollered and banged the table again.
The aide worked to placate the Frenchman.
“If I didn’t need you, or if you weren’t qualified, things would be different.” Cochran put a benevolent squeeze on Nick’s shoulder. “I need you, son. I’ve got only one other pilot right now. We lost two planes just last week. I know it’s not easy for you. Trust me. What we’re doing here is important, even if it doesn’t conform with your notion of—”
A dull patter of thuds stampeded over the cave, loosening dust and clods of sandstone.
“SHAPIRO! SOUND THE ALARM!” Cochran rushed to the briefing area.
An aircraft roar from a low pass overhead shook the cave.
Corporal Shapiro tugged a rope that rang a bell outside.
“Messerschmidt!” An obese bearded Arab grabbed a brown net. “There is not camouflage on the French Jeep up there!”
“Never mind, Abdul. It’s too late now.” Cochran pushed past a dumbfounded General Giraud. “See what you caused?” He knocked his pipe against his hand and tobacco scattered on the cave floor. “Shapiro, try to raise Blue Tip on the radio and warn him. I’m going out after the Messerschmidt.”
“What if that’s plural?” Nick pulled on his cap.
“What?” Cochran stopped.
“Maybe there’s more than one up there. You don’t stand a chance taking off under fire.”
“Shapiro! Lieutenant Gordon’s going out with me. C’mon, Nick.” Cochran lifted a corner of the American flag and led the way down a hidden tunnel that opened under a secluded overhang at the floor of the canyon. “My aces in the hole.” Cochran rushed toward one of two P-40s. “You take that one. Count to a hundred and follow me out. I’ll lead the Gerry east over similar terrain. If he radioed his position and more come looking, I don’t want them to find him right on our doorstep.” Cochran slipped into the cockpit. The P-40 swirled dust.
Nick sealed his own canopy and fired up the second plane.
“It’s a little tricky getting out of here,” Cochran’s voice crackled through Nick’s headset.
Nick adjusted the squelch.
“Watch me bank right and catch a headwind over the southern rim of the canyon. It’s a steep climb, so don’t stall it.”
“Looks like only one, Phil,” Shapiro radioed from the operations cave.
“Roger that.” Cochran taxied out and lifted off the canyon floor, banked right and out of sight beyond a protruding cliff face.
Nick kept counting, worried if he was counting too slowly, and momentarily lost count.
“Go ahead, Gordon,” Shapiro’s voice crackled.
Nick pulled a mask to his mouth. “That’s Lieutenant Gordon, Corporal.” He released the brakes, opened the throttle and gained speed, brought back the stick and lifted away from the vibration and ground noise. He caught a glimpse of Abdul in the entrance of the operations cave. The canyon closed in ahead. He banked right past the protruding cliff face and rode a steep headwind over the southern rim, breathed deeply and relaxed his hold on the stick and banked left above a continuation of canyons and fissures that worked wider in places into canyons similar to the one he’d just left.
“Lucky Strike, this is Prince Edward, over.” Static filled a pause until Cochran spoke again. “Prince Edward calling, do you read me, over?”
Lucky Strike? Prince Edward? “Aha! Roger, Prince Edward,” Nick responded. “Read you loud and clear.”
“I’ll bring the Gerry out of a loop heading west at five thousand along the north side of an ess-shaped ravine.”
At nine hundred feet, Nick’s plane cast a solid shadow that rippled across desert terrain. The instruments checked out. Confinement set in. Training maneuvers muddled his memory. A margin of doubt admitted misgivings about bushwhacking. The canopy interior came into focus. Today he hunted. He could as easily be prey. Shivers rattled his shoulder harness. Forward went the stick and a few quick bursts tested the guns and his aim on a plateau below.
“Here we go! Lead your climb and kill the sonovabitch,” Captain Cochran barked, “just like duck hunting!”
Nick pulled a slow climb into a steeper trajectory and squeezed a thunder of bullets that blasted bits and chunks from the speeding Messerschmidt.
“GOT HIM!” Nick lifted his thumb and quieted the shaking guns. “Did I get him?”
“He’s messed up alright.”
The wounded Messerschmidt spiraled smoke down to a plateau, skidded, raised dust, and came to rest on its nose. Dark blue smoke billowed from its fuselage. Out of its cockpit lurched a figure engulfed in flames. The figure stumbled and twitched into a burning spot on the desert.
Nick banked the P-40 steeply over the canyon rim and throttled back. He put the plane down quickly, saved a near ground loop, and taxied under the secluded overhang.
The Gerry had time to jump. He didn’t have to burn. Somewhere in Germany, there was probably a wife like Eloise. How would she understand? What if they had children?
Cochran rapped twice on Nick’s canopy, grinned and formed an okay with his thumb and forefinger. “Great work!”
Excerpted from Flood Stage by Davy Hoffman. Copyright © 2014 by Davy Hoffman. Excerpted by permission of the author, All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced, distributed, or reprinted without permission in writing from Davy Hoffman.